Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Pan American Airlines in Art, by Ron Cole

My first Pan American Airlines painting was back in 2011. In those days I was cranking out World War II aircraft compositions during the early phase of my professional artist career. World War II was becoming a hugely popular genre rivaling the popularity of the American Civil War among collectors and my work sold very well. But I was commissioned to paint the Boeing 314 clipper in the livery of Pan American Airlines by an avid airline enthusiast. The subject matter gave me an excuse to focus upon the nostalgic qualities of the aircraft and its period setting - something that sometimes is less evident in a painting that depicts harrowing air-to-air combat. The result, to my surprise, became my best selling limited edition print of my career to date. The composition has since gone on to be described by some authorities as one of the best aviation art pieces of all time.

The downside of enjoying a success such as my 314 was the inevitability of trying to outdo it in later work, which I've yet to do in spite of my best efforts time and again (at least if sales are my only measure). But the 314 opened a lot of doors for me professionally, including a book cover, a puzzle, other Pan Am-based commissions, and most recently a 2016 wall calendar published by the Pan Am Historical Foundation (PAHF).

The PAHF is not a club founded by Pan Am fans - it is the last remaining official entity in the world that is of the original Pan American Airlines; founded and run by ex-Pan Am executives, to serve its membership of ex-Pan Am employees from all parts of the once glorious global corporation. Pan Am as an airline ceased to exist in December of 1991, but had been in operation since 1927; becoming one of the great icons of the golden age of aviation. When they contacted me early in 2015 to be the sole contributor to their calendar project, to consist of twelve of my original paintings, I was certainly honored. After discussions it was decided to use only three of my existent compositions, including the 314, and I would paint no fewer than nine all-new pieces for the project. To my knowledge nothing exactly like it had been done before: one artist creating that much all-new original work, dedicated to a single theme, within a calendar. Most artists don't create that much new work in a year. Needless to say, it was a huge endeavor for me, at a time when I had another large project on my table (two huge paintings for Japanese CEO Nobuo Harada). From April to September I juggled work around and learned the true meaning of multitasking. I completed the last painting two days before deadline.

The theme of the calendar was the history of Pan Am aviation, starting in 1927. Technically the first operational aircraft in the Pan Am fleet was the Fokker F-10, but since it closely resembled the later Ford Trimotor, we opted to cover the latter at the expense of the former - the Trimotor being a much more iconic aircraft. I depicted it on the grounds of Miami's commercial airport at the time.

The Sikorsky S-42 was next. I already had painted the S-42 in two other compositions, neither of which I regarded as my best work. Ron Marasco, who once served as Pan Am's Vice President of Maintenance and Engineering and who was the PAHF's force behind the calendar project, suggested depicting the S-42 flying over the Golden Gate bridge at it appeared under construction. Several period photos showed similar compositions. I opted to depict the scene at sunset with the Japanese steamship Hikawa Maru below.

Besides the Boeing 314, the next aircraft in line was the Douglas DC-6. Ron wanted to depict historic locations around the world in each composition, and for the DC-6 I opted to show Berlin. I spent a good deal of time on this concept: showing the American DC-6 over the Brandenburg Gate at a time the latter was still being reconstructed after World War II.

I chose San Francisco at night for the Boeing 377. Based upon the B-50 strategic bomber, I loved the looks of the Stratocruiser. I loved even more any excuse to depict lights at night! This 377 was the only new painting for the calendar that I was permitted to release in advance of the calendar itself. So far its popularity and sales have been second only to my 314.

I dodged a location-specific environment for the Lockheed Constellation. It didn't start out that way, but as the composition evolved I felt that landmark structures in the background would take away from the shape of the aircraft - which was of course classically elegant. With so many full-aircraft compositions I wanted to break up what might otherwise have been a collective monotony, so the Connie was cropped with a slightly exaggerated frontal view. I love rain, but only in paint form. It helped create a mood in this piece.  

Looking for the best landmark in Asia to represent that part of the world, I had to pick Mount Fuji in Japan as the backdrop for the Boeing 707. When I was a kid I flew coach in one of these en route to Germany from New York. Not exactly a wide body airplane by modern standards!

The original Jumbo Jet: Ron placed a great deal of personal emphasis on the 747-100, as he literally wrote the book about the aircraft. In this case I was provided with the original photo that he used for the cover of his book. "Paint that," he said. People might think that painting from a photo is easier than not painting from a photo, but that's seldom true. In this case lens distortion caused by the photographer's telephoto drove me nuts. The tail was huge; the nose oddly truncated - all of which had to be corrected without straying from the photo's perspective. Maintaining the original lighting made for a very 'photographic' result - but a pretty one that I like.

The Boeing 727 was actually the ninth and final painting I completed for the project. As such it was the one I had to rush the most and the one I feared might look the most rushed. Perhaps because of that, and with only five days before deadline, I chose the most complicated background yet among the series: Berlin Tempelhof International Airport at night. The shape of the terminal provided a unique instrument to create depth and balance (Thank you, Albert Speer). Completed in just about four long and busy days, it turned out to one of my favorites.

In terms of its placement within Pan Am's historic timeline, the 747 SP rounded out the entire collection. Ron had very specific plans for its composition, as well. A somewhat general painting similar to my creation once hung in the Pan Am Building in New York. When the company folded, it found its way into the private collection of a former executive. No one seems to know who painted it, but the piece became something of a nostalgic memento. While I went out of my way to copy nothing from it but the basic 'feel' and color palate, high over Rio at sunset was the perfect setting for Pan Am's last great aircraft.

Thank you, Ron Marasco, Pete and Sudhir for the opportunity that you and the Pan Am Historical Foundation gave me. It was my pleasure, and unprecedented career challenge, for me to donate three of my original compositions and paint nine new compositions for you. I think that the results accumulate into something greater than a new 'official' Pan American Airlines product, or an aviation art calendar, or an accumulation of my best work. I hope we sell a million!

Ron Cole
October 2015

The Pan Am Historical Foundation's 2016 wall calendar, and all of these painting as limited edition prints, may be purchased directly from Cole's Aircraft at: PAA Artwork by Ron Cole

Visit the Pan Am Historical Foundation's web page: