Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Cumberland, Part 3: Acting It Out

My next job was to die a thousand deaths.

I had to act out the parts of all the sailors in various conditions of
leaping, swimming, nursing injuries, or manning oars. Wearing a navy uniform that I found in a surplus store, I jumped off a platform and writhed around on the ground, trying to imagine what it would have been like for the various sailors who were coping with the tragedy.

My wife took snapshots with a digital camera. One of the photos has a motion blur effect that I used in the final painting. There were something like 90 figures in all, and I wanted to make each one a little actor facing his own terrible drama.

One of the most helpful parts of the research was a visit with a naval historian named Colan Ratliff at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Bethesda, Maryland. This was an awesome place to visit, but I couldn't take pictures because it's a classified research facility.

Mr. Ratliff, who works deep in the heart of the complex, has built several museum models and drawn extensive plans of the vessels involved in this battle.

From our consultations, and from the approved concept sketch, I made a comprehensive line drawing and sent copies to Mr. Ratliff. His notes, drawn on a sticky note over the photocopied drawing, corrected some of my errors.

I had shown the old-fashioned deadeyes instead of rigging screws and had drawn the wrong kind of gooseneck attaching the boom to the mast. These corrections were going on by phone, mail and email for months after our meeting.

It really helps when a scientific or historical consultant can draw to explain their points, and many of them can.

With all the references and corrections in place, and after nearly a year of
research and roughs, I finally was ready to start the 30 x 40-inch oil painting, which took a couple of months. Most of the time was devoted to painting the various figures.

As I worked, I did everything I could to project myself into the action of the scene: playing the soundtrack to Master and Commander, the Flying Dutchman overture, and Rimsky Korsakov——and reading again and again the eyewitness accounts.

Warfare was such a brutal face-to-face thing in the Civil War. The guys on the Virginia could hear the screams of the Cumberland's wounded men below decks as they drowned.

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


Steve said...

I loved reading this. In my life, doing research and meeting interesting people along the way has been one of the intangible rewards when painting covers for a local publication. Your experience takes that concept to levels I'll never experience.

It's also fascinating to consider your year of research and two months of painting compared with the recent post about the twenty minute portrait!

Michael Prescott said...

This is wonderful. What I find so impressive is the amount of research that went into this piece. Now my curiosity is piqued about how one handle on the business side - commodity illustration rates of course wouldn't be remotely appropriate!

Erik Bongers said...

That day at the National Geographic offices:
"Jack! I have a police officer on the line! They have arrested a mental patient in a sailor suit that was behaving like a monkey. Now listen to this: the guy claims he's working for us! Can you believe this!?"

Andrew said...

These process posts are always fascinating, mostly because each one ends up being a unique experience.

When it comes to historical paintings such as this one, do you ever do scale models like the sort you do for your more fantastical paintings? I've played with the idea of picking up one or two scale model ships for a current project, just to have some on hand for lighting and being able to turn it over in my hands to get an idea of its dimensions and proportions. But I imagine considering all the loads of research you end up doing, you probably don't have to go that route.

Jeff Z said...

I can't even remotely imagine having more than a year to complete an illustration like this, in any medium. I've had to turn out stuff with a photorealistic type of look in 4 days or less. Of course, that requires working digitally, a great deal of cheating with photos and not getting any time at all to work on accuracy...

*mind boggles*

James Gurney said...

Thanks, guys. I should explain that I worked on other projects during that year and a half. This artwork was sort of stop and go as the article worked its way through the labryrinth at Nat Geo. But it ended up being more time spent on research and prelims than on final painting, and that's typical of such work.

Michael, yes, I have to balance to losses in lavishing time on such intensive work against more remunerative jobs.

Drew, I didn't have to build maquettes in this case because several excellent scale models existed in museums in Washington and Virginia, some more accurate than others. I took lots of photos of those.

Rob Hummer said...

The extensive detail in the accurate rendering of the warships, the surroundings, and the careful consideration of various individual characterizations in the numerous sailors facing the near-unimaginable, first-hand, up-close nightmare of warfare, certainly gives the image the impression of an observed reality, as if it were based on a war photographer's snapshot of the scene or painted by an artist who personally witnessed the event, pulling the viewer in to explore the action and really contemplate the epic violence these men had to bear.
This same level of meticulous detail and research in your work certainly seems to be what brings a rich reality to the world of Dinotopia as well. Art that your mind can really climb into and explore.
Looking forward to exploring "The Sinking of the Cumberland" further in your new book.
And, interesting to me you'd mention the "Master and Commander" soundtrack. I happened to be browsing the soundtrack section of a local library just last night and stumbled across, none other than, the soundtrack to "M and C", which i'd never listened to before. So i checked it out and will be listening later this afternoon while laying down a few more pencil strokes on new drawing i've been working on.

Victor said...

This is so impressive. I'm pretty much speechless.

Check out shirtless James Gurney in the upper right sailor reference photo!

Unknown said...

You definitely do your homework!

eric said...

you have not lived until you have seen your favorite artist wearing a sailor outfit that is three sizes too small, hanging off a homemade bench cluching on for is life.....sadness....haha!

the detail and research in this artwork are amazing. but the blood detail that appears everywhere in this painting make it very hard to enjoy.

it keeps reminding me of the horrible death these men had. it really makes it hard to enjoy looking at. it must have been very hard emotionally to re create.

i think that is why in most war illistrations and paintings they leave out the blood almost completely. but it adds so much power to the finished painting. i can imagine this is not a idea of what it "must have" been like, but a very accurate detail of what it "was" like, very powerful

Matthew Gauvin said...

WOnderfull work. The longest I ever spent on one illustration is one whole month from thumbnail sketches up to the finished art. I would love to be able to spend a year working out one illustration.
Would you be able to recommend a good brush to paint little faces? I noticed lots of your work has many figures in which you are forced to paint faces at less than an inch and use sugestive facial features. Every time I do this I end with messy little faces. Obviously lots of practice and knowledge of the face would help me, but I suspect a good brush may also help me get the job done.By the way thanks for all you have taught me in this great blog! I'm sure you know how important this is for young poor artists who can't afford to buy all the books they would like to have. I will deffinetly bebuying acopy of your new book when it come sout though.

Dan Gurney said...

I would think it would be emotionally taxing to imagine so vividly the demise of so many hapless sailors. Did this project impair your ability to sleep normally? I cannot imagine otherwise.

Your dedication to your work goes so far beyond the ordinary that I can only say your work is a higher calling.

Tyler J said...

I'm not sure that I could add much more about your process or your art that hasn't already been eloquently put before.

However, your comment about experts being able to draw reminded me of something Nicolaides (I think!) observed about the importance of an artist to be familiar with his subject matter.

I was unable to find the direct quote but his point was that if you asked an avid fisherman to draw a fishing pole, his drawing would likely be very competent because he has intimate knowledge of the subject.

So the fact that so many experts can draw makes sense, as far as their area of expertise is concerned.

Kunst Kommt Von K├Ânnen said...

great to see and read from a living master, that history painting isn't a dry, stupid and uncreative genre as it's often labled; in contrary, there is hard work, research, creative preparation and lot's of pleasure behind it. I especially love your photo-shooting :-)

I'm waiting for your Imaginative Realism book to see more!!!