Friday, October 14, 2011

Frazetta's Fine Lines

Everyone considers Frank Frazetta to be one of the world’s great painters. This fact is clear and unquestioned. However, more attention needs to be paid to his pen-and-brush linework because, in my opinion (and I am not alone in this thought), Frazetta is the finest draftsman who has ever lived. Frazetta has far surpassed the greatest of those who preceded him, e.g. Daniel Vierge, Mariano Fortuny, Joseph Clement Coll, Alex Raymond, and Hal Foster. That is a group of distinguished illustrators with huge, well-deserved reputations. Frazetta, however, is in a class all by himself. Frazetta utilizes a varied approach to drawing depending on his ultimate end, be it sketchwork or finished illustration. There is no set pattern that he uses. Consider his sketchwork. Most of Frazetta’s sketches are done simply for the joy of drawing. Sometimes, he will lightly draw lines in pencil and then ink over this. Often he will simply allow the pen to play and see where it leads him. Frazetta’s line is really one of the wonders of the world and has never been matched. Consider the exceptional sketch of a fight scene with its loose lines and vibrant energy. Frazetta's line appears to sing and dance and play all over the page. This free-flowing doodle is really the visual armature for a more finished drawing. These lines are used as a dynamic reference map from which he will choose defining lines and patterns of movement. Now consider the sketch of the barbarian and female supplicant. This sketch is very finished, yet full of vitality and subtlety. Frazetta’s linework is loose and seemingly spontaneous, yet he captures the subject in all its power and nuances. The soft lines and lighting of the girl (not to exclude the provocatively upturned breast and visually tantalizing nipple) are dynamically opposed to the rough, gritty hardness of the barbarian with his overwhelming rocklike girth and imperiously gesturing arm. The phallus-like scabbard is a typically inspired Frazetta “touch” that engages our imaginations and fuels speculation about the precise nature of this tableaux. What’s going on here? Is the girl his mistress? A captive? An errant child who has been caught? Frazetta entertains us here with a virtuoso presentation of narrative drama, visual power, and subtle suggestiveness. I doubt if there is another artist who can blend these elements so seamlessly. Frazetta does this time and time again. In doing so, he brings us beyond the surface obviousness to an understanding of the deeper intention of the artist. These little efforts by Frazetta are little jewels of personal insight, technical mastery, and private delight.
Frazetta reaches his highest creative pinnacle with the Canaveral Press drawings from 1962-1965. Frank was commissioned to illustrate several books by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Two books were published: TARZAN AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1962) and TARZAN AND THE CASTAWAYS (1965). Other books were planned but never published, although an edition of EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS: MASTER OF ADVENTURE by Richard Lupoff was published in 1965 with several Frazetta drawings. Frazetta executed a total of 27 full drawings and 5 small spot illustrations for this Canaveral Press series. Each drawing is a polished piece of highly sophisticated perfection. Frazetta was showing the world what he could do at a time when he wanted to establish a name for himself. Each drawing is a little miracle of power and refinement. The technique Frazetta employed in all these drawings is akin to the sumi-e inkwash paintings of the Japanese. These are drawings with a carefully controlled tonal range that varies from solid black to the lightest of water-thinned ink tones. Frank does this to control the level of contrast in the designs and to control carefully what the eye sees first and last. The result are pieces with sustained intellectual interest. Each drawing easily warrants its’ own essay. Let me comment on just one, namely, the great fight scene between David Innes and Jubal the Ugly One. What is obvious at first glance is the incredible energy and dynamism exploding from the composition. The ferocious power of the hero’s punch has lifted the huge bulk of Jubal right off his feet. Jubal’s horrific head is turned, his arms flail in an attempt to gain balance, and rocks fly from his dislodged footing. Provocatively posed in the foreground is the about-to-be-rescued heroine. Her wild hair indicates that her attention has just been violently turned from Jubal to David Innes. Everything is in motion; nothing is static. The eye and mind are immediately captured by this visual whirlwind. The intricately circulating rhythm of arms and hair and clothing is simply a delight. Frazetta’s line contains no hesitations; it is swift and forceful. Every dip of the brush flows with passion and creative exuberance.
