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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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”.

August 22, 2013

Style Wars

I have sort of touched on this previously but a few conversations this week have sort of focussed me on the issue. People both painters and  people who enjoy looking at paintings tend to like some things and not others. Painfully obvious of course. The problem is that they also tend to go further and lean towards believing what they like is worthy and what they don’t enjoy as worthless. I myself have plotted an erratic course through the landscape of art and at different times have liked and loathed many different styles. Now however we are in an age where nearly everything in the history of painting is available at the click of a mouse.

I have a large collection of art books which now never leave the shelves as there is better and wider information online than most of them contain. Indeed I have seriously thought of getting rid of them as they are almost never looked at. The books do provide another service though. They plot the course of my interests of things visual over the years. There are books on anatomy, carpets, Irish castles and insects, to name but a few. I can still recall the excitement when I found a book that inspired. I remember the fascination of delving through George Bain’s book on the construction of celtic art, which sent me on an orgy of drawing key patterns and brain boggling interlacements. That indeed was the pattern, discovery followed by practice and then on to another focus of interest. My library is quite wide and eclectic, consider how much more grist there is available for my mill compared to that of Rubens, but is still a mere slither compared to what is available online.

Young artists today are faced with a blizzard of imagery from all of mankind’s long history of visual creation. Search engines place everything on an equal footing, they don’t care about quality or provenance only keywords. With this in mind I wonder if it is now almost impossible to do anything wholly new. We have as it were mapped out most of the terrain available to explore and only a few ever reducing (and not necessarily interesting) corners are still left uncolonised. This I cannot help but feel spells an end to the linear flow of art history much loved by academics and critics. The same thing has already happened to some extent in music. A teenager’s iPod can contain everything from Bach to Led Zeppelin to some very current offering. They have essentially treated all that was available as some kind of cultural buffet and filled their plates with whatever took their fancy. This in turn has had an effect on music production which might draw from a hugely diverse mix of influences. The same is becoming true with painting I suspect.

This I cannot but help feel spells the end to both the contemporary and the so called modern. When a categorical term becomes so inclusive that nothing is excluded then its usefulness has as far as I can see ended. The establishments at all ends of the art spectrum are bravely battling to hold back the tide, but like Canute they are likely doomed to fail. The hard thing from my point of view is to envisage what the landscape might look like once the dust has settled. I’ll make the attempt to work out the possible results though this will likely be risible once the reality is there to be considered!

Firstly, I think your idiom of painting will in the future be entirely a matter of choice. Much in the way you might choose a medium or a composition. Already you see many artists who do both abstracts and representational. This could well be the norm in the future.

Secondly differentiation of whole categories of subject matter, type of execution, styles or idioms into high and low art may end. All the flavours of painting available which are currently assigned a different degrees of worthiness or status may therefore be equalised. It always makes me chuckle when I see auction and exhibition catalogues use the word “important”. My immediate feeling is to whom, sez who and why?

Thirdly a more useful way of assigning merit might well occur. At present we have what the Art critics say is good, what the Collectors collect, and what the Curators select. Notice we don’t have what the public likes in there. Now however we have the potential to assess better than ever what the public likes. What is more we could narrow it down to what different sections of population appreciate. The tastes of visually naive and the sophisticated and their different likings can be separated out. This in turn could be used to supply rankings of relative merit in varying idioms. No method of course would be without flaws and unfairness, but it would not be hard to be better and indeed more fair than the current elitist regime.

I wonder as well what categories of painting might be useful, here is a wild stab at it:

Expressionistic, the painting of feeling and emotion.

Observationalistic, the recording and fixing of perceived reality.

Imaginistic, the painting of dreams and imagination.

Analystic, the painting of texture, pattern and structure.

I don’t see any of these as exclusive, each might in some circumstances be a subset of one of the others. So a work might have any combination of each in any order. Each might be further broken down so that “Imaginistic” could contain Surrealism, Illustrative and perhaps Metaphysical content. It is very hard to visualise, I gave considerable thought as to whether there were any other possible categories. If anybody can think of a manner of painting that would fall outside of all these categories then I would be delighted and intrigued. At first I wondered if Symbolic was a category but on the whole I think it can be contained within Imaginistic and Analystic. We could maybe sink to the depths of a diagram at this point, I can only apologise for this new low, but it shows the possible interactions better than words can…



As we are painters I have chosen a colour chart approach! You can see by the way the colours mix we can have any shade or mixture of my four elements. You might I hope place any painting you know approximately in this space. Plein air for example would be leaning towards the Observation corner, with a good dollop of Expression a certain amount of analysis and only a small dose of imagination. Surrealism would have a large proportion of Imagination with maybe less of the other three. This is not I am at pains to point out a diagram of all Art, where for example would you put photography? Perhaps in Observation, I did consider Perception and Experience as that heading but felt them a little too broad. The observation is done mechanically, but the decision to observe was made as in a painting. If anybody can think of a painting that falls outside these bounds let me know what it is and why, don’t mind my wild theorising being shot down in the least. One other thing I pondered was how I should arrange the influences around the square. Unfortunately none are ideal. A truer arrangement would be in 3D with each influence placed at the corner of a tetrahedron! Enough mad theorising some paintings!


Faversham, Kent, plein air oil painting

I have been going out of a Sunday with friends Tony Lawman and Graham Davies to paint which is very much fun. This is Faversham creek. 8in by 10in.


Faversham, Kent, oil painting

Don’t quite know what to think of this one, needs softening and merging somehow. The tonal contrasts are too brash. 10in by 14in oils.


Faversham, Kent, oil painting

Last one of the day and the best too. Faversham Creek again, the day steadily improved. 10in by 12in oils.


Faversham, kent, oil painting

Faversham again but painted last winter I would guess… I was sorting all my plein air stuff into locations when I came across this, the foreground wasn’t

finished, so a plein air I would guess, but I have no memory of painting it at all! I obviously didn’t like it at the time! 10in by 20in.


Tower Bridge, London, Thames, HMS Belfast, oil painting, Wapping Group

A day out with the Wappers, there were two more oils but I scraped them off, the light went horrible and flat. 16in by 10in oils.


Pool of London, Thames, watercolour

I should have stuck to watercolour sketches for the rest of the day. There’s a lesson for me, don’t paint unless the subject grabs you!


Queensborough, Sheppey, Kent, plein air

Another day out with the boys. This is Queensborough on the Isle of Sheppey. Lots of great subjects this is 10in by 16in. I did an earlier one but it is in

surgery I might post it if it survives!


Queensborough, Sheppey, Kent, watercolour

Last one from Queensborough, I liked it there lots to paint the town is paintable too.

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