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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.**

From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-03 09:04 pm (UTC)
Archibald Leach in last panel with an anchovie across his upper lip:

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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-06-03 09:44 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the tips re. which actors to look for.

Except for the Werewolf story, all of this comics work was done in the early '50s, a decade before Frazetta began the phase of his career I was describing in my post. As a painter, he occasionally relied on reference, but far less than his contemporaries.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-04 08:43 pm (UTC)
Jesse, the truth of the matter is that Frank Frazetta photo referenced almost all of his figures in the book and magazine paintings, using himself and his wife as models. You might remember a thread on The Comics Journal forum a few years ago in which his burning of thousands of photos on his estate property was lamented. A few of these have seen print, too: remember him posing with the pistol for "The Gauntlet" movie poster in THE LIVING LEGEND book, published circa 1980? There's another b&w photo of Frazetta wearing a metal band around his right biceps and nothing but a loin cloth, holding a spear or some similar weapon; he wasn't going to a costume party---this was reference for one of the Conan or Tarzan covers.

It's no coincidence that almost all of his male protagonists---in comics from THUN'DA onwards to the romance stories, and in his later paintings---look like glorified self-portraits. They are.

In the spring of 1985 I was 20 years old, and went on a field trip to the Frazetta museum with my Kubert School classmates (2nd & 3rd year students). At the time the museum was located in downtown East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, right next to Bill Frazetta's costume shop. Amongst my classmates (so anyone can corroborate my story, if so desired) were future comics industry professionals Amanda Conner, Tom McWeeney, Grant Miehm, Rich Hedden, Jack Pollock, John Floyd, etc., and 3rd years students Mark Pennington, Mark McNabb, etc.

Ellie Frazetta told everyone that Frank used photo reference, but "only for the lighting." Mark McNabb happened to be standing next to a painting for a Burroughs paperback cover which I believe is called "Moon maiden" (so-called in the Ballantine FANTASTIC ART OF FRANK FRAZETTA vol. 2, anyway). Mark asked Ellie who was the model for the bare-bottomed woman riding on (the centaur character's) horseback, and she smiled a bit, almost blushing, and said, "I did." Of course, Frazetta told artistic liberties, and used photo reference only as a point of departure.

The fact is, it's pretty easy to see what he has drawn without reference and what he has: the former is usually a bit simpler, sometimes even cartoonish, whereas in the latter he explores a lot of abstraction of form and a subtler interplay of bone and muscle, flexion and extension, and the effects of gravity.

Frazetta obviously used photo reference when obtaining the likeness of the Hollywood celebs for the movie posters he did in the '60s and '70s.

Two other factors that reveal the influence of photography in his work: a camera sees in 'mono' whereas human beings see in stereo (assuming both eyes are functioning correctly). A camera often forces perspective which can be an asset to a dramatic scene. Furthermore, Frazetta was quite the shutterbug, having upwards of a thousand cameras in his possession. He loved to take photos! Secondly, indoor, spotlit photo reference is not at all the same as forms in outdoor lighting which falls in parallel lines (the sun being so immense and distant from the earth causing that, and moonlight likewise having the same parallel line effect). That being the case, most of Frazetta's paintings, on closer inspection, reveal a type of lighting that is radiant from a small, local source, and fall across the planes of the body in that fashion---despite his mostly outdoors settings in the paintings.

His work reveals an immense talent and a great genius on many levels (some of which you covered in your initial post). I guess what peeves me a bit is the latterday insistence on his (and his immediate circle's) part of not using photo reference. It just isn't true. And he really shouldn't try to hide that; it takes nothing away from the quality of his images.

By the way, did you know that Roy Krenkel did the compositional/color roughs for a number of Frazetta's early Warren covers? I've seen a few (the cover for CREEPY #7, for example, with the hero fighting against a swirling mass of wraithlike pterodactyls). I suppose he was returning the favor, since Frank sometimes touched up Krenkel's paperback cover paintings (helping with a figure here and a face there) of the early '60s.

