Saturday, July 15, 2017

R.G. Smith, the John Singer Sargent of Aviation Art

-By Ron Lemen

R.G. Smith is an amazing artist but unless you look far and wide as a painter, sometimes a few genres can go unnoticed along with some amazing craftsmen within.  I have no real specific genre that is it for me.  I rummage around in every corner.  I have many interesting artists I cannot wait to share with all of you.  Looking at his work in print is deceiving because it really is not as detailed as it might appear at first glance.  The economy of brush work is astounding.  The edges are perfect and his balance of atmosphere vs. detail is impeccable.

When I found R.G. Smith I was hunting around for B-17 images so I could make a painting for my father one holiday season.  R.G. not only painted the plane convincingly, he did it in what seemed like 5 brush strokes or less.

At the time that I found him, there were very few images of him online and he did not yet have a site built out.  Here is his site so you can go see some of the work.  R.G. Smith Website

Not only am I amazed at his work, which, at the time he was discovered he was doing design drawings for Douglas Aircraft Company.  Here is an excerpt from his site: -- R.G. Smith began his career in 1936 as a configuration engineer with Douglas Aircraft. For the next two decades, he was involved in the development of all Navy combat aircraft built by Douglas and its successor, McDonnell Douglas. While helping to design such classic naval aircraft as the SBD Dauntless, AD Skyraider, A-3D Skywarrior, F-4D Skyray, and his personal favorite, the A-4D Skyhawk, R.G. Smith was also developing a reputation as a respected artist. When asked to draw or paint for aircraft proposals, the largely self-taught artist used his knowledge of airplane construction and function to give life to the aircraft in his artwork.

My interest peaked when I knew he wasn't a painter first and that his paintings, when he did them, were just for him.  He went on to do an amazing body of work that spanned a few wars and many decades of historic milestones in aviation history.

One last interesting note, R.G. Smith is color blind.  When you look at his body of work you will not find any bright greens or reds in his work.  He tends to work towards the low end of the value range where those colors are most recognizable to someone with Deuteranopia otherwise he avoids this range of color.  I learned this from another aviation painter many decades ago who also shared the same admiration I have for this painter.  As an instructor I found this very helpful and encouraging to my color theory students who also found out while painting that they might also have a similar issue.  In fact, what has been interesting is that for the last many years that I have been teaching color theory, I would say 1 in 12 students have been color blind.  R.G. and several other artists I use as examples to help these particular students through this conflict of color, working out a palette that does not hit a range of hue that they cannot optically work with anymore.

Some of you might not appreciate the subject matter and I can respect that.  For me, I rarely get offended by the subject matter, and if it is offensive enough I can just overlook it enough if the craft is beyond stellar.  I tried to find images that are large enough to see his brush work, but sadly more of them than not are too low resolution to really admire his craftsmanship and effortlessness with a brush.

This first image is a book that was published eons ago but can still be hunted down on the internet.

Below are a few images I was able to find that I feel really sing with his effortless style.  Many years ago I went to a show where there were 5 originals by R.G. and they were stunning.  I shot them with my camera and unfortunately I cannot find them at this time.  If I can, I will post and share when I locate them.

If you are coming to SD Comic-Con come by booth 5561 or look for the Lemenaid sign, chat with Vanessa, me, Sean Andrew Murray, Erik Wilkerson, and Sam Flegal.  I am also doing art demonstration/lectures on Thursday and Friday, look them up in the catalog and come on by.


  1. Incredible works, amazing artist. His use of atmospherics to add so much depth in some works, and then in others he uses big open planes (dun-dun-duuu!) of water to frame the main focus subject matter ... really strong!

    My favourite must be the almost monotone one (3rd painting) ... everything below the wings of the planes is busy, prep for war, and above the overcast sky creates this calm suppressing mood, but with an anxiety to it, calm before the storm ... lots of tension, but without the 'pop' of explosions.

    Thanks for sharing and sorry for the rant ;-)

  2. Nicolay, rant away and thank you for the reply, a spot on emotive response to that canvas.

    Kev-Itotally agree with you.

  3. Thanks for the inspiration, Ron. I love the way he obscures big areas of detail in smoke and just reveals what he wants to. For those who like aviation art, don't miss Bill Phillips, Keith Ferris, and Frank Wootton. Frank was also a great plein-air painter and did some fine travel posters.

  4. As an ex-Phantom man, #8 with all that steam rings the bell. The first painting - of the 'workhorses' being loaded - certainly reminds me of my time in the 'Transport Business'. Nice post, thank you, really enjoyed it

  5. I got to meet him briefly in the mid '80's when I started at Douglas, he had a studio there even though he retired in 1982. His paintings were on display at the Customer Center and were amazing to look at.

  6. The great type designer Herb Lubalin was also color blind and said it helped him see if type was set in an even "grey" spacing. So many aspects of perception.

  7. I discovered R.G. Smith when I bought the book from Bud Plants Books. Oh how I miss B P Books!
    Great book. The quality of the printing could be better but I was happy to see some studies done in my hometown in the 60's.
    See also Jack Leynnwood. I had a marker class with him and he talk about doing model box tops for Revel.


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