Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

December 14, 2016

Art History

I have recently waded through two vast Pelican histories of art in Europe 1780 to 1880 by Novotny and 1880 to 1940 by George Heard Hamilton. They are both written in the sixties. They are fascinating for what they leave out: no Sargent who was very active in Europe, no Zorn, no Joaquín Sorolla. The Novotny book especially has an agenda that is to see past painting in the light of what was to come in the future. I notice they no longer publish it which is no surprise as to me it seemed very flawed. The other is well written and thoughtful and a pleasure to read even though I find the story told a little simplistic.

After finishing them I sat back and tried to take stock of why I felt uncomfortable with them while they were still fairly fresh in my mind. The story they purport to tell is of this great voyage of discovery, artists as explorers or scientific researchers making breakthroughs and discovering new lands for human expression to thrive in. The drive for this is assumed to be the vaunting ambition by the geniuses the era was fortunate to be blessed with and the rejection of the old. The word revolution is often used. Also the shock of the ancient regime when faced with these prodigies of modernity is given great weight. This I feel is overstated as for the most part societies seem to have taken up anything novel with considerable enthusiasm with the “Rock and Roll is the work of the Devil” voices in the minority.

In other walks of life the ideas of the sixties, central town and social planning have been reassessed. We no longer believe men with university degrees, pipes and glasses reorganising the world for the benefit of the lumpen and ignorant masses is a good or a proper idea. Much of the idealised view of science, medicine and advancement to a bright shiny future have also been reconsidered. Art history and art opinion though is much the same today as these books written in the sixties it is as if new thought has been frozen with anything fresh roughly warped to fit into the pattern already laid down.

It is with this overall pattern I take exception. I think the flaw in the whole thing is in the view of what topology art might inhabit. It is perhaps seen by the authors and indeed current artists and historians as a land with boundaries that can be pushed back with terrae incognitae waiting on the other side of a line to be explored by plucky creative souls. The other analogy could be with science, unknowns being researched with bold experiments, analytical thought and inspired perception. The assumption is that there is an endless ocean of artistic thought to be navigated and conquered. Unlike scientists or explorers though the past is discarded by art historians, beyond a certain point its relevance only in that it was a step towards this new and always contemporary fertile ground.

It is I agree a wonderfully romantic vision. It flatters the artists and casts them in a heroic light sailing against the winds of tradition to discover new and uncompromising truths. It gives art historians a context, a larger theme and a style of language to set their writings in. It offers endless opportunities for faux scientific and cod philosophical art speak. It is all in all the most comfortable of rebellions, a risky business with chance excluded, derring do with no actual danger. The problem I feel is that the whole premiss is untrue and misleading. It distorts our ideas as to what culture is, narrows our possible horizons and imprisons any of an up and coming generation to an ever turning, but ever stationary wheel.

For a start, human created content is not really like a land with undiscovered parts. Though if you must have the metaphor you might say that the land is always the same, and only the travellers and the journeys they make within it change. The science part is less easy to recast, there is knowledge theory and method to be learnt, but no breakthroughs only seeing old knowledge with fresh and ever renewed eyes. For each generation of artists there is much the same dressing up box of media, intent and style available, it is what they choose to do with them that counts.

This tiptoes into the realm of philosophy which is another field that contemporary art and art history tends to look at in an envious manner. It is a flattering thought that artists creating objects are deepening the well of human understanding in some manner. Words and ideas however are the tool for this purpose not paintings or sculptures however much they label themselves conceptual. This perhaps explains the increasing need of the visual arts for words to augment and explain or more often confuse.

Both books shuffle uncomfortably over the pivotal moments in the fragmented story of the period they cover.  Hardly any mention is made of the great exhibitions of tribal art and the trickle of cultural objects from far away that grew into a flood. Photography is passed over with hardly a mention, even though it was to destroy a large part of the reasons why many cultural objects were made in the first place. The industrial revolution that replaced objects we used to make with our hands and minds with cheap and flawless substitutes gets little attention. The social turmoil that changed a business dependent on a few hugely wealthy clients to one supported by many with more humble means would seem worth a mention too but doesn’t get one. Even the invention of private and later civic art collections in the form of galleries and museums seems not to have been really considered as a possible influence on the nature of what is created in that time period.

