Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

March 25, 2014

Getting Better

If you think I am going to tell you a sure fire way then disappointment awaits! There are a few things I do try and do however to make the trajectory up rather than flat or even worse down. Firstly just do it enough, if you don’t use it you don’t completely loose it but you really do loose some ground. Learning anything reinforces pathways in the brain. Research tells us that there are real physical changes with pathways that are frequently used gaining more connections and better blood supply. If you don’t keep those pathways busy the body for economy’s sake will reassign resources and doing what had become easy will become harder once more. This is hardly any different from any exercise so it should be no surprise.

One major area that can cause frustration is learning mistakes. Anyone who plays a musical instrument will tell you that practicing mistakes is all to easy. We can accidentally reinforce errors my making them frequently. I often see this with painters too, where a way of doing things has become set in their method and even though they intellectually know there is something wrong, when they come to paint they are forced by habit down the same less than ideal turnings. I have not only seen this in others alas, but also often in my own processes.

The only way to correct and get over such obstacles is to separate out the problem area and just practice that bit in isolation. So if you have difficulty with tone simplify the issue. Drop colour, give yourself only 4 tones to work with and paint until you have worked up some new pathways. A warning here, it takes a lot of effort to “unlearn” something. You will find that you can practice up a new way of working in the studio only to find that the old bad habits reassert themselves when painting out of doors under pressure. So it is a good idea to take your four tones out into the landscape and get the new habit well and truly programmed in!

The same can be done in any area. If you have problems with figures then get photos and draw thumbnails from them. You can even trace over them multiple times. I have myself traced over the standard London taxi until I can draw them from memory at any angle. It takes a surprisingly short time to get to a stage where you can just draw one without reference. The same is true with figures if you can draw believable silhouettes from memory then you can adapt those to catch the figures that are really there on the day.

Those are a few ways of dealing with identifiable weaknesses. Harder is to take what is already working adequately and push it up to the next level. For me the process is more or less the same. Take the thing apart and then reassemble. It helps to change media and method, also to introduce constraints which forces you to do more with less. An example of this is I often see people always painting with the same palette, if you always put out the same colours you are closing doors off that might have interesting rooms behind them. As a guide if you get too comfortable with a particular way of doing things it is probably time for a shake up!

One activity that will always highlight weak areas is life drawing. This is why I always advise people who want to improve to find a session and attend it regularly. I’m afraid I can almost guarantee it will be a slightly depressing experience. You will go dreaming of Michelangelos and return with childlike misshapen gargoyles! It is this cruel contrast that makes life drawing so valuable. You can see clearly that you are falling short and once you can see that you can move to make improvements. The aim of life work for me is not to produce anything of great artistic merit, but to stress the skills I have already attained to breaking point.

One note of caution there are always kind souls at life sessions who will say things like accuracy doesn’t matter and expressing yourself is the most important thing. I am not saying accuracy is the only thing but it is not inimportant. If your accuracy is a weak point then measure like mad until you have dealt with it. It is getting these technical hurdles somewhat tamed that allows expression to flow freely. Before you can be really be free and react to momentary inspiration you have to take the time and effort to strike off the chains that hold you back!

Note of caution no: 2. Fetishising technique is just as bad in my opinion as downplaying it. The Atelier and similar approaches tend to raise technical competence to a be all and end all. The lie to this is given by the uninspiring and dismal output of the students whose life drawings might well have linear and tonal accuracy but are in themselves lifeless. They take living flesh and turn it to perfectly rendered lifeless static stone. If you don’t get the feeling that the model fidgets and might get up and stretch at any moment you have failed just a surely as if you got the head the wrong size!

Now for some examples of how I haven’t managed to practiced what I preach!


Fleet Street, St Pauls, London, oil painting


The first of a batch of new London pictures. This is based on the plein air from the last post. I wanted to roll back the day to the moment we arrived so used the photo ref to change the feel of the light. Still a little but to do, the distance is too busy and crisp so I will soften with a glaze or two once dry. 16in by 24in oils.


The Strand, London, oil painting


This is the Strand looking West. Still a fair way to go on this but the basics are in and I am happy with the overall mood. The final adjustments have to be made very carefully so as not to overwork. 16in by 20in oils.


