Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

November 7, 2013

The Uncertainty of Being Definite

Filed under: Art History,Drawing,Painting,Philosophy,Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Rob Adams @ 3:34 pm

Why is is that as soon as we seek the definite we end up mired in the indefinite? I have been discussing “What is Art” recently with others, and having had to think about it I now know less than when I started. Before I asked the question at least I had a vague idea of what I was up to but rather less so now! Why on earth am I bothering to do this activity called painting?

Having given it a great deal of thought, I have the beginnings of an idea. It is popular for artists to say, “I have to paint it is a need deep within me.” Is it? Well wanting my dinner and having regular bowel movements are needs deep within me that I cannot deny, so is the next breath I take. Painting however is not in that league. If I had a choice of giving up speaking or painting the painting would have to go, so it is plainly not the most important means of communication to me. It is good for my ego to be good at something is perhaps the best that can be said. If I destroyed all my years of work and took up some other trade, would I pine and be miserable. Almost certainly not. If a thug threatened to harm a friend if I did not burn all my work I would torch the lot without a second thought.

So I have to conclude that all the saying of how important “art” is to them done by artists is merely posturing to add a rose tint to how they and others see themselves. If I am to pare things down as much as I can I would I think say that I paint because it brings me pleasure to do, and pleasure when others enjoy the results. I am a little addicted to it, but not so much that I could not go off and pursue other interests with at least as much pleasure.

Does this devalue what I do? I am not what you might call a dilettante, I work hard and quite devotedly to the highest standards I am able. I enjoy it for the most part and get a “kick” out of the small successes it brings. If the work was torn from my breast in a fervent of anguish and torment, would it be better and more worthy? Current opinion would tend to say yes. Is it a crime so say I do it merely because it is a pleasant and engaging way of spending a brief life? Oh how fortunate I think I am to spend this one existence in this relatively pleasant manner! (especially when looking at some of the alternatives!)

How did all this come about? As John Byrne of the Talking Heads asks, “How did I get here?” Did I have a plan? Well, from about 20, sort of. I was going to be an illustrator, because I liked looking at the artwork done by others. I think I am here doing what I do partly because of 1970′s science fiction book covers and comic books , and partly because of the passing thought, “I would like to be able to do this.” Maybe the thought had an element of, “How hard can it be?” After some practical investigation the answer was, “Very hard indeed.” It did not matter in the least to me that such work was scorned as “pulp” it did something to me when I looked at it that I liked. I have been digging up some of the images that spurred me on. Alas no Rembrandts, no Monets, I had seen these and enjoyed them but they didn’t bring the feeling, “I might be able to do that.” I do in an odd way wish my early inspirations had more gravitas, but there you go. I’ll start with the earliest that took my eye in such a way that I attempted to emulate. All images are the copyright of their individual owners.

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Jack Kirby, Galactacus, marvel comic, silver surfer

The first sort of artwork I tried to emulate was derived from Marvel comics. This is Galactus the Silver Surfer’s nemesis.

It is drawn by Jack Kirby. I didn’t copy I was never a direct copier but I tried to do my own versions. I think it was this that

hooked me as it showed how damned difficult it was. My attempts were pathetic and even at that age (13 or so) I couldn’t

fool myself that they were remotely as good. I didn’t give up though I covered reams of paper with badly drawn muscle bound

figures in uncomfortable clothing that would be bound to chafe.

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Sydney R Jones, dreawing

Another and disparate thread was pen drawing, which was the bulk of my initial output. This is Sydney R Jones. I don’t know

where I got the book from but I had it from early on. One of my Father’s maybe. This was another thing I attempted to emulate.

I had more success here, I didn’t reach Mr Jones’ quality but after a lot of work I could draw a building in reasonable style though not

with the delicate touch of the above.