Someone might say that this is just a conventional, stereotypical scene of hero, monster, and girl that has been seen thousands of times before. This scene is a visual clichĂ© that has been repeatedly drawn and painted. This is obviously true, however, stereotypes are necessary components in constructing any type of myth. Without stereotypes and visual tropes communication becomes impossible. The key is in how these elements are handled. Consider all the subtle nuance that is hidden in this drawing. Firstly, the hero is presented rather small in stature. A multitude of softly drawn lines define his belly and suggest a bit of muscle. Frazetta’s ability to suggest textures through ink is unrivalled. The rest of David Innes is virtually all gesture. The uncoiling of Innis results in the recoiling of Jubal; a perfect, seemless interplay of forms in motion. Jubal’s bulk looms over the scene and dominates the visual space; his heavily-muscled back and legs are a feast for the eye and provide a unique surface rhythm for the mind to play with. The precisely-weighted lines are carefully placed to achieve maximum impact. However, this extremely formidable foe has just been vanquished by a man. This is a man that we can identify with: lean, not overly large, yet filled with heroic rage and intensity. Human emotion has been perfectly translated into gesture. Frazetta has infused this scene with an important element of believability and reality. This heightens the engagement of the mind with the subject-matter. His lines are vivacious and mercurial, yet carefully focused. Frazetta prefers expressiveness over lifeless perfection and, thus carefully prunes his compositions of anything superfluous.
After the initial visual shock of this masterful confrontation, the eye is drawn to the sprawling, seductive form of Dian the Beautiful in the foreground. Once again, Frazetta entertains us with the sensuous magic of his drawing, but adds little touches that define his greatness as a creative master. We’ve already commented on the swinging movement of the hair that defines her place in the story. Her entire figure emerges from the foreground shadow as if a rare dream is materializing in front of our amazed eyes. She also provides a soft counterpoint to the heavy rockwork to her right. Note how Frank deepens the shadows of the rocks from top to bottom. These rocks anchor the design and prevent it from turning into a visual chaos. The heroine’s leg not only provides a direct compositional line that leads the eye back into the composition, but it enchants the connoisseur along the way. The right side of the leg is defined by the background; there is no explicitly drawn line. This is virtuosity at its peak and, once again, adds to the reality of the scene. The deliciously-rounded buttocks are, of course, a Frazetta trademark. Once again, Frank indicates the stress and emotion present in the girl by having her buttocks slightly clenched. Notice the slightly-portruding muscle on the right side where upper thigh and buttock join. The soft rendering in those areas is perfection itself. That disarming lightness of touch provides a counterpoint to the heaviness of the overall subject-matter. Another little Frazetta “touch” is the soft lighting seen in the underside of the left buttock. This is an almost lecherous element that invites the eye in to a most private area. Passion, violence, and sex are close relations; Frazetta recognizes that quite clearly. Once again, we see Frazetta taking a scene of great power and, by infusing it with his own unique creative imagination and taste, transforms it into a world-class piece of ART. The great Canaveral Plates have never been matched, and never will be. They are a legacy for the world and an ongoing inspiration and challenge to generations of artists.
The later drawings of Frazetta, referring to the Doubleday series of books in the 1970’s and the Middle Earth portfolio pieces, represent a different style and approach. At this stage, Frazetta is drawing as a painter, not as a draftsman. Intricate schemes of rendering are replaced by large placements of wash tone. This requires a separate essay to do it justice. This period is wonderful in its’ own way, but it does not come near the special magic of the Canaveral years.
Owning a nice sketch or drawing by Frazetta is just as satisfying as owning a major painting. Why? From the simplest sketch to the most major oil everything appears to be alive. Frazetta's soul LIVES in his art and the magic of art is that we can share in his wondrous gift. His art enhances our lives and, as with all great art, enduring art, it makes the world a richer, more satisfying, place.

DocDave Winiewicz (c)2011