Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 7, 2015

What are we?

Is this really a topic for a painting blog? Well yes I feel so. Trying to articulate how it is to be a human being is pretty key to being an artist. Descartes decided that we are real things due to being aware of our own thinking which is on the whole good news. The bad news was that is about all he could be sure of.

For an artist there is the constant problem of only getting the odd hint of what others respond to or enjoy from their speech or mannerisms. For the rest we have to extrapolate from what we ourselves like, to make a guess as to what might float anyone else’s boat. The egoist will assume that what he likes others will like because he or she is plainly the best the world has to offer. The more humble soul will be left in a state of perhaps more realistic uncertainty.

So what is human being and how might we divine what this strange beasty likes? There is the body, with it’s cells and hormones. It seems pretty clear to me that there is no mysterious supernatural component. That does not mean that the meat is all there is though. The “nature vs nurture” debate has been rumbling on for a few centuries. Christianity  hoped to prove the existence of the divine by finding a child brought up by animals with no human upbringing. They were disappointed, legend has it, to find such a poor creature had no innate knowledge of the almighty.

It is in keeping with contemporary thought to consider ourselves in the terms of hardware and software. If our tabula rosa has no input from parents or society then there is no language and if no language none of the tools we use to visualise our own selves. I dare say such a being would have no interest in art or indeed a pleasant scene. Food, warmth, safety and shelter would be the driving forces as in any animal. It is of course not just humans that combine software and hardware, all social animals do some sort of programming the young.

It is fair to say though that humans take it further. It might even be best to think of the accrued knowledge of society as a separate entity independent of the individual. We are none of us vital, but each might add a little that gets passed on. I might paint a painting, post it online and then track the slight ripple that passes around the world briefly before fading. However small it has become part of the huge edifice of knowledge and supposition that is mankind.

If this accrued and now artificially stored information is really what mankind is, what of the individual? In our society we prize freedoms and our own personal uniqueness. I have to feel after much mental to-ing and fro-ing that this is an illusion, we make a great deal of our small differences but actually we are as alike as peas in a pod. Just as well really, as if we were really different communication between us would be all but impossible. If you look at the imagery of our planet from space you would have to conclude that mankind is akin to a hive creature. Although we don’t feel we are acting at the behest of the whole, most of us are doing just that. Is our collected knowledge of the universe honey? It makes one worry there might be a beekeeper out there somewhere!

It does give the artist a sliver of a reason to go on doing stuff. Each thing we do adds a little to the whole. How that might be used in any future is beyond prediction, but on the whole I feel that artistic activity is a plus for humanity. How is that for self justification?

Right enough of the navel gazing! Some pictures. Mostly drawing, life seems to be keeping me from my studio at present which is distinctly irritating.

Cannon St, London, oil painting, St Pauls

Over the last few years I have been rather over successful at selling plein air sketches of London. Most of the best ones I intended to use as inspiration for studio pictures, once sold however this slipped from my agenda. So I have decided to try and catch up. This is the first of several I hope. I spent a fair while messing with the composition on this. That is the joy of studio work you can add all sorts of subtleties that would be impossible in the heat of the moment on site. It is however important to try an not let that show overtly in the way the final thing is painted! 12in by 20in oils.


Pen and ink, drawing, dog

Something I don’t do very often. A drawing as a gift to an old friend. The dog was a fondly remembered pet so I was in danger of over doing the sentiment. The Victorians revelled in such stuff with the dog gazing soulfully at its master. I hope I escaped that… just! Pen and ink.

Stour, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing, river

A sketch done near to where I live in Dorset. This is the Stour where it meanders through rich pastures below Hambledon Hill. The light was very constant so I could take my time. A little too neat maybe but in a way that adds to the calm feel which was very much the atmosphere of the day. Pen and Ink


Pentre Ifan, Wales, pembrokeshire, pen and ink, drawing

This is another go at Pentre Ifan in Pembrokeshire. Slightly tongue in cheek as I am not much of a new ager! Pen and ink.


Tenby, Harbour, wales, pen and ink, drawing

This is the harbour at Tenby in Wales. This started out as the merest pencil scribble done in less than 10 min. I enjoyed developing it with the pen and will do a larger oil in a while. Somewhat of a grudge match as I made a horrible mess of an oil of this same subject three or four years ago… pen and ink.


