Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

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.

January 3, 2014

The Fear of Failure

We all I suspect familiar with that moment when we put off doing an unpleasant but unavoidable task until a later date. I used to do it on a regular basis when doing uninspiring illustration jobs, to such a degree that I frequently had to work through the night to hit deadlines. I can still remember the feeling, once I had actually got down to starting a job, of the awful realisation that I had under estimated the work involved and was at serious risk of not delivering on time. Over the years I got better at both starting early enough and also to more accurately predict the scale of the task. Oddly if the job was at the limits of what I felt myself capable of I would start almost immediately incase the unknown territory proved intractably boggy.

This brings me to my topic for this post. Now I am painting in a way that allows me to follow my own muse rather than fulfil the requirements of others, there are no deadlines. No one is telling me that I have to get a painting done but myself. This in turn brings a curse that most artists will recognise… procrastination. If I had actually painted in all the moments that were potentially available for the activity then a great deal more work would have been done! I actually don’t think this matters too much, I feel that all these little and often unimportant activities we fill our days with are valuable to our sense of self and our journey through the years.

There is however another sort of procrastination that is fuelled by the fear of failing and the avoidance of disappointment. Also in many of us is the fear of others seeing that failure. We like to avoid others seeing the moments when we stepped up to the plate, made a wild swing and missed the ball entirely. I do post here the paintings that I feel miss the mark, but I do not for the most part post the the ones that in my eyes at least are complete train wrecks. A part of me feels that I ought to, as people might find it encouraging that experienced painters do not always pull something if not necessarily a rabbit out of the hat. The other part feels that they should be swept well an truly under the carpet. There is a real danger as well in that people will always judge you on the worst work displayed rather than the best. This does not matter too much on a blog such as this, but if you are showing a portfolio to a client they will inevitably look at less good work and think that is what you might deliver if given a commission.

There is no getting away from the fact that it is an unpleasant feeling when you work away at a painting and at a certain point you realise that damn thing is not only bad, but also that there is nothing much you can think of that would put it right. Not only a car crash but a right off as well! When you sit down to watch the telly in the evening when earlier you scraped off a whole day’s or more work, you do not do so feeling fulfilled! I can talk until the cows come home about success being built on failure, this my be true, but none of us relish those moments when our noses are rubbed in the fact that our feet are truly made of clay.

It is this fear that often stops me and I am sure many others from starting a painting in the first place. I am especially prone to putting off beginning a painting that I have visualised in my minds eye but think carries a high probability of failure. Sometimes I find myself starting a different but easier subject in order to put off the evil day. I have over the years developed methods of grasping my own boot straps and giving a good old tug!
One is the ski jump method, just pushing yourself over the brink before you have had time to think it through. This has the disadvantage in that not taking the time to think a painting through increases the possibility of failure. My alternate method is to think about beginning and all the subsequent steps so much that I build up such a head of steam that I just have to start. Generally it would be a mixture of the two though.
I have been trying to find sage advice to write here that might help others faced with moments of prevarication and foot dragging but am struggling a bit do do so. I think the best thing I can offer is that you do recognise the problem and develop your own individual strategies for launching yourself into action. I sometimes wonder in myself if occasionally I do paintings in order to avoid doing other things in life that are necessary  but less fun!

I have as I usually do gone to visit friends in Ireland for the Christmas period. This explains the rather large gap in posting. I go to see and catch up with friends not to paint so there are only sketches rather than anything large. I always come back with a heap of half done rained off paintings too, which I will hopefully finish off once home. My new years resolution is to make a determined assault on the open exhibitions. Last year I didn’t plan well enough and had limited success, this year I will consider what to put in more carefully in the light of having seen most of the shows.


Blackheath, London, plein air, oils

This is The Hare and Billet on Blackheath. Steve Alexander joined me for a few days to paint around London. I must do more up on the heath

as there are some great views especially at this time of year when the light is so low. 10in by 16in. Oils.


Putney, plein air, Brass Monkeys, oil painting, London

The last day out with The Brass Monkeys before Christmas. This is the river front in Putney. The light was very hard and I struggled with this.

10in by 12in.


Putney, Thames, River, London, Plein air, oil painting

We were about to give up due to the rain but the light picked up a bit. This is by the Rowing Club. 10in by 14in oils.


polesden lacey, watercolour

Steve and I dropped in to Polesden Lacey on the way to Surrey. It was wet but we painted anyhow!

I always rather like the mood of wet days, but the paint was very slow to dry. 5in by 7in.


River Nore, Ireland, watercolour

This is a bridge over the River Nore in Ireland. I had just slept in the car so this is the half light just after dawn with the first of the traffic.

5in by 7in


Templemore, Ireland, watercolour

Partway across Ireland, this is Templemor, a few bits of sun around but almost the last!

5in by 7in. Watercolour.


Ballyportry, clare, ireland, castle, watercolour

This is Ballyportry in Co Clare, a subject I have done a fair few times. I had to move the puddle so that it reflected the bit I wanted! 7in by 5in.


Burren, Co clare, ireland, watercolour

Another subject I am very familiar with. The Burren in Co Clare has a strange often mournful air. I painted this in the very last of the light.


Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolor

Returning back from a walk. I only got to sketch this and put in a few key tones before the heavens opened. If I only have a very short moment

then I try to get the most distinctive thing down. Here it was the tone of the sky and the distant lit trees. The rest had to be put in later but for me

that contrast was the key element. 10in by 4in. Watercolour


Burren, co clare, watercolour, ireland, cooloorty

A very rapid sketch where I was just experimenting with ways to do the wild hedgerows of the Burren. 5in by 7in.


Flaggy Shore, Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolour

This is the evening light on the “Flaggy Shore” near Lough Murree. The stormy weather gave some amazing sights in the evenings when it often

seemed to clear for a short while.4in by 10in watercolour.


Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolour

Mostly imagination, from the memory of a moment on a walk at the end of the day. 5in by 7in. Watercolour

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