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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One Response to Early victory for Robert McNair

  1. Bruce mcnair says:

    I am Buck McNair’s son. Although very interested in aviation/military painting, I have never seen this painting. I must say it is superb. I look forward to combing thro your gallery.

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