Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

April 10, 2014


Artists need to exhibit they say. If the lists people attach to their Biographies on websites is to believed exhibiting is very important. If you say “I am a painter” then people will ask “do you exhibit”. Up until recently my answer would be a flat “no”. Having done a couple of years now of showing bits and bobs here and there I have mixed feelings. When people say exhibit they really mean exhibit for sale. I note none of the people who list their every minor show ever say that they didn’t sell, though this must be true for the most part.

What is most odd is that there must be people who look through a list of exhibitions and then look at the work differently as it seems to have been validated by others. I have I just realised typed the key word in this matter… “validation”. For a buyer or art lover it means that they are not completely relying on their own judgement if there is a list of shows to support any view.

I am of course very jealous of those who have long lists in chronological order of galleries and group shows. I have done nothing but paint in one way or another my whole life but have only a brief flurry of shows in recent years. I am a little taken aback that people seem to think that I didn’t exist before this time and that I have only just started on art in my later years. I don’t like to say ,”well actually I can paint almost anything in any style you wish.” which would sound rather big headed but is pretty much true, in a long career I have been asked to do a bit of everything really. I get no points for having designed ten or twelve ballets, or illustrated books, or designed attractions that millions enjoy. I did rather think I might be able to sort of jump into the picture painting world, not at the top but sort of halfway or something. Not the case however, the list of exhibitions is missing so starting at the bottom is required.

I talked to the secretary of one of the Societies at the private view of one of the open shows. She said if I kept on banging in work of that quality for six or so years I might be able to apply. It was it seems not about how good your work was, but how long your list was! This may be why these institutions can’t number that many of the best painters in their specialities as members. It also means that they get stuffed full of people who are worthy and patient rather than necessarily the best. There is of course the suspicion that the lesser abled members are not too keen on people who are embarrassingly good (no I don’t mean me!) my instinct is to dismiss this idea but some of my own experience and history maybe say otherwise. I am not complaining, I have had pretty good success at getting work accepted in the couple of years that I have been trying, it’s just that I’m now not sure if that is necessarily a good sign as to the quality of my work!

It is all to do with this thing called “reputation” which has to be built up over time. A “good” reputation says this person has done a certain thing well and consistently over a number of years according to the opinion of others. As this isn’t formalised in anyway it is of course open to gross manipulation and publicists can build reputations from nothing as many a vacant celebrity shows. In the same way artists bolster their list of shows with things like: Joint show Portsmouth Lion Terrace 1976…( two pictures in a corridor at college), Greenwich group show 2009, (1 picture taped to a railing…)! It is still a show it seems even if people just passed by the pictures without noticing them.

Times they are a changing though. The internet has made getting yourself into the public gaze much easier, this blog alone has had 150000 visitors in 4 years which is great. The whole internet thing is a little strange however in that people are looking at pictures of paintings on a screen not the painting itself. This more than anything else means I must persevere with showing paintings. I have a very small shared exhibition at Oil and Water in Wandsworth coming up on the 23rd April and later in the year Graham Davies and I are doing a joint show of London pictures near Blackheath which will be more substantial. Sooner or later I must chance my arm with a larger show in town but such events mean an investment of many thousands of pounds with no guaranteed return so I must plan carefully.

Mortlake, Thames, watercolour


This is Mortlake. On the way back from Strand on the Green Chris Burdett and I were checking out future venues for the Brass Monkeys. Watercolour 7in by 10in.


Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, watercolour, London


The Royal Naval Hospital Greenwich. This one needs a few more figures maybe. I was trying to catch the very subtle light that occurs just as the sun has dipped below the horizon. For a few minutes there is this almost dreamlike atmosphere.  14in by10in watercolour.


Greenwich, Royal Naval Hospital, London Watercolour


I did this immediately after allowing myself 30 min. this is how the same scene looked 30min before. It is great fun just to dash it in what you loose in subtlety you gain in energy. People tend to fall into two camps those for whom spontaneity is all and those who like subtle restraint. Just to be awkward I enjoy both. 10in by 14in.


