Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

June 16, 2010

How I got to be a Painter Part 1

Filed under: — Rob Adams @ 9:52 am

What’s to tell?… born in the 50’s in Worcestershire, got the painting and drawing bug early on, worked as an illustrator, scene painter, modelmaker, set builder and in the last few years concept artist and designer. I’ve never been short of work so I must have done something right. Recently decided to throw away a successful career to paint pictures, cautiously travel a bit and garden. Whether this was a very bad move or not you will be able to read here… my final post will probably be from a vagrant shelter… I will possibly pad this page out… but then again maybe not.
Some padding this is 3 years later. The career seems reluctant to die, and in truth I enjoy doing the odd project and the money earned prevents me eating into my ever devaluing savings. I have managed to make painting my own pictures the main part of my endeavour and you may judge the success or otherwise of it by looking at my posts.
So, padding. I was born in a small village of Finstall in Worcestershire. My parents were solidly middle class both originally from the London area. They had come to live near Birmingham as my father had got work as a photographer for Cadburys the chocolate company. By the time I arrived in the early 50’s he had his own company doing publicity for local firms. He was a train buff and made a series of films for early television called Railway Roundabout.
My mother was a housewife and keen gardener. She was very interested in painting and took it up seriously in later life. It wouldn’t be too far fetched to say I am the man she made me. She had strong opinions and wide ranging interests, she did not suffer fools very easily. She had much on her plate with three boys and a domestically challenged husband to care for and feed. Feed literally as she grew much of what we ate. It is only now when I have an allotment and grow vegetables myself that I really understand the sort of task she undertook with few of todays domestic aids.
There was a considerable gap of four years between each of us siblings with me being the youngest. A gap too great to be bridged by play. There were few other children in the village so I was solitary from the start. My world was populated by wonderful imaginings instead of friends. Some people might feel this was a little lonely, but I never felt it so. In truth I have only ever felt loneliness when in the company of others. I am glad that I eventually made friendships, but it was not really until my twenties that I truly came to enjoy the great pleasures of fellowship. Even today though I am sometimes uncomfortable in large social groupings.
I made things from the very first, I was always constructing and building. My father had huge quantities of plastic slide boxes and I used them to build models of cathedrals complete with flying buttresses and vaults. Not so easy in slippery plastic boxes with no means of gluing or fixing.
Reading was of huge significance to me I read and read omnivorously. Much science fiction, but forays into literature as well. When I was 12 I set out on Proust, and read it all, I don’t remember a thing about it except that he loved his mum! It was the sci fi that really gripped me though and from them to Marvel comics which I now see were soaps dressed up as adventure. I wasn’t the biffing and bashing that gripped but the personal dramas.
What inspired me most though was the artwork, the covers on the books and the wonderful drawings in the comics. I almost drowned in all the material I absorbed, the real world was eclipsed.
Thats it for now.
Memory is an odd thing. Although all my childhood seems to be with me there are only bits and pieces like a movie trailer. I can dig into it though by asking myself questions. I can remember odd things such as the row of elms that I could see from my bedroom window. I would lie in bed half asleep and look at them silhouetted against the sky. When the wind blew they swayed and fought, it seemed to me, like strange beasts.
Of my first school there are only small snippets of what must have been a formative experience. I do remember I loved the painting lesson, but we all did I expect. Oddly the most telling event was wetting myself in art class and then deliberately tipping my painting water over my trousers. My first calculated lie at the age of 5 or so. It all went wrong and the teacher wasn’t fooled. It didn’t teach me not to lie, but it certainly taught me not to get caught lying!
I was very fortunate to have loving and eminently kind parents. We were always listened to and our opinions never scorned. Both my parents had good senses of humour and absurdity and my Mother especially taught me to never take anything at face value but to question things. Family outings were to castles and great houses, holidays by the sea in Wales. Walking and admiring the scenery with my parents probably in retrospect laid the foundation of my love of landscape and place. You need to be taught to look and take notice, a habit any artist needs if they are to succeed.
