Nicolas Trudgian – aviation, transport and landscape artist
It is said that we are fashioned by our earliest influences so it's little surprise that an artist destined to become well known in the field of military and transport art should grow up in a city like Plymouth, England. Famous for being the harbour from which the Pilgrim Fathers set sail for America and, for centuries, home to the vast Royal Naval dockyards at Devonport, this was a vibrant place for a youngster where there was always something to see, be it planes and trains, aircraft carriers and submarines or tanks and helicopters.
His liking for trains was no doubt fostered by the fact that the house in which he was born in1959 was just yards from a railway line still worked by steam locomotives. Of the many aircraft to see he fondly remembers the Shackletons droning overhead looking much like Lancasters and also the Navy jets which scorched across the city. His father, who had served with the RAF in North Africa during the Second World War, worked in the dockyard and at the annual 'Navy Days' he was able to show Nick over the huge ships and ride on the lifts in aircraft carriers to the hangar decks teeming with those first generation jet aircraft.
Nick's artistic skill came from his father, a very skilled amateur, who encouraged him to produce the drawings which were to fill countless pocket money sketchbooks purchased for an old sixpence from the 'corner' shop. Inevitably, transport and military subjects loomed from each page, painstakingly executed with all the detail that mattered. Inspiration came from all around him and also from the stories his parents told of the war years and of a recent past where aeroplanes were powered by propellers and trains by steam. He wasn't alone in being thrilled with such things for that generation of children were lucky to be able to see at the cinema epic films like 'The Battle of Britain', '633 Squadron', 'Tora Tora Tora' and, rather less warlike, The Railway Children or 'Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines'. Perhaps that is why children in those days spent so many hours building Airfix kits or model railways, laying the foundations for lifelong hobbies. We owe much to those film makers for it's surely no exaggeration to say that their young audience then are now today's middle-aged supporters and custodians of a vast industry that preserves our military and transport heritage, honouring the sacrifices and achievements of past generations..
Happily, artists play a major part in this by enabling us to revisit in vivid realism events and scenes that often went unrecorded at the time or exist only in the blurry monochrome of ageing photographs. Nick is fortunate to be one of these artists but admits to wondering how he managed it. After all, those early drawings in a sketchbook could easily have been dismissed as simply a happy distraction from school work and, in those days more so than today, a career in art was a precarious thing to contemplate. Nick reflects how unusual it is to turn a hobby into a way of making a living and also how every hour of the thousands spent as a child happily drawing and painting proved so worthwhile in the end. The real turning point came when he was fifteen and met the famous wildlife and transport painter David Shepherd, a man who had proved it was possible to make a good living from art. Nick decided that he would go to art college but his family and school tried to dissuade him, suggesting instead that he study a 'proper subject'. After all, following the art path would surely lead to ruin. They were nearly proved right...
Five long years at art college followed but after qualifying, aged twenty three, the difficulty of surviving as an artist struck home. Early commissions, a large oil painting of a steam locomotive and, the first aircraft, a Brymon Airways Dash 7, were a promising start but for an unknown artist commissions were just too few and far between and prices had to be kept low in order to sell anything at all. In Nick's words, 'You couldn't earn a living wage unless you had made a name for yourself so what would come first, success or starvation?''
All was not lost however because his college training spanned many disciplines including illustration, air brushing, engineering drawing, photography and printing so he was well prepared for a career as a commercial artist where, fortunately, there was plenty of work. He loved it and was soon painting for some of the big names in industry including Ferrari, Jaguar, Ford, General Motors, Alfa Romeo as well as oil exploration, shipping and construction companies. With his interest in aviation he was delighted that clients also included Rolls Royce, British Aerospace, and many military equipment manufacturers. Long before aircraft like the ' Typhoon' Eurofighter and the Stealth F117 took to the air Nick had painted artist's impressions of them in combat. Looking back on it Nick sees his ten years as a commercial illustrator as the most important part of his training, teaching him to become versatile, meet deadlines, and approach art knowing that you need to please others with your work not just yourself.
