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Jesse Hamm

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FRANK FRAZETTA [May. 11th, 2010|09:54 am]
Jesse Hamm
Yesterday, at the ripe old age of 82, my favorite artist fell off his twig. He'd suffered
stroke damage in recent years, and his kids had been squabbling over their impending
inheritance, but judging by a recent interview, he was feisty and lucid and enjoying
life right up until the end, and for that I'm grateful.

In honor of his passing, here's my analysis of seven notable aspects of Frazetta's work.

1.) Simple Tonal Values

Few painters can resist the temptation to over-model forms, blending the edge of
every shadow gradually from dark to light in an effort to make objects appear round
and three-dimensional. But in reality, each object we see generally consists of one
or two flat colors, without much gradual change from dark to light. The trick is in
picking those one or two colors! Vermeer was the master of this; Frazetta was also
incredibly good.

If you were to convert a Frazetta painting into greyscale, and then trace that
painting using only 4 values (white, light grey, dark grey, and black), you would
see little difference between the greyscale original and your traced version. This
is because Frazetta let his basic values accomplish most of the work: he chose the
proper value for each surface, and therefore needed very little dark-to-light
blending to indicate roundness. The results are strikingly simple and boldly three-

See how flat and simple that skin color is? Two shades of brown and one shade of white.
You could cut those colors out of construction paper with dull scissors, and if you
assembled the shapes as they appear above, it would still look great.

Had a lesser artist painted this figure, it would be crammed with varied tones
and highlights, looking oily and sun-burnt.

2.) Memory Painting

Frazetta is known for having painted most of his pictures straight from his head,
instead of the standard practice (among realists) of relying on models. This approach
may seem to be a foolish handicap, or even proof of laziness. But I believe it enabled
Frazetta to compose pictures of greater power than most of his contemporaries. To quote
the excellent Carlson's Guide to Landscape Painting:

"The memory exaggerates the essentials; the trifles of incidents tend to become
blurred. Protracted painting of what one sees before him dulls the initial expressive
shock. In painting from memory, the whole stress is laid on expressive agents. In
direct-from-nature painting, much useless lumber insinuates itself, interesting for
its own sake, but derogatory to the whole. The eye is greedy. There is always too
much material seen, with not enough synthesis. Until mastery of memory is reached,
the brain refuses to act as a filter."

Due to his reliance on memory, Frazetta's paintings never look inexpressive, nor
cluttered with "useless lumber." They look like windows into his dreams.

3.) Appealing Proportions

Speaking of dreams, we arrive at the legendary "Frazetta Girl." I don't know what that
is beneath a woman's skin which men find so appealing -- muscle, bones, fat, or some
mysterious Other Element -- but whatever it is, Frazetta made sure it filled his women
near-to-bursting. However, unlike most artists who draw zaftig women, Frazetta managed
to make his look fit and petite. He did this through careful adjustment
of their proportions. Their thighs, hips, and breasts are large and full, but
their hands & feet, wrists & ankles, faces, necks, and midriffs are slim and small.
And unlike actual hefty people, their ribs are often visible:

This clever combination of traits resulted in characters who are at once natural-looking
and impossibly beautiful.

(Permit me to add these comments I ran across by a female blogger:
"It was the work of Frank Frazetta that made me realize that gaining healthy
weight after anorexia was a beautiful and strong thing. ... His art made me
understand that I didn't need to force myself to be unhealthy to be slender. ...
I could be skinny or fat or everything in between and it would all be beautiful.
Thank you, Frank Frazetta. ... When I feel disgusted with my body, I stare at
[Frazetta's Cat Girl II] and repeat,'Beautiful, shapely, soft and
strong' until I get it."

He also combined the facial characteristics of various ethnicities with the pale eyes
and skin common to his likely audience, producing faces that look both exotic and

His men, too, are bursting with muscles without looking muscle-bound, due to another
clever trick. They have the lean silhouette of a gymnast or boxer, implying agility,
but packed improbably into that frame are the swollen, well-defined muscles more
common to body-builders.

