Spitting Image

Perhaps it’s just a coincidence. Perhaps not.

I have been a graphic designer, art director and creative director in Ottawa for the past 37 years. I have known many talented designers over this period, people like our own Peter Handley or Mark Lloyd, Stanley Berneche, Colin Huggard and hundreds more. All of them are cut from different bolts of cloth, but over and over again, I see one common thread—they love aircraft, vintage aircraft in particular.
One of the most experienced practitioners of the graphic design art form, and one I have known for many years is InnovaCom’s Jean Brunette, Gatineau’s most experienced and respected creative director.

Though I have known Jean off and on for decades, it wasn’t until Vintage Wings of Canada set up shop in his town, that I learned that he has the graphic designer’s curse—Warbird Visualization Syndrome—an overriding passion for all things flying and warbirds in particular and the inexplicable desire to turn them into art. Recently, he sent me an image of a partially completed painting of our beloved Supermarine Spitfire XVI. I could see that it was going to be beautiful and I asked him to share with us his thoughts and steps along the way to its completion.

Dave O’Malley, editor

Here, now, in the words of Jean Brunette, is a quick look at the creation of a dramatic and evocative oil painting of the Flight Lieutenant William Harper Supermarine Spitfire Mk XVI.

What is it about these old airplanes anyway?

I’m not sure exactly when it all began—this fascination for airplanes. Especially the vintage ones.

Sure, as kids we all loved airplanes at one time or another. But for some of us, they become a lifelong thing of passion... bordering on obsession. Well, for me at least ...and for this, I can thank my dad. Not that he was himself such a big airplane enthusiast—he just did what a father was expected to do, take his son to see, well, boy things. Yes, things that move and make noise like cars, trains, airplanes, and so on. But out of all of these “boy things” ...the airplanes stuck. For good

Jean Brunette’s father, Roger poses with Mike Potter’s Spitfire Mk XVI at the Ottawa Air Show in Carp, Ontario in September 2005. It is his influence, taking young Jean to events and places that celebrated all things mechanical, that spawned Brunette’s fascination and love of vintage machinery and, in particular, vintage aircraft. Photo: Jean Brunette

Being that we lived close by, we often visited the Canadian Aviation Museum which, back then, had their collection of aircraft displayed inside three Second World War hangars, with some “unlucky ones” having to brave it out outside. I remember feeling kind of sorry for them. There was a CF-101 Voodoo, a CF-100 Canuck and the saddest one of all—a pitiful looking Bristol Beaufighter. No engines, no rudder, paint peeling off everywhere and faded fuselage roundels.
The black sheep of the collection and I fell madly in love with it. On all our visits, the “Beau” was always the first one I checked out, like an old friend. One day, I convinced my dad to take a Polaroid of it. Back then, we saved the Polaroid photo-taking for special “family stuff”, not derelict airplanes. Needless to say, this small 3” x 3” image was like a million bucks to me and I spent countless minutes spellbound, just looking at it. It’s still in my photo collection to this day. 

Jean Brunette’s cherished childhood Polaroid photograph of a derelict Bristol Beaufighter, taken several decades ago in 1972 at the then National Aviation Museum, still is in his possession today. Photo: Roger Brunette

Inside the hangar, I would do a quick run, past the Day-Glo orange Red Knight T-33, the “OH-SO-Shiny-and-thin” CF-104, then slooowww-lyyy walk (admittedly with a bit of fear and a lot of respect) by the big Avro Lancaster with its bomb bay doors wide open and go check out each one of the famous “quadruplets”. Quadruplets... because at first, I could barely tell them apart. With time, my young eye became better in detecting the subtle differences between them. There was “Big-Mouth” Kittyhawk, “Pot-Belly” Mustang, “Ribcage Hurricane and, my very favourite of the bunch, “Indian-Head Spitfire.

