Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

April 26, 2013

Watercolour and Life

I have rather been neglecting studio watercolours of late in favour of the oils. That may change as I am busy with commercial jobs it is easier to squeeze in a quick watercolour than an oil painting. I feel I am at a bit of a crossroads with the watercolours and have been trawling through other artists work to try and get inspiration. This can be an exercise that brings a mix of pleasure and pain. I have never understood artists that paint essentially the same picture again and again, however good that picture is. Indeed it is hardly surprising that they are pretty damn good as they have painted the thing 100 times! Nonetheless there is a lesson for me there, to paint the same picture 4 or 5 times is a good exercise as it can become a little more distilled at each attempt. The same thing I have found with painting the same subject, I have always had a tendency to put locations into a “done that” folder and move on.

I have been looking at cityscapes in particular, there seems to be a style used by many where the street level is shrouded in an inchoate gloom with small highlights and canopies cut of it to indicate life and movement. All very well and I freely admit I often think such paintings are lovely it looks very atmospheric but can be if used too often perhaps a little lazy. The lesson for me here is that it is no good looking for subjects that fit my technique, this will only result in potboilers, find a subject that stirs you and then paint it to bring out whatever it is that took your eye in the first place seems a better route. In my researches I came across a painter who paints amazingly adept if slightly over finished watercolours… but they are all of busty ladies in white dresses lurking about on the sea shore. He has a great eye for light his drawing is spot on, the compositions very well organised… but irredeemably crass in content and imagination. Which show that however well painted, a picture of sweet kittens with bows around their necks will almost never rise above the subject matter. Another lesson in there somewhere! I thought about adding a link but best not, the curious can PM me.

Other painters through history have found a good trick and stuck to it. Russell Flint springs to mind with his oddly coloured spanish ladies in various states of undress. Boucher, Fragonard and Watteau all wonderful draughtsmen but the paintings are in large part insubstantial froth. The orientalists could be consigned wholesale to the potboiler draw and the history painters too. Poussin I never warmed to and find his classical fancies lacking in spirit… Tiepolo however does wonders with more or less the same subject matter. I went through a pretty severe Preraph longtressed maiden period myself, so I know how it happens. If my demure ladies had been well enough done and met with any success maybe I would still be churning them out!

There was a quite interesting program with Graham Dixon about the Dutch and Flemish painters. He is relentlessly on message in art historical terms with the history of painting seen as a neat progression of breakthroughs leading to the holy grail of abstraction. One interesting thing he passed over very briefly was the way the Dutch art market was organised. Artists were organised into guilds and paintings were organised into a hierarchy. Of first importance was history painting, followed by portraits, scenes of everyday life or genre, then landscape with still life at the bottom of pile. There was a apparently thriving market with people collecting works avidly, not just the rich but up and down the social scale. There is not a lot written about it but there seems to have been an economic bubble with prices rising and then crashing due to the sheer number of works painted. I read that at the end a completed canvas was worth less than a blank fresh one. Rembrandt and Vermeer owed their later poverty to this calamity it seems.

Our situation now is quite different with far too many pictures being painted compared with those that might wish to own one. The relatively small top of the heap is supported by a truly immense pyramid of the unsuccessful and eager hopefuls below them. What is an artist to do in such an age? I could I suppose set about a relentless campaign of self promotion. I do do a fair bit of this using online avenues etc, but more out of curiosity as to the changing scene rather than any ambition. My main ambitions these days are focussed on getting as good as I can by my own lights before I pop my clogs!

Which brings me back to watercolour, I must I think have a period of experimentation to broaden some areas of my technique. It is always somewhat traumatic doing this as there are inevitably quite a few fatalities. The areas I want to focus on are controlling the tightness and looseness across the painting. There is the interesting method of soaking your paper and then laying it on a sheet of perspex, flattening it on with a roller as it expands. Once the paper has done all the stretching it is going too and any excess water is mopped up you have to finish your painting as it goes through the drying process. Re-wetting can be done at need with a spritzer or wide brush. The paper should grip the plastic and the painting dry flat… which I haven’t tested yet but seems plausible.

