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

The afternoon of 25th July 1940 was a desperate one for the already exhausted fighter pilots of the RAF defending the South coast of England. As convoy CW8 made its way through the English Channel, sixty JU.87 Stukas and forty JU.88 bombers launched a brutal attack on the ships below, backed up by fighter cover of over 50 Messerscmitt Bf.109s. Eight Spitfires of 64 Sqn (Kenley) were scrambled, together with twelve Spitfires of 54 Sqn (Hornchurch) and Hurricanes of 111 Sqn from Croydon. The British pilots found themselves massively outnumbered, but nevertheless put up a spirited fight against the teeming enemy.   

This action appealed to me as the basis for another epic canvas (78 inches long) to partner my World War 1 painting called The Final Curtain, which you can find described here.   I described the preparation of the canvas in my previous WIP, but suffice it to say it was given two coats of gesso primer and then a further coat of a neutral grey. I always like to begin with a mid-tone canvas as this allows the eye to visualise the overall tonal quality of the painting as it progresses. In short, you can see immediately how dark or how light you can go in the extremes.

With the larger aircraft pencilled in (no detail at this stage), the outlines were masked out to allow me to work on the background without the distraction of foreground matter.  I chose to depict the moment when Spitfires of 54 Sqn dived onto the marauding Stukas and then split to go after their chosen targets, the British aircraft scattering in all directions. Because they were defending the convoy that was passing through the Straights of Dover, it was essential to show at least a part of the convoy below and the JU.87s that were attacking it.

From a purely artistic point of view, I decided to set the whole scene against a sunlit seascape where the dark shadows of the clouds would add a contrasting dimension to the overall scene, whilst the clouds themselves would add another level.

Commentary in this column

Related photos in this column






In Photograph 1, I have covered the entire canvas with the basic, mid-tone sea colour, making it lighter in the centre left where the sun will be striking the sea. To the left and right, I have used a darker version of the same colour to form the basis of the shadowed areas.

Picture 1



There are many ways of painting the thousands of tiny waves hundreds of feet below and I must have employed every possible technique over the years but, for this one I tried something a little different: I sandwiched a piece of kitchen sponge between two strips of hardboard and used this as a soft blade to dab the waves onto the canvas. Photograph 2 shows this stage in progress.  The advantage of doing it like this was that I could control the pattern of the waves much more easily, keeping their direction uniform and gradually altering the angle of them across the canvas in keeping with perspective. This would have been much harder to do with a brush on a canvas of this size, working so close. By varying the colour and tone from brilliant white to almost black in the shadows, the wave pattern becomes a smooth progression from right to left with the almost burned-out brightest area in the centre.

Picture 2





In Photograph 3, I am adding the shadows of the clouds, some of which encroach onto the brightest area.  

Picture 3




Photograph 4 shows the whole canvas with the seascape complete. 

Picture 4



Photograph 5 shows the entire canvas, but with the clouds added, the masking removed and with some of the ships of the convoy partially painted in.

Picture 5








I have added a couple of close-ups here in Photographs 6 & 7 where the ships of CW8 can be clearly seen, together with some of the explosions and plumes of water where the Stukas’ bombs have struck. The background is largely complete now, although I will return to add a few final tweaks later.

Pictures 6 & 7




The first Spitfire to be painted carries the famous codes KL-B, which denotes the aircraft of Plt Off Alan Deere. In photograph 8, you can see that I played with the lighting a lot on this aircraft as I wanted to get that bright sheen on the port wing as his aircraft began to roll. I also wanted to make a statement about the power of the Merlin engine giving the propeller that classic ‘flicker’. I hope that you can almost feel the aircraft driving itself hard into the conflict.

Picture 8










Photograph 9 shows the same aircraft, but now I have also added KL-A, the Spitfire of Sqn Ldr James Leatheart and three of the Stukas. There is a close-up of this in photograph 10 where the Stukas are a little clearer, their cranked wings catching the sunlight in different ways as they each are banked differently. The nearest one to Leatheart’s machine has just released its bomb (probably in panic in a bid to escape the Spitfire’s attentions!), whilst another is aligning itself for an attack on one of the ships.


Pictures 9 & 10





There is another Stuka in Photograph 11. This one measures just 9cm from wingtip to wingtip, so detailing is a bit of a problem. I try to add as much as I can, even on such a tiny aircraft, but there are limits!

Picture 11


Moving to another element entirely, more than 50 Bf.109s supported the German attack on the convoy, among them aircraft of JG.26. It would be impossible to show them all and an over-populated painting starts to look ridiculous and messy. It would probably be fair to say that the scene would have looked an awful lot busier on the day, but to paint this simply would not work, so it is best to acknowledge only the presence of those that mattered most.


Photograph 12 shows a Hurricane of 111 Sqn receiving the attentions of the great Adolf Galland (a close-up of which can be seen in Photograph 16). Galland did not ‘bag’ this Hurricane that day, but he did score his 16th victory by shooting down the 54 Sqn Spitfire of Flt Lt Basil ‘Wonky’ Way above Dover Harbour as this battle unfolded – a combat that I have covered in a separate painting. Two other JG.26 Bf.109Es can be seen turning into the fray in the far distance below Galland’s aircraft.


Picture 12





Another Hurricane is banking sharply in the far distance at the top of the painting, as shown in photograph 13. Again, this is tiny in the picture with a span of just 4cm.

Picture 13





Another victim that day was Plt Off A Finnie who was flying Spitfire R6816. I have been unable to trace the exact code letter for his aircraft, but I thought he was worthy of inclusion in my painting, so I have taken the liberty of a little artistic licence and given him the code ‘F’ (for ‘Finnie’ – it seemed fitting). His is the largest aircraft in the painting and can be seen in photograph 14.

Picture 14





Below him, in photograph 15, an unidentified Spitfire is rolling away toward the Stuka shown in photograph 11. With the completion of these two Spitfires, the painting is largely concluded and all that remains is to go back over all the elements covered here and bring them together with highlights and glints and a few other final embellishments.

Picture 15





Photograph 16 shows Adolf Galland's Me109 and the two other Me109s below his aircraft.  This is a close-up of photograph 12.

Picture 16


The completed painting 

Photograph 17 is the finished canvas. It looks a lot less dramatic at this scale than the real thing which, at nearly seven feet long, has to be seen in the flesh to be appreciated, but I do hope that it will stand as a tribute to all the British pilots that fought so gallantly that day against almost impossible odds, being outnumbered by five to one, embattled and suffering with terrible fatigue against a relentless enemy who, just two months later, were forced to admit defeat and turn their attentions away from the British mainland.

Ivan Berryman , January 2010.


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