martedì 25 luglio 2017

Fantasy Visuals: Boris Vallejo

Following Frank Frazetta, for some time there was no other big name in Fantasy and Sci-Fi art: then Boris Vallejo started painting. Born in Lima (Peru) in 1941, he was 13 years younger than Frazetta, but he experienced a similar career path: a precocious talent as well, he went to Art School and, after it, started working in advertising. In 1964, when he was 23 years old, he moved to the USA to attend the National School of Art, but again for more than 10 years the only art he practiced was the painting of posters for commercial brands. At last, Vallejo's talents were spotted and in 1976, when Frazetta was already a very famous artist, the young Peruvian started getting commissions for covers in Fantasy and Sci-Fi comics and books, films and music albums.

I am a barbarian (1975)
Tarnsman of Gor (1976)
Conan (1976)
His style was directly derived from that of Frazetta, and early works are indeed very similar. The two artists have often been compared, although always to the detriment of Vallejo - but to be fair nobody can really compare to Frazetta. Still, during this “Frazetta” years, Vallejo produces his finest images.
Tarzan (1978)

Golden Wings (1980)
Nomads of Gor (1980)
Then, around the 80s, Vallejo’s style starts to change. He gradually abandons the style of Frazetta and he becomes more interested, almost obsessed, with the female body: particularly the body of his muse, the gorgeous Julie Bell who would eventually become his second wife. Vallejo's women are sensual, almost erotic: they draw from the princesses of Frazetta but while those are sketchy and distant, those of Vallejo are more realistic and close, almost at touch distance from the viewer.

Vampire's Kiss (1979)
Alone (1980)
Soap (1981)

This is another golden time for Vallejo, but it is, in some way, short-lived. The evolution in his style hasn't stopped and it blooms in the mid 1980s. Around this time, Vallejo starts to work with body builders, men and women, and his attention to detail becomes obsession, so much that his paintings look like actual pictures. Careful composition is abandoned and the main subject becomes everything: highly-detailed, photorealistic and shiny models with props (swords, fur or metal underwear, helmets) pose on a generic, simplified background that does not even match the lighting of the subject. Sometimes, next to them, there is a fantastic creature/monster to add to the Fantasy feeling, but more and more rarely do the two figures interact. Overall, Vallejo’s painting becomes descriptive and lacking a real passion that can be transferred to the viewer.

Invictus (1982)
Against the odds (1984)
Rowing (1985)
Leo (1987)
The 90s and 2000s are more, and worse, of the same stuff.

Pegasus (1991)
Hot Sun (1995)
Ax the enemy (1997)

Still, Vallejo has been an enormously successful and influential painter, with a career spanning decades and still ongoing at the time of this post. Not only in Fantasy art, especially on all American Fantasy artists like Elmore, Easley, Caldwell, but also on the plethora of unnamed painter of sexy, naked women with bird or butterfly wings, set in natural, flowery, bubblery or glittery scenes, which are arguably one of the most toxic kinds of art ever.

Butterfly Wings (1979)
First Love (1981)
Flowering Nest (1994)

A slender thread (2000)
European artists, as we will see, would go in the opposite direction: little to nothing of this can be found on the eastern side of Atlantic. Frazetta can be considered a father and teacher to all Fantasy artists worldwide. Vallejo represents the point where American Fantasy Art, made of carefully drawn characters in complete fantasy settings and situation, diverges from the European one, which would go for gritty sketches and nods to historical elements.

I am not a huge fan of Vallejo, as you might have guessed. But some of his works are just great. As usual, I conclude the post with my favourites, which are in many cases the most sexually explicit. You are welcome to add or list yours in the comments.

Instants (1979)
Leather Jacket (1980)
Flight of the Dragons (1981)

domenica 16 luglio 2017

Fantasy Visuals: Frank Frazetta

When talking about the beginning of Fantasy Art, there is no clean transition from what was before, and what we can consider a new genre. Fantasy Art derives from a lot of sources put together: medieval illuminations, movie posters, comics.

But if we must name an artist who has been very influential at the beginning of Fantasy art and has contributed before and more than any other in shaping the genre to what it is today, then there is nobody competing with Frank Frazetta.

A Princess of Mars (1970)
Born in 1928 Brooklyn, NYC, Frazetta was an early genius. Since early school, his teachers had little to instruct him in the field of drawing. At age 8 he entered art school but again, didn't learn much: partly because he was a natural, and partly because he had distracted educators: and that's how he developed his own way of doing things.

