Saturday, July 16, 2016

Aviation Art: Painting Zeros, by Ron Cole

My painting of two A6M3 Model 32 Zeros of the 252nd Kokutai being led home by searchlights. The Japanese usually removed the radios from their aircraft to save weight, and their Pacific island bases were often hundreds of miles apart.

Everybody has a favorite airplane. It might be 'that big one' that took you to Key West two years ago - but that's still a favorite. For me it's a Japanese Word War II fighter: the Mitsubishi A6M Zero. It has been my favorite since I was a little kid. Why, is probably an amalgam of various theories: I'm genetically built like a Zero: thin, light and maneuverable. The Japanese were the underdogs of World War II, as was I, at least in grade school, for the aforementioned reason (I was skinny). My favorite book as a kid was a biography of a Zero fighter Pilot - the great 'Ace' Saburo Sakai. I know. Why be a conformist?

As a forty-something year-old professional aviation artist, I paint the airplanes I get paid to paint, or focus upon the popular subjects that will sell the most limited edition prints. But when I have time I go out of my way to paint the Zero. Objectively, it's a pretty airplane; graceful and elegant with lots of French curves. As a machine, it was extremely well designed and meticulously manufactured; like a Swiss watch. Even under the stress of war, each Zero was hand built and polished to a high sheen like a race car. Like all of their weapons of war, from the Samurai sword to their battleships - the Japanese knew how to make them well. Now they just do it with cars.

The Zero fighter is not completely extinct today, though it is one of the rarest of all World War II aircraft. Only one is flying in the world that is mostly original. The few others utilize mostly new components and American-made engines (the original Nakajima-built radials are too rare and parts are impossible to find). Of the few survivors, all suffer from some kind of fault that makes them less than perfectly authentic. I've seen it as my job to bring the 'original' Zero fighter back to life; not only in terms of its accurate portrayal in every detail and color, but also in its authentic wartime surroundings.

My painting of an A6M3 Model 32 Zero during the interception of Louis Zamperini's B-24 'Super Man' in 1943. I detailed this aircraft accurately down to the correct flat head screws and tiny red alignment marks.  

My painting of an A6M5 Model 52 Zero defending Iwo Jima during pre-invasion attack by US Navy F6F Hellcats. 
My first ever Zero painting: A6M5s of the 262st Kokutai leave Iwo Jima under the cover of darkness on their way to Saipan.
I was lucky to be commissioned to paint several Zero compositions by Legend Flyers of Washington between 2013 and 2015. They were restoring an A6M3 model that had been brought over from the Pacific island of Taroa by my friend John Sterling in 1992. The aircraft was too deteriorated to make airworthy on its own, but the shop was building most of it from scratch using the original parts as templates (few factory drawings remain of the aircraft). Even though roughly six million dollars had already been invested in the project (or maybe because of that), they were short of money. They wanted to trade me original Zero parts for artwork. I certainly jumped at that amazing opportunity!

Some of the A6M3 Zero parts obtained in trade from Legend Flyers in exchange for my artwork.
One of my later paintings for Legend Flyers of their A6M3 Zero that they are restoring to flying condition.
Another Zero painting for Legend Flyers: This is the same aircraft depicted above, but as she appeared in late 1943. Earlier that year, the Japanese Navy issued an order for all of their aircraft to be camouflaged by their units in the field.


  1. Amazing aircrafts! Do you make models of these aircrafts or just make their pictures? They ook outstanding and so exertly done.

  2. Well I truly love that painting of the a6m2 read Japanese Navy zero fighter and would truly be honored if you could tell me the exact color you painted that zero so that I could put same color on my model zero that I am building and,this Marine. Would truly be honored and,thankful if you help me with what color to use or mix to have that exact color..signed Emmett U.S.M.C..retired..