Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 24, 2017

Art and Craft

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Portraits,Portraits,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 1:56 pm

When I was at art college doing a degree in Fine Art Sculpture practical matters were of secondary importance and the purview of mere “technicians”. The painters didn’t even have that as practical issues were ignored, no technicians required. They did not even know the very basics such as how to stretch and prime a canvas decently. There was no colour theory, no teaching of proportion, or any of the basic painting and drawing skills. I dare say it is still largely the same today. So what were we being taught?

Well that is a tricky one. We had a certain amount of art history, aimed possibly at removing any hint of fuddy duddy traditionalism from our heads. Most of it was about how the modern art project swept to victory against the forces of traditionalism from the Impressionists onward. What was taught to us by the fine art tutors is hard to define. A lot of it was swathed in art speak so we were quizzed about our “realms of concern” or what our art was about. In old fashioned parlance “subject”. A fair bit of teaching was aimed at fitting you somewhere neatly into the current art genre of exploration and questioning. The questioning part was I have found useful, though I now realise that one set of unquestionable things had merely been replaced by another. The focus was I suppose almost completely on “what” and “why” but very little on “how”.

I have puzzled for years about my art college experience, trying to put it into some kind of rational context. At first I felt angry as it wasted the years when I could have learnt things that took an age to find out and learn for myself later. Accurate drawing, anatomy, colour theory, usage of art materials and compositional theory, all these would have been easier if an experienced knowledgable person could have taught me the basics. I feel if I had learnt all that at that age when we are like a sponge I would be further on in my craft than I now am. The thought that much the same thing is still happening to young people in fine art colleges today is a sad one. So where did it go wrong? Well from writing and thinking on this blog over the past few years I have come to have the inkling of an idea.

The art revolution occurred at a moment when painting was in a difficult place, indeed because it was in a difficult place. Photography had arrived threatening a large chunk of the bread and butter work of artists. Mechanical reproduction of images had reached new levels of cheapness and quality. Also examples of the art of other cultures were becoming commonplace and more importantly proving very popular. This followed on the blows delivered in the previous centuries where art had lost a great deal of its purpose as a tool for selling organised religion. A divide had opened up between artists serving the reproduction and design market and the pictures on the wall market for the wealthy which was largely served by “gentlemen” painters who were required to operate within the bounds of the polite society of the times. This is what we now call “Fine”. Similar artificial divides had been in evidence in the previous centuries such as the silly arguments about which of the arts had precedence over the others.

The idea that particular sorts of painting were of different worth took hold more firmly in that time. History Painting was top dog, followed by Portraiture, then Landscape and finally Still Life. The atelier system as we think of it today really came into being at this time too, with the society painters forming cliques of young followers to carry the master’s style far and wide. The Napoleonic amalgamation of the separate academies into one had brought a new stricter systematic method to the teaching of all the arts. Then the revolution occurred. At first it was basically a scientific take on how we see prompted by the novelty of cameras. The camera caught real moments and the painters naturally wanted to emulate this. Previously all paintings were imaginary staged composite concoctions made by posing models and arranging props to tell an idealised narrative.

So the first thing that went was explicit storytelling narrative, we still had figures and activity, but less moralistic and idealistic content. compositions became as the photographic ones – truncated and cropped. Subject broadened hugely encompassing everything from dreams to everyday moments. We all know the resulting progression through abstraction to the plethora of isms we now have. A few things though did not get thrown out with the baby, some things stuck to the tin bath. One thing was fashion. Painting and other art still served fashion. It might have become a wildly oscillating Alice Through the Looking Glass version of fashion, but nonetheless  what was required of us at college was that our work fitted and did not step outside of the established fashion which was generally then known as modern now just called “contemporary”. The other thing that was retained was a simplified version of the precedence of the arts. With art for display on walls, or plinths, in galleries or for investment set above work that served any another purpose.

The baby in the cold outside the door was craft or skill. Something hardly ever mentioned in my college years and after without the word “mere” inserted before it. Something to be avoided not sought. Craftsmen had skills and they were for our new snooty art elite very much tradesperson’s entrance. Suitable for illustrators and their commercially tainted ilk only. I worked in the commercial arena for 30 years after leaving college. In that time I didn’t paint a single picture to go in a frame. Partially I think because of my disaffection with the fine art world in general being compounded by being told by others that as I was an illustrator I couldn’t be a “real” artist.

