Capturing Machines of the Sky
By Barbara Geehan
As the rain pattered lightly on the slanted gable roof above him, Hank Caruso bent over his drafting table, lit only by a white gooseneck lamp, and described the aviation caricature he was drawing for a client. Airplanes sporting tiger stripes and camouflage were screaming across the sky. The client’s call sign is “Bucket,” so there was a flying bucket in one corner.
Most of the image was still just outlined in black India ink, but he was beginning to work out the colors, – orange of course for the tiger – choosing from the bristling pail of pencils at his elbow. There were pieces of paper towels in each side of the artwork where he rested his hands. Otherwise, the table was pristine, clean and shiny.
Perhaps that is the engineer in him.
Mr. Caruso is one of those rare breeds who can rely on both his right and left brains, as both artist and aerospace engineer. And with those skills 25 years or so ago, he invented a new form of aviation art. He calls it “aerocature,” where he not only is spot-on accurate with the airplane’s details, but he gives it a personality. The Marines’ small-decked aircraft carrier has the head of a gator; the plane flown by World-War II test pilot and air show daredevil Bob Hoover includes his straw hat and flowing moustache; and the space shuttle Atlantis has a tear glimmering in its eye after it is grounded.
“They are not cartoons, they are not silly,” he says. “They are exaggerations built on reality. I try to muddy the line between where exaggeration begins and reality ends.”
And his work has brought major recognition:
- Some are hanging on the walls of the Pentagon.
- He was designated an Honorary Naval Aviator in 2006, a program to honor those with extraordinary contributions for service to naval aviation. Others such honored: actors Jackie Cooper and Bob Hope, Admiral Hyman Rickover, and General Jimmy Doolittle.
- His work appears regularly in such publications as “Naval Aviation News” and “Aero Brush,” and he commanded a multi-page spread in the Summer 2012 issue of “Wings of Gold.”
- His work is currently on display at Wildewood’s Mattedi Gallery, and his annual calendar is always awaited with anticipation. For information on the 2013 calendar, go to his website or to the Patuxent River Naval Air Museum gift shop.
Mr. Caruso’s passion for drawing machines of the sky began as a child. “I used to save my pennies to buy postcards. I’d send them off to airplane manufacturers: ‘Can you send me any pictures of your airplanes?’” And the distinctive insertion of personalities in his art? “It’s just how I saw them; I remember as a kid looking at an F-89. The nose, the cockpit, it has a face.”
He also uses a technique of always having an image element sticking out of the design’s frame, whether it is a wing or a wheel. “I remember doing that back in 4th grade, drawing a TV screen with a batted baseball past the boundaries of the screen. I like the 3-D aspect.”
Mr. Caruso spends a lot of time with reference materials. He studies every detail of the aircraft, but then lets it sink in a bit. “I usually draw it inside my head first. If I go right from reference to paper, I might not exaggerate enough. I find that if I need to refer to research while drawing, I probably do not know the subject well enough.
“This is more instinctive, more intuitive.”
And the critics are out there looking for errors, mostly, he says, fellow aviation artists. There was the time he drew an airborne F-15 with its air intakes positioned in a way that only happens when it is on the ground. Or grass behind a running engine that was not blowing in the wind. As he described these, he almost became giddy. It’s the art, sure, but it is the mechanical details that truly excite him.
“I let the left brain work on the outline, the right brain takes over for the shading,” he explains. “The coloring is somewhere between.”
The “shading” is the tiny scratches of cross-hatching behind the plane. But even this potentially monotonous task is extremely important to him. “Shading is where the character comes in. What is the lighting, the time of day, the mood and the surface contours,” he points out.
Mr. Caruso is passing his passion on to aspiring artists. He gives out scholarships to winners at county science fairs for the best use of graphics to present science and engineering information. And he occasionally is asked to critique youngsters’ art. “I ask ‘what is the part you like the best and what is the part you’d like to change.’ They know! We all have reasons for what we do.”
He likes the recognition, and he fantasizes that Disney will be calling someday. But, to him, the biggest rewards are when junior officers come up and want to talk shop, or a base commander tells him he has taped a Caruso sketch to his wall everywhere he has moved, or a sketch he once drew on an envelope has become a group’s mascot.
“I can take it to a certain level, but it is when others see something of themselves, that they adopt it; then, it takes on a life of its own. … A lot of what I do is to create visibility for organizations that could be considered underdogs. Whether it is a company or a squadron, they look at it and say, ‘This is us. We are art and in color.’ It is seeing someone excitedly identify with an image I create that is my real reward for doing what I do.”