Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

May 30, 2013

100th Post… Hitting the Three Year Mark!

I can’t believe I have been writing this blog for three years. I hope it has been of interest or use to others. I have not done as many tutorial posts as I intended and posted more on philosophy as regards to painting than I might have expected. It is just when it comes down to it the thought and motivation that lies behind making a picture is as important as the actual smearing on of the paint! This is a discovery for me and a change of perspective that writing these tracts has brought about. It is also 3 years since I set about making painting original pictures the main focus of my day to day life. I am pleased and a little surprised I have mostly managed to stick to my original intention. I have produced  300 watercolours and 330 oils so 200 per year or 4 per week along with many hundreds of drawings. I have also squeezed in enough commercial work to pay the bills. I may have many faults but perhaps laziness is not amongst them!

I am also managing to sell pictures, indeed this year I am substantially in profit, a target I had vaguely expected to reach at about the five year mark. So a big thank you to all those who have bought a painting online as It is very brave to spend money on the basis of a screen image and I do hope that no one was disappointed by the actual painting!

In popularity by far the most popular posts are not about my pictures alas. Top of the list is the one on Spherical Perspective, and the next ones are my appreciation of other watercolourists down the ages. I must apologise here for the many typos and posts in need of editing, I intend to go back and do the thankless task of tidying, but the idea is not attractive… a bit like contemplating doing the hoovering when it is sunny outside and there are pictures to be painted!

I am more and more coming to the belief, especially having read many arguments of the “Yes it is!”, “No it isn’t!” variety that there is no quality in an object that confirms it can be called “Art”. We cannot define it, we cannot say with any confidence if an object has what it takes or not. This leads me to think the quality only exists in the cultural and individual mythic imagination. So a superstition then, not a real quality. I am guessing we like the idea that such clever mammals such as us can produce an object that has some mystical aspect. By our working we imbue an inert object with some soul, maybe some small part of our self is preserved from the coming dark. Magic and conjuration with the artist as prophet and witch doctor. Old idea I suppose, but we have always loved totems. Royalty, pop stars, celebrities, brands, masterpieces and magic swords, they all seem cut from the same cloth woven of wishes, dreams and disappointments.

I can argue that there is no actual art, only opinion as to what might be art. It is art only because we agree it is. Due to the fact we differ in point of view an object can be both art or not depending on who is having the opinion. There is no inherent property of an object that confers art status, therefore the property must come from elsewhere. IE from the opinions of those both alive and dead whose belief made it so. That opinion is also mutable, what was considered art is not necessarily art today and todays art may not be in the consensus of art tomorrow. So art is not the business of artists as it is not in their power to instil that imaginary property and beatify their own work. They may and do work at getting their work canonised, but that is called marketing and has nothing to do with the making of the thing.

So you cannot say if one thing is art or another not, as art is an imaginary mythic property. The same as the holiness of icons or the magic of a tarot pack. The bible is holy to a Christian, but the very same item physically unchanged is not holy to a Hindu.That a Warhol, a Leonardo or a Rothko is art depends upon faith. If you believe it is art then it is, but your opinion is no more right or wrong than someone who thinks the opposite. There are of course the Blessed Serota and the Sainted Saatchi who may with a wave beatify your effort, but such power is not granted to mere artists only to prophets. So photography or painting is both art and not art. It is your decision as the observer, not the photographer’s or painter’s.

There is only craft. Whatever the arena, be it photography or painting. Whether the result of that craft comes to have some totemic quality for an individual or a society or not is as far as I can see completely irrelevant to the crafts person. The carpenter merely makes a chair in a workshop, it is society that later says it is a “Chippendale” and thus imbued with some extra invisible quality due to the history of the place in which it was made. Leonardo painted a portrait as best he could, it is us who later created the masterpiece and icon in our imaginations. It is not Leonardo who placed his painting in a vast cathedral upon an altar of bullet proof glass to be worshipped.

In Bonhams and Sotheby’s we see them praying to the holy Warhol and the blessed Rothko. The rich give of their wealth in search of absolution as they always have. Indulgences, chantry chapels, immortality has a price. What a terrible trick was played on the collector and connoisseur when the words, “Less is more.” were uttered! If less is better surely nothing is best? Ah well, no matter, we have worshipped dafter things than a patch of canvas painted black.

For you as an individual painter or photographer or whatever none of this matters a fig. Learning a craft is a journey, it is important only in the changes it makes to you as an individual as you tread the path, not to the changes you make to some bit of primed cloth.

It is common now to think of the goal as celebrity or recognition. People say to me, “It must be wonderful to be able to paint like that.” I have heard the same thing and indeed thought it myself when I saw wonderful musicians playing. I know now however that the wonder is for the listener not the player. They think perhaps you see with other eyes, gazing past the ordinary to some deeper truth. It is not so however, my world is the same as that of any other, as far as I can know my eyes see what you see. If anything my efforts have been aimed at seeing less not more. You can expect no rewards for the mastering of a craft other than the occasional satisfaction of having done a job as well as you are able and the disappointment that it still fell short.

After that sermon, a few pictures.

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St Ives, Cornwall, Harbour, boats, watercolour, painting

I am trying to get more Cornish pictures painted before the memory fades. This is St Ives. Painted half from a plein air and half from a photo. It only looked

like this for about 10 min, but I do love the light you get after a rain shower when the sun comes through. 1/4 sheet Atches rough.

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Mousehole, cornwall, fishing boats, watercolour painting

This is a re working of the plein air oil I did of the same subject. Nicer as a watercolour but still a bit too pretty for me! It is Mousehole in Cornwall.

1/2 sheet Arches Rough.

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Leigh on Sea, fishing boat, watercolour, plein air , painting

A day out with the Wapping Group. I wish I had taken my oils as the light was very transient. With oils you have a chance of catching the light when it

suddenly comes through This is Leigh on Sea in Essex. With watercolour you can’t back track! 1/4 Sheet Arches not.

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Leigh on sea, Essex, Fishing Boats, watercolour, plein air

Leigh on Sea again, again there were some wonderful moments of light, I tried to get some idea by doing a quick sketch as I painted this one. 1/4 sheet

Arches Not.

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Leigh on Sea, Essex, watercolour, plein air

A little 7in by 5in done in my Moleskin as the light changed.

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Richmond upon Thames, Surrey, watercolour, river, rain, plein air

Another Wednesday with the Wappers. This time in Richmond Upon Thames. It was determinedly wet and grey so I sat under a tree and did this little

10in by 8in on a bit of ancient Whatman paper.

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Richmond Upon Thames, watercolour, plein air, river, boat

The drizzle increased so I stuck to my Moleskin as anything bigger was impractical. The dappled texture in the trees is caused by the rain getting through!

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Richmond Upon Thames, River, Watercolour, plein air

Last one from Richmond, I was not going to paint another just take photos, but this scene took my eye and I couldn’t resist. I was glad to get to the pub

just before the tide cut it off! That’s it off to France so I hope the rain lets up!

May 22, 2013

Optimism

Why am I always so up beat about the probable end result when I start a painting? I seem to start every picture with a full tank of misplaced optimism. Experience should tell me that the chances are about 1 in 50 for a cracker, 4 in 50 for a corker, 10 in 50 for a passable job, 20 in 50 for a so so and 15 in 50 for a complete minger! Looking at it that way there seems to be some similarity in being a painter to being a compulsive gambler. I doesn’t take many wins to make hope spring eternal and the nags that failed to finish soon fade from memory. The odd thing is that painting a good picture doesn’t give you a high that lasts for long, the feeling is soon overwhelmed by the anticipation of the next one. As I get older this process becomes more and more compressed, if I do a picture I am pleased with then I am delighted of course, but next morning last nights triumph is consigned to the drawer, both literally and metaphorically.

