by Peter van Stigt
Ever since Man inhabited the Earth, he has looked upwards with envy, wishing he was a bird. Next to the myth of Icarus and Daedalus, Leonardo Da Vinci was among the first who envisaged vehicles that would make it possible for Man to make his dream come true. Da Vinci produced drawings of his ornithopter and helicopter inventions, and may be regarded as the first ‘aviation artist’. For both those who are fortunate to have a flying existence and those for whom this may remain a dream, aviation art is a great outlet, be it producing it or buying it.
Art is widely regarded as evidence of a well-matured cultural society. Whether a piece is art or not has always been open to debate. It is a matter of taste. Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso automatically rise above this discussion. Art, as produced in our time, is under much more scrutiny. When choosing to work in a photo-realistic style, one can expect that his fruits will be dismissed as real art. Much like the difference between heavy literature and light lecture. Choose subjects one can find in the contemporary industry, and you are downright a cheap, commercial artist not worthy an exhibition in an art gallery. To top it off, choosing military aviation as subject will make you an outcast in art society and a war lover. So, why for the life of God did I actually choose military aviation as my center of focus? Well, I love planes, especially the ones in the upper echelons of performance: fighters. Admitted, I’m a failed wannabe fighter pilot, looking for my rush in the two dimensional area due to a lack of the three dimensional real thing. A booklet, ‘How to draw planes’ written by the late Frank Wootton in World War Two put me in the right direction. I’ve had the honor to meet this nester of aviation art in the early Eighties. Very inspirational. With all this out of the way, there is much more to it all. First let’s educate ourselves on the aviation art and artist producing it.
We have seen him all, the artist setting up his canvas in a pasture and painting that lovely farm house. That requires a lot of skill. The landscape artist has one great advantage: his subject does not move, besides the animals running back and forth. The same applies to the industrial artist but with less advantage. There are more parts of his subject moving. Then there is the maritime artist. Now this guy either has to have a strong stomach painting a ship in a violent seascape aboard another ship or requires a lot more imagination than the former two painters. The all rounder among the artists is the most commercial one: the advertising artist. That is how I started out a quarter of a century ago. The advertising artist is always working against the clock, portraying a different subject every day. He is the one with the most extensive archive. A tiring business, I can tell you. Those deadlines will really cut your sleeping hours. Finally, the aviation artist, our very center of focus in this article. This is a very special breed, and the most underestimated at that. Even worse than the maritime artist, this guy needs to have either a lot of money and time on his hands to stay up in the air and paint his subject, or needs an imagination to a far greater extend to be believable in his art. The saying goes that ‘a good aviation artist is a specialist in turning props, glass and cloudy skies’. There is much truth to this, but there is more.
Profile of an aviation artist
We live in a three-dimensional world. The aviation scene is even more three-dimensional, sometimes you don’t know which way is up. The biggest disaster to every artist is that blank surface where he has to put his creation on. Add to this the fact that in this case the aviation artist has to capture the 3D aviation in a two-dimensional image, and he has his work cut out for him. Like the advertising artist, the aviation colleague has to be an all-rounder. One with at least a certain level of technical and climatological knowledge and great sketching or painting skills. He has to love planes like pilots do when their mount has brought them back once again out of a high-threat area, he wants to know all about them down to every detail. He must be a specialist in perspective, the tool to create realistic 3D compositions. His target audience is one of the most demanding because nine out of ten work with the subjects that the artist portrays. They severely punish the artist for covering those Spitfire Mk.9 ailerons with fabric instead of aluminum as they should be. It’s that bad, no room for error...
Briefing from the customer: produce an illustration depicting a Dutch F-104G Starfighter of 322 TFS hypothetically intercepting an East German MiG-21PFMA over a typical Dutch landscape in typical Dutch weather conditions during the Seventies. The 104 needs to be shown in the QRA intercept configuration (I know this means no tip tanks and two older type AIM-9’s slapped side-by-side under the fuselage centerline). The challenge begins... First I do the research in my archive concerning the F-104G’s of 322 TFS. I also visit the Dutch Military Aviation Museum at Soesterberg to do some sketching on both their Starfighter and MiG-21. Beware of the following: sketching a plane sitting on the ground and make that plane fly in your art will somehow show through. Even the small razors they call ‘wings’ on an F-104 will bend slightly upward during flight. Armed with some useful sketches I go back home to my drawing table. I build up an F-104 drawing in the desired angle, very much like a CadCam computer. The MiG will be far away so that’s quite easy.
