Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

May 24, 2011

What is Art?

Now I’m in trouble, a mare’s nest by any standards! However I think that there is no getting away from the need for an artist to address at the very least their personal feelings/thoughts on the subject. I don’t feel the need or even see the possibility however of coming to any concrete conclusions. I am trying approach the issue by simplifying it as much as possible and trying to find comparisons or disparities with other human activities. A few days ago when digging through my backlog of work I came across a painting that I did maybe 20 years ago. Nobody has ever seen it but me. If nobody ever sees it then can it be included in the set of objects to which we apply the label “Art”? It has some small input via the experience of producing it that must have in some small way influenced later efforts that have been seen, but this is of an homeopathic degree. So I have to conclude “Art” presupposes a viewer, a consumer. An artist can never properly “see” their own work which is one of the most trying difficulties of the trade, but more on that another time.

So what happens if someone sees my up until now unseen painting? The object itself hasn’t changed. I am possibly unchanged as well (I might indeed be dead at that point!). The only change is in the experience of the person who has viewed it. Therefore you might argue that it is there that the “Art” ingredient must be sought. Art indeed must be in the category of things that change people via their perceptions. A pretty wide set of things you might think. A closer look though shows that may not be so. We can exclude all things not created or arranged by a conscious act of another. So a magnificent vista might be inspiring but if there has been no intent to cause such inspiration then we would have to exclude it. A magnificent vista set out by Capability Brown and nurtured by generations of gardeners might fall on the other side of the balance therefore. This simple delineation however can be questioned. If the viewer of the park set out by Mr Brown knew nothing of the business of landscape gardening then their experience would surely be indistinguishable from the appreciation of a natural and accidental vista. The unavoidable conclusion is that the thing that is the manifestation of “Art” requires a certain degree of pre-knowledge and training in the act of appreciation in the viewer to be present. Good art from the viewer’s perspective might be a work that increased, reinforced, corrected or honed the current state of their pre-existing fund of knowledge. I once read that tribal peoples when first contacted did not immediately recognise photographs as representations. Also young children do not recognise their own image in a mirror until a certain stage of development. The development of aesthetic appreciation might be considered as the making of ever nicer (finer) distinctions between similar things.

What are we to make of this if we are claiming to be in in the business of making objects imbued with the “Art” virtue? It would seem doing it purely for self gratification is not enough, however pleasant. I might therefore need to have a consumer of my efforts in mind, in whose perception the “Art” will be manifested. Though I may well at the moment of creation have little choice but to rely on my own self knowledge and accrued experience of other’s reactions to my own and other’s work to guide my efforts effectively. It makes it very valid to consider, “Who am I painting this picture, making this object for?” or “What practical use to another might this image be?”. If I am aiming to please a lover of cuddly animals it might be wise to include kittens, but if I am to be on target for admirers of landscape painting then I might be best to leave out the kitties. I could if very cunning make my kittens appeal to both cat lovers and modern art fans the later group taking the aforementioned felines as kitsch and ironic. If art is this thing that we need to come to fruition within the minds of others then getting your efforts in places where they will be seen by your target group is an integral part of the whole process. We can’t all be as desultory in self promotion or as lucky as Van Gogh who’s brother was an art dealer.

So where is the transcendental element, the poetry, the intuition?  As artists we all, I would guess, hope to imbue our work with this evanescent quality. Or rather should I say cause it to manifest in the consciousness or subconsciousness of the person experiencing our work. The answer alas is different for different groups of viewers in different times. We only have to look at whole schools of work that have been pitched into the historical dustbin by a change in fashion. The works are still the same, it is only the minds which experience them that have altered. There is a warning here for artists working in comfortably fashionable niches, the estimation of your efforts will inevitably decline with the mortality of your fan base or dissolve with ephemeral fashion!

