Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

July 3, 2015

A Trip to France Part 1 The Drawings

No philosophy or art babble in this post! I have been on my yearly trip with the Wapping Group and friends to France. Despite having all my paints with me I spent a lot of time drawing. Not an intentional decision, but often a sketch book is just the thing for recording your impressions. Sadly original drawings are a disregarded commodity, if you do a print series from them each print could fetch more than the original would! I have always loved drawings myself, they seem to illuminate what an artist is about more than anything else. With an artist like Rembrandt it is like seeing his mind at work. I think maybe it is that the artist didn’t really think anyone else was going to see the work so the result is unselfconscious. Certainly Rembrandt’s landscape sketches inspired me from when I first saw some in the 70’s at the British Museum. I now know that he was perhaps the first to head out with his reed pen and bottle of ink and sit in a field and draw what he could see. Not as a reference it would seem as they don’t appear as backgrounds to etchings, but just for fun.

The other thing about drawing is that it is minimal. With pen you have a line and groups of lines and bare paper and that is it. Whatever you are seeing before you has to be defined in a combination of those three things. This in itself is a good way to learn how to break down a scene into equivalents… there is no real possibility of producing a full rendering so each part must be pared down as much as possible and areas that are similar combined. Although this is limiting it is also in an odd way liberating. It is a halfway house between representation and calligraphy.

In the drawings on this trip I used a toned paper so I have the luxury of one more element, heightening with white. This is for the simple reason that to do a tonal pen drawing on white requires many more layers of hatching all of which take time. With the soft blue of the paper supplying a mid tone far fewer lines are required. The paper I have used is Turner Blue from Ruscombe Paper Mill this is a reproduction of the kind of paper Turner might have used in his small sketchbooks. The paper is slightly textured, about 130lb in weight and very strongly sized. The texture means the pen grips the paper a little supplying resistance whilst still being fine enough to draw rapidly without catching. The heavy sizing means the white highlights sit on the surface and stay very bright and clean.

The pens and the inks I use are made by Noodlers. The drawings below are mostly made with and Ahab fountain pen which has a huge ink capacity which is very much needed as drawing uses ink like no tomorrow. These pens have flexible nibs which allow far more variety of mark than a standard pen would. Indeed they are very similar in feel to Gillott steel drawing nibs, but without the dipping and blotting! The ink is Noodlers too, in this case Bulletproof Brown which is both lightfast and waterproof.

The white used for heightening is Dr Martins Bleedproof White. Most of us have used Chinese White or White Gouache and found they look great when you apply them but then dull to a dirty grey. Bleedproof white however does not do this and stays just as white as when you apply it. It also makes a dilute wash that looks very clean when dry, which adds interesting possibilities.

So that’s all you need, I’ll make a list: One pen, pencil, putty rubber, small sable brush, Bleedproof White, sketch pad, small vial of water to moisten the white. All this goes in my waist coat pockets leaving only my lightweight Walkstool to sling over my shoulder. I use the Walkstool because it is very light has a big comfortable seat and is quite high at 26in. In townscapes especially sitting on a low stool gives you a poodle’s eye view of the world and backache to boot!

Before we get to France however we start the day before in Dorset…

 

Stourpane, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

This is Stourpane on a really hot day. I loved the contrast between the ideal Dorset village and the spider’s web of wires. Although is seems odd the picture would be dull if they were not there. They act as a compositional glue holding the picture together. All these drawings are about 9in by 7in.

 

St malo, france, pen and ink, drawing

France! We arrived in St Malo after an overnight ferry. It was overcast and the light was very diffuse. These are the sort of conditions that make painting quite difficult. Strangely pen drawing is perfect for this sort of light. Areas are defined by texture as much as tone. I use vertical hatching for the walls always inserting a few breaks to indicate that the walls are old and not perfectly smooth. Roofs are horizontal if square on to us but angled if receding. The trick is that once you have assigned a style of hatch to a type of surface keep it consistent. Also you want the line to do as much work as possible, so direction should relate to the direction of the surface if it has one. Objects that have no particular direction like a tree for example can be rendered with a dotted and scribbled texture. Cars are more tricky but I just indicate a few major surfaces and leave the rest to the imagination. The pavement and streets are slightly different in that I want to show recession or depth. So the ground surfaces are done in a mixture of perspective parallel hatching and almost horizontal to indicate both flatness and direction.

