-By Arnie Fenner



Above: Me shooting the breeze at the Illustration Academy

A few weeks ago Jon Foster and I gave an on-line lecture about the history of Spectrum at The Illustration Academy followed by a series of reviews of portfolios that had been submitted for consideration in advance by members of the audience. I generally don’t like to do portfolio reviews for the simple reason that I don’t view them the same way an educator does. A teacher or mentor offers critiques to help an artist improve and hopefully move on to the next level. As an art director looking at someone’s book my position is less nurturing and more black and white: would I hire this person or wouldn’t I?

Maybe that’s a little cold—I know many art directors who happily offer critiques and suggestions to developing artists in the hopes it will help them achieve their potential—but I try to be a realist. I’ve said elsewhere that artists wanting tips and criticism should show their folios to educators they respect or artists they admire, but they should show their best work to art directors because they’re confident in their abilities and want work. You can only make a good first impression once and the first impression you want an art director to have of you and your art is “too good to pass up.”

So I was a little uncomfortable to do portfolio reviews and promised to let Jon and John English do most of the “heavy lifting.” It went fine. There was a nice mix and the art ranged from good to outstanding: I didn’t have to do much more than say, “I like it,” which suited me fine.

But there was one student folio that was particularly impressive which included mixed media works, beautiful pieces that featured photographs that were digitally manipulated and then painted into and over with traditional methods. Great stuff that was ready for Prime Time as far as I was concerned. One of his instructors at The Illustration Academy, Vanessa Lemen, was also on-line and mentioned that the young artist had been getting criticized when his work had appeared in several exhibits recently because of his methodology. “Even though he’s doing all the work, hiring models, shooting the photos, doing the digital manipulation, and the final painting, some call what he does ‘cheating.'” Vanessa was noticeably frustrated that a young artist was being hammered, not for the quality of his work, but because of the way he chose to create it.

I had an immediate response: “There is no such thing as ‘cheating’ in art.”

No, don’t chime in with exceptions: I’m not talking about plagiarism or anything like that. I was talking about methodology. There is no “right way” to create art; there is no methodology that is blessed, no single path. There is no style or medium or approach that makes one type of art “better” than another. Regardless of those who feel otherwise, art is art.

I don’t care how it’s created: I only care about the results. You’d think that’s all anyone should care about, but unfortunately that’s not the case.

I know of an excellent artist whose works have been disparaged because he shoots photos, transfers them to canvas, then paints over them in oil. I know digital artists who will create an image in Photoshop or Painter, print it out on watercolor paper, then, like the previous artist, paint over it to produce an original. And, of course, when it comes to reference, artists like Maxfield Parrish and Norman Rockwell set up elaborate photo shoots with props and models to help them create their art: none of it simply sprang straight out of their imaginations and onto their easels.

Above: The camera obscura

I’ve watched people marvel over the art until someone mentions the technique or methodology, then the attitude changes, the admiration shifts to dismissal, the smile turns into a sneer. It’s no longer “special” because it suddenly seems like a dirty trick. If the art wasn’t magically conjured out of thin air…well! In 2001 the Hockney-Falco thesis was posited in Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters and it ignited a firestorm of controversy from those who thought David Hockney was suggesting that van Eyck, Vermeer, and other Renaissance painters had somehow “cheated” by using a camera obscura. A similar, though less heated (probably because arguing with producers Penn & Teller would not turn out well), controversy surrounded the release of the film Tim’s Vermeer which explored the same territory.

But…cheated? Why? How? And…really, what does it matter?

What is the difference between transferring a pencil drawing to a canvas to use as a guide to paint over and doing the same thing with a drawing created on a screen? What’s the difference between painting from a photo and painting from life?

There isn’t any.

Above: One of Frank Frazetta’s better-known selfies

Frank Frazetta would routinely insist that he “made everything up” and never used references or even did roughs: he would chide his friends like Wally Wood and Al Williamson, who kept extensive resource files, used models, and shot photos as part of their creative process. David Winiewicz recently posted an excerpt of an interview he did with Frank in which Fritz insisted he never used himself as a model despite the ample evidence to the contrary. “Of course he did,” Dave told me. That Frank used himself as a model and then denied it were both reflections of his ego (and were also an aspect of the myth that aided in his marketing). As an athlete with movie-star good looks he was an excellent model for his heroes, he just didn’t want to admit that he thought so. Frazetta’s claims over the years added to the cult of personality that surrounded him and allowed the gullible to disparage other illustrators who didn’t “make all it up” or used models or photo reference. But the simple fact was that, regardless of his prodigious drawing skills and an enviable memory which allowed him to approximate things he’d seen almost at will…

Frank used reference.

He shot photos of himself with a camera timer and his wife Ellie in various poses (mostly for lighting: Ellie was petite and not curvaceous like the women he painted), owned and used an oversized Artograph that allowed him to project and trace his reference or comps onto his board, occasionally copied the art of others or swiped photos of models or actors that he’d find in magazines, and created multiple roughs and thumbnails for virtually everything he drew and painted. (Cathy and I even produced a book of his comps called Rough Work.)

While that might cause cries of anguish among the true believers, it does not diminish Frank Frazetta’s art in the slightest. Just as Jan van Eyck or Johannes Vermeer using a camera obscura (if they did) does not make “The Amolfini Portrait” or “Girl with a Pearl Earring” any less the masterpieces they are.

Whatever tool is employed, whatever medium or technique, doesn’t matter: what does, as I have repeatedly said (to the consternation of some), is the intellect behind the tool.

Above: Al Williamson posing as Ming the Merciless for a reference shot

I love Wally Wood’s quote: “Never draw what you can copy; never copy what you can trace; never trace what you can cut out and paste up.” Now, of course, Wood could draw wonderfully and he almost certainly said this in a semi-joking manner. And these days, “copying” (or “swiping” as the comics artists and illustrators of a certain era called it) is a big no-no, but I appreciate that Wally, as a commercial artist from the 1950s till his death in 1981, was more concerned with delivering the job than he was about his technique.

Just as I love Greg Manchess’ much more recent comment during his talk at the reception for his show at the Society of Illustrators last year: he explained that for one of his jobs he had traced the reference he’d been provided for an assignment. The students in the audience audibly gasped, which made Greg laugh, “Time to get real. If you’re going to paint a bottle of Jameson you don’t have to distill the whiskey and blow the glass yourself in order to be authentic.”

I’ve addressed this in the past (most notably in my “Labels” post), but I think it’s worth repeating: for an artist the “how” and “what” are much less important than the results and for people to get hung up on anything else is silly.

So cheating? When it comes to technique or tool or methodology…there ain’t no such thing.