So how does all this relate to me or you as a practicing artists? I myself wilfully paint subject matter nobody cares much about in a style that is well past its sell by date, so any thoughts of fame historical or otherwise are plainly not on the cards. Many artists I know or read opinions of who paint in a similar manner to myself tend to rail against the sidelining by “Modern Art” of skilled representation. But I think there are more and just as good painters in this manner now as in in any age, so in sheer numbers and quality the form is thriving. In our current times almost every so called past historical style has its proponents and exponents. Maybe it is time for art historians and other official cataloguers of creativity to just accept that the tidy linear progression and pigeon holing of art is no longer valid (if it ever was). The variety of uses, degree of availability, worldwide audiences and different mediums make it hard if not impossible to assess and rate the vast quantity of offerings available. It is better maybe to consider all the many different branches of human creativeness as squares in a quilt. If we wish to grade them then we might say each square of material should be sized in proportion to the number of exponents and proponents, but the highs and lows of individual achievement can only be assessed within each square or group of related squares. Overall the lesson to be learnt is don’t hold back on the self promotion, it is an integral part of painting just as much as brushes and paper.

Now we approach a related area where I think there is just cause for indignation. We live in a society where the state subsidises or otherwise provides support for what we call Art. In view of just how much the creative landscape has changed in the last hundred years it seems perverse to have an “Official” arbiter of worth in creative arenas that has such a narrow definitions of worthiness. I see no particular reason why a conceptual artist should be considered for say the Turner prize and a “traditional” landscape watercolourist not, the organisers may cry that what they are picking is the newest and most cutting edge but the actual choices belie that with most of the offerings relying on ideas that were old in the 1950’s. So purloining a style and raison d’être from 1910 is OK but one from 1850 is not. Landscape watercolours which have a fine tradition in this country having consistently had wonderfully talented exponents in the UK for centuries, but the Tate seems to think they stopped painting them in 1900, the V&A in about 1950. What criteria have been used that lead to cease considering these works as possibly noteworthy? Is a good painting considered worthwhile for it’s quality relative to other similar works or it’s date of creation and its supposed historical context? You could I think assemble just as fine an exhibition of landscape watercolours from 1980 as 1850 but for some reason an average watercolour from 1850 seems to be more worthy than a brilliant one from 1980. I suspect the curators from these institutions never even look at the output of contemporary landscape watercolourists unless they have some fine art pretensions. There would be no complaint if these were private institutions but they are state funded by a democratic government. In my book of definitions anything painted today in whatever style historical or experimental is modern and contemporary and needs to be judged within its own tradition without prejudice or misplaced art historical or aesthetic snobbery. I’m sorry about my focus on painting but the same arguments could easily be broadened to cover any medium.

Well if anybody managed to get through that you deserve a gold star! To lighten the mood here are a few new ones.



Dorset, oil, plein air, painting, Child Okeford

A simple view near a friend’s cottage, browns creeping into the spring foliage as it has been so dry.


Bromley, London, oils, painting, plein air, pond

Keston fishponds near Bromley the end of the day, the light made everything look beautiful concentrating the colours.


Cranbrook, London, Deptford, plein air, painting, oils

The pub next door to my house, It took me a couple of early mornings to get it done as the light was so transient. The publican has recently painted the front black which looks horrible so I reverted it to it’s old livery later in the studio!


Dorset, Bridport, oil, painting, beach, seurat

The first of a few studio paintings from my recent travels, this is the beach at Bridport with my friends Richard and Kate looking French and Hollywood glamour respectively. Richard had a distinctly Seurat feel with his pose and hat!


Honister, mountains, pass, watercolour, painting, Cumbria, Lake District

A studio painting from my recent expedition to Cumbria. This is the Honister Pass.


Cotswolds, beech trees, watercolour, painting

This line of beech trees took my eye when I passed through the Cotswolds. I am using 300grm Arches paper which I like better than the Saunders I have been previously using. I have found the Saunders to have occasionally variable sizing that has caused several recent efforts to end up in the bin.


April 16, 2011

A Few Days in Cumbria

Filed under: Cumberland,Drawing,Painting,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 2:08 pm

Having found myself with an empty diary for couple of weeks I made a quick decision and packed up my paints and headed off to Cumbria via the Midlands. There is nothing like being alone in a lovely place to concentrate on the painting. I know this sounds a little antisocial but there is no getting away from the fact that everybody wants to sit down to eat in the evening just as the light is at its best! It was great to paint countryside again as I have been very focused on urban subjects for a while. So much so that I struggled at first with the change of scene. Despite the beauties on offer I found it difficult to “settle” on on a scene, there is always the feeling that there will be a better subject around the corner. This visit I was more organised than usual in marking potential subjects on the map and using a compass to determine what time of day the light might be good.  Good in theory but I only got back to paint a couple of them so I will plainly have to make another visit. I did almost equal amounts of oils and watercolours which really drove home to me that I have a fair way to go before I am as comfortable with the oils as I am with the watercolours.

