Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

July 30, 2019

Stuck in a Rut

Filed under: Dorset,London,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 11:53 am

I am I suppose a little unusual in the painting world in that I have had several careers in the art and design industry before becoming a full time dauber. Being an artist for hire means that you could be asked to do anything. City made out of biscuits… yes sir! On the double… 40ft high version of the kiss by Rodin… yes sir! When would you like it? 2 weeks… ulp! These were real projects.

I painted clinching couples for romance book covers, innumerable detective book covers and designed porcelain plates. Later I painted hundreds of skies and other backdrops for film and stage, all of them huge. In short variety was very much the spice of my life.

The one connecting factor was that someone else chose the subject and decided on its final form. So when I first started to paint pictures for me I actually found it quite hard. I had many of the technical skills and knew how to churn out a crown pleaser, but I had no real idea how to do something that might please me. My erratic course in trying to achieve this has been documented here in grisly detail.

The other problem was that due to the commercial experience I could paint in more or less any style. So if you put a line of pictures I had painted in a row you wouldn’t necessarily think them all by the same person. The unwelcome news that strengths could be your greatest weakness only sank in quite slowly. I have had to find out what I want to say and also what I don’t want to include. Made up imaginary content has virtually gone so I now try to pick and choose from what I see or experience directly, even if I do use some imagination to round out fleeting impressions.

I am hardly the only artist to suffer in this way. I see many other painters who paint mostly to their developed strengths. You may be a dab hand at painting contre-jour. The temptation then is to only do that. You might be advanced at portraiture but rubbish at landscape. You might be a whizz with muted tones and subtle gradations, but not so hot at punchy contrasts. The temptation is always the same: That worked last time, safest to stick to the tried and tested. Perhaps “safe” is a little unfair, maybe after a while you have trouble seeing potential subjects outside of your favourite parameters.

There is not, I hasten to add, anything wrong or unworthy about just sticking to what you are good at. It is just that for me I feel allowing you strengths to determine what and when you paint is perhaps just a little bit limiting. Our painter who paints always in to the light might find flat days very hard indeed and so avoids them. Just because you can do one does not mean you can manage the other with the same confidence.

That is the reason I would always to encourage people to intentionally work outside of their habitual methodology. Always painting away into the distance? Paint a widescreen cinemascope masterpiece where you have to tape your ears back to keep them out of shot! Always paint in jolly primaries? Ditch those playpen colours and delve into the blacks browns and greys. Always paint in simplified pared down areas? Get out your magnifying glass and go manic with the detail with a cathedral in the distance and an ant in the foreground!

Many will be shuddering with this assault on their good taste… but actually wonderful paintings have been done in almost every possible variation of style and intent. It is perhaps too easy to accept what is considered cool and garners Instagram likes from your peers and not ask unfashionable questions. Rest assured whatever you do it will still come out looking like one of yours. You will however have stretched the boundaries of what you can take on. You then realise that all the different methodologies and generic styles are just tools in the box that you can bring out when you require them, not the deciding factor that constrains any course you take.

plein air, Jermyn St, ,oil painting, London

This is Jermyn St done on a determinedly grey and occasionally wet day. I have missed painting in London so I didn’t mind the weather too much. I met up with the Northern Boys who were down on a painting mission which was fun. 12in by 10in Oils.

Charing Cross, St Martins lane, plein air, oil painting, London

Actually done before the one above. I had a wide skinny board so I sat on the steps of St Martins and did this. I was slightly put off by a drunk Scouser talking to me non stop as I painted… you don’t get that in Dorset. Two paintings in one really. 14in by 5in Oils.

Mudeford Quay, plein air, Dorset, oil painting, sea

Brit Plein Air did a paintout at Mudeford Quay, we arrived quite late but the day was gorgeous. All the tones had to be arranged to allow the white highlights to really sparkle. 14in by 5in Oils.

Mudeford Quay, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

Last one from Mudeford. The tones of the foreground gave me a lot of trouble, needing to be both dark enough to allow the distance to dazzle yet light enough to be sunlit. Your eyes betray you when making direct observations so you have to work it out by deduction and testing. Sometimes I look at these bright scenes reflected in the black glass of my phone. This gives useful clues as to the actual tonal balances. 16in by 12in Oils.

Swanage, Old harry, Peveril Point, plein air, oil painting, sea

Above Swanage, I only had a few minutes so chose to do this simple scene rather than the more dramatic Peveril Point which was not lit well. 10in by 8in Oils.

Shaftesbury, Gold Hill, plein air, oil painting, Dorset, Hovis Hill

It’s that famous Hovis Hill again. Gold Hill in Shaftesbury fascinates me, it is almost impossible to impose yourself on it. There have been so many bad paintings of it because experienced painters avoid it as it has become a cliche. Even here where I squeeze it into a letterbox the subject overwhelms. Marvellous place, I shall never win but trying is great fun. 24in by 8in Oils.

