Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

July 21, 2012

Hinting at the Whole

Filed under: Drawing,How to do,Life Drawing — Rob Adams @ 1:01 pm

A bit of a technical post this time. I see many drawings, life drawings in particular, that carry too much overly defined information. In doing so the drawing says less than another that might include far less information. At first glance this seems impossible, how can having reduced information to go on tell you less? Let me show you what I mean with an example.

On the left we have Pierre-Paul Prud’hon and on the right Gian Lorenzo Bernini. I have tried to pick two drawings that have a similar means of rendering of a similar subject. You may well disagree but I feel the Bernini has more “life” to it. Why should this be so? The internal rendering is pretty similar both artists are relishing the subtle terrain of the human back. A major difference I think is to the edges. If you look at the Prud’hon though they may vary a little in softness for the most part the outer edge can be traced with complete certainty. On the Bernini however the edge is lost and found becoming certain only to signpost  a change of direction or the passing of one edge behind another. Beyond that we are left to join up the dots in our heads. Oddly, though Prud’hon works very hard to define “roundness” with his toning,  his edges don’t seem to go round the corner. Bernini however is constantly giving hints about bits that are just out of sight. If you look at the right hand contour of the back he is telling you which parts flow around the corner by running one edge behind another. In between such points of change he is quite happy to let the line be almost lost until we find it again at the next intersection. The other difference between the two is intent. Prud’hon is trying to impress us, Bernini on the other hand is just trying to record information for future practical use. Many relatively unsophisticated artists and more casual viewers will be taken with the Prud’hons continuous tone and laborious shading. However looking past this the drawing has a mass of inaccuracies. The feet are poorly set she doesn’t “stand” convincingly. The right back of the knee is pointing impossibly off to the right. The right elbow is poorly understood and the arm  does not run convincingly out of view. I could go on. In comparison look at the left arm on the Bernini. Here you can really understand the structure, the foreshortening on the upper arm is masterfully portrayed and that elbow really comes out at us. Also the limb is in a state of tension and immanent action. This is true of the whole figure, Bernini’s man is about to get up and go. Prud’hon’s lovely lady has been nowhere and is apparently going nowhere anytime soon either.  She is still, which is something human beings never are unless dead. There is much talk of the rebirth of academic drawing with “ateliers” being reestablished, but in my opinion this period was very much a retrograde step and indeed a misunderstanding off the Renaissance masters they so admired. Next is another back, this time by Degas.

Here far less clues are available to the viewer. But note on the lefthand edge how carefully he has the line running up from her waist cuts into the breast and higher up how the line of the breast is in turn cut off by the line of the upper arm. Although so much is left to our imagination nothing important to the posture or activity is left undecided. We even know she is washing her neck, though the clues to that are very sparse. The whole of the forearm is in effect brought into existence in our minds by the flannel roughly described at her neck. It is these moments of sudden comprehension that make a drawing spring to life in the mind of a viewer. I’ll now attempt a breakdown to give a rough idea of the sort of factors that need to be considered when drawing a figure or anything else. Also some idea of how the various layers of information you give the viewer might interact. Most importantly however some idea of what might be left out if you so choose! All the images including those above can be clicked for a larger view.



Here we have our starting point a lovely photo by Pascal Renoux. On the right I have using straight lines marked the main changes of direction around

the silhouette of the figure. Where the contour is more or less straight I have left out the line. The first thing to note is that even if you didn’t have the photo

on the left I bet you could still work out the posture, sex and even youth of the girl posing. Even the floor plane is hinted at by the outline of the feet.

Think for a moment about what an astonishing job your brain is doing to glean such a lot of information from so few simple lines.


Here on the left I have indicated the internal lines. Even with just these a figure is inferred. Then on the right the two together, you can see how each

layer adds to our knowledge of the pose.


If, as on the left, I add a simple tone then we immediately have a form in space. Just by the simple act of separating “inside” from “outside. On the right I

have added another layer of information, the highlights. With these few shapes we have a lit figure in space and have the beginnings of describing volume.


One more layer on the left I have indicated the darks which further fill out the volume of the body. Lastly on the right a very schematic background which

places the figure in space and defines the flow of light and mood. Note how the mid tone of the figure goes from dark relative to the background to lighter

as we travel downwards. I have deliberately removed all “style” from these examples so the marks have no artistic quality.


Here I am doing the same process but adding a simple tactile drawn quality to the tonal information. Note how this conveys energy and movement just

by changing the flat tone to a very basic and loosely hatched fill.


Finally once again I add an indication of place with a few very broad lines. On the right I have taken away the initial lines. It is fascinating how this simple

alteration changes the mood. I have removed information you would have thought vital to the appreciation and understanding of the figure. The result

is to my mind the opposite, by removing unneeded marks and allowing the viewer to imagine the emotional truth of the image has been heightened.


I have quickly added this to show how Bernini leads the line defining the arm’s edge in a dance of fading in and out and running behind or in front so as to

combine with the toning to explain the form.


