Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 26, 2013

The Figure

Filed under: Drawing,Life Drawing,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 12:58 pm

I am mostly a landscape painter, but my other passion is the human figure. It is a harder one to satisfy than the taste for painting landscapes. For a start you need the cooperation of another human being! In the past most paintings were of people. Those upstarts still life and landscape were later developments. As a painter I find it hard to imagine being such and not wanting to paint my fellow humans. Also if I were to make a list of my absolute fave paintings most would be of figures. There is the odd fact though, today people for the most part wouldn’t buy a picture of someone they did not know. Unless it was an attractive young lady on the beach who was having trouble with her clothes falling off of course.

One interesting area is the difference in painting a figure and painting a person. We call painting a person a portrait, I would class it under figure painting though. Figure painting can include people who are just contributing to the mood and atmosphere of a work, not necessarily the focus. Or the figures can be like actors in a play as in paintings of Biblical or Mythic subjects. Another possibility is when the figure just supplies a decorative form to be embellished as in Alphonse Mucha or Gustav Klimt. Of these variations it is interesting to note that the painting of self contained paintings where the figures act a part in a story has almost gone. They are only done for some use such as film design or publication. A pity really as several of those would have made it into my favourites.

Why is it hard to paint such a picture now, and make it relevant to our times? History paintings are out too. Why is there no celebratory picture of Churchill with his foot on the throat of the defeated Hitler? The answer is in your reaction to that description, you would find it absurd! I just did a search on the discovery of DNA, but no painting of Crick and Watson with the famous helix only the photo. Should I do a picture of the Nobel laureates garbed in Greek dress leaning on a plinth where lies their famous discovery carved in marble? I could hire models, props etc, I don’t see why I could not paint a perfectly acceptable picture. However good the painting was however the first reaction would be a laugh, it might be an interesting challenge to paint one where the first reaction was aesthetic admiration, but even if you achieved that it would be followed by a chuckle.

Yet the history of art is stuffed with examples of just that sort of picture. Biblical characters often scurry about dressed in Greek togs and we take the images perfectly seriously, even today. You don’t see people entering the Sistine chapel and cracking up at the extremely beautiful but deeply silly pictures on that ceiling. We solemnly admire the astonishingly daft pictures by Rubens, such as the one with James I being whisked off to heaven in Whitehall. You may say that they were painted for a different age, but that doesn’t explain why we admire them now and why for the most part we don’t break into a fit of the giggles.

I don’t really have an answer to these questions. We have paintings of Napoleon conquering Austria, but none of the Beatles conquering America! Once you start you can think of all sorts of delicious subjects that would get people’s blood boiling. How about Margaret Thatcher dressed as Britannia triumphing over fallen Argentinians on the Falkland Islands? Or maybe closer to home over the miners. I’m astonished that none of the contemporary art shock jocks haven’t plucked this ripe plum of potential self advertisement.

That we can’t paint such pictures anymore says something about our culture perhaps. Other problems abound with the figure. Sex for example. If you paint a picture of an attractive girl or boy, one who fits the cruel ideals of desire, then your picture will be first put through the automatic assessment that our subconscious minds deliver. Would I or wouldn’t I? Crass yes, but the process is beyond conscious control so we must live with it. This is why Manet’s Olympia is such a clever picture, we make the assessment and then recoil faced with our own assumptions and shallowness.  It is thank heaven quite possible to sidestep this knee-jerk reaction. We don’t look at Degas’ intimate pastels of women bathing in the way we would have looked at earlier “classical” pictures that were only a thinly disguised excuse to ogle.

Why we don’t is hard to assess. In life drawing I don’t find myself gazing at the model in a lascivious manner. I am of course aware of the sexual desirability or not, but if anything less so than when that same person is clothed. Indeed I am sometimes struck by how attractive the model looks when in her robe during a break. Why did I not have that feeling when she was naked? Others feel the same. At our drawing group we all laughed when we discussed why non artists thought that drawing and painting the nude might somehow be a bit racy. “If only they knew!” was the comment.  There have of course been successful sexually charged drawings and paintings such as Lautrec and Scheile the first perhaps sexual regret and the other the dispassionate gaze of the post coital male. I even like some 50’s style “Pin Ups” oddly enough for their innocence, like naughty seaside postcards they don’t produce any real feeling of desire in the viewer.

I don’t in any case wish to have such an element in my own work, which is harder than you might think to exclude. Degas is I think my inspiration. I don’t want my figures to be uncaring and purely admiring the beauty of surface and form. The figure clothed or not has to be a person, moving through time, with feelings and sensations, hopes and fears. In short there has to be enough there for some empathy and some of that mystery that all of us contain even to ourselves. I want in short the viewer reaction to be mostly aesthetic and empathic and not overtly hormonal!

For an artist another great benefit of working from the figure is that there is nowhere to hide. If a figure is wrong there is no way of hiding it. Everyone artist and observer is an expert in the human form. We are automatically sensitive the most subtle  nuances in the human form. We recognise friends at a distance from the most tenuous of clues. All of this means that life work is the hardest and most demanding of the painter if you can successfully delineate the human form then any other subject is going to be simple compared.

