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Otto Kissenberth

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Oberleutnant Otto Kissenberth.  Continuing this series of World War One Aces with Oberleutnant Otto Kissenberth, German Ace.

When pilots took off from the respective airfields in the 1914/18 war, they would rarely know what lay ahead. For Otto Kissenberth, the 12th October 1916 was to be a baptism of fire. Flying Fokker D.II 540/16, he scored his first three victories in quick succession, shooting down two Maurice Farmans and a Breguet V, as shown here. Unusual among fighter pilots of the time for the simple reason that he wore spectacles, Kissenberth went on to score an eventual 20 victories and survived the war, only to be killed whilst mountaineering in 1919.

This work from beginning to end.

Before Painting Begins

The first stage of any painting is to treat the raw canvas. Although most canvas is supplied primed these days, I prefer to give each canvas further treatment ? in my case a further four coats of Gesso. This ?thickens? the canvas and gives it a good ?tooth?. This may seem elaborate, but it pays dividends later and actually helps to speed up the painting process.

Following my research from a number of reputable books, the painting is marked out on the canvas in pencil and the drawing then given a final thin wash coat of white Gesso primer to seal it. This is simply to prevent smudging and to ensure that the drawing is preserved throughout the painting procedure.

At this stage, very little detail is pencilled in. I do not mark out interplane struts, for instance, nor undercarriage struts, aeleron and elevator lines. All I need at this stage is the basic silhouette of the aircraft. Any more than this would be lost during the painting of the background.


Now the sky can be blocked in. Precise weather and cloud conditions are not always easily researched, but the approximate altitude at which an aerial combat took place is quite often entered into the victor?s log. Failing that, it is often useful to know the ideal operational altitude for the type of aircraft that is being painted. If the combat was above the cloudbase, the chances are that a clear blue sky will form the backdrop, together with some cloudtops and, maybe some glimpses of the ground. On this particular day, our subject encountered a Breguet V bomber and promptly despatched it. That is the subject of this painting.

I had to draw the Breguet from scratch from manufacturer?s drawings because there simply was no reference from which to work. I needed a rear three-quarter view, so I had to come up with my own.

Using a range of brushes, I work up the sky. In this case I have gone for high-lit, backlit clouds which will throw both aircraft into stark relief against their background.

Most of the skyscape is completed now, but it will be revisited toward the end of the painting process.

Revealing the Drawing

To speed the painting along, I have loosely masked some of the drawing, which is removed immediately before the paint begins to dry. Any edges are quickly feathered and the painting set aside to dry.

It is at this stage, that I will get to work on the next painting, bringing it to the same stage as this one. At any one time, I might have as many as four paintings in progress, all in rotation at different stages to ensure maximum use of my time. I hate waiting around!

Beginning the Breguet

With background 85% complete and the aircraft revealed, work can begin on the foreground matter. I always paint the most distant objects first, gradually working my way forward to the nearest. This ensures a natural layering of the various elements in the composition and aids aerial perspective.

So painting begins on the Breguet. This is a fiddly job as the aircraft is very spindly.

In this photograph, the lower wing has been painted in and I am working on the starboard interplane struts and their shadows. The trolley-like undercarriage is roughly laid in as is the shadow of the fuselage. This is why it is so important to establish the lighting direction before you paint anything, because the shadows have to be applied right from the start.

Early Stages of the Breguet

This is view of the Breguet about a quarter of the way in. I have covered some of the painting using paper and masking tape to protect against dirty fingerprints and dropped brushes. Yes, I?ve learned from my mistakes over the years!

As the painting of this aircraft progressed, I realised that I had wrongly drawn the rear of the engine and changed it quite significantly at the painting stage ? then covered it all up with smoke and flame from the crippled engine! The addition of the two external fuel tanks, just beneath the upper wing on either side of the fuselage, only serves to exaggerate the perils and fragility of early bombers.

Completed Breguet

Here is the completed Breguet, its port lower wing shot to bits and beginning to disintegrate. The forces of airflow on these ripped fabric wings often caused the wing structure to fail completely, throwing the stricken aircraft into a terrifying tumbling plunge toward the ground. Fire only added to the peril as it stripped away the fabric of the tail, robbing the aircraft of what little control the pilot still had.

Ready to begin work on Kissenberth's D.II

This is the whole painting at this stage, with the Breguet beginning its death plunge and Kissenberth?s Fokker D.II banking victoriously away. Again, this painting is now set aside to dry while I work up the next one a bit more. It?s worth pausing at any stage of a painting to study what you have done and just take it in. Often, you will spot potential problems ? or even errors ? whilst doing this. Better now than later!

D.II Lower Wing

Work begins on the Fokker D.II?s lower wing. This is an especially complicated section, not least because of the camouflage pattern and ribbing. The colours are a seemingly a random pattern of light grey, nut brown and dark green, but the wing will have a sheen on it and the ribs have to be evenly spaced and coincide with the roots of the interplane struts. This takes a bit of careful planning and must take into account perspective, too. The planning of how to execute this stage is very important because I know I?m going to have to do it all again when I paint the upper wing ? which will have to match, and the crosses will have to fit within five ribs.

Finally, I add the bracing wires. At this stage, the edges of the wing are left hard and unrefined. There is a reason for this, which will be revealed later.

Close up of wing.

This is a close-up of one of the wings. Whilst I was painting it, I kept thinking that something wasn?t quite right. I checked the line drawings again and the colour profile and plan views that I was using for reference. The D.II had no ailerons! No elevators either, the tailplane pivoting in its entirety, much like modern jet fighters today.