Your friend

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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-04 08:45 pm (UTC)
Ah, can't edit comments. One phrase in the above post should read "took artistic liberties" rather than "told."
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-06-05 01:07 am (UTC)
Alec, as I said, Frazetta did occasionally rely on photo reference for his paintings. The three examples you cited demonstrate this, but you'd be hard-pressed to argue that he referenced "almost all" of his paintings. Consider:

*If photos were so integral to his process, he'd probably have said so. Sure, he liked to brag about avoiding photo ref, but I can as easily see him bragging about the thoroughness of his process, and his expertise at snapping just the right photo, and his ability to mimic and/or "plus" photos, if indeed they were a regular part of his routine.

*If he had considered photo reference a dirty secret, he wouldn't have included several of his reference photos in his art books, and identified them as such.

*Avid Frazetta disciple Ken Kelly doesn't appear to use photos. Kelly visited Frazetta's studio for years; he would have noticed if Frazetta relied on photos, and would surely have done likewise. (Instead, Kelly's website says: "Frazetta stressed how important it was ...to let the action on the canvas come from the imagination. Ken took those words to heart and has lived by them ever since.")

*Frazetta's figures have such exaggerated proportions and body language that photo ref seems unlikely -- especially in case of his monsters, which never appear incongruous next to his humans (indicating that both were painted from his head). His women are much more busty and thin-waisted than Ellie, and tend to have dark hair and Asian features -- never her short, fair hair and Irish features. Most of the men he painted are far more beefy than he was. (By contrast, artists like Vallejo, Rockwell, and Flagg mimicked their own physiques closely when they modeled for themselves.) His own facial features show up in his males, but that's true of most artists whether they use photo ref or not, since we learn to draw faces by looking in a mirror.

*He probably did use photo ref for the likenesses in his movie posters, but those constitute a small fraction of his work, and even indicate that he rarely used photos elsewhere. Notice how distinctive the (referenced) likenesses are in his movie posters, compared to the more uniform (un-referenced) faces in the rest of his oeuvre.

*I don't recall the TCJ thread you mentioned, but even if we grant that he burned thousands of photos, there's no reason to think those were reference photos, unless we already grant that he relied heavily on photo reference. He loved to snap pictures, so the pics in question may have featured any number of things. (Maybe he'd taken lots of racy pics of his wife that he didn't want his kids to find after he was gone? Maybe he just took lots of lousy photos? Serious photographers throw out the majority of their shots.) In any case, the notion that he was trying to hide his reference pics is sunk by the fact that several of them appear in his books.

*Regarding the points you raised about lighting: Frazetta learned to paint light & shadow in a studio setting, so his approach to painting light would look more "indoor" in any case. He was no plein air painter. Also, spot-lit lighting is far more dramatic than the more uniform, horizontal lighting you describe, so it's likely that his spot-lit approach was determined by his well-known preference for drama, rather than the limits of studio lighting. And he could have overcome the latter by simply stepping outside, had he wanted photo reference for an outdoor scene. He was surrounded by plenty of private land.

*Regarding the forced perspective of photographs: forced perspective is commonly used to increase the drama of a scene, and doesn't necessarily indicate photo usage. It shows up often in Jack Kirby's work, and I think we can all agree Kirby didn't rely on photos!
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From: pauldorman
2011-07-15 09:21 am (UTC)

Frazetta Used Photo Reference for Sure

Frazetta has published some of his photo references
in his books, but as he has gotten older he has gone
with the idea that using photo references is "cheating"
in the art world. So he has
denied his use of photos and models to some degree
(as in his interview in Painting With Fire).
But it's too late to retract reference photos of himself
as the model, pointing a gun, in "Frazetta: The Living Legend".

It's VERY easy to exaggerate proportions and muscles
from a photograph...just make things bigger! Also, it's
very easy to paint someone else's head on a body that
was modeled by Ellie ("Vegas" is clearly modeled by Ellie,
likely many times over). Noticed many of the women actually
look like Ellie!

And just look at the hundreds of cameras the guy had.
The reality is that Frazetta was a GREAT PHOTOGRAPHER,

That being said, he used photo reference mainly for
his human figures. His big cats were done freehand,
in most cases (see video in Painting with Fire).

Also, a testament to his brilliance, is that EVERYONE
has access to photography and Photoshop these days, and
STILL, they cannot recreate his sense of lighting and
composition. So guess what? Frazetta was MAJORLY TALENTED.

