Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

September 27, 2013

What is Art For?

Filed under: Art History,Drawing,Life Drawing,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 6:34 pm

In a recent forum debate the topic came up as to whether art had a point. The debate was quite varied with some saying it didn’t need one and others saying that shared culture benefitted all mankind, most seemed to say it was a sort of therapy for the artist, a few that it was a focus for meditation for the viewer and the more hardheaded souls thought it was to make an investment item. I don’t necessarily disagree with any of these, but neither do I think any of them tell the whole story.

There are I think a couple of aspects that are separate. There is the “treasure” factor. A work of art if accepted as such is a store of value and enhances the status of the possessor. Then there is the aesthetic, where looking at the art item brings pleasurable or otherwise feelings, either way a reaction in the thoughts of the viewer that could range from delight or disgust to quiet contemplation. These are obviously not exclusive. A person attempting art appreciation wishes a return for their perusal. It could be appreciation of skill, it could be appreciation of subject matter, or an aid to meditation, a doorway to contemplation. This is the story from the consumer’s point of view. These are if you like the niches in the market that are available to the artist to fill with appropriate works.

Most contemporary artists would I suspect feel that it is the therapeutic or otherwise effects of the art’s creation upon and by the artist that are important and any effect it had on others was a side effect. The artist would make the act of expression and then leave others to make of it what they will. All very elevated of course but in my opinion untrue and wrong headed.

Recently the Times printed a list of 20 paintings that anyone should know. I won’t bother to list them as the idea of such lists seems to me entirely crass, rather like those books that reduce War and Peace to 20 pages so you can pretend to have read it.  The pictures listed of course followed the tired old art historical arc pedalled by current art historical wisdom. Abstract art was rather oddly represented by Pollock. The blurb below the picture read, “…any critical confusions about his stature have long since been cleared up.” followed by some daft waffle I shall not bother to unpick. It does say earlier that Pollock had become interested in the paint splashes on the floor when he worked as a (very bad) muralist. A rather dubious tale to my mind as Pollock flirted with a fair few in vogue styles before becoming splashy. What is interesting is how Pollock’s early and very undistinguished career has been air brushed out, here is a site devoted to him: Pollock. You would think they might be keen on his early stuff… but no there is a gap and he springs into existence almost fully formed. There are examples from his days with Thomas Hart Benson, they are pretty average for a 23yr old but not wholly awful, he also does a few years later some Picasso inspired scribbles. I’ll put them below, they are very hard to find so the images aren’t great.




They do seem to show he didn’t have any real idea of where he wanted to go. Even though I suspect the drips on the floor story is apocryphal I quite like it as I have had a fair few admiring the paint frame floor moments myself over the years and painted many abstract backgrounds created by flinging paint around for use behind fashion shoots. I was once, if you can believe it, quite in demand for such canvasses by the great and the good of the world of photography. We sometimes joked at the time about how the floor would make a good Jackson Pollock if we could but rip it up and mount it on the wall. I have also painted fake Pollocks a fair few times for adverts, I have read in art books about how Pollock had some sort of mastery and it was hard if not impossible to mimic him. It is I assure you not true. Pollocks are relatively easy. Thick paint for big dribbles and splashes, thinner for finer dribbles. Then just layer them up, thin thick, thin thick in four or five colours. The hardest part is to do it randomly without too much thought. Due to this of course fake Pollocks are a big problem with the fakes essentially just as good as the real ones. If the experts at the big auction houses are struggling how is a mere gallery visitor to know?

So what are Pollocks for? They are quite nice to look at, but so are any paint splashes. As a visual focus for meditation they are no better as far as I can see than a bit of much repaired pavement or aged concrete. You could argue indeed that the pavement carries a more interesting embedded history, more trodden in chewing gum for sure. If it was just their meditative qualities that were key then it would hardly matter whether they were by Pollock or someone else, so it is I would say the “treasure” aspect that is the defining one. Their cultural significance is mainly historical rather than aesthetic.

Another of the art items listed by the Times is the Lindisfarne Gospels. On the surface they do much the same job as the Pollock. They are treasure, and also made as an aid to meditation and devotion. They also have a good historical story with the Bishop Eadfrith in place of a depressed drunk. Though we don’t know if he or his scribes hankered after renown as Pollock did. Here is a page from the Gospel.