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Chris Foss, book cover

Here is a book jacket  by Chris Foss. I spent hours pouring over similar images but it was Chris Foss that inspired me. I didn’t immediately try to copy

the style, I was 15 and had no idea of how to begin such a task. It was not until 6 years later I had an airbrush and could attempt such a thing. I still

remember the moment my Father gave me the compressor and Badger airbrush for Christmas. I can also remember the sinking feeling when I tried it

out and found how very difficult it was to use well. I never was a giver upper though, soon I was deep into Frisk film and Dr Martin’s dyes. Despite all

this effort and hours and hours of getting the skill with the tools I just could not produce anything as fine as the painting above. The attempt had however

introduced me to Gouache and there were other artists who’s work I admired.

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Bruce Pennington, book cover

I much admired Bruce Pennington’s work. Later artists like Roger Dean would use the same mushroom shapes and organic textures but Bruce was the first.

The paintings are very simply constructed in layers. You could build a theatre set from them easily. I set too once more but Mr Pennington was no more in my reach

than any of the others! I don’t seem to have been very cast down by this state of affairs. I was always confident that one day I would be able to do as well.

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alan Lee

This is by Alan Lee. In 1978 Fairies was published. Alan Lee and Brian Froud were the illustrators. Brian Froud was OK

but it was Alan Lee that blew me away. I think it was that moment I realised what true draughtsmanship was and how

very far I had to go before I could do anything comparable. I was 24.

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Edmund Dulac

It was not long after I met David Larkin who had edited the book and he after showing me Alan’s originals had pointed me to

some of Alan’s inspirations. So it was I sought out books with illustrations by Edmund Dulac. I was swept away by the subtle

atmosphere of paintings such as the above. Arthur Rackham was another who astonished me.

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Frank Frazetta

At the same time I was admiring Frank Frazetta. I tried in this period to produce similar work. It was still not

in the same league, but with each attempt I got a little nearer. This gives me a small clue as to why I expended

all this effort. Not aspirations of high art, not upwellings of inner expression. It was the lure of a challenge.

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Fred Schrier

This is Fred Schrier. I was still mad about comics but had moved on to the underground variety.

I produced a fair few pages in this idiom but none as good as Fred’s. It is a strange thing learning a skill.

It changes you, you have to look at images like the above and pick them apart. How does the hatching work,

the different weights of line. You may well think the above is a bit of daft ephemera, but believe you me

just trying to produce a similar object will convince you differently.

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So there they are some of the lights that guided me to my present location. There are others and later more respectable ones like Tom Girtin and Titian. Slowly all these disparate elements congealed into a middle aged bloke who paints bits of London. There is a connection however, and that is the skills involved. The skills of physical dexterity and also the skills of composition. The ability to focus and stand back from your own work. Learning each of these things leaves you changed, gives you a purpose. As a bi-product it makes you valuable to others. To my great fortune the world is not awash with people who have learnt what I have. I have achieved various ambitions, only to find they were better as hopes than they were as actualities. I became a comicstrip drawer, a book illustrator, 3d designer in turn and found Shangri-La in none of them. I have no reason to think that landscape painting will either, but there is a difference, I don’t expect this final phase to satisfy any ambition. I got a picture in the ROI which was nice but the feeling in no way matched painting a watercolour that pleased me last week, or indeed someone contacting me to buy a picture because it reminded them of a happy childhood in a place far from where they are now. I am I feel getting quite close to the place I have been heading all along. A place where a moment of sun or the passing of a person engrossed in their day lifts the heart. So simple, it doesn’t need defining, or explaining. There is no agenda for change or disquiet with the status quo. It doesn’t need certainty indeed uncertainty is vital. In a word… “joy”.

September 27, 2013

What is Art For?

Filed under: Art History,Drawing,Life Drawing,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 6:34 pm

In a recent forum debate the topic came up as to whether art had a point. The debate was quite varied with some saying it didn’t need one and others saying that shared culture benefitted all mankind, most seemed to say it was a sort of therapy for the artist, a few that it was a focus for meditation for the viewer and the more hardheaded souls thought it was to make an investment item. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these, but neither do I think any of them tell the whole story.

