Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

August 23, 2011

Up and Down the Thames

Work has eased up so normal painting service can be resumed. The light and weather have been great, first sun then cloud, showers etc, much more to my taste than sunny days which, though lovely, are a bit short on magical turns of the light that can make a subject sing. Really the best time of day to paint is dawn and a couple of hours after and the few hours before sunset. this stretches out a bit later in the year as the sun stays low to the horizon longer. It is that raking light that produces the magic. Indeed photographers call this the magic hour. The other good thing about later in the year is the challenge of getting up for the dawn is a little easier! That said I have been out painting in the flattest day I have ever seen, the light barely changed from daw to dusk. I painted anyway as I was a guest of the “Wappers” but left to myself I would have probably gone home I suspect.

Now here is an area where I really struggle to find rules, how to spot a good subject. I squint and look for good contrasts. I wave my hands around in vague framing motions (just so as any one watching thinks I know what I am at), but I don’t think cardboard L’s have ever found me a picture. My current method is to hold my blank board beneath the scene and sort of imagine it painted. I often take photos where I think to myself, “That will make a cracking painting.” but looking later wonder what on earth I saw in it. Then some other random snap will just have the right flavour and end up on canvas. When painting plein air I could wander all day and never settle, there is always a better one round the corner. So it was this Wednesday at Richmond, I was well on the way to Oxford before I found my second subject of the day. The first had been easy as there was a glimmer of light (it soon went) and a scene I had painted successfully before.

There are rules of course, a light surrounded by dark, various rules of thirds and golden sections. I’m afraid in later life I have thrown all these magic proportion rules to the bin, they are I am beginning to think no better than ley lines. All the claims of Phi being embedded in nature seem to fall apart when you look a little closer, the poster boy for the golden section is the nautilus shell… I had to make one in 3D recently and was very surprised to find the shell was nothing like the Phi spiral, they were both  spiral but that seemed to be about it. Surveys of people’s choices of golden section rectangles show we do like rectangles roughly in that proportion, but our favourite apparently wasn’t the golden one… we liked it even less when in portrait orientation it seems. We just love the idea that there are these magical formulae, but a quick trawl through art history shows no particular liking for golden sections, even the Egyptian stuff often doesn’t fit the template as often as you might think, and as for Aztec, Chinese, Indian, African etc there is as far as I can see barely a phi proportion in sight, surely if it was as inbuilt as some say they would have made them by instinct? As for finding these proportions in old masters, well why don’t we see geometrical layouts in working drawings then? You can of course find “significant” lines, but you can also find “ley” lines by connecting up telephone boxes on OS maps so that might not be too note worthy. I might have, it seems, completely wasted my time building these bogus numbers into various paintings. The same is I suspect true of our rules for colour, blue recedes red advances, so why doesn’t a red horizon in a sunset look like it’s really close then… or a blue swimming pool at your toes far away? More sacred cows ready for the slaughter.

Other cows for the chop might be “Your paintings are always truly about yourself.” Aha so I’m all about a train station… or a ship on the Thames am I? It’s one of those solemn phrases that just sounds as if it ought to be true but no one can exactly say how or why it might actually be so. The paintings are about me in that it’s me that does them, and my skills, such as they are, were built up by my experience, but windows into my soul they probably aren’t! I am also a little suspicious of all those calls to “loosen up” and “express yourself” feel “free”. Painting and drawing are disciplines, they follow the same course as other skill based activities: you do it lots until you don’t have to think out every move. Not that paintings don’t move people, but it would be quite unlikely for you to have ecstasies of self expressiveness whilst working as there is just not the mental room for them while you go about the difficult work itself. We want, it might seem, anything to be true as a source of creativity rather than just boring old hard work, we have to have “talent” and “inspiration”, well the talent you see in others is I think usually the end result of hard work and the inspiration was often just getting off the sofa and getting down to it. If I look at paintings I have done in moments of thinking I have a big idea they are a motley group, most of my best work has come about unannounced by any any flash of inspiration and has left me surprised and pleased. It is sad really, I love the idea of flashes of revelation and being inspired, perhaps I and many others wish painting to be a more romantic business than it really is. Still the fact that you can communicate a time of day or an emotion or an atmosphere by selectively dirtying a canvas is wonderful enough all by itself and doesn’t need dressing up in supernatural clothes any more than anything else in our astonishing existence. Gosh I have a dose of the polemics today, enough already, a few pictures. Most can be clicked for larger view.