On with some paintings.


Deptford, Market, London, watercolour

A painting I have been meaning to do for a while. Most Saturday mornings I go down to Deptford market to do my weeks shopping. The market is a

vibrant place with every culture in the world represented, but everybody seems to rub along together amicably. At this time of year in the morning the

sun shines right down the street which on a slightly hazy morning looks wonderful. I have hundreds of photos and a fair few sketches but last week

I got the last bit of the puzzle a leading character. A small man immaculately dressed looking out of place but still at home! 14in by 14in.


Green Park, london, trees, business man, oil painting

I saw this gentleman in Green Park last autumn. I drew him out on the board but never got round to painting him!

I must do more individual figures. I love figures in a landscape but don’t do enough where the person is the subject.

London’s people are after all the heart and soul of the place, not the buildings and parks. Oil, 10in by 7in.


nude, oils, figure, painting

An all day painting session held by fellow painter Arnie Dobbs was a chance to get out the oils to paint the figure. I had not done any oil painting from

life before only acrylics. The oils were so much better! Also faster so I only took about 40 min on each of these. 10in by 8in.


nude, figure, oil painting

Slightly easier on the second as the initial colour mixing was already there on the palette. All done with a 1/2in filbert. 14in by 10in oils.


nude, figure, painting

The introduction of a green really improved the skin tones. 16in by 10in.


nude, figure, oil painting

Last painting of the session. There were some charcoals but I intend a life drawing post next dealing with my struggles

with the ‘orrible stuff! 10in by 8in.


greenwich, plein air, watercolour

My first days painting as an official candidate for the Wapping Group of Artists. Handily the venue was Greenwich so I got there early to catch the light.

By the time I had finished this I was surrounded by hoards of tourists! 1/4 sheet Arches.



Here is one of the less obscured moments. Odd but people will stand in a bunch right in front of you! You can see my set up, watercolours

are so light weight. Even with the tripod everything is very easy to carry. I must make myself a bottom tray that matches the size of the

board a little more space would be good.


Greenwich, London, graveyard

Next I did a small sketch in the old graveyard behind the church. It is hidden away so the tourists can’t find it! In my Moleskin 7in by 5in. The Moleskins

have odd paper in them I hated it at first, but am coming to rather like it.


Greenwich, powerstation, watercolour, thames, London

This is the old power station in East Greenwich, the light was rather dramatic and I was taken by the shape against the sky. I painted the whole thing with

a 1/2 in flat sable which rather suited the subject. By using the edge you can tap in lines very crisply but with a pleasing variation. 1/4 sheet Arches rough.


Greenwich, thames, London, river

Another wee sketch, the light was gorgeous. I will do a studio one of this. 7in by 5in.


London, greenwich, watercolour

Last one a very quick 10min sketch. Then I was off to eat whitebait with the Wappers, a convivial end to the day!

April 10, 2013

Method and Madness

I have always been ambivalent about how to paint or draw books. Even more so about DVD’s. I have over the years bought a few of them and I inherited more when my mother died. They often have to have a theme and a snappy title, “Wild Splashy Watercolour Made Easy”  or  “Painting Trees with Gusto” There are many drawing and painting books done by people who are, to put it kindly, somewhat short on the skills they seek to pass on. Some are admirable though Victor Ambrus’ ones are very good, but more for the beautiful drawings than as a teaching aid. In truth all the ones I have ever bought were for the paintings inside rather than the words of wisdom. My mother had one by Alwyn and June Crawshaw full of unremittingly average paintings though Alwyn has quite a pleasant pencil sketching style.