One of the Aviation Museum “quadruplets” — “The Indian-Head Spitty”. The Lancaster that was so menacing to a young boy’s imagination is lurking in the background, bomb bay doors agape, ready to snap up any 7-year-old that dares come too close! Photo: Jean Brunette

Fast forward to 2013—Capturing the Spitfire on canvas

A year ago, I undertook a personal project to paint in oil some of my favourite Vintage Wings airplanes as a way to express my passion for these machines. Kind of an “informal” tribute to these iconic warriors of the past and a celebration of the timeless beauty of their design. Obviously, my first subject had to be the Spitfire. Coincidentally, it too had an “Indian-Head” on its cowl.

Inevitably, when working on such a painting, you become quite intimate with the subject and come to appreciate every single curvature (and the Spit has plenty of those), recess, bump and other details that make a Mark XVI look like a Mark XVI. For this to happen, you need to become intensely familiar with every square inch of it, so you do a lot of research, look at tons of pictures, sketch and sketch again until it becomes almost second nature to you. Having access to Vintage Wings’ wonderful collection is truly a blessing and is immensely helpful for the realization of projects like these.

The artist blocks in the shapes and begins the background. Photo: Jean Brunette

Brunette begins to play with the shapes, building up the tones through underpainting.
Photo: Jean Brunette

Applying the paint, getting the feel of metal and fabric. Photo: Jean Brunette

The Spitfire is not just green and grey as one might describe the camouflage, but a complex palette of colours from lime green to sky blue to cream. Photo: Jean Brunette

Working texture into the sky with a painting knife, also called a palette knife, and used for mixing paint. Photo: Jean Brunette

Using a scale model (not having a 421 Squadron Mk XVI on hand, Jean used a 402 Squadron Spitfire Mk XIV) to check the perspective and understand how the stencilling follows the slow curve of the fuselage. Photo: Jean Brunette

Mixing paint to make a visual colour match for the McColl–Frontenac Oil Company decal on the cowl. The McColl–Frontenac Oil Company was an oil company based in Canada. It was created in 1927 as a result of a merger between two companies, McColl Brothers and Frontenac Oil Refineries. Shares in the new company were acquired by the Texas Company, and by 1941 it had acquired a majority ownership position of McColl–Frontenac. At that time, the oil company was rebranded as Texaco. McColl–Frontenac was known for its branding of its oil and products as “Red Indian”, something that would be considered politically incorrect today. Photo: Jean Brunette

The painting depicts a late afternoon scene with warm sunlight blasting the rudder and flowing along the fuselage. To achieve this “warm glow” effect, all colours needed to be warmed up substantially to make them look just right—including the white of the roundels and fin flash which ended up being a toned-down cream colour three shades darker than pure white. Photo: Jean Brunette

Applying the right mixture of white requires a steady hand. Photo: Jean Brunette

When I first set out to do this painting, I wanted it to look realistic but in a painterly kind of way—always mindful of not falling into the trap of over-working the details. It’s really about creating an illusion of details even though they are merely suggested with a few brushstrokes of contrasting colours. For me, making it feel like a painting and not trying to emulate a photo was very important. Besides, if ultra-realism is the goal—a photograph will do just fine. In the end, it is the texture in the paint, the apparent brushstrokes, the sweeps of the palette knife and the controlled “roughness and chaos” that inject energy into a painting and give it life.

Painting is a totally immersive thing—you can’t help but get drawn into it.

Sucked right in. I often found myself transported into my canvas, standing right behind the Spitfire, feeling the wind blast of the propeller, hearing the growl of the Packard Merlin, the air around me incensed with the perfume of engine oil... or was it just the smell of the oil paint on my palette?

Now that this one’s safely landed, it’s time to start thinking about which one to do next.

The final piece. Spitfire Mk XVI taxiing in the warm glow of late afternoon light with the familiar rolling hills of Gatineau as a backdrop. We are looking forward to Brunette’s next work. Photo: Jean Brunette

The artist, Jean Brunette, sits in his studio next to his just-finished painting of the Vintage Wings of Canada William Harper Supermarine Spitfire XVI. Photo via Jean Brunette

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