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.