With more than 60 Louis L’Amour covers under his belt, a Captain Morgan rum label, Time and National Geographic covers, postage stamps and countless commissions by the likes of Playboy, Newsweek, Smithsonian, Paramount, Columbia and Disney, artist Gregory Manchess still feels like he’s just getting started.
For the first in a planned series of illustrated books accompanying his original stories, Manchess has released an epic, hard-bound masterpiece, “Above The Timberline.” The arctic tale features more than 240 pages of his oil paintings, and illustrates a trait he knows well — perseverance.
“I don’t trust this idea that there’s talent. At all. I never have. I don’t feel it at all, and I didn’t feel it when I was a kid,” Manchess said. “After 40 years of doing this, you realize about a decade in that it’s not about talent. . . . [it’s about] all the hard stuff that people want to avoid because they want to run off and get famous. And that’s like playing the lottery, and I didn’t want to do that.”
From a young age, Manchess dedicated time to observing how things appeared around him, honing his drawing skills.
He recalled deciding to become an astronaut or an artist, “and my grades didn’t look I was going to be an astronaut any time soon.”
So he committed to the grind of the craft, survived art school in Minnesota, moved to Chicago to make a bit of money in advertising, then signed with an agent and moved to New York City.
But he wasn’t satisfied with a steady career. He kept pushing.
The concept for “Above the Timberline” came to him about eight years ago, and he began stashing money when he could. He spent the next five to six years writing the story, another year outlining the visuals, then commenced work in 2016 — relying on the money he had saved to get him through. He realized his perseverance had been preparing him for a project like this.
“Above the Timberline” is the story of a young man forced to brave an arctic world — desolate and laced with violent creatures — to find his missing father. Manchess wrote the narrative in the form of journal entries, some long, some brief, and with each page Wes Singleton, the protagonist, moves further from all he knows, persevering, edging closer to his destiny.
“A lot of the work went into it, illustrating for 40 years,” Manchess said. “Ten years ago I’m not sure I could have done it in the same amount of time, but this was the right timing for my career.”
When asked what surprised him most about making the book, Manchess laughed.
“You know, the thing I was most surprised at was not how difficult it was, or how much I had to do to accomplish it. What got me was how I never tired of the story or the paintings. Not one day,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. Sometimes when I got a painting done I was laughing. I was just having the best time making stuff up, and making it look like it was real.”
Although the book was originally intended for an adult audience, Manchess saw an opportunity to share with a younger audience what a life in illustration has taught him.
“I started to realize that I could excite young people with a story of adventure, and that reflected the talent thing,” he said.
“If you put your back into it, you’re going to get more success than if you wait for the gift. My guy in the book can’t wait for the gift; he’s got to go do it. I would love for them to think of their life as an adventure, and if they shoot for the right goals, it will be a heck of a good time.”