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A special Work In Progress report to mark the 100th painting in Ivan Berryman's series of first world war aces and aircraft.

This original painting will soon be available to purchase - canvas size 78 inches x 36 inches, price £12,000.

The 100th Painting

After three years of almost continuous toil, my series of paintings of World War 1 aces and their aircraft is approaching its 100th  canvas and, to mark this milestone, we have decided to make it something special. I have chosen to undertake a very large oil painting, one that will make a stunning centrepiece to any collection.

As I have mentioned previously, many World War 1 aerial combats involved huge amounts of aircraft, all wheeling and diving within a very small area. Collisions were frequent and individual battles were often made all the more hazardous by disorientation and by mistaken identity. Life and death was decided by a combination of airmanship, marksmanship and instinct. Some pilots were naturally gifted whilst others had to learn their skills the hard way, frequently with tragic results. In some respects, the outcome of each duel was a lottery and a victory might be attributable to a fluke, a lucky shot. It is my intention to depict some of this chaos in this very special painting.

Of course, the greatest of them all was the celebrated Rittmeister Mannfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron, and it seems fitting therefore that he should occupy centre stage for my epic painting which will depict the occasion of his final victory – his eightieth – on the day before he died.

This battle took place in the skies just west of Amiens on 20th April 1918 when Richthofen’s Circus encountered Sopwith Camels of No 3 and No 201 Squadron. Great German pilots such as Richard Wenzl, Hans Weiss, Werner Stienhauser – as well as von Richthofen himself – found themselves embroiled in a battle with their British contemporaries. Major Richard Raymond-Barker fell to The Baron’s guns and was killed in the ensuing crash and, just three minutes later, Second Lieutenant David Lewis was sent down in flames by the same little red Fokker DR.1 Triplane, but he survived the impact relatively unscathed and, no doubt, dined out for many years on the fact that he transpired to be the great German ace’s last ever victim. The next day, Sunday 21st April 1918, the Red Baron met his end, brought down by ground fire whilst in pursuit of what was very nearly his 81st ‘kill’.

My painting will feature von Richthofen’s all red DR.1 425/17 giving chase to Lewis’s Sopwith Camel in the immediate foreground whilst, all around them, other brightly decorated DR.1s of the Circus are engaged with their opponents as far as the eye can see.

 

Commentary in this column

Related photos in this column

 

Work Begins!

 

The first stage of any painting is to source the colour schemes and serial numbers of the aircraft taking part and to link this information to the pilots that flew them and then to arrange each ‘event’ to be included in the painting into a chronologically correct composition. For example, Raymond-Barker’s aircraft will not be in the painting because he had been sent down slightly earlier in the conflict. Lieutenant L A Hamilton, in Camel D6519, is known to have engaged a ‘blue’ Triplane (possibly Eberhardt Mohnicke) at about the same time of the Lewis / von Richthofen battle, so this could be included.

 

Now, using some accurate but generic model kits, I begin to take photographs from every conceivable angle (picture 1). For von Richthofen’s aircraft, I get in close with a wide angle lens to force the perspective. This produces a very usable image as shown in picture 2.

 

Picture 1

Picture 2

 

 

 

With the photographs suitably enlarged and montaged, I can start work marking out the positions and shapes of each main aircraft in the picture on the canvas (picture 3). Only now does the true scale of this massive painting become apparent; the wingspan of Triplane 425/17 is almost three feet!

Picture 3

 

 

In picture 4, I have covered the entire canvas with a neutral grey coat of paint. This helps me to work up the lightest and darkest areas of the painting in relation to each other (I liken this technique to playing a tune on a piano. If you start playing too high on the keyboard - too light - you won’t have any top notes when you need them. If you play too low - too dark - the opposite applies. Start playing in the middle and you can embellish either way. And you’ll still have real whites left for your highlights and real darks left for your shadows).

Picture 4

 

 

 

The action that I am depicting took place at around 18.40pm and official combat reports describe the weather as being ‘overcast, but improving’, which isn’t terribly helpful, so I have opted to paint broken cloud to err on the safe side. With this in mind, the next stage is to outline where the main cloud features will be (picture 5) and then, because the ground needs to be visible through breaks in the cloud, I block in a dark area (picture 6). I always think it’s important to show some of the ground if possible. It gives the composition some depth and perspective and, if done well, can offer a real feeling of vertigo and altitude. As will transpire later, the angle and forced perspective that I have chosen for von Richthofen’s aircraft (the nearest) as he chases Lewis’ Camel down should add to this illusion.

