Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 7, 2017

Expression

Before I started writing this blog I never really gave much thought to the terms that artists and art historians tended to attach to supposed works of art. I have repeatedly found that if examined the various isms and ists are more for the convenience of historians and theorists than for artists themselves. So even though it will cause me to go over some old ground I thought I might consider a few of them in more detail and see where I am making assumptions or just accepting opinion without examination.

Expression is today’s term. First a definition from the Oxford Dictionary: ‘The action of making known one’s thoughts or feelings.’ Pretty straightforward every word spoken and picture painted partakes of this. It is so inclusive that I need to narrow it down to just the visual arts. Expressionism, the dictionary states: ‘A painter, writer, or composer who is an exponent of expressionism, seeking to express through their work the inner world of emotion rather than external reality.’ so maybe structured thoughts are out and feelings or emotions are in.

The Tate Gallery tells us: ‘In expressionist art, colour in particular can be highly intense and non-naturalistic, brushwork is typically free and paint application tends to be generous and highly textured. Expressionist art tends to be emotional and sometimes mystical.’ Wikipedia says: ‘Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas.’ I think Wiki wins there… the Tate seems to think swishy brightly coloured thick paint might be the key…

The traditional key work that is credited with firing the shot that started the expressionist sprint was The Cry by Edvard Munch but I think perhaps we can look back further than that. There are hints of it in El Greco for example. Western art’s interest in attempting to describe our inner workings in a symbolic manner really got going with the arrival of tribal art from Africa and the huge exhibitions in Paris of ethnographic art. They are  rather condescendingly sometimes labelled it ‘Primitive’.

Tribal art is much the same from wherever or whenever it comes. I’ll put some examples below and see if you can identify them by culture and period!
African, tribal, masks

Some are easy (no I am not going to label them)  but others are harder… there is even a modernist one in there. I’m more taken by the similarities than the differences. I prefer most of these to western 20C expressionism, the difference is perhaps that all the tribal ones have a purpose in giving the fears and superstitions of a mysterious and dangerous world a concrete tangible form in the hope of placating or protecting. I think they for me more visceral and less self-conscious.

mask, picasso

If you place a Picasso head next to the tribal one that inspired it, as above, I cannot help but feel that the African one has more depth, but you can see the connection.

So what is going on? Tribally organised societies worldwide and all through history seem to produce much the same sort of art. They collide representation with decoration, symbolism, stylisation and abstraction. As soon as a culture becomes larger and necessarily more settled, layered and organised the art produced changes. We tend to call these ‘early’ and ‘late’ and ascribe a linear development, but I think that is not all that is going on. Very early pre-dynastic Egyptian art is pretty much tribal standard, but as they move from tribal to civilised the art becomes more and more easy to identify as being from a distinct and separate culture. I think what has happened is that the required rule making that suffuses any organised living is carried through to making rules about the art the society makes.

The art in larger more organised cultures seems to fulfil a slightly different function. One is that it is codifying memory or history, not necessarily as a true record, but more how powerful individuals or groups wish it to be remembered. So we get friezes depicting great victories and the glorification of rulers, specifically underlining their connection to whichever gods. So the later art is specific and the earlier tribal art less so. It represents a movement from representing the group to transferring information down the generations and glorifying the individual. This is what you would expect really, in a large grouping it is harder and more desirable for the individual to stand out from the crowd and signal power and status. Thus a movement from the communal to the individual. The tribal head was about the fears and hopes of a small community in a dangerous world, Picasso’s was about Picasso as an individual within a greater society.

This is reflected in the role of the artist in the community. Tribal artists are  all anonymous it is, as far as I can find, unknown for any kind of maker’s mark to appear. This means the artist didn’t consider it important for anyone to know that they specifically made an object in the long term. They almost certainly would have enjoyed any social status that accrued from their skills, but they didn’t seem to have any ambition to have their individual identity as an artist passed down the generations. There was after all as far as we know nothing to stop them including an authorial symbol on each of their works.

Some of the first maker’s marks were used by stonemasons, but these seem to be to do with payment rather than gaining any sort of personal kudos. The people or institutions who were commissioning work had little or no interest in the individuals that created them. The earliest named artists I can find were Greek, interestingly that this also coincided with the arrival of lifelike observed works representing specific individuals . China also had signed artists from around 400AD but Chinese paintings are more akin to poems than illusions and writers had identified the authorship of their work from long before visual artists had thought it important.

