Thursday, July 28, 2016

Reconsidering Frazetta

 Frazetta is one of the most well known artists of our time, and not only for his art. He's also known for the very colorful stories he tells about himself. About his remarkable athletic prowess and about his background as an artist. Some of his claims in fact are so remarkable that they boggle the imagination - for instance the story of when he was a youth and was walking on a sidewalk beside a picket fence. He was very angry about something - I don't recall what, but so steamed that he saw red, and apparently without realizing what he was doing he ran the leading edge of his hand along the fence, hitting each picket so hard that he broke them all! He said he didn't even realize he had done that until he was past the fence and looked back at it.

His mythology is a huge part of Frank's image, and far be it from me to want to besmirch that, but certain things have come to my attention that I believe call for a reconsidering of some of his claims. I'm not concerned with the claims of his incredible athletic feats - but I do want to set the record straight about his fabled refusal to use photo reference (to draw or paint from photos) and his ridiculously short period of training as an artist - both of which set up unrealistic expectations in admiring young fans who then believe they should be able to do it the way he did, and are in for a rude awakening when that proves impossible. If an art student refuses to work from photo reference or believes that just a few short years of formal art training in childhood is enough to turn them into a word class artist, then they're likely to really botch their training and come out the other side without necessary skills and knowledge, thus sabotaging their chances. And yes folks, I used to believe the claims - in fact I have promoted some of them on this blog.

One of his well known claims is that his only formal art training consisted of a few years under Michel Falanga, I believe between the ages of 8 and 12. But this item from Roy Krenkel's Wiki page indicates otherwise:

"After WWII, he (Krenkel --- Darkmatters) attended Burne Hogarth's classes at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School, which became the School of Visual Arts. There he met a group of young cartoonists, including Joe Orlando, Frank Frazetta and Al Williamson."--- From Wikipedia's Roy Krenkel page

So it seems the maestro was concerned with creating his own legend. Playing the same game of self-promotion that big name fine arts gallery painters are known for - the ones who sell themselves rather than letting their work sell itself. Of course Frank's work is easily strong enough to sell not only itself but countless paperback fantasy books, and to literally redefine the heroic fantasy painting genre permanently. I don't know exactly why he felt compelled to self-promote so strongly - maybe he was insecure about his ability to get by strictly on his undeniable talent, or maybe he just thought every little bit helps - or maybe it was just a part of his nature to mythologize himself. I suspect that's at least a large factor.

And here's a comment I ran across recently on David Apatoff's Illustration Art blog (yes, I seem to be mentioning it in every post lately - hey, it's currently my mainline for info and edutainment, ok?):
David Apatoff said..."One of the things I really enjoyed about Comic-Con was the discussion of photo reference by working artists... in a panel about Jeffrey Jones, one artist (correction - not an artist; it was Louise Simonson, Warren editor and former wife of Jeffrey Jones, later married to Walt Simonson --- Darkmatters) talked about how Frazetta traumatized a generation of artists by claiming he never used reference. This artist (Simonson) said, "I know for a fact that Frazetta used reference. I don't know why he would say a thing like that, but a lot of younger artists who looked up to him, such as Jeff Jones, thought they were supposed to be able to paint like that from their imaginations, without any reference. It set back their work, as they tried and tried. They thought there was something wrong with them. And gradually they all went back to using reference." 
"I am one of those who sees no problem with the use of reference, as long as it is kept in proper perspective (like all other art tools). I agree there are many types of pictures best created by relying on memory. We see them, for example, in Frazetta's loose and free flowing pen and ink drawings or his simpler, monolithic figure paintings. However, there are other pictures that will inevitably look stilted and artificial without the benefit of reference. I've seen about half a dozen instances where Frazetta used photo reference, and he seemed to have a good sense for when it was required (for example, with the tighter drawings for the story, "Squeeze Play"). But every once in a while, you can see pictures where he tried to fake his way through without reference (The Disagreement, for example, or Conan the Destroyer before he went back and repainted it, or Conan the Indomitable) and you can see the limits of memory, even for a master." 
8/01/2011 1:55 AM (< direct link to the comment)

Unfortunately I've been unable to relocate it, but there was another comment on a different thread (no idea which one) where one of the readers - as I recall it was an illustrator - said he knew of an illustrator in Frazetta's heyday who was retiring and selling off studio equipment and resources, and had sold a massive morgue file to Frazetta. A morgue file is a collection of photographs used as reference by artists, and this one was filled to overflowing with bodybuilder reference. I tried searching the blog to relocate this info, but apparently the search function on Blogger doesn't include comments.

