Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

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”.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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…



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

December 2, 2012

Judging the Competition

Filed under: Drawing,Kent,Life Drawing,London,Still Life,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 11:10 am

Here is a subject painters tend to steer clear of in casual conversation, very sensible of them too! How do you rate yourself against others, both those who are painting now and those who have gone before? Is it best not to even try? Probably, but whether it is best to or not we still do, it is impossible I suspect not to. We are by instinct designed to assess each other and derive pecking orders therefrom. Status is unfortunately bound up in it too. One thing I have found is that it is not good to categorise painting that you don’t like as not well done. I can think of many examples of brilliantly executed paintings that I hate. On the obverse I can also think of poorly executed ones that I like despite their shortcomings. An example would be Magritte, I like the pictures but the execution is distinctly pedestrian; another would be Dali who is quite high in quality of execution but the pictures don’t move me.

There is also the variety of quality in an artists output. Is one of my best paintings better than one of Monet’s worst? I would expect so, even at the risk of sounding vain though it is hard to test. I suspect if you told people which was which they would select the Monet as best, if you left the pictures unattributed then the response would be more balanced. There is always a problem that historically famous artist’s works get over hyped making them difficult to judge even for other painters. At the end of the day all painters are only human and paint  mixture of triumphs and stinkers. I have in any case always rather disliked the “Old Master” label, as if they had some magic that could not now be equalled. Actually I suspect the standard of painting is probably over all higher today than it was then. You only have to go round an Italian Palazzo or an English country house to see that the majority of the paintings done in any age were very unremarkable, even when they were being bought by rich and presumably fairly discerning buyers.

When comparing myself to others, I have the instinctive ego driven assessment, which I know with my realistic hat on is almost certainly over optimistic.There is also the tendency to like work that is more like your own than work in other styles. I sometimes get complimented on Wetcanvas by artists who normally ignore my offerings. When I do, as often as not, it turns out that I have painted a picture that conforms to how they themselves paint. So the colourists will be pleased when I paint a highly coloured picture and the extreme simplification merchants will like it when I do something that is broken down to its basics. Due to having worked in a large variety of styles in the course of my commercial work I have ended pretty wide in my tastes and enjoy works as disparate as comic books right through to abstracts in a variety of styles.

I remember being commissioned to paint some romance book covers when I was first working as an illustrator. I took it initially almost as a joke, I had unconsciously always dismissed as most would the many images of costume clad clinching couples. But trying to paint one soon taught me that it was pretty damn hard. My first attempt was a disaster. So I went to the local library and really looked at what others had done, unsurprisingly many were pretty grim, but others showed that even in this scorned niche there were masters at work. All their names are forgotten now, even by me alas, but they are not  needed anymore the current covers are photoshopped monstrosities from a picture library that supplies photos of clinching couples and separate backgrounds to be spliced together to suit any story.

A new factor I am meeting in the picture painting world that I did not meet as much in the commercial art world is reputation. A painter in the gallery world can be not of stellar quality, but have a reputation built up over many years, which apparently means as much or more than the overall quality of the works. In the commercial art world you are only as good as your last job full stop. Reputation might get you hired once but not twice. Mind you, if you look back into the history of painting, you can find many examples of painters who had great reputation in their own times but are now deservedly forgotten and more who were ignored in their own time only to be appreciated a hundred years after they have turned up their toes. This points out I suppose that fashionable taste is a dreadful judge of lasting quality.

At the end of the day I do think quite important  to attempt to rate yourself against your peers even if you acknowledge  that you may well be getting that judgement largely wrong. It will hopefully at least bolster your confidence in how you see yourself, which will in turn make you paint with a little more surety, but it’s perhaps wise to keep that estimation to yourself! It is worth bearing in mind though, that because you think you are better than X, Y might have the opposite opinion and X will almost certainly not agree! The amusing upshot of this is that, as with other walks of life, two painters will happily rate their colleagues against one another, but will wisely leave their own relative merits undefined!

A couple of posts ago I showed pictures of my new lightweight pochade. I have been using it a bit and am pleased with its ease of use. I loaded the palette first but couldn’t resist putting some tubes in my bag too. Completely unnecessary in practice I found. So I will spare myself the weight and leave them behind next time.

