Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

April 28, 2018

What is Style?

Filed under: Dorset,Drawing,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 10:38 am

Looking back over the years I have been blogging the word “style” has cropped up a few times. I have always been dealing with aspects of it though, not really considering the attribute itself head on. We use the word for personal appearance, dancers can be stylish, architecture and decoration are categorised by it, all in all it seems a covetable attribute to have and one worth acquiring. It sorts the hens from the geese, cats are stylish dogs less so, sorry dog lovers it’s just the way it is.

Eric Furnie says it is a “…distinctive manner which permits the grouping of works into related categories”. Now this is less attractive, it is now a kind of pigeon hole that some art historian wishes to shoehorn you into for their own convenience. Like so many things you think you know the meaning of, when you take a closer look the edges soften and definitions become soft and hard to pin down. The word actually seems to be two rolled into one. It has a meaning as an identifier of an individual or an individual belonging to a larger grouping. It also has a usage as a compliment on an interesting and exciting manner of being or means of creating. One tends to be applied to a thing that is made and the other mostly to the maker.

However much you wish your style to be you own and only your own you are, in this interconnected world, doomed to failure. Someone or indeed many someones paint, make, dress or whatever just the same as you do. In our age millions upon millions of people paint pictures. When Rembrandt wielded his palette there were far far fewer. There are probably more good painters in the world now than ever before, but that just makes it harder to stand out from the crowd.

Ah! I have said it… “Stand out from the crowd.” Along with the fascination of doing and learning a craft there is the wish to be noticed for doing it well or even not so well. For that to occur we must bring something to the table, either in ourselves or our work, that is remarkable. I have long puzzled at the popularity of my pen drawings. In my own opinion they are no better or worse than my paintings. They are made by the same hand and mind. I had a friend round and we were discussing what I should exhibit. She said, “Oh you must put in the drawings they are so unusual.”

Afterwards on considering it a small penny dropped. My paintings are “usual” you can find a load of painters doing the same or better than I. If you search for people doing tonal pen drawing to a high standard then there are very few. It is relatively easy to stand out from the host of felt pen stipplers copying photos of Elvis. This makes the decision to go larger on the drawings in my upcoming open studios and easy one. It does not however change my course as far as getting generally better at my craft. The “style” of the drawings might be a hit, but you must never let style drive the direction of your endeavour.

It is similar to when you allow technique to overwhelm the meaning of what you are trying to say. Allowing some style element, or desire to be different for the sake of it to dominate, is just as bad. It is difficult, when being a herd mammal on its way to being a hive mammal, to be lumbered with an incongruous sense of personal individuality. Hopefully this sense of individuality will slowly atrophy and we will become blithely busy uncaring bees.


I am busier than a bee at present organising my open studios which is part of Dorset Arts Weeks and runs from Saturday 28May to Sunday the 10th of June. This involves allowing the public to traipse through your house and studio whilst curling their lips at your home decor and ignoring your pictures. I will be there to sign the occasional autograph, but mainly to receive overwhelming amounts of money and adulation. So come along, cash, credit card, bitcoin, PayPal, praise, scorn  and Facebook likes all gratefully accepted.

The amount of work involved in such a venture is a little forbidding. Pictures to be framed labeled and wired, hanging systems and lighting to be installed. Just the decision as to what and what not to exhibit is tricky. Cards must be printed, prints mounted and inserted into cello bags. Your home has to be reorganised and walls space cleared for pictures. Half your furniture, including the fridge freezer, has to go in your shed. Due to my shed being full of furniture I have to add a Gazebo to take the volume of pictures.

Once the rooms are cleared out the lamentable state of your decor is sure to be revealed so painting the walls is inevitable. You have to, in this contactless age, take card payments so an iZettle card reader is required. Signs must be put up at key road junctions, leaflets and maps created printed and distributed. Social media must be saturated with plugs and all your friends, previous buyers and acquaintances spammed with emails.

Now I have you all weeping in sympathy at the artist’s plight here are a few scribbles and daubs.


Chesilbourne, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

Here I am perched on a stool in a graveyard next to the smelliest compost heap in Dorset on a very chilly day. This is the church at Cheselbourne in Dorset, tricky to get the best view as it was in the middle of a track frequented by Range Rovers so this was the next best. I used my Sailor brush pen to speed things along with the darks. A5 pen and ink.

