World War 2

Artists and Models

There is a very entertaining movie from 1955 starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis called “Artists and Models.” The premise is that…well, the premise is complicated in a 1950s kind of way, so let’s just suffice it to say that it’s pretty funny when it’s all said and done (Shirley MacLaine plays the model, Bessie Sparrowbush). Artists have always had a symbiotic relationship with their models (probably explaining why there are so many self-portraits: that model is cheap, available, and easily understood).

Finding models for anything, but especially for military paintings, is always a challenge. They need to be relatively accurate in terms of age and fitness (meaning they need to look relatively young and be relatively thin), and in any era, except the American Civil War, they need to be clean shaven. Speaking of which, right now there is a gold mine of Civil War-style bearded models due to the current hipster lumbersexual phase. But, alas, I don’t need any Civil War models right now (and by the time I do, the hipsters will undoubtedly be clean-shaven again). 

For military historical paintings, the model search is complicated by the fact that I usually need the models to show up accurately dressed, accurately accoutered, and accurately armed. If you’ve looked at my website, you’ll see that my work spans a broad range of historical genres, and I know a little about all of it, and a lot about some of it, but you never know what you’ll need for the next painting (other than it probably won’t be anything convenient). And as I’ve mentioned before in this series, it’s not just WW2 American models I need, it’s WW2 American G.I. infantry in Germany 1945 models. So that’s pretty specific. 

I’ve been a reenactor/living historian since 1986, and I know from personal experience that if you want to know the details — the excruciating leave-no-stone-unturned details — about any historical era, then by all means you should talk to a serious reenactor. Have you ever wondered what the stitch count was in a Confederate Richmond Depot shell jacket in early 1865? They have, I assure you, and they’d be happy to tell you about it. 

So I’m on the search for WW2 U.S. Army reenactors, young-ish, thin-ish, and clean-shaven with all the correct garb and equipment. How hard can that be, right? We live in the U.S. after all. So I begin my search by asking friends whose opinions I trust, “Where can I find the best WW2 G.I. reenactor group?” And I get some good answers. Some consistent answers. In fact, only one group is mentioned, so I google search the group, and they are indeed an impressive and accurate-looking cadre of fellows. All criteria is met, plus they have that lived-in look that’s often difficult to achieve with living history groups. So I contact them straight away.

And so it begins: “They be happy to model.” “No, I can’t afford to pay models for time and expenses (labor of love, etc, etc), though I can provide a first-rate collector’s print.” Unfortunately, like many living history groups, the members are located all over the country and only come together for particular events a few times a year. Do these events coincide with my deadlines? No, of course they don’t. “Maybe next time.” “Regards” “Best wishes,” etc, etc. 

Strike one.

Despite this set back, it just so happens that in a couple of weeks, just a few hours from my studio there’s going to be World War Two reenactment in a city park in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Woo hoo! It’s a long shot, I know, but really I’m just looking for a few G.I. reenactors. How hard can that be? If it’s a WW2 reenactment, there have to be G.I. reenactors, right?  

I should mention that I’ve been doing WW2 reenacting off and on since 2004, and whenever I meet someone who says they do WW2 reenacting, one of the things I find entertaining to ask is, “No shit, Airborne or SS?” Nine times out of ten, it’s going to be one or the other. Very few people are interested in doing the plain old garden variety GI or German (or Brit for that matter). Full disclosure: my unit is British Airborne, so I too am guilty as charged.  And for models, unfortunately, it makes a difference. The U.S. Airborne uniform and kit are completely different from the U.S. Army G.I., and not interchangeable in the least. 

But I’ve actually been to Oak Ridge’s Secret City reenactment before, many times (as a reenactor), so I know what to expect: a well-run event, heavy on Germans and vehicles. So I load up the car, including all my own reenactment gear — you never know, they might need another private in the line — and head to Oak Ridge. 

On arrival, I quickly canvas the troops before the first “battle” of the day, and I find all of TWO G.I. reenactors in attendance, neither of whom matches my criteria for age, fitness and kit.

