The art of aircraft painting

For aviation enthusiasts, aircraft is not just the mean of transport: it is both state-of-the-art creation and canvas, which can be turned into something magical. And what are the technical and creative aspects of aircraft painting? André Eisele, aircraft design artist and owner of Aircraftstyle, and Rihards Priedkalns, Aircraft Paintshop Manager at Magnetic MRO, share their insights on the art of aircraft painting.

Tell us about the most exciting projects you’ve worked on: what were the main challenges? How did you cope with these challenges? Why are these projects special for you?

André Eisele: For me, each task is a great challenge, as the enormous time pressure does not allow mistakes. There is only a “routine” for tasks that are always the same, such as the Thomas Cook logo, the Sunny Heart and similar. However, even such tasks pose their challenges, like keeping the production time as short as possible, and every element had to be absolutely identical. Taking the Sunny Heart example, it took us 3 days for the first Sunny Heart job, but I was able to reduce the time to 9 hours for 2 Sunny Hearts. And in the end, I have already painted about 28 of these.

In terms of technical challenges in my line of work, since an aircraft fuselage is no different from an XXL pipe, you have to think three-dimensionally when designing the side surfaces. One of the greatest technical challenges is to adapt animal heads to an aircraft nose. On the other hand, colour gradients that run over the entire fuselage are a team task and relatively easy. You need an excellent paint team for this. I can only intervene through the choice of colour and positioning.

What also excites me is the interaction of the entire painting team with the result at the end, standing in front of a unique paint job is a great experience every time. For example, painting the head of a Tiger/Leopard on the nose of a B747 or a B777, even though the shape of the airplane doesn’t allow this, is really fun. To make such a portrait look perfect from all angles, to meet the gaze (the position of the eyes) 100% correctly, plays an extremely important role and is really exciting. Nobody tells you how to do it, so I let myself be carried on the wave of my 40 years of experience.

Rihards Priedkalns: I have worked on more than 450 painting projects in my 10-year aviation career, and nearly every project has been interesting, and nearly all of them have contained some challenges.

I’ve met André through one these challenges: it was at the beginning of 2014 I and we where painting Boeing 777 for Qatar airways. Andre was subcontracted to perform Barcelona FC flag on AFT section of Fuselage, and it took around 5 days to complete this artwork. I was involved in supervising and assisting with all livery decals and paintings and we were working together to achieve this awesome result. The biggest challenge in this project was time to perform this custom Barcelona FC flag painting: back then, basecoat maximum overcoat time was around 130 hours what gave us only 5 days time to paint artwork before you need to apply the clear coat and this is a window that can’t be extended or postponed. If clearcoat is not applied in this window, then you can face clearcoat delamination issues afterwards. Fortunately, under pressure and a lot of hours and coffee cups – everything was completed in time, and the result was outstanding. This is why this project was special to me. I met André, and I had to see and participate in the creation of this artwork!

What are your favourite liveries of all time (not necessarily you’ve worked on)? Why do you like them?

RP: My favourite liveries of all time is Brussels airlines Tomorrowland and Belgian Red Devil liveries. It is pure artwork with hundreds of different colours, and you can really see work what has gone into it. As a former painter myself, I can feel and appreciate workmanship what has gone into these liveries — beautiful pieces of art.

Of course, from the Magnetic MRO portfolio, I can mention 3 AirBaltic A220 aircraft painted into Baltic state colours. For me, it was pure joy to participate in such a project as a manager. A lot of hours went in into planning this project, and the result is something we can really be proud of.

AE: In the last 10 years I was lucky enough to be able to work exclusively with great teams, and the tasks were so varied that I cannot make any reasonable comparisons and therefore have no real favourites!

What are the key requirements and preparation actions to keep in mind when considering custom design? What clients have to keep in mind?

RP: Key to success and quality work is not to speed! I always say that customers need to consider that painting of aircraft is quite hard and time-consuming task already and custom airbrush livery application is not the easiest job on aircraft purely because of its size. Additionally, I would advise customers to think about further heavy maintenance tasks what is done quite often and requires stripping of aircraft parts or changing engine Thrust Reversers or Fan-cowls. There are just some locations for every aircraft type where custom artwork could be a problem when the restoration of artwork is required.

AE: From my experience and point of view, the most important thing is to exceed the customer’s requirement – the “happy customer” is always in the foreground. And it is very helpful to be involved by customers in the early phase of the design development, as commercial graphic designers in agencies and graphic departments often do not understand that they have to design on an XXL pipe and that they do not have a flat 2-dimensional surface in front of them as is usually the case.

However, I can really appreciate that my reputation is so well established that my customers give place sufficient trust in me and given me sufficient freedom – and that’s very important when making a custom design!

Rihards, can you walk us through what are the latest innovations painting department has integrated into work?

RP: Painting of aircraft is still in stone-age if we talk about innovations! Still hard and time-consuming process what involves a lot of time and man-power. Paints and chemicals have changed a lot, though. Now due to REACH, a lot of Chromate products is replaced by more eco-friendlier chemicals. There is still a lot of work in future, but it is getting better. And taking innovative actions by Magnetic MRO, we have purposely built paint hangar what has automatized ventilation and heating system; also, the hangar is equipped with LED lighting all around, and we are using latest electrostatic painting equipment.

André, what techniques you are using for your artworks?

AE: I mainly work in a freehand airbrush technique. I don’t have too many stencils, and we don’t celebrate dramatically elaborate tape orgies!

And how long does it take on average to paint an aircraft?

AE: I usually get 8-10 days for an A320 / B737 and 4-5 days for a B747 or B777: this is due to the enormous grounding costs.

However, it is different from private jets – here the time factor is not really relevant, and I get almost every time all the time I want. This means that such a task can take 3 to 4 weeks.

Photos: Magnetic MRO and  Aircraftstyle.