4.) Curved & Diagonal Vectors

Vectors are invisible lines that chart the paths our eyes will likely take through
a picture. Even if we choose not to follow those paths, we recognize them by the
prominent trails of lines or shapes which constitute them. Vectors help determine
a picture's mood: horizontal vectors indicate restful passivity, verticals indicate
rigid formality, curves and diagonals indicate dynamism.

Since most objects we observe in life are vertical or horizontal, artists tend to
default to compositions that rely on vertical and horizontal vectors, often without
realizing the harm this does to their pictures' dynamism. Frazetta commonly resisted
this tendency, building bold curves and diagonals into his images. Compare the vectors
in this Frazetta:

with the vectors in these action paintings by other great artists:

(N. C. Wyeth)

(Howard Pyle)

(Frank Schoonover)

I sketched the above vector maps quickly, so they aren't 100% accurate,
but they give the gist: other artists tend to favor verticals and
horizontals; Frazetta's vectors tend to sweep around.

Here are some examples of this approach in Frazetta's portrayal of swords. When
he needed this sword to follow a curved vector, he tilted it and curved the tip:

But in this next piece, he straightens that same sword, because he needs
it to foster a vector that points toward the woman:

Notice that her out-swept hair helps complete the vector.

And, at the far right, see how the Martian's sword-tip is dimmed way down,
to prevent it from interrupting a different vector loop created by the curved edge
of his cape.

To quote the man himself:

"The overall design and composition is what I'm after. Then I fit the drawing
into those shapes, unlike some artists who may sit there and just draw the figure,
then try to build around the figure. I design the overall background, foreground
shapes, interesting shapes, patterns, and I do it very quickly. And when I like
the shapes, I just squeeze the character in. Because if you don't do it
that way, you may end up with some very nice drawing, but it's static and dull
and there's nothing going on.


"I want it to move around in a certain way. Sort of like music, you know?
... I know what a certain shape does, how it lends itself to the design and
composition. ... let's say the character has to be carrying a certain kind of
armament, and if I know that it's a distraction, I will somehow force that
shape away from your eyes so it doesn't distract, even if it means throwing
a shadow over it. I will force the thing to work somehow.

~from The Comics Journal's Frazetta interview

"...I will somehow force that shape away from your eyes so it
doesn't distract, even if it means throwing a shadow over it."

5.) Hierarchy of Contrast

This, to me, is the most striking difference between Frazetta's work and that of
other artists. Line up any handful of paintings, including a good Frazetta, and
place them upside-down and at a distance, and the Frazetta will leap out at you,
because of the way he manipulated contrast.

Frazetta would place the starkest light-against-dark contrast at the painting's
intended focal point (or, he'd closely surround that point with a handful of
such contrasts). Then he'd lessen the contrast gradually throughout the rest of
the painting, right out to the edges, where there was almost none at all. For
balance and variety, he'd place a few spots of secondary contrast here and there,
in orbit around the high-contrast focal point. And generally, he seemed to rely
on a principle referred to by painter Greg Albert as "mostly, some, and
a bit" -- which is to say that the painting is made up of "mostly" one value
(dark, medium, or light), "some" of a second value, and then a tiny "bit" of
the third value, for maximum variety.

The effect of this approach, when used successfully, is to usher your attention
forcefully to the picture's focal point, without creating an artificial "spotlight"
effect at that point, and without implying that nothing else in the picture is
worth looking at. Most painters attempt something like this, but it's an
incredibly difficult balancing act, and aside from Rembrandt, Frazetta was
better at it than any artist I know of.

Take another look at the "vector" pictures, above. In Frazetta's "Conan the
Destroyer," the hierarchy of contrast ramrods your attention into Conan's
chest and face, without encouraging you to ignore the rest of the image.
In the other images, the contrast is strong, but since it's spread out
over broad areas, such as an entire shirt or figure, it can't compete
with the potency of Frazetta's more precise handling.

