Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

December 22, 2014

What is a picture?

I occasionally try to reassess where I am, having just had a very unsuccessful exhibition with no sales or indeed visitors to it. It is easy to be despondent, but I am a veteran of pulling myself up by my bootstraps so I tend not to go into a emotional spin as I would have done a decade or so earlier. I have sold enough paintings to know people will buy them and with no visitors going to the show, I am plainly in the wrong place at the wrong time. The problem for me is that I don’t really want another career, I have had three or four already. I am forced to the obvious conclusion that successfully selling pictures will take more of my time than painting them. At my stage of life I just do not have that time to spare. I am hugely fortunate that I don’t need as yet to sell them to put food on the table! So what I want to consider is what a painting should and should not be from my own selfish point of view.

I do a particular sort of painting which is intended to be processed in a certain way. I don’t paint something that has any surprises hidden away. So no incongruities, my early work was rife with them and I still do them occasionally as in this year’s Christmas card. They are fun but a cheap trick really. I could make my images out of a lot of smaller things, buttons insects you name it. This is quite popular direction at the moment but another cheap trick that soon palls. I could make my paintings very big or very small, or paint them on an unexpected surface like an elephant. Again fun, but only for a moment. So what am I up to?

Well, I don’t want any stylistic, methodistic or conceptual quirk. No easy fashionable trait that appeals to some ephemeral interest. I want to trim away any connection to conceptualism, I am not a purveyor of ideas in paint. I do not want to foist my emotion upon you, or the sweaty recesses of my subconscious. I don’t want to shock, educate, challenge or disgust you. I do not want to explore new possibilities or break new ground, I want no box to think outside of, no edge to bleed. I do not want to have originality and novelty as my guiding light. I don’t want to re-appraise the past or anticipate some imaginary future.

I paint on flat surfaces that are rectangular not because they are interesting, but because they are mundane. They are the average the unremarkable, I don’t want what I do to gain any especial significance from its form. I don’t wish to record for any posterity or comment on any contemporary shared experience. I want neither the poetic , the gritty reality nor the romantic. Of course I inevitably do many of the things listed above, but perhaps I should count it as a failure when I do. It is easier indeed to list the things I do not wish my work to contain than to dissect out the things that I do.

So, what is this picture I wish to paint? Firstly it is a picture. This means it is to be looked at and processed with the every day equipment we use on the actuality that surrounds us. So it is an illusion, but a knowing one, there is no expectation of fooling anyone or deluding them. It is easy to be lured down the path of abstraction, to believe that by simplifying you are distilling and increasing the potency of your work. Simplicity and complexity are however just tools in the box to be used at will, not ambitions to be striven for.

I suppose I get nearest to my aim very occasionally with a simple life drawing. Perhaps something that took 5 minutes. You have no time to consider or plan, no chance to fear failure. There is merely the surface, the paint, the eye, the hand with the brush and the subject. There is one other thing though. There are the myriad tangled paths laid down over many years in the few pints of porridge in my head, without these nothing can occur, but with them maybe something approaching a small miracles can be achieved, humble ones it is true, but miracles none the less. Lazarus is raised from his bed, but not perfectly, a bit of a squint and a bad limp, but I hope breathing not dead!

On a few watercolours recently I really tried to track my thinking, emotion and get at how that related to the actual process and progress of the making. Which bit of me is being satisfied and what is it that provokes me to continue. Firstly just the exercise of a skill that has been built up over a lifetime is rewarding. Not in any deep sense, but in the simple sense of solving a difficult crossword. All paintings start with the hope of what they might be, like a skier you are at the top of the mountain with the steep route down laid out before you. Like our skier I anticipate the run ahead. Also like the skier once you have pushed off gravity and dealing with events on the ground to be covered form the actual experience. So there is that excitement of thrills and potential spills about the activity. The analogy breaks down though due to the fact that a painting is a thing that accrues from many small actions many of which are evident in the final work.

The final moments of a picture are the ones that have the greatest emotional weight. The idea of when something is finished is a difficult one that I am I think going to struggle to define. I actually don’t like the word finished, complete is a better term I feel. In the event a painting could be considered complete at quite a few stages in its development. We all know the sinking feeling that your picture probably looked better half an hour ago! The real reward though is when it all comes together and the result is greater than the sum of the actions that made it. That is what I mean by complete, when it needs nothing added or taken away.  Only the artist feels this feeling, whether it adds up to a painting that others might enjoy I don’t know. I do know that a day that includes a painting that I am pleased with is a very good day perhaps indeed that is all that matters!!