Christchurch Priory, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

This is Christchurch Priory. These sorts of subjects can be overwhelming at first. But if you get the box and the underlying divisions of the box in place then filling in the gaps becomes easier. A5 Pen and Ink.

Child Okeford, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

This one of Child Okeford was done from a photo whilst invigilating at an exhibition. There is a strange meditative pleasure in hatching large areas, though you have to beware of it becoming too mechanical. Pen and Ink A4.

Shaftesbury, Melbury Hill, Plein air, oil painting, Dorset

Back to the oils before Venice! This is the view across to Melbury Hill from Shaftesbury. I love the structure of this view and have done it a few times now. Very hard to get the relative tones here as the roof highlights directly reflecting the sun were easily the brightest thing, so the rest had to be subdued to make them ping out. 10in by 10in Oils.

Shaftesbury, St James, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

This is the church of St James from the same vantage point. A good time of year for this view as the leaves obscure the church in the summer. I enjoyed the transparent layer of the trees. It can be quite a challenge as if you paint neat roofs and then paint branches over them it looks dreadful. So I paint the buildings seen between the branches as negative shapes which prevents you getting over involved in things you cannot quite make out. If a thing is hard to resolve by looking directly then it should usually be hard to resolve and slightly vague in your painting. 10in by 16in Oils.

Larmer tree gardens., Dorset, plein air, oil painting

This is the Larmer Tree gardens in Wiltshire. Designed by Augustus Pitt Rivers it contained theatres and stages for the general education and entertainment of the masses.  It became hugely popular in the 1880’s attracting 40,000 visitors a year. Quite hard to find subjects, a real contrast with Venice where it is hard to find bits which aren’t potential paintings! I settled on this upward view to a small rotunda. Not overdoing the mass of shrubbery was the greatest challenge here. 10in by 14in Oils

Larmer tree gardens, Wiltshire, plein air, oil painting

A brief study of a concrete statue… well I didn’t know it was concrete until I looked closer. My heart wasn’t really in this… I enjoyed the light on the leaves… but straight on to the “sand it off” pile! 10in by 10in Oils.

Dorset, landscape, Cranbourne Chase, plein air, oil painting

A relief to get away from gardens! This was on the way back over the Cranbourne Chase near Win Green. A quick 15 min splash on a small board, but much more my cup of tea… 10in by 6in Oils.


April 16, 2018


Venice. Like all artists I went there knowing it already. I wondered what I would make of it and if I could add anything worthwhile to the morass of artwork that takes it as a subject. Would I find the “real” Venice? The answer of course is no. There is no real Venice, Venice is a fantasy. Venice is a theme park and all the life that goes on there is devoted to the commercial maintenance and operation of the dream.

Venice is a city wide tourist trap, a veritable sea girt Alcatraz for visitors to do their time in. A Venice street goes: mask shop, fake Murano glass shop, taverna, mask shop, restaurant, mask shop, fake Murano glass shop etc ad infinitum. After Napoleon conquered the city it slowly died until finally we are left crawling over it like flies admiring its beautiful corpse.

There are legions of immigrant workers slaving in its kitchens reheating dishes shipped in each day from the factory kitchens on the mainland. In China they labour to make the masks, glass, paintings and other tourist trash. There is an imaginary transport system that never takes anyone anywhere but on circular tours… no one brings their shopping home by gondola!

If I had been by myself I would have quickly done the rounds and been out of there pronto. Fortunately I was there with other artists and their company made all of the difference. The plethora of mask shops could be laughed at and the madness admired. I could rise early immerse myself in painting and join in with the fantasy.

So how is Venice as a subject for an artist to paint? Firstly there are subjects everywhere, if you came across any of them in a town in the UK you would set up your easel in a flash and set to. In Venice though every aspect and all directions are paintable. As Einstein said, everything is relative. You almost immediately start to rank the possible scenes and try vainly pick out the best of the best. Venice is also all very similar, endless repetitions and rearrangements of the same few ingredients.

Anyone who looks at my work will know my fondness for architecture and old buildings in general. In theory Venice is a cornucopia of perfect Rob Adams subjects, gothic palaces, mad baroque churches, cool classical facades and rustic mouldering buildings, roofs crowned snaggle toothed by random chimneys. Mostly though I painted legs. Visually the buildings reach down from the sky and are carried on the backs of the dark serried ranks of the innumerable visitors who obscure the join of buildings to street.

