Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Serendipity of a Frazetta

Now why would this ancient picture lead a post on Frank Frazetta? Oh and by the way that's Danny Herron, Me on banjo, Rocky Jones on the right with his guitar and Chuck Wagner towering behind us in his Gallatin High School football jersey.
Now to know me growing up was to know who Frank Frazetta was. Any time my own art would be brought up I would undoubtedly invoke his name. Now that I think about it... I still do.
So all my friends pretty much knew, and know the name "Frazetta" (and probably are tired of my constant adoration).
Another thing about my friends, they represent a mountain of god given talent. Rocky was an amazing musician, singer and athlete. Chuck likewise coupled with a booming stage voice and command of the theater. Danny...well he played a mean washtub bass! (I'm kidding Danny). He represented superior intellect coupled with a cat like athleticism.
Chuck went on to star on stage and screen with a resume that is simply jaw dropping.
From the starring role as "Automan" in the television series of the same name, to playing the part of the "Beast" in Disney's "Beauty and the Beast" on Broadway, his talent knows no boundaries.
Now in the mid 80's when "Automan" was at it's peak Chuck also starred in a movie called "America 3000".  Now whether it was ever widely released by Cannon films I have no clue, I discovered it on a video shelf in our hometown in about 86 or 87.  It might have gone straight to video courtesy of MGM/UA home video. Curious now about this post apocalyptic adventure now? Here's a preview
OK so it's not exactly 'Ben Hur", but it does represent very well those fun B-movies of the 80's.

 "So how does Frazetta come into play here Jeff, you're getting off point" you ask?
Flash forward to just a few night's ago when I am looking through my copy of 'Legacy". Frank's recent passing has left me pouring over all of his work once again as if I am discovering it for the first time. Even after 40 plus years I still look at a Frazetta with child like, wide-eyed wonder, it never gets old.
"Legacy" was published in 1999 and I can remember one specific image in the book at the time looked familiar although I knew had never seen it before. A passing thought at the time. Not now. When I came upon the page with the title of "3000AD" with the description of a poster for an unreleased film I bolted upright in my chair and said out loud "That's Chuck!!! Frank painted Chuck!!!".
Had I not just found the preview of the film on Youtube just a few months ago I might have once again not connected all the dots. This time the image jumped off the page.
I'm writing this right after I just got off the phone with Chuck and he was totally unaware that he is now in the company of Tarzan, Conan and the Death Dealer in being immortalized by the master's brush!
Bragging rights for Chuck and a prideful boast for me that I can say, "Frank Frazetta painted my friend Chuck Wagner".
Serendipity at it's best!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Memorial Day and the Illustrator

 On a day where families and friends traditionally gather to usher in the summer season far too often the real reason for the holiday is forgotten.  Memorial Day, originally called “Decoration Day”,  was set aside to honor American soldiers who paid the ultimate price in defending our country. A debt owed that can never be repaid.  What we can do to honor them is to live our lives the best we can and do our part to uphold the standards set that were forged in blood of the fallen.

The American Illustrator has played a major role in the history of our service men and women.

Before Tweets, Internet, cable, television and the widespread use of photography it was the illustrator that was the source for visual communication. It truly was the aptly named “Golden Age of Illustration”.

In World War Two the nation looked to the illustrator for help. In a public relations effort Charles Dana Gibson was asked to assemble a team of his fellow illustrators to rally support for our troops and the war that they were in.

Recognize this man?

If not you’ll recognize the illustration he posed for! The iconic “Uncle Sam wants you” poster created in 1917.

Over 4 million posters were printed. It proved so successful that it was also used in WWII.

James Montgomery Flagg was the illustrator and the face in the painting.  He used himself to pose as to avoid the “trouble of arranging for a model.”  A technique that I have been known to freely use.

Howard Chandler Christy was another golden age illustrator who freely gave of his talent.

N.C Wyeth, one of the greatest and most prolific illustrators of all time also gladly pitched in.

WWI was a time before combat photographers were widely used. The U.S Army commissioned 8 members of the Society of Illustrators and sent them to France where they recorded their impressions of the war in their sketchbooks.  Through their eyes and illustrations America was able to get a glimpse into the lives of the soldiers fighting for their country.

Over 400 U.S. posters can be viewed at the link below that show the variety of styles and designs used during the era.

World War One Posters

During WWII the involvement of the illustrator exploded. Illustrators visited veterans hospitals to sketch portraits of the wounded soldiers so that the portraits could be sent home to help ease the pain of the families patiently awaiting their loved one’s return.

