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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Painting Planes

British Overseas Airways Corporation, Boeing 747                                
Several years ago (1987 to be exact) Hollywood producer-director John Hughes made a film for Paramount called Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. It starred Steve Martin and the late John Candy. This is not about that movie, only the fact that various means of transportation have long fascinated and inspired artist. I had though of writing about all three of these present day modes in a single piece only to realize I've already covered paintings of trains and automobiles in the past. So that only left the subject of aviation as not having already been explored in terms of the painter's art. I was all but overwhelmed to discover that flying, from the Wright Brothers to SpaceX and a trip to Mars, had seen far more art than I could ever have imagined. Consequently, what you see here represents only the best and the most unusual.
The Wright Brothers, Tacconi
I could go back and dig up paintings of hot air balloons, or perhaps Leonardo's helicopter-like drawings, but that stretches the definition of aviation art a little past the landing strip. I don't know when the first paintings of a heavier-than-air aircraft paintings came about or who the artist may have been, perhaps even Wilbur or Orville themselves, though there is quite some difference between engineering drawings and an airplane in flight. The first flying aircraft was probably sketched by a newspaper artist to accompany a "gee-whiz" story buried on page ten. And, it was probably quite inaccurate. Today, one of the hallmarks of aviation art, what might even be termed a "fetish," is an emphasis on accuracy. The painting The Wright Brothers (above) by Tacconi is quite accurate but rendered long after the first powered, controlled flight in December, 1903 (perhaps as much as a hundred years later).

Brief Encounter, Gerald Coulson
WW I Fighters, Michael O'Neal
It's sad, but true, much of the impetus for the development of aviation has come from world governments wishing to utilize aircraft as weapons. Thus, in the realm of aircraft art, we find a similar preoccupation with planes as weapons of war. A good part of that has to do with history and it's emotional component, nostalgia. Nothing accelerates the progress of a given technology than its use in warfare. Moreover, the history of aviation is, perhaps, the most notable example of this axiom. WW I features the nimble, but fragile, fighter reminiscent of Snoopy and the Red Baron. Combat, regardless of the era depicted, always makes for dramatic action, which artist see as making for dramatic art. However in depicting air-to-air combat, artists had to come to grips with a three-dimensionality they'd never had to deal with before. Planes flew upside down, sideways, and every other which way but backwards. Space and scale became critically important, as did the old art of aerial perspective and the brand new art of aerial landscape painting.

DC3 Flagship, Douglas Castleman, digitally painted.
A Ford Trimotor, 1925-33
The era between the wars brought the advent of commercial aviation, the Ford Tri-motor, and the venerable DC 3 (above). I flew in a DC3 as late as 1966. It was a trip I'll never forget. The cockpit door was left open. I could lean over into the aisle and see out the front windows as it landed. With the coming of WW II air combat moved higher and grew faster. Raggedy biplanes were replaced by shiny aluminum, and artists were severely challenged in painting such surfaces as they reflected the multitude of ambient lighting effects to be found at ten-thousand feet. Aviation artists were sent scampering to museums and libraries in an effort to learn again how to paint clouds...from the top down. Some even took the extraordinary step of loading their paints, brushes, and canvases into planes to paint firsthand what their imaginations couldn't handle.

Flying Aces, the B-29 Superfortress (late in the war).
Green Heart Warriors, Nicolas Trudgian
With the new war came a new kind of aircraft--the bomber. The scale increased. The flight path leveled out, the action was split between bombs exploding below and flack popping off above. Often fighters were depicted attacking bombers demanding whole new skills in terms of maintain the proper scale, angles, and perspective. I was especially captivated by Nicolas Trudgian's Green Heart Warriors (left) and his skill in matching the aircraft to the landscape.

Dustoff: That Others May Live,
2000, Joe Kline
By the time the next war rolled around, this time in Korea, the jet fighter had arrived, wings were swept back, and combat became so intense and rapid that capturing any semblance of realism required motion pictures, not paint and canvas. Those changes continued during the Vietnam era except that a whole new type of aircraft joined the fight--the helicopter. Though such aircraft saw an important combat role in the war, they are probably best remembered by combat veterans as of angels of mercy, seen depicted here by Joe Kline (right), descending into the combat zone to rescue the injured, greatly reducing the number of American combat deaths in the war.

The present-day F-16.
In writing about aviation art, my son, a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, would never forgive me if I didn't mention the present-day F-16 fighters he was in charge of babysitting once they were on the ground. As a flight line crew chief, he was the one telling the pilots "where to go" once they landed. He was on the flight line in Misawa, Japan, when the 2011 earthquake shook things up a bit over there. But it was the broiling 110- degree Arizona sun which has since sent him in search of an air-conditioned desk job.

The Last Flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour, Douglas Castleman
Got your ticket yet?
Today, the most advanced aircraft have become spacecraft as the now antique space shuttle has retired to be replaced soon by rocketry flown by private corporations such as SpaceX, supplying the International Space Station, and promising soon to fly passengers to the moon and beyond. If you're wondering how the flying monstrosity of the space shuttle mounted atop a Boeing 747 ever managed to get off the ground, consider the Antonov 225 (below). No, it really doesn't need eighteen engines (count-em) to get off the ground. It does quite well with only six. Built by the Soviet Union in 1988, it holds the record as being the biggest plane in the world. The only problem is, the Russian's seldom use it. It costs too much to fly the damned thing.

The Russian Antonov 225. The artist felt it might need a little more "oomph."

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