Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

September 20, 2017

Seeing

Augmented reality, the media tells us, is the next big thing. They don’t seem to realise that the basic human being has it built in already. The light that bounces off and passes through our exterior world and the photons bouncing around inside our eyeballs have no idea what they might represent. There is no tree photon, or sky photon. They just have amplitudes and wavelengths which we call brightness and colour.

When we do what we call seeing everything obvious comes ready labelled by our image processing system. Houses are houses, trees trees and even things that are obscure are given tentative labels such as scrubland or hedge. We have all had the experience where our heads up display has got it wrong and we realise that there is a building in that clump of trees, or when walking home in the dark when the brain frantically relabels that dark blob as a parked car we are about to collide with rather than a hedge.

The image processing does not stop there. The shadows are lightened the brights are darkened so we can perceive details within those areas. You have all I expect noticed that your sky in a photograph will come out almost white and over exposed if you set the exposure to show detail in the shadows. 80% of the colour you see isn’t there, only a tiny part of the eye, the fovea, sees in colour. Our image processing software paints the rest in. If in tests a red light is put in the peripheral vision, with the subject fixing their attention straight ahead, when the light is changed to green the subject will continue to see it as red.

When looking at our fellow humans the process goes even further, our heads up is supplying age, sex and status information on the fly. It even supplies narrative guesses such as: that group is a family, or those two are a couple. We astonishingly can even work out the mood and emotional state of passers by from their general demeanour.

For the observational painter all this post processing this causes major problems. We see trees labelled as green when they are often a grey brown, we see the sky as blue when it is really a steely grey. As I have mentioned we see the darks as lighter and the brights as darker. The problem is that if you paint the post process version of your perception then when someone else looks at your picture they reprocess the whole thing again. So your darks which you painted too light appear even lighter and the light areas such as the sky duller and not as you had hoped luminous. Your brown trees, which you eyes have made you paint in phthalo green, get a further boost into luridness when viewed by another.

Paint manufacturers don’t help by selling us lots of very bright pigments which we put out on our palettes. Odd really as 95% of our picture is probably going to be brown or grey even if we are painting that day in a funfair. Digital camera manufacturers and before them film manufacturers did and do much the same thing. Most of our cameras process the images we snap so that the greens are a brighter green and the blues of our skies the expected pure bright blue. They also process contrast so that our images are punchy with dark darks and clean whites. What is called properly exposed… the real world is however often not properly exposed and it is that version we need to try to paint.

So if we are to observe the world for purpose of painting it we need to strip away the processing. We do not need to know that the tree is a tree or the house a house. They are just shapes that have a tone and a hue. This is not easy to learn how to do. Even harder is to strip out the tonal adjustments our perception systems make. The best way  I have found is to squint. If you progressively close your eyes down to the thinnest slit possible you will find that the image starts to break down into simple tonal areas. The shadows will coalesce into single areas without interior detail. If you make a small hole in a but of black card and squint through that it makes the process a little easier. Or you can take a snap on your phone with the image effect set to sepia or similar.

The other method I use is to make a small ring with my fingers to look through and flick it quickly between areas. This way you can quickly determine that the darkest colour in that threatening sky is still way brighter than the road that your eyes perceive as quite light. I advise going and getting bits of the world and plonking them on your palette next to the colour that you have mixed for it. This is especially disconcerting with greens. Go and get a leaf from that bright green tree you are painting, you may be surprised!

The aim of all this is to be able to paint the world so that the viewer of the painting does their usual post processing of the visual stimulus supplied by your picture without the overlay of the painter’s own visual system doubling everything up. This will produce a much more nuanced, lifelike and subtle perceptual experience when you picture is looked at.

Detail is another issue. We don’t actually see all that detail. The brain just puts in off the shelf wall paper to fill in the gaps. So that detailed city is not bespoke it is generic. Only if you concentrate on it as you do when painting do all the buildings take on individual character. Many people never actually see the world as it is only as they expect it to be. So when painting if you put in all that detail it looks unreal like a photograph rather than something seen by a living eye. What you need to do is find a generic language of marks that says buildings without being specific. You will be amazed when people compliment you on all that detail which isn’t actually there. So like in the real world their brains filled it in because that is what they expected from the clues you gave them.

