ARTISTIC ODYSSEY: SOMETIMES THE SUBJECT PICKS YOU
by Wade Meyers (c) 2001
The creation of any good piece of aviation art is the culmination of many hours of research, study, and just really tedious work - and then you start painting! The most common question artists get when we meet people is, "How long did it take you to do that?" Hmm, that depends. Like most artists I have a family, job, and other interests. Right now I usually put in 2.5 to 3-hour late evening shifts about three or four times a week, and it takes me about eight months from the initial idea to applying the final coat of varnish. Roughly 35 to 40 percent of that time is spent actually applying paint to the gessoed Masonite panels I use. The rest is preparation in the form of sketches and tonal studies, and the all important "R" word - research! Aviation artists like me who specialize in military subjects are unique in that we must not only adhere to the "rules" of good painting, but we are depicting scenes and subject matter for a very discriminating audience which in many cases may be as knowledgeable, or even more knowledgeable than we are about the particular subject matter we are depicting. We also come under the scrutiny of veterans who have flown and maintained our subjects in real life. It's not enough to use pretty colors and compositional tricks. That's important, but above all we must "get it right." To this end, I personally maintain an ever-growing library of books, photos and magazine articles.
I tend to work slowly, concentrating on details - that comes from my model building days. I'm working on streamlining the process, though, and through constructive critiques of my work by artists I admire, such as American Society of Aviation Artists' members Keith Ferris and Michael O'Neal, I've learned that what makes an award winning painting and what makes a show stopping aircraft model are two very different things indeed. Or, as one wag put it, ". . . it's exactly the same, except for all the differences!"
The most important artistic aspect of any work of art is the composition - the effective and pleasing arrangement of objects and colors on the painting surface. It's a challenge to do it right, but I do have certain things in my favor. I can control the weather, for one thing. I can place the viewer's eyes exactly where I want them in relation to the sun, the earth, the altitude we're at and the various aircraft in the painting. By controlling these elements, I can show my audience the things I want them to see, and more important, how I want them to see the objects - all in pursuit of my goal. My goal? Well, since you asked, a good aviation painting will hold forth with the requisite detail and accuracy, but the artist's primary objective should be to effect a trigger, a vehicle, which unites the viewer and the scene. I'm showing you a P-51 Mustang at 22,000 feet maneuvering behind a Focke-Wulf FW 190. I'm showing you how the controls move. I'm showing you how the metal strains and bends under load, and I'm showing you the terror of the FW 190 pilot as he yanks hard on the stick trying to shake this P-51 on his tail. I'm putting you back in time, and I'm showing you . . . well, I'm showing you history! In your process of interpretation, you shouldn't focus on the flat surface of my work. Your observation, ". . . that's nice brushwork there," should come very late in the viewing sequence if I've done what I've set out to do.
My canvas is simply a clear, two-dimensional window' you're looking through as if you are watching the action from the best seat in the house. We artists call our painting surface, this so called window', the picture plane. It's transparent as far as I'm concerned, and I want you to really feel like you are looking at the subjects of my artwork through the window. History aside, it's very important that I present these images to you in an aesthetically pleasing manner, following all the generally accepted rules of art such as proper color temperatures and the loss of hue saturation, value, and tonal differences with distance, as I arrange and plan the elements of the painting. I'm trying to catch your eye from across the room, and make you want to walk over. That's the composition I'm talking about. When a composition "works," then it's successful. What better definition of "art" could there be than to say the piece is "a successful composition." Final judgement resides with you, the viewer. The creation process is sometimes frustrating, yet it is very satisfying and rewarding
in the end.
Sometimes a customer will ask me how I came up with the idea for a particular painting. Well, I haven't picked one yet. I think it's more of a case of the idea picking me! I've always felt a special affinity for the 4th Fighter Group ever since I purchased a copy of 1000 Destroyed: The Life and Times of the 4th Fighter Group, Grover C. Hall's classic work written from an insider's point of view. Through Hall's words, and later personal meetings with some of these men, I think I've come to know quite well these young American volunteers who fought with Canada's Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), and Britain's Royal Air Force (RAF) long prior to December 7, 1941.
