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« Fact for the Day | Main | The Rhythm »

March 08, 2009

Frank Frazetta, Colorist

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The era of mass-circulation magazines filled with illustration art was essentially over by the late 1960s. These days at Barnes & Noble, I see books of compilations of current illustration that contain mostly cartoonish, odd, ironic Postmodern-style graphics bearing little relationship to the work of the giants of illustration active 1890-1960.

But people are funny -- perverse, actually. There is still a sizable market for well-executed, (largely) naturalistic commercial illustration. That market is represented by, among others, book covers, comic books, graphic novels (long-format, single-story perfect-bound comic books) and computer games. And speaking of computers, much of this art is done using computerized tools rather than traditional media.

Those traditional media ruled during the period from 1960-65 until around the end of the century. Perhaps the leading illustrator during this era was Frank Frazetta, who I mentioned in passing here. Biographical information on Frazetta can be found here and here.

Frazetta had little formal art training. What he got was during his schoolboy years; everything else he picked up from mentors or on his own. The first part of his career was in the field of comics, both book and newspaper (for a number of years he ghosted Al Capp's popular Li'l Abner strip). Such work was in the form of inking over penciled drawings with (for Sunday papers and comic books) flat-color fill-ins.

After a falling-out with Capp, Frazetta scrambled for a few years until he began to make a mark painting covers for fantasy, science-fiction and superhero paperback books, comic books and, later, movie posters. He quickly became successful to the point that he is revered by a large body of fans.

I suspect that most of those fans and others viewing his work focus on Frazetta's subjects. These include monsters, muscle-bound heroes and villains, and barely-clothed babes with bodies that don't quit. Those babes, by the way, have pretty much the same kind of caricatured face -- extra-rounded forehead and tiny nose -- that seems (to me) to be based on Frazetta's wife. I consider this constricted depiction of females to be Frazetta's main failing; more variety would have been better.

But the subject of this post is not so much the content of his paintings, but his painterly skill and use of color -- subtleties one wouldn't expect given Frazetta's lack of formal training and a presumed lack of sophistication of his audience of paperback book buyers.

I think that a good deal of Frazetta's appeal is subliminal. Yes, people probably mostly focus on the subjects and how they are drawn. But I contend that it's the color and brushwork embodied in the finished product that makes the fantastic subjects seem unexpectedly real -- even though it probably isn't noticed by most viewers.

Let's take a look at some of Frazetta's art that I grabbed off the web.


This violent character is typical Frazetta. But don't focus on the helmet, ax and so forth. Instead, look at the rocks and how they're painted; warm colors, cool colors, colors blending with the golden background and the sketchy way that they are indicated. Note the red cape that helps bring attention to the subject figure; other reds are muted.

Aside from the warrior on horseback and the mountains in the background, the remainder of the details in the painting are sketched or hardly indicated at all. The cool, blueish colors of the mountains contrast the warm foreground colors that, by the way, are echoed by warm smoke or clouds behind the snow-capped mountain.

Now a mountain becomes more of the subject matter. Again, it is represented in cool tones. Note the violet transition area that edges into a warmer purple on the left flank, a transition furthered by the cool red and violet shadows on the foreground snow. The sunlit snow and fighting figures are painted in warm hues.

Again, a red cape aids the visual attraction to the subject area. What I find interesting is the transition of warm golds and yellows on the upper parts of the subjects to cooler purples on the lower parts of their bodies as well as the rocks they are perched on. In theory, this might be the instant of sunset as it transitions the temperature of the light falling on the subjects. Warmer colors are found on the background rocks as well as the moons.

The main color (not counting the background) is a sort of ferric rust. But look more closely and you will find tinted violet and tinted, toned-down green on the landscape. Some of this also appears on the sabre-toothed cat and shaded parts of the female who otherwise is given a hue similar to Naples Yellow. Unlike the paintings above, the color range here is quite limited, providing more unity at the expense of visual drama (which is instead created by the silhouetted shapes against the almost-plain background sky) .

Here we find another strongly-keyed painting, this time in blued variations. There are warm colors present, but they are scattered (the woman's back, some of the foliage on the top-left, spots on the moon, part of the tree branch at the bottom. Even these warms could not be very warm because otherwise the mood of the picture would have been destroyed.

Yet another snow-capped mountain, but it's a minor detail. Here we find a major contrast between the blue background and orange foreground. However, there are bits of orange in the background to help hold the picture together. The top and bottom parts of image are further linked by a grayed-down olive drab seen in mists and foreground shadows. A pale blue-green can be found on the Tyrannosaur as well as the body of the man. Foreground shading and hints of vegetation are in a warm, rust-like color. The light yellow on the foreground figures is picked up on the far side of a blue background ridge. Also note the warm and cool areas on the background terrain. Finally, observe that the immediate foreground is largely a flat color field devoid of detail.

