Friday, July 18, 2014

War Art by Thomas Hennell reviewed by Jack

Visit to RAF Hendon to view war art by Thomas Hennell

On  the 11th of April I went to RAF Hendon to see some of Thomas Hennell's war art. He worked in Asia (namely India and Burma) as well as other places such as Iceland and the Netherlands. Most of his work at RAF Hendon is from his time in Asia - especially in India where he recorded many airstrips being constructed.

In  this picture Indian troops are constructing a British airfield using out-of-date machinery such as the steam roller in the background. Due to the nature of his subject and the fact that they were constantly moving, Hennell had to paint extremely quickly using  loose brush strokes. In most of his pictures he has not used pencil to mark out any shapes. However, when he does use pencil it is only to show position and outline rather than detail. As is shown in this painting the heat was unbearable and was only relieved by a monsoon. Both of these types of weather would have hindered Hennell as he tried to paint. On these primitive airfields shelter was rare so  Hennell was often rushed to do his paintings and therefore his work  appears unfinished; as is shown in this picture by the seated figure in the foreground. By the time the storm on the horizon had passed this figure would have moved so the painting could not be completed.

In this piece of artwork Pioneers are laying an airstrip in Mingaldon, June 1945. This shared airfield housed both American and British Dakotas as well as American Liberators. In this image Hennell has used very suggestive colours that you would not expect to see in a normal scene.  In this particular painting Hennell has put varying shades of pink in the foreground and blue in the middle-ground. These colours create a sense of movement and action within the scene because of their loose and inaccurate personality. He has used various contrasting techniques in this piece of art such as wet-into-wet and dry-brushing. In the central foreground yellow ochre and mid purple have been dry-brushed together leaving speckled white areas which again add a sense of movement. On the left browns and yellows have been used wet-into-wet to create a fading look which has aided perspective. The planes in the background are also very suggestive which means that they compliment the scene without detracting attention from the Pioneers.

Many techniques have been used in this picture such as dry-brushing and the addition of neat water droplets. Hennell appears to of laid down a wash and then leaving it to semi-dry before adding water droplets.  These drops have created a pale starburst effect which helps to  add texture to the ground. Another method of adding texture is through the use of dry-brushing. He has left large expanses of white paper showing after laying his washes. In these spaces Hennell has added dabs of colour or dry-brushed colours across the rough paper. These two simple effects come together to create a convincing suggestion of rough ground.
To create the effect of rain in the sky, Hennell appears to of flicked on water again and has also dragged colour across the sky. It seems that he has used the equivalent of a fan brush in order to streak the 'rain' across the grey wash of a sky. Along the base of the picture Hennell has added horizontal brush strokes of varying shades of brown. the horizontal nature of the loose strokes means that they show the contour of the bare soil extremely well along with the corresponding washes. 

In this picture, Hennell has portrayed an American airfield under construction. The Americans exported much more sophisticated equipment and therefore they worked much faster. As a result Hennell had to paint faster. This resulted in a much more liberal and loose painting style and a lot more suggestion.  This is shown by the only outlined tractors  which contain very little detail.
Overall, Hennell has a very unique painting style in which he uses unexpected techniques to create varying effects that help to add character to his paintings. The fact that he paints so quickly using these impressionist techniques means that his paintings have a sense of movement and a                                                                                                    reality that is not immediately portrayed.

Whilst I was there I also saw some works by Stafford-Baker - an un-commissioned war artist.  Stafford-Baker's style is very much like my own, he pays very close attention to detail and colour as well as how the light reflects off of different surfaces. The detail on the relatively small Beaufighter in the background is precise - right down to the hair-line panel recesses. The foreground Beaufighter with the engine cowling removed also portrays exquisite detail within the engine bay.  Despite the limited light Stafford-Baker has shown the prop boss and pistons extremely well using light and shadow to show shapes. Stafford-Baker has used wet-into-wet techniques to show light and dark without obvious transitions. Overall this study is amazingly
detailed and, if it had been finished, would have made a fine painting. 

I like Stafford-Baker's work very much because he uses various techniques to create a realistic painting that appears to be alive. However, I feel that Hennell paints movement into his paintings much better - probably owing to the hurried nature of his paintings. Despite this Hennell has not included much detail in his paintings and therefore I find it hard to relate to them like I can to Stafford-Baker's. My painting style is more like Stafford-Baker's  and therefore I think that I prefer his work - even though they are both equally as impressive. This article focuses mainly on Hennell because his paintings use interesting techniques that I can use and I can therefore aspire to create paintings like his (only with a bit more detail!). As mentioned previously, Hennell has also used various colours within his paintings that you would not normally expect to find, which creates an interesting effect that I would like to try on my paintings.


1 comment:

  1. I understand that you relate to Stafford-Baker's work, it's stillness and clear-light effects has something in common with your own work. Have you ever attempted to paint quickly directly from a moving subject, Jack? If not, I think it would be a useful exercise to try, as you have recently spent time extending your 'toolkit' of watercolour painting techniques.