 

Le Croisic, France, pen and ink, drawing

This is Le Croisic where we were based for the first week. Here I have quite a lot of different surfaces to indicate. I have used more or less the same mix as before. The exceptions are the harbour walls and the water. The walls are very rough and vary a lot in tone so the hatching is varied too. I am not drawing every course of stones just giving hints that there may be courses and variation in angle of hatch to show variation. Added weight is got by including a few crosshatched areas. You have to be careful not to loose all the paper as a very solid black would be wrong here, though they do have their uses. The water cannot be dealt with like a road surface because it is reflective. The almost horizontal hatching indicates both the surface and the occasional disruption from a wave. Then the reflections are indicated by variations of density. A very few wandering vertical lines complete the feeling that the surface is water.

I add the whites at the very end and use as little as possible. Here the sky needed lightening in areas both to indicate cloud but also to add the feeling of the buildings being predominately backlit. The boats are picked out too and also the key division of the road surface which is directly sunlit.

 

Le Croisic, France, pen and ink, drawing, sketch

Later I did the same scene again but at a different time of day. I have used all the same methods but here reduced the highlights to represent the softer lighting. All the tones are arranged to allow the plain paper to represent sky. The building below the church is left plain also to supply a focus and a route down for the eye to the harbour and the boats.

 

Le Croisic, France, pen and ink, drawing, sketching

 

Le Croisic again. I had just mad a complete dog’s dinner of an oil of this scene so I sat down to sketch it quickly to recover some of my pride. I only had 20 minutes so I vignetted it strongly. In the oil I made the mistake of loosing track of the fact that the lit gable end was the focus around which the rest of the picture had to be built. Instead I got over involved in the boats and the cafes. A vignette shows just how brutally you can reduce the periphery and still have a perfectly comprehensible scene.

 

St Nazaire, France, harbour, pen and ink, drawing, sketch

This is the port of St Nazaire. I drew it from the top of one of the huge U-boat pens. At first seems impossible to get down such a complex scene. What I looked for here was what tied the scene together. After looking a while I decided that the water was the key area to get right. That and the sky are the only quiet areas so needed to be dealt with in as minimal a fashion as possible. Nonetheless the water still had to carry the information of depth flatness and reflectivity. A great deal to express with very few marks! There is a lot of leeway in the busy harbour detail, a wrong line or bit of erratic drawing will not stand out. The water was a different matter and I added lines very carefully and stopped as soon as I had enough hints to tell the story.

 

Le Croisic, salt pan, pen and ink, drawing

A very simple sketch. I was wondering how to make anything of the pools where they store the live oysters when a tractor headed out do drop a load of tasty molluscs in the drink. I only had time to scribble in a horizon line and sketch the tractor before they left. Once they had gone I had to decide what to do with the rest. The paper needed to stand for the still pools so I lightened the whole sky with a thin white wash. Then I could apply full strength white for the rest of clouds. I kept the distant shore mostly vertical to make it a little abstract. Only broken by a couple of highlights and the tower of the church in Guerande on the other side of the salt marshes.

 

Guerande, pen and ink, drawing, sketch, France

This is the same church in Guerande close to. What interested me here was the clutter of the cafes and the vans clearing away the market. I was sitting in a wildly exposed spot and getting baked by the sun. There was no getting around the fact that to get to the bit I was interested in a whole church needed to be drawn. People often find such subjects forbidding to draw and are put off by the morass of detail. If I had put in all the detail it would have taken forever and looked awful so I had to decide which bit to build it around. I chose the window and positioned it very carefully by holding my paper up to the scene and marking key levels off on the side of the paper. You can measure with your pencil, but I find it far more accurate and simple to hold the paper up to the actual scene. I don’t mark many things just the main architectural breaks and the tops and bottoms of things. Once the window was positioned I worked out from there. I stopped adding content as soon as each part of the building looked complete. In this way it appears that there is a lot of detail, but most of it is actually in the viewers mind’s eye. Once the hard labour of the church was done I got to draw the bit I was really interested in! I indicated the ground with as little as possible. Just giving hints of paving and perspective. No more is needed as the imagination supplies the rest. This minimal approach also helps with the impression of the sun light beating down and bouncing back up again. By the time I had done all the pen work and erased the pencil the light was fully on the church facade. I had to remember back to how I first saw it where only a few parts of the tower were catching the sun.

 

Honfleur, pen and ink, France, drawing, sketch

This is Honfleur where we spent a couple of days on our way home. I was a little lost as to what to draw when this very large lady and her tall thin companion came down the street. I suddenly saw how they might be set against the shadowed facades. This was a very busy spot so I had to just scribble in whichever bits I could see between the crowds of tourists. Most of the work here is in the facades with lots of hatching. It is important to vary the vertical hatch to add interest. With pen you can make the same tone with close thin lines or more widely spaced thick ones. This results in the same overall tone but gives quite a different quality. With the windows you must be very careful not to over detail and also not to make each identical. Again the white was kept to a minimum.