Picture 5

Picture 6

 

 

 

In photograph 7, I can be seen painting in some of the details of the ground below – not too much, as it is going to appear very gloomy down there and much of the cloud is going to obscure the terrain anyway.

 

Picture 7

 

 

 

 

At last, work on the clouds themselves can begin (pictures 8 & 9). On a canvas of this scale, this is going to take a while and is going to need some constant checking and adjustment. (I have moved the canvas into another room of my studio for this part, a room where I can step back and get a good idea of what I am achieving while I am working on it). My original white cloud outlines will help me to keep the whole scene in perspective, but working too close to a giant canvas can cause all sorts of problems that don’t become apparent until you step back – so keep stepping back and checking!

Picture 8

Picture 9

Progress is quite rapid as I work my way across the canvas, building up the layers of cloud (photograph 10), and it is soon time for those final touches before stripping away the masking before the paint dries too much, as in photograph 11.

Picture 10

Picture 11

In photograph 12, all the masking has been removed and the aircraft outlines are clearly visible. This is going to be a typical dogfight scene for the period with aircraft seemingly going in all directions, even though only six Triplanes from von Richthofen’s Circus are believed to have taken part. Research (and some much-valued expert help) has allowed me to understand some of what happened that morning and photograph 13 shows who is included in my painting and what part each pilot played.

Nearest, of course, is Manfred von Richthofen’s DR.1 who is lining up Lewis’ Camel (B7393). Lewis was in C-Flight, under Ginger Bell, and I was fully expecting to show this by the colour of Lewis’ wheel covers, but my sources have revealed that the colour coding of each flight was not undertaken until May 1918 – a week or two after the event that I am depicting. Even the code letters or numbers that would have been allocated to each flight were never recorded, so a little artistic licence will have to be reluctantly employed. All we know is that Lewis’ Camel would have carried any letter from ‘S’ to ‘X’ on the cockpit sides, as well as the two vertical bars behind the cockade that was 3 Squadron’s identification marking.

According to his combat report, Hamilton is known to have ‘chased down’ a ‘blue’ DR.1. This is believed to be the mount of Eberhardt Mohnicke (DR.1 155/17) and I have shown this battle in the far distance, in photograph 14 and in a detail shot in photograph 15. Although hardly visible in the photograph, faint dark tracers from Hamilton’s guns can be seen streaking beneath Mohnicke’s aircraft as he twists and turns in avoidance.

Also almost completed in Photograph 14 and detailed in 16 is Werner Steinhauser’s DR.1 (564/17), shown as just a white dot in the full-width photograph. Steinhauser is depicted chasing Riley’s  ‘B’ Flight Camel (No 6475), furiously raking his opponent. Riley was wounded in the action, but managed to return home safely.

Finally, returning to Photograph 13, Hamilton’s flight leader, Bell, can be seen diving steeply to escape Hans Weiss who had already claimed a 201 Squadron Camel earlier that day. Bell was flying C7630 and Weiss 545/17.

 

This is already a painting full of aircraft, but I may yet add other machines in the distance as work progresses. It was, after all, quite common for two aircraft to go after one and, sometimes, a whole chain of aircraft could develop that twisted and curled around the sky as if they were joined.

But maybe I’ll save that for another painting…

 

Picture 12

Picture 13

Picture 14

Picture 15

Picture 16

Work on each aircraft now continues, but I find myself having to wait for some additional information on Flight Leader Ginger Bell’s Camel, which is going to hold up progress a bit on the British side. I instead turn my attention to the DR.1s of Jasta 11 that are already fully researched. However, it transpires that Werner Steinhauser’s Dr.1 564/17 had a pair of yellow eyes painted on the cowl of his aircraft in a similar style to Werner Voss, so these will need to be added as this aircraft is shown flying almost head-on toward us and would be a glaring omission!

 

After some deliberation, I have decided to include Leutnant Richard Wenzl in the painting as he, too, got involved in the fighting that day, flying 588/17, decorated with his ‘Iron Cross’ ribbon band wrapped around the fuselage and distinctive black & white wing leading edges. I have placed his aircraft high above Hamilton’s Camel, rolling in to join the fray and I think this is an interesting addition to the action, as shown in the top right corner of photograph 17 and detailed in 18. This proved a bit fiddly as, even on this huge canvas, Wenzl’s aircraft is only 4.5cm from wingtip to wingtip!

 

 

Picture 17

Picture 18

Also completed now is Hans Weiss’ white-tailed DR.1 (545/17) which will transpire to be corkscrewing down on the tail of Ginger Bell’s Camel. The lighting is coming from the top left in the painting and some might conclude that I have mistakenly lit the underside of the DR.1, visible in photograph 19. But when set in context, as in photograph 20, it is clear that the undersides of the aircraft are in fact reflecting the bright cloud in the background as Weiss rolls his machine round to get a bead on his opponent.