At work on the lower wing

This is me doing a bit of ?tidying up? before going on to the next stage. I have roughly painted in the tailplane and I am using a large brush as a marle stick so that I don?t lean on the wing that I have just so carefully painted. Time to set it aside again and give some thought to how I am going to tackle the top wing.

Adding the upper wing

The top wing has been painted now without too much difficulty, using all the same rules and techniques that were employed on the lower wing. The crosses have been applied before the final sheen is run along the entire wing to illustrate the curve of the aerofoil shape.

Applying the crosses to the upper wing

Here, the crosses are being applied ? black with white edging. At one point, the white edging of the crosses of Kissenberth?s DII appeared very rough and uneven due, it is thought, to the fact that further painting of the camouflage was carried out at the Front with little regard for care and accuracy. It might have been right for me to do the same in my painting, but it would have looked like lousy painting on my part. I believe it was put right on the real thing quite soon after, so this depiction is not entirely inaccurate.

Applying the ribs of the upper wing

Now the ribs are being applied to the upper wing ? not too prominently ? just enough to give form and show the structure of the wing.

Wings unsoftened

This is a general view of the starboard wings, showing their camouflage pattern and upper wing crosses. A slight sheen has been applied, but the edges of the wings are still left rough.

Softening and trailing edges

I earlier mentioned that the outlines of the wings were left sharp and unrendered. There was little point in wasting time at the earlier stage as not all of the wing ribs were in place. Now that the rib positions are known, I can begin to pay attention to the trailing edges where the taut fabric between the ribs gives them a bat wing effect. The sunlight, which is behind the D.II, will catch some of these points and help to separate the upper and lower wings.

Adding the engine and some weathering

Now the engine cowling and propeller are added, together with some detailing and chipped paint. The upper wing cut-out is rendered and I have begun to add some weathering to the upper wing. Weathering and wear and tear makes such a difference to the realism of a painting. Compare the weathered upper wing with that in stages 13 and 14.

I used to wonder what a lot of the white marks were that appeared all over these fabric covered aircraft. I knew that it wasn?t chipped paint on fabric. Maybe it was dried mud? I mentioned this to an old RAF friend of mine who knew one or two World War 1 pilots when they were alive. He thought about this for a moment, then said that he remembered his old RFC friend, Hamish, commenting that the aircraft were always smothered in bird droppings and that it stripped the paint from the fabric! I had my answer.


With the wings more or less complete and having been left to dry, my attention now turns to the fuselage, a simple structure of box construction. Unlike many camouflage patterns, Kissenberth?s aircraft featured a pattern on the fuselage top decking that bore no link with that painted on the sides. In other words, the pattern did not wrap around the aircraft. Much weathering is again added where mud and oil stains have streaked the fabric of the fuselage and worn paint is especially evident around the cockpit and pilot?s step.

Control wire ports

More detailing is added at this stage in readiness for the final push to the end. Here, the ports for the rudder and tailplane control wires are painted in, together with the rudder post and tailplane pivot and just a hint of the tail skid.

Fuselage details

Some general tidying up takes place at this stage. I would be going back over every inch of the painting at every stage, keying everything together, making sure that the lighting and shadows make sense and correcting small details. Once again, the painting is set aside to dry now.

Rudder insignia

The rudder national insignia is now applied, using an off-white for the edging, as this side of the aircraft is in shadow. There is no need, at this stage, to be concerned about ribbing or staining. This will all be done when the rest of the rudder is painted and all the elements keyed together.


Now work begins on the cockpit, which will be pretty dark inside, bearing in mind the direction of the light and the cramped conditions. The leather padding around the cockpit has been started and I have left a mark where the pilot?s hands will be on the stick.

Adding the pilot and gun

More progress on the cockpit area is evident here with the gun breach added and the pilot himself now squeezed into the cramped space. It is unfortunate that I am unable to show, in this painting, that Otto Kissenberth wore spectacles, which was unusual for a pilot ? especially an ace ? in those days. The mid-upper wing tank has been added now, too, and some ?toning down? of the raised cockpit decking has made it sit a little better with the rest of the aircraft.

Control wires

The final stages of the rudder and tail assembly are now tackled, including all the control wires and other details. The ribs of the rudder and some mud and staining add to the finished effect, together with a highlight on the top of the rudder where the sun has caught it.


The all-important signature and year of completion is always the last thing to be applied. There is something symbolic about it, something final. It means that I have finished the painting, that I have lived with it for a couple of days and that I am satisfied that I have done the best job I can. The painting will be left to harden off for a while before a coat of Retouching varnish is applied.

Artists will know that different paints, different consistencies and different methods of application leave a painting patchy, reflecting light in different ways. The varnish not only protects the painting for the next part of its journey, but also brings all these different surfaces together for photography, ready to be put into print. At the photography stage, polarised light will ensure no reflections and no uneveness, hopefully resulting in the perfect fine art print?But that?s not my job!

Completed painting

And here it is, the finished item. With such a dominant aircraft occupying the full height of the canvas, I elected to keep the background relatively simple. It is so easy to over-paint or over-compose and lose the real reason why the painting was begun in the first place: This is just one of a possible 60-plus paintings that I am working through featuring the aces and aircraft of the First World War. It is essential that the main subject be given room to breathe in the composition.

(Note that the publisher's logo is shown on the image for display in the internet - it is NOT on the actual painting)

Artist, completed painting and some technical info.

A final pose for the camera with the finished canvas.

Technical Information:

Canvas size:                          20?x30?

Primer:                                   Windsor & Newton Gesso

Paints:                                    Windsor & Newton Oils

Other agents:             English distilled turpentine, Liquin

Brushes:                                 Daler-Rowney Bristlewhites, Dalon 77 & 99s

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