Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Pirate Paintings for National Geographic

Gregory Manchess

Sometimes, after waiting for the right assignment for many years, it finally shows up, at exactly the wrong time.

I’d just finished a job that I swore I wouldn’t repeat: 10 paintings in 5 weeks. Long days of nothing but painting, eating, and sleeping. I hit the deadline and said, ‘never again.’ Two hours after laying down the brush, I got an email from National Geographic asking if I’d like to do a series of pirate paintings.
C’mon...nobody passes up doing pirate paintings. Not even if it’s 10 murals and they only have 8 weeks, including research, sketches, and finals. Do they?

I said, “Yes, definitely.”

This is the first in a series of large oil paintings, digitally enlarged as background images for an exhibition of artifacts from the first confirmed pirate ship ever excavated from the ocean floor, “Real Pirates: The Untold Story of the Whydah From Slave Ship to Pirate Ship.”
NGS needed a series of four portraits of some of the actual crew members. I started with a thumbnail of three of the main figures, just getting a feel for the project, followed by a more serious study of two of them. I worked from a silicon model head that would be used in the actual exhibition.

There was barely enough time to think on this project. I kept realistic images in my head of what I wanted to paint, and followed those mental images like a paint-by-number process. Here’s the step-by-step sequence of creating a portrait of the lead pirate, Capt. Black Sam Bellamy. I'll follow soon with more portraits and several massive scenes with multiple figures.


  1. Amazing portrait! I never understand how you can paint the jacket from start to finish like that without having any other values to compare to. Impressive

  2. It is fascinating to see how you paint- Thanks for sharing! The colors are so lush- just beautiful!

  3. ...and that is why they come to you, you are the Pirate King of illustrators!

  4. Truly inspiring.. keep up the good work!!

  5. Damn. That's beautiful.


  6. Yeah, thats very nice. Realistic, but with some nice lighting it doesn't look like a straightforward portrait. What a commission!

  7. I've wanted to see this series since I caught a glimpse of it in your massive black demo. I'm thrilled that you're posting parts of it now! Your painting process is impressive. You are really painting the story of this captain. The idea that each brush stroke is put down to stand on its own appeals to me a lot. Feels very immediate somehow. I wonder if you always painted this way?

    I can't imagine there was much time to plan and shoot reference on such a deadline... Yikes.

  8. It's really incredible how you manage to control the values and color so well working this way, Greg. Mesmerizing. Can't wait to see the posts on the big paintings!

  9. Thanks for sharing! I can't wait to see the rest.

  10. Hello Gregory,
    I love your stile and your works. I want to try out oils as well, what would you suggest would be a good color palett for the start ? Just a regular startert set, or better pick specific colors?

  11. I love how you get a sense of dappled light from small brush strokes like the high lights on his cheek and hand. I can't understand how artists like you manage to paint so directly, getting the right hue, value and chroma right from the first brush stroke. It seems like a good approach when you need to be quick - I imagine that after you've got the drawing down, actual painting is a matter of hours. I too am curious how you got to a point where you could confidently paint like this. Is it just countless life studies that build up a visual library of colour schemes and the paint mixtures needed to create them, or is a more theoretical understanding of colour needed to do this? I'm still very much a beginner in thinking with colour, and I find even a limited palette of white, black, yellow, red and brown to be very difficult to make any kind of colour harmony with. Looking forward to more posts on this subject! Also, pirates!!

  12. Thanks all! I'm flattered. It feels good to hear these comments because of the amount of work I've put in over the years, NOT the talent crap. More on that topic sometime later. (check out the new post Dan is putting up on 'failure.')

    Quick answers:

    Markus--best thing for now is to get a basic set from the art store. This will likely include the right colors to start understanding how to mix those babies. Mix a lot and mix often. (one tip: go for Cad Yellow Medium, Cad Red Medium. I find that these keep the palette warm, with fairly clean colors.)

    You are going to experience mixing muddy colors : ) Give in to it, but do not be discouraged. Slow down and try to understand WHY they got muddy. This is the ONLY WAY. Paint slowly. Paint deliberately. Don't tickle or fuss. I may write a post on this sometime soon. We start with mud, and we eventually come back to mud.

    David--hope the above helped with your question, too. I got to this point for two reasons. One, deadlines. Whatever it took to get the image on the surface. Period. This actually increased my speed over a very long time, about 15 years.

    Two, my determined attitude to understand how my favorite painters put the paint on the surface. This was a long, slow effort. I did not believe they were 'talented' so I understood they were humans placing pigment in trained patterns. My hands were no different than theirs, my mind had enough faculty to do the same. I proceeded from there.

    I have mixed many, many pools of color. I have failed to capture the right value many times. I mix again. I place it down. I mix again.

    And again.

    And again.

    There is no skill you can own by doing it once.

  13. Awesome pirate painting! I wonder if you have more stuff like this


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