I am told that it was quite empty by Venice’s standards, I shudder at how in must be in high season. On the other hand I love watching people and enjoy seeing how they group, linger and go about their day. I enjoyed the contrast between drifting tourists and workers on missions trying to weave between them. Oddly I did not really notice the absence of cars. I did warm to the place after a while, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it just being a playground. The place reminded me of a computer game where you wander a city built by a long dead civilisation looking for clues and prizes while avoiding the ghouls hidden in dark passages.

So to the paintings, I will try and do them in the order they were painted.


Venice, Rialto, market, oils, plein air

Up early on the first day and off to the Rialto fish market. I was sharing the apartment with Ian Layton who is an old Venice hand who knew all the best spots! Quite a tricky subject, the light burning in from the outside is what struck me so I tried to paint that. I can see now that the effect needed to be exaggerated more with the interior darker and the outside almost completely burnt out. 12in by 7.5 in oils.

Venice, Rialto, plein air, oil painting

On the way back from the Rialto we were taken by this scene where the sun was slowly coming across on to our side of the Grand Canal. I had primed my boards a sort of Venetian red which mostly just right, but I should have done a few a more ochre colour. Like so much of Venice the fringe of people ran in a strip all the way across. I quite liked the more determined folk leaving the vaporetto on the right contrasting with the moochers on the left. 15in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, plein air, oil painting

Here is a very trad early morning Venice view. We were all painting away in a line getting spots on our retinas! Once the key was decided and the tones established a straight forward subject to paint. The main pitfall people tumble into is getting everything initially too light. If the painting is too high a key is is impossible to describe the sparkle on the water unless you have neon paint! 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Gate to the Arsenal, Venice, pen and Ink

In the afternoon I went to the Arsenal, no not to watch the football, the Arsenal in Venice was the manufacturing powerhouse that maintained its naval dominance of the Mediterranean. In celebration of this they gave it grand gates flanked by comedy lions. Like so much of Venice it is hard to get exactly the vantage point you would like without falling into a canal and getting wet. I should have done more drawing, the only reason I might return to Venice is to concentrate on the wonderful architecture. Pen and Ink.

Venice, mist, plein air, oil painting

Mist! We got up early and the sea mist had come in transforming the city. I was focused on the painting I imagined I would do after this one as the sun burnt through. A mistake as I abandoned this one early and it was better than the subject I was eagerly anticipating. Still I had more than enough down and only had to finesse the figures and drag pale blue over the distance to finish. Once again control of tone was the key. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, Plein air, oil painting

This is what appeared out of thew mist! I should have been in a different place about a mile away but I just had to set to and paint what I had in front of me. I never quite finished as the light moved on so rapidly. This one is no more as I painted a different one on top due to running out of boards! 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, pen and ink, drawing

I drew this as I waited for my expensive and badly cooked supper in a restaurant. As it turned out the passing mosquitos had a better meal than I did for no charge at all… Pen and Ink.

Venice, canal, plein air, oil painting

My first canal painting. There are endless versions of the narrow canal with the thin vertical strip of light and reflection, but this was more open and attractive as a subject. I placed the bright vertical strip of the canal edge first as I felt it was the key to the composition. In the bright light I found myself quite frequently putting in all the lights first allowing the prime colour to stand in initially for the buildings etc. I found myself using a lot of black in the mixes as it seemed just right for the character of the greys the city is steeped in. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

St Marks square, Venice, cathedral, plein air, oil painting

Later that day I painted in that famous stage set St Marks Square. The afternoon light was flat on the facades reducing them to cutouts. I was sitting on the arcade steps and painted hand held. I was lucky not to get moved on by the gestapo who strut about the square. I tried not to get too involved in the architecture as getting the tones right was the challenge. In the event I had to very slightly lighten the cathedral later in order for the whole thing to gel. 16in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, pen and ink, drawing

I decided the next day was a wandering about drawing and watercolour day. This is the Campo San Rocco… how could I resist the light slanting across this mad baroque confection. The school to the left is just as barmy but only plays a supporting role here. These wonderful buildings seem to almost never appear in paintings done by recent visitors. I suspect people find them just too much to take on. In actuality they are just divided rectangles, the complexity is not structural but an overlay on a simple grid. The trick is to firmly establish the underlying grid within which the decorative elements sit. Once that is done the mad stone salad of detail can be suggested rather than over defined. Pen and Ink.

