Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

March 21, 2018


Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 9:56 pm

How important is history and context to art? Last night I watched a documentary that plainly thought context was everything. Simon Schama in the series Civilisation was of the view that art, specifically contemporary art, was fulfilling a visceral need and helping us come to terms with our lot of living in a deeply flawed and unjust world.

Fine sentiments, but where was the evidence for this? Well millions of people visiting to look at the stuff that is surely a good solid fact. So if we take Tate Modern which draws in 5.5 million per year, it sounds a lot doesn’t it? However London receives 19 million tourists per annum so most Tate visitors are in this category. We actually don’t know how many visitors are Londoners, very few I suspect. How many of these visitors gain some sort of moral solace from their visits? I would propose almost none. The numbers gaining gastronomic satisfaction in the cafe could be much higher I might suggest.

There are 60 odd million souls in the UK so how many of these are being reached? The answer is of course vanishingly small. If there really is this deeply seated need that Mr Schama went on about, almost none are getting it satisfied by looking at contemporary art. It is worthwhile considering that the three most popular soaps gain an audience of 1050 million people a year which pretty much dwarfs the art figures IE one 200th.

We are plainly, on average, not too keen on getting our art fix. Could this be because it is largely irrelevant to our lives? I am by the way not claiming any extra relevance for old art, it manages much the same sort of figures with the national gallery coming in at 6.5 million. So Art with a capital A is not important to us as a nation at all. It is only viewed by a vanishingly small elite, even more minuscule if we remove the casual tourist drop-ins and only consider the serious art viewers. So what sort of visual eye candy is enriching the average UK citizen’s eye on a day to day basis? Well a front runner must be packaging. Packaging is probably the most message heavy and art heavy imagery that crosses our visual field on a day to day basis.

Mr Schama was keen on showing artists that were, he thought, dealing in hard subjects of injustice and oppression. However you need to look more critically than Mr Schama who is too keen on greasy schmoozing with the artists to engage any critical faculties. There was a bit of work about refugees by Ai Weiwei. A huge black inflatable filled with black inflatable refugees. An interesting object, but does it make us any wiser about the plight of refugees? Who benefitted from its making and display? I suspect not the refugees in any practical way. Ai Weiwei and the galleries seem the greatest beneficiaries. I am not sneering at the artist’s efforts or questioning the worthiness of his intent, it is just that the making of the art has and can have no real bearing on the tragedy, it just feeds on it. If there were no tragedy there would have been no art and the object is meaningless once its context is removed and the tragedy forgotten. Imagine the same object bright pink and in a shopping mall.

Mr Shama hasn’t a critical bone in his body though. Another Chinese artist did forgettable stuff with gunpowder… I can’t even be bothered to look him up. The process and results were in my opinion laughable, a side show at best, all bang and no buck. The relevance of it all to big ideas and what it was meant to be commenting on were vague too. Our host oozed wonder and sycophantic praise at the results, which I have to admit infuriated me so much it made me shout at the telly.

In the initial program (I watched them in the wrong order) dealing with the first signs of ancient art underlined his poor thinking and dogmatism. When looking at cave drawings in Spain he averred: “These were not just works of art, but works of memory.” Her states this as a certainty. In his world our ancestor looked at the buffalo on the plain, fixed it’s aspect in their no doubt deeply shamanic mind and then scuttled down into the depths to draw these distinctly realistic looking bison. So did our ancient predecessors only make such images in caves? It seems more likely that the only surviving ones are in caves and they actually used such imagery elsewhere above ground too. Yet as artists we know that practice makes perfect… so the cave artist must have sketched on slate or bark, or skin to gain the facility to make the marks. It seems likely the artist looked at bison while doing this… it would be silly not to. Why would they not take sketches down with them? Alas no, Mr Shama believes in the magic man, it surely it could not be anything as prosaic as practice and observation producing these ritual images. Well the drawings look exactly the same as observed drawings do, so it seems perverse to propose they are anything other than just what they appear to be.

Indeed Shama seems to believe in the “an artist is a special person” theory in his bones. For him artists are there looking at the big picture, warning and chiding us to become better people. A sort of priesthood of whistle blowers calling time on man’s inhumanity to man. A race set apart seeing our weaknesses from a lofty height. Seeing significance that other poor mortal eyes cannot distinguish. Why poor old artists should be lumbered with this role rather than plumbers is beyond me. Throughout history artists have, as far as I can see, not attempted to undertake this role merely because it is not the best medium to communicate ideas or moral standpoints. Writing and speaking are the weapons of choice in this arena, not paint. Of course they have frequently been asked to “sell” moral stand points for others, but that is just a job of work.