6.) Hierarchy of Precision

Similar to the contrast hierarchy, Frazetta would create a hierarchy of
precision, beginning with vaguest suggestions of detail at the edges of
a picture, and progressing gradually to the most precise rendering at the
picture's focal point. In his best work, this progression is smooth enough
to go unnoticed, but it still funnels our attention to the focal point,
letting the rest of the image bolster that point rather than distract us
from it. He was perhaps the greatest practitioner of what I call the
"subordinate & celebrate" approach: subordinate (downplay) the
majority of the details, and celebrate (paint the daylights out of)
the most important bits.

(In their attempts to create believable worlds, most other fantasy
artists lavish precise rendering on everything in sight, causing every
object in the picture to compete with every other object for our attention.)

7.) Kinesthetic Approach to Posing

Though Frazetta portrayed people doing many unusual things, their poses
usually look natural: they look like they're doing what someone would
actually do in a similar situation. Other artists often invent a pose
solely to fit the composition, or rely strictly on poses provided by
models, even when such poses don't quite match the portrayed circumstance.
But Frazetta apparently posed his figures according to how he imagined
himself behaving in each scenario (i.e, the kinesthetic approach), and
the result is a more credible naturalism.

This kinesthetic approach, coupled with his reliance on memory, is also
probably why so many of Frazetta's figures are off-balance. When in
motion, we're constantly shifting our weight from one point of contact
with the ground to another; we're in a near-constant state of imbalance.
Most artists ignore this, posing even their moving characters in balanced
stances -- often because their models have to balance themselves for the
photo-shoot. But Frazetta's moving characters lean wildly: if they were
suddenly hit with a freeze-ray, they would fall over. In other words,
they move like us.

Compare this painting, by Margaret Brundage, with Frazetta's painting of
a similar struggle. Brundage's version doesn't make much kinesthetic sense:
her Conan is gripping the snake at an awkward angle, and instead of recoiling
in fear, her female figure appears to be doing pilates. Both characters are
balanced and stable, as though modeling for the picture:

Frazetta's figure, however, is dynamically unbalanced and tipping forward
in his frenzy. Unlike the man pictured above, this guy is gripping the creature
in the likeliest way imaginable -- not that it will do him much good!

And that's seven.

Rest in peace, Frank!

**From last year: my obit for Frazetta's wife, Ellie, with a sample of her art.**

**More on Frazetta.**

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[User Picture]From: ndgmtlcd
2010-05-11 06:48 pm (UTC)
You've just proved by A + B that the man was a genius. This is a very cartesian approach, and yours in particular is a most complete one. You should send it as a letter or a submission to a French BD magazine, one with editorialists who can read English. They would swoon. They love cartesian approaches.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-05-12 03:41 am (UTC)
Thanks, ndg.

Cartesian how? I've never associated Descartes with aesthetics.
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[User Picture]From: andrewfarago
2010-05-12 11:04 pm (UTC)
Thanks for writing this, Jesse! I'm going to pull my Frazetta: Legacy hardcover off the shelf and give it a re-read while your essay's still fresh in my mind.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-05-13 06:14 am (UTC)
Have fun. And Happy Birthday, by the way!
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[User Picture]From: sff_corgi
2010-05-13 06:35 am (UTC)
Reposting with thanks for an excellent tutorial.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-05-15 11:26 am (UTC)
You're quite welcome, and thanks for the repost.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-05-16 02:25 am (UTC)
Sad to see Frazetta go. He was a very good illustrator no doubt about that. But I cant really agree with everything you wrote, as far as representational art goes he cannot be compared to masters of the past. You cant mention rembrandt and frazetta in the same post, man. I consider Frazetta a very good artist inside the illustration field, but as far as history of art goes, he is not that important figure - his intellectual and aesthetic approach to art is limited to providing entertainment for teenagers, Frazetta cannot teach me what it is like to be a complex human being, he is simply "just" a very very good draftsman in the hands of entertainment industry. Im not saying that entertainment isnt worth anything, but theres a point when you start to seek for works that would enrich you with greater subtlety and more complex intellectual, aesthetic, artistic approaches, something that would help you understand sociological, psychological and technological aspects of modern world and the most subtle characteristics of human beings. Frazetta sadly cannot do that, neither was that his intention. Frazetta and Rembrandt do not have much in common, expect a few technical tricks. I think illustration field is generally enhabited by too many bad practioners of representational art, so those few good artists like Frazetta are being praised like demigods.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-05-16 03:53 am (UTC)
Thanks for the feedback.

