Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Liberators

Painting "The Liberators of the 9th Minnesota"

I must apologize for the long spell between posts, but my life is like that. For days, weeks . . . months . .  . I throw myself into certain endeavors with great enthusiasm, and then lose steam for a while. After my break, I think I am back for a decent run.

Over the last year, in addition to illustrating three new books, I also worked on a painting of an American Civil War subject I have previously never dealt with – the liberation of slaves.  This is not my first time painting slaves; see my earlier post on Dred and Harriet Scott by clicking here.

The Minnesota Historical Society asked me to create an illustration for their 5-minute film "Perils and Prison Camps: Beyond the Battlefield". Prior to their capture and deadly confinement in the Confederate prison camp near Andersonville, Georgia, several men of the 9th Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment were involved in what was known as the “Otterville Outrage”.

 "The Liberators" - oil on board, 14 x 24

The story was told in impressive detail by John B. Lundstrom in his book, “One Drop in a Sea of Blue”, published by Minnesota Historical Society Press. Click here for details.

On a November morning in 1863, while guarding a railroad bridge near Otterville, Missouri, these Minnesota soldiers were approached by John, a run-away slave. John pleaded with the men to stop a train and rescue his family before they could be shipped to Kentucky and sold.  The situation was complicated. Missouri was a border state – loyal slave owners, in spite of the Emancipation Proclamation, could keep their human “property”, but were not allowed to ship slaves to another state.

When the junior officer in charge conveniently stepped away, 38 men grabbed their weapons and fell in under the command of a sergeant who promptly marched them off to the nearby Otterville train station. The train was stopped and the slaves were removed from a boxcar, under protest from the conductor and a pair of Missouri militia officers – the slave’s master remained inside the passenger car, no doubt intimidated by the Minnesotan’s leveled rifle-muskets. The train moved on, and the slaves joined the detachment as they started to march back to camp. Moments later, the train returned, this time with the Minnesotan’s commanding officer on board. The slaves ran into the woods, and the Liberators were placed under arrest.

The story has an ambiguous ending. Historians are not sure of the fate of the liberated slaves. The Minnesotans promised to help them, but they were jailed for some time until the political firestorm they had created finally blew over. By then, the slaves had disappeared . . .

Preliminary compositional sketches

I decided to paint a scene that would work in wide-screen format for the documentary and have several vignettes that could be focused on if the director and editor wished to do so.

To create this painting, I used a variety of approaches to visualize the characters as well as the train.

Most figures were based on photos of my wife and myself posing in the studio. However, in a few instances, I actually used DAZStudio software to test out some poses and replace the occasional face. The fact that it allows me to introduce facial and body-type variations, as well as control the lighting, has made my life much easier.  I this case, my schedule required that I move quickly forward and arranging suitable African-American models was not a realistic option. At the end of the day, I will use whatever means are at my disposal to visualize the scene, knowing full well that the process of painting it will – and should – change the picture in ways I cannot always foresee.
 The photosketch - all photo references combined with a bit of digital overpainting.

We did not have references for the slave’s appearance, other than suggestions that John was a big man. I found an online photo of a beautifully painted portrait (by one of my favorites, George Caleb Bingham) of Missouri State Militia Major Levi Pritchard. He is one of the two Union officers arguing with the Liberators.
Major Pritchard

While there are photos of various Liberators, I opted to take a chance and concentrate more on the other characters. It seemed to me that the overall composition and narrative was better served by not turning this into a “Where’s Waldo” type of history painting.

The train was based on various period photos and some great shots of recently fabricated, top-notch HO scale model railroad box cars intended for train and Civil War enthusiasts.

The ten year old in me still loves model trains . . .

The project progressed and the painting (can we say “Alliteration” folks?) was built up in the usual stages:

1. Read period accounts
2. Sketches
3. References
4. Comprehensive photo-sketch
5. Transfer to the masonite “Gessobord” (I really dislike cute names like that, but love the actual “bord”, so . . .)
6. Careful underpainting of lines and value masses.
7. Layers of corrections until the deadline or my dear wife says time is up.

I can honestly say that this project was a pleasure to work on, and as far as I know, nobody has painted this scene before. While the images of the painting are only a small part of the finished documentary, they stand out and highlight an important moment in our history.

If you get a chance, check out this and the other documentaries in the series by clicking here.

Cheers, for now!

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