Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

April 16, 2018

Venice

Venice. Like all artists I went there knowing it already. I wondered what I would make of it and if I could add anything worthwhile to the morass of artwork that takes it as a subject. Would I find the “real” Venice? The answer of course is no. There is no real Venice, Venice is a fantasy. Venice is a theme park and all the life that goes on there is devoted to the commercial maintenance and operation of the dream.

Venice is a city wide tourist trap, a veritable sea girt Alcatraz for visitors to do their time in. A Venice street goes: mask shop, fake Murano glass shop, taverna, mask shop, restaurant, mask shop, fake Murano glass shop etc ad infinitum. After Napoleon conquered the city it slowly died until finally we are left crawling over it like flies admiring its beautiful corpse.

There are legions of immigrant workers slaving in its kitchens reheating dishes shipped in each day from the factory kitchens on the mainland. In China they labour to make the masks, glass, paintings and other tourist trash. There is an imaginary transport system that never takes anyone anywhere but on circular tours… no one brings their shopping home by gondola!

If I had been by myself I would have quickly done the rounds and been out of there pronto. Fortunately I was there with other artists and their company made all of the difference. The plethora of mask shops could be laughed at and the madness admired. I could rise early immerse myself in painting and join in with the fantasy.

So how is Venice as a subject for an artist to paint? Firstly there are subjects everywhere, if you came across any of them in a town in the UK you would set up your easel in a flash and set to. In Venice though every aspect and all directions are paintable. As Einstein said, everything is relative. You almost immediately start to rank the possible scenes and try vainly pick out the best of the best. Venice is also all very similar, endless repetitions and rearrangements of the same few ingredients.

Anyone who looks at my work will know my fondness for architecture and old buildings in general. In theory Venice is a cornucopia of perfect Rob Adams subjects, gothic palaces, mad baroque churches, cool classical facades and rustic mouldering buildings, roofs crowned snaggle toothed by random chimneys. Mostly though I painted legs. Visually the buildings reach down from the sky and are carried on the backs of the dark serried ranks of the innumerable visitors who obscure the join of buildings to street.

I am told that it was quite empty by Venice’s standards, I shudder at how in must be in high season. On the other hand I love watching people and enjoy seeing how they group, linger and go about their day. I enjoyed the contrast between drifting tourists and workers on missions trying to weave between them. Oddly I did not really notice the absence of cars. I did warm to the place after a while, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it just being a playground. The place reminded me of a computer game where you wander a city built by a long dead civilisation looking for clues and prizes while avoiding the ghouls hidden in dark passages.

So to the paintings, I will try and do them in the order they were painted.

 

Venice, Rialto, market, oils, plein air

Up early on the first day and off to the Rialto fish market. I was sharing the apartment with Ian Layton who is an old Venice hand who knew all the best spots! Quite a tricky subject, the light burning in from the outside is what struck me so I tried to paint that. I can see now that the effect needed to be exaggerated more with the interior darker and the outside almost completely burnt out. 12in by 7.5 in oils.

Venice, Rialto, plein air, oil painting

On the way back from the Rialto we were taken by this scene where the sun was slowly coming across on to our side of the Grand Canal. I had primed my boards a sort of Venetian red which mostly just right, but I should have done a few a more ochre colour. Like so much of Venice the fringe of people ran in a strip all the way across. I quite liked the more determined folk leaving the vaporetto on the right contrasting with the moochers on the left. 15in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, plein air, oil painting

Here is a very trad early morning Venice view. We were all painting away in a line getting spots on our retinas! Once the key was decided and the tones established a straight forward subject to paint. The main pitfall people tumble into is getting everything initially too light. If the painting is too high a key is is impossible to describe the sparkle on the water unless you have neon paint! 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Gate to the Arsenal, Venice, pen and Ink

In the afternoon I went to the Arsenal, no not to watch the football, the Arsenal in Venice was the manufacturing powerhouse that maintained its naval dominance of the Mediterranean. In celebration of this they gave it grand gates flanked by comedy lions. Like so much of Venice it is hard to get exactly the vantage point you would like without falling into a canal and getting wet. I should have done more drawing, the only reason I might return to Venice is to concentrate on the wonderful architecture. Pen and Ink.

