Painting the Spitfire
Another Spitfire painting near the start

8. The Shadow of a Great Aviation Artist

02/02/2021
I actually start painting, but am troubled by nightmares of plagiarism.
(Part 8 of a series on creating an original Battle of Britain oil painting)
The first phase of the painting is to establish the overall positioning of the key components on the canvas. I usually put a few pencil marks on the canvas scaled from my final sketch, which help keeps the proportions about right as it takes a while to adjust from the size of a much smaller sketch to the bigger canvas. With this painting, I also then established some perspective lines for the Spitfire and drew this in outline. This is done by using crude ‘boxes’ for the fuselage and wings to fit in, which gives a series of reference points that I can then build the more complex shape of the aircraft in.

My simple way of constructing an aircraft (here a Spitfire) using boxes to set out the overall layout.
My simple way of constructing an aircraft (here a Spitfire) using boxes to set out the overall layout.
 

I find this works, as it is easier to get the correct sense of perspective on the outline boxes than to try and get this on the tapered shape of the fuselage or those wonderful elliptic wings, the pronounced dihedral (the upward slope from the fuselage outwards) on the Spitfire’s wings making this even harder!

Finally, some paints come out! I use a simple, single hue (i.e. one colour) mix to start with and use this to build in the overall shape of the painting. The other key point of this is to broadly establish the lights and darks of the composition, which actually are more important to the overall success of the work than the detail of the ‘right’ colours.

My painting of F/Lt. Bob Stanford Tuck's Spitfire near the start. You can see how a a very simple yellow/brown hue is used to establish the light and dark areas of the work.
My painting of F/Lt. Bob Stanford Tuck's Spitfire near the start. You can see how a a very simple yellow/brown hue is used to establish the light and dark areas of the work.
 

From there, I tend to try and work the whole piece ‘up’ together. Some artists will work on one part of the painting at a time, bringing that bit up to its finished state, while the rest of the canvas is still white or just marked out in pencil. I don’t find this to be very successful for me, whenever I have tried this, I usually end up completely reworking one or another part or indeed all of the painting. I think the main reason for this is that the relativity of the ‘values’ (that is the lights and darks of the painting) is so crucial, and keeping these broadly correct is much easier if the different parts of the painting are all developing at the same time.

My painting featuring Sgt. Girdwood's Hurricane 'Long Day Ahead', near the start. I have started to work colour into the whole painting, working up the different parts together. (You can see the continuation of this process in the picture below showing the mahlstick in use.)
My painting featuring Sgt. Girdwood's Hurricane 'Long Day Ahead', near the start. I have started to work colour into the whole painting, working up the different parts together. (You can see the continuation of this process in the picture below showing the mahlstick in use.)
 

Thus, my process is more akin to the correct procedure for tightening up wheel nuts on a car! One bit comes up some, then the next and so on, then back to the first and round again. As this cycle nears finishing, I will generally try to work from the top and the left of the picture towards the bottom and the right, which reduces the chance of marking and smudging parts nearing completion.

Even so, I find the use of large long brush held in my left hand to rest my right (painting) hand on (in the manner of a mahlstick) pretty essential as the work progresses.

My improvised mahlstick in use on my Hurricane painting featuring Sgt. A. G. Girdwood's aircraft.
My improvised mahlstick in use on my Hurricane painting featuring Sgt. A. G. Girdwood's aircraft.
 

Returning to the detail of this painting, somewhere in the early stages, when I stood back to look at it (as I frequently have to, to get a better sense of the balance of the overall composition), I felt there was something strangely familiar in the painting; something about that striking straight road. I couldn’t put my finger on it, and decided that it was probably from just having sketched it and played with variants of it so much that it felt overly familiar, and thus dismissed the thought. The following day though, I remembered where I had seen a striking straight road used in a painting before.

I went digging through my collection of aviation art books and found the artwork that it reminded me of: John Young’s brilliant 1967 painting depicting the famous Operation Jericho raid, entitled ‘Mosquitoes Bomb Amiens Prison’. For a moment I worried, had I subconsciously copied the composition of this outstanding painting? If so, why would my mind choose one of the great paintings by one of the really great aviation artists to copy?

Then I relaxed. His painting is actually very different and I know in my heart there had been no deliberate intent to ‘borrow’ this idea. The straight road had come in my painting when I had seen the straight road in the aerial view of the golf course. Maybe in some part of my subconscious mind a connection with this painting may have been there, but if so it is only in the form that we are influenced by everything we see, and every artist is influenced by the paintings he or she has appreciated. In the end I felt quite happy at the idea that I might have created this unintentional homage to such a great artist in my humble attempts at the genre. I could continue painting at ease with myself...