Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Black Pharaohs, Part 2

Gregory Manchess

While I was working on the battle scene, I also had to visualize the second scene for the article, based on information found at the Gebel Barkal site in Egypt. It has a temple at the base of a rock formation that the Nubians revered. At the top of a prominent feature of the formation the Pharaohs had a portion of it covered in gold.

Here are some of the first thumbnails, based on verbal direction from the art director, Jeff Osborn. Jeff and I were trying to come up with a point of view to highlight much of the archaeological work. So I started with the drama of Piye, the Pharaoh, addressing his people at an annual celebration at the temple.

Behind Piye is the rock shape mentioned. There was some talk about making the scene rather grand, so I also threw in some broader views of the construction of parts of the city and the temple. Notice the last, lower right thumb. This started the point of view that was eventually used. Small beginnings.

These larger thumbs are visualized freely, from my head. It’s silly to get models at this stage as things are always changing. Now the drawing became a grand procession as I learned that Piye would parade a sacred golden model boat, kept in the temple, as part of the celebration each year, followed by all of his wives, consorts, etc. This included musicians, priests, fan carriers, dancers, on & on.

The researchers liked my suggestion that this high of a figurehead would need protection. So I was allowed to portray guards in a similar way as today’s protection services might place themselves. The fast getaway vehicles became chariots, one of which is placed in plain view in the painting. (It was continually debated as to what direction it would face. I said following alongside the procession; the archaeologists said pointing toward it.) Piye is flanked by personal guards, who eye the spectators.
The shape of the mountain, the distant pylons, the number of people, the shape of the boat, the number of wives, what Piye is wearing...everything is meticulously researched and picked at. For instance, over several sketches, the queen and the other wives are eventually carrying musical instruments. The incense bearer has turned, fans were reduced to two, and so forth.

As for the gold-capped rock formation, I initially thought it was covered in gold. Then I thought it was half-covered, then I got information that only 3 meters was covered in real gold, at the top. They wanted it to shine in the sunlight, in the painting. But as we had to show what Piye wore, show the golden boat (which was entirely covered in gold), show the temple, and the amount of people, it left little room for attention to something so far in the distance at this ground level p.o.v.
Eventually, it became a mere spot of reflection off the rock. Hard choices have to be made in paintings like this. Those choices always start with me, as I lay down the view, but I had to remain flexible to inevitable changes.
I could’ve done this procession from three other angles at least. It’s a bit like capturing an event on film, shooting with multiple cameras by embedded journalists. But there’s no room for that on a one-shot, double-page spread, so all of it had to be argued out, once the visuals started.

Fast color comp, produced halfway through the process:

Up next: doing a cover for National Geographic Magazine, the nation’s premiere photography publication.


  1. This is just my personal opinion of course but I feel like this particular piece, the multi figure composition with bold use of perspective, the loose appearance of the stroking and the soft, tight palette really speak with a true voice. This says 'Greg Manchess' to me and seems to represent the height of your style. I just saw Akira Kirosawa's 'Ran' last night and had a similar impression of seeing an artist who, having his own voice from almost the start had perfected it's language.
    Forgive me if I get too dramatic about this stuff :)

  2. Great job on dealing with all the requests. Wonderful job on creating a great image!

  3. Fascinating post Greg. You've shown real skill to deal with all the amendments and still come out with a beautifully balanced piece of art.

  4. wonderful work, thanks for sharing the process!

  5. Nice work, always interesting to see different sketch ideas, and to imagine how they could have been developed.

    I think you meant to say Jebel Barkal's a site in Sudan, by the way, not Egypt.

  6. Greg, it's both fascinating and inspiring seeing all that goes into the planning of your pieces.

    Curious if you find yourself sweating the same kind of details and nuance with some of your other pieces, as you always seem to have so many infuriatingly GOOD thumbnails.

  7. This is beautiful. You have truly given insight and vision to the ancient past. I love it.


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