Strand on the Green, Thames, Plein air, brass monkeys, watercolour


A day out to the Strand on the Green near Chiswick and Kew. This was a Brass Monkeys day and the weather was a little chancy. I did this view twice the previous version was so awful I binned it! Quite difficult to paint with hail bouncing off your paper! 6in by 9in watercolour.


Thames, London, Strand on the Green, watercolour, plein air


Last one of the day I got myself positioned behind one of the pylons of the railway bridge which held off the worst of the very chilly breeze. 9in by 14in watercolour.


life drawing

I am watercolouring in the life sessions at present. It is very hard to get a study done in 30min but it is great for teaching you how to make important decisions on the fly!


life drawing

Here is an example of ringing the changes I added reed pen and ink to my very limited palette of red ochre and ultramarine.


Life drawing

Here we are pared down even more just line with the reed pen and a single wash. 7min.


life drawing

Here I have added reed pen but stressed the colour a little more. It is all about getting the most from the available resources.


life drawing

I made retaining the whites here my main intent. Very tricky as I am not drawing first. The reason for not drawing is to build confidence in putting brushstrokes down. Confident strokes add a lot to the liveliness of the end result. It is worth practicing taking a brush and practicing swelling and reducing the mark using varying pressure. This helps when you need to lay in a stroke that defined form as well as tone.


life drawing

This was as they say “challenging” … getting the extreme perspective in and believable is always very hard.


life drawing

This shows how much you can get down in 10min… you just have to accept with life sketches that 90% are fit only for the bin!

March 13, 2014


This is something that has caused me a certain amount of grief. Many years ago I was warned by a really well known illustrator that a very distinctive personal style was often a problem. He pointed out that once you had established and were known for a distinctive style you wouldn’t be asked for anything else. What is more if your style was a hit and then went out of fashion you were left high and dry with very little work.

This in the event was not a problem for me. I am a born mimic and can usually paint in most styles in a reasonably convincing way. Indeed a lot of my illustration work came with the requests like, “Could you do this in whatshisname’s style as he isn’t available.” I became quite useful and garnered a fair bit of work on this basis. It broadened the range of skills that I had which was I suppose a plus.  The disadvantage was that I didn’t develop much of a distinctive personal style myself! I would have an idea and think that it would suit this style or that, swopping between them as if changing hats.

This problem was brought into focus when I started to paint pictures for myself not for commission. At first my acrylics were so varied in style that if they were hung on the wall side by side nobody would guess they were by the same painter! In watercolours I had more to build on as I had been filling small sketchbooks for years with topographical paintings from holidays etc. Here at least my style was reasonably consistent. With oils however I tended to swing between the finished and sketched or the broad and the detailed. Looking at my wall of recent paintings I do at last see a style emerging, which has led me to think on it further.

I now think the matter of style can be a very thorny issue. The same problem occurs with easel painters as it does with illustrators. If your style is very distinctive, say you outline most things with a primary or some such, then if you stop that practice then the pictures won’t be what people expect of you. Also you will only be able to do such pictures where that particular quirk works well. A subtle misty mood for example would be nigh on impossible. You have in essence painted yourself into a cul de sac, you can only paint the subjects that suit your style.

It happens I think because people wish to reprise past successes. They paint a nocturne which is very much of a hit and thereafter do nocturnes until they turn up their toes!

Looking back at art history you can see examples of artistic type casting. De Chirico is quite a good one. He became famous for his surreal paintings, but later in life attempted to paint in a more classical manner. (much to the horror of art historians who really don’t like you to step outside your box!). He came to the other style without the required skill and so visibly struggled. The technical hurdles of drawing, observation and paint handling for the classical inspired work being far higher than for the surreal ones. No one really wanted his new work so he had to keep on knocking out the old surreal stuff to make a buck. The problem for De Chirico was he had become type cast, his style had become a straight jacket that imprisoned him. De Chirico is laudable I feel because he at least tried to throw off the chains. Other artists having established their own comfortable little walled garden never thereafter step beyond its bounds.

