Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

July 4, 2012

A Trip to Brittany

Filed under: France,Painting,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 3:29 pm

It’s holiday time again. As last year I have been away painting with members of the Wapping Group and others. Many thanks to Michael Richardson and Kate for the organisation which makes the whole thing a worry free affair which allows the painters to selfishly split their time between eating, painting and socialising! If anybody wishes to share the experience then here is a link to Michael’s site and an upcoming visit to Honfleur in September. It is not a traditional painting holiday as there is no tuition, but with so many experienced artists it is an education in itself to paint alongside them.

This year was a trip to Brittany based at Douarnenez with expeditions to the surrounding area. The journey was painless with an overnight crossing and a mornings visit to a very rainy St Malo. Rain is very unwelcome on a normal holiday, but for a painter I find it brings exciting challenges of rapidly changing light and atmospheric conditions that cause moments of magic. We all like cloudless sunny days but they are not always good for painting. A scene on a perfect day at a certain time will always look much the same, but the same subject on a sun and showers day will go through a succession of dramatic or more subtle changes. It is these moments that are likely to supply the makings of a memorable painting. On the downside they also make for a rather damp and soggy painter and some media become impractical to use in the open.

I would have preferred to take my oils but alas due to a throat ailment I need to avoid all solvents at present, so I dusted off my acrylics as the best alternative. I am pretty experienced with the medium as I used them for a decade or more before I took up oils. As with all media they have advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side they dry rapidly and the resulting pictures are easily to transport. Also they allow glazing and watercolour like washes. On the negative side the handling is not good, the stuff just does not flow off the brush like oils making pleasing brushstrokes very hit or miss. Also they don’t have the depth of colour that my Hardings oil do. I don’t find the fast drying too annoying as I am a pretty rapid painter and can get most wet into wet stuff done before the paint becomes unworkable. I use Liquitex which I find the best acrylic, but I have never found I need to use mediums when painting en plein air.

This year I determined to do all my adding of figures on the spot, as recently I have found that if you have the figures in at a very early stage in the painting is much easier to develop the whole composition. If you add them after you need to adapt the people to the existing background, but if you build them in from the first then you can make both figures and background work in concert to set the scene. I am not averse to tweaking figures that are too clumsy afterwards, but more and more I feel that they need to be there from the very start of the process. Many painters eschew figures in their landscapes or just put them in as incidental almost abstract shapes. I don’t dislike this approach, but for me the people are a vital part of the place, pictorially just as important as the architecture or landscape. The problem with figures is that they are such a powerful draw to the attention of the eye. Oddly a single figure is a stronger lure of the viewer’s attention than a group is. This is a very useful property as it allow you to dilute or strengthen the contribution of the figures to the overall painting. This can be quite accurately controlled. A group of overlapping figures just adds life without drawing the eye strongly. A couple side by side is assessed a little more closely and an isolated figure even more so. To add to the armoury of control the relationship of the figures to one another is a key factor. Two figures fighting for example would be an extremely strong lure to the eye. Also the nearness and thus size is another factor. There is often not time to exploit all these factors, but bearing a few in mind will help the convincing feeling of place and the life that goes on there.

Enough theory on with the daubs…



Here we are in St Malo. A very wet day and I only had my watercolours as the acrylics were in my case immured in the bowels of the coach. Watercolour very tricky in these conditions not only because the initial washes take for ever to dry but there also was a fine mist being blown here and there by the wind. I found a sheltered spot in a narrow arch to paint this in my wee sketch book which is 7in by 5in and good for quick notes like this. I noticed Peter Cronin who had taken refuge in the same spot had a plumber’s blow torch with him as an aid to drying, which is something I must try!