Strike Two. 

But I did get to join my Brit Airborne group for the afternoon; had a jolly good time, a spot of tea and a bickie, and then hit the road back to Virginia, none the worse for wear, but no GI models either. 

Oh, but I did get to see this: a German 88.

German '88. Oak Ridge's Secret City Reenactment, 2015

German '88. Oak Ridge's Secret City Reenactment, 2015

They actually fired that monster. Wow! An impressive piece of hardware.

So desperation calls, and there’s one last option: a friend who’s affiliated with the American Armor Museum on Long Island, New York. If you’ve ever checked the Google Map distance from southwest Virginia to Long Island, New York, you’ll see why this is Option Last. It’s a long damned way, and the path crosses Manhattan(!). Yikes. But beggars can’t be choosers as they say, so I get in touch with them, and lo and behold they have an event in two weeks, and they’d be glad to help with their cadre of fully-equipped WW2 living history guys. 

So we’re on. Long Island, here we come.

Next time: Once More Into the Breach








There’s a scene in my head; how do I get it on paper?

I wish I were better at drawing. Perhaps if I spent all my days doing drawings, I’d be better at it, but alas, I don’t have time for that. Let me offer as an excuse my misfortune to major in art at a state university in the 1970s. The 1970s (unknown to me at the time) was probably the lowest state of art instruction in the history of art instruction. The order of the day was “express yourself!” Don’t get bogged down in craft, or realism, and certainly no “barn paintings.” And god forbid that you should even look at the crass illustrations of someone so pedestrian as Norman Rockwell (if you haven't heard of Rockwell, please go look him up).

I grew up in a small town in Middle Tennessee, where there aren’t a lot of art museums, and none of this made any sense to me, at all. And to be honest, it still doesn’t.

I remember in my first Art History class, as a freshman, at 7:50 in the morning, in a big lecture hall, in the dark, I saw the paintings of Michelangelo, and Botticelli, and Raphael for the first time in the context of “art,” and I distinctly remember thinking, “Wait. What? Is she saying he painted that?” I have no idea how I thought those images actually happened, but it had never, ever, occurred to me that they were paintings (I grew up in rural Tennessee, remember). I was blown away. But then I also never made the connection that my painting teachers should be teaching me how to do that too. I guess I just assumed it was some skill that was lost in time, or maybe reserved for geniuses or something. I was woefully ignorant at that time, and frankly my teachers weren't much help. If it wasn’t abstract expressionism or something of that ilk, it just wasn’t really worth discussing. Thankfully, I’ve learned a lot since then (kudos to Syracuse University and the University of Hartford mostly. More on that later).

But back to the point: I don’t sit down and draw all this stuff out. It would take forever, and/or it would be a very poor rendition of my otherwise stunning idea. So at this point in the process I rely on “maquettes” and photography. Maquettes are 3D mockups of that which you are about to paint (or sculpt). Typically if my painting requires a tank, I build a tank model. And for the people I use plastic figures in the same scale as the tank (typically 1/35th scale).

For these maquettes, the tank model has to be pretty accurate to the final art because the variation in tank sizes affects how the soldiers in the scene will relate to this large piece of hardware. All tanks are not created equal, and it’s always a challenge to get the human-to-tank scale correct when you don’t have a real tank to model for you.

Here’s an example of tank size scale in WW2. Note the size of the soldier in relation to the tanks. Without the soldier it would be very difficult to guess just how big these things are, because they just look like tanks, no matter how big they are.

from Encyclopedia Britannica

from Encyclopedia Britannica

And here are a couple of photos of the same tanks. Interesting, yes?

Panzer IV

Panzer IV

Panzer I

Panzer I

And, so here’s what the maquette looks like.

Maquette, Victory in Europe

Maquette, Victory in Europe

I got German guys and Afrika Korps guys and GIs in winter gear. But it’s okay, they all get along fine in plastic.

