Early victory for Robert McNair

I had some time off over Christmas and , whilst I was expecting a commission from the Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment, I was not in a position to get started. I thought I would do a picture just for fun and thought I might paint  a super detailed Spitfire I was not anticipating ‘blogging this particular work so the painting is already well developed at the first photo.

I chose as my subject an early victory for a Canadian airman who went on to become an ace. By wars end he had shot down no less than 16 aircraft, with 5 probably destroyed and 14 damaged. Robert ‘Buck’ McNair commanded No.421 Sqn. based at Kenley in 1943 and scored this particular victory in a Spitfire Mk IX.

As you can see the sky scape is already established and I have chosen to be looking slightly down on the subject in order to show off the beautiful eliptical wing of the Spitfire. I happen to think that, although the Mk IX was designed as something of a ‘stop gap’ measure it is, along with the Mk VIII, the prettiest of all the Spitfires.

The colours look very cold but this is just an artifact of the photograph which was taken in artificial light. The colours I have been working on are all greens blues and greys; you will see how things warm up when you see the image in day light and I start to include some reds and yellows. Believe it or not there is quite a lot of cadmium orange used in the mix of the highlighted colours. This is more apparent in later pictures. Remember, if you wish to see larger images , just click on the picture concerned and more detail will become apparent.

A little detail is shown here. This in fact was my second attempt at the pilot as I wasn’t happy with the first. It is heart breaking sometimes to scrape off hours of work when you find that it does not suit the picture. But I have found it is better to be brave and get it right or that mistake will ‘bug you’ for ever otherwise. As it was, I scraped this one off as well, because I still was not happy. You will see the amended pilot later in the blog. In my opinion an artist needs to be fastidious enough to correct anything that is seen as an error or the picture will fail to be compelling to the viewer.

Note the highlights on the cowling along with the wear and tear on the aircraft. I sometimes drag a subtly lighter or darker colour through the paint on a fuselage or wing to accentuate the curve of the surface I am trying to depict. The brush strokes are always in the direction of the curve, which makes painting it more difficult but produces an infinitely better appearance to the final image. Note the petrol streaks down the side of the cowling and the inclusion of some of the personal markings applied to this aircraft.

As you can see, this photo was taken in better light and things have warmed up a bit. The inclusion of the red and yellow in the markings has made all the difference. The aspiring artist needs to be careful about the light they work in. I am lucky enough to have a large conservatory in which I work. This gives wonderful light during the day. I do find that I am restricted as to what I can do in the evenings and tend to work on details in artificial light rather than large areas where colour, tone and value need to be assessed. I have made a lot of progress on the markings which can be a nightmare….try drawing a circle viewed obliquely on a curve like a wing; very difficult to get right. These should be drawn accurately before you even think of painting anything. Also, have a look at the tail of this particular machine. This Mk of Spitfire commonly had a pointed tail plane, which was what  I originally intended to include. I then checked my reference to find that the earlier rounded tailplane was in fact the type used on McNair’s Spitfire…Remember, the details need to be right because the enthusiasts often know and will pick you up on these things.

The image on the left is the third and final pilot image (Although I still need to put in some details on his straps and parachute webbing.)




Compare that to this, the second attempt which I was unhappy with. I think you will agree which one is the better of the two.I did not want the pilot to be looking out of the picture at the observer as this seemed incorrect in a combat situation. I have not added the transparency effects to the canopy yet as at the time the paint was not dry on the pilot and I needed to work over the top of that.

Here we can see I have started to put in the object of McNair’s attention; the FW190 that was his victim on this occasion. Note the drawing of the aircraft is quite accurate. It saves a lot of time and trouble later on. I have also added smoke trails from the spitfires guns. These only occurred from the machine guns in the wings and not the cannon, the muzzles of which were further from the wing leading edge. Another piece of spitfire trivia that I need to know in order that the image is as accurate as can be made.

The FW190 is blocked in now and whilst it needs more detail the essentials are all there and this one is definitely in trouble with a large fuel fire that has affected the engine; it may have even been his petrol drop tank that has been hit,althought these were usually dropped at the first sign of the enemy  because of the increased drag caused. The convention in aviation art is that you try to avoid depicting death as far as possible and in this instance, although the aircraft is unlikely to survive the pilot could still escape. History does not record wether the german pilot survived, but many did. Certainly every fighter pilot from the war that I have ever spoken to did not particularly wish to kill the men in the plane, but did everything they could to destroy the aircraft. This image gives probably the best idea of all of the pictures in the blog, of what the colours look like on the original. Note also I have feathered in the propellor blades carefully. I always feel that the aircraft doesn’t have a sense of movement until this is done.