"Loose lips can sink ships", a catch phrase used to this day, evolved from this 1942 Stevan Dohanos poster.

It’s very common to find illustrators that also have the ability to play music.  I’ve played a 5-string banjo for 38 years for example (yes that counts too!) In WWII illustrators formed a Jazz band to entertain wounded troops.

Of all posters done during WWII none was more popular and successful than Norman Rockwell’s “The Four Freedoms”.

Ironically the U.S. government originally turned the illustrations down. The Saturday Evening Post then published the painting as a series during the height of the war in 1943.

Rockwell was inspired by FDR’s speech of the same name. He was too old for military service but knew he could still contribute the war effort with his art. It took him 6 months to complete and for a man that couldn’t afford to lose a pound he lost 15.  He personified the father of American Illustration Howard Pyle’s quote and instruction; “Throw your heart into the picture and then jump in after it.”

The Post offered sets of prints of the paintings and 25,000 were ordered by readers.

The U.S. Treasury Department in co-operation of Curtis Publishing  (Saturday Evening Post’s publisher) then organized a nationwide tour of the paintings.

One of the main goals of an illustration is to evoke emotion. Rockwell was the grand master!  The Office of War Information could no longer ignore the impact these illustrations were making and printed 2.5 million copies to be sold to help the war bond effort.

Rockwell personally received over 60,000 letters of thanks, including one from the President!

"I think you have done a superb job in bringing home to the plain, everyday citizen the plain, everyday truths behind the Four Freedoms... I congratulate you not alone on the execution but also for the spirit which impelled you to make this contribution to the common cause of a freer, happier world." - Franklin D. Roosevelt

In total 130 million dollars were raised for the war effort because of one man’s vision and effort.  The inspiration he took from a president’s speech and the lives he saw being laid down by his countrymen assured that his place in history will never be forgotten.

Today we remember those men and women, may we all be so inspired.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Sage Advice

Another major influence in my youth was (still is actually) the legendary Jack Davis. As with Frazetta with the painting and drawing, if I was drawing a cartoon and it wasn't done in a Davis style I simply wasn't doing a cartoon.
Later Mort Drucker snuck in and the cartoon style I was doing was a cross between the two. With no formal instruction or direction this was my education, the school of Frazetta/Gogos/Rockwell/Davis and Drucker...kinda like a law firm doesn't it?
I started doing editorial cartoons for the local city and country papers when I was 14 years old. Nothing earth shattering, I wasn't making any youthful political statements it was mostly caricatures of local people who were retiring such as Webb Baber a local postman known for the dogs that would follow him around.

Or Duke Shackleford, the assistant football coach who was moving away to teach at another school.

About as political as I got was a comment on the newly formed animal control legislation with the caption. "What do you think of the leash law now?"

The nice thing about this was that I was being paid for my efforts so technically I could say my professional art career started at age 14. Although I'm unsure if $3 a cartoon would qualify as  professional wages.

While idolizing my hero's as I did and studying their every brush stroke you could not get better examples of individual styles. Therein lies the problem, I was learning from "styles" not real life. I was not  developing my own interpretation of the world around me rather I was  creating through the eyes of the men I aspired to be like. Of course I was a kid and just didn't know any better or had any seasoned guidance around me. When I taught illustration on the collegiate level I did not allow students to do anime or Manga for the exact same reasons, they would be drawing a "style". Many didn't understand and quite a few hated me for it. But what they didn't realize is that I was giving them what I never had, the voice of experience. I told them after they learned anatomy, design and color they then could go back to their favorite art form and bring something new to the table.
It was not until I went back to college and I was in my first oil painting class working on the still life set up by the instructor that I knew I was in trouble. Here I was painting a warty gourd and a small perfume bottle then a classmate walks up behind me and said. "You must be a Frazetta fan!" From that point on I sought my own voice with Frank's famous quote ringing in my ears, 'Why be a second rate Frazetta, be a first rate you".
I was fortunate enough to tell Frank that story when I was able to spend time with him in 95 and he got a kick out of it. "WHAT, from a warty gourd and a bottle? You must have something that I don't have!", followed by a hearty laugh.
When young illustrators ask me how they can develop their own style I just tell them keep drawing, and draw everything you see... from life! Your own style will eventually emerge as you strive to perfect your craft. We all still will show signs of those who influenced us but a little bit of Frazetta, a little bit of Gogos, Rockwell or Davis will eventually emerge as a whole lot of you!
A couple of years ago I was a guest artist at the Atlanta Comics Expo, a first for me because I had never done a convention before. The main draw for me was the show was also a tribute to Jack Davis.  To meet another hero, possibly shake his hand and thank him for the education... I jumped at the opportunity!  Sadly Jack was not able to attend.  However there was a panel set up with the artists in attendance as we paid tribute to the man. One by one we  told of his influence and spoke volumes of our admiration. Then we all were given a great gift. The organizers set up a conference call with Jack and  we were able to tell him personally what he meant to us. It was another day I will never forget.
As an added bonus we each were given a signed print of the illustration that Jack did specially for the show, icing on an already glorious cake.

