“Reference prepared for these figures today? Wham! Punch out a dozen” Gregory speed-paints a crowd
G regory Manchess started his career as a studio-based illustrator, which instilled versatility by necessity: “We needed to be accomplished at whatever was put in front of us,” he says. “I’ve worked in watercolour, pastels, acrylics, airbrush, gouache…. The style and concepts are my own, the medium is merely the transfer process.”
He has a particular flair for figurative work, treading the line between compelling realism and stylised, painterly technique. Ultimately, he says, the better your understanding of the human form as an artist, the easier it is to express it in an understated way.
“Accuracy isn’t necessarily important, as long as the expression of the form succeeds in describing it to the
viewer,” says Gregory. “Once one has learned a lot about capturing a figure well, it’s much easier and fascinating to push and pull the expression to depict a feeling.”
Creating that meaningful emotional connection with the viewer is critical to his work: a simple goal that, the artist admits, has taken decades to master. “A painting is a still moment, but a perception of movement creates curiosity in the viewer’s mind, and can hold them in that moment,” Gregory says. “And the viewer brings their own information to the canvas.”
As viewers, familiarity with different human postures, movements and expressions – drawn from our own life experiences – feed into that moment, and provide a visual shorthand to help us make that emotional connection.
“Body language projects attitudes and emotions,” adds Gregory. “It’s like detecting danger in the environment around us. It’s a primitive aspect that we’ve learned over thousands of years. If we know how these things work for the brain, we can use them to engage the viewer.”
While figurative work is his forte, he believes much of the skill of creating that all-important ’moment’ comes down to the wider composition of the piece – creating tension across the canvas. “This is achieved by careful study of how a frame is divided up: left to right, top to bottom, foreground to background,” he explains. “An artist can tap into the basic knowledge of how a viewer looks at a painting. They already understand intuitively what visual space represents.” Clients such as the National Geographic Society and the History Channel have also enabled Gregory to indulge his love of history, and again it’s a balancing act between accuracy and creative interpretation. “Our job as
artists is to inspire in the viewer the curiosity to learn more; to hold them in the moment, and fascinate them. That goes beyond correct information. Accuracy is important, but is it more important to depict exactly how a costume looks, if the character wearing it doesn’t inspire you? If all the rigging is correct in a ship painting, but the motion of the vessel fails to incite more study, then how compelling is that?”
He may love history, but for Gregory large swathes of the past decade have been dedicated to imagining an alternate future for Above The Timberline, his ambitious book set in a harsh, frozen landscape.
passive polar bears
“I did a couple of thumbnails, picturing a guy heading up a mountain, and realised that he needed pack animals for his gear,” Gregory recalls of the project that first gave him the idea. “Polar bears provided that, even though they would likely have eaten him. So that was the anomaly, and spark of curiosity that I required for the image.”
Depicting just the right amount of tension in the scene was crucial. The bears were still ferocious wild animals, so it was important not to depict them as overly friendly or cuddly. “Once the painting was finished, it created so much curiosity that friends were practically demanding to know why I had painted it. Who is that guy? Where’s he going? Why? So I sat down and drew a few more thumbnails, and then started to write.”
Gregory initially worked on Above The Timberline for three years, sometimes daily. After attracting interest from a literary agent, it took another two years to sell the concept, then another two to refine and finish it. Staying focused throughout such an incredibly labour-extensive and demanding project required an incredible amount of self-discipline.
“Awake, eat, research, plan, sketch, paint, rest, eat, paint again, sleep,” he chuckles. “Next day, all over again. When I started, I panicked and knocked out 49 pieces in three months. Two weeks later I stalled a
Our job as artists is to inspire in the viewer the curiosity to learn more; to hold them in the moment
bit, because I needed to focus on some complicated images.”
Gregory’s pace slowed, and the deadline looked worryingly close, so he tried a radical solution: working on 23 paintings at once. “They were pinned to the walls around me, and each day I chose which parts to finish,” he recalls. “Feeling good about skies today? Pow! Knock out four of them. Reference prepared for these figures today? Wham! Punch out a dozen.”
the app eal of snow
Snow has always fascinated him, and as Gregory hit the final intensive strait, it started finding its way into his dreams as well as his painting. “Snow looks different in different types of light, and it turns the environment into instant graphic appeal,” he says. “A beautiful mountain painting is suddenly graphically powerful when a swatch of snow graces one of its faces.”
Nevertheless, despite 124 paintings set in a snow-covered landscape, he very rarely painted it actually snowing. Again, the viewer’s prior experience comes into play: “We understand different lighting conditions: overcast clouds about to rain, or snow; sunlight after the rain. If we can capture those lighting conditions in the paint, then the viewer feels it.”
All the paintings began life as tiny rectangular sketches on a piece of bond paper, with a visual through-line: “It was like stacking panels from a graphic novel, but aligned horizontally across the page,” he explains. “From there came dialogue and character. Rearrange images; more dialogue; less description; drawing for impact; capturing a moment; driving a narrative visually… I loved the process of building it.”
For Gregory, the discipline of repetition was an invaluable tool for developing his technique, and it’s something he’d recommend to any fellow artist. “I learned so much about how I build an image,” he says. “Repeating a process over 124 paintings can bring realisation rushing to mind about how one works.”
And he concludes: “There’s a difference between that and simple practice. Practice is just repeating; focused repetition is growth.”
A beautiful mountain painting is suddenly graphically powerful when a swatch of snow graces one of its faces
20,000 Leagues: The Harvest Part of a show at Gallerie Daniel Maghen, 2014, this evocative underwater painting was based on the classic Jules Verne novel. capt ain morgan “The client needed to revamp the painting of the Captain, and had seen my Nat Geographic work, but didn’t know it was me,” says Gregory.
Airship Another illustration from Above The Timberline, this establishing shot was based on references of actual airships, but “slightly over-built”, as Gregory puts it.
Snow att ack Another painting from Above The Timberline, depicting one of polar bears that sparked off the idea for Gregory’s book in the first place. Conquering Sword of Conan “I wanted a Conan that was more lithe and panther-like, as Howard actually wrote about him in the stories,” says Gregory.
Above The Timberline (cover) More than seven years in the making, Gregory’s labour of love was finally released in October 2017, and features a staggering 124 full-colour paintings.