Airplane Kits Are Great—But Sometimes the Art on the Box is Even Better
Some of us literally built our passion for aviation at kitchen tables and basement workbenches as we carefully followed directions to create airplane replicas we could hang in aerial battle from the bedroom ceiling.
For me, it was the artwork on the model box—that painting of a favorite airplane—that could make an eight-year-old give up lawn-mowing money faster than you could ask, “Do you need glue with that?”
For the most part, the artists who created that compelling art went unsung. Commercial art is an immediate business where the all-important deadline rules, and the names of many of the artists who produced captivating box art in the 1950s and ’60s have been lost. But just because commercial artists rarely see their work on gallery walls, that doesn’t mean they are any less talented than an artist being lauded at an opening in Soho. The illustrators of those model boxes did their job by captivating modelmakers with their art. Lured by the box illustrations, kids like me bought and built the kits, read the books about the airplanes we had constructed and, in some cases, found aviation turning into a lifelong obsession.
Artists like Jack Leynnwood, Jo Kotula, Roy Grinnell, John Steel and Roy Cross were only a few of the talented illustrators who produced the paintings on the outside of cardboard boxes full of plastic possibility. Collectors today seek out their original art, which can command prices well beyond what the original artist received for the work.
Here we offer an all-too-brief collection of some art from these overlooked masters.
No doubt Leynnwood’s painting of Jimmy Doolittle’s North American B-25 Mitchell over Tokyo prompted many young modelers to take that kit home, too. The box promoted an “exclusive record offer” for a 7-inch vinyl record that told the story of the Doolittle raid, but Leynnwood’s painting provided the real incentive to buy. John Steel served in the Marines during World War II before going to the Art Center School in Los Angeles on the G.I. Bill. He produced art for Revell, Monogram, Lindberg and Aurora. He’s better known for his dramatic paintings of destroyers and aircraft carriers, but the Nieuport 11 and Albatros D3 are just two of several World War I fighters he produced. (Notice how Aurora misspelled Albatros on the box!) Jo Kotula’s painting of a nighttime launch of a Boeing BOMARC IM-99 guided missile uses bold colors to blast off the hobby shop shelf. The original art, painted on relatively thin illustration board, measures about 26 by 30 inches. Kotula was born in Poland and came to the United States with his parents as a child. Self-taught, he found a job illustrating U.S. Air Force training manuals before creating art for the Aurora and Revell companies. Across the pond, Britain’s Airfix used Roy Cross to create paintings so popular that the company still uses his art on a continuing series of re-released vintage kits. As a young man, Cross had done aircraft drawings for the British Air Training Corps Gazette before doing illustrations for Fairey Aviation. He started contributing paintings for Airfix in 1964 after writing the company and saying he could improve on the art they were using. His illustration of the colossal Handley Page H.P.42 Heracles shows it wasn’t an idle boast. Cross’ art for an Avro Lancaster B1 depicts a typically compelling image of a battle-damaged bomber barely making it back to base—but surely it made its way up to many a cash register. In 1966 Aurora released two versions of General Dynamics’ new swing-wing F-111 (although the U.S. Navy never bought the carrier version of the jet, the F-111B). Aviation artist Roy Grinnell created a pair of paintings for the two kits, both full of vibrant colors and with the airplane in full afterburner. Grinnell’s aviation art has become widely sought by collectors and has appeared in issues of Aviation History.