I think this process is necessary for the making of a painting. The risk of failure is part of the attraction. Overcoming the odds would hardly be attractive if the probability of bringing home the dry cured bacon was pretty much a certainty. Which brings on the thought that before setting out on a painting I must unconsciously assess the risks of failure or success. It is always very difficult to observe your own inner workings, but thinking back this is probably true for me. Before starting a picture I run through in my head how I will tackle each stage. Some times a subject will present no new challenges. This does not mean the picture is not worth painting, only that I have dealt previously with similar problems and am pretty sure how to solve them. If I fail on such a painting, mind you, it throws me into a deep pit of despondent gloom garnished with self pity!

Sometimes however the picture you are contemplating is far from certain to succeed. There are some hurdles either technically or conceptually that are hard to assess until the process of painting the picture is well underway. Also when you start a picture then all that gung ho confidence drains away as the first few marks you have made stare back at you from the paper. There is an immediate mismatch between the glowing vision of your imagined masterpiece and the reality these very prosaic initial marks. At this point your careful plan for scaling the north face of Mt Parnassus becomes more like a wobbly tightrope walk over a vertiginous chasm.

Managing these expectations is I feel a large part of being an artist especially in the commercial arena. You need the optimism and confidence to get started. You need the risk and possibility of failure to progress. If you cannot manage the disparity between how you imagine a work will be and how it seems to be turning out then you will shortly have a cupboard full of half finished paintings! It is not a problem if you can’t summon up the optimism as you would likely never start a picture in the first place… We all suffer is some degree from this it can be quite hard to set to and start.

My method of dealing with this initial stage is what I call the “Head in the sand” method. For the initial stages I don’t assess progress I just try to carry out the actions without forming an opinion of their success. At the end of a key stage such as drawing out or blocking in. I re-engage the critical faculties and re-plan the rest of the work as necessary. It is hard to describe but what I think I do is mentally let go my glowing imaginings that prompted me to start in the first place and using what I have on the paper before me re-imagine the final result. I then use this as a guide to the next stages. As a picture progresses I might do this several times, each time the imagining of the final finished work becomes easier as it is based on more and more concrete evidence of progress so far. It is often in these last stages the magic happens, you once again have a mis-match between the imagination and reality but this time the reality is an improvement!

My this is hard to explain! I will try metaphor. I am at the foot of a mountain, I see before me the peak in the distance and imagine the wonderful view from it. From where I am standing in the valley I can see the first part of the path that will carry me to the summit. However once I have climbed some way my vantage point has changed. The summit looks different and further away, also the path towards it takes me along a ridge that I could not see from the valley. Still I can see my way forward and set out on my new path. As I reach the top of the ridge it all looks quite different. What had I thought was the peak was merely obscuring the actual top. Once again I must redraw my plans in order to climb the next stage. You could imagine all sorts of hardships and set backs here that might delay your progress, the way forward obscured by clouds etc. Eventually you reach the peak and look around. The view is very different from the one you imagined while still far below. To extend the metaphor (already creaking under the strain) even more, sometimes you find your progress blocked by an unexpected crevasse and must retrace your steps! Or you get to the top only to find the view is rotten…

There are a few steps you can take to make falling off a cliff less likely. Firstly take the time to break the painting down mentally into stages, a sort of route map. You might abandon this later but you need one to make a start. Next, draw the damn thing out properly! If you have a photo ref there is no excuse for not to getting the drawing right. Use a grid, print it out and trace, project, whatever it really does not matter. Better still draw it out in a preparatory sketch and rearrange it until you are happy. Then grid and transfer that. You may see artists, I am occasionally one of them, who just leap in with the paint, but that is the result of decades of doing it the long way. After a while with much practice you develop a sort of mental grid so that part of the job is not really skipped over. Don’t jump to conclusions part way. Just because your original aim is not possible anymore do not give up. Reassess, re-plan, build a new dream from the ruins of the old. Many, many times I have painted quite a different painting than the one I initially intended, many times probably a better one. The last and hardest one is to stop when it is finished, if something does not add to the whole don’t put it in, however much fun it might be to paint.

