Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

January 13, 2014

Of Convention and the Abstract Nirvana

Filed under: Essex,Ireland,Painting,Thames,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 12:33 pm

Oh what high reasons we must have to put paint brush to paper nowadays. Looking at a bit of blurb on the Royal Institute of Watercolour Painters one person was reassessing the landscape, they don’t appear to have been referring to any previous assessment which seemed odd. Another presented what looked like a bit of old wall which was really a worried bit of overworked painted paper. He was concerned about almost invisible scuffs and scrapes, pleasant enough in a polite Ben Nicholson, don’t scare the sheep sort of way, but hardly plumbing the intellectual depths. One was keen to be challenging convention, seemingly unaware that the conventions she was challenging had died the death 50 years ago and that almost every artist since has been self-righteously kicking the long cold corpse ever since. Also she seemed to be challenging convention by sticking firmly to the current set of conventions, which as I keep on saying are getting quite long in the tooth.

Yes artists revolted against the stultifying grip of academicism and the history painters and rightly so, but that was a hundred years ago as I have mentioned before. That battle has been fought and won. To present yourself as still fighting the forces of “traditionalism” today in the 21st century is absurd one would think. It all comes I think from the lovely feeling of kicking against the traces. The Bauhaus the Blau Richter and a plethora of others were kicking against real traces not ones long broken by the efforts of others! How easy it is to revolt against something that is long gone and a mere ghost. You can be revolting but still gathered into the bosom of the establishment which thinks that revolution (of the right sort) is the bees knees.

The triumph of contemporary art as we term it is an odd thing at first glance. Most of the practitioners do the most dreary of day to day actions. In fact the drearier the better, so arranging a few thousand tyres into a big submarine or painting a thousand individual dots is just the thing. Personally I would rather spend all day putting the walnuts on a never-ending line of walnut whips as they would give the public more potential joy, but each to their own. Much of it is so little fun it can be safely farmed out to assistants and art facilitators of various kinds. While you as the artist are left to do the meeting and greeting, marketing and partying that are I suspect the mainstay of the artistic life. It is only when you look at it this way you realise what a strong hand modern and post-modern art has.

You don’t have to spend years and years getting skilful at something and then realise you still have an endless amount still to learn. You stand very little chance of being sneered at for your lack of talent. It  brings job opportunities where doing bugger all but appearing mysteriously superior is the mainstay of your day. You have a secure but slightly racy position in the social hierarchy. You have a simple answer to the “What do you do?” question at parties that prompts interest and conversation. You are freed from lots of tiresome social requirements such as consideration of others, modesty and any dress code. All of this and you are also a cool subversive revolutionary storming the barricades of tradition and convention! As the troops that once defended these barricades are long dead you don’t even need take any risk. All in all, what’s not to like?

Well there is a downside. You cannot assess your own progress, as that is decided by others. Nobody really wants what you do except as maybe a counter in a financial game or a notch on a collectors bedpost. You have really not helped anyone much except yourself, which makes for the emptiest of lives. In John Carrel’s “Smallcreeps Day” the protagonist seeks to find out what the part he has been assembling his whole life was actually for. He traces it through the huge factory and eventually discovers that the other half of the factory is devoted to disassembling what has been already made. Returning the parts to bins to be taken for reassembly once more in a futile endless circle. That is why artists talk of reassessing and exploring, they want somehow to feel they are doing work of some social import. Well an artist might cheer an individual life here and there, but to change, reassess or reform society itself is aiming perhaps a little too high. Though taking up the stance that you might be spreading some important message must be good for the ego I suppose.

Another underlying trend is the jealousness towards science. Ever since science has been such a success everybody tries to steal its clothes. The snake oil and cosmetic firms, the nutritionalists and quacks all seek to talk up their work with sciencey words. Even religion wants a piece of the action despite the self evident risks. Art suffers in much the same way. Scientific terms such as investigation, experimental and so forth litter artists statements. As if they are undertaking some portentous and important work of discovery or exploration which will further the wisdom of mankind for the benefit of all. Well I am pretty sure that is not the case. I feel however to make something humble that brings a little light or joy momentarily into somebody’s life is a worthwhile act. But science it ain’t.

Art Historians seem to have suffered from the science bug from early on. Art history became presented as a series of discoveries and advancements to ape the progress of science. So we have the “discovery” of perspective, and the imposition of the progress towards abstraction via the Impressionists. Almost as if abstraction had not existed before, ignoring the fact that patterning and the arranging of shapes was likely the first sort of art mankind made. There is not even the slightest reason indeed why abstraction should be considered an advance. Still artists and  art writers like to plot progress towards abstraction as if by casting off of shallow representational concerns the artist is  reaching towards nirvana and a true purity of expression.

