Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

August 26, 2015

Art and Architecture

What a blight the so called “International style” of architecture has been on our planet. It has wiped out all local and ethnic styles of building the world over. People hoot and howl if their spoken language is threatened by a Lingua Franca but hooteth not when their vernacular style of building is wiped off the map. Europe has for the most part just surrounded their historical centres with a ring of dreary concrete leaving the old encysted by the new. Britain due to the unfortunate rise of the town planner in the fifties and sixties has lost a great deal more. If you took photos from around the world of recent everyday urban developments and removed any signs in Photoshop then I doubt if anybody could place them geographically. So how did this appalling state of affairs come about, how did it happen that what was once considered the greatest of the arts was reduced to engineering and quantity surveying?

Before the invention of architects as distinct profession most structures and all vernacular structures were built by tradesmen. In medieval times a “Master Builder” was employed on the greatest projects. We know little of most of these men, the most famous are more properly military engineers since that was area many of the really big projects were being carried out. Leonardo, Michelangelo and many others drew elaborate bastions with all the lines of fire drawn in. In our towns and villages however the builder was your man. He operated I dare say via tradition that was slowly pushed forwards by the desire of their clients to embrace new fashions. These fashions were mostly imported by the aristocracy and royalty and slowly made their way into the everyday vernacular styles.

To this end many books of architectural detail were printed, which were in effect catalogues that a builder or client could choose from. Outside of building for display most utilitarian structures were simply made along traditional lines from local materials. The result is for the most part unintentionally harmonious but varied and if destinations favoured by tourists are any guide still pleasing today. We rather cruelly and disparagingly refer to the effect as “pretty” or “quaint” but no such intention was intended in their original construction. It is interesting how when architects try and fake this organic and empirical development the result is lack lustre to say the least. The arts and crafts developments are the most convincing as they have an agenda of their own and mostly do mot seek to mimic but to make a new form from an old idiom.

Vernacular building design has always followed a step or three behind the styles of the great projects of any time. The great Renaissance and Baroque revolutions first appeared in the big cities paid for by the church and nobles. It is interesting to not that although we started to have architects they were all artists first and foremost. Bramante, Bernini, Michelangelo and others were all high achieving artists in their own right. Today that is far from the case. I was initially going to be an architect and applied to do a degree. In the run up I went and worked for various local architects my father knew. I soon realised most architecture had no art in it whatsoever but a great deal of accountancy. In truth most of the projects would have proceeded better with just a builder and an engineer, the architect was just an irritation.

So it is that in our age we see feats of engineering but not of art. Our cityscapes have no consistency of overall form, but a deadening uniformity of detail and material. This is not by the way a call for change, we are too late architecture is dead and will not be returning. There is a tendency for people bemoaning the visual state of our built environment to recommend a return to Tudorbethan or Mock-Georgian but this is painfully naive and where it is tried fails due to there being no one with the visual training to make it convincing. No there is no going back, buildings are going to be by the hugest of majorities soulless and ugly for the remainder of man’s existence. The reason for this is not the great projects by the “Starchitects” but the innumerable small developments by jobbing architects who have for the most part no interest in the history of their craft or any decent training in composition, massing, decoration or proportion. So however good a modern building is it will inevitably drown in the vast ocean of workaday dreariness. Indeed anything that is at all good makes the surrounding clutter seem emptier of beauty by comparison. Still architects do keep the market for black polo necked jumpers and expensive round spectacle frames afloat.

We actually have laws to prevent buildings looking beautiful. The regulations that control sill height and window size mean that most fenestration will be ugly. That of course tends to preclude any facade from being at all elegant. The manufacture of windows to standard sizes of clumsy proportion and design puts the final nail in the coffin. Should we care? Well probably not. The generation that does care is ageing fast and the next will not understand what I am complaining about. Past styles are fodder for theme parks and film designers only and not to be ever seen again in our everyday built environments. Who should we blame for this visual poverty that future generations must live with? Well building has to some degree always been about enclosing practical space for the least possible cost. This is where the International Style delivers without question. Building has also always been a display of prestige, but now we tend to be swayed by post code and whether there is a 2 acre underground gym. We are interested in contents rather than any external appearance. You may rail against the horrid boxy uniformity of a Bovis estate, but though the buildings are of execrable design they are cheap enough to make so that a far higher proportion than in any other age can live in their perfectly adequate and convenient comfort.