It isn't that I want to discredit Frazetta - he's a hero of mine - it's just that I was one of those artists who were lead to believe you could get results like Frazetta's without needing reference. I want to try to stop the damage to what small extent I can through my little blog - maybe some other artists can learn the truth before they waste their training period trying to do without reference or skimp on training.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

On the clarity and power of 19th century writing concerning art - focus on John Ruskin

This is a followup to my previous post, about Romanticism and Aesthetics and the many writers who have contributed to them - so many in the 19th century. I want to post a segment of one of John Ruskin's articles just to show the great care with which he delineates his points and elaborates on them. Its very rare to find such deep thinking, so eloquently articulated, in any time or place. Strangely though, there was a whole lot of it going on in the 1800's (aka the 19th century). I'll expound a bit on my thoughts as to why that is after the excerpt. This comes from Ruskin's Of the Pathetic Fallacy, a chapter in his book Modern Painters vol 2. After the excerpt is a link to the entire chapter online, in case it whets the appetite for more. 

"Now, therefore, putting these tiresome and absurd words quite out of our way, we may go on at our ease to examine the point in question— namely, the difference between the ordinary, proper, and true appearances of things to us; and the extraordinary, or false appearances, when we are under the influence of emotion, or contemplative fancy; false appearances, I say, as being entirely unconnected with any real power or character in the object, and only imputed to it by us.
For instance —
  • The spendthrift crocus,
  • bursting through the mould  
  • Naked and shivering,
  • with his cup of gold.
This is very beautiful, and yet very untrue. The crocus is not a spendthrift, but a hardy plant; its yellow is not gold, but saffron. How is it that we enjoy so much the having it put into our heads that it is anything else than a plain crocus?
It is an important question. For, throughout our past reasonings about art, we have always found that nothing could be good, or useful, or ultimately pleasurable, which was untrue. But here is something pleasurable in written poetry which is nevertheless untrue. And what is more, if we think over our favourite poetry, we shall find it full of this kind of fallacy, and that we like it all the more for being so. 
§ 5. It will appear also, on consideration of the matter, that this fallacy is of two principal kinds. Either, as in this case of the crocus, it is the fallacy of wilful fancy, which involves no real expectation that it will be believed; or else it is a fallacy caused by an excited state of the feelings, making us, for the time, more or less irrational. Of the cheating of the fancy we shall have to speak presently; but, in this chapter, I want to examine the nature of the other error, that which the mind admits when affected strongly by emotion. Thus, for instance, in Alton Locke— 
  • They rowed her in across the rolling foam—
  • The cruel, crawling foam.
The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. The state of mind which attributes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which the reason is unhinged by grief. All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the 'Pathetic Fallacy'. 
§ 6. Now we are in the habit of considering this fallacy as eminently a character of poetical description, and the temper of mind in which we allow it as one eminently poetical, because passionate. But, I believe, if we look well into the matter, that we shall find the greatest poets do not often admit this kind of falseness — that it is only the second order of poets who much delight in it. 
Thus, when Dante describes the spirits falling from the bank of Acheron' as dead leaves flutter from a bough', he gives the most perfect image possible of their utter lightness, feebleness, passiveness, and scattering agony of despair, without, however, for an instant losing his own clear perception that these are souls, and those are leaves; he makes no confusion of one with the other. But when Coleridge speaks of
  • The one red leaf, the last of its clan, 
  • That dances as often as dance it can,
he has a morbid, that is to say, a so far false, idea about the leaf : he fancies a life in it, and will, which there are not; confuses its powerlessness with choice, its fading death with merriment, and the wind that shakes it with music. Here, however, there is some beauty, even in the morbid passage; but take an instance in Homer and Pope. Without the knowledge of Ulysses, Elpenor, his youngest follower, has fallen from an upper chamber in the Circean palace, and has been left dead, unmissed by his leader, or companions, in the haste of their departure. They cross the sea to the Cimmerian land; and Ulysses summons the shades from Tartarus. The first which appears is that of the lost Elpenor. Ulysses, amazed, and in exactly the spirit of bitter and terrified lightness which is seen in Hamlet, addresses the spirit with the simple, startled words:—
Elpenor! How camest thou under the shadowy darkness? Hast thou come faster on foot than I in my black ship?