The purpose of all this is to give your paintings the immediacy and mystery that looking at the real world through human eyes gives. Nobody after all stops in front of a real scene and says, “Ooh it’s just like a photograph!”

Wellington Clock, Swanage, Dorset, plein air, watercolour, painting

This is the Wellington Clocktower which once graced the end of London Bridge. It was found to be in the way of the traffic and got demolished and rebuilt by the shore in Swanage. We have had wonderful skies lately and this day was no exception. I took a fair few photos as it changed with the idea of doing a studio oil. 12in by 8in watercolour.

Swanage, wellington clocktower, Dorset, oil painting

Here it is. Watercolour is so good a luminosity, but oils are great for solidity and form. I tried to keep the touch light but not to ape a plein air work. One of those paintings that I felt “ho hum” about until it was in its frame where it sprang to life. I think it is paintings with very open edges such as this where a frame allows the feeling of more beyond. 20in by 12in Oils.

Swanage, Dorset, Plein air, oil painting, beach

I’m starting to get a taste for beach paintings, this is Swanage again. The mood has changed now that Autumn is looming and the schools have swept the children and families from the shore. I stretched the view a little left and right perspective wise as a camera would to accentuate the sense of space. I spent about 20min on the town and mid-ground and then battled for 40min doing the beach! Areas that have very little going on can be some of the hardest things to paint. 14in by 10in Oils.

Melbury Hill, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

This was a real quickie as the light faded. It is Melbury Hill from Shaftesbury. Dusk when the sun is below the horizon and there is a cloud cover as well is a very tricky mood to catch. I didn’t really manage it this time but it made me want to go back for another stab at it! 12in by 8in Oils.

Richmond, Thames, oil painting

This was started a couple of years ago when painting with the Wapping Group by the Thames in Richmond. I dug it out of a box and thought it had potential. I remember getting the young lady in and feeling pleased she worked so well even though her legs belonged to another! I then added a couple with a dog going the other way and it all fell apart. Luck has a big part in painting and the couple was obviously pushing mine too far. As soon as I saw it afresh I had the idea to simply remove the doggy couple and just have empty paving. A bit of tidying up and I was quite pleased with the result. 10in by 10in oils.

Weymouth, Dorset, esplanade, plein air, oil painting

To the seaside again! This is Weymouth on a wonderfully dramatic and showery day. A real struggle with the elements so the picture is a bit rough around the edges. On getting home I considered tidying it but decided best not. 10in by 12in Oils.

Weymouth bay, sea, storm, oil painting

Another one from the unfinished pile I am working through. The storm was painted looking across Weymouth Bay about a year ago, but I had tried to paint beach in the foreground and had given up halfway. However on this last visit I had taken a snap of the sea and a not too dissimilar sky which I whacked in across the bottom. Much better with this sea as it adds a touch of colour, the painted out one was rather grey . 14in by 8in Oils.

 

December 16, 2015

Inspiration

“I just can’t get inspired!” How often do I hear that? I feel it too, I have the vague urge to be painting something but can’t find anything that gets the juices going. With me that usually means retiring to the sofa with a book or a bit of gardening is on the cards. I have to note that this feeling only occurs when deciding for myself what to paint. I never once had the feeling in several decades of being told what to paint by others!

So what is it this “inspiration”? The Greeks and Romans believed that it was something breathed into you by the Gods or Muses. IE something coming in from the outside. The same idea held sway when Christianity arrived except it was the Holy Spirit that did the breathing. In the 18th century it became a bit mystical, a sort of divine resonance. In the 19th Freud of course thought it was unresolved childhood conflicts, but he then he would wouldn’t he.

The moments when rudderlessness strikes me are quite distinct. If I am out with the intention of painting and nothing quite takes my fancy. All plein air painters know the feeling of wandering randomly seeking a “subject”. The other time it hits me is on a wet day when I am going to have to paint from reference. Sorting through endless old photos on screen looking for the one that gets you started. Most of those photos you took had some sort of possibility seen in them when you took them. Recapturing that feeling at a later date can be nigh on impossible though.

