Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

March 3, 2017

How Art is Made

Filed under: Art History,Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 1:43 pm

Well this is a big ask! I am in the process of reading swathes of art theory that I mostly disagree with (there will be more on that in another post). In general the logical, and philosophical rigour in these texts is lamentable with huge amounts of argument by assertion and airy poetical musings. Things do not become true or even likely just by the act of stating them, or by saying that other clever people have stated them before so therefore they must be true. Some degree of testing ideas by thinking of scenarios where they may hold or fail to hold is surely the minimum we should expect of our art theorists. However, most just seem to trot out the old received ideas with little or no critical examination.

So it came to mind to delve into how I make a painting, art or not.

Firstly, there is the starting. As I am an observational artist so I see something exterior and have a mental reaction to it. It really is as simple as “Does it ring any bells.” or if you like, does what you are seeing fit any of the likes that creating previous works and or appreciating the work of others have built up over the years. It is never going to be a perfect fit so I might look repeatedly and try to imagine how a painted image might feel and how the painting of it could be carried through. I ask myself, what is the key thing that appeals and how would it break down or simplify? A certain amount of squinting and uncertain dithering then takes place. Nonetheless the process is I think quite simple, you assess the likely hood of being able to pass on to another via paint on canvas something of which made your arty bells ring. We call this process inspiration, but it does not happen in the binary way of light bulb going on or off as the romantic notions of art and artists might have you believe.

The process of assessing and reassessing the exterior stimulus might be repeated several times, with it even being rejected and then returned to after other possibilities didn’t come up to scratch. My key point here is that I believe all inspiration whether abstract or representative come from out side via our perceptions. They may be remembered perceptions rather than immediate ones, but it is pretty much certain that everything in our heads came in from the outside at some point. This I’m afraid pretty much rules out the origin of art coming from within, but not perhaps the realisation of it. It is the processing and decision making that occurs internally and where an artists personal stamp appears.

So once the decision to set about making a particular image is made then a new set of assessments are required. Composition, tone etc are all tested by this process:

1) Look

2) Assess a particular or general aspect.

3) Imagine how it might be achieved in drawing or paint and hold that mental image.

4) look again and test how what you see compares with your imagining.

5) Assess result and either decide on a course of action or failing that repeat the process again.

This is pretty much the way my head seems to work when painting, though it is very hard to perceive your own mental activity as the act of perception interferes with what you are trying to observe. All the above happens very rapidly and repeatedly without express intent. I have been painting all my life so these decision routines seem to run pretty much automatically. They are so automatic that I can easily understand why an artist might choose to think the answers returned have come from some magical spring channelled from elsewhere, but I truly think that is not the case. It works in the same way as when you speak to someone in conversation. You do not assemble the sentences and preview what stresses and nuances your response should have. You merely intend to speak and the words come out. All the work is done by a part of yourself you cannot observe only infer from the resulting speech. We have all had the experience of a segment of speech that pops out of the machine ready to go when there isn’t a pause in the too and fro of conversation to accept it!

Generally making a picture seems to consist of variations of a repeated process. It could maybe be written as a linear string that might loop at any point:

Look…assess…imagine action…assess…look…imagine…assess…decide…act…look at result…look at subject…compare…assess result of act.

If you watch someone painting you can see the process in action and trace the stages by where and when the attention is focussed. If you are painting an abstract or even dealing with an abstract quality in your figurative painting you might leave out the look at subject section. In that case you might:

look at your painting… assess what it might need… imagine the change… compare the imagining to the existing… decide on the action… carry it out… assess result.

The key thing is these processes feed back into each other, there is perhaps even a sort of mental resonance set up. Indeed the act of painting a picture is to see or think of something that resonates with you and work out how you can make an object that causes a corresponding resonance to occur in another when they look at it. You might I suppose imagine it as plucking a string on a musical instrument to make a nearby string resonate in sympathy. The vibration transferred might not be identical to the original, but the impulse can be directly traced from one to another. It might be argued that great works of art are those that produce a consistent resonance in many viewers despite barriers of context, time and culture.