I have I feel been drawing quite well of late, one of those unexpected incremental improvements had occurred. So I was quite fired up for a session where just 4 of us were to work from the model all day. The results were depressing but educational. I produced two quite poor 16in by 20in oil studies, neither anywhere near as good as the half hour drawings in the weekly session. Whenever this sort of thing happens it is good after a short spell curled up weeping bitterly in the wardrobe to take stock and work out what exactly went wrong.

Firstly I tried to make finished paintings. Two decent finished 16 by 20 oil paintings of the model was very over ambitious. The pictures came out as you can see below rushed and rather crude with too many errors in the underlying drawing. I should have spent an hour at least just drawing and correcting. The other big hole that I should have known better than to fall in to was that I did not premix my colours. I do this if painting a portrait, but here I rushed in and as a result the colouring on the figure is muddy and inconsistent. The correct procedure is to get the major tone groups for the figure mixed in decent quantity so that paint strokes can be consistently made without the delay caused by furious mixing and testing of colour.

So next time I will only do one pose in the day and follow these simple rules which irritatingly I already was aware of!


Figure, nude, oil painting

The best of the two, the soft furnishings are not too bad but the brushwork and modelling on the figure is very inconsistent. This is because I was having to

remix constantly and was constantly laying incorrect tones which needed modifying.


Figure, Nude, oil painting

The second effort. I nearly didn’t post this but it can stay here as a warning to me and others! Keep calm, don’t rush and do not make any mark on the

canvas unless you have a specific purpose in mind! If this had half the amount of brush strokes each better considered then the resulting painting would

have been far better! Each of these was about 2hrs. So next time just one pose in the day I think and simpler more muted throws.


nude, figure drawing

Whew glad those are out of the way! This took a mere half an hour but says more because it does not try to

say everything, only edited highlights.


nude, life drawing

Two seven minute. These always remind me of the rule that if anything is missing then it is at least not there looking wrong! If a drawing is an incomplete

array of well considered marks it will always be better than one that is a blizzard of inaccurate scribbles.


nude, life drawing

Another half hour. I am trying to leave more edges lost.


nude, life drawing

A great model, African skin tones can be difficult but I love the softer contrasts.


nude, life drawing

I was sitting rather too close to the model so the foreshortening even in a side view was very hard. I so rarely see people measure in life sessions. I don’t

know how they imagine they will get a decent result without. I occasionally hear other people telling each other that accuracy is not important. I keep my peace

mostly, but oh how wrong they are! They feel that such attention to a merely technical issue is going to hold back their creativity, if they only knew the freedom

such skills actually bring they would feel differently I suspect. Whatever style, expressionistic, abstractive or classical learning accuracy will amplify your creative

forces not diminish them.


nude, life drawing

Last from this session. I am pleased to get three decent drawings from a 2hr session. Even one makes it

worthwhile. Some misfires are almost inevitable!


nude, life drawing

A quick 15min but it catches the sunny charm of the model.


nude, life drawing

Last one, largely done with the sides of the pastels, line work was added at the end.

November 16, 2013

The Devil in the Detail

Detail. Many artists make it their life’s work to eliminate it. Simplify, combine and other words to reduce and edit litter “how to paint” books. To be detailed is for many painters a crime against art. I have more than a little sympathy with that view. I try to refine and simplify in my own work. The general public however disagrees. They love detail, the more of it the better. This creates a dilemma, to impress your peers you need to show a sophisticated reduction of content, for the general viewer they want to revel in the small touches.

Artists dismiss the overly photographic. I generally agree here too. What I ask is the point of copying a photograph into a handmade version in paint? The public however disagrees here too, with artists cringing at that innocently given accolade, “Oh it’s just like a photo!” Even people given to trawling the web looking at paintings disagree. Looking at Facebook pages that collect art the more photographic in quality the more “likes”. From my perspective as a painter the public has bad taste and does not know good painting when it sees it.

Oh how arrogant that sounds! It is a thread that runs through all the arts to some degree. In music composers don’t want to compose nice Mozarty tunes they want their compositions to be difficult and demanding of the listener. Literary critics want serious incisive writing, the public want page turners. In TV the public has won, with anything intelligent ghettoised to Beeb 4 and watched by about 3 people. I could do a rant here on reality TV, soaps and food porn but that would be too easy. Instead I have to ask, “Am I wrong?”

Becoming an expert at something or indeed an aficionado changes how you see the subject you are involved in. Painters see a different picture from the casual viewer. Where I see elegant simplification the uneducated might just see crude and childlike! At a certain point in elevated sophistication the viewer takes on more and more of the responsibility until we reach Malevitch’s black square or Cage’s silence where everything comes from the audience and nothing from the artist. Art critics and art fans, work hard to see what they see. They imagine of course that these aesthetic feelings come from the art and not from themselves though logic would say otherwise.