Venice, watercolour, plein air

My first watercolour of the trip. Though the stalls are full of the worst tourist tat they make good compositional punctuation marks. Watercolour easily captures the luminous quality of the light. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

Campo Formosa, Venice, plein air, oil painting

This is an early morning Campo Formosa, the light was a real challenge and I nearly abandoned it. As so often I found in Venice the people are the key to a satisfying composition. In each painting I found myself more and more considering the makeup and grouping of the figures. 12in by 10 in Oils.

Campo San Giovanni, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Next Campo! This is St Giovanni, one of the most interesting to paint. Odd how the old Venetians were not in the slightest bit embarrassed about putting up huge statues of themselves. Getting the horse in the right relationship to the rest and not over detailing were the biggest challenges here. Once again many of the greys were made using black. 12in by 10in oils.

Gondola repair, Venice canal, plein air, oil painting

Another day another canal. Here is where they service the gondolas. In my jaundiced opinion they look better upside down! The thrown together industrial sheds make an interesting contrast with the grand edifices behind. Not far from here the mask shops dry up and the grass grows between the stones. There are run down tenements and washing hung between the buildings. This is where some of the workers live, though it is only the briefest fringe before the industrial port. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Campo Santo Stephano, Venice, pen and ink, drawing

On the way back to the apartment I saw there two girls hanging out and doing phone stuff. They are students in the college on Campo Santo Stephano, a little glimpse of ordinary existence. Pen and Ink.

St marks Square, Venice, plein air, oil painting, nocturne

After supper it was nocturne time in St Marks. The wet paving made it a great subject. I rubbed violet blue over my board before leaving base which made a great ground, indeed most of the paving is just the resulting prime colour. Very quick hardly more than 20 min. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Rialto Market, pen and ink, Venice, drawing

Another day where I just took my drawing stuff and travelled light. We all met at the Rialto fish market in the morning.  It is very nice to have other painters about to chat and laugh with. I found myself a little corner to sit and draw out of the way. The light was moving very fast so the first thing after setting out the drawing was to get in the paving, shadows and key figures. I also painted in the white first rather than at the end as I usually do. This was a real help in getting the darks the right value. Pen and Ink.

St Stae, Venice, pen and ink. drawing

Deep breath before I started this one of St Stae. I am sitting as far away from the building as possible without tumbling into the Grand Canal… but still too close for comfort. To get what I wanted in I used spherical perspective so that few of the perspective lines vertical or horizontal are straight. This sort of construction is very tricky to do en plein air especially as I don’t like it if the distortion is too obvious. I spent quite a lot of time getting the facade laid out, deciding what should be warped and what kept straight. A very satisfying puzzle though and I enjoyed trying to suggest the bonkers architecture. Pen and Ink.

Santa Maria del Giglio, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Santa Maria del Giglio and rain at last! I had been dying to paint the wet streets. Also it sweeps many of the visitors away and those that are there are rushing to avoid the wet. I was in a discrete dead end corner so I could paint away at my leisure. A bit of a relief as most of the paintings so far had been a bit of a rush to catch the light. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

La Salute, St Marks, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Later I went to St Marks to look across to La Salute. I was hoping for more rain, when it came it was very brief so I got brollies but not the wet paving. I was forced to make the reflections up at the apartment after. Some of this was painted hand held as the gestapo made me fold up and put away my tripod. The highest leg count so far I think. 16in by 7.5in Oils

St Giovanni, Venice, watercolour, plein air

Last one of the trip! This is Campo Santo Giovanni again. I loved the angled shadow but it moved very rapidly. Had to be watercolour as my oil boards had run out! I then proceeded to do another that went completely pear shaped and had to be torn up… 5in by 5in Watercolour.

So there is my Venice. I might return to draw some of the buildings and I am glad I went and saw it all in the excellent company of my fellow daubers. Venice itself I found sad and defaced by the lazy, cynical, rapacious hand of greedy tourism. The mask and trinket vendors have done far more to besmirch this beautiful relic than any of the many graffiti artists have.

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