View Full Version : The Eagle and the Butterfly

Russell Smith
05-25-2012, 10:18 AM
This is a WIP for a subject that I’ve wanted to tackle for a long time now. The subject is the wounding of Manfred von Richthofen on July 6, 1917.

On the morning of July 6, 1917, a flight of 6 F.E.2ds of 20 Sq RFC departed St. Marie Cappel for an offensive patrol along the French/Belgian border. Led by Capt. Douglas Cunnell flying F.E.2d A6512, the men were under orders to attack any German machine that they came across. The larger, more cumbersome F.E.2ds were easily outmaneuvered by the smaller German single seat fighters, and as such, the absurdity of this order was later reflected upon by Cunnell’s observer Lt. Albert Woodbridge when he stated that this flight was “like butterflies sent out to insult eagles”.

Across the lines Richthofen’s JG1 received an alert of incoming aircraft, and Richthofen led the pilots of Jasta 11 up to intercept. Richthofen and his men found the flight of F.E.2s, but instead of attacking straight away, Richthofen chose to allow the British machines lumber deeper into German territory, positioning his flight to the west so as to cut off the line of retreat. As the British finished their bomb run and turned back towards their lines an estimated 30 Albatroses attacked from all directions. The pilots of the F.E.2s steered their machines into the classic defensive circle, a maneuver designed to allow each machine to protect the tail of the one in front of it. For a while the British were able to hold their formations and successfully defend themselves from the German attack. The fight was intense, however, and Woodbridge would later claim that he had never seen “so many Huns in the air at the same time”.

Meanwhile, Richthofen had lead his flight back to the east towards the mêlée. By this time the British formation had apparently begun to pull apart and Richthofen positioned himself to attack what seemed to be the last plane in the flight - A6512 flown by Capt. Cunnell. Cunnell spotted Richthofen and turned the lumbering F.E.2 to face Richthofen head-on, tactically taking away Richthofen’s advantage. Rather than break off, however, Richthofen chose to maintain his calm and press the attack. At an estimated distance of 300 yards Woodbridge opened fire on Richthofen. According to his account of the battle, Woodbridge could see his bullets striking the barrels of Richthofen’s Spandaus. Somewhere within the 3-4 second span of his attack Richthofen was struck in the back of the head. Although his his skull was not penetrated, a single bullet had grazed his head from the rear (suggesting that the hit may have actually come from the friendly fire of one of his own men following his), blinding him and nearly knocking him unconscious. Cunnell and Woodbridge watched in amazement as Richthofen’s machine passed directly under them, turn over and fall out of control.

Richthofen survived this encounter, falling several thousand meters before regaining his senses and setting his Albatros down hard in in a pasture full of thistles. Badly wounded, however, Richthofen would not fly again until August 16.

Although the exact serial number of the Albatros which Richthofen was flying that day is unknown, the markings are well documented in a series of photos taken of the machine as it sat damaged in the thistles after Richthofen’s landing. The Albatros bore the typical varnished plywood fuselage with a red nose, wings, struts and empennage.

The F.E.2ds of 20Sq bore no specific squadron markings. However, Cunnell and Woodbridge’s machine, A6512, was a presentation aircraft named “Mauritius No. 11”. This name was likely painted in small letters on the fuselage nacelle.

My first concept for the name was "Between Scylla and Charybdis", indicating Richthofen's position between Woodbridge's hostile fire and the apparent friendly fire which likely caused his wound. Susan expressed to me, however, that she thought this title might be a little too obscure. Not only did she have a good point, but after reading Woodbridge's description of the event I kept coming back to the idea of eagles and butterflies.

SPECIAL THANKS to my friend James F. Miller for his outstanding in-depth research of Richthofen. My interpretation of this event is based largely on his material. To find out more about this event and Richthofen’s wartime career I would strongly suggest Jim’s book “Manfred von Richthofen: The Aircraft, Myths and Accomplishments of ’The Red Baron’”, as well has his outstanding article in the autumn 2008 issue of “Over the Front”.