The only route to getting better at anything music or painting is to practice and practice, with music at least the failures vanish into the aether, but unfortunately paintings hang around to remind us of the time we didn’t quite nail it! It is the sad case that to do any good paintings you have to paint a lot of bad ones and I find it best to just accept that as the case rather than dwelling on it too much and undermining self confidence. As with sport or music a lot of it is “in the head” and I find it is worth using a few simple strategies to get “in the mood” to carry a painting through to completion. With nearly all paintings the pattern of emotional ups and downs is fairly similar. First I sketch out with boundless optimism eager to get to the painting stage… I have learnt to rein this in a bit as it is easy to rush in too fast to the rest of the process. So I try to just pause and reconsider the scene, sometimes this leads to a complete redraw but more usually a slight rethinking of what is important. It is during the blocking out stage my confidence tends to drain away as the many things that need to be balanced and the different ways areas might be treated compete for attention and can overwhelm. I get through this by muttering “Big to little” under my breath, what I mean by this is getting clear in your head what the main tonal areas are and dealing with the required relationships one by one from the lightest to darkest or vica versa. The other thing to is to get decided upon what the order of compositional importance is, IE which part or aspect is the star of the show and which ones are the supporting roles. The next hurdle is stopping myself rushing to get to the “fun” bits. As you proceed you start to see the touches that will bring the whole thing to life, the wood from the trees as it were. The temptation is to skip past less important areas that need to underlie but will come back to haunt you if not done carefully. I try and avoid making judgements as to the worth or not of the painting as I actually do it. It is easy to convince yourself that the thing is a failure when it may not be. Even when I have finished on site I try not to make any final critical assessment as immediately on completion you just don’t have the emotional distance to gauge the merits or not. I often change my opinion about something I have done once a few days have passed sometimes demoting a picture I thought successful or seeing something in one that I thought just “so so” that I had missed when just completed. Despite all this 4 or 5 paintings got wiped off at a late stage, for some daubs there really is no hope! Most pictures can be clicked for a larger view.



Oil painting, plein air, cotswolds

When crossing the Cotswolds heading North I was much taken with the raw newly ploughed fields so I stopped and painted this 14in by 10in. The wind was very strong and bitterly cold and the light rapidly changing. I might do a studio painting based on this despite its flaws as the subject has some interesting abstract possibilities that could be brought to the fore.


Watercolour, painting, plein air, art

This was a very picture book scene but very typical of the area. I enjoyed painting it as it gave me the feeling of having “got started” on my expedition.


Watercolour, road, cotswolds, plein air

I came across this scene as I drove towards Snowshill on the edge of the Cotswolds. I was taken by the bleak simplicity. I didn’t quite get the tree to my satisfaction but I think this will make a good picture if I redo it with a slightly looser treatment. Not possible on site alas as the wind was actually blowing the paint across the paper!


Alcester, Droitwich, salt, roman road, oil painting, plein air, road

A peaceful road… not if you were painting it, the backdraught from the passing lorries nearly lifted me off my feet on a couple of occasions. I had a lot to get down in a short time and the light was very flat. A great subject though and I shall return and do it again. The road is a Roman one used to carry salt from Droitwich in Worcestershire, this stretch is just in Warwickshire approaching the old town of Alcester.


Patterdale, Cumbria, lake district, watercolour, plein air, painting

The Lakes at last! Over Kirkdale pass and looking down to Brothers Water and Deepdale. Cloud shadows over the hills, who could ask for more. I cheated the view point to the right to give the feeling of being in the road. This is something I quite often do as it gives a feeling of being “in” the scene.


Martindale, cumbria, lake district, Ullswater, plein air, painting, oils

My first full day and a wet and windy one to boot. I had to weigh down my easel with big rocks. I need to refine my treatment of winter trees, I’m getting better at them but not quite getting the balance of detail and brevity of brushstrokes I would like.


