Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

July 26, 2013

Relative Importance

Filed under: Drawing,London,Painting,Thames,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 3:53 pm

I expected after a while to run out of things to post about but it doesn’t seem to be happening so far. Which perhaps shows what a wide subject painting is. This instalment  is about relative importance, a something I am just starting to get to grips with myself. This is prompted by a very good article by Stapleton Kearns which is here. The subject is sometimes called subordination, or as I put it in the heading “Relative importance”.

Like all technical theories it needs to be considered as a factor not a rule! You can always find examples that break any rule successfully, but it is something to consider when making a picture. It underlies the problem of detail and why too much of it can often ruin an otherwise good painting. Subordination is of particular interest to a plein air painter attempting to get an impression down of a fleeting moment because it allows you do to break down what is key to a picture and what is merely there in a supporting role. When I look back at pictures that failed very often a lack in the focus on the centre of interest was the culprit, especially in plein air work.

A beautiful scene is all well and good but it is only an empty stage awaiting actors. What can be considered as a subject is pretty broad, anything from a splash of light in a distant field to an upfront figure in a street scene. A very simple example of this in action is the vignette where the edges of the picture fade out, or Richard Schmidt who fades out many of his pictures into abstract scumbling. These are both rather obvious examples the method works best to my mind when it is subtle, done too crudely you might as well paint an arrow on your picture with, “Look here you fool!” written on it… As with drama the hero must be engaging but the supporting players believable too.

One of the mistakes that many painters, both professional and amateur make is the paint the whole picture with the same intensity of gaze. It is a crime I am very often guilty of myself! So in a cityscape the windows of the buildings might be all painted to the same level with window bars and all the surrounds. The result of this , I fear, is a stiff deadness to the picture. As to why this is so is harder to work out. The real world is after all in the same fractal detail where ever we look. The answer, I think, is in how we look. We see in detail with only a tiny bit of the eye, the fovea, everything surrounding this is peripheral, much not even in colour. So what happens is that the eye moves, focusses and as it does so subordinates everything around. Try it yourself look at an object and fix your gaze. Then shift you attention to another object but do not move your eyes. This is not easy as your eyes want to flick to the next centre of interest but it quite possible with practice and valuable for an artist. What you find is that the objects outside your main focus are rendered by the brain in a pretty cursory manner, the basics are there but not much more.

So when you focus in our cityscape upon a taxi coming towards you, you actually cannot see those window bars you just see a dark blur where the window might be. This is why a painting done of the same subject with the focus on the taxi can have very basic indications of windows in the buildings and still seem to the viewer to be all there with nothing missing. This does not mean however that the drawing can be slapdash, that blur needs to be in the right place with the right tone etc and roughly the right shape! In practice you can supply a few bits of detail, a hint of a window bar here and a reflection there are all that is needed for the viewer to fill in the rest.

There is of course a slight conflict here, many viewers of pictures enjoy exploratory looking and will exclaim in admiration over the detail. Whereas a painter might pay a compliment as to the way certain elements are just suggested not defined. This might seem to be an unbridgeable divide but in practice this is not so. I have quite often received the “wonderful details” accolade or worse the “Just like a photo…” when in actual fact the detail was mostly  just hinted at. A few paintings so you can see me not taking my own advice…


The Boltons, Chelsea, pintar rapido, plein air, oils, London, porsche

This was my effort for the Pintar Rapido. No I didn’t win, or indeed sell my picture. I was quite pleased with this nonetheless, it was blindingly hot and

quite difficult light. You had to register before going out so it was impossible to paint early when the light was good. This is the Boltons in Kensington

and Chelsea. One of the most exclusive roads in the capital… 14in by 10in oils.


Chelsea, St Lukes, church, watercolour

I had to hang about the next day as I needed to collect my picture. I did this wee watercolour of St Lukes in Chelsea, too hot to do more! 7in by 5in.


Putney, Thames, Plein air, Wapping Group, oil painting

I am trying to get to as many Wapping Group days as possible. This one was a visit to Putney. Once again the day was very hot so painting from the shade

was favourite. It was quite hazy with the sun coming and going but I enjoyed painting this. I am using glaze medium to lay in the basic tones which means

using a white board. It is almost like watercolouring with the white of the board shining through. I like the method for the most part though you do tend to

loose the unity gained by using a toned board. The advantages are that the whole thing can be laid in very fast and as the glaze dries quickly it is ready to paint

over in minutes. This really reduces the problems with “pick” up and keeps the painting very clean.