This image shows the Fw190 in more refined detail now. It should be borne in mind that the picture is wider than these images show, as I am limited by the A4 format of the photo. The picture itself is a little warmer as I have introduced a little more cadmium orange and a tiny bit of cadmium red into the mix of titanium white and have warmed up the clouds by the simple expedient of rubbing the warmer white into the dried surface of the background clouds with my fingers. This also served to tone down the blues in the shadowy part of the clouds, which I believe improved the appearance of them to some extent. There are some further additions to the clouds as well. You may see that I have brought the white of the cloud around the port wing tip to further emphasise the elipse of that classic wing shape. I will need to remember to put in the navigation lights as well. These details are easily forgotten and I have scribbled notes all over the place on my desk and at my easal to remind me to put them in.

Here is detail of the fw190. Not much to say about this except that this particular aircraft is from JG2 although I have yet to put individual markings on it. The stylised bird on the side of the fuselage was developed apparently from the marks left on the fuselage by the heat from the exhausts which leave this curious double pronged shape. The germans were strangely sensitive to the streaking left by exhausts and often painted the area affected with black paint to cover up the stains. You will see that a small amount of flame is escaping from the exhausts which tell us the engine is badly affected by fire. This aircraft is probably on the point of exploding in fact and the pilot needs to get out quickly. I have brightened the orange by the simple method of adding white. It is important though to add some cadmium yellow as well ( the next colour up from the simple six colour colour wheel) or the final colour will look a little drab.

Here is detail from the spitfire which I am quite pleased with…Something I am less pleased with is the cloud in the background which I am likely to change. I have added a contrail from another aircraft which helps give depth and direction, this is a valuable way of giving flow across the image to promote movement in the overall composition. I will also be adding further aircraft in combat to further give the impression of depth and distance.

I was lucky enough to hear from the son of Robert Mcnair who seemed interested in this image, particularly as it featured his father. As it turns out ‘Johnnie’ Johnson, another huge name in aviation, flew with Mcnair in 421 squadron. In fact Mcnair himself sometimes flew in Johnson’s aircraft and even claimed another Fw 190 destroyed whilst flying it. I have included a second spitfire behind Mcnair’s and will probably apply the JE.J markings of one of the allied airforces top scoring aces. All aircraft are at, or above contrailing height so the second aircraft has it’ s accompanying vapour trail caused by ice crystals forming in the extreme cold at altitude. I have muted the colours and kept the painting loose to accentuate the distance into the picture. remember to click on the image to see more detail.




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Return to Base

This project was a commission for a Major in the U.S.A.A.F who happened to be a Spitfire fan. This particularly fortuitous as I never tire of painting this beautiful aeroplane. It is almost a cliche when people talk about their affection for this, the most graceful of aircraft. But I don’t care…I love the Spitfire as much now as when I was young and building ‘Airfix kits; to the point where I paid a fortune to fly for an hour in one out of Duxford; a sublime experience.

I don’t pretend that I am able to bring anything new to the ‘Spitfire portrait’ but hope that I am at least able to do it justice. My loose remit was to depict the aircraft at it’s best, but I also wanted to link it to America in some way and knew that many Americans flew Spitfires. The vast majority of Americans I have met are hugely proud of their armed forces and also their military heritage. I chose an aircraft flown by ‘Gabby’ Gabreski an ace who later went on to fly P47 Thunderbolts. For a short time he flew Spitfires with the British and used an attractively marked Spitfire Mk IX and although the markings were British the Major wanted this aircraft in the foreground. It was me that suggested the second aircraft in American colours (as many were)  and I chose another famous ace, notably James Goodson who flew Mk V’s. These aircraft would have been unlikely to have flown together, but since it was a personal project, I allowed myself to drift away from the strict truth.

The first step was a concept sketch; this wasn’t a particularly complex composition, but it needed to be over the Cambridgeshire countryside and depict aircraft returning to base; a theme that is emotive to all airman. As I often do I worked it out in sketch form first to make sure that the Major and his wife liked it

As it happens the oil painting proved to be a bit different to this, but I got the ‘green light’ from the Major (and more importantly his wife) and proceeded to set out the image on canvas. The canvases I use are of Irish linen and it is the same stuff that they use on the tail surfaces of Spitfires….Clive Denney, a well known display pilot put me on to the firm that supplies the stuff to them for their restorations. The beauty with Irish linen is that it is far more stable than cotton and will last for much longer. Those of you that have seen oil paintings that have cracked badly will probably have seen something on inferior cotton canvas. I was warned about this by top aviation artist Robert Taylor who told me ‘not to go there’ and he ought to know. I have gravitated to using Italian linen canvas now which, whilst expensive, has a very fine weave which suits my quite detailed style.