This post is quite heavy on the life drawings, as I have said these are some of the things that please me most but are least liked by others I suspect. Certainly I can’t imagine them ever selling. I have been very busy building a new studio but have managed to sally forth and paint a few times.


Blackheath, sunset, London, oil painting

This one of Blackheath in London was very fast and furious, the sun was setting fast so it all had to be done in 30 min. Great fun to do, the colours are especially hard to judge as the light fades on your palette and painting until you can’t really see what you are doing. I try to remember where I mixed each area of colour so that once home I am not unpleasantly surprised! 10in by 16in Oils.


Child Okeford, Dorset, High St, Oil painting

There could hardly be more contrast! From glorious sunset at the end of a lovely day to the grey beginnings of a very wet one. This is Child Okeford where I now live, so you will see more from here. I have a few unfinished ones of this scene as it looks good in different lights. Unfortunately the best views are from standing in the road so they will have to be done from reference. 10in by 14in. Oils.


Dungeon Hill, Dorset, watercolour, painting

This is the view from the interestingly name Dungeon Hill just south of where I am now in Dorset. There is a forgotten hill fort on top of the hill where I will paint again in the future. 8in by 10in watercolour.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour, Painting.

This is the wonderful Hambledon Hill on a very chilly morning. I had to really struggle to get the soft feeling that the light had and to keep the areas of contrast balanced. 6in by 11in Watercolour.


Sketch, figure painting

Rather a swathe of figure work now I fear! I have joined a local group of life drawers. The session takes place in a village hall where on wall is glass. I absolutely love the light which streams in from one side. This is 10 min.


life drawing

Even less time for this, 5min or so, just enough time to get the silhouette and the stance roughly in.


Life drawing

Another very quick one, these quick studies are very good for honing your observational skills, there is no time to be fussy.


life drawing

Another 5 min. Watercolour is wonderful for these rapid studies.


figure drawing

A slightly longer pose this was 15 min I think.


life drawing

I loved doing this one, I only just had time to pick out the figure from the initial broad washes.


life drawing

At last a 30 min one, I love foreshortening it is so hard to get it convincing and not just looking misshapen!


life drawing

This session I tried to really reduce my media to just two elements, wash and line in two colours. I start with the wash and then add just enough line to explain the form.


life drawing

I very much enjoyed painting this against the light. You have to try to avoid over stating any area. Here I overworked the hand on the knee, whereas the hand on the chin is just the right level of tone and line.


life drawing

More foreshortening I was almost sitting on that foot!


life drawing

I actually stopped before the pose finished here, there seemed nothing more to add.


life drawing

On the next session I added toned paper to the mix.


Life drawing

Very quick again about 5min.


I added touches of chalk here, maybe paint would have been better.


I will do more of these line and wash ones they are great for stating the basics, the line and the wash each compliment and don’t do each others work.


life drawing

Longer poses I think paint rather than chalk in future. The line gets a little lost here I must be less heavy handed with the tones on the longer poses.


life drawing

Last one I got all the elements working decently here. Sorry for the swathe of life drawing now for something completely different…


Christmas Card

Many thanks and a Happy Christmas to all the people who read my waffle or look at the pictures and the odd poor soul who peruses both!


  1. If I had wall space ….

    Fantastic Christmas card Rob. I wish you a Merry Christmas and a happy and successful New Year.

    Comment by Doug Elliot — December 22, 2014 @ 2:31 pm

  2. Thanks Doug, have a good one your self! Best Rob

    Comment by Rob Adams — December 22, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