I suppose at some time in the past an artist was a seer. I dare say religion, art and even power shared the same bed in prehistoric times. Even in the Renaissance artists held a special position responsible for encouraging the troops. The power had long since been stripped from the profession of course, but they had a real place in the hierarchy. Oh how we are fallen now. We purvey decorative items for the home and investment items for the rich and gullible. This is not altogether a sneer. I feel making something beautiful that has a place in someone’s home that they may glance at now and again in a pleasurable manner is a very worthwhile activity. Even if the feeling of the owner is partly made up of pride of possession. I have items like that of my own. I have an 18th century watercolour that hangs in my bedroom. I may not notice it for months at a time, but every now and again it catches my eye and brings a little pleasure. What more could an artist ask?

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Leigh on Sea, Thames, Essex, Brass Monkeys, Plein air, oil painting

Somewhat short on paintings this post, I have been rather busy with commercial work. I have at some stage to stop doing paid work but at least

I have reduced it to a quite small number of days that I like to get out of the way early in the year! The picture above is from the first outing for

the Brass Monkeys this year. It is the glorious mud of Leigh on Sea in Essex. I have put a photo below which shows how easy it is to be over-

whelmed by the scene before you! When presented by such a vista it is very easy to become paralysed by the sheer immensity of it. Also while you

paint it is hard to see your own effort as anything other than a very dim reflection of the real thing. here I tried to get down the feel of the light

first and foremost. The arrangement of boats etc was very secondary.  10in by 16in oils.

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Leigh on Sea

As you can see my poor wee painting is swamped by the glorious scene! Interesting how the camera sees the whole thing in more cool tones

than my eye. People often say how much better the eye is but I have to say I often like what both see. I often peer at the little screen of my camera

to see what the technological seer makes of the view I am about to paint. Indeed it often gives a very good idea of the main tonal divisions. This is

because the eye had a built in constantly updating tonal adjustment that varies over the whole scene before us. It is like a multiple exposure but can

have a flattening effect because we very often get the mid to dark areas too light. Here we tend to see the mud as bright as the sky, but in reality it is not.

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Leigh on Sea, Essex, plein air, Brass Monkeys, oil painting

I narrowed the focus for this one. I reality the blues ranged from Turquoise to Ultramarine, but I made them all Cobalt based to give harmony.

I have painted this view before and made a bit of a mess of it so was glad to make a better fist of it this time. I shall do a studio picture from

this day but it probably won’t have the charm and immediacy of these 45min sketches. 8in by 10in oils.

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Leigh on sea, Essex, Brass Monkeys, oil painting

Last one from Leigh on Sea. The sky had been fantastic all day, I could easily have just done repeated sky studies. The wide horizons make Leigh

a perfect venue for the activity. 8in by 10in oils.

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Gleninagh, Castle, Burren, Ireland, Plein air, oils

Some of the backlog from Ireland. I didn’t get the chance to do many oils. This is Gleninagh Castle on the wild Atlantic shore of the Burren.

I have painted the distinctive rock formations of the Burren a lot of times now and am beginning to get the hang of the stuff. The blues of

the sky went muddy on site so had to be freshened later. 8in by 10in oils.

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Camus Bridge, Tipperary, Ireland, plein air, oil painting

This is an un-named castle at Camus Bridge on the Suir. I had only a very brief go at this only half an hour. Though it looks a peaceful scene

I was standing with my pochade on a wall with traffic whizzing past my backside! After a lorry nearly took me out I decided to retreat…

8in by 10in oils.

January 3, 2014

The Fear of Failure

We all I suspect familiar with that moment when we put off doing an unpleasant but unavoidable task until a later date. I used to do it on a regular basis when doing uninspiring illustration jobs, to such a degree that I frequently had to work through the night to hit deadlines. I can still remember the feeling, once I had actually got down to starting a job, of the awful realisation that I had under estimated the work involved and was at serious risk of not delivering on time. Over the years I got better at both starting early enough and also to more accurately predict the scale of the task. Oddly if the job was at the limits of what I felt myself capable of I would start almost immediately incase the unknown territory proved intractably boggy.

This brings me to my topic for this post. Now I am painting in a way that allows me to follow my own muse rather than fulfil the requirements of others, there are no deadlines. No one is telling me that I have to get a painting done but myself. This in turn brings a curse that most artists will recognise… procrastination. If I had actually painted in all the moments that were potentially available for the activity then a great deal more work would have been done! I actually don’t think this matters too much, I feel that all these little and often unimportant activities we fill our days with are valuable to our sense of self and our journey through the years.