Hambledon hill, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

I haven’t painted Hambledon in a while. I love this view but haven’t managed to catch it in good light yet. Late in the evening might be good so I have to try and get there on a promising day. 24in by 8in Oils.

Win Green, Cranbourne Chase, plein air, oil painting

This is Win Green near Shaftesbury a great day with dramatic clouds scurrying across the sky at a great lick. I was going to soften the sky once home but decided to leave it in the end. I might glaze it so as to keep the choppy brushwork but just add a little bit of subtlety of tone. The great thing with glazing is that if you don’t like the effect you can just wipe it off and no harm is done. 12in by 12in. Oils.

Houns Tout, Dorset, Plein Air, oil painting

Another day out to the coast, this is looking down the valley that leads to Chapman’s Pool. One of those ones where you realise that you perhaps shouldn’t have bothered! Later I discovered that there is a much better view a hundred yards down the path… No matter I could not have done it on that day as the cattle would have plagued me. 10in by 8in Oils.

Chapmans Pool, Dorset, seascape, plein air, oil painting

Same day over looking Chapman’s Pool. I waited in vain for a flash of sunlight to give it a lift! Never mind a great view I shall return to. 10in by 10in Oils.

Sandbanks, Poole, Old Harry, seascape, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

Looking across from Sandbanks to Old Harry on a very windy day. I had the tripod weighed down with a bag of sand but still had to hang on to everything for dear life. My rag blew away in the first few seconds of working and plenty of sand is embedded in the paint. I tried to catch the energy in the sky and the sea with the two divided by the calmer strip of land. 14in by 10in Oils.

That’s all for now, I really need to get on with some more studio work but the outdoors is so enticing I can’t resist!

October 10, 2017

Sight Size and other tricks

I find it odd how particular techniques in painting get a fan club type following. Wet into wet for watercolour is one and I suppose plein air another. Sight size is an interesting one. It comes from academic training where you set up your drawing of a plaster cast so that from a certain position both cast and drawing appear next to each other at exactly the same scale. All observations need to be made from this viewing point. It was much used by portrait painters such as Singer Sargent to get good likenesses and accurate tones. Although it appears Sargent only set up the painting in this way for parts of the process and to check progress. It was never intended however to be a method used in all circumstances. Here is a link that gives a good description of the method: Sight Size.

If for example you want to paint a wide view then getting both your scene and the painted image the same scale would be pretty tricky. Also if you were painting a subject that was far away then your picture would have to be very small or your viewing point would have to be a very long way from your canvas! Sight size drawers tend to use plumb lines etc though a threaded frame over the subject would seem to be easier and quicker IMO. This is not a debunking of the method, I think everyone would benefit from learning and trying it. I do however feel over reliance on the method can produce rather stiff soulless paintings. The method shows it’s weakness in the work of atelier students who tend to produce identikit sub Sargent paintings and academic drawings that all seem to be from the same dead hand. That said many of those students move on and successfully establish their own identity.

Really the method is part of a whole suite of techniques to get the perceived and very 3D world down on 2D paper. Plumb bobs are good if you have never used one then I suggest you give it a whirl. If you use a black thread you can put little blobs of white paint every inch which helps transfer information. Their main use though is to make it easy to determine how things in your subject relate along a line. You can use it to translate horizontal information or angles as well. All of these methods depend on you returning to the exact same position to make your measurement. The easiest by far to use but more tricky to set up is the threaded frame. Really you need a separate stand for the frame, but as with the plumb line I would encourage everyone to try it out.

What I would not advise however is to make any of these methods into  your everyday standard painting procedure. Their use is to teach you how to make comparisons of scale angle and alignment. Your aim in using them should be to evolve the ability to do those measurements by eye, this may seem hard but it is surprising how quickly the brain catches on and eventually they become second nature. Nonetheless I still get out my frame for work where it is very important that exact proportion are achieved.

Its disadvantages are that it is a monocular method, it allows you to see the world pretty much as a camera does. In turn this means it has all of the problems associated with camera images, the distorted proportions at the edges of the frame which become impossible to hide as the view widens. The method assumes we should only see what we can see with our head fixed, but to my mind this is only a small part of the visual experience, it is literally too narrow. To paint wider or higher than convenient views requires a whole other set of skills including constructive perspective both linear and hyperbolic. Also a number of adjustments such as sliding vanishing and eye points. Although this sounds hifalutin and complicated the actual application can be taught to anyone in a day or two.

A very mixed bag of work in this post as I have been dodging between media .

Blandford Forum, Dorset, drawing, pen and ink

This is Blandford Forum in Dorset. The challenge here was to reduce the busyness of the scene without loosing the impression of complexity. If you succeed in doing this people come up and say, “Oh look at all that detail” and “Just like a Photograph!” For windows it is important to get both consistency and variety into them. So I try to keep the position and rhythm accurate but vary the mark made to indicate them. Pen and Ink.

