For those that have to look up…..

As an aviation enthusiast, the people of the world are divided into two groups.  Those that have to look up and those that don’t.

child lying on a grass field

I am somewhat blessed in my neighborhood.  I have a small municipal airport to the northeast as well as two military bases not too far away.  Not so close to be a nuisance, but close enough to provide regular entertainment.  If you happen to spend a day on an outdoor project on the weekend and you pay attention you can see a lot.  Twice a day a jetfighter will go ripping by high overhead.  You have to work to find it because the sound and the jet are not in the same place.  During fire season the big C-130’s will go rumbling by far on the horizon.  If you’re lucky on a Sunday you might see a group of four V-tailed aircraft flying in tight formation (wow, who gets to do that!!).  In spring the CAF comes to town and all day long they fly trips with B-25’s, B-17’s and occasionally P-51 Mustangs.  Very little yard work gets done on those days.  Of course not all the entertainment is motorized.  We get flocks of canadian geese flying in very disciplined “vic” formations.  A treat for those that really pay attention is when the Sandhill Cranes come to town.  They fly at 3,000 to 5,000 ft. so you can barely hear them, you almost think you are imagining it and you have to squint your eyes to find them.


My favorite “looking up” story was when I was playing in the surf in San Diego at Swami’s Beach on a crowded summer day.  A P51 Mustang came ripping along the coast at maybe 100 feet above the water.  My jaw dropped, I started blabbering like an idiot to a young man next to me  trying to explain the history of the fighter and what a rare treat he had just experienced.  He was polite enough, but probably thought I was  little deranged.


So why do we look up?  A hobbiest’s interest?  The thrill of flight?  The suprise of what you might see?  Probably a bit of all three but there is something a bit primal in it, not unlike watching the night sky for shooting stars.  It is unique because you are both appreciating the natural  beauty of the sky and clouds, but also the machines and the men and women flying them.  Most of us keep our feet on the ground 99% of the time, but when we watch someone else fly it lifts our spirits and gives us a thrill as we imagine ourselves weaving through the clouds.

Sometimes people have to look up for different reasons.

I had a unique experience this week visiting a recently completed Children’s Hospital. They had an MRI room that was specifically designed for small children.  MRI’s are large frightening machines.  They make noise.  If you are a child and you need an MRI something very serious is going on in your life.  Generally you have to sit still for an extended period of time ( and we all know how much children love having to do that!!)…. most likely lying on your back looking up at the ceiling.  The designer for this room tried to make the room less frightening by making it look like a forest with blue walls, cove lighting, murals of grass, trees and squirrels.


The special touch that caught my eye was in the ceiling right over the platform.  A small video screen was built into the ceiling and it projected a view of the sky.  It was framed with green tree tops, what you might expect to see if you flopped down in the grass in a forest and look up at the sky.  Three Fokker Dr1’s did a slow, silent dance, swooping, diving in a random circuit.  It was calming, mesmerizing and was intended to distract a child from the fear and intimidation of their procedure.  In a sense the designer was trying to distract you from the cold steel beast of an MRI machine by observing animations of machines made of wood and canvas from an earlier era.  More subtley the designer attempted to tap into a bit of the “wonder” that attracts people to look up in the first place in a setting where a child has no choice but to do the same.  My jaw dropped when I saw this too, just like at Swami’s Beach.  Among men and women in business suits I grabbed my i-phone and started filming the animation.  I pointed out to the tour guide that these planes are Fokker Dr1’s, the same planes flown by Baron Von Richtofen and the Flying Circus.  Once again he was polite enough, but I think he thought I was a bit deranged.

I made a short video so you could appreciate it (added the audio because I couldn’t resist).  Hopefully you will never need to see it in person, but the designer tapped into something that will resonate with anyone who considers themselves among “those that have to look up”.


Albatrii Attack!


Well the “Konrad” fountain pen arrived from the folks at The Goulet Pen Company, carefully packed and full of many “down home” touches, like a personal note in one of their other ink colors on the reciept and an unexpected tootsie pop attached inside the box ( I ate it right away).  After carefully watching the video on filling the pen, had a bit of a road trip and brought the sketch pad and pen along to try it out.  Calligraphy is not my thing but I have three distinct memories about ink pens.  The first was the old fountain pen set in the marble base on my dad’s desk ( not to be messed with), the second was a set of calligraphy pens made specifically for left handed people (me) that barely made it out of the package (good idea but my penmanship sucks!).  The third was what any tired old architect remembers which was my set of rapidograph pens used for drafting on mylar.  Much clogging, much cleaning, etc etc.