 

Honfleur, France, pen and ink, sketch, drawing

After a hard day bashing away with the oils it was a relief to dump my kit and go out with just my pens. Much of the character of Honfleur is in the fashionable and not so fashionable folk parading to and fro. I liked the simple backdrop of the building with the empty sky beside it so I just sat and scribbled people that took my fancy as they passed. You can’t get a whole figure in with one bite so most of these are composites of several passers by. Once I decided that the population was high enough I set to work inking over the pencil. The man still has to have his stick added as I forgot to put it in!

 

Honfleur, france, pen and ink, drawing

Last one from Honfleur. I wanted to do something out of the tourist zone and this took my eye. The avenue of trees was tricky as I would have liked to have left the sunlit areas plain but for the rest of the image they had to be darker. I decided to use an abstract hatch, which was a bad move I now feel, a simple vertical one would have been cleaner.

 

wappers, sketch drawing, faces

Lastly some of my fellow artists on the coach. When people are moving about I start several faces at once and fill in bits as they return to the pose I want. You soon find that everyone has typical positions they return to so bit by bit you can get a drawing done. Just the pencil was enough here. I was tempted to add ink but the softness of the pencil seemed just right. The few highlights just give enough of a lift to hint at volume and light.

That’s it, Oils and Watercolours next…

June 15, 2015

The curse of the category

Filed under: Drawing,London,Painting,Surrey,Thames,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 10:18 am

I am of course going to consider the penchant we have of pigeonholing. We love to sort things into groups and give them names. Then we can ascribe other qualities with a broad and uncaring brush. With life forms we call this taxonomy. With paintings we use  categories based on style, content, historical period, use, intent etc. So if we have a painting it might be an illustration or a decoration or fine art and so forth. With taxonomy the rules are clear a life form cannot be a member of more than one genus. With paintings however a work might be comfortably placed in several. So one of Raphael’s frescos in the Vatican might be a) a work of art, b) illustrating a theme, c) decorating a room. d) an example of renaissance painting. Not so easy here to differentiate and put into discrete categories.

In conversation with other artists they all seem to agree with the current wisdom that contemporary illustration cannot be considered fine art. However if I ask, “Is Rembrandt’s “Feast of Balthazar” fine art?” they say yes it is. I then say but it is an illustration of a biblical event. I might get the reply that it was a personal response to a story by the artist. I add that actually it was a commission. Then the conversation usually goes down hill from there. Despite it being true in earlier times artists today generally seem unwilling to allow illustration up on the pedestal of fine art, but do wish to share the pedestal with great works of previous eras that I think fall comfortably into the illustration category. I have had this conversation many times now always with the same result, people believe that illustration is somehow inferior in the aesthetic stakes, but cannot come up with any cogent argument as to why that should be true now but not in the past.

So what is going on? This post is as much to pick the arguments apart for my own benefit as to promote any views on the matter. I have been both sides of the divide, so maybe that gives me a perspective on the conundrum that gives some small insight. Another area where this effect is seen is literature. A book can be a work of literature, or a genre. If it is genre, say a detective story, then the Booker people are not going to be interested whatever the literary merits. All genres are not equal of course, “historical” is above “mystery” which is in turn above “science fiction” which is above “romance”. These categories are to do with marketing not the end product not with the quality of the wordsmithing in-between the covers. However critics and most readers appear to use the marketing category to assign aesthetic worth. I have lost count of the number of times  have recommended a book only to have someone say, “I don’t like science fiction.” I ask have you read any? They say “No” I say have you read “Brave new world” They say, “Yes.” I say “Aha! That’s science fiction!” and once more the conversation goes downhill from there. One thing is always the same, no one will reconsider their opinion and when they have the basis of that opinion questioned and find they cannot justify it they seem to hold that opinion even more firmly that before.

If you think I am going to give the impression I am above this trait then you would be wrong. If you read Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” you might reluctantly have to admit as I did that many of our opinions and most of our intuitively held views are very poorly founded and often wrong entirely. What Kahneman shows is that even when this is pointed out to us we still cleave to our previous opinion because it is programmed in at a lower level. This part of our minds delivers snap judgements on anything and everything without the need for cogitation. In everyday life this is wonderful as it gives us a way of dealing with a hugely complex world that would overwhelm us otherwise. We could not possibly take the time to reason through everything in life.

