Painting Commissions ... An account of a 1989 commissioned painting project for Walter MacDougald, a World War II Liberator tail-gunner.
By Rich Thistle © 1989
357 Squadron Burma Drop By Rich Thistle ©
The phone rang, but I barely looked up from my easel. It’s probably for one of the kids anyway. I never answer the phone in the evening. Shawn called down from his bedroom door. “It’s for Mum or Dad!” I checked my watch. Much too late, I thought, for phone solicitation. I stayed glued to my stool. I was on a roll painting Burmese jungle, and it was starting to happen.

Jay picked up the phone. At the other end, a quiet, precise male voice was immediately apologetic. “I’m sorry to call so late Jay, but I can’t get the painting out of my mind. Would it be alright if I slipped over to see it tonight and watch Rich paint for a while? I would try not to bother him.”

Walter is such a sweetie, a refined, upstanding, soft- spoken man, with a clipped airforce mustache, and an unmistakably military bearing. Difficult to imagine him in the terribly-confined tail turret of a Royal Air Force B-24 Liberator, a Canadian tail gunner in the Burma theatre. Eleven hours out and eleven hours back without ever seeing any part of his own aircraft. Twenty-two grueling hours divided exactly in half by the sudden mushrooming of eight parachutes, a few supply canisters and men dropped at sunset behind enemy Japanese lines deep in the Burmese jungle.

Small wonder he was excited, too excited to stay away. The painting he had commissioned was well under way and he somehow wanted to be there to share in the birth of his memory piece, the commemoration of his service almost half a century ago. He did come that evening and we chatted again as I worked. I understood his anticipation. It was somehow charming.

Walter MacDougald's painting, 357 SQUADRON BURMA DROP, was finished in about four weeks total time, from first conversation to final acceptance. In a way, it represents an extreme example of why many artists do not like to take commissions, although I am not one of them. Walter was directly and continuously involved in all concept aspects from the beginning to the end. His commissioned painting took the shape of his own very definite and vivid memories: everything from the character and topography of the hills and rivers of the Burmese jungle to the number of chutes released over the marked drop zone.

It was one of the most “directed” paintings of my aviation career. I think this is the aspect many artists find objectionable. Artistic license is often held well in check in commissioned works of historical themes, especially when primary research is (literally) at hand. I too must admit to a certain chafing at the bit at times.

But, the privilege of painting history from the direct and vivid memory of those who actually made it far outweighs any sense of restriction I might personally be subject to. Not that all participants in World War II Canadian flying history have infallible memories. Far from it! I spent three months trying to confirm the color scheme of the Baltimore medium bomber in which my friend Tom was shot down over North Africa. I thought it would be standard desert camouflage, but had to find confirmation. I have learned the hard way not to guess about such things. One day, in mock exasperation, I chastised Tom for his lack of visual memory. “Surely you must remember the color of your own aircraft,” I said. “I flew it from the inside,” he retorted. The color scheme was finally confirmed and the painting successfully completed.

Yes I do enjoy painting commissions. In fact a sizeable number of my aviation paintings are painted to order. Many are commissioned by mail or email, although I prefer to make first- person contact with the commissioner and ideally with the aircraft, if possible. Often, I will meet someone at a show who is drawn to my work, and a few weeks or months later a letter, fat with photos, arrives. It is always an extra challenge to come up with a concept which both pleases the commissioner, and excites and inspires me.

But whether it’s a commission in acrylic on board, or in watercolor on paper, for me the excitement and challenge of making the images remains high. And even though there are a lot of good aviation fine- art reproductions out there, commissioning is probably the only way for an aviation enthusiast to bring his or her own personal aviation vision to life. It was rewarding for me to bring Walter’s vision to life.

BURMA DROP was eventually published as a poster commemorating the RAF bomber squadrons which flew in the South East Asia Command.