Putney, thames, watercolour, plein air

I did a quick watercolour of the same scene, I like the way the different media tend to pick out different aspects of the same scene. 7in by 5in.


Putney, Thames, river, summer, plein air

I then turned 180 degrees and did up river, my heart wasn’t really in this but all good practice… looks like Italy! A pint of cold beer in the pub was very

welcome I can tell you! 12in by 10in oils.


Chelsea, London, street, sun, oil painting

I’m not sure if this is finished, it is Chelsea again I went back as I saw several possible paintings. I only drew out and laid in with glaze then the heat drove

me away. It was 35C! I carried on working from snaps but I might go back and finish on site if I get the right day. I am pleased with the feeling of heat but there

is something that worries me. I always hate it when there is something not quite right that I can’t put my finger on… any suggestions very welcome!

The car is a bit too dominant perhaps but I rather liked the bad parking! 20in by 12in oils.


Erith, Thames, watercolour, plein air

Another Wapping day though I saw no one else and couldn’t make the pub due to vegetable watering duties! This is Erith in Kent I rather liked this untidied

section of the river… but the riverside flat plague is infesting the river here too, this industrial stuff will all be gone. I painted this from a scrap of shade but felt

it would be easier to catch in an oil… 7in by 5in


Erith, Kent, Thames, Oils, plein air, Wapping Group

I gritted my teeth and did this in the full sun. I was right in thinking it would be easier in oils. I painted all the jetty and conveyer in a flat dark and then

worked all the other stuff around it. This keeps the darks thin, with a subject like this it takes very few marks to fill in the feeling of detail on top. 10in by 7in.



Some nerdy stuff now, I wanted a super light set up as I don’t like carrying a full pack around the city. The pochade box weighs only 875gm and the

whole lot you see above weighs in at 1.3 kilos including Zipshot tripod. It takes 14in by 10 in boards and can carry 2 wet paintings slid in the back.



Here it is packed up. To test it I went out to Northumberland Avenue near Charing Cross.


Northumberland Avenue, London, oil painting, plein air

This is Northumberland Avenue, some super light, Graham Davies and I painted away trying to catch the mood. A great place to paint as the pavement is

wide and in the evening the light streams down it giving a great effect. A lot to get down in an hour but plenty here to inspire a bigger picture! The new

light set up worked a treat and will make popping up to town to catch the evening light so much easier. 14in by 10in.


Helium, pochade

Finally my vision of a truly light weight painting set up, “The Helium Pochade” I’m sure it will be a winner!

July 11, 2013

Working from Photos, Working from Life

It is a subject many artists are sensitive about. I am a bit myself, if I am to be honest. There is nothing more disheartening than the supposed compliment: “It’s just like a photo!”. Just as with tracing there is a hint of the cheating about it. Just as with tracing there are pitfalls that come with using photographic source material, but that does not mean you should not use them, only that you need tactics to avoid the difficulties that they can cause. There is I feel a problem with working only from photographs and never from life. Though I am sure there are artists that overcome the hurdle. My main issue would be with those who can work from photos but cannot paint easily when sitting in front of a real subject. I would encourage all such painters to give it a go and paint from a first hand view rather than the processed flat image that a camera produces.

Once again it is not so much about what it does to the canvas but what it does to the artist. Painting from life gives you a set of tools and a perspective that will in my opinion lift your studio work even if it is mostly derived from the photographic image. You may not produce anything but scrap in your work from life, but the experience will enlarge your perspective and make you look at other work with a more educated eye.

For many years when working as an illustrator I was dependent on trawling newspapers, books and magazines for reference photos of whatever it was that I was commissioned to paint. Then there was the laborious process of merging this various information into a coherent image. My working sketches were done on tracing paper and often had many layers as I juggled with different elements. I had a vast Grant Enlarger the size of a fridge that enabled me to blow up and reduce images. All in all a cumbersome process that I grew to dislike. On my days off I would go out and sketch in watercolour and enjoy the blissful simplicity of just painting what was before me. It is only now when I am trying to establish myself as a picture painter that I find myself using photographs to do paintings to please myself. Before this period I had only painted ten or so “Studio” landscapes from photos all my other work was plein air.

