Navy Combat Art: The Human Hand is its Mechanism, The Artist’s Eye is its Lens

By Sandy Gall, Naval History and Heritage Command Communication and Outreach Division

Admittedly biased, I believe I have one of the best jobs. My workplace, the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), has a lot of interesting and unusual jobs performed by a lot of interesting and unusual people. It’s a fascinating place to work that allows you to get to know your U.S. Navy in a unique, profound, way.

For instance, when people think of the Navy they probably picture ships and Sailors on the high seas defending freedom. What they probably don’t picture is art. But since the beginning of our nation combat artists have embedded with forward deployed forces at sea and ashore with one mission: to capture real-world scenes and share them with America.

You’ve probably even seen works from historical combat artists of the WWII era, where the medium became famous, but many are surprised to learn that today, where every person with a cell phone can capture imagery, the combat art program is alive and well within the U.S. Navy; here at NHHC. Recently, I was able to catch one of our artists, Kristopher Battles (definitely an interesting person), between deployments in his workshop at the Washington Navy Yard and talk to him about his unusual job.

What does a combat artist do?

A Navy Combat artist deploys to Navy ships and commands all across the globe to gather visual information and inspiration for creating fine art for the Naval History and Heritage Command and the Navy Art Collection.

161228-N-TH437-064 WASHINGTON (Dec. 28, 2016) — Kristopher Battles, a Navy artist with the Naval History and Heritage Command, adds finishing touches to a painting, Dec. 28. Battles is one of two artists working fulltime for the Navy’s Combat Art Program. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Lockwood/Released)

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WASHINGTON (Dec. 28, 2016) — Kristopher Battles, a Navy artist with the Naval History and Heritage Command, adds finishing touches to a painting, Dec. 28. Battles is one of two artists working fulltime for the Navy’s Combat Art Program. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Lockwood/Released)

How were you trained for this position?

I was professionally trained in fine art and illustration attending Northeast Missouri State University and earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting. Then I attended the University of Hartford where I received my Master of Fine Arts degree in Illustration. But the formal education, that’s only part of my training… I like to think that my whole life was training for this position. When I was 17 years old, I turned 18 in boot camp, I joined the Marine Corps Reserve. Being in the Marine Corps enabled me to now know first-hand what it’s like to serve. My training and education in the Corps, as well as my civilian art education, prepared me physically, mentally and creatively to be a combat artist.

What is the history of combat art?

Combat art has a long history, with artwork dating back near the founding of our nation. But combat art as we know it in its current iteration has its roots in WWII, when all the branches of the U.S. military mobilized and deployed combat artists along with journalists and photographers to document life in the war zones.

Honestly, if you’re interested in learning more about the program as whole, I’d recommend watching the PBS documentary, “They Drew Fire.” It’s a great piece. In it they discuss the founding, history, and individual artists of the WWII Combat Art Program. They even have attention to the specific histories of the various services, which includes the Navy Art Program’s founding. (Interested readers can view that segment here: http://www.pbs.org/theydrewfire/resources/artists.html).

Why do you think it’s still an important medium in today’s digital world?

Combat art, using traditional art techniques, is still a very important and useful medium because, though a photograph or digital image can be very informative and expressive, it sometimes lacks the human touch of a painting or drawing. The work we do has the human hand for its mechanism, and the artist’s eye as its lens.  An artist takes time and expends creative energy as well as experience and discernment to carefully construct a visual statement.  There’s something real and tangible about a painting or sketch, from the hand of the artist, which can give another human being something they can connect to sometimes more than they can with a photograph.

161228-N-TH437-034 WASHINGTON (Dec. 28, 2016) — Kristopher Battles, a Navy artist with the Naval History and Heritage Command, adds finishing touches to a painting, Dec. 28. Battles is one of two artists working fulltime for the Navy’s Combat Art Program. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Lockwood/Released)

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WASHINGTON (Dec. 28, 2016) — Kristopher Battles, a Navy artist with the Naval History and Heritage Command, adds finishing touches to a painting, Dec. 28. Battles is one of two artists working fulltime for the Navy’s Combat Art Program. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Lockwood/Released)

What’s the most exciting deployment you’ve been on?

That’s tough – I’ve been privileged to see a lot of exciting and interesting things. I’ve had a pretty full view of the Navy, deploying on many different ships from destroyers to super carriers. But the most exciting deployment I’ve been on was actually the first one—my trip up to the Boston Navy Yard to visit USS Constitution and witness her Sailors in action as they took her out on a turnaround cruise in Boston Harbor in October 2014. I felt a deep connection to the history of our nation and our Navy being onboard that great ship.

