Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

May 7, 2014

Why bother?

Having been a commercial artist, illustrator and designer for 35 years or more it was with a certain amount of relief that I gave up most of my paid work. I told myself that I would retire and just paint. I am not hugely wealthy but my career was pretty successful and I am a saver rather than a spender, so painting does not need to bring in large earnings. However as you can see by looking back through this blog I have not exactly settled down to a life of relaxation and leisure.

My question to myself is: Why not?

Not as easy to answer as you might expect. Yes I love painting. Also the connections and society that comes with swimming with the other intriguing fish in the art pond. It is without doubt the pivot around which my life turns. On the other hand it also is the source of most of my feelings of inadequacy and frustration at vainly groping for seemingly unreachable goals. Painting is after all a banquet of repeated failures garnished with a few sprigs of success that all too quickly wilt.

I don’t think I am lured on by success and the possibility of “making it” as a painter. I am a bit old for that I fear! I care not a fig for posterity or whether my work lives on. I have no belief in afterlives so it is only the here and now that matters. I don’t need it as a prop to my identity, indeed I only reluctantly and uncomfortably admit to others I am an artist. It is true a major ingredient in the mixture that comprises and has shaped my “self” has been art and the getting of skills related to it.

Much of it of course comes down the unavoidability of being alive. There is no escape from you own thought processes. They even bubble away when you are mostly unconscious at night. We cannot take a sabbatical from living, existence offers no possibility of respite whatsoever.  The river of being might flow slowly, churn into rapids or fling itself in a turmoil over falls, but the movement downstream never ceases until it reaches the sea. You must therefore navigate its currents and eddies in your fleshly canoe desperately paddling to avoid rocks and whirlpools or drifting through gentle backwaters. Whatever course your river takes there is no stopping, if your canoe is grounded or you draw it up on the bank there is no relaunching into the stream.

All of this is obvious I realise and I do not complain. I don’t wish as eastern thinkers do to stop the flow. It is not possible in any case, you might sit still with little or no mental chatter, but pretending to be merely a stone is just that… pretence and perhaps just another form of vanity. Sticking to the now rather stretched river analogy we each perhaps to a greater and lesser extent follow different flows and cross currents in the general flood. Some might drift in quiet waters near the bank while others toss and churn in the white water. So painting perhaps provides me with a means of navigating the wider stream, a discernible course around which the darts and eddies of the rest of my life can form.

In turn this gives me maybe some insight as to the benefits painting brings to the painter. Painting gives you a platform from which you can observe the world. You are looking for pattern and structure both actual and emotional and in looking, breaking down and sorting you gain small insights into more general things. Learning to draw and paint in short supplies the intellect with a glass through which to view things. However once that glass has been put into place all other things are inevitably seen through it.

Any learning has the problem that it cannot be unlearned very easily. Having learned what a cat is you can never view the animal as an unknown thing again. This is why the common artistic aim to “see like a child” is rather foolish. If I try I will not see like a child. I will merely illustrate how an adult imagines it might look if they could possibly once again see like one. I don’t want to pretend any other view point other than the one I have. Just attempting to understand who and what is around me is more than enough.

So, why bother? Well by looking and striving to set down what I see, I become more perceptive in my particular form of study. I hone my abilities to look and distil meaning from the sensed world. Because I have gone through this process I see things, small wonders, that others might miss. By attempting to paint them there is the occasional chance that others can see for a moment through my eyes and share in that beauty. Indeed, now I think of it, that is exactly what I get from the paintings of others that hit the spot.

It also gives me a measure for judging works of so called art. There is a difference from an aesthetically pleasing object to one made with hard won insight and skill. Almost anything can be rewarding to consider and look at. You can look at almost any object and have an aesthetic, educational or meditative experience. These feelings however come from within, the object is just the initial stimulus, a catalyst if you will. A real work of art hopefully lets you see for a moment through another’s eyes, share in another’s perception, stand briefly in a place you could not have arrived at by yourself. The artist has by years of effort mapped the terrain over which they have travelled and set down their findings upon a surface so that others can appreciate and take pleasure in it.

