Victory in Europe

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?