I realised we are a fair way from Expressionism the art movement but the movement toward the concern of the artist to be identified with his or her work seems to me a key factor. How many artists today don’t care whether their work is credited to them personally? There is more and more the pressure for an artist to make work that is theirs and theirs alone with a singular identity.

So Expressionism grew out of the feeling that in the process of becoming ‘civilised’ we had lost something primal. Rousseau’s theories of the ‘Noble Savage’ etc gave weight to the idea. Childhood, the loss of innocence and the attempt to regain it was also an idea of the time. The artists so inspired soon found that it was impossible to make the return to tribal innocence. How could they when they were inevitably products of an organised stratified society? They could not express tribal fears only individual existential ones. Most modern attempts at tribal styles seem to me to be pretending, perhaps only some graffiti really succeeds.

This begins to explain why the the Tate’s description of the term is so woolly and has to fall back on describing the way the paint is applied. The explanation that it is trying to give voice to inner emotions and visceral feelings is a better one but still I feel falls short.

When we use the term when we talk to each other about our and others work we talk of ‘expressiveness’. We rarely specify what is expressed, only that the appearance of the work signals that expression was the intent. The unspoken assumption is that this thing being expressed is so inchoate that words would not suffice. We also assume that the resultant work encapsulates the emotional state of the artist over the period the art was produced. This might mean turmoil or calm or refer to the recalling of an emotional memory.

Music perhaps has some parallels that might be useful. We are used to music provoking emotions, joy, sadness or whatever. Also for the most part music eschews the use of mimicry. You might, and many do, put forward that such work is a sort of visual music. However music has a time element. Also it has an element of patterning we call rhythm. It is perhaps most like decoration in the visual arts. Oh dear, I don’t think many expressive painters want the epithet of ‘decorative’ hung around their necks!

So ‘Expression’ doesn’t seem to be that useful as descriptive term, other than to  describe the apparent vigour of the application of materials. It is a handy term to compliment someone it you can’t find anything specifically good to mention I suppose.

I often find it useful to look at the purpose created objects fulfil. If we return to the tribal mask and the Picasso. We can say that the mask was made as a theatrical costume to transform a performer from a recognisable individual to an archetype for the benefit of an audience. The mask’s maker presumably benefitted personally status wise. The Picasso was painted to further the career, the bank balance and reputation of Picasso. It also was a decorative item enhancing a wall and the owners potential wealth and status as it might be perceived by others.

That’s it, here are some decorative items made for the enhancement of walls and the momentary entertainment of web surfers…

life painting, oil painting

I made a further attempt to translate a life drawing into an oil painting… better than my last attempts but still no cigar. For me the result has to be a step up from the drawing, but if the painting is to be observational then this is merely a painting of a drawing. 10in by 14in Oils.

self portrait, oil painting, rob Adams, head

This was done straight after… Self portraits are always intriguing. You know your own face but its perceived aspect is overlaid with our hopes and fears. When we view ourselves in the early morning mirror we might either think, ‘decaying wreck’ or ‘handsome beast’ depending on the self deluding swings of our moods. Here I was pissed off at the previous failure and short of ideas so I just leant the mirror up against my iMac and painted what I saw… hence the rather unusual angle! You soon forget that it is you in the mirror the face becomes a stranger to explore. In fact I suppose due to vanity your own face is more strange to you than that of a passer by. 10in by 12in oils.

Self portrait, oil painting, rob Adams. artist

I enjoyed doing the previous painting so a few days later I set up the mirror again. This time I considered the composition (even cut my hair!) and put the mirror up on a tripod. Very hard to get both yourself and the mirror in the right relationship! I resorted to poking the legs of the tripod with a long pole to nudge it into position. Then you discover that the ideal pose position is very far from an ideal painting position… so the result is a compromise. I must get a bigger mirror too. With a self portrait you cannot judge likeness, all you can do is observe and put down the observation as best you may. So I blocked in quite freely and then took it one stage further tonally. Next I more or less ignored what was already there and redrew as accurately as I could in black over the top. Once that was done I adjusted with colour until the black redrawing was mostly gone, then repeated the process again. I rather enjoyed the method as it led to increasing accuracy without getting into excess concentration on any particular aspect. Next I took a photo with the camera on the tripod in place of the mirror and considered the outcome by comparing the two… Is the result ‘expressive’?… Who knows, I hardly care. 12in by 15.5in

Kingston Lacey, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

A day out painting on a very strange day when a storm had blown dust from the Sahara and caused the sun to be bright pink at midday. This is Kingston Lacey but the light was so odd I mainly tried to get the light in the sky something like. 12in by 10in Oils.

