Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

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”

August 28, 2012

Flowers, Nudes and Streets

Filed under: Drawing,Life Drawing,London,Painting,Still Life,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 2:17 pm

It’s never good to get too comfortable. I could I suspect knock out elagaic street scenes ’til the cows come home. Not that I’m tired of them, just that once I have the material then it is not very stretching to paint one. So I have jumped in to a subject I have very rarely painted… flowers. Not too scary, how hard can a couple of roses be… the answer it turns out is very hard indeed. Of the five I started only three survive and two of those may hit the bin yet. Still I shall persevere, if it’s hard and I’m failing then overcoming that will inevitably improve my skills. If I improve my skills then those street scenes will get better too. The other classic subject I never do is still lives. I quite like the pictures when others do them, but somehow I’m never inspired myself. I think it’s the arranging that puts me off. Shuffling a few choice objects around on a tabletop just doesn’t seem very exciting. Most still lives are too decorative for me in that saccharine kittens in a shoe sort of way. There’s no easy way of saying anything much about anything except how nice that vase of flowers looked on the windowsill.

In a way that only points out the more that I ought to dip into the subject as only by doing a couple will I find out what I don’t know. My first instinct with anything is research. I look at as much stuff as I can to sort of prime the pumps. A quick Google told me I was in trouble. Almost nothing that I saw in image search took my eye. There was plenty I didn’t like and others I liked well enough but don’t want to do. The main thing I hated were all these “Flemish” highly finished concoctions of  3 lobsters, a cut glass bowl overflowing with a cornucopia of fruit, assorted pewter tankards, a recently deceased game bird and a rug. There are still painters doing these by the 10097 layer flemish method or whatever. The results are to my eye dead as a doornail but each to their own I suppose. I very much admire botanical illustrations when done well but don’t have the desire or the eyesight to do any myself. The other thing that struck me about still lives is: where is all the stuff we use and gloat over owning today? Why is there no “Rose in a Coffee mug with iPod? or “Partridge with Blender.” “Morning light on Playstation and Smoothy.” Just typing those out made me snigger but why? They at least would have some relevance to our everyday lives, not some daft Dutch world of the stuff of days gone by. I’m going to have to put my money where my mouth is here and do a few! Watch this space they will be in a later post…

Only a very few images from the web got my juices running. First were the simple flowers that Manet painted as he was dying. Confined to bed this was all he could practically paint. I’ll put two below even though they will make all the paintings of my own that come later look complete rubbish!

manet, still life, flowers

Just two roses but gorgeous handling of the paint.

Manet, still life, flowers

…and another, nothing at all fancy but perfect nonetheless. Lastly a Chardin.

chardin, still life

Again simple, just the ordinary stuff he had around. Stunning soft tones and clever composition.

The attraction seems to me to be abstract values without the abstraction itself. We shall see. A mixed bag this post I’ll start with the streets. I was told by an American commenter that I should put a warning on my blog that naked people might be encountered… I considered replying, but just deleted it. There will be no warning, if anybody dies of exposure to drawings of naked people they are welcome to sue me.


London, trafalgar square, plein air, watercolour

Return to Trafalgar Square. I wasn’t altogether happy with my last attempt at this subject. So on my way to drop pictures into the Mall Gallery for the

Marine Exhibition I stopped and did this and took a rake of photos. (I got one into the RSMA by the way…hurrah!)


Trafalgar square, london, watercolour

Here is the finished studio painting. I am much happier with this version compared to the last. 20 in by 10 in. I had great fun tweaking the composition.


Here is the compositional grid I used to place the elements. Horizon halfway, considered a no no but produces I feel a feeling of stillness and balance.

The rest is split into thirds each with a different dynamic. The diagonals indicate flow and I only use for general position, if you over do this sort of

structural planning then the painting can I think become rather formal and lifeless.


Cutty Sark, Greenwich, london, watercolour

Another second attempt at a subject. This is the Cutty Sark at Greenwich. There are a few possible pictures here a subject you may see here again.

19in by 10in.


St Martins Lane, London, watercolour, plein air

Another small plein air. They had stopped the traffic briefly to do craning stuff so I snatched a rare chance to stand and paint

in the middle of what is usually a busy road. I will do a bigger one of this I stayed and took snaps after I had finished so I have

the makings of a studio painting. 7in by 5in.


Brockley, london

In the middle of the road again! This time a reassuring skip at my back. I have been eying up this scene for a while. Not sure this is the one but I feel

there is a super painting here somewhere. I just need the right figures to complete the feeling of place. 7in by 5in. I am trying to take my small sketchbook

and watercolours with me more often, a sketch like this is so useful when doing a studio picture from assorted photos. When ever I do this I find it is the

plein air sketch that sets the mood.


roses, watercolour

Here we are in unfamiliar territory. This was done in the rose garden of the Rangers House in Greenwich park. I like the background rose but the other is

rather overworked. If I frame this I shall crop through the larger bloom.


Rose, watercolour

Another a studio pic this time. I have added more dark areas after scanning this but not a great deal. A little cut out and stuck on but it framed up very

well. 14in by 9in.


This one went wrong really, but interesting none the less. I prefer the softness, but the composition is lousy and the greens too.


Nude, watercolour, life drawing

Here we are with the naked ladies. Super model, I decided to do no initial drawing and just jump in with the paint.


Life drawing, nude, watercolour

I used a brush pen to do the black which is rather nice as it is not quite waterproof so it softens with the paint but doesn’t dissolve entirely.


Life drawing, watercolour, nude

As the poses were 45min I did two of each, as one is drying you can work on the other.


Nude, life drawing, watercolour

No one shocked to death? Excellent!

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