Later that day the weather had cleared a little so as soon as I had dumped my luggage I went straight out to catch the last of the light. I was a bit of a shock to find how nasty the acrylics were to handle, but as I proceeded with this the memory of how to control the stuff slowly surfaced. I had brought mostly 10in by 8in boards which was as it turned out a good move as the changing light needed a pretty quickfire approach to getting the important things down. I did no initial drawing on this, just starting straight in with a dark and blocking in the silhouette of the ships, trees and other structures against the sky and below where they reappeared in the water. I refined the shapes in the next stage when I added the sky, cutting back into the first dark. Then the same process with the slightly darker tone of the reflected sky.


The next day dawned wet again. The rain was constant but very fine which made the distance recede into a soft silvery haze. When crossing a high bridge that passes over the main channel I was taken by this scene. I had brought my acrylics and had pre-toned a sheet of water colour paper with quite thick paint to reduce the absorbency. This had to be painted crouched under my umbrella with my tripod wedged through the bars of the side railings! I just noted the positions of the nearby boats and added a few hints of detail later from a photo. This painting absolutely depended on getting the tones accurately related and I think I painted the distant curve in 3 or 4 times before it worked properly.


When we had arrived we all saw these wrecked and decaying fishing boats across the channel. I found it impossible to resist trying to get down to them. As one of the other painters commented at the end of the trip getting to the place had a little of the military assault course to it. I had foolishly only brought the one sheet of prepared paper and it was just too damp to use watercolour so I just drew the scene with my Pentel brush pen. This is a new medium for me and one I find I really like. They can make a wide array of marks and tones which in turn allows a really good range of expression. I added a simple watercolour wash afterwards. I took lots of pictures of the place so some good studio watercolours will eventually result I hope.


Here is the old fishing port at Douarnenez. A flat day again so I was in search of contrast. Here the shapes of the buildings against the sky took my eye. Also the locals had placed a convenient bench to paint from. As with all grey days the challenge was to get the subtlety of the greys down. The thing to be careful of is to get the lights of the vertical surfaces dark enough as the eye tends to see them lighter than they really are. Again I did no initial drawing.


Next I swivelled round and painted the other direction. This is not really finished as I only had half an hour before the Restaurants shut at 2… I will rework this though in another painting as it has potential. The sea really was that colour which looks odd even in a photo against the grey sky. I don’t much like what it does to the colour harmonies so some midway solution needs to be found.


Next day was a visit to Concarneau. The morning looked hopeful and the day promised to be drier so I only took my watercolours with me. There is an old walled town in the harbour which is the main claim to fame of a rather dull town. Unfortunately the interior has been converted into a sort of tourist hell from which I wanted to run screaming! The whole place had been paved in a pale stone that bounced the light everywhere in an unpleasant way. Still I felt I should make the effort and set about this before the place got too busy. As with all paintings as soon as you start possibilities emerge. The sun came out for about 30 seconds so I rapidly sketched in the lit area in the square. It was never going to be a great painting but the result was better than I first feared.


I wandered rather at a loss for the rest of the day, doing only one dreadful painting of a small chapel that I will keep to myself if you don’t mind… I had rejected this scene earlier but the tide had dropped and the light moved round making the composition rather good. So I spent twenty minutes doing this in the company of several very dead and mightily smelly crabs.


This was the first fine evening. I reluctantly left the conviviality of the restaurant at about 9.30 as I knew the light would be fleeting. I went to this scene as I knew it would paint well and the sun would be setting behind it. There was no time to consider other scenes. I sketched in the very bare bones and laid in my sky and water in one wash dropping all the darks of the reflections into the wash as it dried. Then I just kept adding the defining darks as the initial wash dried leaving the areas I wanted crispest until last. With this sort of subject the whole thing hinges on that first wash. If it goes awry then it is not really worth continuing. It was 10.30 and almost dark before I packed up.


This was done in two stages. I painted on the first day when it was dull but dry but just could not get a figure for the centre of the street So I went back next day with it intending to just finish the road and maybe get a snap of a car coming down the hill. The light was more of less the same but the street was wet which transformed the scene by bringing reflected light into the rather uninteresting foreground. As I was finishing off two lads came down the hill on a motorbike which seemed to be just the thing for a French street! 10in by 16in.