This little mockup allows me to begin to see and feel the flow of the composition, and to determine how many people I might actually need in the scene, and maybe even what they might be doing. I can set the camera on a tripod and quickly try out many different approaches to the idea, before I arrive at the final plan, and the need to actually get real models, that is, real people, wearing real WW2 clothes, carrying real WW2 weapons (Also known as “the fun part”).

Next time: Let’s do this thang.

Victory in Europe: Got an idea, so now what?

Sketches, that’s what. Called thumbnails sketches, I guess because they’re about the size of your thumbnail. Drawing that small allows you to get a visual representation of your idea, without getting off in the weeds of details. And ideas that aren’t fixed in a tangible form, whether it be a written description or a thumbnail sketch, have a tendency to just float away from your memory. Here are a few of my thumbnail sketches for Victory in Europe. Some of these, I admit, I don’t even remember what they were. These were all done while I was probably supposed to be doing something else. The better ones I think were done while I was watching a demo on plein air painting (there’s a lot of dead time in a painting demo).

sketch pages for  Victory in Europe

sketch pages for Victory in Europe

What I’m exploring here is the story. Remember from the last post, the story is: “receive orders, take a town, load up, receive orders, take the next town, and so on”. What does that look like? Well, there are infinite ways to depict what that looks like. Infinite. So of course I just start with the stuff that interests me. 

I usually like to place a larger figure in the foreground of the painting, and I like for the point of view to be as if you were standing there next to him — a participant in the scene, not just a viewer. But what’s that guy doing? Ducking his head to keep from getting shot? Firing from cover? A little gung ho charging? Is he an NCO or officer leading his troops, or just a GI going about his business? I usually like to focus on the common soldier, the everyman in a war zone, because I think that’s the most compelling part of war in general, and with Americans in WW2 in particular: common men in uncommon situations.

So, is he shooting? Shooting while standing or shooting while kneeling? What’s he shooting with? M1 Garand? Thompson? BAR? Pistol? Or is he in an MG team? Or maybe he’s not shooting; maybe he’s looking for targets? Or maybe he’s looking for his buddy coming up behind him?

Some famous illustrator, maybe Howard Pyle or NC Wyeth, said that the point of greatest drama is just before the main action happens, when the scene is still pregnant with possibilities.

One of my favorite paintings is Blind Pew by N.C. Wyeth from his Treasure Island series. Blind Pew is a painting of a blind beggar/pirate staggering down the road at night. There is precious little happening in the scene, but it begs so many questions: why is a blind man out on the road at night? he doesn’t look very nice does he, in fact he’s quite menacing. The painting shows Blind Pew just before he’s trampled and killed by a horseman. A depiction of the trampling itself would never have the kind of drama that Wyeth gives the scene — just before the action takes place.

Blind Pew by N.C. Wyeth

Blind Pew by N.C. Wyeth

So, with that all in mind, I’m not looking for a battle scene, but more of a personal soldier scene — before the first shot is fired.

And then, whatever that main guy is doing, what is everyone else doing? From the Company Commander book, and from a few WW2 photos, I was intrigued with the idea of infantry hitching a ride on a tank, maybe making for a quicker entry onto the field of battle. And what does that look like? Everyone jumping off, grabbing their stuff? Some with just rifles, but some in MG teams with ammo belts and a disassembled machine gun, all moving to the front? Hmmm, maybe so.

For whatever reason, that’s the part of the story that holds the most drama for me. Load up and take the next town. You hitch a ride with your tank friends, until you get close, and then "everybody off" in a perimeter around the front of the vehicle, watching for surprises while your comrades get set up to advance.

And what weapon should the main guy have? Well, I think a BAR, Browning Automatic Rifle, would be nice – mostly because I haven’t painted one of those before!

And PS, here a little note I found in my sketchbook while I was looking for those thumbnails. It's from artist and art blogger, Lori McNee ( Thought for the day. 

See, I was paying attention during those painting lectures.

See, I was paying attention during those painting lectures.

Next time: So, there’s a scene in my head; how do I get it on paper?

A look behind the scenes at Victory in Europe


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?”