There are also things to help you advance. Don’t just paint “safe” pictures, take risks both measured and the occasional “long shot”. The list of artists who sank into repeating safe formulas for success is long and to my mind terribly sad. If you are painting a landscape don’t paint a stock tree in a manner you have done a hundred times before but paint that particular tree in that moment. If you always paint in a the same methodical way, experiment, throw the dice, you never know it might come up a six. Be aware though it will probably bounce off the table and end up under the side board!

Hey ho, I only intended to write a few words on the subject, but I find I have gone on at length once more, here are some pictures where you can spot me not taking my own advice!

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Mousehole, cornwall, watercolour, painting, boats, harbour

I am trying to get some studio paintings done based on my recent visit to Cornwall. This is Mousehole. I assembled the view out of a few photos which

required a fair few adjustments. It is very rare that a photographic image is directly suitable for painting either in colour or composition. Taking advantage

of todays technology I roughly put the bits I want in place and then sketch over the top in photoshop. This way I can try different arrangements until I am happy.

Cameras especially on a wide angle setting distort badly at the edges of the field of view so I usually take a series of snaps with a 50mm setting. This gives a more

natural feel in my opinion, though it is quite a lot more trouble. Tonally I had to rearrange things so that the eye ran around the foreshore to the focus, also I wanted

a diagonal band of interest with quiet areas top left and bottom right. As you can imagine this means a slight redesign of Mousehole but I hope each adjustment is

subtle enough to keep the scene completely plausible! 1/2 Sheet Arches Rough.

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Sennen Cove, Cornwall, fishing boats, sea, fishermen, watercolour

This is Sennen Cove on a beautiful evening. The light was cross the beach in this way for only about 2 min, so no chance of a sketch! I am still exploring

the balance I want between loosely painted areas and detail. It is interesting how the different finishes can be made to sit together. Small ares of detailed

interest trick the eye into believing the whole thing must be detailed. The intention in doing this is not to save work but to avoid the stiffness that too much

overall specific detail causes. It is very much the fashion to paint everything in a frenzy of wet into wet and though I often like this style it is quite limiting

in the moods and qualities it can express. Bold bravura brushstrokes etc are superficially exciting but have difficulty in expressing quiet subtle moments unless

they are completely amorphous. Also I ask myself does the world require yet another Zbukvic, Wesson or Castagnet? I add this aside because I get weary of

people telling me I must be more loose, be more free etc. I am perfectly capable of painting in that style, I did so in my twenties for a while, but don’t choose to

nowadays unless the subject is appropriate. This one put me through the mill rather. I drew the whole thing out only to have the sky wash reveal a sizing flaw

that made a bit of paper very absorbent… after a certain amount of cursing I had to redraw on a new sheet! 1/2 sheet Arches Rough

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Cattle, cornwall, watercolour

An old one, it is always interesting how your style changes, there is much I would do differently if I repainted this. I may indeed revisit old paintings to

see what I make of them now. It’s Cornwall from a previous visit, I was painting the church when ambushed by bullocks! 1/2 sheet, Saunders rough.

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Nude, life painting, figure, woman, watercolour

A few life paintings from the last session. I was experimenting with pre-toned paper here using acrylic white along with watercolour.

Interesting but a little gloomy, so after half an hour I tried the same thing in pure watercolour.

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nude, figure, life painting, woman, watercolour

Here is the result of another half hour on the same subject, much better though it is a struggle to get enough described in that time

due to drying. Wonderful fun to do though.

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Nude, figure, life painting, woman, watercolour

A sucker for punishment I tried the toned paper again but this time was more liberal with the acrylic white. Once mixed with watercolour it is very similar

to gouache but easier to overlay. I took about 45 minutes to get this far, but much better.

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Nude, figure, life painting, watercolour, woman

Last one of the session. A lovely pose so I reverted to pure watercolour again. I used a few bits of white to clarify. I find it is important

not to try and conceal this sort of edit it works much better if done obviously as it integrates with the drawing. Life drawings are a sort of

history of observation and the signs of that exploring add to the qualities of the end result I feel. Off to France next so there may be a delay

before next posting!

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