Which Pope renders thus:—
  • 0, say, what angry power Elpenor led 
  • To glide in shades, and wander with the dead? 
  • How could thy soul, by realms and seas disjoined, 
  • Outfly the nimble sail, and leave the lagging wind?
I sincerely hope the reader finds no pleasure here, either in the nimbleness of the sail, or the laziness of the wind! And yet how is it that these conceits are so painful now, when they have been pleasant to us in the other instances?
 § 7. For a very simple reason. They are not a pathetic fallacy at all, for they are put into the mouth of the wrong passion — a passion which never could possibly have spoken them — agonized curiosity. Ulysses wants to know the facts of the matter; and the very last thing his mind could do at the moment would be to pause, or suggest in anywise what was not a fact. The delay in the first three lines, and conceit in the last, jar upon us instantly, like the most frightful discord in music. No poet of true imaginative power could possibly have written the passage.
Therefore, we see that the spirit of truth must guide us in some sort, even in our enjoyment of fallacy. Coleridge's fallacy has no discord in it, but Pope's has set our teeth on edge. Without farther questioning, I will endeavour to state the main bearings of this matter. 
§ 8. The temperament which admits the pathetic fallacy, is, as I said above, that of a mind and body in some sort too weak to deal fully with what is before them or upon them; borne away, or over-clouded, or over-dazzled by emotion; and it is a more or less noble state, according to the force of the emotion which has induced it. For it is no credit to a man that he is not morbid or inaccurate in his perceptions, when he has no strength of feeling to warp them; and it is in general a sign of higher capacity and stand in the ranks of being, that the emotions should be strong enough to vanquish, partly, the intellect, and make it believe what they choose. But it is still a grander condition when the intellect also rises, till it is strong enough to assert its rule against, or together with, the utmost efforts of the passions; and the whole man stands in an iron glow, white hot, perhaps, but still strong, and in no wise evaporating; even if he melts, losing none of his weight.
So, then, we have the three ranks: the man who perceives rightly, because he does not feel, and to whom the primrose is very accurately the primrose, because he does not love it. Then, secondly, the man who perceives wrongly, because he feels, and to whom the primrose is anything else than a primrose: a star, or a sun, or a fairy's shield, or a forsaken maiden. And then, lastly, there is the man who perceives rightly in spite of his feelings, and to whom the primrose is for ever nothing else than itself—a little flower, apprehended in the very plain and leafy fact of it, whatever and how many soever the associations and passions may be, that crowd around it. And, in general, these three classes may be rated in comparative order, as the men who are not poets at all, and the poets of the second order, and the poets of the first; only however great a man may be, there are always some subjects which ought to throw him off his balance; some, by which his poor human capacity of thought should be conquered, and brought into the inaccurate and vague state of perception, so that the language of the highest inspiration becomes broken, obscure, and wild in metaphor, resembling that of the weaker man, overborne by weaker things. 
§ 9. And thus, in full, there are four classes: the men who feel nothing, and therefore see truly; the men who feel strongly, think weakly, and see untruly (second order of poets); the men who feel strongly, think strongly, and see truly (first order of poets); and the men who, strong as human creatures can be, are yet submitted to influences stronger than they, and see in a sort untruly, because what they see is inconceivably above them. This last is the usual condition of prophetic inspiration."
Of the Pathetic Fallacy by John Ruskin @

I find that reading material like this can have several beneficial effects, and perhaps a few ill ones. For the ill - unfortunately it can perpetuate one into that vernacular frame of mind verily similar unto the Victorian prose itself - aka after reading a bunch of this stuff, I want to write like them dudes do. But as for the beneficial effects - for one it puts you into a slower mindset, more like the pace people must have lived at in those times. In that sense it's very meditative.
Also, after spending so long ruminating deeply on a single idea and covering it from several different vantage points as the writers of the 19th century tended to do, I find myself more apt to think similarly. There's a seriousness of tone and a depth and breadth of thought that's extremely rare to encounter anywhere today in our high speed sound byte era when flippant platitudes tend to pass for thought.

