Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

August 26, 2015

Art and Architecture

What a blight the so called “International style” of architecture has been on our planet. It has wiped out all local and ethnic styles of building the world over. People hoot and howl if their spoken language is threatened by a Lingua Franca but hooteth not when their vernacular style of building is wiped off the map. Europe has for the most part just surrounded their historical centres with a ring of dreary concrete leaving the old encysted by the new. Britain due to the unfortunate rise of the town planner in the fifties and sixties has lost a great deal more. If you took photos from around the world of recent everyday urban developments and removed any signs in Photoshop then I doubt if anybody could place them geographically. So how did this appalling state of affairs come about, how did it happen that what was once considered the greatest of the arts was reduced to engineering and quantity surveying?

Before the invention of architects as distinct profession most structures and all vernacular structures were built by tradesmen. In medieval times a “Master Builder” was employed on the greatest projects. We know little of most of these men, the most famous are more properly military engineers since that was area many of the really big projects were being carried out. Leonardo, Michelangelo and many others drew elaborate bastions with all the lines of fire drawn in. In our towns and villages however the builder was your man. He operated I dare say via tradition that was slowly pushed forwards by the desire of their clients to embrace new fashions. These fashions were mostly imported by the aristocracy and royalty and slowly made their way into the everyday vernacular styles.

To this end many books of architectural detail were printed, which were in effect catalogues that a builder or client could choose from. Outside of building for display most utilitarian structures were simply made along traditional lines from local materials. The result is for the most part unintentionally harmonious but varied and if destinations favoured by tourists are any guide still pleasing today. We rather cruelly and disparagingly refer to the effect as “pretty” or “quaint” but no such intention was intended in their original construction. It is interesting how when architects try and fake this organic and empirical development the result is lack lustre to say the least. The arts and crafts developments are the most convincing as they have an agenda of their own and mostly do mot seek to mimic but to make a new form from an old idiom.

Vernacular building design has always followed a step or three behind the styles of the great projects of any time. The great Renaissance and Baroque revolutions first appeared in the big cities paid for by the church and nobles. It is interesting to not that although we started to have architects they were all artists first and foremost. Bramante, Bernini, Michelangelo and others were all high achieving artists in their own right. Today that is far from the case. I was initially going to be an architect and applied to do a degree. In the run up I went and worked for various local architects my father knew. I soon realised most architecture had no art in it whatsoever but a great deal of accountancy. In truth most of the projects would have proceeded better with just a builder and an engineer, the architect was just an irritation.

So it is that in our age we see feats of engineering but not of art. Our cityscapes have no consistency of overall form, but a deadening uniformity of detail and material. This is not by the way a call for change, we are too late architecture is dead and will not be returning. There is a tendency for people bemoaning the visual state of our built environment to recommend a return to Tudorbethan or Mock-Georgian but this is painfully naive and where it is tried fails due to there being no one with the visual training to make it convincing. No there is no going back, buildings are going to be by the hugest of majorities soulless and ugly for the remainder of man’s existence. The reason for this is not the great projects by the “Starchitects” but the innumerable small developments by jobbing architects who have for the most part no interest in the history of their craft or any decent training in composition, massing, decoration or proportion. So however good a modern building is it will inevitably drown in the vast ocean of workaday dreariness. Indeed anything that is at all good makes the surrounding clutter seem emptier of beauty by comparison. Still architects do keep the market for black polo necked jumpers and expensive round spectacle frames afloat.

We actually have laws to prevent buildings looking beautiful. The regulations that control sill height and window size mean that most fenestration will be ugly. That of course tends to preclude any facade from being at all elegant. The manufacture of windows to standard sizes of clumsy proportion and design puts the final nail in the coffin. Should we care? Well probably not. The generation that does care is ageing fast and the next will not understand what I am complaining about. Past styles are fodder for theme parks and film designers only and not to be ever seen again in our everyday built environments. Who should we blame for this visual poverty that future generations must live with? Well building has to some degree always been about enclosing practical space for the least possible cost. This is where the International Style delivers without question. Building has also always been a display of prestige, but now we tend to be swayed by post code and whether there is a 2 acre underground gym. We are interested in contents rather than any external appearance. You may rail against the horrid boxy uniformity of a Bovis estate, but though the buildings are of execrable design they are cheap enough to make so that a far higher proportion than in any other age can live in their perfectly adequate and convenient comfort.

