Creating an art pack for Osprey colour plates

Neil Grant

 The full colour battle scene plates are one of the main features that attract people to Osprey books, and this article explains how the design process works from an author’s point of view. It goes without saying, however, that it is based on the way I do things, and other authors may do things differently.

Each Weapon series book typically includes four colour plates.  One will be a detailed cutaway of the weapon, while the other three will be battle scenes.  Exactly what they feature is up to the author, and he will specify what they show as part of his pitch to the publishing committee.

  I generally plan the three battle scene pictures to give the widest possible view of how and where the weapon was used. For example, in the Bren Gun book, I wanted at least one of the plates to show it being fired from the hip, and another to show it being fired from its bipod.

 I also wanted to show both versions of the Bren (.303 and 7.62mm) and to show it being used in a range of theatres. For the Bren, that meant the Normandy and Far East theatres in World War 2, and the 1982 Falklands campaign.

For the upcoming Lewis Gun book, the same logic meant showing ground versions being used by British troops on the Western Front in the Great War and by US Marines on Corregidor in World War 2, plus an aerial gun being used in a WW1 dogfight.

In each case, of course, I could have chosen other options – I initially considered the third plate for the Lewis Gun showing the LRDG attack on the airfield at Sirte in the Western Desert, for instance.    The clinching factor here was that a good photo of a Lewis gun on an LRDG truck was available for inclusion, and you generally want to use the plates to do what you can’t do with the photographs.

 Very often, this is to give a tactical overview of how the weapon would integrate with other elements. In the Normandy plate, for example, the idea was to show how the Bren formed part of a defensive plan by forcing the advancing German tanks to close up and suppressing their accompanying infantry to allow the PIAT team to work their way round for a shot.

 In other cases, a colour plate can show a particularly striking incident when no photograph of it exists, as with Havildar Umrao Singh using his Bren to fight off the Japanese at point blank range.

 Once the author has settled on a subject, he will write a brief for the artist to follow, describing everything that will appear in the finished colour plate.  The notes Osprey provide to authors  recommend against underestimating the work involved, and this is good advice.

 As a starting point, I work out roughly where all the figures should go, avoiding getting key parts of the scene in the gutter of a double page spread, then describe the overall picture.

 This needs to include things like weather conditions and light levels. Is it raining, or bright sunshine? If it is a night scene, what are the sources of illumination?

 I then work through each of the figures, describing exactly what each is carrying or wearing, and including a visual reference for each item. Although the Osprey artists generally have a keen knowledge of history, they cannot be expected to be experts on every period and army the series might cover. This means it is the author’s responsibility to give the artist everything he needs to complete the plate.

 These visual references really need to be primary sources such as original photographs, though using plates from previous ospreys can sometimes be helpful for showing how everything goes together.  For instance, when describing British 1937 webbing, I might include a photograph of each item, then use an existing Osprey plate to show how the pieces assemble into the whole.

 For subjects before colour photography, I'll try to include some modern photos of original kit, as well as the wartime black & white photographs, in order to give the colour tones.

Occasionally, the visual references you find yourself needing are unexpected – since I’d put the Bren gunner lying prone in the Normandy plate, the soles of his boots were visible, and I had to provide a photograph of the pattern of hobnails, leading to a very strange conversation with a friend at the National Army Museum! It’s probably possible to avoid some of these issues by re-positioning the figures, but I’ve never had to do that…so far.

It's important to think about how the figures are standing or holding weapons - you don't hold a Brown Bess in the same way you'd hold an M16, and even different WW2 armies taught slightly different firing positions to their recruits; I try to use period manuals for this wherever possible.

 I've also come up with a list of mental questions for myself, like "how long have the men in the picture been in the field?" and "Would they have shaved this morning?".  Sometimes, this led to quirky little pieces of research; I found that Great War soldiers were actually rather more likely to shave in the trenches than you might expect, at least after 1916.  Aside from being yelled at by the RSM, anything more than stubble prevented your gas mask sealing properly to your face, which you really didn't want!

In terms of the amount of work involved context, I generally figure that the package I send to the artist for each of the battle scenes will contain 800-1000 words of text, plus 30-40 photographs.

 The editor at Osprey will look over the art pack, and ensure it includes everything the artist will need.  He'll also make sure that the resulting plate won't be too close to one that has already been done for another book.  For example, one of the plates I originally designed for the Lewis Gun book would have looked too similar to one being done at the same time for the Vickers-Maxim book, and had to be changed.

 One the artist has received the pack, he will produce an initial pencil sketch, showing rough outlines of the figures and how the picture fits together.  These will come back to the author for review and correction.  It's well worth putting the effort into reviewing the pencil sketches as thoroughly as possible - it's easy to change even quite major aspects of the composition at this stage, but much harder to do so once the artist has turned it into a colour painting.

 I generally review each sketch once for overall impression, looking at the whole picture, and then drop a 1/2 inch grid printed on clear acetate over the top and work through again square by square, checking the details. 

 The artist will make the changes on a revised pencil sketch, and once the author has reviewed that and made any final changes, the artist will turn it into a colour painting.  Changes are still possible at that stage, but unless it's something very minor, they cause a lot of work for the artist, and it's best to catch things earlier in the process.

 How long the process takes will depend on the artist's schedule, but typically the deadline for submitting the art pack will be earlier than the deadline for the manuscripts, and can be more than a year ahead of publication.  As an example, I'm pulling the art pack for the Mauser Rifle book (published in March 2015) together at present, for a Christmas deadline.