I suppose my immediate environment as a child had great influence. We never moved house, all was eminently stable and secure. The building was an old farmhouse made up of many ad hoc additions. It was surrounded by a large garden, half devoted to lawn and flowerbeds and the rest to vegetables.The village was mostly quaker and the neighbours were spinsters of a generation that was short of men due to the great war. They had old fashioned names like May and Lily though oddly if married or widowed they lost their first names and became Mrs Skinner or Mrs Ince. May Taylor was especially fond of me as she had delivered me when my mother unexpectedly gave birth before the doctor could arrive. In some part I became the apple of my mother’s eye due to the rapid and trouble free nature of my arrival which was reported as 30 min from start to finish!
It is hard to assess how these fragments made me me. We all feel we were just ourselves from the earliest of times. Although I am influenced the core of me and how would continue to be was established very early on and hasn’t really changed up to the present day. Stubbornness, another necessary trait for a painter, was there from the beginning. If I didn’t like my dinner I wasn’t going to eat it and that was that. As a result I sat at the table looking at my uneaten and by now cold dinner many times. Later at school I was quite prepared to be repeatedly beaten rather than give in.
School, there is a subject I am reluctant to cover. I hated it for the most part. It was a minor public school. Most of the teachers had fought in the second world war and were I now realise damaged to a greater or lesser extent by the experience. More than a few had a fondness for young boys that exceeded the bounds of their duties. Fortunately I was an unprepossessing child and so escaped such attentions. A pity in some ways as such formative experiences seem de rigueur for a tortured artist’s CV! Nonetheless school was like a hostile territory to be navigated afresh each day.
Lessons held no fears really. I was quite able and could succeed at anything if I chose. However if I did not like the teacher I would not choose. It seems strange to me that a school didn’t notice that a boy who had been top in French with one teacher, could the very next term be bottom with another. Once I inadvertently won the school prize. The next term I was mercilessly teased as a swot. This taught me a salutary lesson and I carefully avoided coming top in anything ever again.
Sport was another matter. I hated Rugby with a passion. I developed my own method of scoring. My aim was not to touch the ball in the whole game and very often I succeeded. To this day I enjoy one to one sports but loathe team sports. The exception was cricket which was brief bursts of sport punctuated by reading! Swimming was the other thing I hated. I was very skinny and didn’t float. The pool was essentially unheated so swimming was a torment of clinging to the bar shivering for half an hour. I eventually realised no one ever counted the boys, so I would ask to go to the lavatory and the exit via the window having snatched my clothes on the way.
Corporal punishment was frequent, but I can’t say it worried me overly. After I had honed my talents for vanishing into the background I was rarely beaten. Oddly these same talents are useful for a painter and to this day I can merge with the background so I can observe others unnoticed.
Art was the one bright spot in my schooling. The art class was taken by a Mr Faulkener, to whom I owe a lasting debt. Due to being good at maths I was put into a stream that did not do art as the lessons occurred at the same time. I think he spotted that I had potential so he taught me in a class of one in his spare time. It was really this period that started me down the road to art.
The school however did not believe that art was a career so combining the unusual aptitude for both art and mathematics it was decided I should be an Architect. A proposition both I and my parents accepted without demur! To that end I drew every cathedral and castle that came my way. It was somewhat of a disappointment when I discovered later that architecture was more to do with drains and car parks than cathedrals.
That’s school dealt with thank heaven. I will deal with what they term “further education” in the next instalment.
I went to technical college to do A levels. I had asked my father if I could leave school and do my A levels else where. I expected him to be reluctant but the prospect of no more school fees made his eyes light up! I did Art, Maths and Physics this being required to get into Bath to do Architecture. One of the big influences on me was the art teacher who went by the name of “Glam” as she was the very opposite of glamourous and always wore sensible tweeds. She encouraged me to draw buildings in pen and ink which became a passion. I now had a small motorbike and I would ride out to Tewkesbury or Ludlow to draw. That year I also went with my parents to France as my Father felt unaccountably rich due to the lack of school fees. This was life changing for me, I drew and drew. Unfortunately half way through I left my sketch pad on the roof of the car and many drawings were lost. The ones that remain though are some of my favourites from that time. A pause here I think.
