Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 15, 2016

Gut Feelings

I was watching a video with a well known artist pondering the ins and outs of painting. There was the usual lone figure wandering the hillsides with sketch book in hand, the piano music swelled as this sensitive soul opened his heart to the underlying whispers of history and usage that imbues our 21st century landscapes. We then followed him to his paint spattered garret where he explained his methods. All well and good, (by the way I happen to like this painters work.) he then explained how he tried to take risks and followed his instincts and gut feelings rather than his head.

At this point my antennae raised, I am sure he is being honest about what he thinks is going on. However we all have to watch that bit of us that self mythologises and tries to woo the world into looking at us with respect and admiration. It was the “gut feeling” comment that set me to thinking. Most artists I know are very keen on “intuitive” painting from the “heart” or the aforementioned “guts”. Indeed it would seem we should paint from everywhere and anywhere but our brains. Firstly even though I know it is obvious we don’t paint by inspiration from any part of our giblets. Our spleens, kidneys and even our sainted pancreases play little part in the process.

Whether you like it or not it is the pathways of the brain that do the business. Yes, yes I know they are just metaphors for instinctual responses. A little look at these responses is maybe called for here. Where did they come from? What was their purpose before we painted or surfed the internet? Also there may be two things being conflated. Firstly there are muscle memory and routines of repeated action that are created by establishing pathways in the brains structure. If you do an action repeatedly, such as drawing then bit by bit certain aspects get automated. Judging angles, distances or tones for example. Just the dexterity needed to wield the brush and lay the paint on the surface. These are bits of your brain that are trained up and can run like a piece of software that does not need conscious control.

The other bit is the function that supplies quick assessment on the fly. There is not time to assess properly many things in life because to do “due diligence” would take too long and an answer is needed now. So our early man didn’t ponder whether that tigerish shaped shadow was actually a tiger he just legged it on receiving the instinctive assessment. We use this method to quickly assess people we meet. We call it first impressions, here we do usually treat them with suspicion and are usually prepared to reassess over time. David Kahneman who got the Nobel prize for his work in this area made several experiments that showed up the flaws in the process.

He sent to two groups of surgeons a description of a patient and asked them to say whether they would operate. The descriptions were identical except for one thing. In the estimate of the likelihood of success one group was told the probability was 30 percent that the patient would die, the other group was told the survival rate was 70 percent. Worryingly the 30 percenters mostly said the operation  should not go ahead and the 70 percenters said that it should. The bit of these eminent men’s brains (or maybe their guts) supplying their assessments was of course the same bit of the brain that our painter was relying on to give his work that extra something!

My suspicion of this auto assessment feature of the mind has been with me for a while. Although is is the bit that tells you something might not be quite right, it is also the bit that tells you your drawing is all right or even good when it isn’t. A quick look at a drawing in the mirror will often show this tendency up. When in everyday life the quick response feature lets us down we cheerfully confess to being mistaken, so we do understand its flaws. So why do artists elevate the automatic reaction process to a touchstone of expressiveness and sensitivity?

The answer I fear is superstition and the belief in magic. We still, despite all the evidence to the contrary,  believe we have souls. Some higher part of our being that is pure and responds to the inner rightness of things. The important thing of this extra bit of us is that it is incorporeal and thus stands a chance of surviving extinction. An idea we for obvious reasons are quite keen to believe and reluctant to question. We have decided, it would seem, that this higher self is also responsible for imbuing our paintings with extra spirit too, in some mystical, druidical “art mojo” transfer process.

We spend quite a bit of time exhorting each other to log on to this aetheric wi-fi network in order to express ourselves, tap into underlying energies and be spiritually intuitive. To be free, unrestrained by mere logic and sense etc as if our learning and more considered thinking processes were some kind of ball and chain around our creative ankles. I think this idea comes from confusing the two parts of instinctive or intuitive actions. For our hardwired dexterity and spatial assessment functions the conscious mind can put a spanner in the works as any musician will tell you. When we paint or do anything that occupies our grey matter to the exclusion of all else self awareness is often the first casualty. This is why the hours fly by when we are very involved. This does not however mean that our actions are then being directed by any “higher” consciousness we are actually using previous learnt actions and prior experiences to carry out the picture making process.

To return to our lonely painter on the hillside. Why, if he is trying to “take risks”, and follow “gut feeling”, do his paintings all turn out much the same? Could it be like the rest of us he is following well worn and hard learnt pathways? We have all pondered why, however we experiment and push the boat out, our paintings still are recognisably “ours”. At some point we have most of us decided to tear up the rulebook and do it differently this time only to find that the finished article could hang in perfect harmony next to any other examples of our oeuvre.

A bit of a mish-mash of work this time, I decided I had been rather ignoring the watercolours. For most of these paintings my liver was in charge… and kidneys of course, kidneys are very good for watercolours.

 

Bulbarrow, Dorset, oil painting, road

I think this was Okeford Hill in the background, I had been driving round the lanes on a damp day looking for a subject and thought this was interesting. However after 15min when I had only blocked in the basics the day decided to mutate into a glorious sunset. Not having any more boards with me I debated wiping off and redoing but took it home and fiddled with it in the end. I tried to go back a few days later only to discover I couldn’t remember which road I was on! I must mark scenes on the map, you always believe you will recall where good scenes are but in reality you just don’t. 16in by 7.5in oils.

 

moreton, Dorset, oil painting, ford, puddle

This is the ford at Moreton in Dorset. It doesn’t quite work and is rather like a stage set awaiting the actors, I am debating whether just to wipe it or try a rescue operation. In such situations where a painting is not particularly bad but doesn’t quite cut the mustard either I scan it in and mess with it in Photoshop rather than working in paint. This was the second larger 20in by 16in I have tried plein air and neither painting has really worked. Oils

 

rejig, moreton

Here is my idea, I am now considering whether to do it in paint! The couple came past as I was painting and I snapped them, there were horses too but they didn’t seem to work as well.

 

Dorset, Roads, oil painting, plein air

Last one of the day, I only had 20 or so minutes to get this done. Needs to be redone to a wider format but I was pleased with the mood. 14in by 10in Oils.

 

Self Portrait, Rob Adams, oil painting

It has been awhile since I did one of these. Yes folks it is me, self portraits are great fun but hard. You are never quite sure if the result looks like you which is both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand you just have to try and be accurate and observe methodically, but on the other the result can be lifeless. I had intended to just paint for an hour, but went on for an extra half in the end. I will try a double mirror one maybe, then you don’t end up gurning at the viewer. 10in by 16in Oils.

 

Twyford, Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is the road to Twyford from Shaftesbury, a great view and one I will be returning to. It did somewhat try my patience with the drying so I resorted to the cars heater blower! 9in by 6in watercolour.

 

Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is Shaftesbury, the town is quite high so we are actually in a cloud! I just drew this out in pencil and moved on, washes would never have dried in an age. It was actually great fun to watercolour later allowing bits I couldn’t remember to fade into murk and just trying to remember the atmosphere. 9in by 6in Watercolour.

 

Bedchester, tree, lane, Dorset, pen and ink, Drawing

Here I am planning another lino cut. The view is a lane near Bedchester. I am finding the pen and ink drawings very good for planning prints. I must however get some actually printed. I have two sets of blocks ready to go so need to get printing!

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…

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