Fontmell Down, pen and ink, dorset

I am pondering how to translate the Dorset landscape into lino cuts. I don’t want to do straight renderings there has to be a stylising and simplification. This may be the way to go but not with the celtic stuff. I might use earlier incised patterns as used on beakers found in burials in the area. The sky escaping is a bit OTT so I might just allow the pasture to break the frame. Pen and Ink.


Okeford Hill, dorset, pen and ink, drawing

The largest pen drawing I have managed on site. I used a brush pen loaded with the same ink as my pens which speeded things along. I still had to finish the foreground hatching later. Rather a painful process on site as I am suffering in the back department at present. This is Okeford Hill. Pen and ink.


Belfast, northern Ireland, drawing, pen and ink

Some countryside near Belfast. I love just using water to dissolve the colour out from the ink. I actually combine two inks one waterproof and one not to get this result. Very fast sketch about 20min. Pen and Ink.


Belfast, albert tower, pen and ink, drawing, northern Ireland

This is a clock tower dedicated to Albert in Belfast itself. A bit scrappy but too painful to sit too long. Pen and Ink.


Belfast, pen and ink, drawing, northern ireland

More Belfast. The brush pen was great for knocking in all the darks. Had to be very quick as the last of the light was fading rapidly. Pen and ink.


Gt Victoria Street, Belfast, Northern Ireland, pen and ink, drawing

With my back working again after returning I couldn’t resist doing this of Gt Victoria Street in Belfast again. I loved the grand streets in the city and would like to return and paint it properly. Pen and ink

September 27, 2015


Beliefs are strange things. They are things that you think are true without sufficient evidence. Even the things that you think are true and don’t require faith actually do. If you read Descartes’ Meditations he points out that nothing at all is rock solid certain. He settles on “I think there fore I am.” almost in desperation, though nowadays that is in doubt as well. The current view seems to be that we aren’t but basic physical processes give the illusion that we are. Nevertheless our systematic probing of our supposed reality has brought a high probability of many things being true. We have today far more and better founded certainty than any of our forebears. Unfortunately many of the enhanced certainties are less than welcome. All the honeyed promises by religions of a better life or a rise to transcendence look distinctly thin.

Nonetheless we cling to magic. We believe in homeopathy and astrology, souls and spirits and money and art. All of these things require belief without evidence. The numbers that stand for our wealth in some financial institution’s computer require everyone’s faith that they are of worth, as do the objects in our galleries. If that belief is challenged and fails then they will no longer be exchangeable for things of tangible value. You only have to look at the Tulip bubble where the value of tulip bulbs reached dizzy heights before belief failed and the perceived value plummeted. Surely money could not do that? Well yes it can and has many times. Not art I hear you say, well yes there was an art bubble in the Low countries in generic scenes, portraits and still lives which crashed and left many artists including Rembrandt broke.

At the moment we have an “Art Bubble” objects such as Tracy Emin’s bed (how I love that bed!) are given an arbitrary value unrelated to the object itself. The object is made to have value by the same process that makes the Turin shroud holy. IE unsubstantiated belief and faith. Both of these items are demonstrably worthless, but they also both have institutions working hard to keep up the illusion. I might add to efficiently hold up the value or holiness of such objects requires said institutions not to believe in the fantasy themselves. So I doubt anyone senior in the Catholic Church believes that the shroud is genuine, but they will believe that it is important that the laity believes. So to art galleries, if one of the sainted Emin’s works looks likely to tank in an auction they will step in and buy it back at a thumping loss, because if the belief sets in that Tracy’s works are of low worth then all the ones they have in the cupboard back at the office will also be devalued. Also all the rich and often powerful clients they have advised will find that they bought a pig in a poke and start to question the worth of any other works they may have acquired.

You might argue: all these people say these things are iconic and valuable so how could they be wrong? Well a wee peek at history gives a clue here. At some point in history people at the top thought that sacrificing people might improve the crops or stop a drought. The Egyptians elite though that building vast piles of stone and filling them with goodies would help an individual be comfy after they were dead. Also absurdly there was an age where people thought taking an unmade bed and putting it in a public space made it meaningful and hugely valuable… whoops that’s us!

