Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

July 22, 2014

Competitions, Clubs and Criticism

A lot of my painting days out are done as part of a group. With the Wapping Group painting every Wednesday and the Brass Monkeys every other Sunday I keep quite busy. I do feel perhaps I am not doing enough going out and painting by myself. The dynamic is quite different with a group of fellow painters, very pleasant of course with chatting and coffees to punctuate the painting. I think most of this posts offerings are in the group category. Rather a large gap in posting this time too as my laptop died and needed bits replacing.

I also attended the Pintar Rapido competition in Chelsea which was great fun. I was a little more organised this time and went there a few days before to decide on a subject. The previous year I wandered about looking for one and had to settle on a subject I wasn’t wholly in tune with.

The results when seen in the exhibition were as last year a mixture of all styles and levels of attainment. Interesting to see what I guess are art school students trying to paint the real world. They have almost no skills as such and have this naive idea that if they just go for it then a miracle will occur. Alas miracles are thin on the ground, but their self belief in unshakable. I talked to a few and they all seemed to feel skill was a minor consideration in painting. On the other hand they all seemed to admire it in others. I didn’t say I felt it was vital, as I wanted to gauge their feelings on the matter rather than impose my own views.

In the exhibition it was plain that some of the buyers didn’t think craft mattered either, but on the whole the well crafted sold better than the randomly intuitive, which is cheering. Another thing that struck me when whispering critical comments to a companion is how thin on the ground criticism is. We were whispering in case the artist was hovering nearby and our opinions overheard. In essence so that the person who might be the most likely benefit couldn’t possibly hear! Passing comment to the artist doesn’t really happen in the clubs either. I do sometimes offer an opinion if I see something really wrong that is easily corrected but try and restrain myself for the most part as offence is a very likely result.

It’s not that the criticism isn’t made, we judge and evaluate automatically. We also share our views with each other… but almost never with the artist themselves… which is odd really as they would surely be the ones most likely to get the most out of it. The result is that you tend to only hear anodyne  positives or inscrutable silences. I am in the habit of forcing the issue and asking for comments. This makes some uncomfortable and others will just tell you all is well whatever the real state of affairs!

Politeness is of course the reason for this lack of plain speaking. There is the uncomfortable fact that none of us welcome hearing that one of our efforts falls short and even less that it has fallen short in some way we hadn’t spotted. The truth is though we would all benefit from the clear sight of an uninvolved eye however bad the news, especially if that eye is educated.

What is needed I suppose is a forum where praise is banned and only observed room for improvement is mentioned. You would need rules of course. A comment like, “That is rubbish!” is of no use to any one. But a comment like “The perspective is out on that building.” or  “I’m not sure about that red patch as it takes the eye too much.” is useful as it gives a clue about putting something right. I have seen some attempts at this, the most successful being in the Life Drawing forum on WetCanvas. There people commented on anatomy and other aspects without too much bad feeling being expressed. However I think a forum where only critical comments were expressly required might work better. There are some I suppose for whom any negative comment is undermining and damaging for confidence, but IMO excellence in art (or indeed anything else) is a hard road and if you are that delicate then perhaps serious pursuit of it isn’t for you. On that harsh note some pictures… feel free to make painful but valid comments!


Erith, yacht club, drawing, Thames, Wapping Group

A day out with the Wappers at Erith Yacht Club. Very hot day and I was late getting there. I had just received a set of new sketch books with reproduction “Turner blue” paper. I hatched the sky but should have blocked it in with the white acrylic pen as the line work is too fussy. I might start to use white chalk as Turner himself did.


Erith, Thames, watercolour

I liked the way the light had developed so I did the same scene again. I am rather liking doing watercolour on the hot pressed paper. I tried using it years ago with little success but rather like its qualities now. I softened the clouds a little after this was scanned. I was pleased at how easy that was.


Amboise, france, watercolour, chateaux

Another historical paper effort. This is on “Girtin” type paper. Again an interesting effect. Wet into wet is almost imposssible as the paper cockles brutally.


Amboise, Romanesque, france, watercolour

This is the door of the church of St Denis in Amboise. The Romanesque part dates from 1107AD. Denis lost his head due to an axe. After his head was chopped off Denis is said to have picked it up and walked six miles from the summit of the hill preaching a sermon… 12in by 9in Watercolour. Done on Arches 140 paper from a large roll, I’m very glad I stocked up before the quality dropped!