At 16 Frank got his first job as an assistant in the comics industry, and eventually developed a career there, working for many different publications. But the turning point was many years later, in 1964, when Frank was already 36, married and with children. On that year, he painted a caricature of Ringo Starr for Mad magazine, which caught the eye of United Artists studios.

It was so that Frazetta started to work on movie posters, which paid a lot more money than comics and also allowed him to develop his talents deeper. "What's New, Pussycat?" was the first commission.

From movie posters to book covers the step was short, though. And that step Frank took, at a time when Science Fiction was booming and Fantasy literature was about to become big but, somehow, a clear visual identity of the genre hadn't developed yet. This is what Frazetta did: he provided a first identity to Sword & Sorcery. His first really iconic work dates from 1966, and it is dedicated to Conan the Barbarian.

That was the beginning of the legend of Frank Frazetta. He became very famous in the industry and influenced a whole generation of artists for Sword & Sorcery. He would work on calendars, advertising, movies (besides posters, he also provided creative support in animated movies), and album covers. In 1972, heavy metal band Dust was the first to let him draw the cover for their album Hard Attack.

Now, a few words on how Frazetta worked: his main technique was oil, although he mastered other media as well. He grew up with the realistic American approach at art which was drawing models all the time, but being a natural talent, he went beyond all his peers and, after a few years, he was able to draw from memory. This allowed him two advantages: the first was to be able to exaggerate traits that he wanted, beyond human possibility. Frazetta loved to draw brawny barbarians, Junoesque women and powerful beasts - mostly horses and great cats. None of these could possibly be real. Even the muscular ogres he occasionally drew were not built on human models in front of him, but out of his imagination.

Cona the Conqueror (1967)

Egyptian Queen (1969)

Thuvia - Maid of Mars (1972)

The second advantage he obtained was to be able to draw dynamic poses that other artists could not achieve, just because models can not freeze mid air during a jump, or a fall, or a run. A common trait of all the works of Frazetta is indeed this dynamism, the tension of movement in everything, not only in the characters, who are always the focus, but also in the landscape. You will rarely find straight lines of perspective, but a tangle of curved lines evoking chaos and evolution.

Spider Man (1966)

John Carter and the Savage Apes of Mars (1970)
Conan the Destroyer (1971)
Frazetta's models were mainly the classical masters of Italian Renaissance painting: Raffaello Sanzio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo Buonarroti, Caravaggio. Many elements of their paintings are so obviously replicated in Frazetta's work. One of these, directly from Caravaggio, is the extremely limited and simple palette: shapes are defined by light and dark rather than complex shades of colour. Light is also used to focus the attention on the main element of the painting.

Against the Gods (c. 1967)

Cat Girl (1967)

Bran Mak Morn (1967)
Frazetta would go on creating masterpieces for all the '70s, the '80s and part of the '90s. Then he started to have health issues that affected his work, and his wife, with whom he was very close, started to fight a deadly cancer. Frazetta left NYC for the mountains of Pennsylvania, to live in a mansion where he opened a small museum of his works that still exists.

His wife passed away in July 2009. After her death Frazetta hired two professionals to handle his business, but this decision created tensions among the four children. Although in November that year Conan the Conqueror was auctioned at USD 1 million, the following month the firstborn Frank Jr. Frazetta was arrested trying to steal 92 paintings from the family museum, trying to get control of his father's legacy. This opened a family dispute with legal consequences that settled only in March, 2010. But on May 10th Frank Frazetta, who now had moved to Florida, died of a stroke, last of a long series, at age 82.

Rest in peace, God among Fantasy Illustrators.

I'd like to close this post with a few final considerations. Although whole books could be written about Frazetta's influence on the Fantasy genre, there are two people which I would like to mention. The excellent Angus McBride, whose masterful compositions of finely detailed characters interacting vividly on a vague background of mountains, forests and fortresses so obviously owe to the old master Frazetta. And Bryan Ansell, head of Games Workshop during the "Golden Years", who explicitly mentioned Frazetta as his inspiration when creating the iconic Barbarians/Marauders and Chaos Warriors that everybody knows and loves.
The following painting is probably the one that first sparked in Ansell's imagination the idea of the Chaos Warrior.

The Death Dealer (1972)
Incidentally, this is one of my two favourites among Frazetta's works (a lot of people's favourite, as a matter of fact).
The other pieace I am absolutely in love with is this, taken from Michael Moorcock's 1970 novel Phoenix in Obsidian, also titled the Silver Warriors.

