Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Cumberland, Part 2: Choosing the Scene

This is the second part of the story of the making of the Cumberland painting.

With all this background information, I began visualizing the scene with some small color sketches in oil of various possible viewpoints and compositions.

The crucial moment, it seemed to me, was when both ships were firing on each other at close quarters, even as the Cumberland filled with water.

Some of the men were trapped below decks. One man was seen trying to escape from a gunport and was swept back inside by the power of the water. Others scrambled into the rigging. Many jumped overboard and either were drowned or were rescued by the lifeboats. Several accounts noted that the day was beautiful and clear, which presented a problem if I wanted to make the scene appear dramatic.

One of the four sketches is painted in a limited color range, resembling the sepia photos of the time. Historians and re-enactors told me that there would have been a tremendous amount of smoke and steam. I worked up a small comprehensive sketch in oil to plan the basic composition.

One detail that struck me was the account of a fat drummer boy who
jumped overboard and used his drum as a float. You can see him below in a detail of the finished painting.

All along, my instinct had been to view the scene from enough distance
to see the lifeboat and the waterline of the Cumberland. But before I went into full production on the painting, art director Christopher Klein suggested that I produce one more sketch showing a much closer view of the action.

In the oil sketch below, we see the pivot gun crew suffering great losses and yet bravely fighting on, with Morris calling out through his speaking trumpet.

Like all compositional decisions, this one would have been a tradeoff. Getting this close to the action brings the viewer closer to experiencing the psychology and the horror of battle. But if this scene was all that the viewer saw, it wouldn’t be clear what was going on at the water level. We agreed to pull back the viewpoint back just far enough to see the lifeboat action, but a little closer than we had shown in those first sketches.

Tomorrow, we'll get into the nitty gritty of research and acting out the poses.

Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 1A: The Backstory
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 1B: The Research
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 2: Choosing the Scene
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 3: Acting it Out
Sinking of the Cumberland, Part 4: Final Art


Pete said...

Wow! As an amateur painter and a huge history geek, I love seeing the process. I've taken a couple of classes with Keith Rocco, and I believe he has as much fun researching the project as he does painting it. Do you find the same is true for you?

Erik Bongers said...

Comparing the final sketch and the painting, I repeat the comment I gave the first time you posted this painting: the thick black smoke that envelopes the scene at the top was a golden idea for drama and composition.
Also because the mast and lookout drag the attention away in the sketch.

As to the decision to 'zoom in a little', there you have the trade of between artistic concerns and illustrative concerns from the art director. A bit similar to what's discussed in the "Marooned" post a couple of days ago, I guess.



i, me said...

I was just wondering out loud if illustrations of post color photography historical events would be 'accepted' or looked at as 'not real' ....
for example, sept 11th... could thre be an effective illustration of that?

Anyway, as previously mentioned, thanks for posting this, I have been looking all over for some tips on 'epic' history paintings...
Although atleirs like Grand Central have done a wonderful job of reviving lost academy techniques, there's not a lot of information out there about history painting...its fascinating to see the process 'looking over your shoulder' :)

Paolo Rivera said...

Jim, These are such great studies! Could you tell us what size they're painted at?

I have to believe that at this point in your process, you've already done a great deal of research. Though painted loosely, these studies have an immense amount of detail in them.

And finally, a nitty gritty question: does National Geographic pay you a flat rate, regardless of the number of iterations and proposals?

David Still said...

Very interesting and informative! I'm thinking about the same thing as Paolo Rivera, about how detailed and correct these sketches are. Did you do pencil studies first, or did you just paint straight from your photos of the scale models?

And an unrelated question: It says in your store site that you only ship within the US. Will the Imaginative Realism book be available in any other way outside the US, or do you only sell from your website?

E Colquhoun said...

Hi Jim,

The (former) illustrator in me wonders how many sketches, mock ups, roughs, whatever you want to call them, does NG typically want to see when the hire you for a job?

At what point do you start asking for more money?

You mentioned that you traveled to the location and met with historians. How much of your travel and research would they pay for?

What sort of deadines do they give when they comission art?

I can't help but think of "Where's Waldo" looking at all of the figues and all of the stories you tell by what they are doing.

Gorgeous work! I love the water.

Dave Lebow said...

Incredible ! You call these "sketches" but they seem to be more fully realized. How much reference is used for these sketches? Do you have photographic reference you shoot yourself of men in uniform? Do you pull things from memory and imagination for these studies as well? This is such an impressive work.

Daroo said...

Based on your Utopiales posts, I'm assuming we are missing the step where draw a bunch of pen and pencil thumbnails, exploring angles, action/posing and lighting.

These color studies do seem highly finished. Is their purpose not only to sell the concept and give you a clearer path to the final painting, but also to give the client something more specific to "sign off" on?

I would think it would give you much greater confidence to paint the final, if you knew everyone was on board (Pun intended).

James Gurney said...

Hey, these are all great questions. I do the research in a series of rounds. The first round (since I was a compleat dummy on Civil War history) was to read a bunch of children's books.

I looked at whatever references I could find easily to do thumbnail sketches, and then I did those four little oil sketches (about 3x4 inches each). So those are pretty early in the process.

I did them before meeting with the experts, because I wanted to give the expert naval historians something to react to right away. I found out if the position of the boats or the light direction or whatever was fundamentally wrong. It's not as productive to meet with experts empty handed.

The comprehensive sketch was about 9x12 inches. Erik, the art director and I decided to use the black smoke in the upper left with the thought of this being a double page spread, with type running across the smoke.

Nat Geo pays for the research stage as part of the whole job. I don't charge extra even if I do more work, unless they change their minds and make me start over on a whole different concept. They paid the full price even though the piece wasn't run, which was good of them.

The deadlines in this case were very generous--the story kept getting pushed back--so we had the art evolving over a year and a half. Though I also work on one and two-week deadlines from other magazines, and enjoy those too.

Daroo said...

"I wanted to give the expert naval historians something to react to right away."

Very smart.

Shane White said...

I was going to ask that's a lot of effort to get the right camera angle on the scene. Why not have them worked out in a tonal pencil study instead?

But as you say, with the experts...getting them the clearest picture in your head can get to the specifics of more informed dialogue.

Great job.


Erik Bongers said...

Ah...so, I'm praising black smoke that was 'just' a layout idea...

Tyler J said...

Not sure if you will catch this comment since it is so late, but I so appreciate your generosity with your time, talent and instruction. It is invaluable. Besides learning a great deal, I find something in your blog daily that inspires me to do more (and hopefully better) art.

My sincere thanks.

James Gurney said...

Tyler and all, thanks for the nice compliment. I'm glad you're finding the stuff useful.

And by the way, I catch every comment on back posts--even very early posts--because the email flags me. So I read 'em all, even if sometimes I can't get back and answer questions.

badbot said...

as Erik said i thought the black smoke was really useful in the composition. To me it give more focus on what's going on the desk and give more sense to the image... it finally turned out that it was for layout reasons.

anyway, i really feel the final composition enhanced comparing to early sketches ( there are stunning by the "reality feeling" they evoke by the way ! so small sketches giving such an accomplished vision...).

a great work!

thanks for sharing this experience with us!

James Gurney said...

Erik and Badbot--I agree that the smoke helps the painting. It needed simplification somewhere, and were it not for the requirements of layout, I probably would have crowded in a bunch of detail up there. Sometimes as you know the demands of the page design can actually improve a painting.

Erik Bongers said...

You know...in my upcoming comic book, the best scene that I wrote was actually suggested by the person that reviewed the scenario.
My own black smoke.