So does anyone ever learn from these things? I somehow doubt it. I have learnt a great deal from specialised books, such as anatomy for figure drawing. I didn’t really learn drawing though just the information about what goes where etc… I never did manage to learn all those names! You can get a book to draw almost anything “How to Draw Marmosets by Candlelight” animals are very popular generally. Also ones about the state of mind, “Drawing From the Bottom Left Of the Brain”. Expressing yourself is very big with everything from portraits to egg timers covered, “Expressing Your Navel in Acrylics Made Easy” etc.

One unifying thing is that it always seems to be easy. There are no “Watercolour Disasters” or Oils Are a Bitch to Get Right” or “Repeated Failure Made Harder” titles. Often it is quick too “Quick Easy Effortless Watercolour in Seconds”. The complete reverse of the reality which is it takes years and years of sustained effort to learn how to paint a watercolour that looks as if it was easy! I might write a book “How to Spend a Lifetime to Learn Painting and Still Not Ever be Satisfied”. Why do I get the feeling that if published it wouldn’t fly off the shelves?

Much turns around the question: How do you teach art? There can be no one way obviously. I have difficulty believing though that either the art school madness of the last 60 years or the teach yourself manuals are really up to the task. The first of these was The École des Beaux-Arts in Paris Founded by the urbane Cardinal Mazerin. It was created to address the shortage of craftsmen needed to work on Louis XIV’s vast decorative and architectural projects. Though it gained real artistic muscle under Napoleon. We wouldn’t perhaps like the structure today based as it was on fierce competition to gain the Prix de Rome which was the chance to study in Rome itself. There is an impressive list of alumni in Wikipedia but for more than 350 years of history it is actually rather short on stars and the ones that are there mostly rejected its values later. It also fostered I feel one of the truly awful periods of painting in human history with the academic style of History Painting with its bogus classicism and tedious Orientalism. It still raises its ugly head today with revival movements such as Classical Realism today. Ateliers are reappearing as well teaching a stilted formalised method which is not entirely without merit, but far to narrowly based in my opinion.

On the other hand we have the all conquering art school movement started with the Bauhaus which had the admirable aim of combining Fine Art and Crafts, except the traffic was alas all mostly one way with the fine art being introduced to the crafts rather than the crafts to the fine art. It was in many ways a bold bid by so called “fine” artists to hold sway over the whole spectrum of creative activity. They also, along with the Vkhutemas in Moscow, were at the cusp of the arrival of factory produced products which needed a new approach to design to make the mass production process possible. The old craft/artisan approach plainly being impractical to adapt. In order for the factory production to work deskilling was required with each of the steps to produce a finished thing broken down so that a worker could be taught the bare minimum needed to produce their particular part of the whole.

The sad fact is that this process passed over into the fine arts too. The old idea of mastery and laboriously built up skill was for the most part progressively abandoned. I am not wholly averse to this as overly restrictive reliance on method can be debilitating too. However I would feel the process has gone way to far. Visual artists as taught in art schools are of little use in supplying the artistic needs of either industry or society in general. The original idea of supplying the visually erudite to add style and beauty to the products of the factory has failed. Colleges that teach design are now separate and produce specialists narrowly focused on specific areas. The wide pollination of ideas disseminated through society and industry has as far as I can see been more or less been abandoned. Rather there has been an increasingly ghettoised artistic landscape with fine art producing people to teach art to those who in turn will teach art. While the areas of human endeavour that need visual expertise mostly draw their talent from elsewhere.

It is only uncritical state funding that could have produced such a conundrum. It is not that we don’t need the high intellectual works of the conceptual and the abstract or the artists that produce them. It is just that we don’t need so many and such work cannot speak to any other than a very small elite. The current system where we attempt to teach the unteachable to droves of students for whom the vast majority will in turn be fated attempt the same quixotic, sisyphean task and so on ad infinitum seems to me an insanity.