So what is a painter to do. If I paint something the man or woman in the street might like, then the art establishment will dismiss me. If I paint to please the establishment and other painters, the general public will mostly turn aside. It is popular to think that the public’s taste “lags behind” and will in due course catch up. Well it’s been a hundred years and there is no sign of it catching up so far! The uncomfortable truth is that such a view is arrogant and almost certainly untrue.

The public’s taste is as it is because they are not painters, they are lookers. They judge a painting upon what they see around them and by photographs of reality. All your colour harmonies and compositional tricks for the most part are unnoticed. For a portrait they will just say, “It don’t look like her much!” they wont admire your deft scumbling of the background or the subtle passage of brushwork that defines the cheek.

The choice for the painter is a little bleak. Paint to please yourself and hopefully a small group of connoisseurs or “sell out” and do crowd pleasing potboilers. You can of course widen your market by painting those pictures that the amateur would like to paint but can’t quite pull off, but even this might attract scorn from your fellow artists.

This disconnect is quite recent. The high Victorian 19th Century paintings with their syrupy sentiment and moral certainty appealed both the the public and the connoisseurs and critics of the time as well. We cringe now at the paintings of puppies looking up adoringly at sweet children but I suspect that they would still be very much to current unsophisticated taste. In music they try to “educate” the public by doing a Mozart symphony and then tacking a bit of Shostakovich for them to sit through as well. A policy I have always found irritating and rather patronising.

The ideal of course would be to please everybody, but that is not going to happen. I have my own cringeometer which determines a step to far. I can only show this by example…


Solomon J Solomon

Here is an unlikely scene. A painting by Solomon J Solomon a painter of over heated romantic scenes and

one of the inventors of camouflage netting. Daft though this painting is there is a lot I like. The Saint’s head

is very well modelled and executed. It makes me chuckle however that St George finishes off the dragon with

one hand whilst hoisting the maiden with the other! Who said men can’t multitask?


Frank Dicksee

More maiden rescuing, a growth industry in the middle ages it would seem. This is Frank Dicksee, I find it hard to like anything here.

Why? It is hard to say, the maidens expression is vapid the colouring is generally a bit over rich. The lighting is inconsistent with the lady

being lit by a different day. The drawing isn’t too bad, but at the end of the day I look and don’t like. Frank got knighted but Solomon didn’t!


Arthur Rackham

Here is Arthur Rackham. I like almost everything here. Beautiful muted tones. Exquisite drawing, sweet but

the girl’s gaze holds ours which changes the mood.


Jesse Willcox Smith

Another girl in the woods… this time by Jesse Wilcox Smith. It is perfectly well drawn and painted. The palette is restricted.

The girl’s gaze meets ours… but I hate it!


We reserve especial scorn for those who churn out the same old painting just because it sells. We call the artists hacks and their works potboilers, though I dare say their children were better fed than the more sternly aesthetic. I’ve done potboilers too, romance covers etc, I have also done plenty of paintings that would fail my own cringe test. Still I have this unfashionable urge to paint pictures that people might like. This has lead me to tread the boundary between detailed and simplified, in truth both have their uses, I don’t want to disappoint a viewer that likes a close look nor do I want to lose the person who appreciates in a more general fashion.  I am myself a person who appreciates and enjoys both qualities in a picture.

The problem I face is getting the two aspects to compliment each other. I am nearer to this in watercolour. I get people saying they love the detail, but in truth it is mostly absent and just suggested. Watercolour rather lends itself to this with the textures and abstract qualities of the washes standing in for observed detail. In oils I have to work a little harder, I end up blurring bits of detail to stop them catching the eye, but it would be better to paint them with the right degree of focus from the outset. Only a few pictures this post…


Ashburnham Arms, Greenwich, oils

A commission, I don’t do many of these but this was quite fun. A hard subject to make a picture of as the views were very restricted. I went down a few

to try and get the light right. It is in Greenwich. 10in by 14in Oils.


Richmond, Thames, Plein air, oil painting

The Brass Monkeys had a wonderful day in Richmond. This is the view of the Thames that greeted me. Almost too perfect and changing so rapidly that

the result is a little rushed. I have a few references that combined with this sketch will make a great watercolour I hope. 10in by 16in. Oils.


Richmond, Thames, plein air, oil painting

I moved on to this. As soon as I started they folded up the blue tarpaulin so I had to mostly make it up! I am trying to take a few different proportioned

boards out with me, it is easy to get stuck with standard shapes. 10in by 10in oils.


Richmond, Thames, The White Cross, plein air, oil painting

After a very good lunch in the White Cross I thought I had better immortalise it. The light was fantastic and the colours in the trees lovely. I only got this

drawn and glazed in, but with the tones and colours more or less there, finishing took only half an hour at home. 10in by 14in. Oils.


Pen drawing, Richmond, Thames

I thought the previous painting would make a good pen drawing to I dusted off my Gillott dip pen and set to. I don’t know why I don’t do more pen drawing

it is a great medium. I shall try and do more. A4 on Bristol board.

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