From the first stroke the flex tip foutain pen has been a joy.  We have gotten so used to the compromise that comes with the convenience of felt tip pens that are inconsistent or tips that get crushed that I was amazed at how light a touch produced a clean crisp line with the fountain pen.  Being able to lean a bit more on the tip and get a thicker line is the same functionality on my blue tooth ipad stylus so it was interesting to see the same result in an actual fountain pen.  After messing around on the road trip this morning I was ready to give it a try on an appropriately themed sketch for this blog.

I did a pencil sketch first of an Albatros DIII, just light line to get the proportions right. Then I inked over it to get the overall lines, trying to keep it loose and not look like a trace job.  I erased the pencil and started adding detail. Again the goal here is not to do an absolute photographic ink drawing, but to get the feel of a field sketch, something you could do in an hour or so.  Here is the result.


I was really pleased with the feel of it, still cartoony but reasonably accurate.  Of course once you’ve drawn it once, a shame to not play with it a bit, so I scanned the image, and started looking for a stormy sky.  I wanted a more surreal feel so I filtered a good image I found online to make it more abstract.  I clipped the sketch and turned it into flight of three Alabatrii.  I made each smaller image slightly transparent to give a feeling of depth.  Also added a shadow around the clipped image that makes no sense other than to give it a more collage feel.  I really liked the result, not to far off from what you might see in a graphic novel.



In the end I grabbed the image as my desk top, and with two monitors it looks like a full on attack!!!  Too much fun, more experimenting to come in the future.


Thanks again to The Goulet Pen Company folks for luring me into the world of fountain pens!

Valiant Hearts – A Game….or is it ?

I read about Valiant Hearts (by Ubisoft) before it came out but lost track of it.  Jim “Bayonet” MacKay ( one of my squadmates ) reminded me about it so I gave it a second look.  If you were a fan of Grim Fandango or Monkey Island the format will be familiar to you.  A puzzle game with plenty of hints and visual cues so you don’t get stuck.  A compelling story line that ties the game play together.  But there is so much more here…a somber soundtrack, references to historical letters, battles and maps, historical fact pop-ups that are themed to align with the action and even the images you encounter during the game play.  Well anyone who combines adventure games with graphic novel artwork and World War 1 military history deserves some recognition on this blog, so here are some images, the website and a video trailer for your entertainment!


This episode focuses on the Battle of Marne.


Some of the facts show images that are used in the graphic novel.  Note the stacked rifles holding up the flag.  The image makes an appearance at this setting at a train station.


And of course I have to include some images with aircraft.  Nieuport 11’s and Albatrii? Have not played any levels with aircraft but they look promising.


Sometimes historical facts are stranger than fiction…. this generals headgear is certainly a good example.

Pic1(  von Guber looks familiar doesn’t it?)

Each episode has 7 levels, a single expisode costs $4.99 on i-tunes, you can buy the remaining 3 episodes for $8.99.  Hard to not support Ubisoft’s effort to tie heartfelt story telling, graphics and military history with the World War 1 Centennial.




It Starts with the Pen……

The previous post with the diary of Zenos Ramsey Miller was an “ahaa” moment for me. I was so focused on developing the sketchbook in a digital format that I lost sight of what a real wartime journal might look like.  I realized that the emotion and hand built touch of an actual ink pen is pretty hard to simulate in photoshop or sketchbook programs.   I started researching fountain pens and found this article in a blog by

It was the sketches themselves that hooked me.  They have that “off the cuff” feel that I would expect in a soldier’s field sketch when he has very little time to capture an emotional scene



When you look at the detail the line weight can be fat or thin, rushed or careful and all of this is coming out of single fountain pen.


It is so close in character to the vintage sketches in the example journal that my gut says I am on the right path for the type of work I want to do.


The way a flex nib fountain pen gets such variation is that the tip is split down the center.  As you lean on the tip the metal flexes and the tines spread apart allowing more ink to flow.

Pen Nib Pen Tip


It is interesting how parallel this experience is the bluetooth type of ipad stylii that are available out there.  These bluetooth pens sense the position of the pen on the screen using wireless technology and there is a give to the tip that senses pressure to deliver a thinner or thicker line based on how hard you press the pen.  Digital or Analog, getting a feel for how the pen works and how the ink flows is key to sketching.  As with all new things on the internet, I discovered the fountain pen culture is its own world, deep and wide.  Pages of products, passionate reviews of custom inks, training videos on how to use the pens, store them, clean them.  I had no idea how developed the “fountain pen” community is.   I settled on the Konrad’s Flex Fountain Pan manufactured by Noodler and their custom black ink.  I purchased it from The Goulet Pen Company and hope it arrives soon!  If you are interested in digging in, here is the website with the training videos.

What does resonate for me is the simplicity.  One pen to master, myself and a sketchpad.  I could see how Unteroffizier Gerhardt Rupp could have stowed these away in his kit bag and pulled it out in a moments notice out in the field.  Will keep you posted on my progress