There is however another sort of procrastination that is fuelled by the fear of failing and the avoidance of disappointment. Also in many of us is the fear of others seeing that failure. We like to avoid others seeing the moments when we stepped up to the plate, made a wild swing and missed the ball entirely. I do post here the paintings that I feel miss the mark, but I do not for the most part post the the ones that in my eyes at least are complete train wrecks. A part of me feels that I ought to, as people might find it encouraging that experienced painters do not always pull something if not necessarily a rabbit out of the hat. The other part feels that they should be swept well an truly under the carpet. There is a real danger as well in that people will always judge you on the worst work displayed rather than the best. This does not matter too much on a blog such as this, but if you are showing a portfolio to a client they will inevitably look at less good work and think that is what you might deliver if given a commission.

There is no getting away from the fact that it is an unpleasant feeling when you work away at a painting and at a certain point you realise that damn thing is not only bad, but also that there is nothing much you can think of that would put it right. Not only a car crash but a right off as well! When you sit down to watch the telly in the evening when earlier you scraped off a whole day’s or more work, you do not do so feeling fulfilled! I can talk until the cows come home about success being built on failure, this my be true, but none of us relish those moments when our noses are rubbed in the fact that our feet are truly made of clay.

It is this fear that often stops me and I am sure many others from starting a painting in the first place. I am especially prone to putting off beginning a painting that I have visualised in my minds eye but think carries a high probability of failure. Sometimes I find myself starting a different but easier subject in order to put off the evil day. I have over the years developed methods of grasping my own boot straps and giving a good old tug!
One is the ski jump method, just pushing yourself over the brink before you have had time to think it through. This has the disadvantage in that not taking the time to think a painting through increases the possibility of failure. My alternate method is to think about beginning and all the subsequent steps so much that I build up such a head of steam that I just have to start. Generally it would be a mixture of the two though.
I have been trying to find sage advice to write here that might help others faced with moments of prevarication and foot dragging but am struggling a bit do do so. I think the best thing I can offer is that you do recognise the problem and develop your own individual strategies for launching yourself into action. I sometimes wonder in myself if occasionally I do paintings in order to avoid doing other things in life that are necessary  but less fun!

I have as I usually do gone to visit friends in Ireland for the Christmas period. This explains the rather large gap in posting. I go to see and catch up with friends not to paint so there are only sketches rather than anything large. I always come back with a heap of half done rained off paintings too, which I will hopefully finish off once home. My new years resolution is to make a determined assault on the open exhibitions. Last year I didn’t plan well enough and had limited success, this year I will consider what to put in more carefully in the light of having seen most of the shows.

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Blackheath, London, plein air, oils

This is The Hare and Billet on Blackheath. Steve Alexander joined me for a few days to paint around London. I must do more up on the heath

as there are some great views especially at this time of year when the light is so low. 10in by 16in. Oils.

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Putney, plein air, Brass Monkeys, oil painting, London

The last day out with The Brass Monkeys before Christmas. This is the river front in Putney. The light was very hard and I struggled with this.

10in by 12in.

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Putney, Thames, River, London, Plein air, oil painting

We were about to give up due to the rain but the light picked up a bit. This is by the Rowing Club. 10in by 14in oils.

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polesden lacey, watercolour

Steve and I dropped in to Polesden Lacey on the way to Surrey. It was wet but we painted anyhow!

I always rather like the mood of wet days, but the paint was very slow to dry. 5in by 7in.

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River Nore, Ireland, watercolour

This is a bridge over the River Nore in Ireland. I had just slept in the car so this is the half light just after dawn with the first of the traffic.

5in by 7in

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Templemore, Ireland, watercolour

Partway across Ireland, this is Templemor, a few bits of sun around but almost the last!

5in by 7in. Watercolour.

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Ballyportry, clare, ireland, castle, watercolour

This is Ballyportry in Co Clare, a subject I have done a fair few times. I had to move the puddle so that it reflected the bit I wanted! 7in by 5in.

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Burren, Co clare, ireland, watercolour

Another subject I am very familiar with. The Burren in Co Clare has a strange often mournful air. I painted this in the very last of the light.

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Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolor

Returning back from a walk. I only got to sketch this and put in a few key tones before the heavens opened. If I only have a very short moment

then I try to get the most distinctive thing down. Here it was the tone of the sky and the distant lit trees. The rest had to be put in later but for me

that contrast was the key element. 10in by 4in. Watercolour

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Burren, co clare, watercolour, ireland, cooloorty

A very rapid sketch where I was just experimenting with ways to do the wild hedgerows of the Burren. 5in by 7in.

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Flaggy Shore, Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolour

This is the evening light on the “Flaggy Shore” near Lough Murree. The stormy weather gave some amazing sights in the evenings when it often

seemed to clear for a short while.4in by 10in watercolour.

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Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolour

Mostly imagination, from the memory of a moment on a walk at the end of the day. 5in by 7in. Watercolour

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