Everything in the books is driven by the need to create some narrative. A story line to hang the work of artists of each period on, like washing pegged out in a neat easily comprehendable row. However to my eye the history and nature of created objects is actually arranged in a wildly non linear manner and has the possibility to be categorised in a plethora of different ways. There have been cups made from the dawn of time and drawings too. In each particular era the human souls who created them came to the act of making afresh. They saw some results of what those who came before had done, but each time for them the learning, the doing and the achievement was entirely new.

For example you cannot sensibly put the describing of the human form which has gone on for 30,0000 or so years into a neat progression. At different times the purpose of such objects could swing from the individual to the universal, or from the observational to the symbolic, so there is no progression. We had stick men then and they are still with us today, we had carefully observed recordings of animals and they are also with us still. We have had abstract patterns and arrangements in our lives since the very dawn of culture. They have not got any better or advanced in any meaningful way, the idea of steady advancement is irrelevant to that category of created thing. You can more sensibly place Picasso’s portraits with tribal works done in similar manner many times over the eons. All you can say is that both the 19thC Spaniard and some 10thC African took that particular hat out of the dressing up box and gave it a very pleasing whirl.

The function of art is really I have come to believe very simple. It is simply a thing crafted to engage and enrich our perceptions. The world as it stands does this, art objects are merely those that are made by conscious intent. One occurs the other is made to occur. The rest is merely a matter of where the creation might stand as far as effectiveness and universality goes.

A mixed bag of work this time I am hopping here and there and cannot seem to settle to one thing.

Ramsgate, plein air, oil painting, Kent

A visit to Kent, this is Ramsgate. Wasn’t really on form and several paintings hit the scrap pile! This one worked better though. 10in by 7.5in oils.


ramsgate, Kent, oil painting

This was done on my return and is Ramsgate again, very interesting town with lots of varied subjects. I spent quite a lot of time just wandering and looking, which in its way is just as rewarding as painting. 16in by 10in Oils.


Ramsgate, oil painting, Kent

Yet another Ramsgate one, not sure this is quite done, it is up on the wall at the moment to consider. Some pictures get to a point where they are on the very edge of working well, but some niggling feeling tells you there is more to be done. The hard thing is to establish exactly what that “something” is of course. The green awning is crime suspect no 1 at present! 14in by 10in oils.


Ramsgate, The belgian Bar, interior, pen and ink, drawing

Last one from Kent. We went to the Belgian Bar to eat in Ramsgate and I could not resist a quick sketch. Pen and Ink.


Dorset, road, watercolour, painting

Back to Dorset and the light has just been amazing, one of the best Autumn seasons I can recall. Especially as due to building works I missed last years season entirely. I have done this road a few times and it always rewards. Here I did two watercolours at the same time, this one only got to pencil stage but it is a good thing to do as there is always waiting around for the damn stuff to dry so having another picture on the go keeps you occupied. Watercolour.


Dorset, landscape, watercolour, painting

Here is the other in the pair. This one got a bit further on I got it drawn out and the shadows blocked in. Here the washes went over the shadows rather than working from light to dark. I like they way the overlaying washes slightly dissolve the previous layer. You do have to be vary careful and lay the washes in one pass as stirring it around at all makes mud very quickly. Watercolour


Dorset, landscape, watercolour, painting

I decided I might make a linocut of the same scene and this is the first stage in reducing it in complexity. I prefer to do this in stages, the next stage I will do on the computer as I can preview the different plates easily. Hopefully with more experience I will be able to leave out that stage eventually. Watercolour.


Milton Abbas, watercolour, Capability Brown, painting, landscape

Another one that has linocut potential. This is Milton Abbas where the lord of the manor moved a whole town so that Capability Brown could improve the view. This is a section of Mr Browns efforts! 9in by 6.5in watercolour.