Now that is of my chest and on to yours I can post some paintings. After a stint of watercolour back to the oils again.

 

Okeford Hill, Dorset oils, painting, art

A panoramic view from Okeford Hill. I did a small watercolour a year or so ago of this and decided to make a larger studio oil from it. The result wasn’t great so I went back to the location with the studio painting. I was very lucky in that the cloud shadows were adding splashes of light across the valley which looked great. With that and a new sky the whole thing is much improved. Oils 12in by 26in.

Okeford Hill, Dorset, watercolour

Here is the original watercolour, I worked from both this and photos taken at the time. I don’t much like working from just a photo, it seems to be easier if I have drawn or painted the scene however slight the sketch. The thing is that doing the looking fixes memories in your head that re-emerge when you come to paint in the studio.

 

Dorset, Hambledon Hill, oil painting, art

Hambledon Hill with a threatening storm. Another done from a previous plein air watercolour. I didn’t need to revisit the site this time. It would have ben pointless in any case as the lighting was everything. Oils 12in by 12in.

 

Nottinghill Gate, oils, plein air.

I am still visiting London to paint with the Brass Monkeys, this is Notting Hill Gate. This was  a struggle as the light was varying constantly. I might cut this down to a square format as the stuff at the top is bringing nothing to the party. With the best will in the world it is very hard to make the best compositional decisions when racing to get some small part of what you see down. That any of them ever turn into a decent picture is a miracle! Oils 12in by 8in.

 

London, plein air, Notting Hill, painting, art

Another from the same day. Not quite sure what this needs… will probably go into a drawer to be found only after my final demise! Oils 8in by 12in.

 

Surrey, oil painting, plein air, art

Somewhere in Surrey… a very quick sketch, but a great scene. I am experimenting with surfaces at present. I have decided that the primed MDF I have been using is too limited and I don’t much like the “feel” of the paintings done on it when varnished and framed. The quality worryingly reminds me of hand made place mats! 6in by 12in Oils.

 

Romsey Abbey, Hampshire, plein air, oil painting, art

The same day and 60 mile East. My friend Steve Alexander was busy painting the interior so I went and stood in the drizzle to do this. I love trying to catch the day however gloomy. Whether anyone would ever want the resulting daub on their wall is of course another matter! This is Romsey Abbey in Hampshire. 6in by 12in Oils.

 

Romsey Abbey, pen and ink, drawing

Before doing the grey day oil I did this quick sketch of the interior of the abbey. Romsey is one of my favourite buildings it has a wonderful scale and elegance. When tackling such a subject it is very important to start in a manner that is practical. I could have made an accurate architectural drawing, but that would have taken too long. The charm of these sketches is in some part due to the constraints of time and media. I am always amazed at just how much you can express of a very complex subject with relatively few lines. Pen and Ink.

 

Shroton, Dorset, Plein air, oil painting, art

Steve had accompanied me back to Dorset so we set out to paint the day away. This is Shroton in Dorset a mile or so from me. The forecast had been for rain but this is what we got instead. I rather like the double square as a board proportion especially for landscape. Oils 6in by 12in.

 

Shroton, church, oil painting, plein air, art, dorset

Next up was Shroton church. I love pictures of graveyards and so do other artists I know… but no one will ever buy one! I just had fun with this I didn’t want to over elaborate a very simple scene. There was a figure but it fell to centrally and so got expunged. Oils 8in by 10in.

Fontmell Down, Dorset, plein air, oil painting.