This photo shows what is likely to be a pre-July 6 photo of the same machine in which Richthofen was wounded.


This famous shot was taken on July 6 after Richthofen's hard landing in a field of thistles. Despite his serious head wound and loss of blood, Richthofen managed to extract himself from the Albatros and fall to the ground just as help arrived.


My initial idea for this piece was pretty clear from the start. I wanted to depict the moment immediately following Richthofen's wounding, just as he is about to pass under the FE. At this conceptual stage I’m really just working with abstract forms. In order for a composition to work, the underlying abstract form must be strong. This is true even with representational art. Our brains take in and process this underlying form on a subconscious level before our eyes begin to interpret the details. If the abstract design is weak then the composition as a whole will not hold together. I envisioned two large shapes - the Albatros and the FE in close proximity - juxtaposed against each other. The FE is framed by the wings and tail of the Albatros. I decided to backlight the scene in order to maximize the contrast and emphasize the full shapes of the aircraft.


I played around with several sketches, always coming back to the same idea.


Russell Smith
05-25-2012, 10:19 AM
After getting the initial idea down on paper I decided to test the positioning of the aircraft using scale models in order to get an idea of the proportions that I would be dealing with. Upon doing so it immediately became clear to me that the initial positioning would not work. The FE dominated the scene and Richthofen’s Albatros became a secondary subject. I definitely want Richthofen to be the main subject and A6512 to be secondary.


Taking the models outside, I reshot the setup with the correct lighting, this time repositioning the subjects. The new position for the Albatros works much better! In the painting the FE will be slightly washed out by the glare of the sun, thereby de-emphasizing it even more in comparison to the Albatros.


The isometric drawing to the Albtaros is finished and dropped into place.


Russell Smith
05-25-2012, 10:20 AM
The isometric drawing for the FE2d is now finished and in position.


Russell Smith
05-25-2012, 10:23 AM
After completing the isometric drawing for the FE2 I decided that Albatros wasn't quite right. I re-worked the drawing for that, dropped the background elements into place and then created a full pencil study, seen here.

In a composition such as this, where I'm trying to capture the melee of the moment without making it too busy or overwhelming, it is critical to strike a delicate balance with the background elements. Every aircraft and its position is carefully tested in Photoshop to see if it supports the subject and conveys the appropriate sense of action. Once I am satisfied with the placement of all of the elements I create a single working drawing on paper.

pencil study for "The Eagle and the Butterfly"
20" x 10"


05-25-2012, 11:57 AM
WOW!! Russell, this is gonna be really cool!!

You explain in detail how you arrived from concept to pencil study, and for that I am grateful. I have an oil painting completely finished in my head, exact size is just 'big'. I was overwhelmed at how to put it on canvas. Your description has helped more than you will ever know.

I'm gonna be watching for this finished painting!

Russell Smith
05-25-2012, 02:09 PM
Thanks Kate. The important thing (for me) when tackling a big canvas like this is to make sure the composition is nailed down before committing to the big canvas. I go through a lot of preliminary work before I ever get to the canvas, because its much easier to make the changes in the early stages. Once its at full size on the canvas it becomes much more of a task to make corrections.

05-29-2012, 04:41 PM
Wonderful work Russell.

Russell Smith
06-21-2012, 07:21 AM
The color study is now finished. I decided to step out of my comfort zone with this in an attempt to take things to the next level - I painted plein air (something we historical/aviation artists are not known for). Now of course the landscape couldn't be done plein air, but once I had the appropriate values blocked in for the main aircraft and the sky I was able to guess at the values for the ground with relative ease. One thing that I noticed right away from the exercise is that there is far less color variation in nature than we tend to think there is. When we paint in the studio, we artists often make the mistake of over-saturating our palettes and over-emphasizing our value relationships. From now on I will create my color studies plein air whenever possible.

color study for "The Eagle and the Butterfly"
oil on linen on masonite
20" x 10"


06-21-2012, 01:15 PM
It certainly looks very natural / realistic Russell.

