Painting the Blimps

If you've seen the Met Life blimp or one of Sea World's Shamu airships, you've seen the handwork of Burt Dodge, a signpainter from Wall Township, NJ. Dodge has worked with Airship International since 1985, although he plans to incorporate his own business as Super Murals, lnc. later this year.
Dodge was working with central New Jersey's J.C. Willams Outdoor Adv. Co. (now a division of Gannett Outdoor) when a call came in from Lakehurst, NJ. Airship International needed a blimp lettered. "Reluctantly, I got in touch with them and went down to Lakehurst," says Dodge. "When I went into the hangar, I was pretty awed by the size of the blimp. I wasn't even sure I could do it, but I did."
Later, Airship International asked Dodge to paint over a McDonald's blimp.The new client, Sea World, wanted silver on the top and the bottom, a white stripe across the center, and its logo.Dark blue stripes stretched the length of the ship up on to the tail section.
Dodge paints the blimps freehand, assisted by cherry-pickers,
a flat-bed scissor jack and a regular, 100-ft, hydraulic jack. He works alone laying out the entire design and then cutting every thing in.
"I've been producing sign work for ahout 20 years, but blimps are a lot more difficult than the average billboard because you're working with curvature," Dodge says. "There is really nothing you can measure accurately. You must have a pretty good eye." He has been averaging one blimp per year, but "I just finished Shamu II, and then I turned around and did a Westinghouse. It was a surveillance-type ship -- a little bigger than Shamu, about 230 ft.long -- and it has a lot more volume, and that means more helium, so it's rounder. I painted that whole ship in three days."
The paint used by Airship International is a special formulation produced in France by International Celomer, according to Frank Sicoli, Airship's operations supervisor. He says the paint offers the highest available gloss that doesn't compromise the integrity of the blimp's envelope. One tradeoff, according to Dodge, is the paint's extreme toxicity, which compels him to use brushes and rollers.
It's illegal to spray the material without masks and fresh-air systems. In addition, Dodge often must use an inexperienced crew. "[Airship] usually supplies a few guys on the crew, but they really don't know that much about painting," Dodge observes. "I
have to direct them as to what to do, how to roll it on and what to stay away from. It gets kind of involved sometimes." "I remember when I was painting the first Shamu. I had finished the one whole side, and the crew was up on top painting the ship white. All of it was dripping down the side I'd painted black, so I had to go back and do it all over again." Dodge says approximately 70 gallons of paint are needed to cover a blimp. The paint is supplied in 2-gallon containers, mixed in a 4-2-l ratio: four parts paint, two parts hardener and one part dilutent.
Airship International operates from a hangar in EIizabeth City, NC, in addition to the one in Lakehurst. Dodge primarily paints craft in New Jersey. Rarely does he need to fly to EIizabeth City because Airship crews handle routine touch-ups. Dodge hopes to work on the company's next airshipsoon, although he doesn't know yet whom that future client might be. However, he has completed a spectacular layout for one client; the design would require six months to execute, but Dodge hasn't been given the green light. If the job occurs, it would be his biggest job yet. The Met Life rendering needed one month of painting, and the Shamu airships each required 2 1/2 - 3 weeks.
Oddly enough, Dodge has never been up in one of his creations. "They've offered, but somehow I've just never been up in one. I guess I was always too busy doing something else," Dodge says.

