Monday, May 6, 2013
A classical phase is characterized by focus on the perfection of the human form as athletic and beautiful, and there's also a strong focus on the supremacy of masculine force. The classical is profoundly conservative - emphasis is placed on traditional family values, patriarchy and masculinity. But following the classical inevitably comes the other side of the coin - a decadent phase. The aspects that were swept under the rug rise into the spotlight to get their due - these are the liberal values - we now see the failures of hyper-masculinity and place emphasis on femininity. Classical Greece was followed by Hellenism, and the classical Renaissance by the Baroque.
I place Frazetta as the classical founder of fantasy art, and Jeffrey Jones as his decadent counterpart.
In the case of the art periods I mentioned, centuries passed between them, but Jones and Frazetta were contemporaries, with a brief period where Frazetta stood alone forging the new paradigm while Jones studied what he was doing and got his artistic legs under him. So fascinatingly, both sides of the dialectic were operating simultaneously. It was this dialectic between them that animated the fantasy art scene of the 60's/70's and made it so vital and interesting.
Kent Williams is the third figure I discuss in relation to this dialectic, and let me explain why. Of course there were many followers of both Frazetta and Jones, most choosing one side or the other of the dialectic to champion, and some of them were excellent artists in their own right. I personally love the work of many of them, but only Williams grabbed my attention in the same visceral way as the two primary movers of this dialectic. And keep in mind it's the dialectic itself I'm discussing here, not the merit of individual artists. Also I'm freely weaving in my own thoughts about my growth as an artist, and to me personally these 3 represent important milestones in my development.
I discovered Frazetta when I was around 14 or 15 - going into high school in other words.. the perfect time for it. And Jones immediately afterward. So to me the 60's/70's fantasy art scene doesn't fee like a historical or dead period, it was vital and alive and still going strong when I was in my formative adolescence. Then at the very moment of my graduation (metaphorically speaking) in 1980 it all crashed to an abrupt halt. Frazetta had his first stroke and took some time to learn to paint with his left hand, but it never looked as good again. Something else shifted profoundly too - in popular music and movies the 60's and 70's was a renaissance of humanism (just as in fantasy painting), but the 80's was the beginning of a whole different epoch of shallow spectacle. Humanity and warmth and thoughtfulness were out, and in came explosions, steroid pumping freaks of nature, and countless sub-genres of rock music that all seemed to cater to the new extremism. I think it's telling that the music of the 60's and 70's is now called Classic Rock, and what followed was Alternative (quite literally an alternative to the classical).
I got caught up in it myself - though not until the 90's. Not sure that's really part of this entry though - I'll probably cover it elsewhere. Anyway - back to Williams.
He's in a sense the central figure in this dialectic for me as an aspiring art student who wants to move through these particular phases. I was a kid when I discovered Frazetta and Jones, and my reaction to them was "Awwww - COOOOOOL!!!! " But I discovered Williams in the 80's sometime (not sure anymore exactly when - somewhere between '82 and '84 I believe) by which time I was beginning to become a more serious art student myself, and I saw him as someone I could emulate. I definitely understood right off the bat that he had grown from the fertile ground of the Frazetta/Jones dialectic. As I said 2 paragraphs ago, it was a whole new era in the 80's, by now Warren was no longer publishing (one of the main companies constantly publishing the work of Frazetta and several similar cover artists, and my monthly fix of excellent horror comics drawn by the incredible Spanish Invasion artists). But Marvel was sort of following suit and was publishing a deluxe large glossy magazine called Epic Illustrated, which took advantage of the new advances in printing technology to allow a much more painterly look in full color comic/graphic novel work. These same advances would later fuel Image Comics, one of the big paragons of shallow spectacle in 80's extremism, but with Epic Illustrated and later the line of Epic Comics Marvel really was pushing the envelope, experimenting and giving a huge amount of respect to artists many of whom were raised on the fantasy art of the 60' and 70's. Of all of them Williams was the most 'artsy', employing bold bravura brushwork and working in many different media, all of which he had seemingly mastered and always doing exciting things. Like Jones before him, he was an experimenter and supremely committed to his artistic integrity - when his experiments worked he really slammed it out of the ballpark, but often things just didn't gel quite right. But he really stuck to his guns and refused to fall back on more ordinary techniques that would have proven safer but far less exciting. So I don't consider him an always successful artist - I often feel like he's just trying to be too artsy and bravura, and sometimes I have to groan and think "Ok, here we go again.. ". But I was always excited to see what he had been doing and where he was headed artistically, because it was clear he was growing and moving into new territory. I suppose thats one of the really exciting things about him - so many artists in comics/graphic novels or fantasy art had long ago settled on their formula and never ventured from it. But Williams treated his comic work - hell every outing, as a new chance to push his techniques and try new things. It was clear he was using the graphic novel and comic book media as sort of sketchbooks - getting loads of experience and pushing his technique constantly in new directions.