Another example would be Samuel Palmer, in his youth he had mental problems and painted in a visionary style. But later he settled on to a more even keel and painted in a fairly straight observational manner. In both styles he is very good, but due to the existence of his hallucinatory and romantic early work the later efforts will never be really appreciated. Indeed books on him often only feature later work briefly at the end!

Other painters, just peg away at the same dreary stuff year after year. Oddly the art world gives brownie points for dogged persistence. If you spend 30 years arranging pine cones into mandalas in the depths of Siberia it must they argue be more than a passing phase. I can’t imagine what a dreary existence it must be to be someone like Bridget Riley knocking out the same Op art tedium year after year. Mind you she no longer bothers to do them herself but has helpers do the donkeywork. Not that the end results aren’t very decorative, but I’d prefer to have a William Morris on my wall any day!

So I now feel that too strong a personal style is a bit of a handicap. We all hope to be different and noticed but in a world where everybody is trying to be just that, different becomes the new same. What you hoped might separate you from the crowd does just the opposite. The real rare thing in life and art is not someone doing something different but someone doing something really well.


Greenwich, Royal Hill, pen and ink, Drawing, London


I have as I believe mentioned before decided to draw more in pen and ink. This is already paying dividends as by reducing your  choices of tone and mark you are forced into finding ways of explaining your subject that only require line and tone. With such a limited menu of marks everything has to earn its keep. Hatching with its strength order and direction becomes very important. If you do a building wall in just vertical lines then it becomes dead and featureless. In real life there are many variations so if you break up mostly vertical lines with the odd angled group then you are showing both that it is vertical and flat but also that it is varied in its surface. For a smooth concrete wall you would add very few disruptions, for a worn dirty tenement far more.

This is Royal Hill in Greenwich. I have decided that dip pens though lovely are too much to fight with en plein air so this is done in fibre tip. I am using a watercolour Moleskin as I quite like the fact that if you move the pen quickly you get a faded dotty line.

St Pauls, London, City, Pen and Ink, drawing


Another one, quite a fearsome subject but it only took about an hour to render. It is one of the hardest things to learn to leave enough white to allow the subject to breath. In reality the sky was much darker than the sunlit dome but IMO the drawing would not have been improved by hatching the sky area.

Greeenwich, Royal Naval Hospital, watercolour

A very quick sketch done battling the wind. It was a super day with wonderful light, hopefully I will get some studio pictures from the day. This is the entrance road to the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich. It is now a music college so you draw to the sounds of music issuing from various windows!

Watercolour 5in by 7in.

Blackheath, London, Oil Painting


This is Blackheath, painted on an early morning expedition with Graham Davies. I had spotted this subject looking very beautiful several times but never been able to stop. I have to sort out the figures as they make an “M” it is odd how things like this can strike you several days later when your eye passes over a painting.

Oils, 10in by 14in.

Fleet St, London, City, Urban, Oil painting, plein air


This was done on the most gorgeous day with the Brass Monkeys. We arrived at dawn and were faced with the most astonishing light. The problem with painting at dawn is that the subject starts out gorgeous and then gets less so as the light increases. As result this had to be painted very quickly. I am attempting to paint a little bigger so it was the first serious outing for my new larger pochade. I must say it worked very well, I was surprised that painting a notch bigger did not really take that much more time. This is St Pauls from Fleet St. I will do a studio painting from this but decided not to work up the sketch any further.

Oils 12in by 16in

St Pauls, London, plein air, oil painting


The next one of the day. I had textured my board more than I usually do as an experiment. It works well but I got it a mite to strong I shall have to experiment to find a prime finish that suits me. Up until now I have been painting on quite smooth boards. Which is quite difficult but good for you as the brush strokes must be well thought out. But for this sort of atmospheric subject a textured surface works better.

Oils 12in by 12in.

St Pauls, Oil painting, London, plein air


I don’t know what kind of coffee I had early that morning but I painted like a demon all day! Partly it is being out with a group of fellow painters which is very pleasant and inspiring. Another that would be worth taking into the studio. As I posted this I noticed the tower cutting the sky was too strong so had to stop typing briefly to soften it! St Pauls again, which means I did it 4 times in the day!

Oils 12in by 20in.

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