Frank Frazetta Vs. Boris Vallejo… Resolved (expanded teaching edition)

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JustineSAW
For more, check out me, my art, and my site at barefootjustine.com …

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This is a lecture I have given every year at SAW, of course as any of my students know, my lectures are rather more like very well organized and colorful rants… dare I say… like pretentious, contentious, though no less than divine poetic experiences. by the way, my self-esteem is not really so grand as all that, but let’s move right along. Originally this post appeared on my site (barefootjustine.com), though it was short and to the point there. Here I have expanded upon it greatly to better serve the lesson, and the audience of the SAW site. Also note that you can click on the images to view them larger, though for this purpose, I have included newer and larger images than what had appeared in the original blog entry on my site.

Let’s talk about Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo… what, you don’t know who they are? For those of you who don’t, they were two of the most famous fantasy illustrators. The Frazetta verus Vallejo argument has been raging so long as there have been geeks around to debate the issue. But see, the thing is, and it’s something I’ve often observed… one side is wrong. So, let me explain that bit of elitism (it’s like this): I once had this argument with someone about whether or not the Beatles were better than AC/DC (notice I’m not mining this wealth of material), and after I shook my head and told him the Beatles were better and there is no debate here, his attempted end to the argument was, “Well, that’s just your opinion.”

I offered to explain it to him this way, and to any of you who can’t quite get past the finality of “that’s just your opinion.” Well, no, it’s not just my opinion. The Beatles were better than AC/DC. That is not a matter of opinion, that is a matter of fact. Now, whether or not one likes Mozart or Beethoven better, that, group, is a matter of opinion.

The same is true here, Frazetta is better than Vallejo. And I mean this… much better. I am going to confess before we even get going, that I have admired Vallejo, and his skills are unquestionable as a craftsman, however, the trained eye reveals one major difference between the two: Frazetta is an artist, Vallejo really isn’t, not in the same way, or at least not in the same league. There are some concretes, and by comparing similar paintings side by side I think we can establish the hierarchy through observation. This entire lesson could be based on technique alone, Frazetta’s lively painterly style versus Vellejo’s slow reductive slide into stiff and shiny photorealism, but we are going to focus more on the narrative qualities and the expressiveness of the figures. Let’s open with a classic action scene, a lone figure battling overwhelming odds… as seen realized by both painters:

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Years ago my mentor Val Mayerik had once noted Frazetta’s supremacy over all other fantasy painters by saying: “His people are fighting for their lives,” and while I’m certain it wasn’t an original thought, that simple conversation inspired this entire entry. So let’s start there, with the central issue, the one that rules over all the others: Boris Vallejo’s “warrior woman” (top) not only looks like, but IS, some bimbo he picked up at the gym, while in the painting directly above (and in all of his paintings) Frank Fazetta’s characters are indeed fighting for their very lives. In the Vallejo painting there is NO urgency to her figure, expression, surroundings, to her struggles, nor to the painting, nor even to the composition itself. One painting (Frazetta’s) shows a dramatic moment in time, the other (Vallejo’s) shows a well-lit model with a vapid expression on her face. There is no depth of fire in her eyes. In my lectures I also discuss the importance of diagonals, and the Frazetta painting is full of dramatic and conflicting angles, by comparison Vallejo’s painting is static, practically on a grid. Additionally, notice the atmosphere in Frazetta’s painting, how it’s in turmoil, while Vallejo’s background looks like a hellish high school yearbook photo backdrop. Now even if you’re one who doesn’t go for genre or fantasy art, the differences are staggering and enlightening to any visual storyteller, and what I am saying here could be taken metaphorically to apply to any narrative illustration. To drive the point home, observe the below painting by Frazetta which again shows his potent solution to the visual and narrative challenge of showing a lone warrior facing down impossible odds:

