Exploding cannon fire lit the sky and reflected off the water as rain poured down on American soldiers struggling to defend Fort McHenry against a British attack. It was September 1814, and after the Battle of Baltimore, Francis Scott Key penned the work that became our national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The goal of Annapolis-based artist Greg Harlin has been bringing that scene to life — on a postage stamp.
This past weekend, as Baltimore celebrated the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Baltimore, the U.S. Postal Service unveiled Harlin's creation: the War of 1812: Fort McHenry Forever stamp.
Harlin, who describes himself as a history buff, said he was thrilled, and a little nervous, when asked to design the stamp.
"I was excited at first," he said, "then I was intimidated.
"Then, when I was actually painting, I relaxed and just concentrated on the art," Harlin said. "When I submitted it, I went back to worrying about how it would be received."
Harlin's no stranger to big projects. A native of Washington, D.C., he earned a degree in graphic design from the University of Georgia in 1980 before settling in Annapolis, where he has worked on projects for National Geographic, the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service.
He said he has known since childhood that he would be an artist.
"I came from a family of five children," Harlin said. "They all seemed talented at a variety of things, I only seemed to be able to draw — so I was hoping there would be a career in it for me."
Yvette Singh, a spokeswoman for the postal service, said Harlin was chosen to design this stamp because of his "outstanding work on historical subjects and for his extensive research in creating his subjects."
The process of designing the War of 1812 stamp started with research, Harlin said. He assembled a small library of books on the topic and did his best to understand what happened at Fort McHenry during the battle.
"In doing all the research, I realized how many people have devoted so much of their life to studying and understanding this particular moment in our history," Harlin said. "So one of the things I really focused on was being historically accurate in my art."
Another challenge, Harlin said, was designing an image that would end up being the size of a thumbnail.
"The art goes through phases," Harlin said. "I know I'm working on a piece that will eventually be a stamp, but I leave that thought behind while I'm working to get the details right.
"My original piece was really vague. I kept everything kind of blurry because of the darkness, the pouring rain, the explosions over the water — there were shapes you could see, but it was indistinct," Harlin said. "But when you saw it the size of a stamp, it all turned to mush. So I had to sharpen the image for the next draft."
Harlin has worked at Annapolis-based Wood Ronsaville Harlin Inc. since 1981, and his original art and prints can be found at the Annapolis Collection Gallery. Most of his work is in watercolors. This stamp was made using watercolors, then oil on prints, then digital media on top of that.
The project took about nine months , he said. During that time the artwork evolved into its final version, which was unveiled Saturday during a ceremony at Fort McHenry.
Harlin said he hopes the stamp will remind people of the importance of the Battle of Baltimore and its role in the writing of the national anthem.
"It's not like we've forgotten about the national anthem, because we hear it often, but I hope this will remind us of what it stands for," Harlin said. "I'm moving to revisit that myself."
The War of 1812: Fort McHenry Forever stamp is the fourth in the U.S. Postal Service's War of 1812 series, according to Singh. The first stamp in the series, with an image of the USS Constitution, was released in August 2012; the second, the War of 1812: Lake Erie Forever stamp, was released in September 2013; and the third, the Star-Spangled Banner Forever stamp, was released in March.