 

Whilst I await the research on the Camels, now it is time to turn my attention to The Baron himself…

 

Picture 19

Picture 20

There has been much speculation about the appearance of DR.1 425/17 which was the only Triplane used by von Richthofen that was painted entirely in red. It is known that red paint was in short supply, so a demand to paint an entire aircraft in this colour would have stretched the resources somewhat. To help get over this problem, it is recorded that a quantity of black paint was added to the mix to make it go a little further and to improve its density, so the brilliant scarlet so often depicted is probably not entirely accurate. That said, a red aircraft – even a ‘plummy’ red aircraft – in the bright sunlight would appear quite striking, so I am not going to dull it down too much where the fabric is in direct light.

 

Having covered up much of the painting with some paper to avoid splashes and damaged caused by dropped brushes (I can be so clumsy sometimes!) in photograph 21, I have begun work on the undersides of all three wings and the undercarriage faring. The wings are, of course, in shadow, but the taut fabric is pretty reflective, so I’ve added a sheen and then picked out the ribs of the structure beneath. These ribs are important as they also denote where the ‘batwing’ effect on the trailing edge of each wing appears. The crosses have been put into place and the beginnings of the reflections where the wing struts will eventually attach have been roughed in. The ailerons have yet to be added, together with a lot of minor detailing.

 

The rudder is also underway, as shown in photograph 22, and I have taken care to show just a vestige of the original old-style cross showing through the worn paintwork behind the new Balkenkreuze. This aircraft had its crosses amended twice during its lifetime and the poor quality of the paint, coupled with continuous weathering, left the national markings looking decidedly scruffy by this time. This process will be repeated, slightly more pronounced, on the fuselage side. (The crosses were cut from the wreck of 425/17 by souvenir-hunting infantrymen the very next day when Manfred crashed fatally near the Somme River and most survive to this day in museums, clearly showing just how worn they were).

 

Photograph 21

 

Photograph 22

A few clear days with no interruptions means that real progress can be made, as shown in photograph 23. With the fuselage, tailplane and much of the undercarriage now complete, von Richthofen’s aircraft is approaching the final stages. No interplane, cabane or undercarriage struts have yet been applied, but the tail struts and control wires are in place and more or less finished.

 

Now that the cross on the fuselage is visible, the slightly ‘cocked’ rudder is more evident and I have added just a little tilt to the elevators to add some movement to the chase.

 

In photograph 24, the great man himself (or the top of his head anyway) is roughed in. There will be a little more work here later on, and the only visible one of two LMG 08/15 machine guns is complete. The worn and overpainted cross on the fuselage side can be seen in this photograph and the whole completed fuselage is given a good ‘weathering’. Around the area of the tail skid, which has not yet been painted, a lot of mud and scuffing is applied.

 

Next will be some sign of the spinning rotary engine beneath the cutaway cowl and just a suggestion of the propeller before the wheel struts and wires can be applied.

 

Photograph 23

 

Photograph 24

Et Voila! Photograph 25 shows the finished DR.1 in close-up and Photograph 26 shows it in context with the next stage of the painting, namely Lewis’ Sopwith Camel. I have resisted the temptation to add too many highlights and sparkles on the Triplane. Although glints of sunlight can really lift a painting and bring it to life, it would not have been appropriate here as the aircraft sides were quite dull and war-weary. A sheen, yes, but not a blinding glare.

And whilst we’re on the subject of subtlety, I have added the propeller now, which appears just as a wisp. So too does the rotary engine which is, of course, turning at the same speed.

 

I am always careful not to make too much of spinning propellers in my paintings. There is a tradition in aviation art to paint props as blurry stubs, but this is merely how we have come to perceive a turning airscrew through the medium of photography, which partially stops the ‘action’ to varying degrees, depending on the shutter speed used. If you observe an aircraft with the naked eye when it is at full chat, there is almost no visible evidence of the propeller at all, except perhaps when the sun catches it, or when viewed side-on. Just a thought, but worth a mention…

Photograph 25

 

Photograph 26

I am extremely indebted to Andy Kemp, whose wealth of knowledge on all things Sopwith Camel has proved invaluable in the completion of this painting. His detailed information and supporting photographs have ensured as much accuracy as is possible regarding the aircraft of C Flight of No3 Squadron that took part in this action. It seems that the Camels involved had little uniformity when it came to the placing and style of serial numbers. With Lewis’ machine appearing more or less dead centre in the composition, it was going to be absolutely necessary to get this one right. In photograph 27, B7393 is now complete and in photograph 28, you can see now how Lewis has placed his aircraft in a very precarious position indeed – right in the path of von Richthofen’s DR.1, soon to become victim No 80.