Venice, mist, plein air, oil painting

Mist! We got up early and the sea mist had come in transforming the city. I was focused on the painting I imagined I would do after this one as the sun burnt through. A mistake as I abandoned this one early and it was better than the subject I was eagerly anticipating. Still I had more than enough down and only had to finesse the figures and drag pale blue over the distance to finish. Once again control of tone was the key. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, Plein air, oil painting

This is what appeared out of thew mist! I should have been in a different place about a mile away but I just had to set to and paint what I had in front of me. I never quite finished as the light moved on so rapidly. This one is no more as I painted a different one on top due to running out of boards! 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, pen and ink, drawing

I drew this as I waited for my expensive and badly cooked supper in a restaurant. As it turned out the passing mosquitos had a better meal than I did for no charge at all… Pen and Ink.

Venice, canal, plein air, oil painting

My first canal painting. There are endless versions of the narrow canal with the thin vertical strip of light and reflection, but this was more open and attractive as a subject. I placed the bright vertical strip of the canal edge first as I felt it was the key to the composition. In the bright light I found myself quite frequently putting in all the lights first allowing the prime colour to stand in initially for the buildings etc. I found myself using a lot of black in the mixes as it seemed just right for the character of the greys the city is steeped in. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

St Marks square, Venice, cathedral, plein air, oil painting

Later that day I painted in that famous stage set St Marks Square. The afternoon light was flat on the facades reducing them to cutouts. I was sitting on the arcade steps and painted hand held. I was lucky not to get moved on by the gestapo who strut about the square. I tried not to get too involved in the architecture as getting the tones right was the challenge. In the event I had to very slightly lighten the cathedral later in order for the whole thing to gel. 16in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, pen and ink, drawing

I decided the next day was a wandering about drawing and watercolour day. This is the Campo San Rocco… how could I resist the light slanting across this mad baroque confection. The school to the left is just as barmy but only plays a supporting role here. These wonderful buildings seem to almost never appear in paintings done by recent visitors. I suspect people find them just too much to take on. In actuality they are just divided rectangles, the complexity is not structural but an overlay on a simple grid. The trick is to firmly establish the underlying grid within which the decorative elements sit. Once that is done the mad stone salad of detail can be suggested rather than over defined. Pen and Ink.

Venice, watercolour, plein air

My first watercolour of the trip. Though the stalls are full of the worst tourist tat they make good compositional punctuation marks. Watercolour easily captures the luminous quality of the light. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

Campo Formosa, Venice, plein air, oil painting

This is an early morning Campo Formosa, the light was a real challenge and I nearly abandoned it. As so often I found in Venice the people are the key to a satisfying composition. In each painting I found myself more and more considering the makeup and grouping of the figures. 12in by 10 in Oils.

Campo San Giovanni, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Next Campo! This is St Giovanni, one of the most interesting to paint. Odd how the old Venetians were not in the slightest bit embarrassed about putting up huge statues of themselves. Getting the horse in the right relationship to the rest and not over detailing were the biggest challenges here. Once again many of the greys were made using black. 12in by 10in oils.

Gondola repair, Venice canal, plein air, oil painting

Another day another canal. Here is where they service the gondolas. In my jaundiced opinion they look better upside down! The thrown together industrial sheds make an interesting contrast with the grand edifices behind. Not far from here the mask shops dry up and the grass grows between the stones. There are run down tenements and washing hung between the buildings. This is where some of the workers live, though it is only the briefest fringe before the industrial port. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Campo Santo Stephano, Venice, pen and ink, drawing

On the way back to the apartment I saw there two girls hanging out and doing phone stuff. They are students in the college on Campo Santo Stephano, a little glimpse of ordinary existence. Pen and Ink.