Second step is painting in earnest, using acrylics, starting off with the complete background. I retain many air-to-air photos taken by myself while flying over Holland. I also possess many cloudscape pics. The photos are used as reference. In order to enhance the sense of 3D and sheer dynamics of flight, I tilt the horizon about ten degrees diagonal down to the right. In the end you will hardly see the horizon itself but it will absolutely work through in the whole composition. Most of the work will go into the cloudy sky, to get the right cold and humid atmosphere and sense of space. Next come the planes. I decide on one specific F-104 that I know for sure flew with 322 in the early Seventies: the D-8061 in grey/olive camouflage on the upper fuselage and light grey under. Then it’s the MiG’s turn. I make sure that it is an East German PFMA-version, a so-called SPS-K. The one in the Aviodrome Aviation Theme Park at lelystad Airport wears the right markings, so I use those as reference. Research is complete now.
While painting the background I already decided on the type and direction of lighting and the flight path of the two planes. I also decided that it had to be an interception without firing in anger with explosions and debris and all. I wanted to retain some sort of peace and serenity. And after all, this was a hypothetical setting but nevertheless a realistic one. What I decided was far more likely than a Dutch 104 turning the Cold War into World War Three by killing a MiG over Holland. It’s now a matter of positioning the planes into the background. I move the sketches back and forth, all over the background and decide that they both fly left to right and slightly upward, really cutting through the horizon. Otherwise the latter would hold them back or ‘capture’ them. This adds to the sense of movement, a mild one because I decided that the planes fly at medium level. Should I’ve decided on an opposite flying direction, I could have easily forgotten about the M-61 gun port on the F-104’s lower left front fuselage... All these decisions retain both movement and serenity. Using black pastel on the back of the chalkpaper sketches, I push those sketches through with a sharp pencil onto the background. I paint in the aircraft with the correct markings and lighting effects.
The icing on the cake is making the planes ‘blend’ into the background and turn the image into a whole. This requires a lot of transparent ‘glacing’ over the entire image including both aircraft. You have to bear in mind that every surface reflects its surrounding in terms of light and color, no matter what texture, everything mirrors. This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of it all. Not executing this the right way will make the planes ‘glued on top of’ instead of ‘blended into’ the background. Clouds are not just white fluffy things, there is almost no pure white in them but all shades of warm and cold white and grey, blue, yellow and brown. On top they reflect the yellowish white sun and blue sky, below they reflect the greenish/brownish landscape. Same story for the planes, camouflaged or not. The trick for an art piece like this is two-fold: work from back to front and from rough to fine. This painting was finished in about 35 hours, resulting in a happy customer.
DigiArt and e-paintings
The example above is the traditional way of producing aviation art. It provides you with both a great image for publication and a nice original to frame and hang on your wall. In this day and age computers provide a great help in all aspects of our society. It was just a matter of time before the IT business began to develop some tools for use in the art world. About three years ago I began to explore the possibilities of this development and I discovered that, when approaching it in the traditional sense like described above, DigiArt or e-painting can develop in a genuine art form. It’s not all that different: instead of a real canvas one uses a monitor, real brushes and pencils are replaced by a mouse or Wacom pen acting as them, the colour palette changes from analogue to digital. But there are much more possibilities. On the computer you can mix analogue paintings or drawings with photos, digital landscapes (like TerraGen), Flight Simulator screenshots etc. and edit them all in a programme like Adobe Photoshop. Every part and every stage you can save as a file. The whole image can be saved like a multi-layer ‘master’. This is a great advantage, you can change every detail with just one mouse click. But, the greatest advantage is that you save time. Producing a painting as described above the digital way might take not 35 hours but one-fifth to one-tenth of that time, using and modifying photos of the planes and background for example. However, there is no ‘original’ in the traditional sense because it’s a computer file. If you want to hang a piece of DigiArt on your wall, it will always be a reproduction. Now, some will say that this is taking the romance out of producing art. I disagree. When you stay true to your own creative ideas, you don’t rip off images from others and finally don’t simply apply the principle of ‘copy/paste’, an e-painting can be a very artistic and powerful medium. Stay the artist and regard the computer as just another creative tool next to your brushes and pencils, and you are still creative...
Every time I produce a piece of aviation art, be it analogue or digital, it gives me the feeling that I’m inside that scenery, living the adventure that I portray. I’m the pilot, I’m the RIO, I’m shot at and evading that SAM in a high-threat area. I need that feeling in order to bring the image to life. Several aviation artists have put me on the right path. They are my idols. Masters like Frank Wootton, Michael Turner, Dru Blair, Keith Ferris, Robert Taylor and Lou Drendel have provided the spectator the sensation of being part of the ‘right stuff’. Look them up through Google and you know what I mean.
[Part 1] [Part 2] [Part 3]