Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 4, 2016

Keeping it fresh

One of my greatest concerns is getting stuck in a rut. I can think of nothing worse than churning out the same old but slightly different painting again and again. Commercially this is a very foolish attitude. Looking at successful artists many hit on a winning formula and then stick to it… I just saw a load of fresh stuff by Anthony Gormley, ‘eco porn’ the rather cynical half of me mutters. Don’t get me wrong they are attractive and pretty… innocuous even, but the man hasn’t moved on in decades, I would go stark staring mad rearranging autumn leaves into pretty patterns every year for a decade! Indeed that is what we were encouraged to do at college in the 1970’s, find your “realm of concern” and then stick with it. The only way to become a serious artist was to find something really dreary like welding rusty girders together and then do nothing else for forty years. The theory was that if an artist had been doing the same thing for decades they must be doing “important” work. Indeed if you hit 5o years of doing something mindlessly tedious, Bridget Riley springs to mind, then they will give you a bonanza retrospective in the Tate Modern!

I do have some sympathy, I am disturbingly fond of slow tedious work myself it is engrossing in a ‘digging a ten foot hole with a teaspoon’ sort of way. Your troubles melt away as you incrementally conquer a couple of square feet of delicate pen hatching. However for me a large part of being a painter is getting better, being able to do something in a way I couldn’t do before. Inevitably as you get older the degrees of improvement get ever smaller, but that is just relativity at work. When you know almost nothing then big steps up are easy and almost inevitable if you work at it, after forty years or more though each step up the hill becomes ever harder to make.

You can however make improvement a bit more likely with a bit of planning. The simplest way is to try something new. Recently I have set about doing some printing which is something I have never done before. Although it is early days it has already taught me something by the requirement to massively simplify, that is I find proving useful in my oil painting. As I might only have four tones to play with in a lino cut I soon found those tones needed to be very carefully chosen and extremely accurate relative to each other. What, I couldn’t help but wonder, would be the result if I took that much care in setting out an oil painting? The answer is it makes the painting better balanced and more coherent. I then took it a step further and removed most of the colour from my initial block in, using only warm or cool greys. This had the immediate benefit of telling you if your tonal structure is working, with the colour gone it is considerably easier to get the contrasts working properly.

I think this way of working will mean economies as well. On my last outing I mixed a set of three base greys each in a warm or cool version, these can be mixed from left over paint. Also they can be mixed with basic earth colours which are inexpensive, there is not much difference between a student quality yellow ochre and a premium one as the basic ingredients are very cheap.  With oils you can then “drift” colour in afterwards. The only hitch was in a few areas where I wanted a really clean hue I had to wipe off before applying fresh colour. I am setting off on a largish studio picture this week so I will see how the method works on a city scape. For landscapes it gives a unity that I have been struggling to find especially in the greens.

On another subject I have started a new painting group down here in Dorset called The Hardy Monkeys  as I cannot easily get up to London to paint more than once a month. Only the two of us on the first one but I dare say it will grow. I’ll start with our first outing…


Corfe Castle, dorset, pen and ink, drawing

The very wonderful Corfe Castle was our first venue. We didn’t have to go far to get  a great view. The light was poor but that is where pen and ink excels.


Corfe Castle, Dorset, watercolour, painting, art

A very quick watercolour sketch in my Moleskin, I have been neglecting my sketchbooks of late, so it was good to slap this in without too much planning. 7in by 5in watercolour.


Corfe Castle, oil painting, plein air, art

We drove this way and that to see what vies were available. The whole area has some great scenery aside from the dramatic gap and the castle so I will be going back to paint again. With this I blocked in with very muted colour and then added stronger tints by brushing in and mixing on the board. Slightly scary as when you first drop the colour in before brushing it around it looks miles to strong. One result of this method is that it is easier to allow your self room to punch up areas at the end to emphasise. It is all to easy to get into a position where you can’t go brighter, darker or stronger in hue, this approach makes that sort of cul-de-sac less likely. 14in by 10in oils.


rawlsbury camp, dorset, landscape, oil painting

This is the wonderful Rawlsbury Camp a bijou promontory fort from the Ironage. This was done from a photo and a watercolour. I used the structure from the photo and then referred to the mood and colour of the watercolour which is below. I didn’t quite stick to my greys approach but laid in with muted tones of greeny bluey grey. It was really interesting to do as more than a little imagination was required! In the end I put away both the photo ref and the watercolour and painted without reference. 16in b y 10in Oils.