St marks Square, Venice, plein air, oil painting, nocturne

After supper it was nocturne time in St Marks. The wet paving made it a great subject. I rubbed violet blue over my board before leaving base which made a great ground, indeed most of the paving is just the resulting prime colour. Very quick hardly more than 20 min. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Rialto Market, pen and ink, Venice, drawing

Another day where I just took my drawing stuff and travelled light. We all met at the Rialto fish market in the morning.  It is very nice to have other painters about to chat and laugh with. I found myself a little corner to sit and draw out of the way. The light was moving very fast so the first thing after setting out the drawing was to get in the paving, shadows and key figures. I also painted in the white first rather than at the end as I usually do. This was a real help in getting the darks the right value. Pen and Ink.

St Stae, Venice, pen and ink. drawing

Deep breath before I started this one of St Stae. I am sitting as far away from the building as possible without tumbling into the Grand Canal… but still too close for comfort. To get what I wanted in I used spherical perspective so that few of the perspective lines vertical or horizontal are straight. This sort of construction is very tricky to do en plein air especially as I don’t like it if the distortion is too obvious. I spent quite a lot of time getting the facade laid out, deciding what should be warped and what kept straight. A very satisfying puzzle though and I enjoyed trying to suggest the bonkers architecture. Pen and Ink.

Santa Maria del Giglio, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Santa Maria del Giglio and rain at last! I had been dying to paint the wet streets. Also it sweeps many of the visitors away and those that are there are rushing to avoid the wet. I was in a discrete dead end corner so I could paint away at my leisure. A bit of a relief as most of the paintings so far had been a bit of a rush to catch the light. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

La Salute, St Marks, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Later I went to St Marks to look across to La Salute. I was hoping for more rain, when it came it was very brief so I got brollies but not the wet paving. I was forced to make the reflections up at the apartment after. Some of this was painted hand held as the gestapo made me fold up and put away my tripod. The highest leg count so far I think. 16in by 7.5in Oils

St Giovanni, Venice, watercolour, plein air

Last one of the trip! This is Campo Santo Giovanni again. I loved the angled shadow but it moved very rapidly. Had to be watercolour as my oil boards had run out! I then proceeded to do another that went completely pear shaped and had to be torn up… 5in by 5in Watercolour.

So there is my Venice. I might return to draw some of the buildings and I am glad I went and saw it all in the excellent company of my fellow daubers. Venice itself I found sad and defaced by the lazy, cynical, rapacious hand of greedy tourism. The mask and trinket vendors have done far more to besmirch this beautiful relic than any of the many graffiti artists have.

March 21, 2018

Significance.

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 9:56 pm

How important is history and context to art? Last night I watched a documentary that plainly thought context was everything. Simon Schama in the series Civilisation was of the view that art, specifically contemporary art, was fulfilling a visceral need and helping us come to terms with our lot of living in a deeply flawed and unjust world.

Fine sentiments, but where was the evidence for this? Well millions of people visiting to look at the stuff that is surely a good solid fact. So if we take Tate Modern which draws in 5.5 million per year, it sounds a lot doesn’t it? However London receives 19 million tourists per annum so most Tate visitors are in this category. We actually don’t know how many visitors are Londoners, very few I suspect. How many of these visitors gain some sort of moral solace from their visits? I would propose almost none. The numbers gaining gastronomic satisfaction in the cafe could be much higher I might suggest.

There are 60 odd million souls in the UK so how many of these are being reached? The answer is of course vanishingly small. If there really is this deeply seated need that Mr Schama went on about, almost none are getting it satisfied by looking at contemporary art. It is worthwhile considering that the three most popular soaps gain an audience of 1050 million people a year which pretty much dwarfs the art figures IE one 200th.