This process works with pictures too. People often say that they don’t like this or that sort of painting. Choose your genre, say Pre Raphaelites. This is one that has caused me a deal of difficulty. One of my first experiences with paintings in galleries was at the Birmingham Art Gallery. Is a boy of twelve or so I was entranced by the glowing colours and did not know to dislike the sickly sweet emotions portrayed. Later when doing a degree in fine art I learnt to dislike them as was de-rigueur in a college of that period. So I had two opposing instinctive responses to that kind of work. If I was a computer I would crash and need to be rebooted, but humans are made of sterner stuff and can believe both opposing views at the same time! If I stand back and am analytic then I would have to say most of the Pre-raph output is average to poor, but I can find some gold amongst the spoil as well. IE exactly the same as any other genre or period of work. Nonetheless despite knowing that when I first glance at one of their paintings it is the unconscious assessments all be it conflicting that are first through the gate.

This also works with positives. We might be educated that this or that artist is “important” this in turn makes us see the works in a different way that has less to do with the actual visual stimulus being received than we might imagine. This was brought into focus for me a few years back when I saw a huge Van Gogh exhibition in Basel. I arrived with the learnt and unquestioned opinion that he was one of the all time greats and a pivotal figure in painting. I believe there were 14 rooms in total in strict chronological order. I was entranced by room 13 where his works take on a visionary glow, then less impressed by room 14 where derangement sets in. Puzzled I went back and did the first rooms again. When I really thought and looked as dispassionately as I was able the early rooms were almost entirely between dreadful through to dull but worthy with the odd bright spark of things to come. Looking at the time line it would seem that Gaugin’s influence was the key to Van Gogh’s brief transcendent moment. Van Gogh’s paintings from that period are lovely and decorative, but did they inspire later painters to paint in that manner..? Well like most idiosyncratic artists such as Blake, not really as the manner is so personal.

It is very hard for anyone including myself to separate out the received wisdom on Van Gogh as our subconscious has been so well primed. This is not really a problem for a gallery visitor, as they will enjoy the works and not be concerned as to the genesis of their reactions. For an artist it is a different matter, we need to be able to pick out concrete factors that might lift our own work a step up. I am afraid that the knee jerk assessments of our subconscious really do not help in this regard. My intellect tells me that all types of painting from illustration to portraiture to abstraction will throw up up high peaks on the graph of excellence, however personal and intangible the factors that make such judgements are. For myself I try to look out for these highs wherever they might be found. As we all do I will inevitably miss many that might hold useful inspiration merely because my lazy conscious mind is on autopilot and being steered by the unthinking and largely unfounded judgements delivered up by my unconscious. I feel sure this trope will have neither  convinced nor unconvinced anybody, but any contrary argument not founded on opinion would be welcome, especially if it confounds me!

Only a few paintings since last post, I am gearing up to go to France, so the next post will have a continental flavour!

Fulham Palace, London, Plein air, Brass Monkeys

This is the gate to the walled garden at Fulham Palace. It was drizzling and very quiet so I was happy painting away. I loved the soft tones that the rain gave. 8in by 10in oils.

 

Fulham Palace, oil painting, London, plein air

The rain really set in after we had had a leisurely sandwich and coffee. I was lucky, sheltered under a substantial tree, others of The Brass monkeys were out in the full downpour… This is the main entrance to the palace, it is a lovely place that the tourists don’t seem to find. 10in by 8in oils.

 

Hampshire, Fordingbridge, plein air, oil painting

It is hard to believe that this is the same day! After leaving Fulham I drove back to Dorset via the New Forest. This is Fordingbridge, this scene looked so lovely I decided to stop and paint. Hard to get a good viewpoint, in the end I parked my car conveniently for me and inconveniently for everyone else and painted from in front of it. I was forced to be very quick so this is about 30 minutes worth. 10in by 7.5in Oils.

 

Richmond, surrey, oil painting, plein air

This is Richmond Green on a day out with The Wappers, I have painted this corner a few times before. This time I really struggled, the first one from a different angle I wiped off. Then I started this but just could not get it to gel, I had bollards across the foreground and some near figures. I had it up on my kitchen dresser for a few days and decided in the end the story was about the line of activity running across the lower third. I took out everything that conflicted with that and suddenly I had a picture. It is always gratifying to rescue a painting that goes astray! 10in by 14in Oils.

 

Richmond Hill, Pen and Ink, Wapping Group

Before I did the last painting I did a couple of pen drawings. This is Richmond Hill, I love the simplicity of the medium. I have a lot of these drawings now and wonder what to do with them. People don’t buy drawings really nowadays, I might get some printed up into cards.

 

Richmond Bridge, Pen and ink, drawing

Last one. This is Richmond Bridge. It is quite hard to find new views on the River front. This one had taken my eye a few years ago so I decided to have a go at it. Though it looks simple it was avery difficult subject with lots of elements that needed to be right. I did a much more careful pencil layout than normal. I shall do a painting of this at some stage.

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