Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Frazetta's Little Miracles

The oil paintings of Frank Frazetta have touched and enchanted a worldwide audience. Literally millions of artbooks have been sold in the past 25 years. Hundreds of thousands of prints and lithographs are in circulation and the demand is seemingly endless. A bushel of awards and honors of every shape and variety has accompanied all this financial success and popularity. Movie stars and other celebrities have made the pilgrimage to visit Frazetta on his estate in Pennsylvania. A great museum now stands on his estate as a testament to his lifelong achievement.

Frazetta is a truly great painter who stands in a long classical tradition of great artists like Michaelangelo, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Goya. History will prove this point. However, there is another facet of Frazetta’s genius that is even more remarkable than his gift as a painter, and this point is recognized and appreciated by discerning connoisseurs throughout the world, namely, Frazetta is the most remarkable draftsman who has ever lived. His drawings in pen and ink are simply unmatched for their creative artistry. There is, of course, a cultural bias in the western world that holds painting to be more inherently valuable than ink drawings. This bias is not shared by the eastern world, where ink drawing and calligraphy are esteemed even more than oil paintings. The greatness of art should not be judged by its medium but by its degree of quality, its inherent expressive power. Frazetta thoroughly agrees with this sentiment: “I have many ink drawings that are far better than most of my paintings. Drawings are very difficult because you can’t make a mistake. It requires a great deal of concentration and discipline. For example, drawing a simple silhouette is difficult because it has to be perfect. One mistake and the whole effect is ruined.” I have seen Frazetta offered his own oils in exchange for top-quality ink pieces; he turned the offers down flat.

Let me make my point by introducing a little historical context. Frazetta began as a true child prodigy; his artistic gifts were recognized very early in life and nurtured. His childhood was steeped in the visual wonders of comic books, pulps, comic strips, toys, and anything that had a touch of fantasy about it. He absorbed everything and he loved to draw. He drew continuously. He produced countless little self-made comics and a large, full-color children’s story of his character, SNOWMAN, that ran to 60 pages. He began working in the comic book field in 1944 and continued to draw stories until 1955. His pen and brush technique got stronger and stronger throughout this period, amazingly so. By the time he was done, Frazetta had produced the finest art ever seen in the comics’ medium. For the next 7 years, Frazetta worked as the main “ghost” artist on Al Capp’s L’il Abner comicstrip. In the early 1960’s Frazetta decided to break away from the treadmill of strip art production. His dream was to be a painter and enter the higher levels of art. He wanted respect and he wanted success. In the comic business he didn’t get the type of acknowledgement he was searching for. The comic business was an artistic ghetto. Everyone believed that comic book artists were at the very bottom of the financial and aesthetic ladder. The upper rungs were occupied by the well-paid illustrators and painters; that was the goal he wanted.

Frazetta began to paint covers for ACE paperbacks in the early 1960’s and produced a series of varied and truly charming images. At this same time he was offered a “prestige” assignment by the editors of Canaveral Press to illustrate a series of books by the famous Edgar Rice Burroughs. This was the moment Frank had been waiting for. Now he could show the world what he was capable of and use all his creative juice to display the power of his imagination and his unique inventiveness. In the opinion of many, this is the ultimate high point in Frazetta’s career. He produced a series of drawings for three hardbacks: AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1962), TARZAN AND THE CASTAWAYS (1965), and TARZAN: MASTER OF ADVENTURE (1965). Other books on the ERB Pellucidar series were planned, but never published. Frazetta produced a total of 27 full drawings and several spot illustrations for the Canaveral Press. Ironically, Frazetta was badly used by this company and paid a big price. Frank clarifies: “I was screwed beautifully by those bandits. They made promises and never came through. I did extra drawings for them for books that were never published. I got paid peanuts, and never received further money. To top it off, they kept most of my art. I was only able to get four drawings back. When I complained, they threatened to sue. I was an artist; what did I know about lawyers and hidden clauses in contracts. I wised up really fast. That situation would never happen again.”