We are plainly, on average, not too keen on getting our art fix. Could this be because it is largely irrelevant to our lives? I am by the way not claiming any extra relevance for old art, it manages much the same sort of figures with the national gallery coming in at 6.5 million. So Art with a capital A is not important to us as a nation at all. It is only viewed by a vanishingly small elite, even more minuscule if we remove the casual tourist drop-ins and only consider the serious art viewers. So what sort of visual eye candy is enriching the average UK citizen’s eye on a day to day basis? Well a front runner must be packaging. Packaging is probably the most message heavy and art heavy imagery that crosses our visual field on a day to day basis.

Mr Schama was keen on showing artists that were, he thought, dealing in hard subjects of injustice and oppression. However you need to look more critically than Mr Schama who is too keen on greasy schmoozing with the artists to engage any critical faculties. There was a bit of work about refugees by Ai Weiwei. A huge black inflatable filled with black inflatable refugees. An interesting object, but does it make us any wiser about the plight of refugees? Who benefitted from its making and display? I suspect not the refugees in any practical way. Ai Weiwei and the galleries seem the greatest beneficiaries. I am not sneering at the artist’s efforts or questioning the worthiness of his intent, it is just that the making of the art has and can have no real bearing on the tragedy, it just feeds on it. If there were no tragedy there would have been no art and the object is meaningless once its context is removed and the tragedy forgotten. Imagine the same object bright pink and in a shopping mall.

Mr Shama hasn’t a critical bone in his body though. Another Chinese artist did forgettable stuff with gunpowder… I can’t even be bothered to look him up. The process and results were in my opinion laughable, a side show at best, all bang and no buck. The relevance of it all to big ideas and what it was meant to be commenting on were vague too. Our host oozed wonder and sycophantic praise at the results, which I have to admit infuriated me so much it made me shout at the telly.

In the initial program (I watched them in the wrong order) dealing with the first signs of ancient art underlined his poor thinking and dogmatism. When looking at cave drawings in Spain he averred: “These were not just works of art, but works of memory.” Her states this as a certainty. In his world our ancestor looked at the buffalo on the plain, fixed it’s aspect in their no doubt deeply shamanic mind and then scuttled down into the depths to draw these distinctly realistic looking bison. So did our ancient predecessors only make such images in caves? It seems more likely that the only surviving ones are in caves and they actually used such imagery elsewhere above ground too. Yet as artists we know that practice makes perfect… so the cave artist must have sketched on slate or bark, or skin to gain the facility to make the marks. It seems likely the artist looked at bison while doing this… it would be silly not to. Why would they not take sketches down with them? Alas no, Mr Shama believes in the magic man, it surely it could not be anything as prosaic as practice and observation producing these ritual images. Well the drawings look exactly the same as observed drawings do, so it seems perverse to propose they are anything other than just what they appear to be.

Indeed Shama seems to believe in the “an artist is a special person” theory in his bones. For him artists are there looking at the big picture, warning and chiding us to become better people. A sort of priesthood of whistle blowers calling time on man’s inhumanity to man. A race set apart seeing our weaknesses from a lofty height. Seeing significance that other poor mortal eyes cannot distinguish. Why poor old artists should be lumbered with this role rather than plumbers is beyond me. Throughout history artists have, as far as I can see, not attempted to undertake this role merely because it is not the best medium to communicate ideas or moral standpoints. Writing and speaking are the weapons of choice in this arena, not paint. Of course they have frequently been asked to “sell” moral stand points for others, but that is just a job of work.

The second in the series on the human form in art hosted this time by Mary Beard could not have been more different. She had real insights as the the connection between the objects and the cultures that produced them. She stressed that the figures on Greek vases were everyday things bringing small pleasures to people in their everyday lives. Where Mr Schama is dogmatic and so sure he himself exists on a morally superior level, Ms Beard is full of may be’s and might be’s, alive to the ambiguities rather than trumpeting personally held certainties

In the third programme Shama makes his portentous way through my own speciality, landscape. He writes well, he is eloquent, but he is also a fantasist, drunk on his own mellifluous words. He is like one of those old Disney wildlife programmes which constantly tries to see animals in a humanised anthropomorphic manner. He is, you might say, more Johnny Morris than David Attenborough. He wants to shoehorn contemporary concerns and intentions into historical painter’s minds. I suppose because he cannot imagine any other mental landscape or feels that because they were artists they must have thought that way even though none of them mentioned it at the time. A survey of landscape that misses out both Impressionism and the earlier topographical revolution in Britain is in any case fatally flawed in my view. Where was Claude Lorraine, or Constable we wonder?