London, station, train, London Bridge, oil, painting

I have had this one in the works for a while, I took snaps and did a couple of quick sketches on the station on quite a few different days, I love the air of quiet self absorption that the commuters have, it is quite a unique mood. Below are the two sketches which are each 10in across, the one above is 24in by 12in.


London, station, railway, train, London Bridge, oil, painting


London, train, station, London Bridge, painting, oil


Kent, Groombridge Place, watercolour, painting

A studio watercolour, great fun to paint, I wanted the stillness to over come the busy textures of the plants, which works to some degree. A half sheet on Arches paper. The Location is Groombridge Place in Kent, not altogether true to life as I redesigned the statue and gave her a more elegant  line.


Richmond, Thames, Twickenham, River, water colour, painting

This is from the Twickenham side of the river near Richmond. A very flat day it was hard work to get even this much colour into the painting. I try to only augment existing hues, I’m not keen on adding invented heightened colour, though I often like the result when others do it.


Thames, Richmond, Watercolour, plein air

Next up was this as it had some good tonal contrasts, I rather wished I had brought my oils as these silvery close tones are more effective I feel in oils.


Boats, canoe, thames, Richmond

Probably the best painting of the day. Water is often the saviour on a dull day, here I was pleased with the riverwhich ended up with an economy of means that I wish I could achieve more often. I did another before joining the Wappers in the pub, but it had to be binned, I was tired and all painted out that’s my excuse anyway!


Erlanger, New Cross, London, Plein Air, oil, painting

Another go at the terraced streets of South East London, it needs a figure or maybe a cat crossing that bit of lit pavement. I drew this on to a board from a photo first, for me this sort of subject doesn’t work if the drawing is awry, and getting the houses right, while easy enough, is too time consuming when the light may be very transitory.


Buoys, Thames, HMS Belfast, Tower Bridge, London, Plein air, oil painting

This took two goes, The first morning I drew out and painted in too much of a rush as the light was moving fast, it all went wrong and I had to wipe it all back by which time the light was too far gone. Annoying but I drew the thing out again taking real care over the drawing and not rushing. Next day was forecast fine so I went back at dawn and this time, starting with the drawing done, things went much more smoothly. Once finished I went over the river and drew out another board for the next day’s subject, this is, I am thinking, the way I should approach these cityscapes in future. 12in by 14in.


HMS Belfast, Thames, London, London Bridge, Plein air, oil painting

Here’s the next morning’s effort, a real squinter, right into the sun, it is off the pier for the riverboats, I snuck on, and painted from a bit where theticket office can’t see you and got away before being noticed! The line of the river bank needs adjusting but I was pleased with the result. 12in by 14in.


Tower Bridge, Thames, HMS Belfast, London, Oil painting

A studio painting of the same subject, It was good to paint this after the two morning expeditions as I felt very in tune with the subject. 24in by 12in.


  1. Wow, great post and amazing work. As you say, it’s so true about water being a ‘saviour on a dull day’

    Comment by Thomas Haskett — August 24, 2011 @ 12:05 am

  2. I always enjoy your musings and your paintings. The paintings alone are worth coming to look at, but the look into the “inner workings” is a great bonus. Thanks for doing it.

    Comment by a chris — August 24, 2011 @ 4:36 pm

  3. Fabulous work as always. Some of the most inspirational posts on the net.

    Comment by Mick Carney — August 26, 2011 @ 6:28 pm

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