He later corroborated these findings of mine in some interview I read somewhere by saying that everything he had done so far was only the beginning - and then he launched his career as a fine art painter.
If Frazetta is Classical and Jones is Hellenistic/Baroque, then Williams is a Modernist. Maybe a post modernist. I read somewhere that he had studied under Jeffrey Jones and lived near him, used to visit his studio, and the influence was plain to see. Jones had emulated Klimt and Schiele, Vermeer, post-impressionist and Brandywine School techniques, and now Williams emulated Schiele and many other Modernists, with a distinct preference for expressionism.
I was profoundly excited by his work - I felt like it was something that had grown from the same artistic influences I had loved all through adolescence, but had moved beyond them to something that didn't feel as - embarrassing. I mean, if you tell someone you're a painter and then you haul out pictures of barbarian warriors and super sexy vixens, I think most people would have to stifle a little laughter, unless of course they're into the same stuff (these days of course most people are - things were different back in the 70's and 80's). Somehow Williams' work felt a lot more like serious artistic exploration while still being exciting and playful at the same time. This was exactly what I wanted to do.
I was getting pretty decent at drawing (not as good as I thought I was, but starting to develop some skill at rendering nice surfaces and shading). And suddenly I decided I wanted to do what Kent Williams was doing - so I started distorting and trying to be all expressionistic. Heh - well, I had a lot of fun with it anyway, but it wasn't working for me. In later years I would come to understand that before you can distort the human figure you must understand the human figure - learn the classical skills before you can start to break the classical rules. And before you can express yourself freely in paint with bold bravura brushwork etc, you have to learn how to actually paint first. I had learned in Art History that all the great modernist/expressionist painters were all classically trained. It's how you learn to effectively use the principles of art - and once you learn them well enough then you can start to freely express yourself and get as crazy as you want. Certainly Williams wouldn't be able to do what he does if he didn't know anatomy and figure drawing.
So I realized what I need to do is get myself into a classical figure painting period. Learn anatomy and figure drawing/painting - learn how to render figures in environments effectively - learn about composition and color and paint handling and all of it. There was only one problem - it was now the 90's and I was deeply into what I call my Alternative period.
I was going through my rebellious bohemian phase, and as much as I still loved Classic Rock and 70's movies etc, I was excited about the Alternative music scene with all its angst and thunder. I found it very hard to work up interest in cracking down to the books and learning anatomy and what I considered all the boring stuff (classical principles of art) - I thought I had already got that all under control previously (I was wrong). I was all worked up, considered myself some kind of Kurt Cobain of visual art, hurling my soul onto the canvas all bloody and raw. It was all about a sort of punk mentality - to hell with study and rules and all that, just thrash around a lot and make noise and be rebellious, right?
Fortunately before this Alternative Fever gripped me I had bought a lot of books on anatomy and figure drawing - chief among them the Burne Hogarth Dynamic series and Robert Beverly Hale's Master series. I even did an initial readthrough of each series, just to begin to wrap me head around all the new concepts - the forms in the human body that I never even knew existed and such. I did a few drawings trying to absorb the knowledge, but didn't get too far before I slipped into my Alternative phase and put all that stuff away. It took many years before I outgrew that. Decades actually. I did lapse out of the Alternative period a dozen or so years ago, but by that time I was deeply invested in stop motion animation and decided it subsumed all my other skills (drawing, painting, sculpture, writing, etc) and that now I no longer needed to do any of those since I was doing the one art form that rolls them all up into a big ball. I also felt like if I got involved in doing a bunch of other artistic projects I was wasting time I needed to put into stopmotion. But I was going a little crazy, I really needed to stretch my artistic wings again and do something else. Which brings us up to when I started this blog.
My plan now is to spend some time learning to paint similarly to Frazetta and Jones (learn Classical and Decadent) - which I'm accomplishing now, and then I'll cut loose and start to try my hand at some distortion and more modern stuff like what Williams does. I don't want to really emulate him, or to copy his style or anything, in fact at this point I can't even begin to say what my art will look like by that point or what's going to become important to me. I'm entering into new territory and it's exciting to see where it's going to take me.