I was naive in thinking it could not get worse. His meditation on colour was verbal diarrhoea, with him gurning franticly at the camera as his mostly unfounded flights of verbal fantasy were expounded. He knows almost nothing it would seem of the craft of painting. He cannot look beyond the febrile visions it produces in his own head. Never thinking for a moment that the artists and others might have differing experiences. Such is the peril of an overinflated ego.

He confuses of course the making of art with the consumption of art. An art object may of course become iconic or shamanic at any point after it is made, but this happens after the artist has dealt with all the practical aspects. The artist does not imbue an object with any iconic significance, the viewer does. We know this really, if we put Ms Emin’s bed in a twenty something’s bedroom it is prosaic. If we put it in a gallery it is significant. The bed is the same in both instances so it is the act of putting it in a gallery that added the iconic element. The actual making of the thing was irrelevant. You might say it is Ms Emin’s decision to exhibit it that was the art act. However if we consider Sigmund Freud’s famous couch, now in his museum. Which it seems to me could be considered to be an iconic object in very much the same way as Ms Emin’s bed is. Since he bought it he was the person who is responsible for its current placement and context. Now we would not think Freud was a visual artist, or indeed the couch maker, or the upholsterer. It’s significance is entirely created by the viewer and by the viewer’s prior knowledge of Freud.

There is of course no real problem with Simon, and no doubt most of his viewers, believing in fairy stories. It is however a problem if artists begin to believe it themselves. As with storytellers artists must stand at a distance from the tale they tell. Do not confuse the inner music of a musician with the landscape created by the music in a listener’s mind.

Well I’m glad to get that off my chest. Time to catch up on the watercolours…

Dorset, watercolour, painting, plein air

I was here at the wrong time of day really. It does not look like it, but 6in behind my backside when I painted this is the A350… immanent threat of death by lorry certainly makes you paint fast! I have seen this view look so magical but it has to be 6am on a misty day. 9in by 6in watercolour.

Child Okeford, watercolour, painting, Dorset

In Child Okeford this is often my view in the morning coming back fro the shop with my pint of milk and a paper. I often looks wonderful so I thought I had better paint it. A very simple watercolour done in two colours and only about 4 tones. 10in by 6.5 in Watercolour.

Eggarden Hill, Dorset, watercolour, painting

This is the view from Eggardon hill. Quite a complex subject but a simple method. I painted all the shadow areas first taking as much time as it needed. Then I laid the colour washes over the top in big areas allowing them to wash back some of the initial shadows. Lastly I strengthened a few of the nearby darks. 10in by 8in watercolour.

The Stour, Dorset, river, flood, watercolour, painting

Another one with the traffic uncomfortably close! This is the river Stour in full spate. I had to stand on a narrow bit of concrete on the bridge so a little rushed, but I have some great photos so I hope to do a studio one in a while. 10in by 7in Watercolour.

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour, painting

I can never resist this view of Hambledon Hill, it is one of those scenes that transforms dramatically with the light. Every time I pass I stop to admire it and if it looks good and I have time I paint it. 10in by 6in Watercolour.

Corfe Castle, Dorset, watercolour, painting

This and the next one were done from phone snaps, but are of an interesting vantage point of Corfe Castle. A great spot and the land owner has said he is happy for us to paint there so I will be back! 14in by 7in Watercolour.

Corfe castle, Dorset, watercolour, painting

Last one hard to believe this is only a few yards from the previous view. I must go back at some differing times of day to see how it changes. 14in by 7in Watercolour.

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