I would imagine that there are some folks in the art-appreciation world who dismiss Frazetta as a purveyor of schlock. I say: My God, that guy can paint!!



posted by Donald at March 8, 2009


Furthermore, for someone with "little formal art training", his perspectives and layouts are very good. Everything is physically possible.

BTW, I recognized #3. It's the cover of Conan of Cimmeria (which I have). #5 I've seen: I think it's a Burroughs cover. #4 and #7 are familiar, but I can't say where from. #1, #2, and #6 I don't remember at all.

Posted by: Rich Rostrom on March 8, 2009 10:58 PM

Yes he can.

For a glimpse of where he got his sense of color, drama and painterly handling, look to the work of N.C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle.

Posted by: Charley Parker on March 8, 2009 11:01 PM

Great stuff, great posting. What a talent Frazetta is. Fair to assess him as a great popular artist, do you think?

I watched a documentary about Frazetta a few years ago ... Seem to remember it was pretty good. But where did I see it? Hmm, if I can remember I'll try to dig up a link.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 9, 2009 12:05 AM

the documentary has been shown on IFC

Posted by: cjm on March 9, 2009 12:18 AM

Cool post. If ya'll can scare up that doc title, that'd be cool, too.

Posted by: yahmdallah on March 9, 2009 5:30 AM

Got it!


Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 9, 2009 8:57 AM

Terrific post. Frazetta was an important and underappreciated figure in what one might call the rise of fantasy from 1950/60 - present. He had a huge influence in comics. I never fully noticed it before, but I think the use of color you describe is key to the escapist/fantasy allure of his compositions. Everyone always emphasizes the sort of brutishly detailed muscular quality in his foreground figures, but I think that dreamy, color-washed quality in his backgrounds is the key. It has almost a wistful quality, setting the main figures off like visitations from a dream.

Posted by: MQ on March 9, 2009 10:07 AM

If you are a Frazetta fan, I highly recommend your getting this DVD retrospective of the man and his work...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on March 9, 2009 10:27 AM

Love Frazetta. The colors Donald so elegantly talks about, the thin, sketchy technique, the adolescent subject matter--all add up to something powerful and almost pre-mental. His best stuff seems ripped out of his daydreams.

This one is probably my favorite:

I seem to remember it being a fave of Frazetta's as well. I'm not sure it's possible to establish a mood more forcefully.

Posted by: Ron on March 9, 2009 10:49 AM

Charley -- Welcome to 2 Blowhards. I posted a week or so ago that your art blog is on my bookmark drop-menu. Give my regards to Philadelphia, by the way. I was at Dear Old Penn back in the late 60s, but missed out on the city's fine art tradition for the most part because I had demographic fish to fry. I'd visit more often, but my wife hates the town because ... what was that term I used to hear? Yeah: "Filthydelphia." I guess I didn't show her the better neighborhoods (sigh).

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 9, 2009 10:57 AM

I'd rather have those years studying under and working with Al Capp than a four year degree from just about any art institute. Not to mention the years spent working next to and with Al Williamson and the rest of the 'Fleagle Gang' from EC Comics. I think Frazetta's work gets a bad rap because of Boris Vallejo and the other countless imitators who ape the subject matter and some the effects.

Posted by: Joe Williams on March 9, 2009 11:10 AM

"... dreamy, color-washed quality in his backgrounds is the key. It has almost a wistful quality, setting the main figures off like visitations from a dream."

As an adolescent purchaser of books with Frazetta covers, circa mid-1970s, I can confirm this.

It is the combination of the very tangible seeming figures, especially his curvaceous females, in this fantastic settings that worked in combination. A very powerful brew.

I wonder what people will think in 100 years about the abstract expressionists v. Frazetta?

Crowd-pleasing art sometimes outlasts the stuff that is faddish.

As long as there are thirteen year old males (of all actual ages) there will be an audience for Frazetta, especially his Conan covers.

Posted by: Lexington Green on March 9, 2009 6:57 PM

John Kricfalusi on Frazetta.

Posted by: Scrutineer on March 10, 2009 8:44 AM

As long as there are thirteen year old males (of all actual ages) there will be an audience for Frazetta, especially his Conan covers.

As an adolescent girl, I naturally did not have as profound an appreciation of Frazetta's babes as a guy would (though I do love those dames), but I did find his stuff wonderfully compelling. Nice color discussion, Donald.

Posted by: Moira Breen on March 10, 2009 9:25 AM

I think Frazetta's work gets a bad rap because of Boris Vallejo and the other countless imitators who ape the subject matter and some the effects.

Posted by: oil painting on March 11, 2009 11:21 AM

He makes me want to bank someone on the head with an axe. Or I just feel like that already, but he helps me think about it more and better.

Posted by: TCO on March 17, 2009 11:42 PM

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