Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

September 14, 2012

A Light in the City and a Visit to Dorset

Filed under: Dorset,London,Painting,Thames,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 1:29 pm

I have been experimenting with set ups for painting in the City. So often the spot and time you want to paint are incompatible with setting up an easel or crouching on a stool. To this end I have rigged a photographic monopod to hold my watercolours. This has to be supported with a belt around my waist so that the thing won’t fall over if I let go for a moment. I have to say although it worked quite well I felt a bit of a nurk strapped to this gizmo in full public view. Also once started you have to finish without stepping away; which is rather uncomfortable and not much appreciated by my back. I had also considered a “match sellers” tray but the straps are too much in the way of painting. At the moment I am considering grafting some fold out legs to the monopod from a small tripod. Worth the bother I think because I was really pleased with some of the pictures that I got done with the set up. The other option I am considering is a completely hand held solution but that inevitably means compromise on the sizes of picture you can paint. I would like to be able to paint up to a 1/4 sheet but that won’t be possible without some kind of physical support. The current model is illustrated below for the plein air nerds.

plein air


Off on my travels again. Some good friends invited me to Dorset for a few days. I left the oils behind as they are a risk to other people’s soft furnishings. You never know when a wayward blob of Cadmium Red will transfer itself to your trousers and thence to the white sofa… Oddly I find Dorset quite a difficult painting destination. The place is just too picturesque. It can seem like a constant run of unfeasibly beautiful villages full of quaint thatched cottages, timbers bowed by the weight of burgeoning hanging baskets. Each hamlet loiters in an artless higgle-piggle by swan choked rivers and streams,  separated from each other by leagues of sun dappled horse strewn lanes. You would only have to replace the ranks of 4 by 4′s with a few tastefully placed haywains and garnish the road with some smock clad yokels and we would be back in a sanitised flower bedecked version of the 17th century. I enjoy all this to look at and wander through but I have difficulty finding paintings in amongst so much paintability. I think this maybe because they don’t give many hints as to the lives lived there, not to a passerby at least.

I’m sure if you lived there then all sorts of paintable moments would present themselves; but the chances of you driving up at the right moment are pretty slim. That said I am not much of a fan of the self-consciously  gritty either. I prefer an un-preposessing cityscape transformed into a revealed beauty by a moment of light to the same scene done in a way to accentuate the grimness. I’m not that keen on either Helen Allingham or L S Lowry, though I can see why others like them. So I have not sat down to many village pictures but fortunately there is much else on offer. A beautiful craggy coastline and arching chalk downs looking down on those verdant village infested valleys. Better still atop the downs lie remains and signs of earlier ages, ring forts and tumuli now only populated by the wind, grass and the occasional waterproof enswathed National Trust member. The famous ones such as Stonehenge and Silbury Hill are busy with tourists, but there are others where you can wander alone. I don’t know why these places engage me, it is easy to fantasise about all the lives lived there in ancient times giving them some mystical charge, but I don’t think that is really the case. For me it is more that you feel mankind’s history stretched out behind you in a great tide, of which you are for a brief moment the leading edge.

Whatever the emotional charge, they are fiendishly difficult to paint. Concentric rings of earth banks up to half a mile or more round do not conveniently present themselves into satisfactory paintable compositions. If you want to catch anything of the feeling of place, just painting what you see won’t really do. At most of them you cannot get any viewpoints that do more than just hint at the overall structure.

My own approach so far is to rearrange the scene before me into a slightly more descriptive layout. I don’t add anything that is not there, but I am trying to put into the scene some of the information I have gleaned by walking around the place. This is something I am doing more and more with all types of subject. In earlier times I was always rather literal and almost never adjusted reality for pictorial reasons, but even though I am accentuating and altering placements I don’t want it to be too obviously expressive. Van Gogh making his buildings writhe in sympathy with the cypresses would for me be a step too far. In the plein airs I have been quite tentative but I might see how far I can go with that approach with a few studio paintings on my return.