After the first session of the previous painting the sun got properly out for the first time of our visit, so I took the opportunity to paint a wider view of the old harbour. The moment was only brief however and this 10in by 8in had to be knocked in pretty swiftly.


Last one for Doarnenez, I drew this out standing under my brolly after my second go at the steep street, too wet to paint so I added washes back in the hotel.


This is Port en Bessin where we stayed for a couple of nights on the way to Cherbourg, the day was very trying with win and repeated showers. This took a couple of hours, most of that time hunkered down under my umbrella. The light however was super with the wet roads and roofs reflecting the light.


Another of Port en Bessin, the wind was so strong it snapped my brolly! The light was superb though and this is probably my personal favourite of the trip.


Again it cleared up in the evening and I rushed out after eating to catch the sunset. Slightly over ambitious so I just had to take a deep breath and go for it. By the time I was done I couldn’t see what the colours were in my mixing palette. A great pity they had to build such an ugly structure on the pier.


Here is Seurat’s take on the same view, as you see there used to be a pretty pavilion instead of an ugly shed!


This is the facade of the Cathedral at Bayeux. Only a quick sketch but such subjects are always a challenge and fun to draw.


Here is Richard Bond in a scene that rather sums up the painting experience!


Derel Daniells (left) and Steven Alexander of the Wappers. Nothing like an old boat to cheer ’em up…


Haidee-Jo Summers in a rare brolly down painting moment… click on her link and you will see the oyster stalls that she was painting… That’s it for now, next will be a step back in time to Faversham and hopefully a few studio efforts from references of this trip.


  1. A superb collection Rob, you are so versatile.

    I think I might try painting gouache plein air.


    Comment by Yorky — July 4, 2012 @ 9:34 pm

  2. Thanks Doug, yes gouache has occurred to me as well, I used the medium for many years as an illustrator and although it has overpainting constraints and it requires experience to know how the colours dry I love the look of the finished work here is one by Albert Brenet which I love. Rob
    Gouache Albert Brenet

    Comment by admin — July 5, 2012 @ 9:30 am

  3. Another first rate post packed with wonderful images.

    Comment by Mick Carney — July 5, 2012 @ 11:25 pm

  4. Rob,

    I love this post, you have given such a clear description of the trip, and really captured the feel, both with your paintings and the text. It takes me right back there with you all. It was such fun to paint with you English people, to observe your methods and results, and to discuss art topics. I now have my own little sketchbook from Cornelissen’s, and look forward to making my own collection of watercolors. And I’ve taken your lovely painting to the framer, it’s getting a very nice frame made for it. Keep these wonderful posts coming!

    Bobbi Heath

    Comment by Bobbi Heath — July 10, 2012 @ 1:28 am

  5. Hi Bobbi, it is a great way to meet other painters and being with them in turn makes you see possibilities in painting that refresh your outlook. Hope the picture gives pleasure, at the end of the day that is their purpose after all!
    Best Rob

    Comment by admin — July 10, 2012 @ 10:55 am

  6. It’s always such an informative delight to look over your shoulder on your (often rainy) wanderings with a brush Rob. Thanks as always for your generous sharing. New sights but also many insights about how to respond to them and capture something of their essence.

    Comment by Clay Harper — July 31, 2012 @ 9:44 pm

  7. Thanks Clay, always good to get feedback! I’m afraid there is no gold standard for insights into painting, I dare say I contradict myself frequently in these posts which pretty much sums up the business, what might be true in one painting is not in the next!

    Comment by admin — August 1, 2012 @ 9:33 am

  8. I would like to receive your blog on my gmail or facebook, if possible. I clicked the box below to
    I love your paintings and since I dabble in acrylics at the moment, they teach me a lot.
    regards, Marjan

    Comment by Marjan — January 2, 2013 @ 11:59 am

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