Frazetta’s drawings during this time are nothing short of miraculous. No one had ever seen anything like them before. Look at the great draftsmen of the past, e.g. Michaelangelo, Bernini, Rembrandt, all the way to the relatively recent efforts of Daniel Vierge, Joseph Clement Coll, Pyle, Wyeth, Matania, Mucha, Hal Foster, Lou Fine, and Alex Raymond. Frazetta established a new level of creative achievement for the pen and brush. His achievement is unprecedented. During lunch at the opening of the first Frazetta Museum in 1986, Frazetta and I discussed the Canaveral Press drawings. Frazetta commented: “I knew when I was doing them that they would be priceless. I realized this when I was drawing the image of the big bear in the snow. This is a very simple image, but the image started to take on a strange quality. It started to just come alive before my eyes. I didn’t think I was doing anything different. After all, I had drawn my whole life, since I was a small child. This was something new and it was happening right before my eyes. I really don’t know how to explain it; it just happened. The ink started to live.” What really sets this group of drawings apart is their combination of technical virtuosity, unique compositions, exquisite execution, depth of creativity, and profound symbolic content. The “look” of a Canaveral drawing leads one back to the asian tradition of sumi-e inkwash paintings. There is displayed a broad tonal range from light gray wash tone to complete black in the design. Frank comments: “Honestly, I never heard of this sumi-e Japanese art until you just brought it up. I probably saw art of this type, but it never made an impression. I began to water down the ink and change the tones because I was never happy with drawings that had too much contrast. I wanted to soften that harshness that sometimes comes with black and white. If you look at some of my watercolors, you’ll see that I use a softer sepia line to outline the figures. A black line is just too harsh. I always wanted my drawings to be pleasing to the eye.” It is easy to see precursors to this technique in almost all of Frazetta’s early comic book work, especially the incredible cover to the EC comic Weird Science-Fantasy #29 and the “Untamed Love” story from Personal Love #32. Frazetta instinctively changed tonal values and utilized chiarascuro in these works; the results are uniformly superb.

However, this technique came into its full power of expression with the Canaveral drawings. By lightening the tones, Frazetta is able to give the finished art a solid, three-dimensional quality and to direct the eye to the areas of important visual interest. I once told Frank that Michaelangelo believed that a drawing is excellent to the degree that it approaches sculpture. Frazetta’s response was illuminating: “I agree with that completely. I try to produce a beautiful object when I draw, something with depth and volume. I recall Al Williamson once asked me to look at a line in one of his drawings. He thought it was very well done. I looked at; it was a line that went from here to there and outlined a figure. It was a very simple line with no weight. It really did nothing for me. I try for more than that. Not only do I want my line to form a figure, but I want the eye to have some fun along the way! So I add a lot of little subtleties for excitement. If I’m drawing a girl’s face, I spend a lot of time on the eyes. It’s not just the line that is important; it’s everything around it and the thickness of the line, too. My world is real, not flat. I want it to look special.” That “special” quality is the beauty that is present. The high drama and violence of the subject-matter is mitigated by the extreme beauty of the result. Every drawing glows with a very satisfying beauty. These pieces have a sculptural quality, a felt presence of real life. Each one begins with a small, pencil thumbnail image. Nothing else. No photos, no reference, nothing between the initial idea and its ultimate execution on paper. Frazetta wants the whole process of drawing to be as creative as possible. He wants the freshness of discovery to be present in the finished product. Great art is always alive; it’s a living thing. To achieve that quality is rare. Frazetta clarifies this a bit: “I try to work with a nervous hand. I don’t want things to get too tight. That kills the drawing. My hand hovers over the surface of the paper until I can feel the hairs just graze the surface. You let your hand feel the picture and it will come to life.”

