Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

September 20, 2017


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.


November 23, 2012


Filed under: Drawing,Perception,Perspective,Philosophy,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Rob Adams @ 7:13 pm

A subject I have touched upon before. We all claim to have it, but when asked tend to be a little hazy as to exactly what it is. Artists are particularly fond of it. It is after all a simple explanation as to why you painted something a particular way. Sounds better than, “I tried to get it right but I couldn’t, so I gave up and left it.” I suppose. I think probably a majority of artists would claim to operate mostly by intuition, and think it a strength. Certainly fellow artists urge me to trust it. Well I’m afraid I don’t entirely.

There are two distinct parts to our thinking processes. There is the part that does 1+4 , I bet your head came up with 5 pretty quickly. There is however a part that deals with 172842 + 457913. I bet your brains weren’t so quick on that one! It isn’t just that the first was easier. You actually did no calculation at all, you just retrieved a memory. Whereas on the second you had to set to and mutter, “carry one.” under your breath. Researchers tell me that your eyes dilated and your heartbeat increased while you did the sum. Another huge difference was that the process that led to the first answer happened outside conscious control, but the operations required for second one had to be overseen by the conscious mind. 539655 that’s an erroneous total, but I knew that your unconscious mind would probably make you look down for the answer rather than bothering to calculate!

One difference between the two questions is that the first is a common problem that it is worth having a permanent memory for. In the second case it would be very hard to have all the possible additions pre prepared and ready to fire. The first answer was delivered by intuition the second by calculation. We soon run into problems if we operate by intuition alone. Intuition sums up another human being in a few moments. The process as I noted before is automatic and what must be hugely complex operations are hidden from our conscious mind. In most of us the conclusions that intuition comes up with in such circumstance are given the status of a work in progress awaiting evidence. If we acted as if this intuitive summing up were true we would make many embarrassing errors in our personal relations with others.

When we come up with intuitions that are not well founded we call them assumptions. We might be taken to task for “jumping to conclusions” . This and similar phrases show that we are well aware of the pitfalls of  acting as if intuition is fact. Yet in painting we are urged by many to do just that. When we are urged by tutors to “let ourselves go” or “go with the flow” that is just what they are suggesting. They like to call it self expression but it is really more like partial expression. We like all animals live on the cusp between two forces. If you see a cat stalking you see the two aspects working in harness, the desperate urge to leap tethered by calculation as to the moment that the unconscious should be allowed full control. Once the charge is started then there is no time or mental space for strategy, but it is the calculating side computing the probability of success that pulls the trigger.

We can jump to conclusions with drawing too. Most untrained artists when drawing a building will make a long side wall that is actually foreshortened less than they see it. Because their intuition is telling them that it is the longer wall and can’t be a mere fraction of the gable end. The eye actually sees it as a mere fraction but in the lazy mind intuition usually wins out. When drawing buildings I have actually seen people measuring and making a mark in the right place , then adjusting it to be wrong! Many of you will be familiar with the Müller-Lyer illusion below.

optical illusion

If this arrangement turned up in a scene would you really draw in the lines the same length? Even when your conscious calculating mind knows that they are the same the automatic nature of your intuitive thought constantly tells you that they are of different lengths. I don’t know how it is for you but my intuitive side wins out and I cannot help but see them as different. Many optical illusions but also many drawing errors are rooted in this effect. The unpalatable fact is that if you leave drawing to intuition alone then you will make some pretty basic errors. One I see in many artists both professional and amateur is to stretch all the verticals, often by as much as a third. This is due to the way we unconsciously assess horizontals and verticals. With tone we run into difficulties too. Below we see two squares that the unconscious part of us assesses as different which are actually the same.

optical illusion

Here again the conscious part of us is no match for our intuitive side. It is no wonder that we struggle to get the tones in our paintings to reflect what we actually see. Even though we can see the tones are the same we cannot accept that the dark square in the lit area will be the same colour as one of the light squares in the shadows. I suspect that very few of us unprompted would paint them the same if actually painting this scene. To depress you further the story is no better with colour. Below is a classic demonstration of how fallible we are.

optical illusion

For all we are assured that the two grey squares are neutral grey, we cannot see them that way. Intuition tells us they are different even though our eyes must be reporting them as the same. Once again this often occurs in real scenes when we think we see colour where there is none. I have even seen painting tutors tell their students that they can better assess colour out of the corner of their eye in peripheral vision. Despite the proven fact that we see no colour whatsoever in that area of the eye. What will happen is that the unconscious will paint the areas without colour information with vaguely appropriate colours to supply a contiguous whole. There is nothing particularly wrong in doing this but you should be aware that the colours are supplied by your imagination not your eyes!

You may be getting the feeling that I am suggesting a very cold and calculating manner of painting. Far from it, I want information from both sources. My eyes and my intuitive processing of visual information. However I want any major painting decisions to be audited by my conscious mind in order to check for unwarranted assumptions. We cannot parse every act of hand and eye, but we can learn to harness both sides in concert. One of the signs that we are doing just that is when we are “lost to the world” and totally immersed. You may assume that this is caused by intuition in full flow, but I’m afraid that the opposite is the case. It is when you are doing calculated thinking that intuitive thought is often suspended. Below is a link to a video of a test of observation and counting from a famous experiment.


The above may or may not work for you, but it does for quite a high proportion of people. Another thing you can do to show this is true is when you are walking with a friend ask them to calculate a sum. They will tend to stop walking (an intuitive automatic function) in order to carry out the task! So when you are painting and totally engrossed you are not as you might think using your touchy-feely instinctive Captain Kirk side, you are probably using your Mr Spock calculating abilities. It is only when you come up for air that your intuitive “How do I feel about what I have done?” part has its say. When I am painting at my best it is almost a porpoise like rhythmical activity. You dive deep into the activity and then come up for air and then dive down again. If either side gets to dominate it can cause problems. We have all had that feeling where a storm of conflicting emotions sweep through us when we are considering our own work. Also when we have become too absorbed in the process and have somehow lost the plot.

Both of these attributes can be honed by practice and experience. You learn how to check for incorrect assumptions, but each time you do you hone the unconscious process and next time the “intuitive” function will be a little more on the money. This is a vital process, you cannot “oversee” all the many acts that make a painting, so you must leverage the amazing, but at the end of the day I suspect unintelligent abilities, to take as much of the strain as is appropriate. So what of emotional truth and “gut feeling” ? Well, you can as they say, “Go with your gut feeling” but the decision to do so should I think be a conscious one, not a default reaction. If any of this intrigues you at all then I can recommend Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking Fast and Slow for further and better thought out information. I’d better stop typing and get painting or all my posts will be as dull as this one!

Powered by WordPress

error: Content is protected !!