Thursday, January 1, 2015

Heroic Fantasy - Humanism, dynamism and stasis

In the 60's and 70's humanism was front and center, in the movies and popular music as well as the heroic fantasy painting movement. It was larger-than-life personalities in conflict - represented visually by powerful bodies, bright colors and straining poses. Clothes, weapons and etc were sublimated, minimized and simplified to serve as accessories and not detract from the main drama of the human conflict.

But thanks to the specific influences that began in the late 70's and are still intensifying today - video games, spectacular special effects in movies, CGI and extreme stunt work  - the emphasis seems to have moved to a point where the human element is often obscured. In many of today's digital fantasy illustrations the human body is stiff and lifeless like a mannikin, no real gesture or flow to it, and detailed as a form rather than a living thing. And the emphasis is often on elaborate armor or realistically depicted clothing that's painstakingly researched or developed with an eye toward realism rather than dynamism or simplification, or that’s stylized to the point that it overwhelms the human element completely. The weapons are often also extremely elaborate and sometimes ridiculously big - which comes from the huge influence of Anime and Manga. Much of fantasy painting seems to have taken the same road since the 70’s as rock music - away from humanism and into extremism (Various metal subgenres). 

After posting this I realized it isn't that fantasy art has changed with the times - it's that the heroic fantasy movement was huge then and has subsided largely in favor of what would more properly just be called Fantasy art. Even though it often still involves weapons and fighting - so technically heroism - it often fails to be humanist in nature. Even then the other strain existed - there were artists doing elaborate clothing fantasies that happened to be set in medieval times or some other romantic setting so it crosses partially over the line into heroic fantasy. And I use the term to refer specifically to the movement led by Frazetta, a broader definition of it certainly can be used. My goal isn't to define terms but to explore ideas, and I'm using convenient terms that are familiar to me to do so. As soon as you start getting into definitions and splitting hairs you're thinking analytically and no longer synthetically - dissecting rather than exploring. Dissection kills what it seeks to examine.

I've also noticed a strong divide between what I call dynamic and static figurative art. It's pretty self explanatory - the dynamic strain is about power and grace and movement and vivid color, while the static strain is more about realism and likeness and stillness. There are different ways to get something across dynamically - a certain visual vocabulary - an emphasis on gesture and rhythm and movement throughout the image. Static artists tend to focus more on surface and capturing effects of shadow and light and detail. Their images often resemble photorealistic renderings, or sometimes life drawings  which involve people holding a pose that can be comfortably maintained for a long time - often resulting in realistic renderings of bored people holding very still. Dynamic artists tend to learn to work more from imagination or to modify reference by drawing gesturally rather than rendering surface details. Also, however dynamically an image may start out, overworking tends to drain it and replace it with stasis. It's important if you want that dynamism, to learn to work rapidly and keep as much as possible of the initial energy from your sketches. I think this is why Frazetta worked alla prima rather than doing glazes and layers. It's also why he usually just did a couple of really rough thumbs and an equally rough watercolor comp before launching to work, rather than working everything out analytically. Most of my favorite artists seem to favor the dynamic approach with minimal planning. They seem to like the spontaneity of letting it partially develop right on the canvas. It's the element of chance - it's adventurous (with all the concomitant risks) rather than safe. When it works it's exhilarating - but the risk is that it won't always work.

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