Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

September 12, 2014

The perils of perfection

Filed under: Dorset,London,Painting,Thames,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 10:47 am

I have always been interested in big questions. What we are doing here etc. As I have read and lived longer I no longer expect answers but rather find the questions engaging for their own sake. Reading about philosophy, religion and science have been an abiding interest my whole life.

I tend to focus on the world in which I find myself rather than my own internal workings. I have meditated and it has taught me that I am possibly the least interesting thing in my own world. I have gazed at my navel and found it distinctly dull! Initially everything as far as I can see comes from the outside in. You can give out no reaction into the world other than a reaction to what has been previously perceived. Yes, I’m afraid we are back to painting… That damn silly idea that we are somehow painting what is within us.

To make it absolutely clear. As far as I can see everything you emote, paint, write or crochet was prompted by external influence. You only processed the information, gave it back a little changed or perhaps garbled. You might say gave it back as a reflection seen dimly in a flawed mirror. You can perhaps glean a little of the painter from a painting it could maybe say a little about out inner nature, but the hints and clues are encoded into the imperfections of what we create when we echo back our perceptions on to canvas.

So here we go, this post’s idea. Imperfections are sometimes a good thing. Firstly we all find it hard to relate to perfection. Those stark modernist interiors so loved by architects seem made for some other more ideal, tidier person than ourselves. The obsessive recreations of photographs which seem to me to have little resonance other than the marvelling at the patience of the artist and whatever charms the original image had. Perfectly executed abstracts with no indecision to be seen are like a door shut in my face.

To consider the obverse for a moment there is also a problem with those works which are all imperfections through lack of intent or skill. A resonant imperfection is perhaps an aiming high and falling short or hitting a another part of the target than that which was aimed for. Wildly throwing stuff over your canvas is telling others very little about the artist, only about the nature of randomness or the physics of falling and dribbling paint. Many seem to think that expressiveness is caused by the vigour of the application and the suppression of the intellect. Such a work may well be decorative and exciting to behold, but only has a subtext that the viewer brings to it not what the creater imbued it with. A work of art is not a certainty expressed but more of an uncertainty made flesh.

Making a work of art is always I feel treading on the edge of what is possible for an individual human being to achieve. Un-intuitively if you set yourself a goal that simple enough to be actually achievable then you have I suspect by definition already failed.

I often hear painters referring to the work of others as too tight, or “Tight as a duck’s arse.” There might be no element in the painting wrong but still there is no life. What it really means is that if everything is resolved then there is no mystery for the imagination of the viewer to dwell in. Excessive clarity and certainty lock the viewer out, they can view but not inhabit the painting. I have been wondering of late why this is so and come to a few tentative conclusions.

We do not for the most part perceive things accurately, it would take up too much processing power. So what we do is look for discontinuities. If something is vaguely plausible then the eye will accept it, but if it somehow falls outside those bounds it draws more attention as a potential risk area. When this ability to sort the seen environment developed it was, I am guessing, for spotting problems and threats, not looking at paintings. However I think much the same happens with a made image. If you take an abstract, say in the manner of Barnet Newman, then spray a representational face in one corner, that face will destroy the abstract qualities and a hue and cry will duly follow. Adding another stripe while the museum attendant isn’t looking could be missed for weeks or longer. The first is incongruous the second in keeping.

When you paint an observed image of a city the same sort of thing occurs. A variation in the style of the windows will pass unnoticed but an inaccuracy in the perspective will cause unease. When you paint a scene there is a locus of position and other attributes that lies within the possible, but if you overstep those bounds then it will feel wrong to the veiwer. This is not necessarily something to be avoided it is more of a tool to be aware of and exploit. The more an image is defined the more the possibility of some part feeling wrong increases and also the further it gets from the way we actually perceive the world.

This is the reason I find over defined figures feel stiff and can look frozen in place. If the flower garden you paint is too perfect then it feels as if the wind could never blow nor birds fly. As I get older my paintings seem to get untidier. This is partly reducing patience but also because I fear killing the painting by overworking. It is better I have discovered to stop early than to go on until it has no life!

Not so many paintings as I have been busy painting house walls white rather than pictures.


Southwark, London, plein air, oil painting, wapping group

The Shard has changed many scenes in London, this is the view from Southwark Cathedral. It is a dramatic object that tends to dominate any scene, but on the whole I like it. It is a struggle to fit into a painting though. 10in by 10in oils.


Shard, London Bridge, London, Southwark, oil painting, Wapping group

A sucker for punishment I took it on again! I thought the vertical format would be a good idea but seeing it on screen tells me that cropping 4in off the top would improve the picture hugely. So much so that I might do a studio one of this. I will have to go back and look at it in various lights first. 16in by 10in. Oils.


Southwark, London, plein air, oils, wapping group

Last one from Southwark. It was a Wapping Group day so I sat with Steve Alexander and did this. Only 30 min or so but the best of the day. I had to adjust a few of the figures later to make the composition revolve around the two lighter figures. 8in by 10in oils.


St John Smiths Square, London, plein air, Wapping group, oil painting

Another Wapping Group day this time around the Westminster area. This is St John Smiths Square. A very beautiful square but hard to get away from the church which fills the centre. The light teased me horribly on this one, the light through the trees attracted me to paint it then the day went gloomy! I pegged away at it and was just packing up when the sun came back, so I whipped out my brushes again and added the touches of light. Amazing how so few touches of tone can transform an otherwise dull painting. 10in by 14in oils.


St John Smiths Square, London, plein air, oil painting, wapping group

I moved around the square for this one, only a sketch I shan’t take it further but I will return to the square as it has a couple of great subjects to paint. 10in by 10in oils.


mill bank, London, thames, wapping group, oil painting

I stood with the traffic bombing past me along the Millbank opposite the Tate. I liked the swoop of the road and the afternoon light which was warming as the evening drew on. It is not possible to resolve a complex picture like this in an hour, but I try to work over them evenly so everything is at the same level of focus. If you do this they feel finished even though much is left incomplete. 10in by 16in.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour

While working on my new house in Dorset I managed to get a couple of sketches done on my daily walk over Hambledon Hill. I am really looking forward to painting these landscapes more intensively. While painting this the the wind was moving the paint across the paper like mad… so I can’t really claim to have painted the sky it was mostly done by the weather! 8in by 10in watercolour.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour

Another view of the hill, it transforms dramatically with the light. The next day I went up later and the light was fabulous but I didn’t have my paints with me and my camera ran out of battery! 5in by 7in watercolour.


Hambledon hill, Dorset, watercolour

It is hard to make good compositions on the hill. This look wonderful to the eye but somehow doesn’t come together into a picture. 5in by 7in watercolour.

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!

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