The Paragon, Blackheath, London, watercolour


This is the very posh Paragon in Blackheath, I have tried to paint this a few times and failed. The challenge here is to get the balance of loose and tight just right. Not a complete success but this is the best I have managed of it so far. 12in by 20in watercolour.


Millenium Bridge, Thames, Bankside, St Pauls, London, watercolour


I stretched up some paper on very light ply boards so I could paint plein air on decent paper. I have found the Arches blocks are quite different to the roll paper. The sizing on the blocks is odd and the colour never granulates giving the washes a dead feel. This is a real irritation as I spent a 100 quid on blocks which are essentially useless. I did a very simple water brush sketch initially, then had to abandon the bridge as it was too busy. I decamped to a seat on the Bankside and finished off. As I worked the sky became the oddest colour due to the sand blowing over from the Sahara and London’s very own pollution. I did my best to catch it even though it meant this is very far from a “pure” watercolour! 7in by 10in.


St Johns, Deptford, watercolour, London


Another of my stretched up boards. Again I just sketched in the basics in a cool grey with a few dark accents. Then took it home to add colour and finish off. 7in by 10in watercolour.


Market, Deptford, London, watercolour


The last of my pre-stretched boards. Once again a simple waterbrush sketch putting in all the darks. I left all mid and light areas white and coloured it from memory rather than reality. 7in by 10in.


London, Trafalgar Square, St Martins, watercolour


A larger 13in by 20in watercolour. This has been sitting half done for three or four weeks. I reached a certain stage and couldn’t see my way forwards. Oddly it was no trouble to finish off. I’m not even sure what I was fretting about now!

That’s it a very watercolour heavy post. Next I am going to try to get a few studio oils done!


March 13, 2014


This is something that has caused me a certain amount of grief. Many years ago I was warned by a really well known illustrator that a very distinctive personal style was often a problem. He pointed out that once you had established and were known for a distinctive style you wouldn’t be asked for anything else. What is more if your style was a hit and then went out of fashion you were left high and dry with very little work.

This in the event was not a problem for me. I am a born mimic and can usually paint in most styles in a reasonably convincing way. Indeed a lot of my illustration work came with the requests like, “Could you do this in whatshisname’s style as he isn’t available.” I became quite useful and garnered a fair bit of work on this basis. It broadened the range of skills that I had which was I suppose a plus.  The disadvantage was that I didn’t develop much of a distinctive personal style myself! I would have an idea and think that it would suit this style or that, swopping between them as if changing hats.

This problem was brought into focus when I started to paint pictures for myself not for commission. At first my acrylics were so varied in style that if they were hung on the wall side by side nobody would guess they were by the same painter! In watercolours I had more to build on as I had been filling small sketchbooks for years with topographical paintings from holidays etc. Here at least my style was reasonably consistent. With oils however I tended to swing between the finished and sketched or the broad and the detailed. Looking at my wall of recent paintings I do at last see a style emerging, which has led me to think on it further.

I now think the matter of style can be a very thorny issue. The same problem occurs with easel painters as it does with illustrators. If your style is very distinctive, say you outline most things with a primary or some such, then if you stop that practice then the pictures won’t be what people expect of you. Also you will only be able to do such pictures where that particular quirk works well. A subtle misty mood for example would be nigh on impossible. You have in essence painted yourself into a cul de sac, you can only paint the subjects that suit your style.

It happens I think because people wish to reprise past successes. They paint a nocturne which is very much of a hit and thereafter do nocturnes until they turn up their toes!

Looking back at art history you can see examples of artistic type casting. De Chirico is quite a good one. He became famous for his surreal paintings, but later in life attempted to paint in a more classical manner. (much to the horror of art historians who really don’t like you to step outside your box!). He came to the other style without the required skill and so visibly struggled. The technical hurdles of drawing, observation and paint handling for the classical inspired work being far higher than for the surreal ones. No one really wanted his new work so he had to keep on knocking out the old surreal stuff to make a buck. The problem for De Chirico was he had become type cast, his style had become a straight jacket that imprisoned him. De Chirico is laudable I feel because he at least tried to throw off the chains. Other artists having established their own comfortable little walled garden never thereafter step beyond its bounds.

