The question I am most often asked at any show of my work is: “How long did it take you to do that?” A legitimate question, and one that I “hem & haw” about to find an answer, because, truth be told, I don’t keep up with it. That could be because I’m not much of a businessman; it would certainly be helpful to know how many hours it takes. Then I could calculate my hourly rate versus what I’m actually paid for these things. But then, do I really want to know that? What if I found out I’d make more per hour working at McDonalds? On the other hand, painting is a lot more fun than working at McDonalds (most of the time).
With my last large painting, Victory in Europe, I actually did keep track of my hours spent painting. And the grand total – 53.5 hours. I should point out that those are hours spent actually painting—that is, applying paint to the board with a brush.
Over the next several blog posts I’m going to talk about what happens before that—before I put paint on the board with a brush. I’ve never kept track of those hours, and maybe that’s just as well, because I’m not sure I really want to know that.
Step One: what is this all about anyway?
Victory in Europe was originally intended as a box cover for the game Yanks, an Advanced Squad Leader module by Multi-man Publishing. The assignment was to encapsulate the American military experience in Europe in World War 2 in one image. That’s not a tall order, is it?
So, how do you even begin such a thing? Well, I began by looking at some of the scenarios published in the game itself (scenarios being the small battles that the game depicts). I was immediately taken by the Battle at Elsenborn Ridge during the Battle of the Bulge (Germany’s last ditch effort to turn the tide in WW2). A heroic American defense seemed like would be just the thing. So I contacted Dave, a U.S. Army expert friend of mine to see what he thought. He agreed, and thought that Elsenborn Ridge was a grand idea, and he sent me tons of information on the battle. In fact, he said, “Maybe you should do a whole series of paintings on that part of the Bulge.”
The problem with painting something historically specific is that it’s really, well, SPECIFIC. All of it. The right guns and vehicles, the right uniforms, the right landscape and the right buildings. And not just correct for WW2, correct for Elsenborn Ridge on Dec. 16, 1944. And that’s pretty darned specific. And while there’s a lot of information out there, my time allotted for dredging through it all was, to say the least, not unlimited, and furthermore, it wasn’t part of the assignment; it was just my own notion of a good scene to focus on.
As I considered this, it occurred to me that the other downside to Elsenborn Ridge is that when you think of Americans in World War 2, there’s D-Day, and there’s the Battle of the Bulge. Those two subjects are as individually iconic as the war itself. If I do a painting showing an engagement during the Battle of the Bulge, it becomes a Bulge painting, not an “American experience in WW2 Europe” painting. And a Bulge painting is not what I’m after.
During my initial readings, one of the books recommended by my friend Dave was Company Commander by Charles MacDonald, a fantastic memoir of the author’s experiences in World War 2. As I read past the Elsenborn story to the end of the book, I was struck by MacDonald’s description of the last months of the war, which can sort of be summed up with: receive orders, take a town, load up, receive orders, take the next town, and so on and so on and so on, right to the end. This to me sounds like the Americans in World War 2. Workmanlike, committed, efficient. Right to the end. No famous battles there, no great propaganda victories. Let’s just get this done, and get it done right, and go home. That’s the essence of a citizen soldier with a big job to do. Get it done.
Coming next time: “Got an idea, so now what?”