In parting, the moderator asked Jack if he wanted to send any advice to us. He simply said, "Work! I never turned down a job because of money. I just like to work".
Thanks for the sage advice Mr. Davis!
That statement really hit home for me. In a creative field where what we do is a part of us it's hard to keep egos in check sometimes, our work is a part of us (if we've done it correctly!)  It can become a slippery slope if you ever think a job is below you.
You have to find as much joy in illustrating a perfume bottle and a warty gourd as much as you do a movie poster that would have a budget in the thousands.
It's not about what you are illustrating,  it's the fact that you ARE illustrating!

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Journey Begins

In starting this blog it seems more than appropriate to go back to the beginning, the  first time I knew illustration is what I was born to do.  I was always drawing as a child and on everything I could get my hands on. The margins of books and magazines, my father's order pads (he was a salesman), toilet paper...dirt, it didn't matter. My vivid imagination took on the visual form of art, I was telling stories with pencil and paper.
At 5 years old my God given ability was recognized by  my first grade teacher, Ms. Albertson, she encouraged the gifts I had been given openly. When the PTA Carnival rolled around and I won first place over grades 1, 2 and 3 her faith in me was justified and needless to say my parents had some bragging rights on their kid!
The following year, at the seasoned age of 6, I was at the magazine stand in the drug store where my mother was shopping. Those were the old days where a little 6 year old boy could be left alone without any parental worries about kid snatching. As my young eyes scoured the racks it hit me like a bolt of lightening! This magazine called "Creepy" and an illustration of a Dracula like creature seemed to leap off the stands and grab me by the throat! To this day I can still feel what it felt like to have my jaw hit the floor. The subtitle read "Weird and Haunting Tales of Fright" but it was the name to the right of the bats that really caught my eye. I couldn't pronounce it but I knew it must be the man who painted the cover,"Frazetta". The unmistakable style and signature was at that point forever seared into my brain.

Like little Ralphie in "A Christmas Story" begging for the Official Red Ryder Carbine-Action Two-Hundred-Shot Range Model Air Rifle...with a compass in the stock, I pleaded on bended knee for my mother to buy that issue for me. She looked at the cover, thumbed through the pages and said, "NO, it will give you nightmares!" Had I been quicker I could of replied, "But it won't put out my eye!" But alas I had not yet discovered the fine art of sarcasm so I just hung my head in despair.  Back to the drawing board (literally) and checking out books on Norman Rockwell at the public library. Nothing wrong with that, Rockwell held my fascination and admiration...he surely was not a mortal man, could any human actually paint like that?  "Rockwell....he was a God!",  Frank Hoffelt the Dean of the illustration department at my Alma mater (CCAD) used to say.  At that point however the fuse had already been ignited.  It was another 3 years before I was finally allowed to buy the magazines and then with my own money earned from a weekly quarter allowance I had to work for! My parents were not the type to just give me money, whether they knew it or not at the time they were instilling a very strong work ethic in me, for which I am eternally grateful for.
With this new freedom and purchasing power I was off like a rocket! grabbing everything I could find on Frazetta and long the way discovered another huge influence Basil Gogos. His covers to Famous Monsters of Filmland were epic with a bold use of color I had never seen before!

Now the education really began! Hours upon hours were spent copying every image I could find of Frazetta and Gogos. Studying every detail of what they did (as I had the years previous with the parental approved Rockwell) was a true training ground. Like a traditional old school art student who has to spend years drawing from plaster casts of a model before they are allowed to paint from a live one, to my young eyes I was studying perfection. If I couldn't produce art that looked like a Frazetta or Gogos I just wasn't producing art. High standards for a wide eyed kid but they served me well. You always have to reach for limbs that seem just a little out of your grasp, that's how you grow. As soon as you grab the one you are reaching for you discover that there's yet another one just a little higher up and also out of reach.
There is no finish line in illustration, only the journey you take along the way!
Stay tuned, we're just getting started!