Oregon artist to create stamp of personal favorite Mark Twain

COLUMBIA — Never in Greg Manchess’ wildest dreams did he think he would one day be chosen as the artist for a stamp honoring one of his all-time favorite subjects: Mark Twain.

“His face is so distinctive; I could even draw it in my sleep,” said Manchess, a self-taught artist from Portland, Ore.

Mark Twain's face, a riverboat, foliage and typography were key elements for Manchess as he designed this stamp.

The Twain stamp is the 27th installment in the U.S. Postal Service's Literary Arts series honoring famous American authors. Twain, whose given name was Samuel Clemens, is the author of American literary works such as “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” “The Prince and the Pauper” and “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.”

This will be the fifth Mark Twain stamp available from the Postal Service. The first came out in 1940 in the Famous Americans series. In 1972, the Postal Service released Norman Rockwell’s rendition of a scene titled “Tom Sawyer Whitewashing the Fence.”

The third stamp came out in 1985, commemorating the return of Halley’s comet and its unusual connection with Twain, as it appeared in both his birth year, 1835, and his year of death, 1910.

The fourth stamp, released in 1993 as part of the Postal Service's Classic Books series, featured an illustration from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”

As a child, Manchess always enjoyed Twain’s books. His fascination with Twain grew in art school, where he painted portraits and did a sculpted head study of Twain.

Little did Manchess know that one day the Postal Service would come knocking on his door asking him to paint the newest Mark Twain stamp, which will be a 44-cent commemorative first-class Forever Stamp.

“We got to talking, and (they) asked if I was ever interested in doing stamps, Manchess said. "And I said, ‘Are you kidding me? I would love to!’”

With 34 years of experience as a professional artist and illustrator, Manchess’s distinct style of thick brush strokes with oil paint earned him national recognition. His has collaborated with Paramount Pictures, Columbia Pictures and Disney to create movie posters and conceptual work for "The Chronicles of Narnia" series.

Manchess's fondness of history is exhibited in his book covers, magazine spreads and murals for a variety of clients such as Time magazine, National Geographic magazine and the Smithsonian.

“Greg has a marvelous reputation for his art,” said Phil Jordan, who has been an art director and stamp designer with the Postal Service since 1991. Jordan managed the entire Twain stamp project, and he hired Manchess.

Manchess said designing a stamp can be tricky.

“There is always a challenge with the format of a painting,” Manchess said. “For instance, going from a semi-size mural to a book cover to a stamp sounds like a problem.”

The key, he said, is to start with a small design then work upward so that everything in the picture balances out.

“Whenever I’m doing a painting, I start with a small thumbnail, usually the size of a — coincidentally — stamp,” Manchess said.

He said the real challenge was to get four key elements in the finished product: Twain’s head, a riverboat, foliage and the typography.

“The type is important, so there is no way around that,” he said. Jordan dictated the typography.

The real trick with the stamp was to be able to design it without losing too much of Manchess’ signature style of thick, expressive brush strokes.

“It had to be small enough but large enough to see,” he said “so I had to downsize my brushes.”

The original painting of the stamp is only 6 inches across, and it was inspired by a 1907 photograph of Twain. Jordan went through many photographs and pictures of the writer and picked those that were most recognizable and that would exude a classic sense of American illustration. Manchess got the last say on which photograph to use.

“It was an old black-and-white shot,” Manchess said. “But the lighting was nice, so I added the color and made up the skin tone and all that stuff.”

Denny Donnell, 76, is an avid stamp collector and a member of the Columbia Philatelic Society. He enjoys collecting stamps that are issued in Missouri.

A first-day-of-issue ceremony for the Twain stamp will be held Saturday in Hannibal, where Twain grew up. Donnell said some serious collectors will have the stamps placed on special cachet envelopes.

“Some people will carry them over to Florida, Missouri, the birthplace of Mark Twain, and get them canceled over there,” Donnell said.

The stamp will be available for sale in Columbia on Monday, said Cheryl Hudson of the local post office.

Donnell said he always is happy to see another Missouri stamp or a stamp related to a Missourian.

“As far as Missouri goes, he is one of the most famous authors, and he is well-known worldwide,” Donnell said.

Jordan said the commemorative stamp will appeal to most of the general public, especially those who are interested in literary history.

“Mark Twain remains one of the most respectable and readable authors in American history,” he said.