I slightly recanted on my pledge not to do any pretty villages…  the last of the morning mist unexpectedly hanging on in a Stourpaine backwater lured me in (it was hanging basket free which no doubt caused me to succumb) . This underlined my ever growing feeling that sitting down in front of a so, so subject will very, very rarely result in a decent painting. As an artist you just have to put yourself in the way of a possible good subject by getting out there when the light or atmospheric conditions bode well. After doing that all you can do is hope for good luck. First pictures from my monopod adventures…


London, city, watercolour, royal exchange

Here we are very early looking at the Royal Exchange in the City of London. This was painted standing on a tiny strip of pavement behind the tube entrance.

Not used by pedestrians I could stand and paint but had to duck back every time a bus went by too close. 7in by 5in.


London, plein air, cannon st, watercolour

The same day on my way home in the evening. This is Cannon St looking towards St Pauls. 7in by 5in.


London, cannon st, watercolour, plein air

Next day, this is Cannon St again but this time looking the other way. Slightly bigger at 10in by 7in this was before the main rush in the morning. Even

with my new set up this would have been impossible an hour later.


Acton, Bromyard Avenue, the Vale, London, plein air

This is Bromyard Avenue in Acton. Not done on the monopod as a wheelie bin was conveniently positioned! 7in by 5in


Thames, London, river, Hungerford bridge, plein air

This is the Thames from Hungerford Bridge. 10in by 7in again. I snapped the river bus with my iPad and then drew it out referring to the screen. I might

have to weaken an get an iPhone as the iPad is a bit big and slippery and I am bound to eventually drop it.


Winchester, watercolour, plein air

This is Winchester in a quiet corner behind the cathedral. 7in by 5in.


Figsbury ring, Wiltshire, watercolour

This is Figsbury Ring in Wiltshire, a late bronze age to iron age site. A certain amount of imaginative rearrangement was needed to make the structure

more clear. Unusually for such constructions it had an inner ditch as well as the usual external ring. 7in by 5in.


Worbarrow bay, dorset, sea boats, watercolour, plein air

This is Worbarrow bay on the Dorset coast. Very interesting light very hard to catch in paint, there was a sort of milky glow to everything. I will add a

bit more activity on the beach if I get a moment. 10in by 7in.


Dorset, watercolour plein air

A misty morning near Tarrant Gunville in Dorset. 7in by 5in.


Badbury, fort, dorset,plein air watercolour

Badbury Rings. Very neutral light again a fair bit of imagination was needed to try and make it into any sort of picture. It is an Iron Age hill fort 800BC.

I regret the dog walker, the distant figures were better by themselves. I am going to attempt a studio hill fort picture to try and get over the feeling of the

places. 10in by 7in.


Kingston Lacy, dorset, house, mansion, watercolour, plein air

This is the grand house of Kingston Lacy. I will try and spend a whole day here painting some day in the future. I did this too small, I should have used

my larger 14in by 10 in pad as I rather lost the delicacy of the house. As my friend Richard and I were leaving in search of sustenance the light improved

and I got a photo that will make a very good studio picture I hope. 10in by 7in.


Fontmell Down, dorset, watercolour, plein air

This is Fontmell Down in Dorset. The only 14in by 10 in painting I managed. Very blustery and showery the light was changing moment by moment

I have put a photo below to show how the scene looked about 20 min after I started.


You can see how I have exaggerated the sweep and curves of the landscape to try and make a more cohesive composition.


Berwick, wiltshire, watercolour, plein air

This is the church at Berwick St John, hard to get back from the subject in these small graveyards. I might do another as the camera saw it in wide angle.

We are just into Wiltshire here I believe. Rain was threatening so I went on to Salisbury where there was a better chance of painting from the dry. 7in by 5in.