Well here are a few of my plucked strings. There are as usual some musical results as well as a few bum notes…

Eggarden Hill, Dorset, Plein air, oil painting, landscape

I have been sticking to the oils for plein air painting as watercolour takes too long to dry in this weather. This is a very quick end of the day view from the side of Eggardon Hill. 30min or so I suppose with racing clouds and rapidly changing light. Oils 14in by 10in.


Arne, Bird sanctuary, oil painting, sea

A trip to the bird sanctuary at Arne. Some great light  rapidly changing. Not sure if this will ever see a frame but I suppose most sketches never do. 16in by 10in Oils.


Arne, church, oil painting, plein air, Dorset

Second one from Arne. Didn’t really make a picture but I have a vague idea of how to make it into something… the only problem being I can’t quite fix on how! Maybe a repaint in watercolour would give me a clue. When I saw the subject I saw good possibilities but couldn’t quite get them onto the board. As so often occurs the photo of the scene didn’t really help. Maybe go back on a different day. 16in by 10in oils.


Milton Abbas, landscape, plein air, oil painting, dorset

Done after a visit to Poole to drop off paintings at the Lighthouse Gallery where I am in Dorset Magazines exhibition for Dorset Landscape Artist of the year… no I didn’t win but got into the last 10. This is Milton Abbas a bit of Capability Brown’s work. Enjoyed doing this great fun picking out which layers to emphasise as the cloud shadows zoomed over the landscape. Unlike watercolour in oils you get a chance to get things down as they happen and chop and change if things improve. To aid me in this I laid the whole lot in without any highlights as if on a dull day then I could drop in lit areas as they happened. 14in by 10in Oils


Rawlsbury Camp, Dorset, plein air, oil painting, landscape

I have quite an impressive pile of half done plein airs, so I set to to finish a few. This is Rawlsbury Camp on a dramatic day. I got the sky done and most of the darks, then it rained on me enthusiastically. Pleased with this, the best I have managed of this subject so far. 16in by 10in Oils.


Child Okeford, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

This is done from just outside my house in Child Okeford on a misty moisty morning. I just didn’t have time to get the tones as subtle as I would have liked so I had to glaze it after. This is the unglazed version the glazed one below.


Child Okeford, Dorset, oil painting

I glazed with a transparent bluey white to knock the tree back which was too dominant. Then I used a transparent cobalt blue to adjust the hue of the buildings. Glazes allow amazing control of general tone and hue without compromising the fresh feel of the underlying brushwork. You can wipe off at any stage, so my method is to go in too strong then lift out with a brush or rag. 14in by 10in Oils.


Cerne Abbas, Dorset, Church, oil painting, plein air

A beautiful day in Cerne Abbas with the Hardy Monkeys which is an off shoot of the Brass Monkeys in London. Sadly getting to the London days with the Monkeys has become too difficult as the trains are always dire on weekends due to engineering. So I have inaugurated a West Country version! The light was gorgeous and stayed quite constant so I finished in one go which is always gives me a good feeling. 14in by 10in Oils.


Cerne Abbas, Dorset, Oil Painting, plein air.

I was on bit of a roll so I got this done in one stab as well, the same street but looking the other way. The light was so good almost every direction had a possible painting. The low winter light is so wonderful to paint. 14in by 10in Oils.


Cerne Abbas, oil painting, Dorset, church

Cerne Abbas again. A studio job this one. I wanted to experiment a bit with palette and design. 14in by 10in Oils.

That’s it I must get back to the watercolours soon but am steadily getting more fluent with oil paint which gives me hope!

It is the Wapping Group’s annual show at the Mall Galleries which runs from the 13th March to the 18th I have 5 London pictures in it so have my fingers crossed for sales.


  1. I find thus series of paintings particularly atmospheric, and they all have a paradoxical sense of movement and yet stillness.