And finally, it's very gratifying to find someone marking out and throughly exploring ground that is in between the extremes - on an issue that could so easily be polarizing. Ruskin is against the excesses of Romanticism, but he doesn't just take a broad stand against it in its totality; instead he's very careful to explain precisely what it is that bothers him about it, while still allowing that when poetic license is used in certain ways, even when taken to an extreme, it is allowable and in fact admirable. Because of this, he can't be said to be exactly against Romanticism, but rather very careful to elaborate on which elements of it he likes and doesn't like, and for exactly what reasons.
According to his own categories, I would consider Ruskin to be a poet of the first stripe. Possibly an inspired genius, though I haven't read enough of his work yet to make a call like that.
And he was far from alone. The 19th century produced a plethora of writers and thinkers of the same caliber. It seems to have been one of those shining moments in history when a civilization rose to glittering heights, which always seem to be followed closely by a downslide - in this case Modernism shading over into Postmodernism, leading us up to our current day. There must have been a perfect storm of factors to produce a time of such excellence. Undoubtedly the education was far superior to our own dumbed down public school system, and in addition the culture must have fostered and encouraged deep thought. 

They didn't have the array of mass media that we do today - bread and circuses to distract us constantly from meditation on serious issues. When they wanted to stay in contact with someone long distance, they wrote letters, and they didn't use txt spk. They took pride in correct grammar and sentence structure - literacy was a point of pride. Conscious thought is carried out almost entirely through language, and being adept in language allows one to be adept at thinking clearly. Illiteracy and self-imposed limitations on it essentially limits thought. 

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

What I'm Reading

I've recently mentioned several books of art instruction here on the blog, but this time I want to cover some different territory. And I've discovered it all thanks to my still ongoing perusal of David Apatoff's Illustration Art blog - specifically by following up on things said, mostly by one Kev Ferarra, in the comments section.  The discussion there is on a very different level to what I've encountered anywhere else, though certain threads at Conceptart do occasionally come close - usually ones where Mr. Ferarra has taken part. The guy is definitely a modern day Renaissance Man, or more properly a modern day Romanticist of the first stripe. And now, having run across so many of his posts, I've developed an understanding of where his extensive knowledge and theoretical framework come from.

To cut right to the chase, it's from extensive reading into aesthetics as well as writings about art by some of the great thinkers of history, many of whom are themselves artists. Aesthetics is a branch of philosophy dealing with the arts, graced by such thinkers as Kant, Hegel, Hume, Schiller, Nietszche,  Schopenhauer, and many more. I've hit up Project Gutenberg and filled a few folders with the works of many of these esteemed authors, and have started to read a couple of them with a mix of anticipation and dread - dread because of the often impenetrable terminology. In frustration at one point while reading Nietszche's Birth of Tragedy, I highlighted every term in a paragraph that I didn't understand, and there were literally only abut 4 words left unmarked! Most of it isn't that bad, but that exercise did make me decide that I needed to find some kind of Dictionary of Aesthetics and possibly an Introduction to it as well to help noobs like me find their way through these thorny thickets.

I wasn't able to find a Dictionary of Aesthetics specifically, but I did find this nifty online Dictionary of Philosophy, and since aesthetics is a subset of philosophy, that helps. Still many terms left undefined that the writers assume a reader will know, so that's why I went looking for an Introduction and I decided on this one - Philosophy of the Arts - An Introduction to Aesthetics @ Amazon. I feel much better prepared now to wade into this arena, and what I'm finding there so far is about what I would expect - a lot of stuff I don't really care much about, with occasionally a standout idea that lights up my brain like a Christmas tree. It can be really dry academic stuff for long stretches, but when it gets good it gets really really good. Developing new thought structures about art allows you to think about things you weren't able to before, or to bring new perspectives to things you thought you knew thoroughly already.

Here are a couple of online articles that got me started:
Kant, Immanuel: Aesthetics - Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Hegel's Aesthetics (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy)

I find Hegel much more readable than Kant.

But the Romanticism is more fun and more accessible than the aesthetics. It's not an art movement or period, but rather a way of approaching art that cuts through several different periods and movements and spans many countries. Very hard to really define, but essentially it's about the artist bringing his own personal character and emotion to bear on his subject rather than providing a clear objective viewpoint on something. Passion and personality are more important than accuracy.

Studies in the History of the Renaissance by Walter Pater is one of the best books I've read about it. Another is Romanticism by Hugh Honour, which puts it into perspective beautifully. And just for fun I also got Selected Writings by John Ruskin - who stood in opposition to Romanticism for its hippy-dippy subjectivism. One of the best books of the bunch.