Consider a few examples: The illustration depicting Tarzan rising out of a group of a dozen natives is entitled, Lord of the Savage Jungle. It is a complete masterpiece- powerful in design, gracefully brushed, and totally hypnotic in its overall effect. The surface crackles with artistic electricity. The text on which this scene is based is completely irrelevant. This is where illustration meets fine art and becomes indistinguishable from it. Great art is always Fine Art, regardless of what its initial motivation is. Frazetta’s brush explodes with emotion, mood, and characterization. The mysterious wonder and power of art is on full display as simple lines affect us, enrich us, and enliven us. Here we are absorbing a quality of Frazetta’s powerful personality. This is not illustration; this is high Art at its highest level of excellence. This little jewel presents a magical, multi-layered expressiveness that grips both the imagination and the intellect. On a very literal level we view a dark, dramatic scene where straining and struggling natives attempt to subdue and capture Tarzan. The art is so compelling in the original that the natives’ muscles seem to be alive with movement and heated exertion. A symphony of carefully coordinated lines captures our eye. The natives appear to be in constant motion. After this initial visual shock, the mind becomes completely engaged. One begins to intellectualize about the scene: on a deeper, metaphorical level we are given an insight into the human condition and the nature of the hero, who endures, perseveres, and ultimately prevails no matter how daunting or overwhelming the circumstances. In the composition Tarzan does not look down at his earthly predicament; instead, his gaze is raised to the heavens and deep, inner strength is being summoned. His straining chest and matted hair give testimony to an almost superhuman physical exertion. An intricately woven lattice work of crosshatched lines defines the form of Tarzan and separates him visually from the smoother brushwork on the natives. A rich, resonant light illuminates Tarzan and energizes the composition with a shimmering vitality. Frazetta has never been better. There is such richness of inspiration here. This is a picture of man overcoming his obstacles, transcending imposed limitations, and triumphing. It is a work of human affirmation. I asked Frazetta about the symbolic richness that I see in his work. His response was candid: “I’ll be quite honest with you. When you point all these ideas out to me I’m rather amazed. I never really set out to put it in there, but, if you see it, it must be there. You’re pretty good at this. It does make some sense and I can certainly see it now. A lot of people see things in my art and I am constantly amazed with what they say.” The answer, of course, is that no artist can be completely aware of everything that goes into an original. It is a mysterious flow of soul that invests the ink and lines with an almost enchanted richness. After all, at its base, art is mysterious because creativity is mysterious. One man is disclosing part of his soul to another at a very deep level.

All the other Canaveral drawings are similar little polished jewels of perfection, little miracles. There is never a note of excess diligence or labor in these drawings; everything is accomplished with grace and ease. Another example is the drawing of the mahar raising his arm and entrancing the young virgin. This is one of Frazetta’s favorite ideas and he used it later in several oil compositions. With mere pen and ink Frazetta is able to convey the slimy texture of the reptilian mahar. Delicate traceries of water fall off his upraised arm. The design is simple and simply perfect; there is nothing needed, nothing to add. Everything is in perfect balance, a perfect distillation of essentials. There are no tiny hesitations or misunderstandings present in the ink. The heavy background rendering pushes the female figure forward and outlines her form with a three-dimensional expressiveness. There is a provocative thrust in her hip that adds sensuality and erotic energy to the scene. She is so voluptuous, so earthy. The fingers and claws of the mahar are poised in a gesture of pure menace. Frazetta even manages to give a steamy atmosphere to the scene with his interesting choice of scratchy rendering lines in the background. His signature displays the same line-quality and perfectly blends into the background. This is a scene of high drama and evil portent. The theme of monsters and females can be traced all the way to Adam and Eve; it is a staple element in our consciousness. Is this illustration? No, it is much more than that. In the same way that Rembrandt’s religious pictures are not just illustrations from the Bible, or the Sistine chapel is not just a cartoon version of biblical stories. A great artist often transcends his subject-matter and transforms it into a window into the soul, an insight into humanity itself. A truly creative artist like Frazetta gathers our attention and raises it to a higher level of penetration and elevates our lives in the process. Frazetta is not illustrating; he is presenting us to ourselves. In these drawings we are far away from simple technique. Technique is only the vehicle for private revelation. A great artist is always revealed in his work.

