Combat Artists

While training in Norway during NATO Exercise Trident Juncture 2018, soldiers in the Alliance may have glimpsed an unusual sight: Richard Johnson, standing beside their formations with a sketch pad and pencil. An illustrative journalist by trade, Johnson has sketched conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Zimbabwe. He has sketched troops in combat, at rest and on the move, capturing the moment: he notes, “I usually start with the eyes. You really just enter the whole person from there.” In Norway, Johnson mentored US Marine Corps Captain CJ Baumann, who says he’s benefited from Johnson’s tutelage. Together, they sketched US Marines as they moved tanks and troops through the Norwegian countryside. Footage includes Combat Artist Richard Johnson and Captain CJ Baumann sketching Norwegian and US troops during NATO Exercise Trident Juncture 2019.

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The art itself is a timeline of a period spent getting to know the person you’re drawing. The key is in a war zone, regardless of conditions, to produce art. As a tool for historical documentation it is timeless. There’s something about the intimacy of the art that makes people care about stories they didn’t know they needed to care about. I’ve operated as a field artist for the last 15 years in Iraq, in Afghanistan, Congo, Zimbabwe, Central African Republic. I usually start with the eyes. You really just enter the whole person from there. I’ve had a rocket fired at me. I’ve come under artillery in my time. I’ve been stuck in a mine field. I’ve been shot at and I’ve had vehicles around me blow up with IEDs, so I guess I am a combat artist even though I have never, through all of that, really felt at risk because of the amount of protection that’s given to you. I will go anywhere that there’s a good story to tell and that I think art can help.

Richard Johnson, whom I’ve been fortunate enough to pair up with, he knows how to see a scenario, get the background information, and tell a story through his artwork and that’s something that I would love to be able to do. When we embed with units and he’s able to look over my shoulder at my drawings, there’s a lot of growth that comes out of that. Combat art is different from photography. It is more intimate and not that photographs can’t communicate emotion, they can. The difference is that we would’ve barely experienced it ’cause a picture you can snap it in half a second and walk away and you can not really know what’s going on and still get a good photo, but we had to get to know who we were drawing, whether it be a gruesome medical scene or just some high, intense mission, you have to capture simply what you see.

So we were very fortunate in Iraq, we were very well looked after by Marines. I think about five days in we lost our first couple of guys. The bodies had to be retrieved from the river they’d been attempting to cross and I have a sketch of Sergeant Barringer sitting by the river’s edge. That sketch, I think for me, now looking back at it 15 years further on, you can still feel the pain in the sketch. As a sketch, it’s absolutely poignant.

[CJ] We want people to be able to look at a drawing and feel like, “Wow, like I wasn’t there “but I’m really close,” and so that’s part of the beauty of it all. We’re leaving a piece of ourselves here in that trust, extending that to those that we’re interacting with.

[Richard] People are viewing it through a human lens and that makes a difference.

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