Edited at 2011-07-15 06:06 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-06-05 01:09 am (UTC)
"By the way, did you know that Roy Krenkel did the compositional/color roughs for a number of Frazetta's early Warren covers? I've seen a few (the cover for CREEPY #7, for example, with the hero fighting against a swirling mass of wraithlike pterodactyls)."

I knew they had collaborated on one or two of them, including CREEPY #7. But CREEPY #7 was Dracula fighting the Wolfman (Krenkel handled the castle in the background). CREEPY #9 was the one with pterodactyls (or probably Burroughs's "Mahars"). That composition doesn't look very Krenkel to me; are you sure the rough was by him?
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-05 02:31 pm (UTC)
Yes, that's the one, and it was Krenkel's. I'm not dropping a 'bomb shell' here, because it actually saw print some years ago. Do you own any of the hardover ARIEL or ICON books. Not sure which it appeared in, if any of those titles.

By the way, Ellie Frazetta told me that Roy Krenkel, a lifelong atheist, received Christ as his Lord and personal Saviour when she led him in the sinner's prayer on his deathbed.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-05 03:06 pm (UTC)
I did a bit of looking online, but couldn't find any scans of Roy's layouts except for the one you mentioned, Jesse: CREEPY #7's cover, although #6 credits Roy with the layout as well, as per THE WARREN COMPANION which obtained its info from the actual mags. "Sea Witch" is (mis)attributed to Roy'S layout, but that's probably in confustion with #7 (EERIE, not CREEPY). Thematically, that one was inspired by an old Arnold Bocklin painting.

I hesitate to make a case with the following, but some years ago when Mike Hoffman went on his bizarre anti-Frazetta rant he dug up a number of obscure men's mag photos which did indeed match up with some of Frank's paintings. Here's just one of many:


Hoffman has since deleted his old blog (a good move), but I would have liked for you to see some more of these photo references we've been discussing.

I do very much appreciate Frazetta's talent, and miss him and Ellie greatly.
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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-05 03:07 pm (UTC)
Sorry, there's no auto signature on this. The above post was by me (Alec).
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[User Picture]From: sirspamdalot
2010-06-05 11:56 pm (UTC)
So glad to learn of Krenkel's conversion!

I own the hardcover ICON, and it has Krenkel's sketch of Creepy #7, but no mention of him working on the Creepy #9 cover (also included).

I did some reading at the Frazetta forum, and Arnie Fenner, who edited ICON, said there that Krenkel only provided sketches for two Creepy covers (#6 and #7). He's also called #9's cover his favorite Frazetta painting, so I'm guessing he'd know whether Krenkel had something to do with that one.

He also added this remark, which may solve the mystery of the Krenkel sketch you saw:

"HOWEVER, Roy most certainly DID draw copies (in pencil, ink, or ball-point) FOR HIMSELF of pieces that Frank had done because he especially liked a certain illo or because, in copying it, he would learn how Frazetta had done what he'd done. Roy was a constant sketcher and was always drawing things he saw and liked, be they in a museum, a book, or a friend's studio. That is NOT a discredit to Roy, but merely points out that he was inquisitive and constantly trying to improve as an artist (even though he was quite accomplished)."

So I'd guess Krenkel sketched #9 after Frazetta painted it. It's just so different from most of Krenkel's own work: the prominence of the figures, their dynamism, the lack of background elements, and the sweeping arcs of the composition suggest Frazetta rather than Krenkel.

I read Mike Hoffman's rants when they were online, and they were eye-opening. As I recall, he posted one or two photos Frazetta had referenced, plus 3 or 4 swipes from other artists' work. All proof that Frazetta's work wasn't 100% from his head, but still quite a long way from saying he photo-referenced most or all of his paintings.

Interesting about the Sea Witch. Which Bocklin painting do you mean?

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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-07 05:15 pm (UTC)
The Swiss symbolist painter of the late 19th century did a few on a similar theme, such as this one:


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From: (Anonymous)
2010-06-09 04:28 pm (UTC)
Or this one:


The serpentine tail partially submerged in the water probably influenced the one in Frazetta's painting, too.


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