We next went to the wonderful Fontmell Down. Unfortunately there was a herd of very rumbustious bullocks in the field so we had to retreat. On the plus side though I got some wonderful photos of them with the down in the background which will in due course be a studio painting.  10in by 12in Oils

 

Still life, kettle, flowers, oil painting

Now, as they say, for something completely different. As the rain had well and truly arrived Steve and I set up a still life. I have only done 3 or four such paintings in my whole life. Not because I dislike them but just never got around to doing any. I must do more and Dorset will no doubt supply plenty of wet days in which to paint them. There was a loaf in the picture too, but it was too close and I eventually painted it out. This meant waiting for the area to dry a bit so I had to set the whole thing up again just to finish the table cloth. Great fun though and very good practice to try and capture the various surfaces without getting fussy. I am not much of a fan of “dutch” style over finished still lives. Oils 12in by 16in.

I have an upcoming exhibition so I have been framing pictures like mad. My first solo show so very nervous!

exhibition

February 24, 2014

On Beauty

A risky topic I suspect and rather an unfashionable one too. Roger Scruton wrote a book on it recently which I must read. You cannot say what beauty is any more than you can define joy,  love or indeed art. Concepts that are intensely personal are prone to be abused by people in arguments because due to the flexibility and nebulousness of their definitions they can be used to make points that cannot be argued against. The argument will go for example that in a particular circumstance anything can be beautiful. The weakness in these arguments is I think that a cleanly defined beautiful/not-beautiful, art/not-art boundary is assumed. However such phantasms of the human spirit can be brought more into focus even if they are not subject to an outright definition. We can for example say that for the most part we find regular faces more pleasing than ones deformed from the norm. There is a lot of research in that area that shows we like the facial features to be symmetrical and averaged. The images of many faces overlaid and blended are disconcertingly beautiful and show that we are looking for differences from the norm as a way of deciding genetic worthiness/unworthiness.

This does not always follow with real encounters of course. Someone might have a face that is transformed by character and animation. Nonetheless perhaps our underlying assessments of beauty are slanted towards the reassuring. We might admire a verdant and peaceful landscape or a dramatic mountain scene, but we might assign them differing types of beauty. For an arable farmer the verdant land would be attractive as a home whereas the rugged mountain less so. Our farmer might find them both beautiful but in contrasting ways. It is quite plain to me that the early cave painters found beauty in the animals they hunted that went beyond the straight forward desire for a successful hunt.

Thus we are immediately mired in the boggy land of the aesthetic. Hurrying on the heels of aesthetics come those who would tell us what is fitting/fashionable and what is not. Currently beauty and decoration are very much off the menu. We are supposed to like the sparse. Our dream apartments have empty spaces, plain surfaces and white walls. I cannot help but wonder if this is perhaps a choice caused by hoovers rather than aesthetic concerns! When designing exhibitions of decorative items from historical times we place them in sparse minimal cases. To me they always look a little sad in such soulless arrays, like butterflies pinned in drawers. They seem like items in a shop rather than exhibits in a museum intended to fire our imaginations.

In architecture beauty has been completely outlawed it sometimes seems. There is little built that moves beyond the grim utilitarianism of financial objectives and cupidity. When decorative items are used they are plastic panel doors with cartoon graining, the result is depressing rather than uplifting. Architects generally seem to be comfortable with repetition but not rhythm. Being uplifting and enriching our daily lives is, we seem to have forgotten, the whole point of decoration. In furniture we are in the thrall of anally retentive Scandinavians or those who wish to emulate them. I am not totally in disagreement, bad decoration is indeed often worse than none. Alas because we don’t do much training in the area of decoration the few examples that do appear are for the most part weak pastiche cobbled together from found images using photoshop. The decorative arts were once a big thing and lauded, why this is no longer true is a puzzle.

