Pirate Paintings for National Geographic Pt. 2

Gregory Manchess

The first major painting for the Real Pirates exhibition was a battle scene involving loads of figures, both pirates and non-pirates. Based on a specific, real event in the history of Black Sam Bellamy’s pirate activities, I depicted an attack against the merchant frigate Tanner, moored off Petit Grove near Haiti. The pirates sneaked up the side of the ship and washed over the rail to overwhelm the unsuspecting crew.
Overall, there were four figures and six major scenes from the history of the Whydah that the client wanted to depict for the project. Since the deadline was already looming, I started with the battle scene to get the anxiety of designing such a time-consuming scene out of the way. If something went wrong, I’d be able to adjust as I went through the rest of the paintings.

I thought I would be depicting this entire scene in daylight, from a wider vantage point. But the client wanted to see Black Sam and some of the crew from a closer pov.
And the attack occurred at midnight.
The deadline for the entire job was critical enough, but adding a night engagement to an already crowded visual was daunting. As I proceeded through it though, I realized how I could use light to highlight specific moments within the scene. In effect, it allowed me to use stage lighting.

Here’s a fast sketch to establish the general composition. Then I shot reference to match it. I got a couple of illustrator buddies in a garage in Tacoma, WA, to wear costumes and act piratical to depict a wide range of mayhem. Quite a few ‘arrrghs’ were used in the shoot. (btw, it’s pronounced “arr” even though it’s spelled with a ‘gh.’ Just stuff ya pick up when working on pirate jobs...)

I didn’t get a quick official ‘ok’ from the client for this particular sketch, but as time was short, I started it anyway, taking the risk that they would love it. Since there was no time for color studies either, this would be the first finished piece the client would see in order to judge whether I was painting in the style they wanted.
Within the first three weeks, I had to travel during to meet with the art director, Mark Lach, for another aspect of the murals for the exhibit. I brought the painting with me and unrolled it in front of him in a quiet corner of the airport. He liked it immediately and we both knew from that point on, what the art would look like. This was a great relief. I wouldn’t have to worry about what they were expecting.
The only change: remove the beards from all of the pirate faces. (More on this later. A small detail from a historian, “pirates didn’t have beards,” that became rather debatable.)
I used some reference shots taken several years earlier to design the deck scene.

The painting in progress: