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.


  1. Taking the measure of a man through other people's eyes is complicated. Our culture loves feet of clay, so when someone is "cut down to size" one must measure carefully in deciding how much weight to give to a given comment.

    There is testimony from people who knew him that FF didn't use reference. But we also know from seeing his manner in interviews that he had a tendency to focus on how impressed other people were with him. Might that indicate tendencies that would lead him to exaggerate his abilities? Perhaps.

    Does it matter? I don't think so. I think what really matters is we can see in the work that however much he may have used reference, he was never a slave to it. In seeking to emulate his artistic freedom and quality we should measure how much we use reference by the impact it has on our work, positive and negative.

    People have a tendency to focus on concrete specifics and recipes rather than hunting for fundamental principles, with the result that geniuses who had things figured out are sometimes misunderstood both by their fans and their detractors.

    FF was unique. We should not be surprised if we can't recreate what he did, but we should also know that to realize the best within ourselves requires, not that we emulate the specifics of what someone else was, but that we learn to understand what it was about his work that makes us recognize it as great, and find OUR OWN path to it.

  2. Hey UK -
    The more I delve into it, the more it turns out he did quite frequently use reference, and in fact I believe all his best work was done from ref.

    There's a world of difference between "There's nothing wrong with using reference as long as you understand how to modify it" and "You don't need to learn to use reference".

    You seem to be equivocating between those 2 viewpoints.

    I just got in The Sensuous Frazetta, and lo and behold - there are several photographs included that were obviously used, and with very little modification, as the basis for some of his drawings. Up until very recently I don't recall ever seeing any of his photoreference in any book, or reading anything to the effect that he even used any - only his own self-serving assertions that he never did. Youngsters or naive art students (and that's a lot of them) will buy wholeheartedly into this propaganda and not know how to parse it, and will proceed believing that you don't need to use any reference or even bother learning how. And that would have a devastating effect on their training. The smart ones will figure out that you do need to work from reference or from life when learning how to draw the human figure, but they still might believe it's ok to invent from whole cloth as soon as they're out of training.

    My whole point is just that people should know the difference between Frazetta's overblown claims and the reality of his situation. He DID use reference - quite frequently, and as David Apatoff pointed out, when he didn't use it you could easily tell - there were always weird distortions and inaccuracies that mark those pictures out from his others, which are on a whole different level. If you were to separate out the ones where he used no reference, I don't think most young artists would say these are pictures they want to emulate.

  3. Had to truncate that - too many words. Here's the rest:

    "There is testimony from people who knew him that FF didn't use reference." - Of course! It's not surprising that his friends would help cover for him.
    Though it does kind of suck that he would put them in that position, where they had to decide. Do I help him mythologize about himself, or do I point out facts that will deflate the legend?

    But anyway, I've already said it all in the blog post, just going a bit deeper here. Really you seem to be saying exactly what I am, just in weaker terms and with a lot of flip flopping. You do seem to say it's good to learn to work from reference, and better if you learn how to modify it. Ok, we're in agreement there. This last paragraph is pretty weird though - a lot of bloviation going on here:

    "FF was unique. We should not be surprised if we can't recreate what he did, but we should also know that to realize the best within ourselves requires, not that we emulate the specifics of what someone else was, but that we learn to understand what it was about his work that makes us recognize it as great, and find OUR OWN path to it"

    Well, of COURSE it would be hard to recreate what he did, if we don't actually understand how he did it!! The poor deluded students who literally believe he never used reference are completely out to sea without rudder sail or compass! How do they "realize the best within themselves" if they have been told that learning to work from reference is useless, and in fact that it's what makes the work of his rivals inferior? It's almost as if he was trying to undermine their chances of ever unseating him by sabotaging them from the outset.

    Something as fundamental as using reference is not "emulating the specifics of what someone else was" - it's more equivalent to telling young writing students that they don't need to bother learning the rules of writing because you yourself learned them and occasionally decide to ignore some of them. In other words, he himself did it, but is encouraging his emulators not to even learn it. That's intellectual dishonesty on a high and destructive level. And it destroys those who are setting out to learn the essentials of art (not just how specifically to emulate Frazetta).

    We may disagree on several points, but thanks for taking part - it's a vitally important discussion and I hope to see it cropping up all over as time goes by.