Pure perfection can also be seen in the amazing drawing of three pteradactyls attacking a sabretooth tiger. Frazetta once told me that, from a purely artistic standpoint, this drawing is probably the best. Once again, the drawing is exquisite; each form is beautifully rendered; each line is perfectly placed. The composition is tight and seemless; the eye is immediately captured and drawn into the piece. The scene is one of swirling violence as these creatures attack and envelop the sabretooth. The pteradactyls are given an almost rocklike texture and appearance that reinforces their intimidating presence. The sabretooth has a curious and magnificent expression that seems to cry out “how dare you attack ME!” His face is an interesting blend of instinctive fear and savage rage. Frazetta’s animal work is simply sensational. There is always such a palpable living presence in his animal drawings that screams with brutal life. Frazetta’s carefully weighted lines are vivacious and filled with an irrepressible mercurial vitality. The ferocious circular motion of pteradactyls and sabretooth define a world onto itself, aesthetically self-contained with forms entwined in nature’s dance of death. The eye is in constant movement among the varying light and dark areas, carefully placed to reinvigorate our attention at each moment of viewing. It is so intensely real in its effect that Frazetta only adds the most minor suggestion of earth and rock at the tiger’s feet in order to provide a real foundation for the fight. Without that virtuoso touch, the creatures would float in a void. The overall effect would be greatly diminished. This is the type of deep insight that sets Frazetta apart from other artists. A slightly different variation of this theme, equally brilliant, can be seen on the cover drawing for AT THE EARTH’S CORE where thirteen sabretooths attack a mastadon, a masterful blend of savage forms.

Frazetta is famous for knowing when to leave detail out and when to include it. Much of his success in painting relies on suggestiveness and selection. A piece such as the extraordinary cover to TARZAN AND THE CASTAWAYS is rare in that it incorporates a wealth of detail. By far it is the most lavishly textured drawing that Frazetta ever produced. Thick vegetation, an ancient temple, exotic trees, and dappled light provide a rich and soupy atmosphere for Tarzan’s escape to the jungle. This is a work of pure fun and, yet, it is a completely sophisticated tour de force that features multiple pen and brush techniques. Yes, Frazetta is showing off a bit, but the viewer loves it. Frazetta comments: “Dave, as much as you love my work, believe me when I say that I love it even more. I’m my best fan. I love looking at my stuff; it gives me a thrill, it really does. If I’m happy with a piece, then I’m pretty sure that others will like it too. The major sin in art is to be boring. I don’t want to bore the audience and I certainly don’t want to bore myself. That’s why I try to always come up with something new and fresh. Repetition really serves no purpose.” There is a bright sparkle that resonates throughout this image. Tarzan has hoisted the beautiful princess on his shoulders and presents her delicious bottom to us. We can almost feel the smooth porcelain skin as rendered by the soft and incisive lines. The dappled light ribbons on her backside only reinforce the erotic display and present a carefree sensuality. Tarzan’s grip makes a soft impression on her skin; we feel the touch with our eye. We revel in the wild vitality of the scene and delight in savoring all the varied textures; each one masterfully presented. Skin, stone, metal, foliage, and hair are all real and fascinating to behold, to contemplate. Even the distinctive signature is applied in a cascading style that mirrors the steps from the background temple. Frazetta presents a world of romance and adventure that we never want to leave. I have always maintained that Frazetta transcends the limiting categories of comic book artist, or fantasy artist, or illustrator. He is, purely and simply, a creative artist of the highest accomplishment.

Each Canaveral plate contains its own rich mix of elements both visual and intellectual. We see the creative exuberance of a powerful mind at play. Every dip of the pen flows with magic. This is creative dreaming at its most profound level. There is nothing like them in all of art history. They set a new standard for creative excellence and what an ink drawing can accomplish. Their impact has been enormous. Hundreds of artists have attempted to emulate Frazetta’s techniques. Whenever a serious discussion of Frazetta takes place, invariably these drawings will figure in the debate. They will continue to inspire, delight, and enchant for as long as art exists.

Dr. Dave Winiewicz

© 2008

(This essay originally appeared in ILLUSTRATION MAGAZINE #2, 2002)