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The below paintings are another fine example of who is who between the two painters. As you can see in Vallejo’s painting, that “dude” (as Tom Hart, our fearless leader, noted) “has no interest in that Cerberus,” no, Tom, he is far too obsessed with his pecs. Once again he’s just some guy Vallejo picked up in a gym, or some guy he ran into at the mall shopping for specialty vitamins at GNC. And THAT is all he is. Not so with Frazetta, that woman, too is facing down ferocious canine jaws, and again… she is fighting for her life! For her life and the life of her child. The strain is palpable, LOOK at her thighs, the backs of her knees! And somehow, with Frazetta, you know she is going to be alright–see that… THAT right there, that is what makes Frazetta a master. Notice that I started building a narrative around the painting, but NOT for Vallejo’s painting, we are left with nothing to feed our imaginations on. Sure, one might “argue” that Vallejo’s painting and his Cerberus are “bad-ass,” but that’s not a narrative. There is NO narrative to the Vallejo painting. None, it is stripped of urgency, of power, of even the dignity of being a half-assed daydream. I mean, when I look at that woman facing down the wolves in the Frazetta painting I can smell the panic and determination, when I look at that self-absorbed guy in the Boris painting… I can smell the sporty deodorant.

And a final reminder, you can click on these paintings to view them full screen for closer inspection:

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Now that we’ve set the groundwork and laid out enough to set straight who between the two painters was the superior storyteller in general terms, let’s look at a few specifics by comparing a pair of like paintings, and their revealing details. Let’s return to an iconic character that we all know and understand, if not love, Conan. Let’s dig in and compare two paintings just to drive these points home. On the surface the pair of paintings below (Vallejo to the left and Frazetta on the right) may not appear as strikingly different as one might expect. This is an example not only one of Boris Vallejo’s better renderings, but also one of Frank Frazetta’s more staged images, so the differences are more subtle, but no less telling.

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Let’s start by looking at the bodies of the two men, the two Conan’s. While the Vallejo body (on the left) is actually beautifully rendered with lots of nonlocal color (something he seems to have forgotten how to do over the ensuing years as his paintings became shinier and shinier), it still looks quite posed and static. Similarly, Frazetta’s Conan, even still as he is, nonetheless, looks poised for action: notice the tension in his bicep, notice the lack of studio-portrait stiffness. Notice how his Conan vibrates, ready to leap off the page and kill someone, while Vallejo’s Conan looks as though he’s simply posing, very well, but posing.

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This is further in evidence when we come in tight on the faces. As you can see on the Vallejo Conan on the left, while he has hardened the face, even adding a scar, it still looks like what it is, Boris Vallejo posing as Conan for his own painting. We can believe in the reality of the painting, and it’s quite an accomplished painting to say the very least, but I am not swept up into Conan’s world when looking at it. Notice how in Frazetta’s Conan face, there is an intensity of expression and a sense of just-right exaggeration. This is an important point: Vallejo’s skills as a storyteller seem to stop and start with his models. Vallejo is only as good as his models, not merely as a painter, but also as a storyteller. The face of Frazetta’s Conan tells a story. Frazetta exaggerates, Vallejo slavishly duplicates, duplicates the poses and expressions of his models, thereby limiting the scope of his narrative.

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Looking at the two paintings, a good argument could be made for the Vallejo Conan painting, but I think when we compare two more Conan’s by the two painters side by side, we begin to see who is who, and we begin to see also where what I said above plays out. This Conan by Vallejo has become horridly shiny, still, and laughably silly, merely a homo-erotic exercise in bodybuilding fetishization; while Frazetta’s breathes and sucks us wholly into the world of Conan.

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Which painting do you believe in?

As we zoom in on cropped details the bodies of the two Conans directly below, we begin to see the real differences shine. Notice that the Vallejo Conan remains impossibly shiny, and though he is in action, his muscles are “ripped,” but again, static, not in stress, merely as oiled and posed as any bodybuilder, while the body of the Frazetta Conan is so obviously the body of a Barbarian, of a warrior, of a man who has survived many hard battles. The body of the Vallejo Conan only reveals, stiffly, the moment in which the model posed, while the body of the Frazetta Conan, even in repose, has a past, a hard and harrowing past. Yes, the storytelling of the Frazetta Conan is superior even in repose over all the straining and manufactured action of the Vallejo Conan. Both artists have exaggerated, but one has exaggerated the bod of a bodybuilder to the point of silliness, and the other has exaggerated by creating a body that ONLY Conan could have. Frazetta’s Conan is exaggerated to the level of perfect iconic status.

