Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

July 9, 2012

Watercolours from Life and From Photographs

Filed under: France,Kent,Painting,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 4:25 pm

Photos, as artists we love ’em and hate ’em. Every representational image we see today is judged or influenced by them. They are ubiquitous and inescapable. For artists they are a double edged sword, many artists will describe them as a straitjacket, hard to escape from, but often use them anyhow. When first working for photographers painting backdrops and later with Photoshop I had to merge images taken at different times in different places, often overseeing camera positions so that in the final image everything would join up seamlessly. Due to this I gained a high degree of sensitivity and experience of the distortions that camera lenses create. This in turn means I can nearly always spot a picture painted from reference as it is unlikely that any artist would deliberately build in the geometrical distortions that the single lensed camera produces by chance. From this I also can spot that the offerings to the BP Portrait competition are often based on camera images despite the rules saying a life study should be the basis. How do I know, well the best clue is that the camera has one single lens whilst we have two eyes. So we therefore see further round the head on each side than a camera does, this effect gets greater the closer we are, and amateur snappers nearly always stand too close to a subject when taking photographs.

Does it matter? To my mind not a fig. I don’t care how a picture is painted if it is good then why should anybody care how it was achieved? Despite this many artists are very shy of their use of the photographic image. Even those who admire groups like the impressionists who used them extensively. Indeed it could be argued that impressionism is a style created by the arrival of the photographic image. It was a marvel of the time to see how real frozen images of the world looked. Almost immediately the rules of composition were torn up and Degas began to paint pictures with figures cut off by the frame. Figures were given a completely new treatment as before this the only way to freeze motion was to imagine how it might look. Often the actual shapes people and especially horses made whilst moving about the world came as a complete surprise. With horses especially people thought that the new photographed images looked wrong as they were accustomed to them being painted in that strange “rocking horse” pose that we find so unconvincing today. The very idea that you would sit en plein air and try and capture what is before you and present it as a finished work didn’t exist before the camera. The impressionists were trying at first to emulate the camera’s image by hand. Monet wished it is said to be merely an eye. It had before then not been realised how beautiful the rendering of a moment in time by hand in paint could be. Drawing from life indoors and out had been around before of course but only as a sort of information gathering exercise for use later in the studio. Turner for example would make very quick sketches of scenes, then when he got home he would paint them almost entirely from imagination. After all in that age no one was going to Google a castle or whatever the subject was and notice that he had jacked it up a hundred feet and sprinkled classical trees here and there.

Despite this I still feel slightly as if I am cheating when composing a picture from a photographic image. There is no reason that I can think of why this should be so. I was recently accused on a forum on Wetcanvas of reproducing photos unchanged into watercolour. Actually in the thread there was a mixture of plein air and paintings from reference, but I can’t deny I was somewhat miffed, but as to why that should be I find hard to pin down. In the same way when someone says “Wow that looks just like a photo!” meaning to compliment me, I feel I have in some way failed. Painting some studio pictures from photographic reference from my recent trip has brought this to mind, so I really tried to pay attention to my process to track how the initial image influenced me and perhaps constrained me too.

First of all obviously not every photo makes a good painting, but I also  think that not every good photo will translate into a decent painting. Then once you have an image that you reckon might make a painting not everything will be in the ideal place. It is very rare for unstaged photographs to have a good compositional flow. Certainly the chances of getting good traffic and pedestrians in a street scene nicely arranged in the pictures favour are very low indeed. Then there is colour. Real life knows nothing of colour harmonies or restricted palettes. It doesn’t care that that red shop front is drawing the eye out of the picture. Tone has to be considered also, once again the real arrangement can nearly always be improved upon. Detail is a big hurdle with any continuous tone image like a photo or indeed real life, there is far too much of it. To further muddy the water there are all the accidental events that always occur when selectively dirtying paper with paint, especially with watercolours where serendipity is a big player in any painting. With all these factors to juggle the word copying seems inappropriate. People do copy photos of course, I especially think of those rather sad pencil drawings people do of film stars which they proudly tell you took them 5 weeks to do. These along with the Photorealist paintings of the 60’s and 70’s have an oddly dead feel to my eye. The best use of the medium was maybe when unreal things or situations were given the authenticity that the continuous tone photographic style confers. This all became slightly pointless of course with the arrival of Photoshop with which any photographic material can be transformed. A favourite with photorealists was to make the image very big… but with 7m wide printers this is also not really worth the bother anymore.

To pick an image that might make a painting I often start from looking at the small thumbnails by which my computer shows the contents of a folder, there is a handy slider that makes them all larger or smaller. To start with I make them small, then I look for ones that catch my eye the images are too small to really see the content so I am drawn by contrasts both dramatic and more subtle, but more generally images that break down into 3 or four simple areas. I don’t worry too much about perfect exposure, I generally under expose which with Raw format photos doesn’t matter as you can adjust exposure to some degree afterwards. I will show later the starting point and the final result on a couple of this posts pictures when I get to them. Once I have picked out a few possibles I look at them larger and adjust exposure etc so I can see what is going on. It is always a rule with me that a picture must reward both a distant glimpse or a closer look. There is nothing worse to be attracted closer to a painting only to discover that the walk wasn’t worth it! Sadly the ones that don’t read from a distance often never get looked at at all in a gallery situation. This goes some way to explain why the paintings in open exhibitions are often rather on the brash side.

