Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

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!

April 29, 2014

Taking on a Challenge

Often I think people shy away from a challenge. I know I sometimes do myself. I see a possible picture and think, “Too much to take on…” and paint something less difficult but probably not as good. I have several pictures that have been in my “to do” folder for quite  while just because they are a lot of work with quite a high risk of failure as well. I am writing this post as a sort of kick up the backside for myself to prevent me shying away from ambitious pictures. I tend to imagine people saying, “He bit off more than he could chew here…”. Some of them of course you think , ” How the hell would I paint that?” When you just think the painting requires more expertise than you have.

All the usual homilies spring to mind, “Aim high and even if you miss you will attain more than you would have than if you hadn’t tried.” True, true, but a miss is a miss and an almost but not quite painting is a bit of a neck albatross… they hang around and haunt you! In the final calculation though it is best to try and fail  think. I see many painters who essentially paint and repaint pictures they have done before with slight variations. I hear my own advice about life drawing echoing in my ears, “If it starts to feel comfortable then shift the goalposts.”

Oil painting is my biggest challenge at present. There is something wrong with the way I am laying the paint and the balance of hard and soft. There is nothing for it but to start again and rethink my method. Prepare yourself for some pretty grim paintings as I try to change direction! The first move is to reintroduce more drawing. It is very seductive to try to paint in general areas and then pick out details with deft strokes. The trouble is the result is all surface and not enough substance. I want, I suppose,  to catch more than just the moment. At the moment I have areas of tone that tell you about atmosphere and hue etc but not enough about texture and structure. In part I think my problem is that I don’t have enough variety of marks.

When doing pen drawings I use a wide variety of strokes to add colour and description. In oils my repertoire is considerably more narrow, so first I need to consider adding knife work and more rubbing back to establish unifying textures. It is the sheer breadth of possibilities with oil painting that causes me trouble, I need to narrow it down. I have decided to alter the method initially to softly blocking in and then doing a layer of tightly observed drawing in a very reduced palette. I shall have to try hard not to backslide as it is easy to start with good intentions and then find your feet leading you down the same old paths.

I am enjoying my re-engagement with pen drawing tremendously, such a lovely medium.

I am delighted to say I was elected as a full member of the Wapping Group of Artists at their agm. So will be painting most Wednesdays with them which should keep me on my mettle!

hare and billet, Blackheath, London, plein air, watercolour, watercolor

A few watercolours to start. This is the Hare and Billet on Blackheath. We got up early to get the low light. I really struggled with this. It looked hopeful  at first, then looked dreadful and finally settled down to being just about adequate! 10in by 20in watercolour.

 

Telegraph Hill, London, Watercolour, plein air

This one went much better. We painted later to catch the evening light. This is Telegraph Hill in Sth London, where in Napoleonic times stood the Semaphore tower that brought news of triumph or disaster to the Admiralty. 9in by 14in watercolour.

 

Barridale, allotment, watercolour

Before painting from the hill as the light was not right we marked time by sketching on my allotment. 5in by 7in, watercolour.

 

Isleworth, wapping group, pen and ink, drawing

This is Isleworth. I was somewhat distracted by knowing that the Wappers were in the pub deciding whether to make me a member so painted two pretty grim watercolours. But the steady progressive nature of pen drawing was just the thing!

 

Romsey abbey, Hampshire, pen and ink, sketch, drawing

This is Romsey Abbey in Hampshire. Slightly scary perspective as I could not get as far away as I would have liked.

 

Romsey, market, pen and ink, sketch, drawing, Hampshire

Romsey again. As a complete contrast I next did a drawing of a flower stall. I must do more of the incidental views as they are great fun. The hatching on the shop fronts was a bit of hard labour though! The trick with pen drawing I find is not to put too many lines around edges but just let the hatching finish to define the edge. Also if you do add lines dont make them unbroken a line that skips and jumps is much more expressive.

 

South Kensington, London, pen and ink, sketch, drawing, street

This is South Kensington. I’m going to pencil the figures a bit more carefully in future they can become a little bit too generic and architecty… a fate worse than death!

 

Gillingham, Dorset, Church, sketch, drawing, pen and ink

Last of the current crop of pen drawings. This is Gillingham church in Dorset. A classic subject that suits the media very well.

 

Battersea, oil painting, river, church

This is Battersea, and the first of three rather underwhelming oils. There are good bits as well as less good but the whole thing doesn’t quite gel into a whole. Mind you a difficult day to paint. 12in by 12in.

 

Battersea, thames, river, boat, church, brass monkey, plein air

Battersea again. Slightly better maybe but just not the surface quality I am after. 12in by 20 in oils.

 

South Kensington, painting, oils, plein air

This is South Kensington. I nearly didn’t post this but as I try to make this a “warts and all” blog I felt I should. I managed to simultaneously get too much and not enough in which is quite a feat. That is of course too much of the wrong scrappy stuff and not enough, or indeed any, of the loose but elegant. 12in by 16in. Oils

 

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