Trees, watercolour, dorset, painting

One that didn’t quite fly, I had done an oil of this which is below and wondered if it would make a print, so this watercolour was just to see if it would. The answer is probably no! 9in by 6.5in watercolour.


Dorset, trees, oil painting, road

Here is the oil, I made a fair few changes to the road and sky after this scan but this is when it was mostly done. 14in by 10in oils.

Thats it for this batch, have a fair bit more to post but the Christmas season is approaching like an express train and I am unprepared!

Here is this year’s Christmas card… a good one to all if any who peruse this daubing and waffling!

Christmas card, drawing

September 23, 2016


Filed under: Art History,London,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 11:22 am

It is one of the most popular art movements ever, you might almost say the very first art movement as such. There had been previous sea changes like the Renaissance or the Pre Raphs who were trying to revive some imaginary golden age as were the academic movements in France and elsewhere. You had movements that wanted to concentrate on a particular subject such as the Orientalists or shift in subject matter linked to romantic notions such as the change from Myth and History to Pastoralism with the Barbizon School. It was the Barbizon influence that had a direct influence on the formation of impressionism, it was they who were part of the europe-wide interest in painting en plein air.

Greater than all these forces however was the arrival of photography. Much early photography was done in a studio trying to mimic painterly values with classical backdrops etc, but from the very beginning photographers turned their lenses on the world around them. This was the beginning of a new subject matter. Everyday life had never really figured in painting before, yes there had been morality pieces staged in everyday settings, but they were always secondary to the moral message. There were idealisations of the pastoral life such as Millet. Portraits idealised and warts-n-all of course continued throughout, but they had a specific function to fix an individual in recorded history. Earlier and of course influential were the topographical artists such as Turner and Constable, but plein air sketches were for them raw material to be used in the studio afterwards.

Photography also demonstrated something else. Despite us all being immersed in the actual world around us, it surprised people as to how their world appeared suddenly unfamiliar fixed in the monochrome frame of the photographic image. It showed that artists had until then had for the most part looked, but not actually seen. That this caused a huge shift in representational painting is hardly surprising. Indeed all of the impressionists were keen photographers and many of these “impressionistic” moments we so admire were done in part from photographs even post impressionists Cezanne for example used photography a great deal. The idea that photography would replace and supplant painting had I suspect not really been considered or believed possible. This is a repeated human trait, I well remember the arrival of digital photography as I worked at that time building sets for photographs. All the art directors, and photographers were of the opinion that the complex chemical magic of film would never be out done by this upstart technology. We all know how that turned out!

There is much made of the ideas of optical mixing which were taken to extremes by the pointillists and divisionists, but really very few impressionist paintings stuck to that theory. The brushwork in a Manet or a Degas is not really very much different from what had gone before indeed they admired Velasquez for his painterly strengths. There was very much the idea that science was applicable to painting. Everything in that era was being studied and arranged in order and it would have been odd if painting had been left out of dissection and experimentation. It was I presume the discoveries by Newton and others that prompted the idea that colours could be optically mixed.

The main technical ingredient of impressionism was I think however slightly different and I feel tends to be somewhat ignored by art historians. They are of course swept away by the excitement of the era and the often colourful characters of the artists and their lives. The underlying principle is an older one though. Artists discovered quite early on that if you gave the right hints the viewer’s eye would fill in the rest for you. In Pompei you see areas of blocked in green with only a few leaves and branches delineated on top that this is further greenery is assumed. Later you get Frans Hals and others describing lace and rich patterns with just a hint and a splash. They discovered that this would appear more immediate to the viewer than having every thread delineated. It is this combined with direct observation that for me defines impressionism.

It is leveraging this tendency for the eye to fill in the rest that makes impressionism so immediate. Its original purpose was and is I suppose that our brains need to deliver a quick précis of our rapidly changing surroundings so we can react quickly to danger. It is very convenient for artists not to have to spell every area out in detail and a bonus that this actually produces a more involving representation to boot. The saving grace for artists is also that it is something photographs don’t do in the same way. Though a warning here, image processing by computer is catching up and may well be able to paint a pretty good impressionist painting in the very near future.

