-By Howard Lyon
It isn’t often that you get to meet one of your childhood heroes. I grew up with my walls covered with paintings by Arnold Friberg. I had the chance to meet Friberg in 1997 while I was attending school at BYU. It was a great meeting, with lots of the illustration students in attendance. He gave a great presentation and spoke about many of his more famous paintings, including his official portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, as well as his experience working with Cecil B. DeMille. Afterwards, students could go up and shake hands and chat. Friberg was nice, but wasn’t engaging in a lot of conversation. He was cordial to be sure, but a little distanced.
I knew that he was from Scandinavia (his father was Swedish and his mother Norwegian) and I had recently lived in Norway. I also knew that he grew up in Arizona, my home state. So, when I approached him, I said “Hi Arnold, my name is Howard Lyon and I have lived in Norway and grew up in Arizona and I want to be an illustrator!” I must have struck a note with him because he spent the next 30 minutes chatting with me. I will share more of my conversation as we look at some of his paintings.
Friberg was known for his extremely masculine and stylized figures, painting subjects of men’s adventure as well as military and sport figures. He also did a lot of western work, expressing great admiration for the Native Americans and historical figures. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police were also among his favorite subjects. He painted them so well, and did so many (over 200) that he was made an honorary Mountie, the only American to receive that distinction.
In 1940, Friberg moved to New York where he studied with Norman Rockwell and Harvey Dunn, a well known instructor, illustrator and student of Howard Pyle. When WWII came around, Friberg joined the army and headed to war. Because of his background, he was offered a safe position creating art for the War Department, but instead chose to go fight on the front. After the war, he quickly set about working as an illustrator.
Enough biography, lets look at some paintings. I am excited to share these because I think for many of the Muddy Color’s readers, Friberg might be a new find.
Part 1: Religious Work
Friberg was approached to do come conceptual work for Cecil B. DeMille’s movie “The Ten Commandments.” He did mostly character design, but also some set and stage design. He ended up winning an Oscar for his efforts.
I thought the lettering in this painting was really cool. You will see this throughout his work actually, lots of beautiful hand-painted lettering.
I really like the use of big dark shapes in the composition below. Also, notice some nice little dramatic touches, like the obelisk being raised in the far background. It looks like one of the guide ropes has snapped loose. The thousands of extras for a scene like this were par for the course in Hollywood in those days.
Here is Moses defending the daughters of Jethro. As a kid, I always loved the massive, stylized figures. Their physiques are almost more like a superhero. Looking at some of Friberg’s work now, I see a little more stylization than I care for, but it still inspires.
You will start to see a signature in the faces as you view more of his work. Strong chins, narrow but strong noses and a heavy brow, even in the women.
I love that this is essentially concept art. It would be a neat experience to do some large scale oil paintings and costume studies for a video game these days. Studio AD’s, let me know if you are interested!
A close up of the brushwork and texture
This next painting was pretty epic to see in person. Quite large and full of great action. The colors are really intense in this painting. I love how all the lines and figures are leaning to the right of the piece, mimicking the wall of water behind them.
Friberg’s framing of Moses, his white hair against the dark background and his red robe, really catch your attention in person.
I love this next painting. This might seem out of left field, but it really reminds me of Brom’s work, which I also love. There is a restrained use of color and values here that is shared with some of his work.
How epic is that hair!? You would have to have hair like that to defy a Pharaoh I think. The Pharoah would be thinking, “Man, didst thou see his amazing hair?!?” while all the Hebrews are sneaking out the front gates. If they ever have a good cure for this shiny head of mine, I am starting day one on this hairdo.
The next few paintings are just a few of about a dozen paintings of real actors in potential costumes for the movie. Charlton Heston as Moses
Yul Brenner as Ramses II. This painting is just awesome. Very powerful, great costume design and really captured a great likeness.
Cedric Hardwicke as the Pharaoh Seti.
I started to notice something interesting in Fribergs work. He has a definite and unique texture quality. Almost like the paint is put on when it is just starting to dry, but then the varnish and glazes give it a jewel/enamel like quality. On top of that, sometimes there is a transparent resinous texture on top of the paint. You can see it here. It is almost like amber. That glob in the middle had no pigment in it, just clear texture.
I love greyscale paintings. I fell in love with Edwin Austin Abbey’s black and white illustrations for various Shakespeare plays. These next few pieces have a wonderful dramatic feel to them. The subtle temperature shifts of warm and cool greys are very satisfying. Look at the gold necklace on the figure in the foreground. Just a small hint of warmth in the metal makes it feel like gold.
Look at this great close up of the shepherds feet. I love the quick and aggressive brushwork here. The illustration board these were painted on has since yellowed, but I like the effect.
That's it for Part 1. Stay tuned for more!