Masters of detail – the “engineer artists”

In September, I went to a talk at the Royal Aeronautical Society entitled “Beneath the skin”, given by Tim Hall of Flightline Arts, who spent most of his working life as a cut-away illustrator for Flight International. He gave a fascinating talk about the history of technical cut-away drawings, particularly drawings of aircraft. This kind of work is some way away from what most aviation artists do, but even in this field there are different styles of expression.

The first technical cut-away drawings were produced over 100 years ago, in cycling magazines, to explore the technical details of bicycles for laymen. The “father” of technical aviation illustration was Max Millar, who produced his first drawings for Flight magazine in 1912 and continued working until beyond the Second World War. He coined the term “engineer artists” (with the emphasis on “engineer”) to describe himself and his colleagues. His drawings, in pen and wash, were accurate and easy to read. Another eminent cut-away artist was James (Jimmy) Clark, who worked from the 1930s to the 1960s on The Aeroplane. His approach was different from Millar’s –while working quickly and in immense detail (often going to factories and working from life), he used to exaggerate or emphasise certain details to aid the viewer’s understanding. A third master illustrator, forever associated with Flight and then Flight International, was the late Frank Munger, who produced his first work in the 1940s – and whom Tim described as “unflappable” and “with a photographic memory”. (As I say elsewhere, I copied Frank Munger’s superlative cutaway of Concorde – my effort is shown below.)

Cutaway drawing of Concorde, copied from a work by Frank Munger

Cutaway drawing of Concorde, after Frank Munger

Tim described the astonishing way in which the cut-away artists worked. They would visit the aircraft factories and do their initial sketches from life on “detail paper”. They drew freehand, often not even using an easel – just holding a sheet or pad in their hands. After about a week of amassing details they would return to the office to produce the ink drawing. They used mapping pens, which Tim said give a better, more variable line than the later Rapidographs. Their ink drawings were also done freehand; the only tools used were a straight edge (which they used even to draw ellipses) and dividers (to plot proportions).

From the 1990s the Flight International illustrators started using Photoshop, although apparently their finished artworks could often overload the memory on the printers’ computers! Tim ended by describing today’s computer-aided techniques – he now draws with a mouse, and lays in tints electronically.

Tim had brought along a selection of original cut-away drawings from throughout the history of Flight International and its predecessors Flight and Aeroplane. I was amazed at the way the work was minutely accurate but still artistically expressive, with no hint of being “dead” or “mechanical”. The quality was even more impressive since the work was done freehand. I spoke to Tim Hall afterwards and had a look at his amazing website, and he very kindly sent me a copy of his book, Beneath the Skin. As a lover of fiddly detail, I thoroughly enjoyed my introduction to this fascinating subject.

Detail from cover of Beneath the Skin by Tim Hall

Cover of Beneath the Skin by Tim Hall

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Painting the Vulcan

For aviation artists, certain aircraft are overwhelmingly popular as subjects. The clear winner is the Spitfire. Just about everyone produces a Spitfire painting at some point – the Guild of Aviation Artists features about 900 Spitfires in its on-line gallery. Another hugely popular subject is, of course, Concorde, with almost 100 paintings shown on the Guild site.

This year I decided to have a go at a third perennial favourite – the Vulcan. I began this painting in late 2013. I chose a marine format to complement the broad wingspan. I set the aircraft against a stormy background, and showed it looming against a moody sky, and discharging its own clouds of smoke and steam. I set it at an odd angle – with the Vulcan taxying and the nose wheel pivoted, so the aircraft is just about to swing round and come directly at the viewer.

This was a mash-up of various actual aircraft, including the Vulcan at Southend, as well as photos of XH558 at Farnborough. In addition, when I was up at East Fortune in November, I did some sketches from life of the Vulcan there (although my fingers nearly froze in the process!). I finally finished the painting around March. To echo the sound of the famous engines, I named it “Howl”.


Vulcan taxying and revving up engines

Howl (oil on canvas), 2014


I had this painting beautifully framed, by David Lloyd of Greenwich, and entered it for the 2014 GAvA exhibition. I took a gamble, putting this one forward as my only submission. Sadly, it was rejected (by a small margin, I was told) – but I still enjoyed my encounter with the mysterious Delta Lady.

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All quiet on the painting front

After the successes of 2012, things took a different turn in 2013. In February my father died suddenly, after a long illness. Following this shock, my time was taken up with the funeral, plus taking care of my Mum and helping my brother, as well as doing my day job, so painting had to go on the back burner.

By November, though, things had calmed down sufficiently that I could slip up to Scotland to see my good friend Alpha Alpha. The day before I went to East Fortune, I was lucky enough to see the Leonardo exhibition “The Mechanics of Man” at Holyroodhouse. I had seen this at the Queen’s Gallery in Buckingham Palace the previous year, but had been desperate to go back. If anything, the exhibition in Edinburgh was even better than the one in London, as it had more of the modern computer-generated anatomical images, showing the same views that Leonardo depicted, and showing how advanced Leonardo had been in his anatomical observations – we would not see work of similar quality again until the 19th century. He is my ultimate artistic “hero”, and it was wonderful to see again the precision and beauty of his work.

Leonardo would have loved Concorde. I think he would have been blown away by the technical achievement (like his own work, well ahead of its time). If we could somehow transport him to the present day in a time machine, it would be fascinating to see him produce a painting of Concorde – I think he would perfectly capture the curves and complexity of the aircraft’s form. To establish some kind of link between man and machine, I bought a postcard in the museum shop, and slipped it into a seat back in Alpha Alpha’s cabin. And, as usual, I did some sketches of the beautiful bird while I was there.


Under-wing sketch of Concorde Alpha Alpha at East Fortune, 2013

Alpha Alpha, watercolour pencil, 2013

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Concorde Gallery’s first year

I started Concorde Gallery in late 2011. The past year-and-a-bit since then has been quite busy, and some exciting things have happened.

May 2012

I put forward 3 paintings for the Guild of Aviation Artists' 2012 exhibition at the Mall Galleries, taking place for the week of 16-22 July. The three candidates were:

First Flight (rejected)

Concorde prototype with original test pilots

The Watcher (rejected)

Blackbird SR-71 spy plane

Glad Confident Morning – ACCEPTED!

Concorde G-BOAA in original livery

I did not manage to sell my painting, but I was told it attracted some favourable comments from senior members of the Guild. Regarding the rejected works, I received some constructive pointers from the exhibition organisers on what types of subject and media were favoured by the panel choosing exhibits. The painting appears in the Guild's 2012 Gallery and can be purchased via my site.

July-November 2012

I was commissioned to do another painting of an Olympus engine. It took me 3 months to do; the result can be seen here. My thanks go to Garey Goss for commissioning me to do this project, and to the volunteers in the engine shed at Brooklands Museum, who let me study their engines and gave me some material for reference.

Olympus 593 aero engine painting commissioned by Garey Goss

I plan to carry out further commissions in the future, so if anyone is interested in having me produce a painting or drawing for them, please contact me.

October 2012

I had my painting "Dream" featured on the Facebook page for McLaren Automotive! I was contacted by a journalist who worked for McLaren and had found the image on Google. The pic is still on the McLaren Facebook page, although I think you now have to log in to see it. (The post went up on 12 October 2012.)

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