Rawlsbury Camp, Dorset, watercolour, painting, plein air

Here is the watercolour mostly done on the spot. I didn’t stick exactly to the colour scheme as you can see. 7in by 5in Watercolour.


Maiden Castle, watercolour, art, dorset

Earlier the same day I sketched at Maiden castle. Such a strange landscape, I am going to have to find a different approach if I am to do it justice. 7in by 5in Watercolour.


Stourhead, oil painting, plein air, Wiltshire, art

An outing to the wonderful Stourhead in Wiltshire. The autumn colours were in full swing. Another new thing I am attempting is to paint plein airs a little larger. I have made myself a new painting rig that allows much larger boards while still being light… a painting kit nerdy post will feature next time! Again I didn’t quite have the courage to lay in completely in greys, all that colour turned my head! I didn’t notice much difference painting on a larger 20in by 16in board, I just used bigger brushes! The image above is cut down to 20in by 14in as I though it made a better composition. Oils.


Stourhead, painting, oils, plein air, wiltshire

Mostly used the greys to lay in. This is Stourhead again as the day ended. I had to be very fast as the light was very much on the move. Using almost no colour at first made the lay in very quick and easy and left me plenty of tonal headroom for bright accents. The dark reflection is a little too heavy but I will dry brush it back in a day or so. 14in by 10in Oils.


Shroton, oils, painting

At last I bit the bullet and laid in with just warm and cool greys! This is Shroton a village nearby. I had all my greys premixed in little pots. It was very hard to resist dipping into bits of colour but I resisted the temptation. This lay in only took 15 min, which was just as well as it was preparing to rain on me!


Shroton, Dorset, oil painting, art, plein air

Here is the finished painting. I intended to take snaps as I worked but got so involved I forgot alas. It was amazingly easy to drop colour in with only a few bits of the sky needing to be wiped back. The watery sunshine came and went until the rain started which was a bonus. 16in by 10in Oils.

That’s it for this post… more autumn to come I hope as the November light is gorgeous.

October 18, 2016


For an artist it is a bit strange to consider what might happen to a painting after it leaves your care. I suspect long dead artists would be bemused by what is said and paid for their works. Each painting carries with it a story, a bit of history true or false, that makes up its provenance. As well as this there is the story attached to the artist, which may or may not represent the true course of his or her’s life. The difficulty arises of course in that all this information is not actually attached to the physical work of art and the connection can get lost, forgotten or forged.

Where I wonder is the visual value of the work itself? Indeed it seems the actual appearance of a painting is of a lesser importance than the story attached to it. So you might have a terrible Monet (and there are plenty of pretty average ones) with a cast iron paper trail from artist to current owner and it would be worth far less that a brilliant painting by a lesser known soul. The fact that the Monet hung on the wall would disappoint and the other painting reward on every viewing seems irrelevant.

Paintings can fall from grace, a Van Dyke can be demoted to “School of” and the painting will be dismissed with a brief glance rather than admired. Again this is seemingly unconnected to the actual painting. What about the people who admired the picture before its fall from grace, was their aesthetic appreciation wasted… wrong or misguided? You can imagine after research a label being changed by a gallery assistant. A visitor who had been particularly taken with the painting could return ten minutes later for another look and might find that the “Van Dykeness” of the painting had evaporated!

I can only conclude that the only guide is your eyes and the less back story you know the better. All those words only obscure and don’t illuminate the actual object. They do change how we view a painting, but sometimes not in a useful way. It might be better indeed if galleries didn’t label pictures at all. The could just have numbers and if you liked a picture you could call up its known history.

With some painters the mystique of the artist completely overwhelms the artwork. Andy Warhol’s work I find after first impressions dreary and dull, like a quite good one liner repeated ad nauseam, but his story of decadence and nihilism and his place in his milieu is fascinating. Except for a very brief period Van Gogh’s was I feel pretty uninspiring, but his life story and monumental self pity make a great story.

Really we should be looking for those brief moments when an artist by some confluence of skill, inspiration and luck creates a masterpiece. This might be only once in a career, or indeed for most of us, never. It is fine to give extra admiration to artists like Rembrandt who scaled the heights more than others, but not alright to inappropriately elevate works where he fell short. It is unfair to the artist also. Imagine if you came back from the dead to find everyone admiring some complete stinker you painted!

