Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

June 27, 2014

The Loire and Normandy

It is the holiday season again! As usual I went on the annual Wapping Group holiday, this time to Amboise on the Loire in France. Literally a busman’s holiday as we go in a coach in a group of about 20 painters and their partners. The great joy of these expeditions is that the whole thing is focussed around painting… er… well and eating too I suppose. I always have great dificulty deciding which media to take. I was intending not to take oils but relented at the last moment. A new addition to the watercolours was the pen. I had decided to start adding wash as well so I took some Noodlers inks which have a pleasing balance of mostly permanent but a fair bit of ink will dissolve into the wash.

I set off on these trips with a high degree of anticipation which is of course immediately dashed as soon as you are sitting before the subject. I did manage to force myself to be quite experimental, varying the media depending on subject and time available. The watercolours rather suffered as I didn’t quite get into my stride with them due to drawing a lot. Watercolour is one of those mediums that requires you to be in the zone if you want to paint them en plein air, which tends only to happen when you paint a string of them one after another. That said I am pretty pleased with the variety of my output.

A great advantage of this sort of coach based holiday is that you have to paint where you are taken. It is all too easy when touring by car to spend most of the trip driving around looking for a subject rather than trying to catch the flavour of a single place. I had been to Amboise 40 years ago so I was intruiged to see if I remembered much about it. I’ll do the pictures in sequence as much as I can. There will be another post though as the oils I brought back were left deliberately unresolved, but more on that  in my next post.


St malo, France, Brittany, pen and ink, drawing

St Malo where the ferry docked is a fascinating walled town. Full of up market shops and restaurants. The day however was grey, which was not great as the place is built out of quite a dark grey granite! I settled in the end for quite a wide perspective done from the city walls. This allowed a grand view down into the square where most of the restaurants were. The hardest thing here was to decide how to let the drawing fade off to the edges. I decided in the end to make the whole thing revolve around the tree and the white building to the left of it. Objects that were  towards the edge can then be simply indicated just by outlines. It is odd that the eye finds this perfectly understandable and acceptable.


St malo, France, drawing

Our visit to St Malo was only a few hours so this was my last there. I only had 15min so I blocked the whole thing in with acrylic markers. I bough two mid greys to add to my white which gives quite a  good range when combined with the black pen work. I deliberately kept the whole thing bold and kept the line work quite calligraphic.


Amboise, France, Loire, watercolour

I painted a couple of oils in the early part of the first day in Amboise. They will feature in the next post though. After eating I went down to the Loire and did this in the last of the light. Quite hard to see either my painting or the palette but still it captures the feel of the evening. I was so smothered in anti mosquito spray that I was a chemical hazard to myself and the surrounding wildlife!


Amboise, France, watercolour

Next morning I settled down to paint this small 7in by 5in watercolour. I tried to keep the whole thing light and airy and not over define. Quite a difficult perspective as none of the buildings were parallel to either the arch of each other. People are so important in this sort of painting, the scene would be very dull without them. I did not however want to tale them to a stage where you could engage with them as individuals. I still find this sort of fine judgement very hard to achieve.


Chenonceau, per cher, drawing, pen and ink

This is Chenonceau. There is a very famous and beautiful chateau there, but I decided quixotically not to paint it. There have been a thousand drawings of the chateau and I had seen it before so I walked into the town and drew this. The light was dull when I started then grew sunny, but I decided to stick with the soft light. Pen and ink is very good at describing buildings without needing strong shadow. The trick is to vary the textures and weight of the hatching to indicate the differing surfaces and planes. I will do a tutorial on pen hatching in a week or so as it is a technique many do not get the most out of.


Montrichard, Le Cher, Pen and ink, drawing

Our next stop was Montrichard, a small town on the river Cher. It had once been a very important place controlling a river crossing, but now a bit of a backwater. After wandering around I settled to do this using sepia ink I had mixed myself from two shades of Noodlers ink. A young child from the house behind me watched for a bit then got her siblings, they in turn brought the parents to see and finally the grand parents arrived to watch me to a finish! How odd it is that drawing and painting breaks through people’s reserve and makes them engage you.


Amboise, Chateaux, France, Watercolour, painting.

The next day was very hot indeed and I was faced with subjects that didn’t allow me any shade! This is part of the Chateaux of Amboise, there is another view of it later in this post that explains how unusual the building is. I struggled a bit to catch the feeling of it, bright sunny days are far from my favourite especially in the middle of the day. Still I got some better composed views in photos so this will help with the final studio picture. The washes were drying instantly which was very difficult.


