Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mark Twain Stamp

Gregory Manchess

I painted the portrait of Mark Twain for the newly released stamp by the US Postal Service. Twain returns to my portfolio once again.

My first serious head study in clay was a portrait of Twain. My first accepted piece in the Society Annual was a charcoal portrait of him for the cover of a Hellman Design Associates calendar. I did them both from memory.

For the stamp, however, I looked at quite a few photos of Twain. I chose a shot from 1907 that was too contrasty, but had the right attitude. I had to shift the value of his fantastic white hair, even though it couldn’t fit in the frame. Such a magnificent face, and perfect to draw.

Phil Jordan and I worked together on planning the piece. He’s such a great art director, always open to my thoughts. As you can see from my thumbnails, I worked through a few designs. He suggested the riverboat element would be best for this particular portrait of Twain, instead of Halley’s Comet, as they had used that motif on an earlier stamp of Twain. Once we agreed on a final layout, I did a quick color study.

One challenge was designing enough space into the image so I could give a feeling of the Mississippi. The final trick was getting it to look as painterly as possible at an inch and a half across. I down-sized my brushes, working the final at six inches wide, actual size. After three months of on and off work, the painting came together in about two hours.

A later change reduced the size of the riverboat by about 10-20%. No digital magic--I actually painted it down smaller. That took about the same time as the entire painting, but I was happy to do it. The original goes into the USPS permanent collection and I wanted the painting to reflect the actual final stamp, if it ever went on exhibition.

Even though it was small, I had a check list of criteria for the project:
-Large portrait head
-get hair to read
-strong light on facial structure
-classic Twain look
-Mississippi River
-room for type
-contrast values for type to read
-painterly strokes

Sequential shots of the painting in progress:


  1. I can't wait to purchase these stamps!
    Incredible job!!!

  2. I love reading about the process of creating new works, and how other artists approach their work. Excellent!

  3. Nice work. Great problem-solving.


  4. Beautiful work Greg, and fantastic shots of all of your process. And the modelling on Twain's face is out of this world.

  5. Beautiful!

  6. Delightful, juicy little painting, Greg!!

  7. Beautiful! I've already ordered some. :D

  8. Beautiful piece! It speaks volumes in a small space!

  9. You make every stroke mean something. I think your amazing.

  10. I can't imagine Twain being pictured with anything other than a riverboat! After all, that's where the name "twain" comes from!

    I received my page of 4 stamps 3 days ago!

  11. Really, truly beautiful work. But tell me that isn't the final type please (I'm pretty sure it's not). The kerning is all goofy.

  12. A world of color & form in a tiny little space. Beautiful, Greg!

  13. Your brush strokes are really powerful and work incredibly well in this little stamp. Absolutely great work!!

  14. I bought some of these two days ago! I'm proud to be sending my overseas penpals these awesome stamps. Great job!


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