Another ingredient, also far from new, was uncertainty. When we see the world we cannot exactly define what every patch pif colour and tone is, there are large areas that may be one thing or another. So a dab of paint might be tree or wall or whatever, the viewer will unconsciously assume one or the other. This adds realism because in real life that is just how we sort the flood of incoming visual data.

At the same time from the historical viewpoint the usage painting was fragmenting and a craft tradition pushed out of a huge area of territory it had previously ruled. Any magazine publication you look at today has nearly all photographs, and even the “illustrations” are from picture libraries. Portraiture was decimated, images for political and religious purposes wiped from the map. The only territory left for the easel painter was the decorative function of adorning the domestic wall and collectors. In these reduced niches other imagery competed too pushing craft painting into a smaller and smaller ghetto. That painters reacted by desperately trying to find new purpose is I suppose hardly a surprise. So impressionism became “post” and all the plethora of other -isms and -ists started to compete to be the next big new thing.

Now more than a hundred years later the dust is perhaps beginning to settle. All the experimentation and searching for the new has actually produced nothing much new. Indeed most of the ideas that underpin current output were around by 1915. Ideas such as putting interesting looking stuff in a context that allows it to be admired,  abstraction, expressionism and symbolism have been around of thousands of years. Not much truly new in my view has been done in the 20th century and after. It takes an entirely new medium such as film to produce real novelty. Many will disagree with me on this, but most if not all contemporary work can be traced back to examples from the past. They are as impressionism is, historical styles. That said impressionism is very durable and has prospered. There is an easily followed unbroken thread through generations of artists to today. There are more impressionists painting done now than ever before and with the arrival of the internet and social media they are becoming visible. It is hard to see how they will not be worthy of a substantial chapter when the perspective of time allows the art histories of our age to be finally written. It is amusing to note that contemporary art theorists, art historians, art media and art establishments appear entirely blind to the movement, but it was ever thus with things under you nose, or beneath contempt!

I have actually managed to record a painting in the making, usually I start, get lost in the process and forget to take snaps. I’ll do that first.


Cannon St, London, drawing

Here is the inspiration. It is actually a plein air watercolour that went wrong and then was rescued with copious application of body colour. It is of a junction on Cannon St that gives a simultaneous view up 2 streets. I remember being quite pleased with it at the time and felt it might make an interesting bigger picture.


Collage, London, cannon St

Then there was the photographic information from the day. This is a collage of images put together so I can start to organise the composition. I can see I cribbed the taxi and motorbike probably from the camera monitor, as I recall it was finished on the spot, though my memory might be wrong. I have processed the colour and lighting to look as much like the sketch as possible.


Cannon St London, Block in

The canvas was 36in by 16in so I started with a 2 inch flat brush. I mixed all the tones and colours before starting painting. I must do this more consistently as it helps tremendously with the flow if you don’t have to keep on remixing little patches of paint. Also because you aren’t dipping into colour with the brushes everything stays clean. I try and keep the blocking in very broad and general. It only took about 15min to get the basics and the beginning of the flow of light.


Once the block in had dried I began to develop the drawing and think about how I wanted the focus points to work against each other. Almost the whole final tone range is in. I can see I have over developed the taxi and motor bike, which caused me problems later. The pedestrians are from the sketch but only stand ins. I paused for a day or two here.

Cannon St, London, painting

Here we are at the end of the next session. The motorcycle got removed, indeed the whole of the right is in a state of flux. The left has come on and really almost there. I have held back from the final brightening of the road and pavement.


London, Cannon St, oil painting, st pauls, oil painting

Here is close to the final stage. The painting is framed up and I will leave it where I can see it, I find that after a few weeks you can see the pros and cons more clearly. There are a few tonal tweaks and the detail of the central building has to be softened a little. As you can see the motorbike went back in but more as per the initial sketch.

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