St Marys, tarrant Crawford, plein air, oil painting

This is the same day, it looks like late evening not mid afternoon! This is St Mary’s at Tarrant Crawford. Again I really tried to catch the strange light and how warm and subdued it made the scene. 14in by 10in Oils.

Langton Matravers, oil painting, Dorset, plein air

A painting day by the coast at Langton Matravers. This was the best of the day but I rather struggled to find a scene that inspired. The skies were racing past and very bright. 16in by 10in oils.

Langton Matravers, plein air, Dorset, oil painting

More from Langton Matravers, so hard to get the tone relationship between sky and land. To mimic the observed reality either the sky must be white or the land black! I decided perhaps wrongly that the dazzle in the sky was the thing to aim for. 16in by 8in Oils.

Langton Matravers, reflection, Dorset, oil painting

A very quick daub before a cake break! Will be sanded off but a great exercise. I don’t do enough just painting stuff to improve my observation.

Chapmans Pool, Dorset, sea, cliffs, plein air, oil painting

A very rapid study of Chapmans Pool. The light was tremendous but too rapidly changing to really nail it. I have a sequence of photos so I might attempt a studio picture in a wider format.

Pilsdon Pen, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

This is the view from halfway up Pilsdon Pen. A great area I will return to. 10in by 8in Oils.

Lewesdon Hill, Dorset, plein air, beeches, oil painting

This is one of the amazing beech avenues up on Lewesdon Hill. I was quite pleased but did not spend enough time on this or consider the composition beforehand properly so once home I set about doing a studio one. 10in by 8in Oils.

Beeches, Lewesdon Hill, oil painting, Dorset

Again not too bad and looks good in a frame, but in reducing that mad complexity to simpler areas of paint you lose something of the essence of the place. 20in by 12in Oils.

Lewesdon Hill, beeches, drawing, plein air, pen and ink

I had to go into Dorchester the next week so went back and tackled it with pen and ink. The result after nearly 3hrs is much nearer to how the place feels, so the next step is to go again and see if I can manage similar in oils. Sometimes simplification is not the answer, especially if busy fractal complexity is the main story the subject is telling you. A4 pen and ink.

July 26, 2017

In Praise of Failing

Filed under: Dorset,Drawing,Painting,Portraits,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 11:10 am

Failing. We all do it. Even the painters you admire do it. Even the old masters and new masters and current masters do it. We don’t talk about it much though. Most artists tend to edit their published output to remove the abject stinkers, the dubious dullards and the truly dismal daubs. Maybe they hope you might think they don’t ever do them. Mostly though, I suppose, it is just normal and natural to attempt to show yourself in as good a light as possible. Of course it all falls apart when you accidentally post a stinker in a moment of post painting delusion. Next day you look to your triumph on Arsebook and realise you have let loose a turkey on the world rather than a triumph… Fortunately social media quickly banishes anything that is embarrassingly bad to the oblivion of, “far too far in the past to scroll down to.”

I think you should welcome failure though. Without well and truly tanking you wouldn’t fully appreciate the times you get it right or half right. If your work was really one success after another it would soon get so dull that getting out of bed in the first place would be to dreary to contemplate. Failure feeds the hunger to succeed. Without that spicy scent of all too possible self humiliation it is hardly worth putting brush to board!

Most painting pundits, including me, harp on about practice and honing your skill until the readers yawn. What you should be developing and honing is of course your mindless optimism that the upcoming session of paint splish-splashery will produce at least a masterbit, if not a full on masterpiece. Without that delusional belief that the dam will break, the run of stinkers will end and the worm will finally turn up trumps we would never start in the first place.

