Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Story Behind The Frazetta Portrait

It was a sunny and warm day in the summer of 1994.
Ellie was in Florida. Frank wanted to get out of the house so he could get some exercise. We decided to take our cameras and go tour the estate on a mini photo safari. We walked up the mountain, into the woods, and around the entire perimeter of the land. He showed me the streams and the waterfalls and the neighboring properties. He was thinking of adding more land. Frank told me the stories of George Lucas and Clint Eastwood visiting the land and being thoroughly enchanted and impressed with Frazetta's kingdom.They both decided that's precisely what they wanted as well. They returned to California and bought up huge chunks of real estate. Lucas established the Skywalker Ranch and Clint had his property in Carmel.
We returned to the house and Frank walked up the front path. I told him to stop and turn around. He was standing in the archway. I walked up and moved a little flower from the front step to the left side. I told Frank to move forward so he'd be in the sunlight. I set the camera to bracket 3 shots (i.e. underexposure, overexposure, and a midrange exposure). I took the shot. I knew it was going to be a good capture.

"I think this will be a nice one, Frank. The light was perfect and your pose was just right." Frank said: "With that camera you shouldn't ever take a bad picture. That's a great camera and a beautiful lens."
"You like this camera, eh?"
"I love it. With that camera around your neck, people will notice it."
"OK, I'll trade it to you, Frank. And I'll toss-in all the other Zeiss lenses."
"What do you want for it?"
"How about doing me a nice pencil drawing. That'll be easy for you."
"What kind of drawing?"
"How about a self-portrait, Frank? You know how much I love that oil portrait you did of yourself. I've been telling you to paint another one for years, but you won't."
"You mean that you'd rather have that instead of a girl?"
"Yes. I think a nice self-portrait would be great. I've got plenty of other Frazetta girls."
"Well, I'm flattered."

That whole exchange only lasted a minute or two, then we walked into the house. Frank sat down on the zebra skin sofa and I put the camera in his hands. He got very animated. He held it up, he rolled his eyes, and he made some lip-smacking gestures with his tongue and lips. He had a gigantic smile on his face. He was beaming. He said: "Find me some paper or board, something really smooth. Where did I put that knife?" He was looking for his knife so he could trim the pencils and hone a point. I looked around and there wasn't any decent paper anywhere. We finally found some heavy sheets in his cabinet. He pulled one out and sat down at the drawing table. He got a pencil and looked for a knife or razor blade. We found a knife (a TARZAN collectible knife with images of Tarzan on it) and he started hacking away at the pencil. He said: "OK…put on some coffee Dave. Let me see what I can do." At that moment he simply closed his eyes and started to look up at the ceiling. I watched him intently. He interlaced his fingers on his chest and just kept concentrating for 30 seconds or so. Honestly, it seemed a lot longer, but my mind was exploding. Frazetta was gathering himself internally for creative expression. I have to say it; it was a magical moment.
He lowered his head, picked up the pencil and started to make very broad lines and all this time his pencil never left the paper. His hand flew over the page making long lines, short lines, line after line after line. Then he would stop, smudge a few areas, then look at the pencil's tip. He would carve into the pencil until he had the kind of surfaces he was looking for. In 30-40 minutes he had the entire portrait fleshed-out, but not totally finished: a direct line from inspiration to execution to conception. He sat back, took it off his drawing table and put it up on the easel and sat down on the couch to drink some coffee. He looked at it from a distance, shaking his head in an up-and-down "yes" motion. He was pleased.

I said: "Wow, Frank, what a show. It looks a lot like your 1962 portrait. Right from your imagination. You didn't even look into the mirror. I thought for sure that you'd take a few glances at yourself."

Frank replied: "Why? I shave in the mirror every day. I know what I look like. This is pretty easy. I thought about the oil portrait, but it has mistakes. I'm drawing this as I see myself. There is a lot of that portrait in this. It's me after all. When I think of myself now, this is the image that I see…in my prime. It needs a few erasures and a bit more work. It has a few holes. I need to refine the hair, make it softer. It's a good start. You can't show this to Ellie or let it get out. I don't want any trouble."

I quickly reassured him that this, again, would be another one of our secrets.

I stayed on the sofa that night and wrote some notes. I kept walking into the studio and looked at the portrait. Frank spent a little more time with it, refining the hair and adding some background strokes. The piece is exquisite; Frank's personality radiates from every line. He added a bold signature, dated it, and inscribed the piece to me.