Blandford Forum, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

Here is one where sight size would let you down! You would have to have your nose touching the paper to get this view. The camera could not produce it either, the building on the left would be very distorted. It is really a composite view as I am both raising my head to look up and turning my head to look left. A point that is vital to fix is the one where you look straight ahead. People assume that in a drawing the straight ahead point must be in the middle but here it needs to be far to the right where the road ends. Each of these movements causes swings in perspective that result in distortion. So what appears a simple scene is actually quite complex to construct. In practice I sketch in the rectangles of the facades and adjust them to find the best compromise between observation, what I “know” is there and the restrictions of a flat surface. Here the key line to track is the join to the walls and roofs. Pen and Ink.

Cardigan, Llanchaeron, Wales, pen and ink, drawing

This is Llanerchaeron in Wales a beautiful walled garden. I only had time for this quick sketch but would have been happy drawing there all day. I decided in the end it needed slight touches of colour. This is always tricky as the temptation is to add more, but I think greens would have been too much so I left them all out. Pen and wash.

St James, Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is St James in Shaftesbury. I very rarely do a half sheet en plein air in watercolour as splashing it on with big brushes is the only option so the drying time becomes key. The other reason is that they are expensive to frame, rarely sell and if you do sell they get a lower price than a far smaller oil. This subject was a gift though and it was great fun to paint as is often the case the light improved as I worked but with watercolour you cannot easily chase the light. Once I got home I felt I could get more atmosphere in by washing back and as it was a 1/2 sheet  I  used the garden hose! It is nearly always worth taking such risks I find even if a few almost alright watercolours bite the dust. Watercolour.

Worbarrow bay, Dorset, oil painting

This one put me through the mill and I nearly abandoned the whole thing. It is Warbarrow bay near Tynham in Dorset. I find these looking down at bays type compositions very difficult especially when they include foreground. I had a plein air watercolour and photos but I still ended up trying several different tonal arrangements over a few weeks. It still may not be finished, I might cut it down as I think a better picture could be had by loosing a 1/3 rd of the right hand side. 24in by 12in Oils.

St Martins, London, oil painting

I recently visited London to see some exhibitions and just before the heavens opened the light on St Martins in the Fields was fantastic. No paints with me so this is done from phone snaps. Another one that might loose a couple of inches from the top! 16in by 12in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air

I escaped to Wales for a few days and was greeted by blustery weather and fantastic skies and seas. This is Newport in Pembrokeshire and I had very little time to paint before being chased off the beach by the tide. I got rather too involved with the ruffled surface of the water which seemed to have every colour under the sun in it. 10in by 8in oils.

Moylgrove, Ceibwr Bay, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

This is Ciebwr Bay near Moylgrove in Pembrokeshire. This is painted sight size  as I hadn’t used the method in a while. I can’t say it made much difference as far a judging things goes, a little easier to judge relative tones maybe. I did use my tone guide which is just a bit of very black plastic with a dab of titanium white on it. This allows you to more easily judge how far away the darks are from being black and the lights from white and their average  hue. It was astonishingly windy and I had to anchor my easel to some big rocks. It makes it impossible to do really accurate brushstrokes as your board is flapping like mad! 12in by 10in Oils.

Wales, cliff, plein air, oil painting

Done on the same day but a bit down the coast. I had almost given up finding something to paint when I spotted a patch of sand that made an interesting contrast. Even windier than the last but very interesting to paint. 12in by 8in Oils.

Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

Another day another cliff top. After a rough block in I kept my eye on the changing sun light sparkling on the sea, the whole key of the picture had to be organised so that the highlight would eventually be punchy enough.  This meant keeping the landscape tones within quite tight bounds. To much highlighting would have ruined the balance. Another very windy one it was only possible by backing up close to a wall. 14in by 10in Oils.

Llangrannog, Cardigan, plein air, oil painting

Yep it’s another windy beach! This is Llangrannog near Cardigan. Sight size again as it was convenient, it did help here in getting the drawing in quickly, the method makes drawing errors very easy to spot. Many pauses as the rain came down, though I loved the muted tones the foul weather created. I still far prefer painting on a stormy day than a bright sunny one. 14in by 10in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Dinas Head, plein air, oil painting

This is Dinas Head from Newport. Only a very quick sketch. The light was changing rapidly as the cloud shadows brightly lit or threw different areas into shade so I might do a studio one or over paint this one using the various photos I took as it changed as reference. 16in by 10in Oils.

Newport, parrog, Wales, plein air, oil painting

More Newport and more very muted light. I might chop this one down and frame it tighter. I loved the tone of the yellowy house, very hard to get right and I wiped and redid it at least 5 times. 16in by 10in Oils.

Porthgain, Wales, Pembrokeshire, oil painting

I took my time with this one, it is Porthgain which  would like to do more of as it has very interesting part ruined industrial buildings. I was nice to paint a calmer brighter moment with the storms over. 16in by 8in Oils.

For the visit to Wales I used a quite restricted palette heavy on the earth tones as follows: Cobalt Blue, Unbleached Titanium, Titanium White, Naples Yellow, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna and a tiny bit of Cadmium Orange on the last one.

 

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