Now that is of my chest and on to yours I can post some paintings. After a stint of watercolour back to the oils again.

 

Okeford Hill, Dorset oils, painting, art

A panoramic view from Okeford Hill. I did a small watercolour a year or so ago of this and decided to make a larger studio oil from it. The result wasn’t great so I went back to the location with the studio painting. I was very lucky in that the cloud shadows were adding splashes of light across the valley which looked great. With that and a new sky the whole thing is much improved. Oils 12in by 26in.

Okeford Hill, Dorset, watercolour

Here is the original watercolour, I worked from both this and photos taken at the time. I don’t much like working from just a photo, it seems to be easier if I have drawn or painted the scene however slight the sketch. The thing is that doing the looking fixes memories in your head that re-emerge when you come to paint in the studio.

 

Dorset, Hambledon Hill, oil painting, art

Hambledon Hill with a threatening storm. Another done from a previous plein air watercolour. I didn’t need to revisit the site this time. It would have ben pointless in any case as the lighting was everything. Oils 12in by 12in.

 

Nottinghill Gate, oils, plein air.

I am still visiting London to paint with the Brass Monkeys, this is Notting Hill Gate. This was  a struggle as the light was varying constantly. I might cut this down to a square format as the stuff at the top is bringing nothing to the party. With the best will in the world it is very hard to make the best compositional decisions when racing to get some small part of what you see down. That any of them ever turn into a decent picture is a miracle! Oils 12in by 8in.

 

London, plein air, Notting Hill, painting, art

Another from the same day. Not quite sure what this needs… will probably go into a drawer to be found only after my final demise! Oils 8in by 12in.

 

Surrey, oil painting, plein air, art

Somewhere in Surrey… a very quick sketch, but a great scene. I am experimenting with surfaces at present. I have decided that the primed MDF I have been using is too limited and I don’t much like the “feel” of the paintings done on it when varnished and framed. The quality worryingly reminds me of hand made place mats! 6in by 12in Oils.

 

Romsey Abbey, Hampshire, plein air, oil painting, art

The same day and 60 mile East. My friend Steve Alexander was busy painting the interior so I went and stood in the drizzle to do this. I love trying to catch the day however gloomy. Whether anyone would ever want the resulting daub on their wall is of course another matter! This is Romsey Abbey in Hampshire. 6in by 12in Oils.

 

Romsey Abbey, pen and ink, drawing

Before doing the grey day oil I did this quick sketch of the interior of the abbey. Romsey is one of my favourite buildings it has a wonderful scale and elegance. When tackling such a subject it is very important to start in a manner that is practical. I could have made an accurate architectural drawing, but that would have taken too long. The charm of these sketches is in some part due to the constraints of time and media. I am always amazed at just how much you can express of a very complex subject with relatively few lines. Pen and Ink.

 

Shroton, Dorset, Plein air, oil painting, art

Steve had accompanied me back to Dorset so we set out to paint the day away. This is Shroton in Dorset a mile or so from me. The forecast had been for rain but this is what we got instead. I rather like the double square as a board proportion especially for landscape. Oils 6in by 12in.

 

Shroton, church, oil painting, plein air, art, dorset

Next up was Shroton church. I love pictures of graveyards and so do other artists I know… but no one will ever buy one! I just had fun with this I didn’t want to over elaborate a very simple scene. There was a figure but it fell to centrally and so got expunged. Oils 8in by 10in.

Fontmell Down, Dorset, plein air, oil painting.

We next went to the wonderful Fontmell Down. Unfortunately there was a herd of very rumbustious bullocks in the field so we had to retreat. On the plus side though I got some wonderful photos of them with the down in the background which will in due course be a studio painting.  10in by 12in Oils

 

Still life, kettle, flowers, oil painting

Now, as they say, for something completely different. As the rain had well and truly arrived Steve and I set up a still life. I have only done 3 or four such paintings in my whole life. Not because I dislike them but just never got around to doing any. I must do more and Dorset will no doubt supply plenty of wet days in which to paint them. There was a loaf in the picture too, but it was too close and I eventually painted it out. This meant waiting for the area to dry a bit so I had to set the whole thing up again just to finish the table cloth. Great fun though and very good practice to try and capture the various surfaces without getting fussy. I am not much of a fan of “dutch” style over finished still lives. Oils 12in by 16in.

I have an upcoming exhibition so I have been framing pictures like mad. My first solo show so very nervous!

exhibition

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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