Lindisfarne, gospel


You can click on the above for a bigger view. Pretty funky stuff you have to admit. It is pretty much abstract, with only a few zoomorphics here and there. Easy to loose yourself in the textures and patterns. So what are the differences. Well for one I have tried to create these. It is not impossible, but it is also not in any way easy, as the dire art produced by many new-agers shows. To produce a fake Gospel page would be a tremendous labour. First gaining the skills, researching methods and other technical knowledge, then practice to gain the dexterity and finally but not least the execution of the page itself. It would in other words take years. It is hard to say what the final page would be worth if it took in the experts. A single carpet page ripped from the book of Lindisfarne would I suspect fetch millions, so why are there seemingly no fakes of the great carpet pages? Well it is simply that they would be too hard to make even at that kind of money. The same is evidently not true of a Pollock. I could and have knocked up a pretty good Pollock take off in a single day. I studied and practiced drawing stuff similar to the manuscript above for several years and still could not do it as well as the 7thC scribes!

I would hold that what makes a lasting aesthetic object and sets it apart from one that has mostly historical and ephemeral cultural significance, is the amount and degree of a person’s life needed to create it. There is very little in this life made by men that does not require skill and the effort of learning and practice to have lasting value. If you do not believe me just go to the British Museum and look at what has made it into the display cases from each era. Do you really think that in a thousand years’Equivalent VIII’ by Carl Andre will sit in a glass case to represent our historical era? Well going by what we have chosen to represent earlier centuries it will be examples of beautiful things created by high skill and lifetime’s worth of practice and learning. Tracy Emin’s scribbles and I’m afraid Jackson’s dribbles are I suspect rather unlikely to be there to be representative of the hopes and dreams of our wonderful and varied age. I might vote for an Aston Martin, a Spiderman comic, a mobile phone and a Hollywood movie! Engineering, technology and mass media are the crown jewels and the highest achievements of our age, I doubt any paintings at all will be present. On thinking about it I would not be ashamed for my times to be so represented, though I am a little sad I can’t see many paintings making it.

Life drawing has returned after a gap. It is always a shock how hard it is!


life drawing, watercolour, nude

The second one of the session, the first went badly wrong! Serves me right for taking water colours to the first evening! This one came out a bit

better. Half an hour is only just enough time, you have to be very focussed on the exact order you do things in so that you always have a bit you

can work on. If you get the whole lot wet then you just have to stop and can run out of time. Just two colours, transparent red oxide and ultramarine.


life drawing, watercolour, nude

Not the most flattering angle! I enjoyed painting this though as the shapes were so interesting. I like it when the human body looks

like a set of abstract sculptural forms.


life drawing, charcoal, nude

This is actually the last evening of the previous session before the break. Esther our model posed outside in the garden looking I thought like a very lovely dryad.

The natural light was magical and as the evening wore on got better and better. Hard at first as it is quite diffuse and without any hard shadows. This

is two sorts of charcoal and some black conte.


life drawing, charcoal, nude

It did get quite hard to see as the light levels dropped. I just tried to hint at what I could see and not define what was

lost in the gloom. Hard to see the paper too!


life drawing, nude, charcoal

I think this was done before the standing one. I remember puzzling over how to indicate the shrubbery without

over complication. The result is a bit futurist!


life drawing, nude, charcoal

Ran out of time and didn’t quite get a chance to unify the whole thing. I usually adjust the general tones of areas with light strokes of the side of the charcoal

which helps define the form and so forth.


Life drawing, nude, charcoal

Quite pleased with this one. I built the whole thing out of carefully considered strokes trying to be as economical as possible. It meant working a little more

slowly than normal but I like the spare effect.


Life drawing, nude, charcoal

Last one, I love the news print to draw on but it does yellow very fast. The drawings from six months ago are quite a bright yellow. I must find something

similar that takes the charcoal in the same way. Cartridge doesn’t have enough bite and pastel paper has too much. Any suggestions welcome!

September 10, 2013

A Watercolour Month in London and Wales

Back to watercolours this month. The oils have made a step forward but I don’t want to loose my edge with the wishy washy stuff. I need to do some experimenting to broaden my range a bit if I don’t watch it I become too literal and don’t do enough exaggeration to lift the painting from the mundane. This is a hard thing to judge as overcooking it can be worse than understating!