Why is it that Vallejo’s Conan looks like a bodybuilder, and Frazetta’s looks like a barbarian? Vallejo was a bodybuilder, Frazetta an athlete. Vallejo knew how bodybuilder physiques are formed, Frazetta knew how bodies that have developed through action are formed.

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Notice the spectacular scars on the Frank Frazetta Conan as compared to the showy shininess of the Boris Vallejo Conan. The shallowness of the Vallejo Conan shows through on the face, even grimmacing, it does not tell nearly the story of the still and resolute Conan by Frazetta. Frazetta’s Conan’s face is set in determination, and we can read the many battles in his eyes and in the hardness of his face. The face of Frazetta’s Conan reveals a weathered and determined soul. Looking into that face is like staring down a lion.

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Before we leave these side by side comparisons of details for good, let’s just quietly compare two more sets of details, Again, Vallejo on top and, obviously, Frazetta on bottom. In this case I won’t say anything more, as I think you can see it for yourself. Both men in both paintings are allegedly in life or death struggles, while the bodies and heads reveal a shiny vanity in the Vallejo painting, the body and head in the Frazetta painting demonstrate a terrifying commitment to action. One face is insipid, the other determined to survive with blind fury and blood in his eyes.

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Let’s give old Boris Vallejo a fair shake, and I will now post one of my favorite paintings of his, and talk about not only why I like it, but where it falls short. The below painting doesn’t fall short within itself, it’s quite spectacular, but compared to the Master (Frazetta), few paintings of this genre can stand up to his. I have been admittedly playing a game of extremes here, as at heart I still enjoy the best of Boris Vallejo’s paintings, but fan or not, I can still clearly see who is the Great One. Both paintings contain similar elements, a dominant male, slavegirls, and beasts. Let’s look at them both for a moment, before I discuss them.

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While the Vallejo painting is one of my favorites on so many levels, and it does what so few of his latter paintings do, it tells us something about the realities of the characters in the painting. Notice how exceptionally and with such truth her body is rendered? It looks like the body of a wild slavegirl, so it was obviously painted before bodybuilding was more important to Vallejo than narrative. Notice also how her feet reveal a certain “savagery?” Her toes are those of a woman who has obviously been barefoot a lot, this I know from my hardcore commitment to barefoot living. The dragon-thing the man is riding is gorgeously rendered. But let’s look closer at where it falls short in comparison to the Frazetta painting with the same three dominant elements.

The biggest difference is in regards to time. The Vallejo painting, as believeable as the characters are, is obviously a portrait of a pose frozen in time, though a stiff moment of no narrative value. It reveals no past and no future, only a still and artificial now. It looks, in fact, like this man, his steed and slavegirl are posing for a Gorean paintier, while the Frazetta painting reveals a specific narrative moment frozen in time at the height of its suspense, and the painting evidences not only the tension of the moment, but asks many questions about what had happened before this moment as well as leaving us imagining what might happen next. Think about that for a moment, think about time, how an image can be static in time or how it can exist in the past, present and future in our minds. As storytellers and artist we don’t want to miss an opportunity to tell our viewers a story, even if they are filling in the past and future themselves. Art has the ability to exist in the past, present and future all at once. Great narrative art can travel through its own time in the minds of the viewers.