There is I think a simple truth: that you can teach the how but not the why. Practical skills and methods can be taught and historical context, but not the reason for things, for that is something none of us truly know and so cannot be passed on or in any way taught. Part of this idiocy has come about from the tendency to think that skill and craft are short on intellectual content. Scholastically challenged students are regularly put on to variously named courses that teach “handicrafts”. Anyone who has mastered any artistic medium or truly mastered any craft will tell you how far that is from reality. All such mastery requires a degree of understanding and curiosity about the self, it is part and parcel to being skilled.

Mostly small sketches this time I have been off on my travels visiting Dorset and Worcestershire. I only had opportunity for quick watercolours as I try not to be rude and make friends hang about as I paint. I have also been elected as a Candidate by the Wapping Group so will be joining them by the Thames every Wednesday for the rest of the year, which should produce plenty of paintings and also hone my plein air skills.

Mansion House, London, City, plein air,oil painting


The last expedition of the year for the brass monkeys. Mansion House and the Bank of England on the right. Yet another wet day so only subjects that could be painted from the dry!


St Steven Walbrook, London, city, rain, plein air, oil painting

This is St Steven Walbrook. People with red brollies really did walk by… who could resist! I hated this on site but once home I saw I had got two very simple things wrong. The tone of the road and the tone of the office block. These needed to relate because the colour structure is made up of these cool areas contrasting with the warm buildings. I did a bit more to the left hand building so in the final one it is not quite so heavy. It’s odd how just being away from the subject can help you to see a painting more clearly. All that reality can be rather overwhelming.


Royal Exchange, London, City, watercolour

Same area a few days later… and still raining! I saw this view as we were leaving on the previous visit. You can’t really do a finished watercolour in these conditions, though it had actually stopped raining long enough for me to get this down. For this sort of sketch I try to break every area down to two washes a base wash and one dark. Then in the final pass I add the final darks across the whole sketch.


Wells Cathedral, Somerset, watercolour

I was kindly invited to Dorset by my good friends Richard and Kate. Not much chance for painting as it is nice to put aside painting and just enjoy being social! I did make a few quick sketches just to fix the places in my memory. This is Wells cathedral in Somerset. 7in by 5in.


Dorset, landrover, watercolour

I saw this as we were walking along a high down in Dorset. A farmer had parked his Landrover making this very simple composition. Possibly one for a larger painting. 7in by 5in.


Dorset, watercolour, road

I do like my Moleskin sketchbook, it has lousy paper that is in an odd way just right! No real chance of wet into wet as the paper is too thin, but it dries very quickly which is just what you want for small sketches such as this. Dorset again near Pimperne. 7in by 5in.


sheep, dorset, watercolour

A rather fun scene. I shall definitely do a studio one of this. Still in Dorset. 7in by 5in.


Hanbury, worcestershire, road, trees, walkers, watercolour

I painted this standing with my paints on a blanket on my car bonnet, the blanket being to stop them sliding off! It is a lane near my brother’s house near Hanbury in Worcestershire. 7in by 5in.


Hanbury, Watercolour, Road, trees

This is the first studio watercolour I have done in a while, based on the sketch. There is always much about the sketch I prefer but they are different beasts really. On a computer screen they are given even billing but framed on a wall the studio work tends to have more presence than a quick plein air.


Hanbury Church, worcestershire, church, watercolour

Hanbury church which sits very dramatically on a hill. The wind was pretty dramatic too and also very cold! As with many churches you can’t get a mid distance view you are either too close or two far. I tried to exploit the closeness here and get the feeling of it being high on a hill. Actually the only real thing making you feel that is the lack of middle distance. 7in by 5in.


Greenwich, Cutty Sark, watercolour

Back in town again, this is Greenwich park looking towards the masts of the Cutty Sark. Odd diffuse sunlight gave a strange feeling I ended up using black to try and catch the effect and also some body colour. I have started using white acrylic premixed in a pot instead of the traditional chinese white it has the great advantage that it can be washed over and seems to sit  better with the watercolour.

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