Monday, December 16, 2013


It's a known fact that 47% of all cliffs in American illustration were painted by Frank Frazetta.

He'd paint them on the right side of the picture:

...and then for variety he'd paint them on the left side of the picture:

And on days when he was feeling ambitious he'd paint cliffs on both sides of the picture:

When it came time for something completely different, he might draw cliffs instead of painting them:

Frazetta lived in a land of cliffs that no geologist would ever recognize.  Apparently he felt that cliffs added drama to his pictures.  They conveyed brinksmanship, a place where the hero's back was to the wall with no retreat.

Some of Frazetta's cliffs were less successful than others. For example, this one seems hopelessly overworked to me:

The technique may be dazzling, but Frazetta seems to have become so caught up in making pretty lines that he lost control of the drawing.

The more he labored over individual cracks and pebbles in his cliffs, the less substantial and persuasive the cliffs appear.  For example, the unnecessary details in the drawing above result in a flat, awkward cliff with no real weight or mass. Similarly, the cliffs in the gorilla painting, where each layer of rock is carefully delineated, look like a cheap theatrical backdrop. 

Yet, when Frazetta lightened up, and made his cliffs delicate compositional devices, they began to take on genuine artistic weight.


Another cliff or a column of smoke?  They both weigh the same, aesthetically.


  1. I never thought about it before but Frazetta painted as many cliffs as girls. I already found more cliffs on his site.

  2. I don't know anything about Frazetta, but I'm guessing his cliffs weren't there just for narrative drama. They might be a response to the challenge of painting a landscape in a vertical format. If he had split the canvas the obvious way-- foreground at the bottom, middle ground in the middle, background (sky) at the top-- the result would be static. Instead he tilted the foreground to make use of the vertical space. It makes sense just in terms of graphic design, I think. We call it a cliff, but maybe he just thought of it as an element of composition?

  3. David - only someone that loves him would pick on him in this way. :)

  4. MORAN-- Yes, there are a batch more Frazetta cliffs out there; it's amazing how often he returned to that cliff-side composition and the difference in quality between them can be extraordinary.

    Kurt Cyrus-- Well, of course if Frazetta needed a strong vertical he could have used a tree or a spear or a column of smoke or even a person standing in the foreground. He didn't need to keep going back to those stark, jagged cliffs. But basically I agree with you-- I think the paintings where Frazetta focused less on the narrative role of the cliffs and treated them more like compositional elements the stronger pictures.

    Larry MacDougall-- Yes, I think Frazetta is fantastic. Nothing I say to "pick on him" could possibly injure his reputation in any way. But I do think that Weird Science Fantasy cover is a poorly managed drawing.

  5. My problem with Frazetta is his tendency to overstatement and exaggeration that shades into vulgarity much of the time. And his cliffs are no exception - if I was pushed (har har) I'd say they're often what brings out the worst in him.

    For my taste, the snaking boughs of Jeff Jones's 'Tarzan trees' served an artistic purpose more fully and subtly than the claustrophobic aggro of Mr Frazetta's jagged cliffs.

  6. I agree that where the background was not used as part of the narrative they were stronger works, but they were also less ambitious works.

    We get one-dimensional pin-up after pin-up, shouldn't we be happy to see him do something where the setting attempts to add some additional depth to the work -- even if it wasn't entirely successful?

  7. I was interested in how each of the cliffs is done in a different style or technique.

    Etc, etc... what, nothing from Ah Via Musicom?

  8. for the strat cats

  9. Chris Bennett-- There are days when I think vulgarity is highly underrated.

    Richard-- I'm not sure why you think the pictures with the cliffs as compositional devices are less ambitious than the pictures where cliffs are part of the narrative. I'd say that gorilla painting is one of the least ambitious paintings I've seen in a long time, but those last two pictures are pretty darn good.

    Kev Ferrara-- I think that as a general matter, Frazetta's approach became looser as he became more confident about what he wanted to say.

  10. I think that as a general matter, Frazetta's approach became looser as he became more confident about what he wanted to say.

    That can be said of any artist.

    The point I was trying to make was that your post has demonstrated, inadvertently, a second feature of the man's art; which is that Frazetta never held to any dogmatic rendering convention for rocks. Even when he was making a piece of crap art, he was still going for something unique, still being creative or imaginative in his use of his materials to assist the evocation he was going for. I count nine distinct methods in paint, and two in ink just in this post of yours.