Unlike the well-known American Volunteer Group, the Flying Tigers, these men did not have a commission waiting for them when they returned stateside, definitely did not have the blessings of our government, and more than a few volunteers were intercepted by the FBI as they attempted to cross the border into Canada to join up. The few U. S.-based recruiting stations were fly by night operations at best, and were advertised via word of mouth and small notices on airport bulletin boards. Respondents knowingly risked losing their U.S. citizenship. In at least one case I've read about, citizenship was indeed stripped, and through bureaucratic neglect, was not officially restored until quite some years later. Undaunted, these hearty lads had visions of fame and flying adventure, and most of those who "made it" were duly trained and integrated into RCAF squadrons and into three American-manned RAF fighter squadrons, Nos. 71, 121 and 133, known more popularly as the "Eagle Squadrons." They fought alongside their British compatriots since before the time of the epic Battle of Britain in 1940. In September 1942, the "Eagles" were finally integrated into the U. S. Army Air Forces as the 334th, 335th and 336th Fighter Squadrons of the 4th Fighter Group, based at Debden, Essex, England. They went on to destroy more enemy aircraft in the air and on the ground combined than any other American fighter group in history.
One of these men was an Ohio Buckeye named Don S. Gentile. He went on to become a top ace with the 4th, and he and his famous P-51B Mustang are the main characters in my painting. The composition is set in the clouds near Ruhrburg, Germany, and we watch as Don maneuvers his Shangri-La while engaging an FW-190A-7 on April 8, 1944. For his actions this day, Gentile was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, America's second highest award for valor in combat. General Dwight D. Eisenhower presented the award personally in a ceremony at Debden, and when introduced to the young fighter pilot, Eisenhower remarked, "You seem to be a one-man air force!" Unfortunately, Don and his beautiful Shangri-La got a little low and bounced off the ground while showing off for the cameras at Debden on April 13, two days after the awards ceremony. Gentile survived to go home to the adulation he deserved, but the carcass of his P-51 was stripped clean of useable parts and sat in front of one of Debden's heavy maintenance hangars immediately south of the base for about three weeks while the airplane was stripped of all usable parts. Don stayed in the military, but he and his passenger were killed in January 1951 while flying a T-33 jet trainer near Andrews AFB, Maryland.
The idea for this particular painting came about by chance, actually. A while back, I had laid out this (P-51) aircraft view while practicing the Descriptive Geometry (D/G) method for plotting aircraft perspectives. I always save my old D/G plots, and I later ran across it and the little Mustang, which had a wingspan of about two inches at the time, talked to me. After sketching a few thumbnail layouts, I came up with the composition you see here. I decided to put the Mustang in the familiar-to-me 4th Fighter Group markings of Gentile's Shangri-La and decided to show Don jinking into position behind one of his last kills of the war. He's just about to fire . . .
That brings up a point: in my opinion, the power of suggestion and the boundless limits of imagination are much more powerful than anything any artist can physically depict with the limited faculties of brush and paint. Your imagination, cultivated by your personal experiences and stimulated by my pictorial suggestion, will paint a much more accurate picture of my message for you than I ever could. Along those lines, I think it's much more powerful to show the moments just before any dramatic action. The focus is on what's about to happen, and artistically, I believe that to be much more exciting.
The current subject is a perfect example of this. I don't have to show bullets flying everywhere, and have the Focke-Wulf trailing an ugly plume of fire and smoke and pieces as it begins to come apart under the hail of four .50 caliber machine guns. You know that's going to happen. For short moments, you will subconsciously put yourself in the cockpit of each airplane. You're in the Mustang first: Come on, just a little more . . . man, can't get a bead - this guy's good! And then you're sitting in the seat of the German fighter: Pull-Pull-Pull! Split S . . . Split S! As your eye wanders to the upper left of the painting, you see another Mustang ducking behind that big cloud. Phew! Don got here just in time . . .That Fifty-one would have been a sitting duck! For a moment, you weren't looking at a painting, you were actually there. The highest compliment the aviation artist can receive is from somebody who really was there, and says to us, "That's the way I remember it."
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