So is art actually worthless? Well no. The tulips eventually settled down to a sensible level of value and spawned a healthy industry that survives there until today. The Flemish still lives painted by the acre are still bought and sold. The difference is in the cynicism of the current art world. They know that the values they espouse are imaginary and work hard to prevent anything to threaten the dream. There is no criticism allowed only reverent analysis and reportage. If you have a negative view of contemporary art it will not find any place in any paper whatever its political leaning. If I wrote a book deriding it, it would not be printed by a mainstream publisher. Even quotes such as this get dismissed “I think it is humbug myself. That is my own private opinion… I just don’t believe in Joseph Kosuth’s slogan ‘art as idea as idea’—if it is an idea it has never entered the world.” Who could have said such a thing… well Carl Andre (he of the bricks) is the man.

Will the bubble burst? Well my guess is yes and like all catastrophes of these kinds many of the undeserving will be taken down with the frauds and the simple minded believers. Can it be predicted? Well probably not, but the edifice is looking shaky to my eyes. What will be left? I think things made by someone who has devoted their lives to getting good at some skill will always end up being valuable because they are rare as well as covetable in themselves. Well made things enhance out lives in almost invisible increments. A beautifully shaped back to a chair will reward us a little as we slide out hands across the wood. A subtle passage in a painting that we hadn’t noticed hereto will halt our gaze for a fraction and give us a moment’s pause. Things that shout to be noticed tend to pall quickly and have only that dimension. Much contemporary art I find fun, but only in the way that a comic postcard might be. I will look and chuckle, but not put it on the wall to be part of the fabric of my every day.

Everything is contriving to prevent me painting at present, exhibitions, cars dying, social engagements all conspire to eat up my time. Still some bits and bobs have been done so here they are.


Dorchester, pen and ink, drawing, dorset

Going into Dorchester one day the light was fantastic. I sketched this in pencil and then inked it afterwards at home. These slightly larger A4 drawings are too big to finish on site. Besides I rather enjoy partially imagining the light. I resisted the temptation to peek at the photos of the scene until the very end. This meant I couldn’t put much detail in and in the end it didn’t need it. I only adjusted a few of the tonal relationships and added the figure in the end.


Fontmell down, Dorset, drawing, pen and ink, art

More drawing. This one I really did take to a finish on site. It took 3hrs though. Since my car is hors de combat I had to walk there too so this took all day! Still the light was fantastic so well worth it. A4 pen and ink.


compton abbas, airfield, dorset, gypsy moth, airplane, dorset, pen and ink, drawing

Here is something I have never drawn before. A Gypsy Moth at Compton Abbas airfield. Very quick A5 scribble but fun to do.


Child Okeford, watercolour

I decided to do a few watercolours as I have rather neglected the medium for a month or so. This is what I call a backward water colour of Child Okeford where I lay in all the darks first whilst bearing in mind how the big washes that will go over them will soften and alter the hue. It is important to use non stainers for the lay in as you want them to partially dissolve when the next layers go over.


Child Okeford, Dorset, watercolour, painting, art

Here It is with the washes laid over. See how the shadow areas have softened and gained texture. Once the washes are in you can “tickle” areas with a small bristle brush to soften. Also colours can be dropped in to add variety. You have to be careful not to stir too much or it will all go to mud! 9in by 7in Watercolour.


Ibberton, watercolour, Dorset, painting

This is near Ibberton, I was taken by the chimneys. I find Dorset’s somewhat over pretty villages a bit of a challenge so I tried to make this one less chocolate box by constraining the palette and retaining the cars and wires. Though I am coming to think you just have to accept the prettiness however unfashionable it is in painting today. The village are pretty for heaven’s sake so to unpretty them or just paint the skips round the back seems perverse. 1/4 sheet watercolour.


hod Hill, watercolour, dorset, painting

This is a view of Hod hill the other hill fort nearby. My car had briefly come back to life so I decided to tackle a 1/2 sheet en plein air. The weather wasn’t in the mood to cooperate though as once I had got the sky  and the field in the heavens opened and I had to run for it with the board over my head.

I am off to Wales next so I hope to do a few paintings even though it is a social trip rather than a painting one.

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