Ransomes Dock, thames, London, Barge

Another Wapping day. This is Ransomes Dock near Albert Bridge. 10in by 10in. I thought of taking this further but decided not as it might ruin the feel which I rather liked.


Albert Bridge, Oil painting, plein air, thames, London

I had a short while on the foreshore to paint this as the tide raced in. Albert bridge is very pretty but I don’t like bridge pictures a great deal and wonder now why I bothered to paint this… dull but worthy alas! 10in by 16in.


portobello, london, pen and wash

This is Portobello, a great day with the Brass Monkeys. The road was full of life despite is being a non market day. I am enjoying the pen and wash it is great fun to splash over the pen work.


portobello, london, watercolour

Another very quick sketch, leaving out the pen this time. Portobello again.


portobello, london, pen, drawing

Last one from Portobello… it’s that Turner blue again.


Sloane Sq, chelsea, London, Pintar Rapido

Here’s my effort from Pintar Rapido. Not the greatest photo of the painting as I forgot to snap it in the open air and had to take the picture in low light at the exhibition. 12in by 16in Sloane Square, Oils. I had set my heart on a rainy painting and the forecast looked to be on my side. When I arrived the streets were wet from earlier rain but that was the last rain we saw! The reflections therefore are imaginary. I enjoyed painting it hugely and was delighted that it sold. If the buyer reads this they are welcome to bring it to my studio in about 3 months as it will need varnishing!


Rob Adams, Pintar Rapido

Here I am painting away in a somewhat colour coordinated manner.

May 24, 2014


This is a subject I am very much feeling my way with. Having been painting pictures for framing for a little while now and looking at a huge swathe of paintings by others I have come up against the issue of hardness or softness of edges. People talk a fair bit about the importance of edges and getting the mix of lost and found edges right, but no one talks a great deal about why this might be so.

If you stand before a scene in ordinary light then the edges of everything look pretty crisp. They even look crisp in fog! So why would we like blurry edges in paintings if we don’t have them in real life? Indeed can you think of anything other than a bank of fog that actually has a blurry edge? Some close too things have soft edges such as curved surfaces where one eye sees further round the curve than the other. This incidentally only happens on vertical or nearly so curved surfaces such as a cylinder sitting on its round end. If you rotate the cylinder to lie on its curved surface then the now horizontal edge will be sharp due to out eyes being side by side.

The other effect we see in photography is soft focus. Our eyes do it too. This is what is called depth of field. Depending on the light levels if we focus on a nearby object then the distant one will be soft and if we then focus on the distance the nearby object will in turn become blurred. The human eye does a different sort of soft focus in that objects in the centre of out attention will be sharp but those on the peripherally will be soft and ill defined. Try it your self, I am amazed at how amorphous even objects a little off the central axis become. It is a little hard to stop your eyes following your attention and moving!

How we actually take in the world is by scanning our surroundings in little darts and jumps called saccades. Our brains are not fast enough to process fast movement, if you try waving your fingers in front of your face you will find that they become blurred quite soon. So the eye moves in sudden jumps and pauses as it picks out information from our surroundings.

Yet another aspect of visual definition is specificity, so a tree will not usually be as visually defined as a person. If you did a picture with blurry people and sharp trees then people would find it a little odd. The same painting with blurry trees and defined people would however be quite unremarkable.

So as you see we have a quite a few reasons to be blurry in our paintings! This in turn makes softening and hardening of edges quite a powerful tool in the painter’s tool box. When I look at other painters and indeed myself I suspect people learn to use softening of edges in an empirical, this works, that doesn’t manner. Having thought it through a bit I think it might be exploited in quite a few interesting ways.

An extra layer of complexity is caused I think due to the fact that the same visual system is being used by the viewer of a painting as the painter. If the trees in a painting are soft then a viewer will appreciate mood and colour but not so much form or botanical detail (painters of course will admire the soft edges but they are just weird!) . The non painting eye will move on to whatever in the picture is more defined but the softer areas will still be supplying mood. It is immediately apparent to me that having things inappropriately over-defined in an area of a picture can be a distraction and weaken the overall impact.