Ullswater, cumbria, lake district, plein air, watercolour

More trouble with winter trees! Although I often like the result when watercolourists reduce a tree to a quick wash and a few sticks I feel it doesn’t really do them justice sometimes and it is easy to fall into the habit of populating your scenes with”stock” trees rather than taking on that particular tree. Here I made the error of going in too dark too soon which reduced my options later.


Aira Force, waterfall, cumbria, lake district, oil painting, plein air

This is Aira Force waterfall near Ullswater. Great fun to paint though the mist from the fall made me and my palette quite wet. I was very tempted to take this further but decided to stop at this level. I can always do another from this and reference. The first things I scrubbed in were the sky and the falls in white on my red ochre ground, once that was established this was very straightforward to paint.


Aira Force, Ullswater, Cumbria, Lake district, plein air, oil painting

This is the path to the waterfall, I loved the mossy tree choked gorge with the sound of the water rushing below. I painted this over a couple of evenings as it was close by, so I took a slightly more measured approach to building up the tones which gives the picture a softer look.


Tarn Hows, Tom Gill, plein air, oil painting, cumberland

More waterfalls! This another of those magical Lake District valleys called for some reason Tom Gill running down from Tarn Hows. A delicious spot to sit and paint especially as the weather had changed entirely and become warm and sunny. It’s very tempting to over do water so it is of the utmost importance to keep it loose and expressive and not get hooked on the detail however beguiling it might be.


Windermere, Cumbria, lake district, oils, plein air

Lake Windermere at the end of the day. Started a little late and it was almost dark when I put the last details of the boats.


Ullswater, cumbria, lake district, plein air, oil painting

Late in the day on Ullswater, a much painted view I suspect, it was done by Turner I know. He had cattle in the lake in the foreground… but they would have drowned I reckon! I had to paint this very briskly as the light was going fast so all dine in forty minutes or so. I did it on a dirty raw sienna ground which I rather liked against the blues.


Small Tarn, Haweswater, Watercolour, plein air, painting

This was a wonderful day. I walked up from Haweswater to Small Tarn, a stiff climb with all my gear. At the top I was rewarded by this view the shapes and the way the light simplified the shadow was a delight. The only technical challenge was the water, getting the feeling of the stony bottom running under both the reflected sky and mountain areas. This sort of scene you have to be very careful in getting your tones right and I did several tests on the back of another sheet before committing to the paper.


After doing the lake I back tracked a little to do this. I know another waterfall, I can only apologise. This was quite hard to paint, getting the relative tones was very tricky. To some degree you can “choose” what colours to see in a scene.In the previous one I saw the purples which took the pasture towards yellow. Here I chose to pick up on the Ultramarines which moved the grasses towards the green. But all the tones in this were aimed at one thing which was to give enough tonal leeway to express the sunlit waterfall and make it really sparkle. In the end I spent more time mixing tones and hues than I did in actually applying the paint to the board!


Small Tarn, Cumbria, High Street, Mountains, watercolour, plein air, painting

I dumped my oil painting gear down a crack as it was just too much to haul any further. There was nobody about and I had the hills pretty much to so I though it safe enough, though I carefully took a photo of the place I hid it so I could pick it upon my descent! This is Small Tarn seen from high up it was fun deciding the relative tones and hues of the shadows as they grew distant.


Haweswater, Cumberland, lake district, watercolour, painting, plein air

A last one for the day, I was dog tired by now but couldn’t resist this view of Haweswater as was nearly back to where I started.


Martindale, Ullswater, Cumberland, lake district, plein air, watercolour

A walk on my last day up Martindale. I didn’t settle to paint anything until on my way back as the light was too brash. It was only when walking back to the car that the sun had dropped enough to throw a shadow over the valley floor. This was done from the bridge with the ever present danger of death by passing 4×4 or tractor. Looking at it now I wished I had painted it a little more thickly and a wee bit looser.


Ullswater, Cumbria, watercolour, plein air, painting

A last painting for the trip. A perfect scene, the water easily simplified by the differing reflections.


Drawing, pastel, sheep, ewes

Some sheep to finish off, I intended to do a picture with sheep so I sketched the woolly blighters in anticipation of finding the right scene. Alas it never happened so they will have to wait for another day and will probably end up in a field in wales!

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