Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pirate Paintings for National Geographic Pt. 4

Gregory Manchess

This was a critical painting for the series.

The problem: show Black Sam Bellamy chasing the slave-ship, Whydah, finally over-taking her after a three-day chase, firing a shot across her bow, watching its sails unfurl, while the pirate crew cheers and the defeated captain looks on.

The actual problem: too much information.

The client was asking for a long animation of events, out of which I had to pick one moment to tell the story of the sequence.

This is a major problem in the illustration market. The client nearly always wants to portray more than is possible because they want to make sure the viewer understands what’s going on.
They fail to realize that the viewer always comes with information already locked in, based on thousands upon thousands of images they’ve already processed. That’s what they bring to the painting: awareness. In my paintings I assume the viewer is already intelligent. I won’t have to give them too much before they respond immediately to a visual prompt.

So, the first thing to toss was the three-day timing. It wouldn’t work as a slice of time. The accurate moment to capture was the point when they overtook the Whydah. I could show that from many angles, but which one? I had to pick a pov to capture the pirate crew, Bellamy, and the entire slave-ship, and still make it look natural. I decided on showing the scene from the perspective of a pirate that might have been standing on the rail, watching the scene unfold.
Still, I had to take liberties with the timing of the scene. I wanted to show the shot fired, but the client was desperate to have the sails unfurling in the painting. The action of shot, the cheering pirates, and the sails already dropping would take quite some time in actual life. So, I compromised the scene, to communicate a somewhat lengthy process into ‘fantasy time,’ to get the point across. This way, they could tell the story through the exhibit narration, and I could show the visual sequence compressed into one moment.

I built the scene from this thumbnail by projecting some reference and redrawing directly to the canvas.

Just before I started painting, they reminded me that I had to get the young boy pirate into the scene. (More on him later.) So I had to push figures around to open a spot for him.

After they saw the painting, they wanted Bellamy’s head turned. This took an entire day out of the schedule that I didn’t have to spare, but had to do. It added to my anxiety about the deadline.

Even with changes, this was one of my favorites to paint. Five down...five to go, about three weeks left at this point.


  1. Every one of these that you post is more mesmerizing than the last. It's still hard to believe the amount of control you have over your paintings. Wonderful as always! I hadn't seen this one before, so it's even more of a treat.

  2. Geeez Greg, this is amazing. Seeing these develop start to finish is still like watching some crazy magic trick.

  3. Brilliant! It really captures all the details it needed. I must agree, viewers are intelligent ones and the pressure hold itself as to how one could deliver it best. :D Thumbs up! wow accounts for sale

  4. This is my favorite so far. LOVE the colors here!

  5. A Masterpiece! It still blows my mind how you work your paintings section, by section.

    Just for the record, I prefer the pirate looking away from us.

    Great solution to the original request by the client. Here I thought it was just me that got asked to try and cram insane amounts of information into one illustration.

  6. I absolutely love this one, it's a masterpiece! There's some issues with Sam's leg being very high up on his body, as well as the foreground guy's arm (the one holding the ropes).. But other than that, what a beautiful painting!

  7. chibiwow: I always start with the idea that I'm talking to a crowd of people that already respond to what I'm doing, how I paint. I 'speak' directly to them...and they are actually ME. How do _I_ want to see the painting? What would excite ME? Turns out, it generally excites others as well. Not a bad way to go about it.

    Anonymous: I agree....I was more of a fan of Bellamy looking away to the other ship. It felt stronger to me. Looking back at the crew makes him seem like he's faking it, playacting.
    You crack me up--all illustrators are asked for CRAZY changes, but most times the requests can enhance the painting. It's tough to know what's best, but working with a client is a TEAM effort, so it's better to listen and work together. At least, that's how it's worked for me.

    Daniel: I hear ya....I guess when moving that fast, I missed some things. I may go back and try to modify those at some point.

    Thanks, you guys! Justin...glad you like the magic! I mix it with all my paint....

  8. Oh....I looked at Bellamy's's his boot that's riding up. It goes up his leg higher. The model stretched his leg to get it high enough on the rail. I suppose if it looks weird, it is weird....may have to trim that down.

  9. Love, love, love the cannon shot!


  10. Nice, Greg, now I can't unsee that overly stretched out leg.

    Nice stuff as usual. I never tire of hearing you stories of the great and terrifying NG, and you're always my inspiration to do better with my own art.

  11. Greg,

    The whole painting is fantastic but it's the ocean that really stands out for me. Damn, that looks good! The bits of yellow-green you put in there where the sun is going through the water makes this scene almost breathe. I can taste the salty ocean air!

    You've shown us that good backgrounds 'ground' a picture in reality and should be done to the same level of mastery that the figures are done to.


  12. Hi
    Awesome, love how many stages you've included, boy do you spoil us and set the bar so high sometimes I feel like I'll never get anywhere near.. but, hell, it's good to try though, aim for where you are. I don't know what else I'd do that satisfies the soul so much.

    I did find myself drawn to the anatomy too oddly, before I read the comments, wondering if it was me. But working to the timescale, the detail, the complexity, the standard I'm amazed.

    I feel so mean now making a request generally of this blog when you guys give so much... so I'm saying I'll not beef.. but any chance you could indicate the actual size of artwork? I'll make an ass of myself by trying to guess: A1 ish? Bigger?

    Thank you again, appreciation in spades.

  13. Having to re-do that face... can't even imagine it. Amazing recovery though. Beautiful painting.

  14. I saw a square-rigger for the first time this past weekend. Beautiful ships!

  15. Greg, the sequence for the head turn on Bellamy is just BRILLIANT. I think my own head would explode if I had to repaint something like that on such a tight turnaround. Keep blowing my mind with the awesome work man.

  16. Watching your process is an adventure in and of itself. I feel like I'm on the edge of my seat watching it progress and how perfectly you have the lighting already mapped out in your head. You seem to just be filling it in as a procedural zen-like afterthought. Absolutely incredible!

  17. @Anonymous who asked about size. Here's a pic of the original with Greg in the pic for scale.

  18. This is unbelievably inspiring Greg! Love the process shots from thumbnail to finish.

  19. Amazing stuff Greg! Very methodical. Will you be posting more of the Pirate paintings?

  20. I always thought that Expedition Whydah missed out when they didn't produce posters of some of the art work from the exhibition. I went twice and am only now learning the name of the artist who did them! (You, Gregory!) I really enjoyed the paintings, particularly the harbor scene and the court scene. I know a lot of the pirate "realists" didn't like them, but I sure did! To this day I still wish I had posters of those two paintings!


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