He would no doubt still be in that industry had not a happy accident allowed him to work with the world's foremost aviation art publisher based in Bath, England. He had approached Nick to produce a vast piece of artwork commemorating seventy-five years of the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force. So much minute detail was required that this painting took sixteen weeks to complete. At last he had his chance to paint what Nick calls 'proper pictures' and he didn't waste it.
The story since then is told through more than 170 colour editions and many dozens of pencil prints. He brought to the field his own unmistakable style of painting, combining accurately portrayed aircraft set against highly detailed and lovingly rendered landscapes. He has a freshness of colour and contrast coupled with skilfully handled composition which makes his work so distinctive. ''I am as much inspired by photography as I am classical painting'' he says ''I carry a camera always and if I'm at the cinema or watching TV I find it hard to concentrate on the story because I'm spotting ideas for landscape and lighting. The scenic inspiration for the 2007-published print 'The Cold Front' was an episode of the TV programme Xena, Warrior Princess.''
The backgrounds to his aviation prints are for many collectors the real attraction. In fact in many cases there would be a satisfying picture even if you were to remove the aeroplanes. Perhaps that is why his art appeals not just to the collector but also to the rest of the family without any interested in aircraft. From snowy scenes on the Eastern Front to palm-fringed coral beaches in the Pacific, and from the white cliffs of Dover to the sands of North Africa there are endless opportunities for backdrops to his aviation landscapes.
Beyond being art these paintings have a job to do and that is to accurately depict military history. Never is Nick more aware of this than when he is in the company of the veterans who come together to sign his prints. He has met and become friends with many of them in Britain, America and Germany. When it was suggested in a radio interview that aviation art glorifies war Nick told about the occasion of the launch of his first aviation art book, in 1998. The first 50 or so of his paintings filled this volume which was presented at the gathering by RAF fighter pilot Dennis David and Luftwaffe General Gunther Rall. ''The two illustrious pilots, once on opposing sides, stood arm in arm and spoke spontaneously and eloquently about the best of their generation being lost in conflict, about the need for people to learn the lessons of their sacrifices and how art can play its part by enabling new generations to view scenes from those times.'' Nick told me that their comments really brought home to him what a responsibility and privilege it is to be one of the artists working in this field.
Since 1991 Nick and Ruth have lived in the Cotswold hills in Gloucestershire in a house built in the corner of what was once a Battle of Britain airfield. How fitting it is to be painting on the very spot where Spitfires and Hurricanes once roared into battle. Having mostly reverted to farmland there are few clues to its wartime past but an old air-raid shelter in the garden provided Nick with an unusual opportunity. Built upon this shelter and also occupying a fair proportion of the remainder of their garden Nick has constructed a huge model railway. Powered by real steam and with radio-control the trains traverse a miniature mountain landscape with fir trees and waterfalls and numerous bridges and tunnels.
When he is not in the garden 'playing with trains' it's the aeroplane paintings and drawings that occupy most of his time. Two colour volumes featuring the paintings have been published while a book, co-published with Vector Fine Arts in 2008 under the 'Flying Pencil' banner, is dedicated solely to his pencil drawings. The Bath-based publisher retired in 2005 so Nick had the opportunity to become an independent artist working with a variety of publishers and print dealers in Europe and North America. Since then collectors have noted even greater vitality in his art which Nick believes is the result of the aviation art market becoming much more specialised... ''Collectors are demanding ever-more accurate and detailed renderings of actual events.''
I am sure that is true and it bodes well. He is working with Finearts Autographs, a German publisher, to exclusively publish Nick's Luftwaffe and other German subjects and many of these prints carry unrivalled veteran's signatures. Recent prints have featured U Boats and also Panzer tank scenes which compliment the aircraft pictures and broaden the value of the military art collection.
Running parallel to these veteran-signed paper prints new digital printing techniques create full size canvas replicas of the paintings themselves. These are popular with collectors interested mostly in the art itself, allowing them to own something that looks very much like an original painting. It also heralds a future where more specialised editions of fewer and therefore more sought after prints can be published of subjects that hitherto have never or rarely been covered. It will be so interesting to see what new paintings will appear in the coming years.
Perhaps it's common in the creative world but Nick admits that his pleasure in being able to paint for a living is tempered by the possibility that it might all vanish one day and says...
'' If I ever stop painting I'll need to find a real job.''