Amboise, Chateaux, loire, france, pen and ink, drawing

I had drawn this view of Amboise 40 years ago, so was keen to have another go. I was sitting on the roof of a tower and the heat was quite something. I decided from the start to use two colours of ink, something I haven’t done before. Quite pleased with the result. By the time I had finished I was baked to a turn!


Amboise, Chateaux, France, Pen and ink, drawing

Last of the day I settled in the relative cool to draw this. I could not get far enough away really so the perspective is rather extreme. Mixing the inks again but less obviously.


Amboise, Chateaux, loire, france, watercolour

This was a real struggle. I was a little too early really. It made a better picture  an hour later. I had to risk life and limb to get by the waterside and was perched very uncomfortably on some rocks in the water. Looking at the photos I don’t think there is a larger painting from this viewpoint, so this will remain a sketch.


Amboise, chateaux, church, watercolour, france

This is the little church I painted earlier. This time it is seen from street level. I could not resist doing this though due the narrowness of the street the perspective was extreme. I had to position my stool near a wall and lean back. The light was racing so I had my work cut out getting it all in.


St Ceneri Le Gerei

This is a small chapel at St Ceneri le Gerei. We were there at lunch time so the light was directly overhead. I would have loved to do the trees all wet into wet but the heat was so extreme the paint dried instantly. I settled for putting in the tones and then washing quickly with water so the redisolved. Not ideal but needs must.


Dives sur Mer, france, pen and wash

Our next stop was Dives sur Mer, from where Bill the Conquerer set off to give us a good kicking. Badly bombed in the war but still some lovely things to draw. I drew this in the brown ink then washed over it and gave it body with the acrylic markers. I love this quick and direct way of sketching.


Dives sur Mer, France, Normandy, market hall, pen and wash

This was a scary subject. It is the market hall in Dives sur Mer. I drew it out in pencil and then inked the structure. To finish I washed over the whole thing so soften the inking then picked out the counter shapes in watercolour. There were more light sources than this but I decided to reduce it to just the one. I tried to keep the whole thing light and easy. With subjects as complex as this it is easy to get carried away with the detail and loose the character. I deliberately curved the perspective to draw the eye in but was artful not to push it to the point of “fisheye”.


That is it for this issue! I have as much again to come so it will need two posts.

March 13, 2014


This is something that has caused me a certain amount of grief. Many years ago I was warned by a really well known illustrator that a very distinctive personal style was often a problem. He pointed out that once you had established and were known for a distinctive style you wouldn’t be asked for anything else. What is more if your style was a hit and then went out of fashion you were left high and dry with very little work.

This in the event was not a problem for me. I am a born mimic and can usually paint in most styles in a reasonably convincing way. Indeed a lot of my illustration work came with the requests like, “Could you do this in whatshisname’s style as he isn’t available.” I became quite useful and garnered a fair bit of work on this basis. It broadened the range of skills that I had which was I suppose a plus.  The disadvantage was that I didn’t develop much of a distinctive personal style myself! I would have an idea and think that it would suit this style or that, swopping between them as if changing hats.

This problem was brought into focus when I started to paint pictures for myself not for commission. At first my acrylics were so varied in style that if they were hung on the wall side by side nobody would guess they were by the same painter! In watercolours I had more to build on as I had been filling small sketchbooks for years with topographical paintings from holidays etc. Here at least my style was reasonably consistent. With oils however I tended to swing between the finished and sketched or the broad and the detailed. Looking at my wall of recent paintings I do at last see a style emerging, which has led me to think on it further.

I now think the matter of style can be a very thorny issue. The same problem occurs with easel painters as it does with illustrators. If your style is very distinctive, say you outline most things with a primary or some such, then if you stop that practice then the pictures won’t be what people expect of you. Also you will only be able to do such pictures where that particular quirk works well. A subtle misty mood for example would be nigh on impossible. You have in essence painted yourself into a cul de sac, you can only paint the subjects that suit your style.

It happens I think because people wish to reprise past successes. They paint a nocturne which is very much of a hit and thereafter do nocturnes until they turn up their toes!

Looking back at art history you can see examples of artistic type casting. De Chirico is quite a good one. He became famous for his surreal paintings, but later in life attempted to paint in a more classical manner. (much to the horror of art historians who really don’t like you to step outside your box!). He came to the other style without the required skill and so visibly struggled. The technical hurdles of drawing, observation and paint handling for the classical inspired work being far higher than for the surreal ones. No one really wanted his new work so he had to keep on knocking out the old surreal stuff to make a buck. The problem for De Chirico was he had become type cast, his style had become a straight jacket that imprisoned him. De Chirico is laudable I feel because he at least tried to throw off the chains. Other artists having established their own comfortable little walled garden never thereafter step beyond its bounds.

