Reflections on an empty studio

When the great illustrator Howard Pyle died in 1911, his heartbroken disciples gathered in his studio. Pyle had been a phenomenal creative force, the illustrator of over 125 books (24 of which he had written himself) and hundreds of stories in the most popular magazines of his day. Vivid images of pirates, knights, soldiers and lovers flowed from his boundless imagination.

Pyle’s students struggled for some way to prolong their master’s presence. One of his students, Ethel Leach, painted Pyle’s studio exactly as he left it, with his last painting unfinished on his easel.

Another student, Frank Schoonover, took that final painting and attempted to put some finishing touches on it.

Other students went on to imitate Pyle’s techniques or used the same paints. But he was gone, and nothing they did could extend Pyle’s magic. Pyle had done his best to pass along his artistic secrets to his students, yet no one could say where his great gift first came from or where it resided during his lifetime. And now, no one could extend its stay on earth.

Comic artist Jack Kirby sat at this ratty, stained drawing board next to this crummy, battered credenza, stared at this brick wall and summoned up thousands of images of Norse gods in ornate armor, intergalactic empires swarming with alien creatures, super heroes and and cosmic villains.

The legends he composed on this well-worn piece of lumber caught the fancy of millions. Then Kirby was gone. Deprived of Kirby’s spark, his studio now seems so sodden and inert that we are amazed such an environment could ever have been the platform for all that creativity. Whatever the source of Kirby’s greatness, it wasn’t to be found amongst the tools and furniture he left behind.

Like Pyle or Kirby, Bernie Fuchs was another radiant star orbited by epigones and myrmidons over his long career. Fuchs too kept coming up with fresh and beautiful ideas that none of his imitators could match, despite their long hours spent trying to master his secrets. If they had gone to his cluttered studio on the day he died and looked for clues in what he left behind, they would be no closer to understanding his magic ingredient.

The empty studio, now devoid of its creative presence, has a particularly hollow sound.

Yesterday, the great Frank Frazetta passed away. Over a long career he used his artistic talents to create persuasive worlds of sorcerers and barbarians—fantasy worlds where the four points on the compass were heroism, strength, adventure and great asses on women. What could possibly be better than that?

Frazetta’s hundreds of imitators wished they could inhabit that world, but their colors were somehow never quite as perfect, their reptilian creatures were never quite as convincing, their compositions were never quite as dramatic, their poses were never quite as striking.

If you look for the special magic ingredient that distinguishes Frazetta from his peers, you won’t find any clues left behind in his studio.

Objectively speaking, artwork like Frazetta’s should be created in a cave with flaming torches and skulls. Instead, it was created in a messy room by a grandfather wearing short-sleeved polyester shirts over his paunch, an artist who spilled coffee on his work as he raced to make deadlines. Frazetta’s studio, like the studios of other great creators before him, was a place where a temporary and unexplainable breach in the laws of physics permitted true alchemy to occur. With the creative presence extinguished, the laws of physics close in once again, and weigh on us more heavily in that spot than they did before.


David Apatoff likes great pictures and writes about them on Illustration Art.

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