In talking with Keith Ferris at the 2007 American Society of Aviation Artists forum in Baltimore, I was asking him for solutions to life, the universe and how to paint aviation art. Keith, who I sense has been asked that question more times than I’ve stopped and watched an aircraft fly over, answered by telling me that I need to consider the issue, understand the problem and then solve it myself. At the time I was pretty miffed that Keith was not giving away his hard earned knowledge to a mere upstart who had only been painting aviation art for a year or so at this time. However after a little reflection I understood how important a lesson that Keith imparted that day.
As a result I now give a lot of thought to the components of a picture in the planning stage with the aim to solve as many problems as I can before I start to paint. And so here are a few thoughts on the impact and issues the horizon might have on a painting.
Horizon according to the Concise Oxford Dictionary is defined as “ the line at which the earth and sky appear to meet”. OK so you don’t need the Oxford English Dictionary or me to tell you this!
What else do we know about the horizon ? Well to tell you the truth I’d never really thought about it until I started painting aviation art.
A few basic rules of perspective immediately come to mind but perhaps more interestingly from the aviation artist’s point of view is the relationship between the distance to the horizon and the height above ground level from which it is seen.
The distance to the horizon (in miles) is the square root of 1.5 times the height above ground or sea level (in feet) of the eye of the observer.
Now imagine we are flying over Berlin in a B-17 on the 6th March 1944 and Berlin, the target, is clear of all clouds. Normal bombing height for a B-17 raid was 26-28000 ft. From that height the distance to the horizon is 217-225 miles. At the lower height of 16500 ft from which bombs were sometimes dropped the horizon is still 172 miles distant.
And so one of the challenges of aviation art is dealing with distances that have to be portrayed when aircraft are depicted at altitude. Given the distance to the horizon at 20000 feet is around 200 miles this must be taken into account if the composition of a picture includes the horizon. The main task is to identify any key landmarks such as a coastline, large towns or cities or mountain ranges that might be visible, and their position and size within the picture. At the same time the effect of atmospheric recession must be taken into account and it fully understood that cloud and atmospheric conditions most likely will reduce the distant horizon to a blue/grey band of indistinct detail. However somewhere between the viewpoint and the horizon a level of ground detail will need to be shown, and at the very least make some attempt to accurately reflect the geography of the
Atmospheric recession – well that’s for next time.