Silver Warrior (1972)
What's your favourite piece from Frazetta, if you have one? Let me know in the comments!

domenica 9 luglio 2017

Brandir the Adventurer - Citadel Elf Warrior (1987)

Some NPCs are so good they eventually become PCs. This is the story of one of them, Brandir.

Brandir's story begins with that of his older brother Gelmir. The two are born, together with a third sister, from a poor Sea Elf family living in the miserable village of Grilm, on the coast of the Wasteland. Father dies at sea when the children are young. Mother is slain by Greenskins during a raid, while the kids hide under the bed. The three survive by begging and stealing.
Then, at some point Brandir's story takes a different turn, a grimmer one than his siblings who will eventually get saved and adopted. Little Brandir, while in the gutters of Zeaburg, is lured with an apple by a smiling man and invited into a private house. He gets a hit on the head and drops unconscious. He is taken away. The man is a thief and smuggler, and he also, in his own way, adopts Brandir, but he is far less kind than Elmerin. Brandir learns to steal and stab and trick and becomes, willing or not, part of Johann the Lame's band of footpads and cutthroats. They spend most of their time in Marienburg but travel the Wasteland when times are hard and the guards are on their trail.

Years pass, and eventually Johann the Lame gets old. Brandir has little love for him and, at the first good chance, he takes over the band and offers the old man a kind choice between retiring to a dilapidated country hut with little to no pension, but alive, or retire at the bottom of a canal of the Kruiersmuur, with no need of any pension. Johann makes the wise choise.

A few members of the band, the old ones, leave, but new ones join and soon Brandir's band increases its business substantially. The Elf is young and less cautious than Johann, taking risks that offer high returns. He seems blessed by Ranald, and his reputation grows, until one day he is introduced to an ascending merchant, going by the name of Johann Hess.

In order to make his family rich, Hess has his fingers in many pies, including illegal ones. Smuggling is one of them and, with his activities growing, he needs to outsource the extra job to smart people. Soon Brandir starts making a lot of money, especially with those new shipments of closed crates coming from Norsca. All marked with a red X and solidly nailed so no one can spy their contents.

It is when some members of his band start displaying strange signs of mutation that Brandir decides to do what he has been explicitly asked not to do: open one of the crates. It is full of shards of black, iridescent stone.

That is his last delivery. He goes to see Hess and tells him he's not feeling well and wants to leave the business for some time. But Hess guesses Brandir knows more than he says. The same night, coming back at his band's den, Brandir finds assassins. He barely escapes with a few men, but loses all his savings. At dawn he silently navigates the marshes on a rowboat, headed at Lame Johann's hut. It's empty, the old man must have died years ago.

Enraged at Hess's betrayal Brandir plans revenge, but he decides to wait - too many people are looking for him in Marienburg. He spends some time in the town of Bokel, across the frontier of Nordland, but he soon finds out the Warpstone has tainted him: he has started losing all the hair on his body.

It is several months after his flight that Brandir returns to Marienburg. By now he has become completely glabrous, even losing his eyelashes. He wears a hood over his head or, sometimes, a wig. He calls himself Gelmir, the name of his lost brother. Working isn't easy when nobody knows you and, desperate for money, Brandir enters a gambling house planning to get something to start again. But the games are rigged, and the house belongs to Hess. Soon he has an outstanding debt, and Hess's thugs are on his trail once again.

With two companions he boards a ship bound for Erengrad, where he hides for a while. It is here that his brother finds him: hunted by Hess, the real Gelmir find the impostor, recognizing him as his long lost, and now mutant, brother. Together, they vow revenge on Hess and on his network of warpstone smuggling, funded by the Skaven. And so it begins Brandir's life as a PC.

The miniature I choose for Brandir is no. 9 in 1988 Citadel Catalogue, Elf Warrior Category. It is marked as "Elf" and dated 1987, so it probably debuted on an earlier White Dwarf, The line is designed by Jes Goodwin and Aly Morrison: it's not clear who sculpted this particular figure but my guess is Jes Goodwin.

There are lots of things to like in this sculpt. The simplicity first of all. Lots of empty areas to freely paint. Then the shady look - there is something thievish with this hooded Elf, shield raised and sword reared, leather jacket, bag across the shoulder and a rope hanging from the side.

Missing the original shield, I recycled a 15mm Medieval shield which looks enough like a buckler, where I painted the device of Liria, a free city of sea merchants on the eastern borders of Tilea.

Comments? Did you also happen to turn NPCs into PCs? Leave some feedback below!