I agree the content of Frazetta's work, with its swords
and bare bottoms, doesn't offer profound messages about
life, but neither did the content of Rembrandt's paintings.
After all, Rembrandt mainly painted portraits of wealthy
Dutch folk, and Bible illustrations -- none of which are
exceptional for their subject matter (since it was common
to painters of his day), but for their execution. What we
value in both artists is how they arranged and depicted
light and shapes, along with their characters' very human
expressions and body language.

Frazetta benefits by comparison with other illustrators,
but so does Rembrandt benefit by comparison with other
gallery artists. Rembrandt's works have the added advantage
of greater solemnity (which is always good for extra points),
and Frazetta's have the disadvantage of portraying valor
and the supernatural (two notions disdained by academia),
and of being realistic in a post-realist art climate. But
regardless of the superficial reasons for or against their
popularity, their appeal remains based on the same thing:
how they made stuff look.

I think this is what all visual art boils down to. We can
"plus" art with symbolism about man's inhumanity to man,
or the nobility of the human spirit, or other deep ideas,
but the bottom line is really just "What Stuff Looks Like" --
i.e., do the shapes, colors, body language, and other
visual elements speak loudly to my eyes? Van Gogh's irises
are valuable not for philosophical reasons, but for Looking
How They Look. Rembrandt's dutchmen are valuable not for
sociological reasons, but for Looking How They Look. Frazetta's
monsters and maidens are neither valuable nor trivial for
being what they are, nor for any intellectual theories he
could offer us about their natures. They're valuable for
Looking How They Look.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-05-18 10:56 am (UTC)
Thanks, and thanks for stopping by.
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From: blbcomics
2010-05-26 05:47 pm (UTC)

Frazetta Examined

Hello Jesse, friend Tony Gleeson sent me the URL to your fascinating look-see at WHY Frank Frazetta was so compelling in his art for us to be pulled into his pics & paintings like most humans are. Thanks for posting this, Best, Robert Beerbohm
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-06-03 09:45 pm (UTC)

Re: Frazetta Examined

Thanks for the note, Robert; glad you enjoyed the post.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-01 09:49 pm (UTC)
Frazetta used himself as (photo-)reference for a lot of his work. For example, this photo of Frank, taken by Al Williamson at Jones Beach, was only one of many utilized for his only solo story for E.C., "Squeeze Play."

The photo:

Now look at the standing figure in panel one; it is a reversal of the photograph.


If you own the oversized UNTAMED LOVE reprint, you can see drawings based on photo reference of Marilyn Monroe and Burt Lancaster in the title story in at least one panel each (MM is made into a brunette) and BL is uplit in one panel), as well as Frank himself, and Al Williamson as the villain. Al appears as a doctor in a panel of another story, and even Roy Krenkel shows up in an early panel of "Werewolf" (FF once again is the principle character).
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-01 09:51 pm (UTC)
Almost forgot a few Betty Page pix in a comics story where Cary Grant (with a ship captain's hat and a mustache added) is the villain.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-10 11:56 am (UTC)
WEIRD SCIENCE-FANTASY #29 was sold by Frazetta family to Heritage Comics co-founder for $380,000, making it the most expensive piece of American comic book art to date:


It is amazing to see this piece in person, and it's a shame it's now in a private collection (unless James Halperin has a gallery/museum).