Another example would be Samuel Palmer, in his youth he had mental problems and painted in a visionary style. But later he settled on to a more even keel and painted in a fairly straight observational manner. In both styles he is very good, but due to the existence of his hallucinatory and romantic early work the later efforts will never be really appreciated. Indeed books on him often only feature later work briefly at the end!

Other painters, just peg away at the same dreary stuff year after year. Oddly the art world gives brownie points for dogged persistence. If you spend 30 years arranging pine cones into mandalas in the depths of Siberia it must they argue be more than a passing phase. I can’t imagine what a dreary existence it must be to be someone like Bridget Riley knocking out the same Op art tedium year after year. Mind you she no longer bothers to do them herself but has helpers do the donkeywork. Not that the end results aren’t very decorative, but I’d prefer to have a William Morris on my wall any day!

So I now feel that too strong a personal style is a bit of a handicap. We all hope to be different and noticed but in a world where everybody is trying to be just that, different becomes the new same. What you hoped might separate you from the crowd does just the opposite. The real rare thing in life and art is not someone doing something different but someone doing something really well.


Greenwich, Royal Hill, pen and ink, Drawing, London


I have as I believe mentioned before decided to draw more in pen and ink. This is already paying dividends as by reducing your  choices of tone and mark you are forced into finding ways of explaining your subject that only require line and tone. With such a limited menu of marks everything has to earn its keep. Hatching with its strength order and direction becomes very important. If you do a building wall in just vertical lines then it becomes dead and featureless. In real life there are many variations so if you break up mostly vertical lines with the odd angled group then you are showing both that it is vertical and flat but also that it is varied in its surface. For a smooth concrete wall you would add very few disruptions, for a worn dirty tenement far more.

This is Royal Hill in Greenwich. I have decided that dip pens though lovely are too much to fight with en plein air so this is done in fibre tip. I am using a watercolour Moleskin as I quite like the fact that if you move the pen quickly you get a faded dotty line.

St Pauls, London, City, Pen and Ink, drawing


Another one, quite a fearsome subject but it only took about an hour to render. It is one of the hardest things to learn to leave enough white to allow the subject to breath. In reality the sky was much darker than the sunlit dome but IMO the drawing would not have been improved by hatching the sky area.

Greeenwich, Royal Naval Hospital, watercolour

A very quick sketch done battling the wind. It was a super day with wonderful light, hopefully I will get some studio pictures from the day. This is the entrance road to the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich. It is now a music college so you draw to the sounds of music issuing from various windows!

Watercolour 5in by 7in.

Blackheath, London, Oil Painting


This is Blackheath, painted on an early morning expedition with Graham Davies. I had spotted this subject looking very beautiful several times but never been able to stop. I have to sort out the figures as they make an “M” it is odd how things like this can strike you several days later when your eye passes over a painting.

Oils, 10in by 14in.

Fleet St, London, City, Urban, Oil painting, plein air


This was done on the most gorgeous day with the Brass Monkeys. We arrived at dawn and were faced with the most astonishing light. The problem with painting at dawn is that the subject starts out gorgeous and then gets less so as the light increases. As result this had to be painted very quickly. I am attempting to paint a little bigger so it was the first serious outing for my new larger pochade. I must say it worked very well, I was surprised that painting a notch bigger did not really take that much more time. This is St Pauls from Fleet St. I will do a studio painting from this but decided not to work up the sketch any further.

Oils 12in by 16in

St Pauls, London, plein air, oil painting


The next one of the day. I had textured my board more than I usually do as an experiment. It works well but I got it a mite to strong I shall have to experiment to find a prime finish that suits me. Up until now I have been painting on quite smooth boards. Which is quite difficult but good for you as the brush strokes must be well thought out. But for this sort of atmospheric subject a textured surface works better.

Oils 12in by 12in.

St Pauls, Oil painting, London, plein air


I don’t know what kind of coffee I had early that morning but I painted like a demon all day! Partly it is being out with a group of fellow painters which is very pleasant and inspiring. Another that would be worth taking into the studio. As I posted this I noticed the tower cutting the sky was too strong so had to stop typing briefly to soften it! St Pauls again, which means I did it 4 times in the day!

Oils 12in by 20in.

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