I hope this gives a bit of an idea as to how information and feeling might be conveyed by a drawing. I am not arguing for more or less detail. Only that the choices as to what information we deliver to our viewer are important and need to be considered. I think that the policy of slavishly noting down all that our eyes can glean from the subject can easily detract from the eventual image. They say there is no better way of hiding something than putting it amongst many other similar things. The same can be often true with drawing, too much information can obscure rather than reveal. In struggling to see the trees clearly we can easily miss the woods, alas all to often in attempting to clearly grasp the twigs and leaves we also can lose track of the trees!

July 19, 2012

Life Drawing and Painting in the Wet

Filed under: Kent,Painting,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 2:13 pm

Creative, how I hate what that word has come to mean! I have linked it to the Wiki page for clarity as to which use I am ranting against! The article is wrong in that I encountered them earlier than they say in advertising agencies where a “creative team” was a copy writer and art director. From these humble beginnings the plague spread. One thing I noticed early on was that they seemed to think being wildly enthusiastic about some mundane idea would lift it into the realms of genius, as if standing on the deck and puffing into the sails of a ship would make it speed through the water more swiftly. Being in the business of making the ideas into reality we shamelessly fell into line swooning at the ineffable, game changing genius of trying to sell puddings by firing them from cannons at children dressed as fruit.

The game often proceeded in this fashion. A bad photocopy of slick marker drawing would be faxed to us. After passing through the fax machine the image was barely decipherable. After a telephone call for hints as to whether the image was of an elephant juggling or a crème brûlée dancing a tango with a scotch egg we would produce an estimate as to cost. Then if our price was near to what they had to spend we would be called for a meeting (both under quoting or over quoting were bad) . Depending on the job there would be a meeting with representatives from the production company who would film it, we who would make the scenery/props and the aforementioned creatives. Both the first two participants would be stroking the egos of the creatives as if our livelihoods depended on it, which of course they did. The poor copywriter was usually soon eclipsed by the art director who was usually in his twenties, good looking, well dressed and supremely sure of himself. Due to their egos being fluffed up larger than a cross tomcat’s tail these innocents would proceed to tell us all our jobs, carried away by ecstatic belief in their own supreme vision. We would then double the quote all the while agreeing that the idea of a pudding cannon and setting the whole thing in a mortuary was beyond brilliant and would be garnering D&AD awards by the bucket load!

The job in the bag we would build the mortuary and cannons, there would usually be a visit from the creative team where changes would be made and duly charged for. On arriving at the “shoot” day we would arrive early and set up and finish our scenery. Then the art director would roll up and we would reassure him as to the wonder of the visual feast set before him. Then the pudding manufacturer would arrive and gaze in total bemusement at what his £400,000 had bought him. The stage would be abuzz with activity, the children who were to be cannon fodder and their parents, the make up folk, stylists, home economists, the sparks, the chippies, the best boys, girl fridays, producers, directors and assorted hangers on. All of whom added up to about £20,000 being clocked every hour. At this point the client would say he didn’t want his puddings associated with mortuaries and the art director’s world would crumble and fall apart. Along with the production company’s producer (who had likely seen it all before) he would ask if it wasn’t too much trouble could we change the mortuary into a play school. The creative hero astonishing the world with his genius would have either transformed into a hurt puppy begging to be saved from drowning, or into a deranged doberman who insisted that he had asked for a playschool, so why had we built a mortuary? If we liked the guy we would roller white paint all over the stainless steel and stick up some jolly crayon pictures for a few thousand extra pounds. If he turned mean we would suck our teeth and say it was a rebuild… which would prompt a visit from the ad agency’s creative director who would fire the art director and ask us nicely to paint the mortuary white and stick up some pretty pictures and he would pay us extra.

The above is exaggeration… but not by much!

Now we are all “creative”, so much so that it is building up inside ourselves and is just there waiting for us to find the right outlet. Time was when the only Creator had a white beard and a dislike of shellfish for dinner, but now we are all at it. The progress of the term reminds me of the “designer” trend. where every object has to have the magic wand waved over it by this god like being the Designer. The trouble is that by spreading such a mantle indiscriminately over everything the term becomes valueless. There is no real satisfaction in being “creative” if no journey of aspiration complete with success and failure, hopes raised and dashed, and hard won expertise has been made. It is much the same I feel with any profession where something is made. Given a pile of wood nearly anyone with the basic tools could make a chair that would function. However surely someone who has spent twenty years making chairs would be  more likely to produce an object with all the attributes of beauty, desirability and utility. It is a sad fact that through mechanised production of both objects of practical and aesthetic use we have lost some of the feeling that an object made by a hand that took years to gain that ability has some extra richness to add to the possessor’s life and being than an object produced without individual care and attention.