I am of course talking about a certain type of picture, the impression of time, place and weather. People tend to confuse the different ways we can read a picture, so a detailed picture is inviting a different sort of looking and appreciation than an impression. They are not I feel better or worse per se. Indeed you could maybe mix the two if you were very clever.

Where I need to improve the control of focus is in my oil paintings. With watercolour I tend to use wet edges and so forth automatically, but with oils I have to think it through. Also with watercolours you are often working from the very amorphous to the definite as a matter of course. There it is that is the nature of painting there is always more to learn and deficiencies to make good! Enough complaining, a few drawings and paintings.

Tower Hill, London, watercolour

I am in a quandary with paper at present. Arches, my favourite paper has become very poor in quality of late. I have a couple of rolls which will keep me going a few years in the studio, but for painting en plein air I used the glued blocks. These alas have become very poorly sized as have the single sheets, making the washes dry dull and lifeless. The surface of the paper is not as tough as it should be either so lifting out becomes a risky process.

As an experiment I have bought some paper from the Ruscombe Mill in France. They make recreations of historical papers. So I bought a few sheets of David Cox and some Thomas Girtin types. The paper is much lighter in weight than we use now and must be stretched. Also it has more inclusions and is less white. I must admit I was slightly horrified at the uneven surface when I first unpacked it. None the less I stretched up some and took it out.

The one above is done on the David Cox. The paper contracts fiercely when stretched so I had to use my Artmate. As always when using a new paper you have to just dive in and I found it hard going at first. It doesn’t react well to wet into wet so washes must be laid cleanly and in one go. The scene above was done in around 45min and could have done with more careful drawing out. Altogether though it has quite a pleasant quality and now I know what it does well I can try and exploit its qualities. The paper is very very tough so lifting out is easy. Its weakness is that washes even when quite concentrated dry a little pale.

I did this sitting just by the Tower of London looking towards the city. 10in by 14in.


St Katherines Dock, London, watercolour

Second one of the day. It was a Wapping Group day so I sat near the Dickens Inn at St Katherines Dock. This is the Thomas Girtin paper. It is less white a sort of soft buff colour. Unlike the David Cox it took to wet into wet well as you can see by the softer feel. Also stronger tones were easier to achieve. All in all very pleasant to paint on, I shall be intrigued to try a larger painting as this one is only 5in by 10in. Strong whites will need to be painted in with body colour, which is of course just how Girtin often worked.


Spitalfields Market, London, drawing

The Brass Monkeys were at Spitalfields. We met at one of the cafes in the Market. While I drank my coffee and chatted I drew the passers by. I am going to try and add a little more character to the figures in my drawings to make them a little less architecty . Generic figures are OK but ones that tell a bit of a story are better I am beginning to think. 5in by 7in.


Spitalfields, London, Hawksmoor, drawing, pen

This is the view down Brush St to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christchurch. I had to hatch the sky later as no time to do on site. 7in by 9in. Here generic figures are fine as the church is the star.


Brush St, Spitalfields, London pen drawing, shop

A smaller pen sketch also in Brush St. Here I could have done with some more definitive types of people. 5in by 7in.


South Bank, Thames, London, pen and ink, Drawing

Sorry, yet more drawing… it is just a way of avoiding the oil paints maybe! Here I struggled to find something to make a picture of and abandoned two at the pencil stage. Then this confident young man walked past plainly on a mission unlike the dawdling tourists. I drew him in first and then built the rest of the picture around him. This is also on Ruscombe paper, quite resistant to draw on but gives a nice quality in the final result. This is the South Bank and another day out with the Wappers. 6in by 8in.


South Bank, Thames, London, Ice cream van, pen drawing

I am off to Florence for a painting trip so my next move was to go shopping to stock up on pens. I found this odd white pen which allowed hatching on the cream paper. Interesting effect, I shall be using it more. 6in by 8in.


Nude, Life drawing

A few life drawings to finish off. I was trying to keep things simple so just black and white.


nude, life drawing

I added red here and regretted it slightly.
Life drawing, nude

Last one, learnt my lesson and went back to black and white! Next post should be the glories of Florence…

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