To make authentic-looking paintings of planes, an artist has to show them flying. So how are you going to paint from life? North Carolina painter Russell Smith worked out an answer.
Lead Image: Russell Smith’s setup for painting airplane models outdoors to get correct color notes
“I paint really rare planes that are hard to come by,” says Smith. “Painting them at altitude just can’t happen. They are mostly in museums.” So Smith builds models of World War I-era planes and poses them outdoors using an armature.
Even the models for these planes — Fokkers, Sopwiths, Junkers, and Albatrosses, for example — are rare. Smith buys his models from Wingnut Wings, a company started by filmmaker Peter Jackson, an airplane aficionado. “He has his own model company in New Zealand, and they make super-accurate models,” says Smith.
The artists carefully builds the models, then puts a large hole in the bottom and top of the cockpit so he can attach them to an armature he fashioned from a device made from a light stand. On a day with the right weather conditions, he takes the setup out into his backyard and paints a plein air study to capture the shadow colors, the reflections of the clouds and sky color, and the like.
“I have been a studio artist for 25 years or so,” says Smith, “and I’m always seeking ways to make my work better. About three years ago I started building and painting these models. The next step was naturally to take these outside.” At first, Smith painted while holding the plane in one hand. When he worked out a way to attach a flexible conduit to a light stand, he could paint more freely and have the model positioned exactly the way he wanted to catch the light. “It’s proven to be really effective,” says Smith. “I had already found ways to get accurate drawings down. I could then transfer the drawing to a canvas panel. But I needed the color notes.”
Smith’s pursuit of veracity extends further: He says that the bit of space between the wings on a biplane creates a different light effect on a small model than it does on an actual plane. And while the model kits he buys are accurate, Smith modifies them to make the plastic parts better simulate the actual materials used in the airplanes. “These planes were usually made of wood and linen,” he says. “I spray them with floor wax, using an airbrush, to imitate the shiny finish of the actual planes. When I paint the larger, studio pieces, I modify the image to show where grease would be, and where I know some parts are made of wood.”
He also has to compensate for the fact that his models are in a backyard. “I have to be conscious of what’s around me,” Smith says. “I study the reflections that are occurring in the airplane. Is that the structure of my house reflecting on there? Is that reflected light the green from grass? I still have to translate from this small model in my yard to a full-size airplane flying in the air.”
This is work, and these are preliminary sketches for finished pieces. But this is also something Smith has loved since he was a boy. “Nine out of 10 of these will be studies for larger paintings,” he says. “But some are just for fun.”