    Comment by John Pearce — March 3, 2017 @ 2:02 pm

  2. I found your analysis and formula for creating artwork very pragmatic and true, and perhaps the steps can be jumbled and out of those orders sometimes at certain moments, say for instance when speed is suddenly an issue. The actual steps were a good thing to define and they have to proceed in some kind of logical order don’t they. A key component at inception has to be does this thing interest me, interest me enough to take it on and develop it. Another factor could be, does this thing have potential to interest others. So even before any work the decision to start is based on intellect, certainly not a fountain of cosmic guidance striking you. You could probably learn a lot about the process of why an artist chooses the subjects they paint by considering the list of things they choose not to paint. I also think style, or the artists thumbprint, is something that grows out of their level of draftsmanship, with people who struggle finding ways to compensate for their inaccuracy and those who are skilled finding ways to pull back from absolute mimicry. When an artist is finding their style they are still in the act of assessing what techniques are the most useful at compensating for their particular weakness, often it is these weaknesses that are relatable and appealing to others, probably on some subconscious level the brain recognizes the clever trickery that has made something work that shouldn’t work, and the associated admiration for the trick is what audiences enjoy. Let’s use a singer like Frank Sinatra as an example of a much admired artist who couldn’t reach all the required notes in a tune while never needing to having established the key he was comfortable working with for delivering his own interpretation, giving the illusion that the song was made for him even if technically other artist are able to sing it more correctly note for note. I’m not a fan of his but as a wedding deejay in a past life I played his iconic favorites enough to recognize the genius phrasing and measured timing that put him at the front of the crooning set. I think most art theory doesn’t take fully into account how much of the process of creation is pragmatic, based around the constraints of time, resources and so on. There was that song with the line, Art for arts sake, money for God’s sake, or something like that which does as good a job as any of summarizing the creative process.
    It is fascinating how light moves around these landscapes of yours.

    Comment by Desmond Waterman — March 6, 2017 @ 6:55 am

  3. Thanks Desmond, it is a difficult if not impossible process to tie down. However some steps appear to me to have to come in a certain order. You could not draw descriptively before looking in an observational work for example. For an abstract piece though you might do random stuff and then use that to prompt your imagination. I am sometimes distracted in life drawing by other people’s methods, they mostly seem to believe that some magic is involved in the medium or method itself, so the will use quills, sticks in ink, draw without looking at the paper or whatever. They want, I realise, some expressive magic to happen that is un-calculated. If I move into that area myself then they attribute any expressive qualities to the drawing to the new freedom acquired and make encouraging noises. I do myself enjoy the qualities drawing with a stick can produce. That however is entirely secondary to the act of drawing. What most of my fellow drawers need to do is to forget the medium. Get a bit of charcoal and plain paper and learn how to observe and draw accurately. This requires no magic merely boring application, I go to life drawing to practice this and no doubt most of my fellow drawers think my work is overly traditional and pedestrian. What they perhaps don’t realise is that doing un-flashy drawings is the way to open the door to expressiveness as there is nowhere to hide any defects with flourishes that have little to do with the model before them. In short I suspect given a stick and some ink I could do an expressive splashy splashy drawing that they would approve of, but given a bit of charcoal and asked to accurately delineate proportions before them they would mostly struggle.

    Comment by Rob Adams — March 6, 2017 @ 9:59 am

  4. Hi Rob
    Found your comments very interesting and also enjoyable to read. Sorry to hear that you are leaving the Wapping Group after such sterling work in the last exhibition. You will be sorely missed. Good luck in your new home and for all future ventures.

    Comment by Bill Dean ROI — March 21, 2017 @ 12:06 pm

  5. Thanks Bill, Dorset is just too far away alas and there is a lifetimes painting right on my doorstep! I do hope to appear as guest occasionally to catch up with you all.

    Comment by Rob Adams — March 21, 2017 @ 12:23 pm

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