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Frank Frazetta, Reference, and The Statement

By Arnie Fenner

In the cover feature for the May, 1976 issue of American Artist, “Frazetta At the Bat” written by his friend Nick Meglin, Frank is quoted as saying, “I rely on my concept of how things move rather than look. That is why I don’t use photographs for reference. Photos tend to distort reality more than I do when they freeze the action and explain nothing about that action such as where and how it started, where and how it will end. What’s more, I don’t want to become a slave to the ‘real,’ the accurate. I don’t want to record history, and I certainly don’t paint to capture realism. I paint the dramatic, the erotic, the romantic. And I can only do that by painting from my imagination, by forcing the figure into extreme actions to achieve drama and impact.”

Twenty years later, at the encouragement of his friend David Winiewicz and in reaction to frequent questions from fans and fellow llustrators, Frank wrote out an “Artist Statement” in which he again insisted that he worked “purely from my imagination, no swipes or photographs.”

For those unfamiliar with it, “swipe” is a term for the copying of art from a comic book, illustration, photo, or painting without crediting the original artist. In the comics world, it is generally thought that the difference between a “swipe” and an “homage” is if the source is directly acknowledged by the artist paying tribute, but the line between “plagiarism” and “ok” has always been razor-thin. Frank’s friend, Wallace Wood, notoriously once said, “Never draw what you can swipe. Never swipe what you can trace. Never trace what you can photocopy. Never photocopy what you can clip out and paste down.”

For years Frank’s earlier quote from American Artist and the subsequent 1996 declaration were widely shared and repeated: fans, students, and amateur artists believed Frazetta without question and tried to follow in his footsteps by “making it all up” when they painted and drew—and mostly failed in the process. Working, experienced illustrators, on the other hand, nudged each other and rolled their eyes at Frank’s claims.

The truth, of course, is more complicated than devotees usually want to know: to many, Art is something wondrous, mysterious, and mystical which springs magically to life only when channeled through a “gifted” creator rather than the result of careful study, skill, and labor. Frank would often tout how quickly he had produced paintings that his fans loved, but I think his bravado ultimately has undermined an appreciation for the intellect, planning, and effort that had gone into creating his signature works

Just as I believe that his claims of never using photos, references, or “swipes” have opened Frazetta to misguided, often unfair criticisms. He’s not a hero with feet of clay, but simply an artist who was doing his job. The truth is that every artist uses reference of one sort or another, either occasionally or all the time. Every artist has their own approach, their own preferred process when it comes to creating their work; some share their methodology freely while others protect their’s fiercely

Frazetta was no exception, especially when it came to revealing—or, rather, not revealing—his art “secrets.” Frank, of course, could draw like nobody’s business and had been practicing since childhood. Initially he copied the newspaper strips by Milton Caniff (“Terry and the Pirates”), Hal Foster (“Tarzan” and “Prince Valiant”), Burne Hogarth (“Tarzan”), Al Capp (“Li’l Abner”), and E.C. Segar (“Popeye”—“I could draw Popeye almost as well as Segar could,” Frazetta once said) as well as characters from Disney and Merrie Melodies cartoons. These influences are evident in Frank’s first sketchbooks and early commercial jobs; with age and experience he refined his skills, adapted and absorbed all of his influences, and developed his own unique style (though hints of Foster’s and Capp’s inspiration can be seen in Frank’s art throughout his life). As an apprentice for John Giunta, Ralph Mayo, and Graham Ingels he learned many of the secrets, shortcuts, tips, and techniques to being a successful commercial artist; he learned even more while working as a professional from friends Roy Krenkel, George Evans, Al Williamson, and Wally Wood along with his Al Capp Studio mates Bob Lubbers, Andy Amato, Walter Johnson, and Capp himself. As his confidence grew and his career progressed, Frank would often rely on his excellent memory to draw things he’d previously seen or photographed without having to hunt for reference; as a keen observer and skilled cartoonist he also had a knack for exaggeration and caricature, which served him very well when painting movie posters and album covers in the 1960s and ’70s.

As an illustrator, Frazetta almost always worked on assignment from ideas provided by editors, writers, and art directors (and, occasionally, friends). He was often given a simple sentence—“Conan in a dungeon with a giant snake”; “A vampire fights a werewolf ”; “Tarzan saves a girl,” etc.—and use it as a starting point to create an unforgettable painting. He brought his own imagination and superb sense of drama and action to virtually everything he did, but as covers for novels or illustrations for stories, the writers (or art directors) were instrumental in giving Frank springboards for his art and deserve some credit: he wasn’t entirely “making it all up” out of thin air, at least not in the way he would sometimes imply later in life. “Death Dealer,” “Sun Goddess,” and several others were definitely his own concepts—which were happily used by publishers—but the majority of his paintings were commissions that followed suggestions from his clients. Frank once told me, “I didn’t paint any of that barbarian stuff because I wanted to: they were paying me! It was hard work! Do you see any Conan paintings that weren’t covers? Any Tarzans? No! If they weren’t jobs, I didn’t do them.

For many years Frank kept a small mirror next to his drawing table that he’d use to study facial expressions while drawing or painting, much like animators of the day did. He owned an Artograph that he would use to project sketches or references (photographs or artworks, sometimes from books or magazines) onto paper or board for tracing and had his own darkroom to develop photos he shot of Ellie or of himself with a camera timer. Al Williamson modeled for the spoiled hunter in the comic story “Untamed Love” while he loosely based the villain in his last full-length story in Creepy #1 after Ernest Borgnine’s sadistic sergeant in From Here to Eternity; fans can recognize Robert Mitchum, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Victor Mature, and Frank himself in some of his early comics work. When painting movie posters the ad agency would provide him with stills of the actors they wanted featured. Still, Frank’s references were almost always starting points that he would adapt and change to suit his needs and he rarely followed anything exactly: everything he drew and painted, whether he used references or not, was transformed into Frazetta Art, including the occasional swipe. Some examples follow.