06-22-2012, 05:34 AM
I've never tried a 'study' but if it came out like that I think Iwould be more than happy.

Russell Smith
06-28-2012, 07:54 AM
Now I have finally come to the actual painting. The painting measures 45" x 22.5". I build my own stretchers and stretch my own canvas, which allows me the freedom to create custom sizes tailored specifically to each image.

After I stretched the canvas I give the entire surface a thin stain. For The Eagle and the Butterfly I chose Gold Ochre since I felt it had the right balance between red and yellow. Once the stain is dry the drawing is then transferred to the canvas.


Next comes the grisaille layer. This layer, created simply with white and Raw Umber, will provide a tonal foundation for subsequent layers of color.


06-28-2012, 09:45 AM
Your grisaille could stand on its own as a piece of art. Looking forward to its completion!

Russell Smith
07-01-2012, 07:10 PM
This weekend I took the opportunity to block in the initial layer of color. Using my color study as a guide I’ve laid in thin applications of color which I will build upon later. I try to stand back from the canvas during this stage and paint as much as possible at arms length. Doing so allows me to see the entire canvas better so that I can monitor the progress of the overall image, rather than getting my nose buried too deep in singular details. There will be time for those later.


It's at this stage that I start to make some artistic decisions regarding the look and feel of the painting, incorporating various artistic devices to emphasize certain areas while de-emphasizing others.

I’ve kept Richthofen’s Albatros fairly well defined since it is the subject. An aircraft in the air will pick up a lot of ambient light and reflected colors from all around it. Two principles I have to keep in mind - 1) the eye is drawn to areas of contrast, and 2) warm colors advance, cool colors recede. In order to give a sense of volume and shape I’ve lightened and cooled the bottom edge of the fuselage so that it gives the impression that the surface is turning away from you. The same principal in reverse is also why the tail of the Albatros seems to be the closest point to you.


Russell Smith
07-01-2012, 07:11 PM
In contrast to the Albatros, I’ve kept the lines of the FE2 somewhat fuzzy. Even the figure of Woodbridge firing from the FE2 is defined only by a few simple brushstrokes (My wife made a Bob Ross joke when I pointed that out to her. She said he's a "happy observer"). Not only does this prevent the FE2 from drawing the viewer’s eye too quickly, but it also gives the impression that we’re looking towards the sun.


In general, I’m keeping my brushwork fairly loose at this stage, especially in the ground. Some people like to see a lot of detail in the ground, which is fine if you’re painting a ground scene. In an aerial composition such as this, though, my feeling is that the ground should not distract or interfere in any way with the subject (a mistake which I have made before). The only thing that the ground should do is give the viewer a sense of height and relative location.


Russell Smith
08-12-2012, 10:32 AM
Sometimes the best brush for the job isn't a brush at all. Sometimes its a finger...


...or a palette knife.


Russell Smith
08-12-2012, 10:33 AM
The finished painting.

The Eagle and the Butterfly
45" x 22.5"
oil on linen


A detail shot. Manfred von Richthofen slumps unconscious after his head is grazed by a bullet.


Woodbridge firing from the FE2.


MvR's signature red.


The sky was full of Germans from several different units.


08-13-2012, 03:32 PM
An outstanding piece of art Russell. In another thread here we've been discussing how modern day aviation art compares to that of the Old Masters . I would submit this work of yours as an example of how the spirit of the Masters lives on in the best of our current generation. You've picked a subject with very tricky lighting conditons with high speed , head on action captured as in life , not clinically photographic - just truly realistic . That takes skill and knowledge plus a spirit of adventure to pull off as well as you have done here.
( p.s.Just send the money in a plain brown envelope !!)

Russell Smith
08-14-2012, 06:59 AM
Thanks Neil! Big bills or small bills? :lol:

08-19-2012, 10:48 AM
Maravilloso trabajo. Gracias por sus extraordinarias explicaciones y enseñanzas.-