In the morning we had some coffee and doughnuts. I had to leave. We went to the studio and Frank picked up the portrait. He put it down and picked up a pencil. He made an erasure around the eye. He started drawing. I quickly shot a photo. I asked: "What are you doing Frank? It looked great to me." He immediately replied: "I'm making it PERFECT. I saw a little flaw by the eye. There was a little bit of distortion. I just saw it. Now it's right. Thanks for the camera, Dave."

"It was a pleasure, Frank. Thanks for everything. I'll give you a call when I get back. I want to get those negatives developed. I pulled the roll of film out of the camera and laid it on the table."

Frank walked over to the table, picked-up his new CONTAX Titanium camera and put it around his neck. He was a happy man.

I was pretty happy, too.

The CONTAX shots turned out very well indeed. I worked on the photo a bit and showed Frank the result on my next trip. He was very pleased. He agreed to sign ten copies of the photo for me. I had printed up the copies ahead of time. I was optimistic; I knew he would like it. I also brought a precision German rapidiograph with archival ink. I didn't want him to spill ink or coffee over the prints. In Frank's studio, anything is possible. His coffee pot is a dangerous weapon! He'd spill coffee on everything. I only brought eleven copies, with one for Frank's collection. To this day I haven't even looked at the photos since Frank signed them. At some point I'll dig them out and sell them. It's quite a unique item. I had Frank do something like this earlier. He signed 5 copies of a very early shot from 1951. Photography was Frank's greatest personal passion in life. He got the greatest joy from his camera collection.

©2010 DocDave Winiewicz


Old School Illustrator said...

Dave these stories, photos and recollections are like discovering Frazetta all over again! I'm reliving the same excitment I felt 45 years ago when my jaw first hit the ground.
What you are doing here is monumental not only for the fans but for the history of illustration!

Jim S. said...

Your notes and written thoughts have been a blessing to all of us fans. Thanks!

Dominic Bugatto said...

Great story , thanks for sharing.

J Carrillo said...

Hi DocDave,
Been trying to find someone to tell about this. Have no idea they have permission or not, but I've seen a couple of these t-shirt companies w/stolen art from Brom and Boris Vallejo already so just thought I'd let someone know. Usually the company doesn't even realize it since they freelance the graphics and some unscrupulous person submits it w/o the company realizing.

David Apatoff said...

Dave-- thanks for a great blog. It's picturesque details like that wonderful little Tarzan jack knife which make your blog such a unique and illuminating source for information about Frazetta.

Matt J said...

This is a terrific blog-I discovered it through David Apatoff's Illustration Art blog. It's fantastic to discover that someone such as yourself had regular access to Frazetta & documented all the conversations. Makes for fascinating reading.

Tom S. said...

Thank you for the lengthy blog postings you have published on Frazetta.
I found my way to your site after I found out this weekend that he had died a few months ago.
Your blog postings were a soft landing after learning that news. Much nicer to read your remembrances rather than the random news articles.
You blog is also where I found out about Al Williamson's death.

Your writings over the years have given Frazetta fans like me an insider look into someone very much admired.

Thank you for sharing like this.

Anonymous said...

I'd be a lot more impressed if FF had chosen to do a pencil drawn self-portrait from another angle, not the same one as the painting. Yes, he shaved every day, but not from the very same angle as that painting.

This whole story sounds like more "myth building." Frazetta was talented, but his colors can't touch Vermeer's. He drew well, but Ingres' best pencil drawings are far superior to FF's best draftsmanship. I could cite more examples in the realm of composition, design, painting technique, etc., but the point has been made.

Frazetta was a great talent, but let's keep things in proper perspective.

docdave said...

I disagree thoroughly and completely! I doubt if anyone on the planet could draw the TARZAN AND BOLGANI pencil directly from their imagination while 6 people watched. The REALITY of what Frank has done transcends any myth that can be ascribed to him.


Patrick said...

Mr. Anonymous, I get what your trying to say, and there are many wonderful artists in the history of mankind. I do however think it is a little lack of respect to come here and semi-bad mouth Frank. You should have told Frank your comment to his face while he was still living.

I knew about Frank before I heard about Vermeer. Vermeer lived hundreds of years ago, Frank lived in my time and I am proud to say that. Frank has also inspired me to go on this artist's journey as well as many others.

I came here my first time today to hear good things about a man I look up to. I don't think its fair to hear what you said on a blog dedicated to a great artist. It just sounds like you've got something personal with Frank.

Your entitled to your opinion, I'm just saying that Frank is loved and admired by many. I just don't think its the proper time or place to put Frank down.

Anonymous said...

It was the Doc's choice to post my comment. I wrote it, he read it, and responded to it. Frazetta's work has held up under a lot more severe criticism, because it is the result of TREMENDOUS TALENT. I don't think anyone here disagrees with that. He was one of the very best.