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Search and Rescue - Painting a Sea King

The Westland Sea King was always going to be an obvious choice of painting subject for me - my Grandfather worked on the production line as an aero engineer at Westland in Yeovil, Somerset UK back in the 1970s/80s. Also throughout my life I would see these buzzing overhead on exercise from their local Royal Navy bases at RNAS Yeovilton and Merryfield, or more dramatically rescuing tourists that appeared to fall lemming-like from the cliffs around the nearby coastline.

When it was announced that not only was the Sea King being retired from active service in the UK, but the search and rescue role itself was to be axed for both the RAF and Royal Navy, I realised that I would soon come to miss their familiar sounds and shapes, just as years before I had almost taken for granted the silhouettes in the sky of passing Harriers, Hunters, Canberras, Phantoms, Tornados, VC10s...

I decided on capturing the machine in its exciting humanitarian role of search and rescue. A lot of artists appeared to have covered the bright yellow RAF Sea King angle already, so I opted for a Royal Navy variant for a bit of variety. After a lot of research on appropriate squadron markings and historic rescues, I finally had a sketch prepared based on training activity of XZ578 of HMS Gannet SAR Flight with the local Lifeboat into which I began to try out and test different seas and skies.

Now, about the seas and skies - these are always a school day for me. The more I stare up or out across at them, I see just how varied they can be expressed on the canvas. I have to 'believe' the sea and sky in a painting, and with this particular one I just didn't!

There is a lot of physics going on with both the sea and sky and I have found that if you don't pay attention to some of nature's rules, things are not going to go well. Clouds will and can build in depth across a sky in starkly different formations, lighting is from the direction of the sun and backlighting many of the clouds, but will also cast shadows on other clouds and spread a diffused illumination through others.

The sea waves will nearly always move in a single direction, however close to the cliffs and rocks (like this painting scenario) they can smash back into each other causing destructive waves which can play tricks on the eye when captured in the freeze-frame of a painting - this certainly caused some headaches for me, and I must have painted about four styles of sea of various ferocity and still managed to have a fellow artist criticise my wave physics - as you can see below in the middle the waves are going in all directions at once. Back to the easel it went...

There were many times these sea/sky experiments and heartaches with the acrylic paint made me want to reach for my familiar digital stylus and pad again - an art method devoid of fighting the drying times of acrylics, the weave of canvas throwing off the brushes or accidentally leaning in the paint palette. And who hasn't dipped their brush in their cup of tea?

Digitally I could have changed the tone, opacity, scale of a wave in seconds and traced over the sea from a photo or simply composited a real one into the background. And oh for an 'undo' button on a paintbrush...

Once I was satisfied that I 'believed' in the sea and sky (settling on a slightly graphic novel style) I got onto the dessert course - painting the actual Sea King, which was a pleasure to do. Surely everyone

takes a childish delight in painting a helicopter?

On a footnote - I discovered during my research the demise of this particular Sea King was to be sold off on the MoD auction site. The full story of its retirement can be found here


Amazingly, the owner of XZ578 managed to see this painting and purchase it, a very happy conclusion to this story and the start of a friendship and some more sea king paintings!


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