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From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-03 04:12 pm (UTC)
Buster Crabbe photo (as Flash Gordon)

Frazetta drawing based on same photo
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-10 04:07 pm (UTC)

On photo reference

I have been reading a lot of material on Frank of late. There's a good transcription of a phone interview with Frank where he discusses photography. The interviewer is Gary Groth.

Here are a few excerpts on his photography.

So you have a tremendous collection of photographs you’ve taken.

Whenever I’m feeling blue, I just get a hold of a camera and click it away. Another guy might take a drink. Some guys will take drugs. Other guys will start chewing on gum or squeezing a rubber ball, whatever it is. I’ll just grab a camera, look through the viewfinder, and click away until I’m exhausted. And it works.

What do you like to take pictures of? Landscapes or people or —

I’ve done everything. I’ve done portraiture, action, and of course the kiddies were into everything. I’ve got thousands…As a matter of fact, I took so many pictures, at one point they just sort of crowded me out of my house! [Groth laughs.] I’m not kidding! Now what I’m doing is gathering them all together and giving them to the kids, because I just can’t handle them. There are literally thousands and thousands…It might be in the hundred thousands.


In one of my books (Testament) he mentioned something about reference and states that he did take a lot of photos but only as a starting point. It suggests taking the picture and seeing them in the viewfinder was usually enough to reinforce his mental image of a pose providing a trigger so his imagination could run away with it and because it came from memory rather than the physical image he could produce the kinds of things we have come to expect from his work.

Did a quick look in the book and theres a short quote "Once I see something, once I snap a picture, that image is locked in my head forever, ready for me to pull out and use whenever I want. But whatever I pull out is MY version of what I saw, it's gone through my filter. It could never exist as an actual event or photo"
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-10 04:09 pm (UTC)

Re: On photo reference

It also mentions having Ellie in the kitchen dressed up in tights and a helmet for the Battle Star Galactica movie painting 'Scramble'.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-13 08:27 pm (UTC)
Hi, Jesse,

The last thing I wrote was the link to the Buster Crabbe photo and Frank's drawing. Not sure who wrote the following anonymous comments. I will try to sign my works (or perhaps I should sign up for LiveJournal).

Your friend
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-07-14 07:11 am (UTC)
Ah, OK -- thanks for clarifying, Alec. And thanks for the Crabbe photo. I don't think I'd seen a photo/pencil comparison of Frazetta's work before.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-07-23 11:45 am (UTC)
The family just sold off the Kull painting ("The Destroyer") for $1.5 million.


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From: williamstout
2011-05-11 05:44 pm (UTC)

Frazetta Analysis

Thank you for writing your finely perceptive analysis and examination of Frank Frazetta and his art --- and you did this without any of the embarrassing hyperbole and gushing that plagues nearly every other "critical" piece written on Frank!

Frank shared this secret with me regarding the shooting of photo reference: don't focus. Frank preferred slightly blurry photo reference. Frank was interested in the photo's shapes and light. An out-of-focus reference photo meant that he could not be seduced by the tyranny of a focused photo's details.
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From: (Anonymous)
2013-09-13 04:17 pm (UTC)
Hi, great article on a master. Should pick up a museum quality lithograph from the Frazetta museum as I that is as close as I ever will get to the master ! Sadly, out of my price range . The books on him and this article will have to do. All the best. Dan.
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2013-09-15 02:17 pm (UTC)
Thanks, Dan. Back in the day, you could order posters from the Frazettas for pretty cheap, but I haven't seen any posters on the market for years. Too bad -- his art is perfect for posters!

Bookwise, I'll take this opportunity to recommend Vanguard's THE FRAZETTA SKETCHBOOK, which came out earlier this year. Its beautifully designed and printed, and chock full of great, rare Frazetta art. Nice accompanying text, too; well worth owning.

I'm also looking forward to his son's upcoming reminiscence/bio, FRANK FRAZETTA, ART AND REMEMBRANCES, which purportedly features a lot of rare art and behind the scenes anecdotes.

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From: (Anonymous)
2014-01-15 02:16 am (UTC)
until today I discover this beautiful message for the artist training.
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