161222-N-NO147-002 The oil on canvas painting illustrates Sailors aboard aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) as they prepare to haul lines hoses from Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Kanawha (T-AO-196) during a Replenishment at Sea on a bright September day. Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Kristopher Battles, a combat artist, completed the painting in late December 2016 (Accession #2016-005-05). The Combat Art Program is part of NHHC’s Navy Art Collection, which collects, documents, preserves and exhibits art that is significant to the history of the Navy. This includes more than 20,000 paintings, prints, drawings and engravings consisting of naval ships, personnel and actions from all eras of U.S. naval history. (U.S. Navy photo by Naval History and Heritage Command/Released)

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The oil on canvas painting illustrates Sailors aboard aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75) as they prepare to haul lines hoses from Military Sealift Command fleet replenishment oiler USNS Kanawha (T-AO-196) during a Replenishment at Sea on a bright September day. Naval History and Heritage Command’s (NHHC) Kristopher Battles, a combat artist, completed the painting in late December 2016 (Accession #2016-005-05). (U.S. Navy photo by Naval History and Heritage Command/Released)

What’s the hardest part of your work?

Finishing a piece…I believe da Vinci said ‘art is never finished, only abandoned.’ Being a realist, you can become enslaved in the details, paintings like the one I’m finishing now…they really demand the details. It can take me anywhere from 20 to 100s of hours to finish one piece. What I like most about this piece (pictured right) is the composition, the lighting. I tried to capture the kinetic energy that was occurring at the time. I want to portray a slice of the Navy most people don’t think about. This piece shows viewers line handlers, a job done all the time that’s often not seen by the public, and it portrays the diversity of the Navy. It really is a snapshot of Navy life.

What’s it like to experience the Navy like you do? What have you learned?

It’s a wonderful job…to be able to deploy and to paint so many exciting and historically significant things. To be able to depict some of my favorite things and people, and to be paid for it on top of it all, is a dream fulfilled.

I get to experience the Navy as a Navy civilian, so I get to see it through the eyes of the folks back home, so to speak. Yet, as a former service member, I also understand the lingo and nomenclature of Navy life, so that experience is helpful in truly capturing events. Still, I’ve learned a lot about the Navy, everything from rank to job descriptions, from ship types to compartment designations.

So, being out there, I’ve learned a lot about the Navy, but expanding my knowledge isn’t my goal. My goal in painting these images is to make images which people who served in the Navy can look at and enjoy, and point to and tell their children and grandchildren, “Look. That’s what it was like. That’s my ship!” or “…That’s exactly what my job was like!” I also paint to inform the families of the Sailors who are out doing the nation’s bidding, what their sons and daughters are doing. I hope to paint an interesting and accurate record of what their lives are like on a Navy ship while deployed.  Finally I paint to inform or inspire today’s citizen, and also to inform tomorrow’s historian who seeks visual information about what transpired in the Navy of our time.

What’s your process?
I like to deploy with my sketch book, pencils, and camera, and gather as much visual information as I can about the subject while on site. That’s what I use as reference material from which to create the larger paintings for the Navy Art Collection. When I’m out, I have a lot of access and often get treated like a VIP, but that doesn’t mean I can set up a stencil on the flight deck! What I take and use to capture has to be packable and portable. These are huge ships, but that doesn’t mean you have a lot of room! When I’m on location, I sketch as much as I can, visiting as many of the spaces on board a ship as I’m allowed to, and practicing the art of seeing. I also keep a journal, in which to capture details that can help inspire me later on when painting, and can also give curators helpful details when captioning and archiving a work.  Many of the sketches I’ve done on deployment are works of art in their own right, and can be framed and displayed alongside larger paintings.

What would you say is your most used color?

[Laughs] Oh, without a doubt my most used color is called Haze Gray. I’m sure that’s not a surprise given I paint the Navy. I often joke that I should name my paintings “Arrangement in Blue and Gray 1, Arrangement in Blue and Gray 2, Arrangement in Blue and Gray 3…”

161228-N-TH437-073 WASHINGTON (Dec. 28, 2016) — Kristopher Battles, a Navy artist with the Naval History and Heritage Command, considers adding to his current painting, Dec. 28. Battles is one of two artists working fulltime for the Navy’s Combat Art Program. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Lockwood/Released)

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WASHINGTON (Dec. 28, 2016) — Kristopher Battles, a Navy artist with the Naval History and Heritage Command, considers adding to his current painting, Dec. 28. Battles is one of two artists working fulltime for the Navy’s Combat Art Program. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Eric Lockwood/Released)


The Combat Art Program is part of NHHC’s Navy Art Collection, which collects, documents, preserves and exhibits art that is significant to the history of the Navy. This includes more than 20,000 paintings, prints, drawings and engravings consisting of naval ships, personnel and actions from all eras of U.S. naval history. You can find out more about the Navy Art Department and the Combat Art Program by visiting our website here.

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