Two of Frank’s most profound early inflences were the jungle sets in the film King Kong (at left) and Hal Foster’s Tarzan newspaper strip (at left, directly below Kong). The moss-covered logs and dripping foliage from Kong were referenced for many artworks throughout Frazetta’s life. He acknowledged swiping panels from Foster’s Tarzan (sample at center left) multiple times early in his career, including for his first solo cover for Ace Books in 1962, Tarzan and the Lost Empire. But Frank’s versions are all different enough from Foster’s that I’d consider them more as reference rather than as swipes.

At left is a 1950s-era photo of popular model Diane Webber from an unknown magazine; at right is Frank’s 1963 drawing based on the photo for Midwood Books.

Frank used Howard Pyle’s 1905 painting “Assault on a Galleon” as reference for his covers to Into the Aether Richard A. Lupoff (1974) and Carson of Venus by Edgar Rice Burroughs (1975).

At left is an illustration from—I think—a 1959 issue of Famous Artists Magazine by Robert Fawcett; at right is Frank’s 1963 drawing inspired by Fawcett’s painting for the paperback Perfumed/Pampered from Midwood.

At left is a 1960 painting by renowned paleoartist Zdeněk Burian; at right, Frank used Burian’s Dimorphodon in the background for his 1968 Thongor cover.

Frank referenced figures from “Bearers of Ill Tidings,” an 1872 painting by French artist Jean-JulesAntoine Lecomte du Nouÿ, several times, first in Conan the Buccaneer/“The Destroyer,” then in drawings for the Women of the Ages and Kubla Khan portfolios. Reproductions of du Nouÿ’s art were extremely rare in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s so Frazetta most likely was shown the art by his friend and collector Roy Krenkel.

At left is a picture from an unidentified 1970s photography magazine; at right is Frank’s 1975 concept painting of Mina Harker for an unproduced animated Dracula film that was obviously based on the photo.

At left is a photo of Ellie Frazetta by Frank; at right is his painting based on his reference photo. At left is a picture from an unidentified 1970s photography magazine; at right is Frank’s 1975 concept painting of Mina Harker for an unproduced animated Dracula film that was obviously based on the photo. So if Frank used references of one sort or another from time to time (depending on the job) and even was known to occasional “swipe” figures from other artists’ works...why would he say he didn’t? I think there are a variety of reasons. First, Frank never really liked talking about his process, simply because he didn’t think about it too much: his approach after so many years was very intuitive, and while he certainly had a methodology, he worked through it/them unconsciously, almost as a matter of routine. “I can’t explain it. I can’t teach it. I just do it,” he once said. Though he would talk about composition, color, or intent in some of his later interviews, he did so in vague generalities and with a certain amount of impatience.

Ego, even a bit of hubris, certainly was a factor, too: Frazetta was competitive in every aspect of his life and claiming he didn’t need the tools and tricks other illustrators routinely employed set him apart from the crowd, even if it wasn’t always true. Also, he increasingly didn’t want people to know how he did what he did, partly to preserve the awe others felt toward his art and his growing popularity, but partly as an attempt to maintain his edge over an ever-growing rank of younger competitors in the marketplace (some of whom had been eagerly swiping Frank’s art for their jobs for the same publishers he was working for—which really angered him). He regretted letting several reference photos he’d shot of himself posing for The Gauntlet poster be printed, fearing he’d maybe shared too much.

Regardless of his childhood classes with Michele Falanga, Frazetta was largely a self-taught artist and, despite his success, that lack of formal training sometimes made him feel insecure, especially when talk turned to his peers and their educations; he would mask that insecurity with dismissive swagger and occasional insults. He was, afterall, only human. Though he came to accept (and repeat) others’ opinions that he was a Fine Artist, Frank wore the mantle with a certain amount of discomfort: art was always something he considered as a “job,” something he could do well but, as he said, something to “sneak in between living.” Which perhaps explains why he only produced something over 300 paintings for publication in his career while many of his contemporaries created thousands.

And, finally, I believe that Frank simply wanted to please his listeners: at heart he was always a storyteller. He wanted to impress his colleagues and entertain his fans. If he could throw the ball a little farther than anyone else or date girls who were prettier or finish his art faster—or paint Conan without art direction, doing roughs, or looking in the mirror—well, it was all part of the Frazetta story, regardless of the facts.

Does the truth that Frank was given ideas for his assignments, sometimes used references, and even swiped from other artists every blue moon somehow diminish his accomplishments? Does it matter that he said he didn’t? Do any of the drawings or paintings lose their power or significance as a result?

Nope.

Just as there’s no crying in baseball, there’s no “cheating” in art: everything is fair as long as the results are honest and sincere. That an artwork is made—and that it resonates with an audience—is infinitely more important than the tool, reference, or process. How and why Frank produced any of his art will always be an interesting subject, particularly for students, historians, and academics, but the reality is that there’s no real secret, no deep mystery in how Frazetta created; the question is how did his art trascend its original purpose (whether to sell a book or magazine) to ultimately affect and influence popular culture and generations of viewers and artists. That’s the true mystery—and the magic!—of Frank Frazetta and his work.

1 comment

  • savage: August 21, 2022

    Thanks for the very interesting and informative article

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