There are I think a couple of aspects that are separate. There is the “treasure” factor. A work of art if accepted as such is a store of value and enhances the status of the possessor. Then there is the aesthetic, where looking at the art item brings pleasurable or otherwise feelings, either way a reaction in the thoughts of the viewer that could range from delight or disgust to quiet contemplation. These are obviously not exclusive. A person attempting art appreciation wishes a return for their perusal. It could be appreciation of skill, it could be appreciation of subject matter, or an aid to meditation, a doorway to contemplation. This is the story from the consumer’s point of view. These are if you like the niches in the market that are available to the artist to fill with appropriate works.

Most contemporary artists would I suspect feel that it is the therapeutic or otherwise effects of the art’s creation upon and by the artist that are important and any effect it had on others was a side effect. The artist would make the act of expression and then leave others to make of it what they will. All very elevated of course but in my opinion untrue and wrong headed.

Recently the Times printed a list of 20 paintings that anyone should know. I won’t bother to list them as the idea of such lists seems to me entirely crass, rather like those books that reduce War and Peace to 20 pages so you can pretend to have read it.  The pictures listed of course followed the tired old art historical arc pedalled by current art historical wisdom. Abstract art was rather oddly represented by Pollock. The blurb below the picture read, “…any critical confusions about his stature have long since been cleared up.” followed by some daft waffle I shall not bother to unpick. It does say earlier that Pollock had become interested in the paint splashes on the floor when he worked as a (very bad) muralist. A rather dubious tale to my mind as Pollock flirted with a fair few in vogue styles before becoming splashy. What is interesting is how Pollock’s early and very undistinguished career has been air brushed out, here is a site devoted to him: Pollock. You would think they might be keen on his early stuff… but no there is a gap and he springs into existence almost fully formed. There are examples from his days with Thomas Hart Benson, they are pretty average for a 23yr old but not wholly awful, he also does a few years later some Picasso inspired scribbles. I’ll put them below, they are very hard to find so the images aren’t great.

pollock

pollock

 

They do seem to show he didn’t have any real idea of where he wanted to go. Even though I suspect the drips on the floor story is apocryphal I quite like it as I have had a fair few admiring the paint frame floor moments myself over the years and painted many abstract backgrounds created by flinging paint around for use behind fashion shoots. I was once, if you can believe it, quite in demand for such canvasses by the great and the good of the world of photography. We sometimes joked at the time about how the floor would make a good Jackson Pollock if we could but rip it up and mount it on the wall. I have also painted fake Pollocks a fair few times for adverts, I have read in art books about how Pollock had some sort of mastery and it was hard if not impossible to mimic him. It is I assure you not true. Pollocks are relatively easy. Thick paint for big dribbles and splashes, thinner for finer dribbles. Then just layer them up, thin thick, thin thick in four or five colours. The hardest part is to do it randomly without too much thought. Due to this of course fake Pollocks are a big problem with the fakes essentially just as good as the real ones. If the experts at the big auction houses are struggling how is a mere gallery visitor to know?

So what are Pollocks for? They are quite nice to look at, but so are any paint splashes. As a visual focus for meditation they are no better as far as I can see than a bit of much repaired pavement or aged concrete. You could argue indeed that the pavement carries a more interesting embedded history, more trodden in chewing gum for sure. If it was just their meditative qualities that were key then it would hardly matter whether they were by Pollock or someone else, so it is I would say the “treasure” aspect that is the defining one. Their cultural significance is mainly historical rather than aesthetic.

Another of the art items listed by the Times is the Lindisfarne Gospels. On the surface they do much the same job as the Pollock. They are treasure, and also made as an aid to meditation and devotion. They also have a good historical story with the Bishop Eadfrith in place of a depressed drunk. Though we don’t know if he or his scribes hankered after renown as Pollock did. Here is a page from the Gospel.

