Friday, November 16, 2012

Mission Statement

I've decided to commit myself to advancing my oil painting skills, one of my lifelong ambitions but something I've never made much headway with in the past.

In particular I want to learn to paint similarly to the great 70's fantasy illustrators, with emphasis on the best (meaning my favorites) - Frazetta and Jeff Jones. And I know, there have been countless imitators - so many in fact that the burgeoning paperback publishing market kick-started by Frazetta eventually collapsed, and what I consider the classical period of great fantasy painting gave way to a decadent period of far less talented painters, not studied in the methods leading all the way back to the Renaissance (as Frazetta was - one of the last popular artists to benefit from this type of training). Most of these imitators laboriously copied photographs of bodybuilders down to every last straining vein and muscle fiber - something Frank never did, or they did very detailed line drawings (with no character to them) which they then colored in, resulting in some very lackluster efforts more like a coloring book or comic book image. Most of them also began with a figure and then drew in a background in realistic fashion, rather than starting with a powerful overall composition of abstract forms and swirling forces which then suggested figure and environment at the same time.

Another factor separating the greats from the rest - though Frank did occasionally snap photos of himself, Ellie and his friends to inspire poses (and even occasionally swipe from other artists he admired) he did the majority of his work directly from his own fertile imagination. You can't get a model to hold a powerful off-balance action pose like the ones Frank painted - you just need to understand the figure and anatomy well enough to create the imagery entirely from your mind. Frank obviously could do this with little to (usually) no reference - but then it's become apparent to me that he had some kind of eidetic memory. Being at the opposite end of the spectrum in that department, I have no qualms about using reference as much as I need to - especially in the early learning stages. But I don't usually copy anything from photographs or paintings - I'll generally study them for what I need, put them away and then go to work, checking as necessary along the way. This is what I refer to as working from a photograph - as opposed to copying it.

I've recently been lucky enough to stumble across the blog of Doc Dave Winiewicz, Frazetta-centric art collector who visited Frank once a month for many decades and was foresighted enough to always write down their conversations as soon as he got home from each visit - preserving the master's thoughts for posterity. One of the (many) amazing things I've learned thanks to that incredible blog is that Frank often worked (in his oil paintings; my primary focus) over an underpainting done in Umber (burnt I assume? Or possibly raw + burnt + maybe black?) which was essentially the entire painting in rough form done in monochrome - this is a classical technique creating the all-important separation of drawing, modeling and coloring which allows you to get correct tonal values first and then begin to bring in color. He worked alla prima (all in one sitting, wet into wet) and generally completed a painting in 8 to 12 hours. By the time the underpainting was done it was already getting dry enough to paint over with wetter paints, blended with Liquin Fine Detail medium to conform to the traditional concept of fat over lean.

In researching limited color palettes (which I also believe he employed, though probably with a rotating cast of colors) I learned in general they consist of earth tones and very desaturated colors - often entirely omitting any blue altogether (it can be approximated by mixing black and white, or greens by mixing black and yellow). Well, I thought there's no way Frank used such a desaturated palette! I recall his painting being vivid with brilliant colors!! But lo and behold - a browse through my Frazetta folder reveals each painting consists mostly of very desaturated earth tones with a warm/cool bias and then usually only one color of greater saturation - usually a compliment to the majority of the painting. In fact the Conan leaping onto the beast-man's shoulders with the brilliant red cape - that painting has no blues or cool colors at all! Many of the paintings are simply a few earth tones plus black and maybe a little white. Amazing!

What I hope to do is stand on the shoulders of these giants - otherwise I'd have to dodge between their feet. What I mean is that, with giants striding the land - you're going to be either scurrying to avoid what they've done, copying them, or climbing onto their shoulders to learn from them and hopefully then move on to your own approach. I hope to learn from their techniques rather than copy their style - though I assume some of that style will come along with the techniques in the beginning. I have no problem with that as long as it doesn't persist - after all, Jeff Jones learned to paint by copying Frank's style and then developed his own, becoming an amazing and unique talent.

I don't want to be Frazetta - he was the ultimate alpha male; his men were brutal and his women were either prizes to be won by savage swordplay, fierce warriors themselves,  or sorceresses to be feared. Jones was his less masculine counterpart -  his figures whether male or female were graceful and elegant - I believe his sexual identity was already expressing itself through his art before he decided to finalize the deal by undergoing transgender surgery later in life and changing his name to Catherine Jeffrey Jones. I believe there's room between them, or perhaps off to the side somewhere - for another artist interested in the same type of techniques and the stellar results they create, which stand head and shoulders above the vast majority of more mundane and safer fantasy illustration techniques - mostly stiff and awkward - pneumatic figures standing in realistically depicted landscapes playing dress-up. The alla prima technique, with figure and environment carved in bold aggressive brushstrokes from the whole cloth, and only after (and in service to) a nearly abstract composition - makes for paintings that resemble the classical art of antiquity, but with far more verve and power - much more engaging to a modern audience.


  1. Hi Mike! First of all a late congratulations from me for your decision about advancing your oil painting skills. I wanted to start with your first post here. Again very informal posts here about the art you are doing. I like how you go deep into what you are doing, explain the style you are after and the way you choose to advance. Good luck my friend!

  2. Thank you!! I do tend to write a lot, don't I? Lol!!