Another example would be Samuel Palmer, in his youth he had mental problems and painted in a visionary style. But later he settled on to a more even keel and painted in a fairly straight observational manner. In both styles he is very good, but due to the existence of his hallucinatory and romantic early work the later efforts will never be really appreciated. Indeed books on him often only feature later work briefly at the end!

Other painters, just peg away at the same dreary stuff year after year. Oddly the art world gives brownie points for dogged persistence. If you spend 30 years arranging pine cones into mandalas in the depths of Siberia it must they argue be more than a passing phase. I can’t imagine what a dreary existence it must be to be someone like Bridget Riley knocking out the same Op art tedium year after year. Mind you she no longer bothers to do them herself but has helpers do the donkeywork. Not that the end results aren’t very decorative, but I’d prefer to have a William Morris on my wall any day!

So I now feel that too strong a personal style is a bit of a handicap. We all hope to be different and noticed but in a world where everybody is trying to be just that, different becomes the new same. What you hoped might separate you from the crowd does just the opposite. The real rare thing in life and art is not someone doing something different but someone doing something really well.


Greenwich, Royal Hill, pen and ink, Drawing, London


I have as I believe mentioned before decided to draw more in pen and ink. This is already paying dividends as by reducing your  choices of tone and mark you are forced into finding ways of explaining your subject that only require line and tone. With such a limited menu of marks everything has to earn its keep. Hatching with its strength order and direction becomes very important. If you do a building wall in just vertical lines then it becomes dead and featureless. In real life there are many variations so if you break up mostly vertical lines with the odd angled group then you are showing both that it is vertical and flat but also that it is varied in its surface. For a smooth concrete wall you would add very few disruptions, for a worn dirty tenement far more.

This is Royal Hill in Greenwich. I have decided that dip pens though lovely are too much to fight with en plein air so this is done in fibre tip. I am using a watercolour Moleskin as I quite like the fact that if you move the pen quickly you get a faded dotty line.

St Pauls, London, City, Pen and Ink, drawing


Another one, quite a fearsome subject but it only took about an hour to render. It is one of the hardest things to learn to leave enough white to allow the subject to breath. In reality the sky was much darker than the sunlit dome but IMO the drawing would not have been improved by hatching the sky area.

Greeenwich, Royal Naval Hospital, watercolour

A very quick sketch done battling the wind. It was a super day with wonderful light, hopefully I will get some studio pictures from the day. This is the entrance road to the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich. It is now a music college so you draw to the sounds of music issuing from various windows!

Watercolour 5in by 7in.

Blackheath, London, Oil Painting


This is Blackheath, painted on an early morning expedition with Graham Davies. I had spotted this subject looking very beautiful several times but never been able to stop. I have to sort out the figures as they make an “M” it is odd how things like this can strike you several days later when your eye passes over a painting.

Oils, 10in by 14in.

Fleet St, London, City, Urban, Oil painting, plein air


This was done on the most gorgeous day with the Brass Monkeys. We arrived at dawn and were faced with the most astonishing light. The problem with painting at dawn is that the subject starts out gorgeous and then gets less so as the light increases. As result this had to be painted very quickly. I am attempting to paint a little bigger so it was the first serious outing for my new larger pochade. I must say it worked very well, I was surprised that painting a notch bigger did not really take that much more time. This is St Pauls from Fleet St. I will do a studio painting from this but decided not to work up the sketch any further.

Oils 12in by 16in

St Pauls, London, plein air, oil painting


The next one of the day. I had textured my board more than I usually do as an experiment. It works well but I got it a mite to strong I shall have to experiment to find a prime finish that suits me. Up until now I have been painting on quite smooth boards. Which is quite difficult but good for you as the brush strokes must be well thought out. But for this sort of atmospheric subject a textured surface works better.

Oils 12in by 12in.

St Pauls, Oil painting, London, plein air


I don’t know what kind of coffee I had early that morning but I painted like a demon all day! Partly it is being out with a group of fellow painters which is very pleasant and inspiring. Another that would be worth taking into the studio. As I posted this I noticed the tower cutting the sky was too strong so had to stop typing briefly to soften it! St Pauls again, which means I did it 4 times in the day!

Oils 12in by 20in.

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