Here we go again. Between A levels and college I had an involuntary year out which I spent lying down. Being 17 I was stupid enough to ride a motorbike into a car… nearly fatally. Though traumatic there is no doubt it improved my drawing and as I was in a public ward my social skills too. It also changed my direction. Before damaging myself I had worked for a short while in an architects office. I met a man there who was a fully trained architect and had spent 30 years mostly tracing drains off old drawings! So I decided to do a foundation course in art instead. My mother was very against this but my father, who had had to rebel against his parents to become a photographer when he was young unexpectedly backed my choice.
So somewhat the worse for wear and walking with sticks I arrived at Stourbridge College of Art. It was here that my first collision with “fine art” occurred. Foundation courses were designed so that you could have a go at all the different aspects of art. Printmaking, photography, even glassblowing were covered. However I essentially wanted to paint representational things. This according to the college meant I was an illustrator. If you wanted to paint a landscape then it could not be art unless it was abstracted.
I would like to report that I rebelled against this, but I found the whole thing more intriguing than annoying at that stage.There were many good things about the course. I did life drawing for the first time which I loved. I also learnt to use all sorts of woodworking equipment properly which was fantastic.The greatest pleasure was social though. I learned to drink and have fun, which was far more important than art!
In the end I decided to focus on fine art. To this day I am not sure why. I think it was because I made friends with members of the fine art diploma course and they just seemed to have the most fun. However I had a grave disability. I could draw quite skilfully. I showed my tutor Hugh some watercolours and pen drawings of buildings and people I had done. He said unless I stopped doing that kind of work I could not be on the Fine Art course, but would have to do illustration. To say I was gobsmacked would be an understatement. Skill, I was informed, was elitist and against the democratisation of art. Hugh admired Trotsky. I was very confused by this. On the one hand there were great and skilful artists in the past, who were to be admired, but if anybody did anything similar now it was worthless and bourgeois. I had no idea what that meant, I vaguely took it to be a blanket dislike of clever French people in furs.
I retreated in some confusion I have to admit. I had an abiding interest in all things geometrical so I began to do work that reflected that interest. This seemed to pass muster as it was about “ideas” which were apparently the most important thing. I could not help but notice that the most approved of students produced apparently meaningless work. One chap just dipped string in paint and snapped them on the canvas. Which looked pretty enough, but looked to me more like textile designs. Another just stretched up completely blank canvasses and pinned on the wall next to them a description of what the painting was to be. The painting itself was never done. He had a great breakthrough in the third term, he added a description of stretching the canvas and priming it to the rest and pinned it by a bit of blank wall. This was hailed as genius by the tutors.
Things all came to a head when choices of college were to be made. I chose Portsmouth and Sunderland, pretty much at random. Hugh said he did not feel there was any chance I would get into either and should consider something other than art. I remember being furious and determined to prove him wrong. I decided to focus on Portsmouth as they interviewed first. I looked up the tutors and managed to get to see some pictures of their work from Studio International magazine in the college library. I then proceeded to produce an abstract expressionist portfolio. I painted strips of net curtain in plain colours and glued them to a board in lengths randomly. then went over the edges in thick claggy paint. I also made smaller ones of gouache painted strips of paper glued to card. It took me 2 days.
Then I got my father to photograph the larger ones, ripping them apart and recombining them to create variations. He was baffled by this but quizzically amused and did as I asked. So I had my portfolio. A slide show of “larger pieces” and the gouache sketches to take with me. I look back with astonishment now at my doggedness to go to a college that if they saw the work I was most proud would have quickly rejected me. It was in retrospect dishonest and did my development as a painter a fair bit of harm.