I have also started thinking about painting some more introspective studio pictures the first of which is in this post. Some images can be clicked for a larger view.


oil painting, hands

This started of life as a simple exercise but ended up as a painting that is also about time. I wanted to paint something I saw in front of me a lot, something that was so familiar that I would never usually consider it as a painted image. So here it is, what a painting looks like to the artist when in progress. I really wasn’t initially intended to come out as it has. My first idea was for there to be a landscape in progress on the panel. I blocked such a picture out on a 10in by 8in panel. Then the thought came that the picture should be the one that appeared on the final board so I left the 10 by 8 in place and drew out again on a larger panel on my easel to one side. The only problem with this was that it created an infinite regression of finished paintings, which didn’t like. This in turn prompted me to consider making each board  a step back in time, which resulted in the above.

Quite a lot of it was painted using my left hand for obvious practical reasons. People think this must be very hard but it is just a bit slower. I first learned to do this when I fell and broke my right wrist but still had to complete work I was commissioned for. To my surprise it wasn’t that hard, just the first few hours were annoying. Thereafter when scenic painting I started having difficulties with my shoulder it seemed natural to paint with each hand in turn allowing the other to rest.

plein air, oil painting, greenwich, london

My first expedition with the new pochade. This is Greenwich in late afternoon sun. This is what the small format is so good for. I would have struggled to get a good impression of this  as the light was very fleeting. But at 7in by 5in the whole thing was done in 20 min. It doesn’t produce anything anyone would want to buy but as a sketch for a later studio painting is is perfect. This time I am using MDF board but I think I prefer canvas so I might glue scraps of left over linen to a few boards and try that.

little venice, london, brass monkeys, canal, barge, plein air.

A Brass Monkey day visiting Little Venice, where a confluence of canals occurs. Bright glittery light. On these expeditions the first painting is always the worst. Often just because in the middle of the day the light is less compelling. I seem to be using Cobalt blue more than ultramarine nowadays, it is a weak tinter for mixing purposes but has a softness I am coming to like. I have brought Naples Yellow back as well after quite a long absence. It is important to vary your palette I feel, some painters get set with a fixed array of colours which can give their work a rather predictable quality.

Brass Monkeys, plein air, oil painting, London, canal, barge, bridge

The day then turned grey but as I painted the light suddenly lifted as the sun broke through. I had to race to dash in the effect. Sometimes I underlay a painting with a scrubbed in tonal precis of the scene usually in only 3 tones. This then sets the key, then all the intermediate tones and hues flesh out the scene. This is a very nice way of working as the picture develops as a whole, the one of Greenwich a few above is an example. Another approach is to “patch” in areas of tone and colour like making a jigsaw. When working in this way the picture is harder to judge in progress as the picture looks pretty bad until the last pieces are in place. It does however suit scenes like this where the distinctions of tone are less important than the distinctions of hue.

Little venice, London, Canal, nocturne, plein air, oil painting

Last one of the day. There is a magical moment as the light fades and the city lights start to glow. This was done in twenty minutes and is a good example as to why sketching en plein air is so valuable. The photo of the scene is very different in quality and mood. It’s rather grainy but I’ve put it below as it makes an interesting contrast.

Little venice, london

It is towards the end of when I was working but even so the colours and the tonal balance is very different. There is no way you would paint this image with the real scene before you. Neither are specifically right or wrong, I could make a satisfactory studio painting from either one.

figure, dance

We had our lovely flamenco girl back this Monday. I really enjoy the challenge of the dark dress and dramatic tense posture. Last week of watercolour for a bit though I need to revisit the pastels to see what I have learnt if anything from the foray into watercolour!

dance, figure, watercolour

These were both 30 min I can never resist the surroundings too. These dance poses seem to need it more than the nude poses. I like the way it “places” the figure in space.

nude, figure, life drawing, watercolour

The second part of the session was nude, I took on a little too much here and didn’t quite get to where I wanted, but better than the next one which I tore up in frustration! That is the trouble with watercolour, however long you do it sometimes you will just, as my young friends amusingly put it, do an “epic fail”

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