Thursday, January 28, 2010

On my walls, part II- FRAZETTA

Yes, I put his name in caps.

What can I say? I have been a Frazetta geek since I first discovered comics and illustration in the early 70's. I was fortunate at around 13 or 14 years old to meet an equally distracted soul who was also consumed by drawing and collecting. My friends name was Jon Victor and through weekly meetings, mostly held by riding my bike (no speeds, no frills- God I loved that thing) to his house several miles away in another neighborhood, we fed each other's mutual passion for telling stories with pictures.

Once in his bedroom, a comic geeks paradise, we might proceed to weigh the merit of Berni Wrightson's latest Swamp Thing comic, or bask in the warmth of a vintage Wally Wood story in a prized issue of Weird Science Fantasy or debate which of the Crusty Bunkers actually inked that page in the latest Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser.
Then we would compare our latest drawings. Every week or so, we would show each other what we had been working on, inspired by heroes outside of drawing as well- from Gene Roddenberry ( Star Trek was still decades away from it's many reincarnations), to Rod Serling to Ray Harryhausen. Jon was much more technically proficient than I and a tough critic to boot. This was a good thing, of course. It made me try harder. And whether he ever knew it or not, for me it was a competition and I worked hard to improve my drawing to make sure I was ready for the next throw-down. Jon was also much more comfortable with color and it took me many years to finally figure out how to use it in any way resembling competence. I was lucky to have a friend like him at a time when I was just beginning to find my legs as an artist. We kept each other honest and inspired.
Again, it was the 70's and The Studio was at it's peak-- Jeff Jones was producing his finest pages for Idyl, Mike Kaluta was dazzling us with art deco inspired masterpieces for The Shadow and of course, Wrightson, whose work walked that fine line between humor and horror. He would leave an indelible impression on a legion of future illustrators and comic artists, myself included.

And then there was Frank Frazetta.

It was Jon who first introduced me to his work. He pulled out samples from a precious manilla folder he had painstakingly compiled of images carefully cut from paperbacks, magazines and comicbooks. Some of them were holy grails- cheezy Sci-Fi and fantasy novels from the 1960's that would never see print again and covers from magazines like Warren's Creepy and Eerie, the last bastion for many of the great artists from the EC Comics days, all adorned with Frazetta's fantastic tableaus. With the authority of a veteran collector- he was a good five years older- Jon would make his case for the superiority of one painting over the other and I would make my own impassioned case, for or against. It was fun debating which were best, especially because it was such a futile excercise- there were simply too many favorites to choose from. Frazetta's work took my breath away. If there is a common thread through the work of most of the artists I collect, it is their ability to draw from the imagination. The artists who seem to inspire me most are the ones who somehow successfully blend the facts with the fiction, at least enough to tell their visual story best. Kley had it, Bauer had it and so did Wrightson and his Studio mates. It's difficult to distill exactly what it is I enjoy most about Frazetta, but it certainly has much to do with his distillation of shapes. The choices he makes for a fold of drape or shape of a shadow- are part of his magic. It's what he doesn't show, that is so tantalizing. A warriors face might be beautifully rendered, along with his shoulders and part of the pelt he is wearing, but the rest of his body might disappear under a carefully shaped shadow intimating perfectly the form underneath, but without us seeing a thing. Loathe as I am to say it, Carter Goodrich's work has this in spades.
Frazetta's brushwork was so deft and economical and his images often only glorified vignettes, but what was in focus, ignited my imagination and made me want to know what was beyond the edges of those scenes, for surely I was seeing only a piece of a fully realized universe.

I quickly became an obsessive collector of virtually anything the guy had put his hand to. I combed every used book shop I would pass for years, my head tilted at the shelves, looking for any of the titles that had by now been branded into my skull. Looking back I realize, by scanning the covers of thousands of books that weren't Frazetta's, I was unwittingly taking myself to school in the art of illustration, and soon came to know the names of countless other illustrators by default. I still have my collection of books, magazines and compendiums that make up most of Frazetta's ouevre and still have an almost Pavlovian response when I go into a bookstore. I tell myself I'm done collecting, but in the back of my brain, I can't help keep my eye out for one that might have gotten away.

I think ebay has become a wish fulfilled for those kids in us that never quite sated their particular obsessions and I am certainly one of them. So when I grew older and had achieved something of a career, I was actually able to purchase an original sketch or two. To my continued amazement, I was able to get my hands on a few of Frazetta's color preliminary thumbnails. And I do mean thumbnails. They are astonishing, not only for their resemblance to the much larger oil paintings that followed, but for their tiny size. The biggest one is no larger than five inches across. And like many of his studies, these tiny little watercolor sketches are fresher and more beautiful than the final piece.

So it is with way too much pride, that I show you part of my Frazetta collection above and hope that you will enjoy them half as much as I still do, every single day.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Bill Plympton!

Bill Plympton is that very rare thing in animation- the one man studio. His films which include both shorts and features, are drawn completely by himself with only two or three assistants helping with color and cleanup. I've been friendly with Bill for many, many years now and considered myself a pretty knowledgeable fan of his work, but I was a bit surprised the other night while watching a lecture he was giving at the Society of Illustrators, to realize how out of step I've been with him lately. In my defense, Bill is so damned prolific that if you do happen to blink, you've missed another one of his films. At the lecture he showed several shorts including the darkly funny Santa the Fascist Years and the hilarious Hot Dog starring Plymptoon Studios ugly bulldog mascot. In addition, he previewed several minutes from his brilliant new feature,Angels and Idiots, the story of a thug who wakes up one day with a pair of angel wings growing out of his back and his ensuing struggle with his self image. One of my favorites of the evening was "The Cow Who Wanted to be a Hamburger" an alternately touching and grotesque tale described perfectly by it's title. That piece was drawn with a black sharpie and colored on the computer, giving it the most graphic look to date in a Plymptoon. The room was packed full of entranced young illustrators and animators and everyone there was taken to school on the importance of preserving one's own vision and the need for good, solid draftsmanship. I left the place inspired and I must admit, a little chastened.
In this world of ever more highly buffed CG characters (guilty as charged) it was so refreshing to see pure drawing, with all it's smudges and imperfections, flicker unapologetically across the screen and make me laugh as hard as anything I've ever seen in Imax 3D.
It was a sobering reminder of what the art of the humble pencil can achieve.