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August 03, 2009

Frank Wootton: Getting It Almost Right

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

This obituary in The Independent contains a line asserting that Frank Wootton (1911-98) "has been called 'probably the finest aviation artist of all time' for his depiction of the Royal Air Force in the Battle of Britain and beyond."

I'm not sure I concur with that claim even though I've enjoyed Wootton's work since I was high school age or even a bit younger. I have fond memories of leafing through his books "How to Draw 'Planes" and "How to Draw Cars" at the public library. His instructions were pretty skimpy, but the meat of these publications was in the reproductions of his drawings, as we shall see below.

I even stumbled on a display of his paintings at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. many years ago. That was long before I renewed my interest in art, so I didn't get as much out of seeing them as I would today.

Wootton clearly received solid training in painting, especially having to do with the effects of light, shade and color. What he sometimes lacked was draftsmanship. This is particularly true for his aviation paintings: some aircraft are not correctly proportioned.

The Battle of Britain

For example, in the painting above, the fighters on the left don't quite look right. My guess is that the wingspan is too great. So some of the time he got things wrong, and other times got them right. I'm supposing that he freehanded planes, striving for effects rather than correct proportions and perspective.

Wootton was essentially a commercial illustrator who created artwork for advertising while having a parallel career painting commissioned scenes for the Royal Air Force and organizations with a strong interest in British aviation. He painted landscapes and animals for his own enjoyment.

I'm presenting his work here because he was a decent and very popular artist in genres I like. Below are some examples.


Captions are descriptive and not the actual ones.

Typhoons at Falaise Gap
This is an imaginary scene of retreating German army units being attacked by British fighter-bombers in the aftermath of the Allied invasion of northern France in 1944. Wootton does a nice job of depicting German tanks and other equipment.

Douglas Bader bailing out
Bader is famous because, even though he lost parts of both legs in a pre-war flying accident, he returned to active duty in World War 2, claiming 22 combat victories. Unfortunately, he was eventually shot down, as the painting shows. But (fortunately) he survived and (unfortunately) spent the rest of the war save a few weeks at the end as a prisoner.

Car at train station
This drawing is from Wootton's book "How to Draw Cars." It's basically a sketch, an impression of masses defined by light and shade. Very nice.

Here's an illustration of Bentleys at an old car meet. Because it's necessarily more finished, I find it less satisfying than the train station sketch above. Even though his fame is mostly associated with aviation paintings, I always felt that Wootton was better at automobiles.

Handley Page 42 at Croydon
This painting combines vehicles (including another Bentley) and a Handley Page HP 42 airliner at the Croydon aerodrome, south of London. Readers with sharper eyes can correct me, but my impression is that either the HP 42 is slightly too large or the surrounding people are slightly too small.

I realize I'm being somewhat critical here. Call it a case of "tough love" because I basically enjoy seeing Wootton's work. Whereas I think other artists have done better at aircraft, he more than compensates when it comes to cars. Call him the best all-rounder for transportation device illustration.



posted by Donald at August 3, 2009


There's more wrong with those fighters in the first picture than excessive wingspan: their bodies look as if they were made of rolled-out plasticine with the parts (like the tails) more or less mushed together. Sloppy and just not evocative at all.

I assume those two on the left are Hurricanes (from the cockpits and tails and the time, but hard to tell), but the planes lack the stubby bullterrier look of the Hurricane. Too long and too flaccid. And if they're Spitfires (unlikely I know), they utterly lack that sleek curved leopard-like deadliness in their look (the Bader plane is better). The lines are just all wrong everywhere in those planes.

It is interesting how much better his cars are. The planes are really quite bad, actually.

Posted by: PatrickH on August 3, 2009 9:11 AM

Patrick H -- At first glance I thought those fighters were Hurricanes. After more than a little additional thought, I finally decided that they were Spits. The original caption had the word "Hurricanes" in it, but I wasn't certain enough regarding using "Spitfires," so I settled on "fighters."

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on August 3, 2009 9:41 AM

I have always thought the pair diving on the left were Spitfires--note the "scoop" under the starboard wing and the pointy wingtips, if no other features. I never knew who the artist was, but the Typhoon picture has the same problem in the rendering of the planes--lord knows I failed to master even to that level back when I was an airplane-infatuated teenager.

Posted by: Narr on August 4, 2009 10:33 AM

The two on the left are more like Spits than anything else (the one on the far left could almost be an RAF-style Mustang! which had quite a different cockpit to the USAAF ones) but, as you say, they are distinctly deficient from a purely representational point of view

the more distant 'plane seen as an underbelly is clearly a Spit, probably drawn straight from a photo, but he hasn't even bothered to make the wings of equal length!

I actually think Wootton was capable of accurate draftmanship but didn't always exercise the ability. There was a 1930's style of aviation graphic art that habitually reduced 'planes to a rather sloppy, almost amorphous generic shape. I'd interpret 'Battle of Britain' as deliberately majoring on overall 'feel', and being relaxed as to precision on this occasion, falling back into the loose generic style

final thought: there were far more Hurricanes in the BoB than Spits - he might have intended the 'see-what-you-want-to-see' aspect for all vets to feel included !

Posted by: Nick Drew on August 5, 2009 4:12 PM

Please understand that Mr Wootton stood out on an airfield using avgas as thinner to capture these scenes for the RAF.
He was comissioned to the combat zones and I imagine it would be a bit like trying to capture the indy 500 as the cars are speeding by.

His mastery of the sky is what breathes life into these pieces lifting the men and machines into their element.

Most artwork is viewed for 3 to 5 seconds and the snapshot left in your mind is more impressive than the technical accurracy.

Posted by: RA on August 11, 2009 3:25 PM

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