With complete confidence I went to my interview and made all the right noises and mouthed the art guff that my tutor Hugh was fond of. To say they loved it was an understatement. They almost had orgasms over the torn edges, at one point the head of the college Martin actually fell off his chair. I was impressed by the fact that he carried on speaking without missing a word finishing his sentence lying on the floor. I returned home in a slightly confused state, maybe I really was good at this after all and my pretence had been reality!
I still remember my moment of triumph with Hugh. The results had arrived and I had been as I expected from the very positive interview it even had a hand written note from Jeff Steel on it saying that he looked forward to me being on the course. I took the envelope in to college and assuming a hangdog defeated air I wordlessly handed him the letter. He looked at me with some pity and said I could not have expected to get into such a prestigious course… then he read the letter. I’m sure I smirked horribly, but he was struck dumb, Jeff Steel was a systems painter and I later learnt one of his personal heroes.
Whew this personal history stuff is hard. Next art college and hippiedom.
Portsmouth. The college was in its own purpose built building in Lion Terrace. At first I was in the painting department, but there was no space. Not too concerned with this I set up on the floor in the corner. You had to get your canvas and make the stretcher. I now know they taught us incorrectly both how to stretch a canvas and how to prime it, but as you will hear technical excellence did not really figure in their world view. I set about painting a landscape. I still remember the tutors gathering in horror around it. Where was the abstract expressionist they had expected? The first year painting tutor used to periodically appear and point to my palette and say that there were some nice things happening there. Neither he nor anyone else commented on my painting. One morning I arrived and my painting was gone, and so was my place on the floor. When I asked they said the canvas would be reused and no they had no space for me.
I don’t remember being very upset which in retrospect seems odd. I think it was because I had discovered the life room and set up painting and drawing the model. This had to be in school type powder paint on paper as I was to be allowed no more paint or canvas from the store. I very much enjoyed painting away nonetheless and began to make real progress. Again no comment was ever made about my work except about the qualities of my mixing palette! However I was soon to be evicted even from the life room. I had ticked “Painting and Sculpture” in my application form. I was informed that I was now part of the sculpture department and painting washed their hands of me with obvious relief. I had lasted 3 weeks.
Again I don’t seem to have been put out. I don’t even remember complaining about my treatment to my peers. The sculpture department was a large building sticking out to one side They had great facilities, even their own foundry. Unlike painting there were very few students so space was not a problem. We were put in the capable hands of Howard Westmoreland who was a mould maker turned sculptor. He was a very skilled man and I think he had probably only been employed so that his skills would be available to the head of sculpture Geoff Smedley for the creation of his own work.
Howard set about the unenviable task of teaching us technical skills and I owe him a huge debt. I learnt to make part moulds in plaster and rubber. He was an expert at resin work as well. The foundry man was excellent as well having come from working in industry. Howard never to my knowledge made any comment about what I made only how it was to be made. I am astonished now how much of it all I soaked up. It all came in very handy later when I sculpted props for films and theatre. Howard was I suspect a very good teacher in his quiet way and a very nice and kind man.
I was here also that I made my first lifelong friends, I hit it off with Colin Johnston who had also got into the college under somewhat unusual circumstances his portfolio being lost in transit. I think if the full facts had been known the college would have declined the both of us! I am not going to go into personal details except where they relate to my artistic development. I know people love salacious details, but truly my life has been very short of them for which I can only apologise as it would make this account more racy! Colin and I shared a mutual love of underground comics. So soon we hatched a plot to publish our own. Colin had a natural, consistent and elegant graphic style that I much envied. I suppose there is no point in denying that we embraced the whole druggy Furry Freak Brothers scene! I already had hair down to my waist when I arrived at college so I was a shoe in for hippiedom.
Apologies for typos etc I will be retrospectively tidying this up, I did not really intend initially to go on at such length, but once you get started…

Really it was at that point the college ceased to influence me. I think the end for me came when I had to show my work in the college foyer. I had worked quite hard making some quite complex geometrical objects and filled half the space. We showed in pairs and the other student’s work consisted of a section of steel bar and a knobbly bit of green wax beside it.They discussed this bit of bar (unchanged from its initial state) for more than an hour. Referring to how it was honest to the material etc.The bit of wax which was meant to be a hedge didn’t seem to fit this premiss, but never mind. This was all she had achieved in her first term. When they came to look at what I had done the head of sculpture just said to me that I had along way to go and that this was a poor start. No criticism, nothing. Not that the work was of stellar quality, but I had tried.