Just about everybody has seen this former area man's work

AFTER YEARS of painting billboards and wall murals, Burton Dodge's artistic career finally started to take off 10 years ago.
It soared so high, in fact, that you've proba-bly seen his work hovering in the clouds.
Snoopy, Shamu the whale, the Fuji Film-and Budweiser logos, and the wild imagery of the Pink Floyd rock band are among Dodge's subjects -- all painted on helium-filled blimps.
"It's like an artist putting his work up in a gallery, except the sky's the limit," the 46-year-old Dodge said.
A Monmouth County resident until he moved to Philadelphia in January, the tall, lanky artist has built up a national reputation for his high -flying creations.
Dodge has painted blimps about 14 or 15 times over the past 10 years, including the Metropolitan Life blimp that featured two 35-foot-high paintings of Snoopy, and the Sea World blimp with the leaping image of Shamu. He's often painted the same blimp more than once.
Blimps for Budweiser, Fuji and the Pink Floyd rock band are also on the resume of Dodge, who recently spent about a month working on a Kroger Food Store blimp at the Naval Air Engineering Station in Lakehurst that will be one of about a half dozen airships flying over the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
One airship aficionado said Dodge is the only artist he knows of who specializes in blimp painting .
"He's sort of carved a niche out for him-self," said Eric Brothers of the Lighter Than Air Society, an association of airship and bal- loon fans based in Akron, Ohio.
"Mr. Dodge is sort of out on the artistic edge developing new and unique images that are very memorable, and that's the whole idea with advertising."
TIM MC CARTHY/Staff Photographer

" It's like an artist putting his
work up in a gallery, except
the sky's the limit.

Burton Dodge

Brothers said there are about ll commer-cial blimps flying around the nation and more under construction. Most are decorated with stick-on decals rather than painted, he said.
Two -- the recently-painted Kroger blimp and the Fuji Film blimp -- were painted by Dodge.
Dodge said he knew he wanted to be an artist from the time he attended school in Wall Township.
After graduating from high school in the late 1960s, he spent several years living the life of a "beatnik," making ends meet by painting and selling portraits, seascapes and other works.
That ended in 1973, when marriage forced Dodge to abandon his starving-artist way of life.
"I settled down a little and decided that I have to be a professional," he said.
That led to a career painting commercial billboards and wall murals.
Dodge said he's painted his share of scan-tily clad men and women for Calvin KIein underwear advertisements, as well as cigarette and liquor billboards.
He got into airship painting when a cus-tomer walked Into a commercial art company he was working for and asked, "Do you paint airships?"
Without knowing exactly what an airship was, Dodge responded, "Sure, I paint them all the time."
His first job required him to take a blimp with a McDonald's logo on it, and paint the Sea World logo over it.
Pretty soon, Dodge discovered why there aren't a lot of people who paint blimps: paint-ing on a curved surface isn't easy.
In other words, think of what it's like painting an Easter egg. Then think of what it would be like to paint an Easter egg the size of a small house.
Because blimps curve both horizontally and vertically, Dodge said he can't just sketch out an image on a flat surface and trace it onto the side of the blimp. Everything would look crooked and distorted, he said.
Instead, Dodge said he draws out a design on paper, then raises himself to the side of the blimp with a cherry picker. Using a yard- stick and black chalk, he relies on sight and instinct to trace out a proportionally correct image that compensates for all the curves. After the image is traced, he paints in the image with paint rollers and brushes.
"'It's mind boggling," he said. "Let's just say I've snapped a lot of yardsticks and thrown a lot of chalk at the sides of these ships."
Dodge makes $30,000 to $50,000 per blimp, which is just for his labor. The 45 to 80 gallons of paint it takes to paint one blimp are paid for by the hiring company, he said.
Industry observers said Dodge is known for adding his own touch to the blimps.
A Metropolitan Life design he was given in 1987, for example, only called for a 10-foot high Snoopy. Dodge decided the effect would be better with a Snoopy three times that size.
When he was asked to paint a second blimp for Sea World, they only told him they wanted Shamu on its side. It was Dodge who came up with the design that, Brothers said, actually looked like a whale floating in the air.
A former manager for the company that first hired Dodge said the artis's improvisation stood out on a Bud-weiser blimp. Dodge decided to paint the nose of the blimp as a bottle cap, and paint little drops of water, to make it look like a sweating container of beer.
"He breathes life into them rather than just having a structured corporate logo," said Alan Gross, a Flusing, N.Y., resident who has worked for several airship companies.
Dodge, who once dreamed of being a great artist, still sells work on canvas. He paints portraits and other sub-jects out of a studio he recently set up in Philadelphia. But when asked to name the type of work he's most proud of, he points to the giant 200-foot long Kroger blimp.
"There is something about an air-ship. In a sense, it's my creation."

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