To illustrate the divide, take a work that is hailed as high art that I rather like. Anthony Gormley’s “Field” . I saw this in the flesh and that myriad of little eyes staring blankly at you was very effective. It made his name so a success by most measures. It did however not take any particular skill to make. Once given the instructions another just as effective could be made. It is also a one hit wonder, after the initial surprise you just wonder how many hours the whole thing took to make. You essentially get the whole story in a glance and all the impact is made by your own instinctive reaction to being observed by a horde. If you had a small version in your house it would not move you every time you saw it, nor would it reveal any hidden subtleties.

Then take a painting by Velasquez. “Las Meninas”  The making of this in comparison certainly could not be delegated. To do anything comparable would take a lifetime’s effort and even then be almost certainly doomed to failure. If you hung it in your house it would I think fascinate and reveal a different aspect that you had missed before for years if not a life time. An object is only I feel imbued with this quality through the application of many years of acquired skill and insight. The other thing that distinguishes it from Field are its flaws. There are no errors or miscalculations, no lapses of concentration in “Field”. Whereas there are parts of “Las Meninas” where Velasquez plainly falls short. The dog’s head position is unconvincing and the far right figure misjudged and cursory. The lady in waiting to the right of the Infanta has a gaze that is oddly directed. The work has just so many questions it asks but does not answer.

Field on the other hand only asks us a simple question about multiple gazes and our reactions to unwavering attention, after the initial jolt there is not to much to be gained from it. Don’t assume I dismiss or dislike it, on the contrary I thought it very good of its kind. However for a work from the hand of a human to be at the absolute peak of possible achievement all aspects need to be present: skill, understanding, learning, dexterity, perceptiveness, intuition and restraint… to name but a few. Gormley has many of these but Velasquez has all of them which is why in my opinion Las Meninas towers above.

So,why bother? Well, because it is worthwhile of course!

I can only apologise for another dose of art theory… a few pictures to finish off.

Dorset, watercolour, painting, Kington Magna

This is Al Saints Church in Kington Magna, parts of which date from Norman times. A great position over looking the Oxford plain. I am considering a figure approaching the lych gate but am wavering. Watercolour 9in by 15in.


Isleworth, Dutch barge, boat, river, thames, watercolour

This is a dutch barge hauled up at Isleworth in the early morning. I did a plein air to the left but as the tide retreated this better view came available. A studio picture from reference but the mood and light was taken from the plein air… which by the way I won’t post as it went pear shaped! Not all due to my incompetence though, I was using paper in an Arches block which is just horrible with all the washes drying dull and dead. This was done on purportedly identical paper from a roll. I would dispute this though. Here I lifted out by scrubbing with a bristle brush, on the block paper I attempted to lift out by gently using a sable and the paper surface broke up. I have complained to Canson but they have not replied as yet. 10in by 15in Watercolour.


Greenwich, London, St Alfege, church, pen drawing

I am hooked on the pen drawing at present. This is St Alfege in Greenwich a peaceful spot the tourists never seem to find.


Queens House, greenwich, london, pen drawing

Slightly out of order I did this earlier on the same day. It is great fun to try and get as much information from as few a strokes as possible. It is of the Queen’s House seen from Greenwich park.


Life drawing, nude

Some life work to finish off, I have been chopping and changing which media I use.


Life drawing, nude

One with a very small palette and brushed line. It is interesting how variations in media allow you to home in on different aspects of the pose.


Life drawing, nude

Pastel pencil, so good for expressing the subtle changes of tone.


Figure drawing

Nice to draw the clothed figure occasionally. I tried to keep this as simple as possible.


Life drawing, nude

Lovely light on the torso here, I was very much looking for the terminators between light and dark. Many artists love to accentuate these but I don’t like to over state them.


life drawing

Standing or stretched out poses are always I find the hardest. Due I think to the parts being harder to relate.


nude, life drawing

Lastly a quickie of 7min. If you catch it right these are always my favourites!

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.

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