I think for me the resonance idea of the Romantics appeals most. If a photo or a real scene triggers a cascade of possibilities and potentialities as to how the final thing might be then that prompts us into action. It is not really (or very rarely) a vision of the completed work, but a plausible course toward a hazy and perhaps worthwhile destination.

That “perhaps” tells more of the story maybe. The moment tension between, “Shall I do this? It will be great.” and “It probably won’t work, so don’t bother.” is perhaps the fulcrum of inspiration. We are programmed to avoid disappointment and the less that seems likely the more we will feel inspired! Not that anyone will be impressed if when asked what inspired you you reply, “Because it looked a good bet!” that might not gain you many artistic brownie points.

So inspiration is the imagining what I might make of something, whether idea or something seen, of how I might transform it, refine it from ore to gold. If I see a glittering golden prize then I say I am inspired, but if I see only dull lead sheet then I flop about in consumptive despair.

This means for me I fall between ancient and modern thinking, taking a little from each. As far as I can see all inspiration comes from the outside in, from the world we perceive and live in, rather than any God or some vague spiritual source. Our complex and largely unconscious psyches take this material and return it to the world transformed. Then when a person looks at the result they might see the familiar in a new way. It is this “seeing afresh” I think that is the reward that people who like to look at pictures enjoy.

Advice as to how to get inspired? Well that is tricky. The optimist will probably paint more pictures but plenty of duds. The pessimist might be harder to push into action but the results should be good if only they don’t get despairing halfway and never finish! For me I have several methods of prompting myself into action. Firstly I look at what others have done. This shows you what is achievable and brings the seeing possibilities bit of your head online. Then if you immediately look through what material you might work from you are I find more likely to spot a potential winner. We often say, “Oh I find so and so’s work so inspiring!” so put it to use. Sometimes though I just do it the hard way. I just sit down and start even though I have no proper plan or subject I am confident in. It is a risky tactic but every now and again it will produce something unexpected and exciting which pushes you out of a rut.

I have been hopping about from medium to medium recently so a very mixed bag of pictures.

 

Knightsbridge, london, plein air, oil painting, art

We have has so many dull days of late, this visit to Knightsbridge was no exception. I had not painted in London for a while so I was determined to get something from the day. The wet street is imaginary I’m afraid as it needed something to tie the background plane to the foreground. 8in by 10in Oils.

Knightsbridge, oils, london, harrods, painting plein air

This painting occurred in the previous somewhat satirical post… but I painted it straight after the previous one. It only took 25 min but everything seemed to fall into place as I worked. I could see straight away that it had potential. For the stages of the studio picture look at the previous post but ignore the sarky words! 10in by 12in Oils.

 

Farnham. church, surrey, oil painting, plein air

On my way back to Dorset next day, this is Farnham. The sun was out for just about 2 min so I had to slap on the highlights with mad abandon. A bit rough and ready but I think I have the makings of a studio picture. 10in by 12in Oils.

 

Tenby, wales, oil painting, harbour, boats

A studio picture of the harbour at Tenby based on a very quick sketch. I took the composition from the drawing which is here. I have attempted a big picture of this before and the result was pretty much a train crash so I was pleased to finish this without going off the rails. I have worked a little more on it since this photo, but only to unify and knock back the town in the background. 12in by 20in Oils.

 

strand on the Green, London, Thames, watercolour, painting

Another visit to London with the Brass Monkeys. This is the ever popular Strand on the Green near Chiswick. It is in sepia because I forgot my watercolour box and only had one tube of paint in my bag! I was fortuitous in the event as monochrome suited the dull light very well. A4 Watercolour.

 

Thames, olives Island, London, Strand on the Green, pen and ink

Strand on the Green again, this is Olivers Island and the only hint of sun we saw… a bit rushed as I needed a coffee badly! Pen and Ink.

 

Chiswick House, London, watercolour

Days are so short this time of year so the light was fading rapidly when I got to the perfectly Palladian Chiswick House. I only took me 30 min or so to draw but nonetheless I was nearly locked in the park for the night! I was going to do a painting but the photos I took are just a black silhouette.

 

Spitalfields, London, pen and ink, drawing

This is Spitalfields, all I got done after a nightmare drive across London. I must get some of these drawings printed up as I think they will make attractive cards. Pen and Ink.

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