Every successful painting though is built upon the sturdy groundwork of the previous compositional crud, tonal tragedies and colour cataclysms that stud one’s career. To do one decent painting you must paint a shedload (or attic full in my case) of mediocrity and worse… as I say to people who hear me play the flute, “It’s taken a lot of practice to get this bad…”

Something to work on in the failing arena is coming back for more. If something ends in humiliating defeat then pick yourself up (after a good old wail and curse) and go at it again. You will be amazed by how often you can trump a tragedy with a triumph. Many duff paintings after all are duff because you got over-confident and slipshod. There is nothing like a train wreck  to make you concentrate properly. I should really document all my own, not only missed the bull but didn’t even hit the board, moments but I tend to wipe them off if in oils or tear them up if in watercolour. I am not going to stop doing that however as the act is extremely cathartic and helps me start another one immediately!

So when the elegant swan you were hoping for turns into a dead ugly duckling don’t despair. Think of the Phoenix rising from the ashes and how much sweeter the triumph of a half decent daub will feel if it is well garnished with epic fails. Whatever you do though don’t deny your failures or that may well hold back progress. Perhaps don’t admit them to all and sundry, but even if you keep them secret from others admit them to yourself. Art is after all being honest with yourself whilst lying to others.

Tricky to know what to post after that… was vaguely tempted to post a spread of missed marks, but I will just do my usual mix of hits and misses.

portrait, oil painting

A rare chance to do a portrait sketch. Only an hours worth but great fun and so, so difficult. I think to do a really good portrait it takes several sessions with the painting going through several “ugly” phases. Likenesses are so hit and miss that you just have to take the risk of destroying something that is just OK to try and get something that really catches the person. Oils A4 ish.

Rawlesbury Camp, Dorset, Plein air, oil painting

This an example of coming back for more after a failure. The previous picture was beyond bad and I wiped it off. The light was rapidly going so immediately I turned and did this. Not anything that will ever go in a frame but at least something that captures a fraction of how the place felt. So you go home feeling the effort was worth it. Oils 10in by 7in.

Milton Abbey, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

A wet day at the Milton Abbey. An exercise in trying to hint at the architecture rather than over explain it. I sometimes like to revel in the mad complexity of buildings but here the main thing was the mood of the day so I tried to throttle back the detail in the buildings. 16in by 10in Oils.

Okeford Hill, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

The rain really set in after doing the Abbey and I got soaked doing this on the way home. Because I was keeping my umbrella over my painting the rain ran down my neck and all the way down to my socks… This is the view down towards Okeford Fitzpaine from Okeford hill and a view I have had my eye on for a while. In clear weather there is a tremendous panorama across the Blackmore Vale which is wonderful but somehow too much. With the rain and the murk obscuring things it looked much more paintable. 12in by 10in Oils.

Weymouth, Harbour, boats, plein air, oil painting

A day out painting in Weymouth. I couldn’t resist doing a widish view though I would have probably been better finding a more intimate corner. This nearly got wiped off as it looked sort of dull and dreary. Once home though I could see I had the sky a couple of notches too dark in tone. As soon as I changed that the whole mood of the picture was transformed. I will overglaze the land and buildings once it is dry which will improve it further I hope. 14in by 10in, Oils.

Weymouth, beach, plein air, oil painting

Off to the beach next. I love the old fashioned seaside feel of Weymouth especially on a sunny day when the beach was thronged. I loved the silhouette of the buildings so painted up the beach rather than down. Odd that you assume the sea is there even though it is out of sight! Quite a tricky subject and I had to move the figures about as I didn’t want any of them to specifically draw too much attention. 10in by 11in Oils.

Weymouth, beach, sea, plein air, oil painting

Last one from Weymouth. As I was walking down the beach a cloud shadowed the distant hills and the foreground beach leaving a slash of light across the middle. I sat down to paint in the hope of it happening again. With that in mind I toshed in the foreground with a shadowy tone ready for the right moment… which never came! So I had to do the foreground at home later. Fortunately I had a couple of snaps of the light effect from earlier that gave me a rough idea. 16in by 10in Oils.

Portland Bill, lighthouse, Dorset, drawing

I drawing from a while ago. I did this as a sketch for an oil painting of Portland Bill but got a bit carried away. A4 pen and body colour.

Weymouth, pen and ink, drawingSticking to the Weymouth theme another drawing done on a previous visit I forgot to post. I have this new grey toned pad from Strathmore which I quite like as it is a tad darker than the Turner Blue paper I usually use. The downside is that it is not as tough and you have to be a bit careful not to tear the surface with the pen. Also it doesn’t take washes very well so the white has to be hatched in. A4 Pen and Ink with white.

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