This is the basic concept of the two aircraft; you will note that I have made a fairly detailed drawing of the two spitfires. I have also blocked in the colour of the ground beneath. You should note how the base green ‘cools towards the horizon. Underpainting can be very important and although oil paint is opaque and covers well you can use underlying colour to effect what final results you achieve. I have placed the horizon high to give plenty of scope for detail on the ground.

Here I have established the basic shapes of some of the fields. I was at pains to make the line of the fields aid the flow of the painting and give the aircraft ‘direction’ and as a consequence speed.

Some work on the main spitfire now and it was here that I realised I had  a bit of a problem in that the whole point of camouflaging aircraft was to blend them into the ground below, and I found that blending into the back ground was exactly what was happening. So when placing the woodland beneath I was careful to avoid, where I could, areas on the aircraft that were to be quite dark too. I was also at pains to make the greens on the aircraft  warmer than the greens on the ground.

Some detail on the cowling and cockpit area. Wear patterns on aircraft are very distinctive and an accomplished aviation artist needs to know where this wear takes place. In this close up you will see the chipping of the paint around leading edges of the wings and particularly behind the prop. Also at the edges of the cowling and around the fixings where hurried ground crew have removed and replaced the cowlings on countless occasions.The artist should know where petrol and oil would be likely to spill and how the cowlings discolour with the heat of the exhausts. If these important things are not observed then the picture will just look ‘wrong’

Background work is more evident now …note the multitude of different greens in the fields in the foreground. Depth of soil,dry areas, areas of movement, pathways etc will all affect how the ground looks, so there is never a uniform green all over. Also pathways should be logical. I look at real aerial photos to see how ‘desire lines’ (Otherwise known as pathways) tend to look.

The completed picture with details of farms and small communities added. I am careful to make sure that all the shadows on the ground match the light that prevails in the picture overall. You will see that I have attempted to lift the aircraft forward with the inclusion of some blue reflection on the extreme rear curve of the wings of the aircraft to further lift the Spitfires forward of the land below. I have added some heavier cloud to the extreme left of the horizon with some showers underneath for added interest in the distance.

Altogether a rewarding picture and a pleased client, something I think all artists seek.


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‘ghossa praang’ (fierce tiger)

Increasingly I have found it difficult to find time to research the pictures I do and have blessed the enthusiasm and input of my good mate Dave. His knowledge of ‘things military’ and in particular fire arms have proved essential of late and I lean on him heavily for sourcing the reference I need to make a project happen. This project was  a particular case in point.

Colonel Peter Cook, the local representative of the Army Benevolent fund (Soldiers charity) commissioned me to paint a picture for the 2nd battalion Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment in aid of the charity. I’m always up for an opportunity to help out our boys and girls and particularly the Tigers, my local Regiment, so I  readily agreed; not realising quite what a long project this was going to be.

My first job was of course finding out what sort of thing they were going to be after and was introduced to The R.S.M Andy Lingham the driving force behind the project. He invited the two of us to ‘Sobroan night’ an important date in the regimental calendar and a real insiders view of the regiment at play. We had a fantastic time and I don’t think either of us had to put our hands in our pockets once. He showed us a number of evocative images from their time on operations in Afghanistan. He particularly wanted the picture to express a combat situation but also to emphasise the dirt and filth they had to contend with much of the time. After much thought and conversation , D2 (Dave X 2) as we had been christened by then came up with the composition and decided that it should reflect an incident where a  unit has been ambushed whilst preparing for the next contact. We wanted to show two main figures in the foreground, the first being a sergeant observing and controlling the unit and a second actually firing at the enemy. There would be other figures in the background, but these two would be the main focus of the picture, so I set about drafting the initial composition.

As  you can see we have the main characters hunkered down in the beginnings of a ditch with a few trees developing behind. The sergeant in the fore ground is shown with his left arm dropping down towards his left thigh. I was hoping to give the impression of him having just dropped down to take cover. Andy Lingham stepped in at this point and said that he would prefer that the N.C.O should be shown on his personal radio with an impassive rather than excited face. You will see the alterations I have made in later pictures; note the compound wall on the right of the picture.

As you can see I have indulged my bad habit of getting into the detail rather than ‘blocking in’ as is probably technically more correct. The reference photos I was using showed the wrong expression I felt, so I used a bit of ‘artist’s license’ and used my own features as the basis for this mans face….unfortunately it came out looking a bit like me.The next stage was to continue this figure on his knees shooting at the enemy. I had always intended for the picture to have a lot of warm evening light coming from the left and you can see with the light and shade how I have achieved this. For those that are interested, I tend to use a lot of the cooler raw umber mixed with Cobalt blue to achieve varying shades of cool grey through to cool browns. The more blue the further from brown the resulting colour becomes. The hotter browns were achieved by using titanium white, cadmium orange and a touch of burnt umber or ultramarine to modify the tone. Dave’s advice about uniform and in particular the SA 80 was invaluable along with the dozens of photos he has. I always worry about this kind of picture as military men are particular about their kit and will spot something wrong immediately.