I’m afraid I just set out after that to annoy and be an occasional thorn in their side. I concentrated mostly on doing comic strips and began the long hard road to teach myself the skills that I was not going to be taught at the college. The idea formed that I would be an illustrator. I bought an airbrush and set about learning to paint in gouache. The results of these endeavours are best passed over in silence! The end of college came almost unmarked. Literally in my case as I never bothered to go to my assessments. I had written quite a long thesis on the development of the visual language of comicstrips and it was mostly for this I much to my surprise received my degree.
So there I was degree in hand and nowhere to go. An opportunity arrived to move to London so I did. I had no money so squatting was the only option. This had the great advantage that I could have a whole room for painting. I worked my tail off in this period going twice a week to life drawing, studying anatomy and working on a portfolio to break in to the illustration world. The hard part was money as art materials are expensive. I solved this by not eating much, so I stayed 6ft 2in and only 9 stone which made it easy to hide behind lamp posts.
After a huge amount of labour I got what I imagined was a good set of work together and set out to conquer the world. I made an appointment to see the art director at what was then New English Library. My work was mostly quirky fantasy with a bit of sci-fi and some architectural pen drawings. The Art Director looked politely through my work and then went to a draw and pulled out a variety of cover work in the originals. The comparison was pretty devastating. Even the worst of them was way ahead of what I could do, the best of them just completely over the horizon. The guy was very kind and said my pen work was usable but I needed to get a lot better at the colour work. I left in shock.
I then went through a very hard period where each thing I painted was duly torn up and binned. The only thing that I made quite good progress with was a children’s book with pen and wash illustrations. I had taken on board that my pen drawings were my strong suit so this seemed a good next step. I did a few professional jobs for poster work, indeed a painting of Bob Marley is still doing the rounds, I have seen it on everything from matchboxes to T shirts! After nearly 2 years work I had another portfolio ready, in my heart I knew it was still not good enough though.
For the most part in those days you just left your portfolio and details at reception and then picked it up later. With the standard “We liked your work but no thanks.” letter attached. On one of these missions my portfolio was pulled from between my legs by a thief on the platform as the tube doors shut and 2 years work was mostly gone. Fortunately I did not have the work for the children’s book in there. So I decided to go and see Alan Larkin who was well known as the Editor of Fairies by Allan Lee and Brian Froud which I much admired. He was extremely nice to me and said although my work was not quite there yet he could see that if I stuck at it I would probably do well. He then took the time to go through the work pointing out where I needed to improve. He then said to come back and see him when I had done a few more things I was happy with. He also showed me some of Alan Lee’s watercolours and I died all over again!
You begin to see maybe how stubbornness is a prerequisite for art! I did as he said and next time he gave me the number of David Lewis an artists agent. I had left my portfolio with a few agents before but with no luck. Alan however rang up David on the spot and made the appointment for me! Now occurs one of those bits of fortune that every artist needs.
I had been making partial copies of illustrators I admired, and amongst these was one of an Edmund Dulac. The reference I had was black and white so I made up the colours. As an afterthought I chucked this in my portfolio with the rest. Davis Lewis was a small intense man very restrained, but his boyfriend and partner was a chain smoking gangly eccentric who owned two immense poodles which were dyed luminous pink! David looked through my portfolio politely, I could see he wasn’t all that impressed. When he came to the Dulac copy, they both fell about laughing. David went to his desk and brought out a folder and amongst them was that very Dulac. He had a job from a German porcelain company to adapt this and others from a square to round format as designs for collectable plates. Such is chance, I now had both a job and an agent!
Next life as an illustrator… I think a part two is needed. Part 2

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