It was only later when I was building and painting film and theatre sets and having to employ people that I found that ex “fine art” degree students were easily the best people to have on your side. I have thought about this more in recent years and realised that although like myself they were missing many skills they had inventive strengths and would come up with new ways of doing things. A vital quality when many of the jobs were novel, such one where we had to build a model city entirely out of biscuits! They also very quickly learnt new skills and ways of doing things. Specialist commercial artists were less flexible and more likely to say something was impossible to do.

My views were again challenged when I gave up commercial work to paint landscapes. The people in this world had skill in plenty, but their view on contemporary art were of a simplistic “a child could do it” and “emperor’s new clothes” nature. Then I came across the Art Renewal movement and the reconstituted atelier system. These people wished appallingly to return to the artistically constipated time of 19th century France with its vapid underdressed sirens and bogus historical painting. For me, despite my earlier disaffection, this was just throwing out a different baby to freeze in the snow. There is always the desire to return to some previous elysian past, some golden age populated with people who would of course agree with us. On examination though these visions of the past never hold up and you might well find that they in turn hankered for a return to the values of a yet earlier era.

So too hell with fashion and daft snobbish divisions. I want to keep the freedom of subject, thought and method that the modern movement brought. I don’t mind silly and badly thought out conceptual art or indeed any of the fun of the fair Turner prize fodder. However I also feel we should make a place and recognise the worth of people who spend life time fully mastering an artistic skill. What they produce enhances the present and the result of their labours will likely in the future be among the objects our age is remembered by. That you cannot go to art college and expect to find anyone there with a fully developed skill in drawing capable of teaching you, only pretentious drivel about “mark making” etc, is appalling.

So what can be done? If you look at the Crafts Council site it is at first hard to work out what they want. The dread words “experimental” and “contemporary” are much in evidence. Quite a bit of the featured content could be invisibly dropped into a Fine Art council site. Painting and drawing are noticeably absent… illustrators oddly don’t get to be craft at all. I get the distinct feeling they would prefer craft to move towards proper art rather than that pesky skill stuff. On the fine art side there is nothing. Well NAFAE the grandly titled National Association For Fine Art Education… which appears to do nothing whatsoever at public expense. Their meeting reports are a miracle of purposelessness. So who decided on the curriculum, quality of teaching and general standards in fine art colleges? Well no one. There are no checks at all as far as I can see as to whether these publicly funded institutions are doing their job. Indeed there would be no point in checks or assessments as no standards or aims are in place to be measured.

Now these things are decided by someone, but who, and what criteria? Looking at it critically the purpose of Fine Art colleges seems to me to teach students to become teachers of fine art in Fine Art colleges. Only a tiny, tiny minority actually end up make their living from selling or exhibiting. So gainful employment is mostly only possible in an art college and indeed most fine artists, even the well known ones, are dependent on lecturing work. How these jobs are handed out is another mystery. I searched for adverts… they are thin on the ground, virtually non existent! Here is the what the job entails blurb from the one application I could find:

“With a background in emergent/experimental forms of Art practice and/or related areas of creative cultural practice and research, you will lead on the innovation of integrated approaches to studio art teaching and the critical and historical context of practice. The successful candidate will have extensive knowledge of recent practices,theories and frameworks in contemporary art, and be able to teach both Fine Art and Fine Art & Illustration students through innovative approaches to teaching and learning.  The post-holder should have a developing research profile in scholarly or practice-based research with ambition to contribute to the School’s growing research agenda and must have a proven track record of exploring new and emerging modes of practice and scholarship.”

So what exactly is to be taught? “Practice” is a word used 5 times, I Googled “Fine art practice”  and a blizzard of art colleges came up, but no one seemed too keen on defining it in any way… even the links to the colleges only led to vague assertions about “methodology” if skill is mentioned it is mostly linked with the business skills required for making your way in the gallery and institutional world. The message re the art itself is that you will be tutored, but not taught.