  3. This is a great post Rob. Your exhibition was beautiful but in a hard to get to place. Unless a gallery is surrounded by heavy foot traffic or is in itself a destination sales will evade the most accomplished artist. I wish i had ANY budget or wall to buy the small one I liked. But given my tight circumstances i have had to bypass many purchases of books, paintings and anything that i can’t move in a suitcase.
    As for what type of process you engage in while painting, i get it. The painting must be IT, not the display of your traumas and obsessions or the shock value or the particular quirk of format, random technique or metaphysical explanation . However, I think you sell yourself short when you say you are just enjoying a hard fought ability. Yes, enjoyment is essential. Nobody wants to see your suffering on canvas despite what people think. But i think a great deal of the joy goes beyond how “good” you are. I am not one for rhapsodizing but In my case i love how the humble bidimensional flat rectangle is plowed in such a way that it causes the viewer to stare and recognize the beauty of the moment. Usually it’s only an idea about the color, the shape or the way a slanted roof explodes into some dry branches or a row of hanging socks. This idea is what drives completion of a painting for me and what makes it “charged”. A nice rendering is a nice rendering but recognizing What is it you decided to paint is what makes the viewer’s stare, desjre the painting so he or she can relive that and feel alive. So no need for spiritual “gifts from God” talk (i’d rather He gave me a talent to make money frankly). Just the simple puzzle of how to unearth the beauty you see with simple means of pigment and brush so that orhers get to say aha, i never looked at if that way. And if it is well drawn, well, that usually makes itcdigestible.

    Comment by Jose L. De Juan — December 23, 2014 @ 1:10 am

  4. Have a Merry Christmas!

    Comment by P.C. — December 23, 2014 @ 5:18 am

  5. Happy Christmas Rob. I look forward to your words and images.


    Comment by Eamonn Mccrory — December 23, 2014 @ 9:35 am

  6. Thanks Jose, great to get such a considered response! I agree it is the seeing beauty in things that others might miss and then putting that in a place and context where they can appreciate it. We also, if history is to be trusted, value things made by skilled hands.I am often a little amused when people look at what you are painting and exclaim that it is beautiful. Usually your subject is there in front of them looking better than the bare bones you have managed to catch on canvas. I don’t know any more how people who do not paint see the world. I see wonderful things everywhere, I tend to assume others do too, but logic says probably not.

    Comment by Rob Adams — December 23, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

  7. Apology unaccepted Rob keep up the great work & waffling Do love the sittin’ on her foot piece, Merry Christmas!

    Comment by greg p — December 23, 2014 @ 3:49 pm

  8. Amazing stuff, Rob! Love your life drawing too! And the Christmas card – some completely different side of you that I haven’t seen before!
    Interesting points made, something to think about, especially for someone like me who still isn’t sure at all where I’m going with my art.

    Have a merry Christmas!


    Comment by Jelena krilova — December 23, 2014 @ 9:32 pm

  9. Thanks Jelena! Have a great Christmas!!

    Comment by Rob Adams — December 24, 2014 @ 10:14 am

  10. I cannot imagine how I viewed my environment before my father helped me to understand linear and aerial perspective (not in one go but in stages, that was the secret of his teaching). I think that when people who don’t paint watch me/us at work on site, there is more than a hint of alchemy or wizardry about what we are doing, as far as they are concerned – modern onlookers are often swamped by photographic images, almost to the point of total desensitisation. That is why they are doubly or even triply enchanted: we often choose a view that they have never stopped to look at, and our choice and our painting of the view makes them reassess it, often to agree that it is attractive or interesting. Secondly, they can watch the image being created, as if by magic, when all the other images in their world are instantaneous. Thirdly, if they wait until the painter considers the painting complete, and if they are perceptive, they can see that it is not ‘just like a photograph’ but richer, deeper, more vivid, the result of a hundred choices between what to include or omit, what to play down or accentuate. And if they have seen it at various stages they go away feeling that they have watched a kind of miracle – something valuable created out of nothing. I remember that back in 1982 I painted a view on the canal near Hanwell. My board was white because I had not had time to tint it in advance. I set up my box easel and immediately covered the board in a light mauve plus alizarin oily wash. Just as I had finished this process, a Jamaican guy strolled past me on his way into town. He saw the board, and chuckled and walked away in front of me, shaking his head. Two hours later the painting was complete, and he happened to come back. He looked at the painting, his jaw dropped, his eyes bulged, he chuckled again: ‘How you do that, man? Some kinda magic, eh?’ Then he walked off, I turned round, and I saw he was now nodding rather than shaking his head.

    Comment by Steven Alexander — December 24, 2014 @ 11:08 am

  11. I always love to read your thoughts about painting. Merry christmas from Finland!

    Comment by Laura — December 26, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

  12. Wooow.. Great work Rob.. I do like your painting.

    Comment by Zainul Hal — January 5, 2015 @ 3:33 pm

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