So what is this added ingredient? Well, that is hard to define. Last night I was talking to a print maker. He had made a print from a life drawing, taking the drawn image and transferring it by photographic means to a copper plate and then etching it. Why, I asked, is this of more worth than if I printed one of my life drawings using my very fine laser printer? Once framed I doubt if anyone not expert could tell which one was hand done. I can even use much the same paper. They are both “archival” I can just print 200 then destroy the original and delete the photoshop file, thus supplying the limited edition ingredient. They would both look the same hanging on the wall… indeed unless you marked them in some way you might be hard pressed to remember which was which. I would like to imagine that the etching was inherently worth more because of the investment of life that the printer had put into the object, but if the two prints were mixed up by accident then that mantle might be transferred to the laser print and the owner would feel, I can’t help think, identical aesthetic pleasure and satisfaction of ownership. This process is used constantly by the art business where the most casual signing of any object by an artist confers the fairy dust of artistic authenticity. We are back as I all to often find to Mr R Mutt and his urinal.

How does this all relate to painting? I suppose, odd though it might seem,  it is of some concern to me as to whether what I am doing is of any worth at all to the society in which I make my life. If it is not at all enriched then I would perhaps be better off doing something else. My commercial work has no such conundrums, I recently did the first stages of a redesign of a world renowned attraction. If it all comes to fruition millions of people will have had a pleasurable time due to my and other’s efforts and will be to some small degree be happier for it. I in turn will be richer which seems fair enough. I don’t however see that for  a plein air that will never grace a wall I am due any reward for its creation other than the pleasure I took from it’s making. I have not enriched the world, I have merely used up scarce resources for no purpose other than my own pleasure. The generation that takes any joy in the painted image of landscape is getting older, the number of appreciative souls who are not hobby painters themselves is in steep decline. There is not really a place on the wall in modern homes for painted representational pictures. In most modernist apartments a large framed poster or dramatic abstract look far better than a 14in by 10 in plein air. It is as if I am still handcrafting porcelain chamber pots… there ain’t no call for ‘em anymore and more old and unwanted ones on the market than you can shake a stick at.

In the USA and more and more elsewhere plein air has taken on some of the aspects of an extreme sport. They have competitions and much is made of the “getting out there” and doing it. I am somewhat nonplussed when I read on some blog that a person had yomped 10 miles out into the desert and then painted a rock and a nondescript shrub that they could have done a few yards from where they parked their pickup and not gone to the bother of all that trekking. Usually the masterpiece is accompanied by a picture of the easel set up in position… which, embarrassingly, I note I occasionally do myself! Other manifestations are “a painting a day” which seems a bit random, why not a painting a month… or one a decade. There is no way to put it kindly, the sort of painting I am engaged in is almost completely irrelevant to the age I live in. Is this important? No I suppose not, but I feel I should possibly reinstate my painting of imaginative subjects which used to be a major part of my output but has been sidelined of late. I suspect it might have benefitted from my foray into landscape and life drawing. I shall give it a go perhaps to see if that might be the case. So on to the painting as an extreme sport section of the post…



This is Faversham Creek on a day out with the Wappers. The day threatened from the start! I stupidly forgot to put my paints in so this was done using

the residue on my palette. Arches  Not 11in by 9in.


The same subject from the other side. This is done using a Pentel brush pen. It makes a fascinating variety of marks. I have yet to find the ideal paper but

I very much like it as a sketching medium. I don’t really like the fixed width pens and also the brushpen allows a subtle half tone if used to drybrush.

1in by 8in.


Faversham has lots to paint, this had to be done at a furious pace as the rain was threatening and I was in the open. When trying to get a sketch down

fast you have to be very systematic. So in this I did very simple outline drawing which too about 5min. Then I added three washes. The lit facades and

the lit part of the street as this must be dry first I don’t make the washes too wet either. I leave thin white boundaries say between the pavement and the road

as I don’t want bleed. Next the shadowed part of the buildings and street. Lastly the sky which has to be put in wettest but can be left. Then the first wash

area can be detailed just two tones a bluey mid and a dark. Next the same thing for the shadowed areas using the same dark but a stronger mid. Last

touches are the few bits of brighter colour. Then run for cover with the painting still wet!  About 15 to 20 mins all told. 7in by 5in.


This is Old Windsor on the Thames in Berkshire. I am alas still forced to paint in acrylics rather than oils. Very rapidly changing light but pleasant to

get a bit of sun for a change. 12in by 10in.


Near Old Windsor lock. The sun was in and out again and the barge arrived halfway through. I left this quite sketchy you can almost get a gouache feel

with the acrylics. I might in fact take my gouaches out to try some plein airs, I used them for many years for illustration but never outdoors for some reason.


A quick watercolour of the same scene viewed a bit to the left. 11in by 9in.


At last a fine evening! This was a quick 30min 10in by 7in. It’s not many subjects that look good with the light flat behind you. I need to put a warm glaze

over the castle, that’s one thing easily done with the acrylics…


A return to this derelict canal at Deepcut. It was raining very hard so I could only roughly sketch this in I might fiddle with the left hand tree which is

 a bit playschool at the moment. Lastly a few life drawings…







These are all done using watercolour black with an acrylic white. I rather like the possibilities. I found that is works best

to use two premixed tones of the white one strong the other weaker to give a mid tone between the paper and the full white.

The one tricky thing is that you need to use separate brushes for lights and dark as the white pollutes very easily.

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