George Bernard Shaw, 2006
Greg Manchess

Eight years ago, the RAND Corporation contacted me about painting a series of portraits for their annual calendar. The calendar showcases famous quotes by noted celebrities from all fields. Carl Sagan, Teddy Roosevelt, the Dalai Lama.

I agreed to the project because I like series of pictures, like a calendar or a collection or someone’s portfolio. And this would be a great portfolio piece to be able to show consistency of execution and also provide a string of samples to enter shows to gain new clients.

The project needed 15 portraits though, so they could pick and choose from a list of quotes that their team would agree to be chosen. Three extra pieces would be paid for, but not make the cut for the final 12-month calendar. Fine by me. I would also have to provide test pieces to show 2 or 3 styles, and they would pick the approach they liked the most.

RAND graciously provided the reference material to work from. The art directors are really good at digging up great shots. Even when the reference proved difficult to find, I could still work from the pieces sent.

Below are some examples from the first year of working with them.

Roosevelt, Shaw, O’Conner 2006, oil on linen

They returned the following year with the same request for another calendar. Only this time, they wanted me to use a different technique. I’d spent many years just getting clients to recognize my oil work and now they wanted something different from the same guy? This reminded me of my studio days when I was required to paint anything and everything in whatever medium necessary to please the client. Pen and ink, acrylic, pastel, lettering, pencil, watercolor. Whatever it took to achieve the look.

I wasn’t prepared to change my approach all over again, but thankfully I’d had experience in almost every medium out there, so I took it as a challenge. The second year I used Prismacolors.

Smith, JFK, Schlesinger, 2007, Prismacolor on illustration board

Third year, same deal, different technique again.

Szymborska, Dalai Lama, Sontag 2008, pastel on paper

Fourth year. Same medium, different approach.

Churchill, Ellison, Sun Tzu 2009, pastel pencils & sticks on paper

Fifth year. I was beginning to run out of techniques, but I still shifted tack. Remember, I also had to provide three different examples each year so they could pick one.

Kennedy, Tutu, Dee 2010, conte & charcoal

This project has been going on for 9 years now and each year I do something slightly different from what I usually do. But it still has my own particular mark to it. They still say Manchess with an ‘M’.

During these years I realized that as long as they had to resemble the personality, I could probably tweak and twist, rework and shift my way of painting for any number of applications.

Disney, Chief Joseph, Douglas 2011, oil & wash

Over my career, I’ve learned that resisting the flow of development tends to stall an artist. If I knew anything at all at the time, it was that I had a gut feeling I should use these challenges to discover more about the direction I want to take my work. It took me a long time in the business to figure out, despite my love of painting and drawing in general and my long desire to find a singular style, that what I honestly love to do best is to paint no matter what the ‘style’ or ‘look’ or attitude. I paint because I love the experience, and it doesn’t matter about any of the rest.

Einstein, Washington, Descartes 2012, gouache on gessoed board

To the authentic artist, the endeavor is the process. The result of the look is secondary. To claim a technique or corner a style is irrelevant to the act of creating. We change as we go. The painter today is not the same guy that started as a teenager. You won’t be either. And the society you paint into will change on you, seemingly overnight.

King, Sagan, O’Connor 2013, oil with palette knife & brush

Find your way to the paint. Don’t worry so much about how you look until you are capable of expressing yourself on that two dimensional surface. It comes sooner than you think with this approach. The discovery is in the action. Acting and thinking revolve around each other. Find yourself by doing.

Jemison, Mandela, LeGuin 2014, Prismacolor & gouache