As you can see I have started to develop the background a little and try to give it a sense of place; establishing a horizon line with a line of bushes midway up the picture.

The horizon line is nearly fully developed now along with the forward edge of the ditch and you can see I have given the Sergeant a face; appropriately impassive I thought. Andy was pleased with it which was the main thing. He had also been copying these images to his fellow N.C.Os for their input. Thankfully, the feedback was positive. Notice how I have moved the left arm to the new position and his P.R. from his chest to the strap of the ruck sack

Lots of progress now with more foliage and some muck and mud in the foreground. The main figure is all but complete and I think gives a fair idea of the filth that our men are obliged to operate in. It would seem that little changes for the P.B.I  (Poor bloody infantry) even in these modern times. You should have a sense of what is happening now and how the ditch is orientated.

The background is developing nicely, but all of  the time I needed to be aware of where the shadows would be … trees on the compound wall, soldiers against the bank, etc. You will also see a third figure has appeared to give the painting depth. The colours in the distance are a little cooler and the detail less distinct to give the impression of depth and distance.

The fourth and final figure has appeared to give a little balance to what I felt was a picture that was a little too left biased. This was taken from a photo of Dave  pretending to re load a rifle on my kitchen floor. This sort of thing is difficult to adapt at the best of times so painting in rifle and other details and making them convincing is a real challenge. I was especially pleased when R.S.M Lingham said that this was one of the better bits of the painting.

This gives an idea of the detail in the background. You should see that it is a little looser than the main images (Although it is quite a good likeness of Dave) You might see why they call him ‘mini Ross’ as he has more than a passing resemblance to Ross Kemp

All done now and in the frame. I painted the border slip in the regimental colours of blue and yellow which picks out the DZ patches of the same colour on the shoulders of the protaganists.  The zap number on the body armour of the sergeant starts with the first two letters of the wearers name. I chose Atkins (as in Tommy Atkins the name of every soldier and why our troops were always known as Tommies) I felt this was appropriate as these men are in essence no different from all of the courageous men that preceded them.You may just be able to make out the inclusion of some stray cartridge cases and some effective return fire on the compound wall.

Overall a fascinating project that must have taken over a year to bring to fruition. Thanks go to Dave who was ever generous with his valuable time.  R.S.M. (unsurprisingly, soon to be Captain) Andy Lingham was superb and was unstinting in his support and advice. Thanks to Colonel Adam Crawley for his encouragment and great personal charm. Thanks also to all of the lads in the Sergeants mess at Woolwich who have welcomed us so many times into their fold. Dave and I had many a happy evening with these guys; and despite trying to, were never allowed to pay for anything.

The painting raised £3,500.00 for the soldiers charity, which was just the icing on the cake


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2 Squadron Commision

I was asked by the R.A.F Benevolent Fund to create an image for 2 squadron R.A.F.Regiment based at Honnington in Suffolk. I was given the loose remit that it was to illustrate  the invaluable services of the Regiment to operations in Afghanistan. I had no clear idea of what the Squadrons role involved so I headed off to Honnington where I was introduced to Sqn. Ldr. Matt Carter Commanding Officer of the unit. (He is the only contemporary R.A.F Military Cross winner; definitely worth a google)

I was sat down and given a presentation outlining the work of the Regiment and an idea of how the painting should look started to form. One of the most striking impressions I was to get was the ‘air aware’ nature of the unit and how they coordinate with the air assets available in theatre. I decided that this would be the essence of the picture I was to paint.

The idea occurred to me to show a ‘medevac’ operation and men of the Squadron calling in a chinook to evacuate a casualty. I wanted to show not only the ‘comms’ guys but some of the other men who would be involved in the security of the landing zone.

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Afghan Commando

Most commissions I am asked to do tend to be of Second World War aviation, but recently I have felt a need  to expand into more contemporary areas of military history. This is motivated by my huge admiration for our armed forces and their efforts to perform the near impossible tasks set them.

As a boy, I grew up in Deal in Kent, the home to the Royal Marine School of Music at the time. It was a natural progression that one of the first projects I was to attempt was of a Royal Marine Commando in Afghanistan.

The following is a step by step account of the project which now hangs in the sergeants Mess at the Commando Training Centre at Lympstone.

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