Watercolour is hard to beat for a quick sketch, you can get so much down in so little time. Some of this posts paintings are only tiny but they still carry invaluable information that will help in the studio. As usual I have been going out painting plein air rather too much and not doing enough studio painting. It is especially important to keep up the studio work in watercolour as many of the techniques require deftness and quickness of touch. If not practiced regularly these skills rapidly become unlearnt. Oddly I don’t find this with oils as the process is not as dynamic. With watercolours things have to be done at the right moment and with confidence, if you are tentative the moment to get a particular effect is lost. Watercolours also require a greater degree of planning. I like to have the sequence of washes worked out in my head before starting. Also their timings as at what stage of dryness one wash goes over another can make a huge difference. For instance lay a wash over another before it is ready and the two will merge into mud. Wait until it is too bone dry and the top wash will layover the other without interaction. Get it just right and the top wash will dissolve the lower one just here and there adding interest and granularity.

I have been off to beautiful Pembrokeshire again, lucky with the weather once more. As it was a family visit I didn’t do much painting but did plenty of looking. I also saw an exhibition of Keith Noble’s lovely watercolours. There is not much of his work on the web which is a pity as he has a wonderful touch with complete mastery of the technical elements. I think some of his work will be at the RSMA as he is a member so I will be looking out for them. Seeing someone else do fantastic work always inspires me, I want to go straight home and try to catch something of it myself. On the subject of the RSMA I have managed to get a picture in myself again which is the second year running. Details here: RSMA 2013


Plein air Thames, London, watercolour

After a bad day when I seemed to get nothing done I went up to town to catch the last of the light. The light was going so fast I went at this like a madman.

No drawing and I kept the palette deliberately narrow to speed things along It is just ultramarine and transparent red ochre, a tiny bit of cad red for the life

rings as I recall. The best thing was it lifted my mood and made the day feel worthwhile. 1/4 sheet of truly horrible Two Rivers paper, like blotting paper and

very irregularly sized, there was another two inches to the right which I had to crop off as it had two completely unsized areas. It is of course the Thames.


Hampton Court, Thames, watercolour

A Wapping Group day at Hampton Court. Lovely weather but I was rather slow to start. I did this wee 7in by 5in to get me going. Then I did a truly execrable

oil which made me grind to a halt again. The only solution being to slope off and eat a full English and read the paper!


Molesey, Hampton Court, Bridge St, watercolour

This is Bridge St. No more oils as the threaded bit on top of my tripod fell out and into the reeds. This is Bridge St in Molesey, over the river from Hampton

Court itself. About 8in by 11in. Hard work as it is a very complex subject. The sun was beating down and I was quite baked by the time I was done!


Thames, Molesey, watercolour

Another 5in by 7in. Molesey lock in the distance. Quite an easy subject and it was pub time once I was finished. Very pleasant to finish the day with a beer and a chat!


Newport, Pembrokeshire, Wales, sea, watercolour

Here we are in Newport Pembrokeshire. I have painted this scene many times but it always seems different. About 8in by 10in. It was quite breezy and

I struggled to keep the paper still. The key here was the the tone relation of the distant bay to the foreground. I actually painted the headland in the same

colours and tones as the foreground. Then at the very end I laid a wash of pure ultramarine over the nearby field to darken and mute it.


Newport bay, watercolor, Dinas head

I did this while waiting for areas of the previous painting to dry. It is Dinas head. Only 3in by 5in but enough there to tell the story.


Manorbier Castle, watercolour

This is Manorbier Castle. The light was super it was a real pleasure to do this little 5in by 7in sketch.


Porthgain, pembrokeshire, Wales, Watercolour

This is Porthgain. Painted in an absolute gale I had to finish the boats after as the paper was flapping about too much. I often mute colours but this scene

was so full of delicious hues I didn’t hold back… a little bit technicolor but never mind! 9in by 11in. Another difficulty was that the wind was blowing the paint!


Porthgain, wales

Another from Porthgain. I found a sheltered spot to do this tiny 3in by 5in.


Whitesands, pembrokeshire, wales, watercolour

This is from a photo of an earlier visit but with the light of the recent one! It is Whitesands near St Davids. I liked the composition but the light wasn’t great.

However on this visit I took some pictures on a different beach where the light was super. Not too hard to graft the two together. 1/4 sheet Arches.

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