Let’s talk for a moment about the Frazetta painting. Beyond its conjuring the past, present and future, it delivers not only suspense but high drama. The painting literally draws us not only into the fantasy, but the moment. The male figure is exaggerated just enough to be fantastical. here we see quite literally John Workman’s belief that comics (or in this case, fantasy art, etc.) should be reality only better. The horse itself is all-but breathing fire, it is so full of life and anger. The girl, crouched in hiding is also exaggerated as only Frazetta can exaggerate, but she is also sexy and hopeful. How do I mean hopeful? I, at least, can’t help but know she’s going to get away or somehow come out on top. In the Vallejo painting the characters are breathing, but they are breathing easily, the breath coming from the characters in the Frazetta painting is hot, angry, terrified, stifled, blowing.

Let’s give us women a fair shake, having just looked at slavegirls above, let’s look at heroic powerful wild women. Both artists cannot be dismissed as purely sexist male fantasies (though all their paintings smell of testosterone) as the figures of power can be male or female in their paintings. The same issues we have already discussed can be seen clearly addressed in the below paintings of women with big cats. They are strikingly similar in tone, color, action, composition and subject matter, but one takes you into worlds of fantasy; the other leaves you cold, an admirer of technique in the here and now. Before I go ahead and leave these two paintings (Boris Vallejo on top, Frank Frazetta on bottom), for you to see for yourself all we have learned, let’s talk about posture. In the Vallejo painting the girl is in a stiff lifeless posed bodybuilding posture (which leads me pretty certain Vallejo is now simply painting portraits of bodybuilders rather than truly painting fantasy paintings), while the girl in the Frazetta painting is crouched, tight as a spring, poised for action, her posture real and full of drama… in the past, present, and future. At this point the things we have learned should be evidencing themselves without my needing to say another word. Ask yourself, again, as you look at them… which one do you believe in? Furthermore, ask yourself which of the women looks like a strong woman who has lived her life in the wilds with giant cats, and which looks like a painting of a bodybuilder…?

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The below paintings of encounters with serpents are another fine example. I’m not going to repeat my rant against Vallejo, nor my praise of Frazetta, as everything I said before applies to the paintings below… but I will repeat one thing: those people in the Vallejo painting (to the left) are NOT in a life and death moment. Not so in Frazetta’s painting (to the right), just look at the strain, the muscles in the back! The anatomy may be fanciful, but the narrative quality is incredible, you can feel the tension in your own back by looking, and though the snake’s head is not as “fantastic” as the Vallejo head… everything else about Frazetta’s serpent is far more spectacular.

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Now while this lecture/rant is all good fun, and yes, I meant every word of it, something more important happens in the class at this time. I usually stand back at this point with these serpent paintings and ask my students to pick up the rant for me… because for all the fun we’ve had, NOW they see it for themselves! What is more, through doing this I helped them learn how to draw an action or fantasy scene, how to make it count, make it real, and how to truly propel their readers into that sort of place. They also saw how the human body reacts to tension. In the Vallejo paintings the muscles are “ripped” but there is no real tension or struggle, just posing, whereas Frazetta’s muscles are RIPPING! And lastly, my students can truly see how to make an argument for great art over mediocrity.

No, it’s not all down to opinion, some opinions are uneducated, misinformed, and of no real potency. If this proved to just be a rant, I wouldn’t use it in the classroom. I learned while teaching in South Korea that if people are laughing they are learning. Now, I can’t always make ’em laugh, but I can at least entertain them, and to me nothing is cheap as a teaching technique if the end result is that the students not only connect with what you are showing them, but retain more of it. Enthusiasm for your subject matters, as does honesty. I have not manipulated my students by doing this, ’cause I never play devil’s advocate, I advocate what I damn-well mean to advocate.

Before I go, the same things I said about fantasy and violence go for sex, for good cheesecake fantasy. Not only is the woman in the Vallejo painting bloodless and ordinary looking, I can’t for a moment buy this woman in that get-up–but I could see her getting all goofy over Travis Tritt songs when she goes out Country line-dancing at the Boot-n-Scoot Saloon. The woman in the Frazetta painting, well, she belongs butt-naked in that tree… doesn’t she?

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(There is a lot of my art and plenty of blog entries accessible at my site at: barefootjustine.com where a short version of this article originally appeared)