Painting the Spitfire

9. Putting the ‘Real’ into a Painted Sky and a 602 Squadron Spitfire

09/02/2021
Changing the colours of a sky and a nose (cone), and denting a Spitfire with care.
(Part 9 of a series on creating an original Battle of Britain oil painting)
I love painting skies, they can be very challenging, but, as for instance in this picture, the sky comprises about one third of the area of the work, and probably counts for more in terms of the overall effect of the composition. Like the rest of the painting, the sky starts whatever colour I have used for the under-layer or ‘ground’, in this case a sort of orange light ochre hue. It is strange watching it turn to blue and grey, but often a little bit of the underlying hue is still present there, just not so obviously discernible. I find this helps to unify the tone of the whole painting. This sky probably took about 3-4 workings, working up in rotation with the rest of the painting.

The underlying ochre hue is still visible in this detail of the finished sky
The underlying ochre hue is still visible in this detail of the finished sky
 

I find with the skies that this is the only way they ever get to feel real anyway, something about the slight mixing of the layers of paint gives them the depth that the real sky has, with the almost imperceptible gradual change of tone that a cloud has. Towards the end, I try to put in some much cleaner light colours for the brightest areas; surprisingly, a slightly yellow orange white seems to appear brighter than the use of pure white for this. I also find that to get the really subtle variation in tones, I have to leave the paint to dry a little, then gently rework it after a few hours or more, but this time almost adding no paint at all. This, I think, is one of the beauties of oil paint; I have never managed to achieve these effects in any other medium.

The finished sky in the painting, showing the subtle tonal variation needed to create a realistic sky effect.
The finished sky in the painting, showing the subtle tonal variation needed to create a realistic sky effect.
 

Once the sky was about three quarters of its way to finished, I worked the Spitfire up nearly to completion. I had found the wing shape needed a little tweaking. At this point, I confess to hijacking my son’s 1:72 model Spitfire. (All my teenage aircraft models are still at my parent’s house at the other end of the country!) I found comparing this to the one in the painting really helpful in ensuring the overall shape was right. I did also have the pleasure of doing a little more research into 602 Squadron’s aircraft, and found the great website of the 602 Squadron Association which had some relevant pictures of their aircraft, including one of them at Westhampnett around the right date.

My particular query was the colour of the nacelle. I had in my early researches seen 602 Squadron’s’ aircraft with a white nosecone, and was working towards this in the painting, but from what I can make out this was probably introduced later in the year. I could only find it on photos of their Spitfires which also had the white stripe just forward of the tail, which I know was introduced to Fighter Command pretty much at the end of the Battle of Britain, in late 1940. A black nacelle it was then. A little tweaking was necessary to make this work on the canvas, the slight reflection of the sun on the side of it partially making up for the absence of splash of contrasting light colour I had hoped for.

The nacelle or nose cone of the finished Spitfire in the correct colour for 602 Squadron
The nacelle or nose cone of the finished Spitfire in the correct colour for 602 Squadron
 

I have always greatly admired the aviation art of Robert Taylor. I find the slightly chipped, worn and faded paint effects on his aircraft lend his paintings a verisimilitude which it would be hard to beat. It is something I try to give to the aircraft in my paintings too. I do find it a challenging balance though.

I had free run on the wear marks on this 615 Squadron Hurricane as there was no need to create a sense of movement in the aircraft.
I had free run on the wear marks on this 615 Squadron Hurricane as there was no need to create a sense of movement in the aircraft.
 

I love to get drawn into painting this and other details on the aircraft in the paintings, something that probably dates back to my model building days, when I loved painting in wear effects on appropriate panel edges and dirt on wheels etc.. In these paintings, however, I find I have to proceed with great caution down this route, sometimes a little less detail seems to help keep a little more sense of movement to the aircraft. I hope the viewer will feel the balance is about right here.

With the sky and Sgt. Whall’s Spitfire looking close to how I wanted them, it was time to turn back to his downed adversary on the golf course...