 

Although not shown in this painting (because he had already been shot down by the Red Baron a few minutes earlier), Raymond Barker’s Camel D6439 would have appeared quite different, carrying no identification number or letter on its sides and upper wing and with the serial repeated forward of the tailplane in a white Sopwith-type box.

 

As mentioned earlier, C Flight’s blue wheel covers and, later, engine covers, were not applied at this time. Most published profiles show No3 Squadron’s aircraft displaying either red (A Flight), white (B Flight) or blue wheel covers, but it is thought that these were not applied until May 1918, a few weeks after the action that I am depicting here had taken place.

 

Because no records exist of the exact personal letters and numbers carried on each aircraft and so few photographs are available of this precise period (the code letters were not recorded in squadron record books and only mentioned in a pilot’s combat report if relevant for some reason), the only bit of artistic licence that I must, reluctantly, employ here is the code letter on Lewis’ aircraft which would have been any letter between ‘S’ and ‘X’. I have opted for ‘U’.

 

Incidentally, B Flight’s Camels carried identifying numbers instead of letters at this time.

 

In photograph 29, I have returned to the left half of the painting and added Bell’s Camel C7630, diving and rolling away from Hans Weiss’ DR.1. Although very small in the painting, I have taken the trouble to show a little ‘up’ elevator and alternate aileron positions on the wings to demonstrate the manoeuvre.

Photograph 27

 

Photograph 28

 

Photograph 29

 

Into the closing stages now, the final aircraft in the picture. Photograph 30 shows work underway on Riley’s Camel No 6495. The wings, tail and fuselage side is largely complete, but the struts and bracing wires have yet to be added.

 

Riley’s aircraft has found some sunlight through a gap in the clouds, so I can put a few more highlights where the sun glints off the taut fabric and metal engine cowl, just to give this corner of the painting a bit of a lift. I will be adding a bit of damage to 6495 later, as Steinhauser is shown having a good ‘squirt’ at his opponent and Riley is known to have been injured during the combat. A few bullet holes and some rips in the fabric should do it.

 

And so it all draws to an end. Photograph 31 shows Riley’s completed Camel

turning away from the main action and trying to escape the attentions of Werner Steinhauser. All struts, wires and undercarriage assembly are now in place and a lot of detailing and weathering has been added. 6495 was a comparatively old aircraft by this time, so I’ve roughed it up a bit and added a lot of oil staining beneath the engine, streaming back along the underside of the fuselage. Just visible on the port lower mainplane and port tailplane are some bullet holes. I don’t know exactly how much damage was sustained to Riley’s machine during this action, so it is best to be conservative. He was injured, but not seriously.

 

The finished painting is presented in photograph 32, but I have to confess that it looks a lot less dramatic when reduced to just a few centimetres. I wish that I could share the spectacle of the real thing with you in all its 2-metre (6 ft 7 inches) magnificence!

 

Above all though, I hope that this will stand as a record of how that aerial battle on 20th April 1918 may have looked and as a tribute to the brave young men on both sides who fought so gallantly and with such great self sacrifice for a cause that each so fervently believed in.

 

The very next day, Manfred von Richthofen, the revered ‘Red Baron’ was brought down, killed – ironically - by a single bullet, probably fired from the ground as his little red Triplane chased William ‘Wop’ May’s Sopwith Camel along the Somme River. That his aircraft did not flip over suggests that he was conscious enough, at least for a while, to switch off his engine and perhaps attempt a landing. We will never know.

 

What we do know is that his aircraft was immediately surrounded by ground troops and stripped of all its national markings. The Baron’s body was recovered and taken to Poulainville, the home of No3 Squadron where a guard of honour was formed to bury him in Bertangles Cemetary with full military honours.

 

An era had ended. A legend had been born.

 

Photograph 30

 

Photograph 31

 

 

 

 

Photograph 32 - The Complete Painting.

 

THIS WORK IN PROGRESS (WIP) ARTICLE WAS UPDATED REGULARLY AS IVAN WORKED ON THIS PAINTING.  ALTHOUGH THIS ONE IS NOW COMPLETE, WE OFTEN PRODUCE WIP ARTICLES LIKE THIS AND POST THEM ON THIS WEBSITE - LOOK OUT FOR MORE IN FUTURE!

You can see the full collection of Ivan's WW1 series of aviation paintings and prints on his website.  Click Here

 

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