I have got a bit behind with posting, I was vaguely thinking of splitting post into oils watercolour or prints but I think it is best to stick to a vaguely linear storyline. I vary between thinking I do too many different media to thinking I must try some others. Printing is occupying my thoughts a fair bit as it is new territory and now I have got started I begin to see all sorts of exciting possibilities. So I’l start with that.


Hammersmith Bridge, London, linocut, print

So this is a reduction print of Hammersmith Bridge. For those who are not linocutters the reduction method is where all the colours are produced with the same block. The palest colour is cut first and all the edition printed, then more of the block is cut away for the next colour. So all the colours overlay. I based this on a plein air rather than the photo of the same scene as the painting already had a simplified tonal scheme and I did not want it to be too precise. Next I am going to attempt a double reduction print where two plates are cut away to produce one image.

It is holiday time and this year I went to Newport, the one in Pembrokeshire  Wales. As the holiday was a social one only a few scribbles got done, but I came back with plenty of photos and ideas.

White Sands, pembrokeshire, wales, watercolour, plein air

This is literally 20 min splashing away at Whitesands near St Davids. The wind was so brisk that holding everything was a nightmare. I had to hold down my palette with my food to prevent it taking to the air! It is also quite tricky when the wind is constantly fluttering your paper. The odd thing is though that when painting outside all this somehow adds to the result. The impossibility of being precise made me just go for the brilliant autumn light, which was really all the scene needed. 7in by 5in watercolour.


Hambledon Hill, dorset, hill fort, watercolour, painting

On my return I was determined to get up Hambledon Hill which is directly behind my house. I do not go and sketch up there enough. I decided the very end of the day would be best and very lovely it was. It is one of those scenes though that looks astounding to the eye but is very hard to translate into a painting. I settled on this as it had great flowing structure. 7in by 5in Watercolour.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, blackmoor vale, watercolour, painting

I started this more in hope than expectation. I couldn’t get into a position where the hill would figure in the composition so I just did a square on job attempting to catch the light. I must start to mark down compositions on the hill I like and return to them, rather than trying to find a new picture each time. 7in by 5in Watercolour.


Old Harry, Dorset, cliffs, sea, oil painting

At last a chance to sit down and get some studio pictures done. I wanted to do an oil of Old Harry based on the drawing I had already done. Remembering how nice it was how the cliffs came out of the blue on the paper in the pen drawing I wanted to do the same here but more dramatically. After drawing out I spent a lot of time mixing the tone base of the sea. It had to be dark enough to allow the cliffs to be brilliantly lit, but light enough to take dark reflections. Once I had decided on a tone I swept it right across using a 2in brush and then wiped out the bits where the stacks were to go. I don’t take this approach often enough really. It does have some disadvantages though as it can look too slick and pat, which is why I usual paint round rather than through. But in this case it worked well. 16in by 10in oils.


Newport Bay, Pembrokeshire, wales, oil painting

Here is the first of the Welsh ones. This is the view over Newport Bay which I have painted many times before. It is one of those views I always find something new in. It would be great to do a whole series through the seasons. I love the tone of the greens this time of year they become a warm olive colour which was a great contrast to the hillside where the grasses and bracken were already in there autumn colours. 16in by 10in oils.


Newport sands, beach, wales, pembrokeshire, oil painting

This is Newport sands, wonderfully reflective as the sea had only just withdrawn. Scanning makes it rather more contrasty than it really is, it is very hard to catch subtleties in images to go on line. 12in by 12in Oils.


Porthclais Harbour, wales, pembrokeshire, oil painting

I started this picture of Porthclais Harbour near St Davids thinking the distance and wedge of sky was the main thing. The painting soon informed me I was wrong and the water was the main event!  16in by 10in oils.

That is all for Wales, I find it very hard to paint from reference after the memory of the real place fades.


Hambledon Hill, dorset, hill fort, oil painting

Hambledon Hill again. This was done the next evening after the earlier watercolour. I had intended to do the same view but decided to try to catch the milky light. Not helped by the fact I forgot my brush roll so only had a 1in sable that was in the bottom of my bag left over from life drawing. Still the soft brush was oddly appropriate and allowed me to drag in the subtler tones in broad strokes. 16in by 10in Oils.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, oil painting, hill fort

Last one, a studio oil based on my earlier watercolour. I had to put away the watercolour in the end as this became quite a different painting. I decided in the end what I wanted to do was contrast the texture on the foreground right with the hazy smoothness of the distance. Quite pleased with the result as it emphasises the wonderful flow that the hill has. 24in by 12in Oils.



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