So how are these jolly nice, well paid and I suspect cushy art tutor jobs being handed out? I cannot answer this as there is a deafening silence on the subject. I suspect they are handed out through personal patronage, no doubt dressed up in the appropriate “open to all” clothing by being briefly advertised on individual college sites. There seems no attempt to reach far and wide. All this must in my view result in an incestuous clique and all my experiences lead me to believe this is mostly the case. Only people who back the current methodology and status quo can gain entry. So the system is self maintaining for the main purpose of continuing the institutions unchanged existence, not primarily for educating anybody. Students are merely the fodder that bring in the cash from the state which keeps the show on the road, teaching them anything of practical worth is by the by.

It is traditional to blame someone for public institutions gone awry, but really if a cushy number turns up people will always try to keep it going. They have no incentive to try to institute or reach definable standards, just the reverse. People in the system mostly did not learn any transferrable practical skill so they are hardly likely to welcome that becoming a job requirement. For government it is attractive too. If there are no definite standards or assessments then no failures can occur. They can tick the “supporting the arts” button and relax.

I have gone on enough maybe, but I find it infuriating that a young person with ability and interest in art cannot get a decent unpretentious education to further their hopes and ambitions. So what might a solution to breaking the cycle look like? Well I don’t think the current fine art colleges will or can change. So replacement rather than revolution might be easier. However private colleges are only open to a wealthy few and suffer from wishing to return to some imaginary age equally as hide bound as the current fine art establishment. What I think might do the trick is to undo the divisions between commercial craft and fine art. If we taught the “how” to people and left the “why” and “what” to the individual then the students could gravitate towards the theoretical/experimental or the practical/skill side or indeed anywhere in-between. Delivering such a change would be a life’s work as only setting such an establishment up and then hopefully pointing to its success and benefits would allow incremental change to spread.

Every area of art and craft has its outer limits and exploring these is important, but so are the less glamorous areas of skill and craft which in my view supply the firm terra cognita from which exciting leaps into the unknown can be more effectively made.

No exciting leaps here… only a few hopefully entertaining bits of shuffling along…

self portrait, oil painting, rob adams

It’s my ugly bonce again! I found myself at loose end unable to make a start on anything and with a pile of rapidly congealing expensive oil paint on my palette. Not the best reason to do a painting maybe. I am working very hard on tone at the moment. How to navigate areas of subtle close tone convincingly. The eye always wants to give every part of an image to much contrast and it can actually be very hard to determine the true relative tone of any area. I couldn’t be faffed with drawing so I gridded up my mirror with a felt tip pen. This isn’t so accurate as to cause stiffness, but will allow you to get everything in proportion without too much trouble. It is very important to look at your painting in the mirror at regular intervals as it is surprising how far an eye can migrate with several wiping outs and re-paintings. 10in by 16in Oils

 

East Hill, Corfe, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

I went to Corfe to deliver pictures to the Gallery at 41 who have kindly taken me on their books. It was a glorious day so I walked up to Ballard Down and then to East Hill to look down on the town. If ever there was a subject where close tones were to the fore then this was it. A real battle not to see too much and to get the tonal layers properly separated but still related. I ended up with 3 distinct areas on my palette which I tried to keep separate as much as possible. 10in by 8in Oils.

 

Corfe, Dorset, plein air, oils, painting

I was on my way down as was the sun when I came across this scene and just had to paint it. Very awkward as I was on a killer slope and my ankles were not amused! Fortunately the colours were already pretty much mixed and just needed warming to reflect the sun having dropped. I laid in the whole thing in 4 simple areas, sky, distance, the town and the bushes. I tried to get a mix of warm and cool in each area whilst keeping the tone more or less flat. The only thing to do after that was to indicate and hint at the detail within each zone. 12in by 12in Oils.

Badbury Rings, Beeches, avenue, Kingston Lacey, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

Such a great time of year to paint! This is the wonderful avenue of beech trees near Badbury rings. No chance of doing anything other than indicate the mesh of branches with general tones. Here I laid in all the sky shapes first and then the green bits as that more or less defined all the drawing. The base tone of the board was a mottle red brown so I could see the painting as a whole from quite early on. Quite pleased with this as I have made a mess of this subject a couple of times before. It is still not quite what I want, but I can see maybe now how to get a decent painting out of this wonderful subject some time in the future. 16in by 10in Oils.