The only real thing I can think of is the advent of mechanical production. We have adjusted our aesthetic to suit the available means of production, maintenance and distribution rather than the other way round. We perhaps associate the hand made with the crudeness of DIY, some hand made objects seem to need to advertise their handmadeness by adding rusticity or similar.

We also tend to confuse beauty in a seen thing such as a mountain or an object made with no visual intent such as a worn wall with the beauty inherent in an object made by a human being who has laboured to gain a skill. If you splash paint randomly or even semi randomly on a canvas it will be nice to look at. If I wet some watercolour paper and pour colour on it I may well get a very attractive and interesting surface. This however is mostly the same sort of beauty as we get from admiring the patterns on a beach. The beauty in an art object is different because of the skill and the fact that a person has sacrificed part of their life in order to achieve the ability. Due to the arguments put forwards in the 20th century we tend to conflate these kinds of beauty. The weathered wall is not of any real cultural significance even if torn from its place and put in a gallery.

Music mostly does not suffer from this confusion. We might get an emotional surge when we listen to the wind in the trees, but we do not confuse that, except in moments of poetic hyperbole, with music. We do not confuse a person noodling on the piano in a random untrained manner with music either… the difference to a concert pianist is obvious and no one would say that the random noodling is art of the same order as the pianist’s bravura performance.

The statement that everyone is an artist is very much not true. To be an artist you must firstly be a fully formed craftsperson, only then should a small proportion of the resultant work be deemed “Art”.

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henley on Thames, Thames, flood, river, plein air, oil painting

 

This is the recent floods at Henley. Some fascinating transformations of familiar scenes. We were lucky to get some brilliant light and a mostly dry day.

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henley upon Thames, Thames, Plein air, oil painting

 

Another from the same day. The shadows were only momentarily thrown across the road. 8in by 10in oils.

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Thames Henley, river flood, oil painting

 

Last one of the day, we found a flooded road that reflected the last light. I had to paint this very rapidly! 12in by 12in oils. The first use of my new 12in by 20 in pochade… I will add pictures of it at the end for the painting gear nerds!

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interior, oil painting

 

The next day was very wet and windy so we went to and painted an interior in a friend of Steven Alexander’s wonderfully cluttered cottage. 10in by 12in oils.

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Jermyn St, Mayfair, London, street, oil painting

 

This is Jermyn Street in Mayfair painted on an expedition with the Brass Monkeys. Not quite sure what to do with this one, it is a bit like an empty stage waiting for the actors to arrive! 10in by 16in oils.

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Jermyn St, Mayfair, London, Brass Monkeys, oil painting

 

Another from Jermyn St. I had to add a figure to reduce the dominance of the car. 8in by 10in oils.

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Kent, track, Aylesford, oil painting.

 

A day out painting with friends. This is a track above Aylesford in Kent… we went to paint the dramatic wide view of the Medway valley and ended up painting a muddy track! 10in by 10in oils.

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East Farleigh, Kent, oil painting

 

This is East Farleigh, the river was in full flood but I found the light in this very attractive. I was nearly run over a few times but really enjoyed trying to make something of the split composition. Painting up a hill always produces challenges to as you have to make sure that the cues are there to explain your view point. 10in by 16in oils.

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Trafalgar Square, London

 

I don’t often do this kind of sketch, but as it was a Brass Monkey day and I also had to attend the Wapping Group private view I needed to wear clothes ungarnished with oil paint! So pen and wash was the order of the day. pen and wash is a great combination and I really should do more of them.

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St Martins Lane, London, watercolour

Last one before heading to the Mall Galleries. The day was very flat but St Martins Lane always supplies some contrast due to the height of the buildings and the narrowness of the street. 5in by 7in watercolour.

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pochade

Here it is… a mighty 12in by 20in. It is still light, but would be a bit of a handful in the wind! Due to the size it has some storage so I should be able just carry this and the tripos which will make quite a light set up for its size. Next I need to work out something for 16in by 20in canvasses…

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pochade

I also created some rain protection from the brolly that bit the dust in Dulwich a week or so ago.

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