Imagination is one of the qualities most prized by the Romantics. They want art to show imaginativeness, not just dull photorealistic accuracy. Hence they were/are strongly opposed to movements like Neoclassicism, Realism and the newer Photorealism. And you know what - this speaks to me - I've been getting pretty tired of doing nothing but studies aimed at accuracy and precision. Of course those are necessary for learning the craft of art, every artist worth their salt needs to go through their academic training period. But I definitely prefer when I can cut loose and do something with some imaginative freedom!

It's very stimulating to encounter this deep level of discussion about art and aesthetics, so rare today in any venue outside of Conceptart and the Illustration Art blog. Of course that could be because I haven't ventured into the deep water anywhere else, but it's not for lack of desire. It's more that I was unaware of this level of dialectic concerning art.Generally what you encounter is advice on how to draw and paint - very utilitarian stuff - or very shallow discussion about what kind of art people like or who their favorite artists are. One thing to note about most of the books I listed above - they were all written long ago. Most in or before the 19th century - in other words before the age of Modernism that started with the dawning of the 20th century. Close on the heels of Modernism came its evil shadow Postmodernism  which has declared the end of figurative painting, the end of beauty, of content and meaning - the end of pretty much everything that art used to be about. There was a steep decline though even before Postmodernism reared its ugly head - Modernism itself began as something amazing and beautiful - Impressionism, Post Impressionism, Expressionism, up until Abstract Expressionism. At that point everything changed and quality ceased to be a goal. Or rather nobody could tell what quality was anymore because - as the saying goes - my 4 year old could paint that!

A big part of the change was the fact that the early modernists had the benefit of a rigorous classical training, not only in art, but in the humanities across the board.They were avidly reading the books and papers and attending lectures by these writers I've listed as well as many others, and spent a lot of time discussing the topics and thinking about them. Their letters to each other were filled with this kind of discourse. But no longer. Postmodernism has ended it all, except for those who can find a way around over or through its massive edifice to discover the now largely lost knowledge, which is never discussed in most so-called art schools except in terms of derision and contempt. I feel at this point like some of the early Renaissance artists must have felt when the discoveries of ancient Rome and Greece started becoming known and provided a massive jump start to the Age of Enlightenment.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Learning to see - by direct drawing

On the Art of Drawing is a book written in the 40's or 50's by one of those amazing illustrators of the time, who were excellent draftsmen and went mostly unsung, scribbling out reams of incredible drawings for ads and articles that would be seen for a moment and then discarded. His name is Robert Fawcett. Another one I've learned about thanks to David Apatoff's blog Illustration Art, which I've been gradually reading through in its entirety. The link is also in my sidebar for anyone who wants to check it out and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in art.

His main focus in the book is on learning how to see as an artist. He advocates direct drawing as the best way to accomplish this. I found myself at first protesting because I've been heavily indoctrinated into the cult of constructive drawing. He does advocate constructive drawing for certain purposes, but not for learning how to see properly, which is the most essential part of becoming an artist.

His preferred approach to direct drawing is sight size, which is where your drawing is made the same size as the object appears to you. This eliminates a lot of drawing problems that result in weird distortions and other issues. I had encountered sight size before, but only in the context of a very laborious 'Atelier' method, involving precise measuring and spending a year or more drawing only from plaster casts before moving on to anything else, as well as spending sometimes upwards of 300 hours working on a single drawing.

But Fawcett strips all that nonsense away and advocates simply drawing by eye (what better way to learn how to see?) with no use of mechanical measuring or meticulous comparative measuring (holding up your pencil and checking things against each other). You don't want to learn how to measure, but how to see. It's a very organic and simple thing, not to be overcomplicated, and is accomplished by drawing a lot. He does stress the importance of doing both long and quick drawings, but his long drawings run between maybe 20 to 45 minutes or so, followed by a bunch of gestures or quick sketches.

He also talks about 2 different direct drawing approaches - one for sculptors, where you concentrate on the form and solidity of an object and maybe the relation between two or more objects, and one for painters, where the emphasis is on objects (which can mean people) in relation to their environment, rendered 'flatly' in terms of tone (values). But these can be combined to various extents - it's not a hard and fast division between two mutually exclusive approaches, but rather a useful separation allowing him to talk about different aspects of drawing.

He also discourages working from photographs, though eventually you'll be doing a lot of that. It doesn't help develop your ability to see, which is all that matters in the beginning. Working from actual 3 dimensional objects develops some inner sense that artists require.