Oddly this means I come fairly fresh to the act of painting framable pictures from photos. There is not the problem of disparate elements, I am working from images of scenes I have captured myself. It makes me very aware of the gulf between a photograph and a painting,  also how rare a thing a photo that will make a good picture is. When I was first out and about I snapped anything that took my fancy; but doing a lot of plein air in the last few years have made me much more selective. The other thing is that my “painting antennae” have become much more sensitive. I habitually squint and assess the tonal balance of possible subjects. I now only take a photo if it passes the simple squint test, IE does it simplify into a pleasing pattern. Bit by bit I have become better at selecting bits of the real world that have that certain something.

Once I have my photographs home I find that 90% can be ditched. Once they are away from the subject they have lost their resonance. Just a few then are “possibles.” Every now and again I get a very likely candidate and that will go on to the next stage. I am not that interested in doing paintings that I could easily do directly. What I am looking for is some ephemeral moment that was there just for a few seconds, a trick of the light an arrangement of figures and occasionally a figure that can hold a whole picture together as a focus. These also are rare things. Indeed very few pictures of people look “right”, to be useful they need a certain balance and above all a good silhouette. I trawl through photos looking for them and put them in a separate file. I might stay in one place once I have found a scene I am interested in and photograph passers by for 20 min or so. I just watch the LCD on the camera as the people pass and capture likely moments. Then when I come to make the painting I have plenty of likely subjects to populate the picture!

The main thing I need to decide is what the painting is to be about and hone that focus, it is easy to get distracted during painting and stress areas that need to be quiet and unassuming. For me also mood is very important and I often shift the palette from the original to bring a colour harmony to the picture that the photograph didn’t have. Tone also needs to be adjusted to support the composition. As you can see by this list it is much more straightforward to paint a scene from life! It is in my opinion pretty worthless to just to copy from a photograph. All the photo-realists, hyper-realists and droves of amateurs doing photographic pencil renderings leave me completely cold. To copy a photo takes far less skill than interpreting one. The former is mostly time and patience the latter is skill and experience.

A bit of everything in this post. Studio, plein air and life drawing. Alas most of my time has been taken up doing commercial work so less pictures than usual.


Soho, London, bicycle, sun, oil painting

A sketch for a bigger painting, somewhere in Soho I think. This is 14in by 10 in but the final one will be 36in across. I am trying to do preparatory paintings

like this for all future studio works as it should make painting the final one that much easier.


Cyclists, bicycle, Royal Exchange, London, City, oil painting

Another 14in by 10 in sketch. I stood for quite a while photographing the morning rush at the Royal Exchange in the heart of the City. When the lights

changed it was like the beginning of the Tour de France with the cyclists and motorcycles away first! I have a couple of others of these planned. I rather

like the odd mood because it is very early and the people all quiet and self absorbed despite pedalling fiercely. Below the snap that I took it from.


Royal Exchange

I have shown the whole frame here so you can see what I have done. The little group of commuters was perfect so I left them alone, just playing with the

tones to enhance the mood.


London Memorial Gardens, Embankment, plein air, oil painting

Back to the plein air. A wonderful day out with the Wapping Group. This is London Memorial Gardens near Charing Cross. I got there early so this is

7.30 am. A constant stream of people on their way to work, no tourists at this hour. About 10in by 10in. I have since muted the green on the left a little.


Whitehall Gardens, Big Ben, London, Park, Plein air, oil painting

After a coffee I moved straight on as the light was super. This is Whitehall Gardens , and unusual view of Big Ben. 14in by 10in.


Victoria Tower Gardens, Houses of Parliament, plein air, oil painting

Took on a monster here! Something not quite right but good practice. This is Victoria Tower gardens. 14in by 10in.


Thames, watercolour, plein air

I couldn’t resist a quick watercolour sketch, even though I am meant to be practicing the oils.  I was chased up the steps by the tide as I did this. 7in by 5in.


Nude, Life drawing, figure, charcoal

Only one session of life drawing left after this. This is done in brown charcoal.


Nude, life drawing, charcoal

More experimenting, I am starting to get the hang of this charcoal stuff a little more.


Life drawing, nude, charcoal

I am getting the balance of broad fill and detail better, which makes the drawing hang together more. 20min.


Life drawing, nude, charcoal

Another one I am pleased with, using the side of the sticks more works well on the rough newsprint. 30min.


That’s it I’m off doing the Pintar Rapido….. so wish me luck!

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