US Army

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?”