  11. Cliffs or clouds the intent and virtue is to create a more dynamic stage to place (or "dispose" as the older art treatises call it) figures rather than a simple flat stage.

  12. Kev Ferrara-- I guess what I was exploring was whether the "different styles or techniques" you noticed were just points on a straight line progression from a prodigy who had not yet learned to exercise control over his technical skills, to a mature artist who didn't need to labor over pointless details or hard edges. After going back to take a closer look, I don't think my theory holds up well. Some of the least successful pieces, like those overdone pen and ink drawings where the lines just amok, happen at the beginning while some of the most successful pieces are (for me) the later, looser ones. Yet, there are some pieces in between that don't follow that linear progression theory-- for example, the awful movie poster to Clint Eastwood's "Gauntlet" or the gorilla picture.

    Etc, etc.-- I agree, and I would add that the cliffs or clouds might make the stage more dynamic, both in form and in content. I thought it was interesting that Frazetta returned again and again to the same device of a hard vertical stripe down the side of the picture. We didn't even get to all those pictures with the cliff in the middle ( which are similar in content, because I was most interested in the form.

  13. >I'd say that gorilla painting is one of the least ambitious paintings I've seen in a long time, but those last two pictures are pretty darn good.

    First, gorillas walk on their hands, so I wouldn't really say they're interacting with the cliff so much, any more than a human stepping jauntily over a rock is interacting with the background.

    Second, he could have made the gorilla picture more ambitious given the background, but instead he ended up hiding behind the cliffs.

    But in general, a single character standing in an exaggerated pose is less ambitious, I think, than that same character, in a similarly exaggerated pose, also interacting with a setting.

  14. That's hysterical all those cliffs.


  15. Richard - any truth to the rumor that Roger Moore is your favorite Bond ?

  16. Keen observation and insightful. I never saw his framing device until you did this extensive compilation. This is what keeps me checking in from time to time. Thanks

  17. By the way, since nobody else has mentioned in, the WSF #29 cover linked here is a reproduction by another artist.

    Were you testing us, David?


  18. Anon -- The rumor is false, also I have no idea what you're insinuating. ^^

  19. Frazetta preferred the dynamic quality of a vertical composition, and a cliff is a way to show the "ground" in an upright position, keeping the viewer's eye within the composition.

  20. Kev Ferrara-- You give me way too much credit. It was simply my mistake, and it shows how we stop looking at images we've seen 1,000 times. I knew the slot I wanted to fill, so I just went on line and summoned up the dozen largest versions of the Frazetta WSF #29 cover, then downloaded the thumbnail that looked the clearest. Thanks for flagging this, eagle eye. I'm glad that some of us still pay attention, even to iconic pictures.

    It's a curious thing to do, replicate a complex drawing like that. It obviously took a long time. Reminds me of the Gil Evgren nut who replicated his paintings. Do you know any of the back story?

    I am taking the liberty of correcting my error so that future readers aren't misled.

    Joel Brinkerhoff-- Glad to see you back again.

    Richard-- I don't know what dark facet of your past you are covering up here, but these things always come to the fore eventually.

    Michael Swofford Paintings-- I think that is a fair, accurate and sympathetic characterization of what Frazetta was up to.

  21. I don’t know the story behind the recreation, except that I knew instantly that something was wrong with the version you originally posted. It was a professional comic book ink job, but utterly lacked Frazetta’s hypersensitivity and imaginative belief. This replacement you just dropped in is also fakakta, imo, looks like a over-contrasted Xerox of a bad print. Here’s a good one, a direct scan: And I think if you look at the real thing, diluted ink and all, the piece is pretty spectacular, and less overdone feeling than you suggest. Maybe its just me, though.

  22. >I don't know what dark facet of your past you are covering up here, but these things always come to the fore eventually.

    No doubt, no doubt, but in this case I am quite innocent. Next they'll be accusing me of thinking Tom Baker is the best Doctor. What am I? 40?

  23. Frazetta's was master of his craft, and is a legend in some circles. I love the way he was able to use black and not flatten the image.

  24. What The Cliff(s)! :---)

    The guy in I#4 is thinking
    "So many cliffs - so little time to climb."

    I#5 "Get your own cliff."

    Something like that...

    BTW Great blog. I'm looking forward to seeing more of it.

  25. Very good observations D. You teach me every time I visit. Thanks for showing me things I passed over too quickly. Truly~T