"Don't copy my work-all you'll learn is my mistakes!"
-Roy G. Krenkel to M. W. Kaluta, c. 1987
The admonishment above came too late for me: 25 years after my eye and hand were set on the road to Fantasy Illustration from industriously aping Krenkel's line art I'd discovered inside the early ACE paperback Books editions of the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars Series. Of course, I'd never seen the like: expert compositions in which every character pose and delineated item defined the exotic worlds promised by the book titles: Chessmen Of Mars, Mastermind of Mars, A Fighting Man Of Mars etc. When these books found me, the only drawing ability I had was the desire to draw, a nearly unformed "going forward", aching for a direction. Other art had certainly suggested paths, paths I took for a few hesitant steps, but, seeing what Roy Krenkel accomplished with line, shape and negative space stirred my imagination and set my nascent abilities onto a highway into my future as an artist.
The 1960's would see the reawakening respect for long ignored illustrators like Alphonse Mucha, Aubrey Beardsley and Maxfield Parrish (all of whom had defined their time in History). Even the nearly invisible Norman Rockwell would come back into his own as the public remembered just how happy his art made them. Certainly the growing public awareness of these giants of the illustration field helped seed the paperback companies with the Idea that This Old Art will sell books. Someone must know: who first picked Roy Krenkel to do the Ace Covers? The resultant library of fantasy books sporting Krenkel's exciting work (and eventually Frank Frazetta's equally evocative art) is a well from which many young artists of the day took a long drink. The new Paperback Cover Art carried the authenticity of the earlier masters mentioned above, while sending a signal to the younger gang that everything "old" was "new" again!
At the time I became hooked on Roy's approach to Fantasy Art, I was unschooled in the more esoteric areas of Fantasy Illustration. Saturating myself with Roy's covers and drawings, my eye became sensitized to the look and feel of good illustration. So, when I saw my first Mucha drawing, I knew it for what it was: One of the good drawings by one of the good artists! It had the same sensitivities I'd come to expect from devouring Krenkel's work & There's little doubt I'd seen Aubrey Beardsley's drawings years before I ever thought about drawing, but after absorbing Krenkel's Mars and Pellucidar illustrations, Beardsley's work was like a fire on the horizon.
In later years I was to learn much of what constituted Roy Krenkel's personal art influences: Men and women whose names and work I'd never have come across without his guidance. That Roy was an Artist and Collector stood his friends in good stead: his sharing of his collection was a Master's Class in What Was Really Good in the world of What Had Been Drawn Before. Besides giving me a whole course in concept and execution, weight, intent and clarification with each of his exquisite frontispiece drawings, eventually Roy would open up worlds within worlds, boundless, through introducing me to the works of his favorite artists.
As evocative and well-developed as Krenkel's cover art for the Edgar Rice Burroughs books was (and a number of them stand as Icons whose stature I still attempt to equal in my own work) it was his pen and ink frontispieces in the same books that took my complete attention and kept it, hour after hour, locked in study. When the rare paperback with a Krenkel cover with no frontispiece appeared one would be reminded what a gift the small ink drawings were. After all, there was no rule that there be an additional drawing inside the book & I always credit Roy for demanding the books have the extra art, but looking back, I have to assume the decision was, again, from that unnamed editor whose choice it was to have Roy G. Krenkel involved with the book at all.
Be that as it may: additional art, and lots of it, was a hallmark of any Krenkel project.
Opening the cover on one of these frontispieced books, my first take would be on the drawing's vignette shape. As a blob on the page, with title above and author in type below, there was always an exciting presence to the overall impression. Further study would focus in on the position of Roy's figures. The Tableau. Their attitudes were always set up to enhance the drama of the subject matter. Because of this, many times the vignette frontispiece could have doubled for the cover. All the impact needed to sell the book was captured in the well-defined composition. Other times the vignette would take on the special quality of an Interior Illustration, where concentration on a more complex scene would add to the interest.
The paperbacks, being such a size and such a paper quality (or lack thereof) limited the amount of detail. Studying these efforts was a lesson in the strength of brevity. Brevity with Content. This was a lesson that could be found nowhere else in the publications of the day. Curiously, the interior vignette frontispieces done by Frank Frazetta at the same time for the same author and same publisher had an equal sense of place, brevity, impact, grace and power to entice the reader into another world. That these two artists alone in this time could produce such gems spoke to the lost world of early illustration. Through their efforts on the Edgar Rice Burroughs reprints, a link to the pulps of the early 20th Century was forged anew.
Years on, I can still cast my mind back to those first impressions, very useful when called upon to work up anything remotely in the same vein. Spoken aloud in those earlier years and now a silent inner voice when caught at a loss, my mantra is: "What would Krenkel do with this?" If the prayer is answered, I'm well on my way to a fine composition, thanks to the guidance I gleaned from my appreciation of Roy's work.
The overall effect Roy's work had on me was it gave me permission to delve into realms of imagination untouched by the run-of-the-mill illustrator. "Giving Permission" is the greatest gift one can give to another, in art as in real life.
Some artists are Pathfinders, cutting a swath through as-yet untapped wildernesses. Roy Krenkel was more akin to a map maker and guide. If the world of art and illustration was a continent, he'd been there, he'd looked around, noted the terrain and returned a better man. The region wasn't unknown or unknowable, but it was diverse, with points of interest and areas of dullness. The way Roy refined the map, the dull stuff was excluded with a laugh, while the exciting areas were embellished with gusto. By mining the art and intent of earlier explorers, Roy would illuminate a kingdom I was eager to make my own. Many early artists were worth a mile marker or a signpost, but these were the curious sidelights ringing a major talent whose figure work, original concepts, surprising compositions, pen technique or glorious color work marked a capitol city that dwarfed the one-note artists in that area. There was never a mention of one artist without the mention of several more (with examples when necessary) until an entire realm was defined by a host of giants of illustration.
Before discovering Roy's work, and meeting the man himself, other artists I'd noted were isolated, little lights in the dark, separated from me and from each other. Through Roy's work and insights, I learned of the connectivity shared through drawing, seeing in his art the amalgamation of all he admired. Yet there was no lack of Self in his pictures: These were not copies of other's efforts, but distillations of The Best Stuff he'd come across in his travels.
Here was Permission to glean from the past.
Conversing with Roy as I developed in my career, I learned that many of his pieces I held as Icons were, to him, rife with self-doubt and hesitancy. Often he claimed he'd not want to go further with a piece because the brightness of the earlier, and to his mind, better artist that inspired the piece out-shown his own vision. My approach to this revelation was to point out that I had certainly based my work on his, never seeing anything but a Krenkel Masterpiece in whatever I was using for inspiration, and then defy him to see any detriment. I'd note that even his heavy reliance on another's successful piece translated, through applied intent, into a pure Krenkel end product. This meant that I, that any artist, was allowed to delve into the ocean of Ancient Imagery, pull up ideas and approaches time-worn by the Gods Of Illustration, and make of it a valid original effort, going forward undaunted by the ever-present fear of becoming assimilated by the older, greater artist's work. What had been a demon fear on one hand, became a perfect tool on the other.
Near the end, I met Roy in a New York City bookshop where he was buying another copy of Last and First Men and Star Maker by William Olaf Stapledon.
"Kaluta," he exclaimed, eyes opening wide as he rose onto his toes. "I think I got it figured: No matter how good those old guys were, they'd never take an Idea where I would!"
Yes, Roy & never ever.