Lindisfarne, gospel

 

You can click on the above for a bigger view. Pretty funky stuff you have to admit. It is pretty much abstract, with only a few zoomorphics here and there. Easy to loose yourself in the textures and patterns. So what are the differences. Well for one I have tried to create these. It is not impossible, but it is also not in any way easy, as the dire art produced by many new-agers shows. To produce a fake Gospel page would be a tremendous labour. First gaining the skills, researching methods and other technical knowledge, then practice to gain the dexterity and finally but not least the execution of the page itself. It would in other words take years. It is hard to say what the final page would be worth if it took in the experts. A single carpet page ripped from the book of Lindisfarne would I suspect fetch millions, so why are there seemingly no fakes of the great carpet pages? Well it is simply that they would be too hard to make even at that kind of money. The same is evidently not true of a Pollock. I could and have knocked up a pretty good Pollock take off in a single day. I studied and practiced drawing stuff similar to the manuscript above for several years and still could not do it as well as the 7thC scribes!

I would hold that what makes a lasting aesthetic object and sets it apart from one that has mostly historical and ephemeral cultural significance, is the amount and degree of a person’s life needed to create it. There is very little in this life made by men that does not require skill and the effort of learning and practice to have lasting value. If you do not believe me just go to the British Museum and look at what has made it into the display cases from each era. Do you really think that in a thousand years’Equivalent VIII’ by Carl Andre will sit in a glass case to represent our historical era? Well going by what we have chosen to represent earlier centuries it will be examples of beautiful things created by high skill and lifetime’s worth of practice and learning. Tracy Emin’s scribbles and I’m afraid Jackson’s dribbles are I suspect rather unlikely to be there to be representative of the hopes and dreams of our wonderful and varied age. I might vote for an Aston Martin, a Spiderman comic, a mobile phone and a Hollywood movie! Engineering, technology and mass media are the crown jewels and the highest achievements of our age, I doubt any paintings at all will be present. On thinking about it I would not be ashamed for my times to be so represented, though I am a little sad I can’t see many paintings making it.

Life drawing has returned after a gap. It is always a shock how hard it is!

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life drawing, watercolour, nude

The second one of the session, the first went badly wrong! Serves me right for taking water colours to the first evening! This one came out a bit

better. Half an hour is only just enough time, you have to be very focussed on the exact order you do things in so that you always have a bit you

can work on. If you get the whole lot wet then you just have to stop and can run out of time. Just two colours, transparent red oxide and ultramarine.

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life drawing, watercolour, nude

Not the most flattering angle! I enjoyed painting this though as the shapes were so interesting. I like it when the human body looks

like a set of abstract sculptural forms.

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life drawing, charcoal, nude

This is actually the last evening of the previous session before the break. Esther our model posed outside in the garden looking I thought like a very lovely dryad.

The natural light was magical and as the evening wore on got better and better. Hard at first as it is quite diffuse and without any hard shadows. This

is two sorts of charcoal and some black conte.

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life drawing, charcoal, nude

It did get quite hard to see as the light levels dropped. I just tried to hint at what I could see and not define what was

lost in the gloom. Hard to see the paper too!

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life drawing, nude, charcoal

I think this was done before the standing one. I remember puzzling over how to indicate the shrubbery without

over complication. The result is a bit futurist!

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life drawing, nude, charcoal

Ran out of time and didn’t quite get a chance to unify the whole thing. I usually adjust the general tones of areas with light strokes of the side of the charcoal

which helps define the form and so forth.

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Life drawing, nude, charcoal

Quite pleased with this one. I built the whole thing out of carefully considered strokes trying to be as economical as possible. It meant working a little more

slowly than normal but I like the spare effect.

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Life drawing, nude, charcoal

Last one, I love the news print to draw on but it does yellow very fast. The drawings from six months ago are quite a bright yellow. I must find something

similar that takes the charcoal in the same way. Cartridge doesn’t have enough bite and pastel paper has too much. Any suggestions welcome!

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