Once I think I have a reasonable starting image I then chop it up in Photoshop into the areas that took my eyer in the first place. Once on different layers I can adjust them separately until the tones and colours are to my liking. I am already at this stage thinking of the process and treatment to paint each part. Also if it is a watercolour which things are underlying everything and must stated with  the initial wash. The next stage is to get the image down on the paper. If it is very complex architecture such as a cathedral in watercolour then I print a line drawing of the basic masses and perspective and trace this down onto the sheet or directly. If it is alandscape I just draw by eye maybe dividing the paper into quarters to help judge proportions. For oils I would just divide the board into a large grid of about 1/8ths and do the same to the image on screen then lay in the very basic masses. There is no point in doing more as the painting process would erase any drawing anyway. Sometimes if I’m full of confidence I will just start in with the paint and a big brush. This ups the chances of a disaster but if you don’t fall off the wire then the result will have a vivacity that can be hard to achieve any other way. Off we go with some pictures, rather a lot in this post I fear. First off a day out in Faversham.



First a slightly different painting. Done to pass a very wet day. I don’t often do paintings from photos taken more than a month or two before but I felt like doing something to ring the changes a little. This was last autumn I was doing a plein air in oils of Green Park when this young lady walked towards me something of the mood moved me so I took a snap of her. When I came to look through the photos of the month to delete any that were worthless this took my eye. The background comes from the year before at the same venue! The sort of picture I don’t know whether I like or not but, hard enough to paint so good practice at least. 1/4 sheet Arches rough.


Mike Richardson and I decided to meet up to paint around Whitstable and Faversham. I arrived early so sat and did this on Faversham creek. I had never been there before so I was pleased to find a very attractive town with lots to paint. Even better considering the monsoon that this summer has brought the day was bright and sunny. I worked on this until I had to retreat from the rising tide. 1/4 sheet Arches rough.


Here is my setup, you can see the tide approaching!


I stopped to paint this in my new little 7in by 5in sketch book. I very much like this size as a painting can be done in 15minutes or so. A very simple scene so not much to say.


Once Mike and I had met we set up to paint in Seasalter, one of those strange strings of varied costal buildings stretched out along the road that follows the shingle estuary shore. I knew when I started this that I really should have waited a half hour. But no harm in painting anyway. 11in by 9in Arches not


Once I had finished the previous one the light had improved and I couldn’t resist doing this very quick sketch of Mike Richardson painting away.


On my way home I did a very quick note of the Shepherd Neme brewery in Faversham. In my small sketchbook again.


A jump forward in time now as I get down to doing a few studio paintings from my Brittany trip. This is a larger version of my sketch from the previous post. Going to be a hard one to frame as I tried it in a cream mount and it looked very dreary. 1/4 sheet Arches rough.


Another go at the same subject, better this one I feel. Relating to what I said in my opening spiel I’ll post the photo I used so you can see what I kept and what I changed. 1/2 sheet Arches rough.


So now you can see where I started. I can’t show you my original emotions that I felt while actually being in the place, but they are another important ingredient. Most of the visual cues are already in the photograph but I think you will agree that it isn’t a mere copy. Even the colours are taken from the photo but given a different emphasis. The church is there but is just out of sight round the corner so I slid the whole town 500metres or so to the right!


Another studio painting, once again I will post the original reference below. I would have stopped and painted this en plein air but as soon as I stopped the rain started again. This is Bayeux Cathedral started in 1077Ad. 1/4 sheet Arches rough.


I’ll leave you to sort out what was altered. I felt a way in was needed hence the track and the break in the wall. The relative sizes of the houses and cathedral have been adjusted. I don’t usually change things for the sake of it, if an existing feature does the job I see no point in messing with it.


A preparatory sketch for a dockside restaurant painting. I am somewhat feeling my way with this as I have no images that really tell the story of the place and bustle so I will do a few sketches like this to guide my way. This was done straight in with no initial drawing and benefits from the directness which that dangerous method brings. The problem will be to retain the lively feeling in a more considered larger painting. 11in by 9in Arches rough.


Here is the restaurant don en plein air from outside, I forgot to put this in the previous post. It is in Cancale.


  1. Excellent post Rob. Thank you for sharing the tip about the thumbnails too- very valuable indeed. Absolutely love the second abandoned boat painting.

    Comment by Thomas Haskett — July 9, 2012 @ 8:34 pm

  2. Another first rate post. Your generosity as to your process and thinking is illuminating. This along with your wonderful paintings always make a visit here worthwhile.

    Comment by Mick Carney — July 10, 2012 @ 6:57 am

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