Kingston Lacey, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

Later the same day… this is around the back of Kingston Lacey near the church. Oaks rather than beeches. Trying to catch the feel of the late autumn was my aim, some might not paint the van but I needed something to build a rough composition around. 12in by 8in Oils.

Beeches, Badbury Rings, oil painting, plein air

Last one of the day and the best I feel. Not a spectacular composition but just the thing to showcase the wonderful light. Again I did the sky areas first so that it defined the drawing. Also it was the main event so that also helps to get the picture headed in the right direction. 12in by 8in Oils.

I have been busy with things other than painting so not a many paintings have got done. The prospects aren’t good for the next month either with the threat of a serious bout of framing hoving into view. I have let the Lino cut printing slide… where does all that time go!

4 Comments »

  1. ! would love to see you pop up on the Landscape Challenge programme on TV, What a shock to the judges!

    Comment by Doug Elliot — November 25, 2017 @ 6:36 pm

  2. Interesting commentary again about the art scene, this time the education side of it. All that confusing jargon packed into those job descriptions are like a signal to me to turn away anyone with actual hands on abilities and invite the sort of insiders that have learnt to interpret such double speak and are comfortable maneuvering inside that fakery. Just recently I gave up my part time teaching gig and freelancing design work for a full time job in a non art related, more or less manual type position. This is the world of average people, unions and process, and I’ve met interesting and diverse people in this place, people with backgrounds in the creative industries who just need the stability of a normal job. I have been able for the first time in my life to work on my own projects without feeling guilty, as the small time I have at home, I can devote fully to my own work. I’m really happy to be away from that whole scene, and I think of my brother, who is a painter like yourself, who has basically taught himself through doing it and reading books about various artists and talking with a few mentors. I mean, the stuff that is important, the materials, tools and how to care for them, preparation, how to look, all the stuff that puts you in the drivers seat, that’s what seems to be the least important priority to modern institutions, who are really in the business of inculcating doctrines in their students, not giving them the tools to go their own way.

    I think the institutions are a lost cause, probably since a while back, as you noticed the symptoms yourself when being taught. Will the tide turn? Eventually it might have to, as the general public has never been fully on-board with post modernism, and generally gravitate towards clever or beautiful stuff that exhibits a self evident skill level. Art critics/ opinion makers are a lot like those fans of obscure bands that immediately drop them if they go commercial and start having popular hits, despite all their talk about diversity and inclusion, they are snobbish and exclusionary in their opinions and actions.

    Comment by Desmond Waterman — November 26, 2017 @ 4:50 am

  3. Hi Desmond, thanks your point about critics is alas true, as soon as you become a cognoscenti then your taste becomes ever more attuned to the outer reaches. I don’t object to weird and wonderful conceptual this and that, but I think it makes a poor vernacular and due to this the general public has little interest in it. Also it is bad for the people who want to push boundaries. If there are no boundaries then there is nothing to push against. As I have said before when you look at the out put of the artists who have been through 70’s and later art colleges in is amazing how they have all been original in much the same way. Really no new ideas have been put on the table since 1915 most if not all contemporary art can be placed in categories pioneered in that period. That time was unique because it was really the first time the “scientific” ideas of discovery, experimentation, proof and theory were seriously applied to aesthetics. As I have written before art is not like science it does not consist of advances and discoveries. It runs deeper than that, there has been nothing new to say since the dawn of awareness when humans drew on the walls of caves. Art is engaging and a miracle in the same way music is. There are only so many notes to play and a limited order in which they can be placed but somehow something fresh and exciting can always be said by each generation.

    Comment by Rob Adams — November 26, 2017 @ 10:31 am

  4. It’s an excellent publication, I’m proof that art is a world with wonderful characteristics.
    Please, visit my last publication in wordpress: http://artbetweenfingers.wordpress.com THANKS!

    Comment by Marlon Hans — December 6, 2017 @ 1:21 pm

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