Salisbury, cathedral, stone carving, watercolour, plein air

Salisbury cathedral in the wet! I did this crouched under my umbrella, but the wind got to be too much, so I went and did the one that comes next from

from beneath a tree. Once I had done that the rain had eased so I went back. I nearly finished when the heavens opened, so the last bit of accenting of

the architecture had to be done back in the dry. With such a complex subject it is impossible to do a completely accurate drawing, or at least it would take

several days and still not capture the mood of the moment. I try to be very systematical. I work forwards from light to dark working in quite an ordered way.

So I might work across doing all the mid tones in the capitals adding each touch to each capital in turn and then doing the next touch in the same order.

If you do this you will suddenly reach a point where there is enough to indicate the structure without being too specific and then you should stop.

It is always hard to spot subjects when it is all grey and gloom, but you should try and look for simple contrasts in just part of the scene, here we just have

stone and trees really and the picture is better for it.


Salisbury, cathedral, watercolour, plein air

This is really just a time filler as I was thinking about the other picture as I painted this, hoping for the rain to stop. 7in by 5in.


Stourpaine, mist, watercolour, Dorset, plein air

On my way home. This is Stourpaine in .Dorset, a very typical village scene. But the last of the mist was hanging on and gave the scene a great mood.

7in by 5in. Now I have to get some studio pictures painted while the memories are still fresh!


  1. A fabulous collections Rob. You are getting rather philosophical in your old age :-)

    Each of your paintings is a masterpiece in my eyes and a lesson in making the best of a scene.

    Your days in Dorset were wonderfully productive.

    Comment by Yorky — September 14, 2012 @ 2:40 pm

  2. Thanks Doug, the brain is probably just softening…

    Comment by admin — September 14, 2012 @ 6:04 pm

  3. G’day Rob

    I ran across your blog a while back – can’t remember how – and have been very much enjoying it since. I’m particularly loving your commentary and the watercolours. Watercolour’s a medium I’ve always appreciated and one I aspire to improving at when time allows.

    As someone new to painting in general and currently using oils for class (diploma of fine art, haven’t learnt anything in painting class except my “teacher” hates pthalo blue), I was wondering what boards you use, how you prime them and how you deal with carrying them for en plein air painting?

    All the best, Nick

    Comment by Nick — September 16, 2012 @ 11:56 pm

  4. Hi Nick, Thanks for reading my waffle! The great thing with watercolour is that you need so little kit and once it’s dry you can be up and off. On the down side it is quite technically tricky. A way of getting into it is to do pen and wash. Do a pencil sketch, then wash in some colour, then define and accent with pen. Most people do the pen first but that is not the best way IMO as the washes lighten the pen and often you find you have put in too many lines.
    I have bad memories of having been “taught” art myself, artists are an egotistical bunch and often really only want their students to paint the same as they do. I use 3mm MDF boards which I seal with shellac and then prime a dull red for landscape or a dull green for figure work. Carrying wet boards is a real problem, I have seen many ingenious solutions but the easiest is to build a box into which the wet paintings slide, this does however constrain the size. Painting directly from life will teach you most of what you need to know about painting, the technical stuff tends to come as you seek solutions to difficulties as you go along. The key to it is drawing, draw every day from whatever takes your eye and you will get better, as simple as that, no art theory required!

    Comment by admin — September 17, 2012 @ 9:14 am

  5. Thanks for the considered response Rob. Much appreciated.

    Comment by Nick — September 17, 2012 @ 11:17 pm

  6. Great work as always, Rob – and thoughtfully presented. I quite like your response to Nick above too: “Painting directly from life will teach you most of what you need to know about painting”.

    Comment by Clay Harper — September 19, 2012 @ 8:09 pm

  7. if you want to produce more posts, you could just put one sketch per post, eheh. To me, sketching is what’s all about. Yours are done masterfully, precise and yet so light and never overworked.

    Comment by ugo capeto — October 2, 2012 @ 7:22 pm

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