The second in the series on the human form in art hosted this time by Mary Beard could not have been more different. She had real insights as the the connection between the objects and the cultures that produced them. She stressed that the figures on Greek vases were everyday things bringing small pleasures to people in their everyday lives. Where Mr Schama is dogmatic and so sure he himself exists on a morally superior level, Ms Beard is full of may be’s and might be’s, alive to the ambiguities rather than trumpeting personally held certainties

In the third programme Shama makes his portentous way through my own speciality, landscape. He writes well, he is eloquent, but he is also a fantasist, drunk on his own mellifluous words. He is like one of those old Disney wildlife programmes which constantly tries to see animals in a humanised anthropomorphic manner. He is, you might say, more Johnny Morris than David Attenborough. He wants to shoehorn contemporary concerns and intentions into historical painter’s minds. I suppose because he cannot imagine any other mental landscape or feels that because they were artists they must have thought that way even though none of them mentioned it at the time. A survey of landscape that misses out both Impressionism and the earlier topographical revolution in Britain is in any case fatally flawed in my view. Where was Claude Lorraine, or Constable we wonder?

I was naive in thinking it could not get worse. His meditation on colour was verbal diarrhoea, with him gurning franticly at the camera as his mostly unfounded flights of verbal fantasy were expounded. He knows almost nothing it would seem of the craft of painting. He cannot look beyond the febrile visions it produces in his own head. Never thinking for a moment that the artists and others might have differing experiences. Such is the peril of an overinflated ego.

He confuses of course the making of art with the consumption of art. An art object may of course become iconic or shamanic at any point after it is made, but this happens after the artist has dealt with all the practical aspects. The artist does not imbue an object with any iconic significance, the viewer does. We know this really, if we put Ms Emin’s bed in a twenty something’s bedroom it is prosaic. If we put it in a gallery it is significant. The bed is the same in both instances so it is the act of putting it in a gallery that added the iconic element. The actual making of the thing was irrelevant. You might say it is Ms Emin’s decision to exhibit it that was the art act. However if we consider Sigmund Freud’s famous couch, now in his museum. Which it seems to me could be considered to be an iconic object in very much the same way as Ms Emin’s bed is. Since he bought it he was the person who is responsible for its current placement and context. Now we would not think Freud was a visual artist, or indeed the couch maker, or the upholsterer. It’s significance is entirely created by the viewer and by the viewer’s prior knowledge of Freud.

There is of course no real problem with Simon, and no doubt most of his viewers, believing in fairy stories. It is however a problem if artists begin to believe it themselves. As with storytellers artists must stand at a distance from the tale they tell. Do not confuse the inner music of a musician with the landscape created by the music in a listener’s mind.

Well I’m glad to get that off my chest. Time to catch up on the watercolours…

Dorset, watercolour, painting, plein air

I was here at the wrong time of day really. It does not look like it, but 6in behind my backside when I painted this is the A350… immanent threat of death by lorry certainly makes you paint fast! I have seen this view look so magical but it has to be 6am on a misty day. 9in by 6in watercolour.

Child Okeford, watercolour, painting, Dorset

In Child Okeford this is often my view in the morning coming back fro the shop with my pint of milk and a paper. I often looks wonderful so I thought I had better paint it. A very simple watercolour done in two colours and only about 4 tones. 10in by 6.5 in Watercolour.

Eggarden Hill, Dorset, watercolour, painting

This is the view from Eggardon hill. Quite a complex subject but a simple method. I painted all the shadow areas first taking as much time as it needed. Then I laid the colour washes over the top in big areas allowing them to wash back some of the initial shadows. Lastly I strengthened a few of the nearby darks. 10in by 8in watercolour.

The Stour, Dorset, river, flood, watercolour, painting

Another one with the traffic uncomfortably close! This is the river Stour in full spate. I had to stand on a narrow bit of concrete on the bridge so a little rushed, but I have some great photos so I hope to do a studio one in a while. 10in by 7in Watercolour.

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour, painting

I can never resist this view of Hambledon Hill, it is one of those scenes that transforms dramatically with the light. Every time I pass I stop to admire it and if it looks good and I have time I paint it. 10in by 6in Watercolour.

Corfe Castle, Dorset, watercolour, painting

This and the next one were done from phone snaps, but are of an interesting vantage point of Corfe Castle. A great spot and the land owner has said he is happy for us to paint there so I will be back! 14in by 7in Watercolour.

Corfe castle, Dorset, watercolour, painting

Last one hard to believe this is only a few yards from the previous view. I must go back at some differing times of day to see how it changes. 14in by 7in Watercolour.

March 4, 2018

Failure and Success

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 11:08 am

We all know when a painting has gone very wrong, mostly we are pretty clear when we have triumphed against the odds. Which leaves all the ones that fall somewhere in-between. I have been reviewing my oil paintings for the year and reckon that out of about 140 oil paintings 33 fall into the successful bracket. 40 fall into the sand them off and reuse the board category. I must note that the truly cataclysmic ones got wiped off immediately! This is the way it is if you mostly paint plein air, you just have to accept that any day out painting has only a 30% chance of producing a decent painting. Anyone doing the maths on the above will conclude that 60 odd pictures fall into the, “Not completely sure about this one.” bracket.

So how do I judge whether it’s a goodun or a baddun or an inbetweenun? I wish I could say and promptly type in a wise, pragmatic rule of thumb method of assessing your own efforts to help beginners and others who meet the same issue. Well I can’t. I find it excruciatingly difficult to judge my own paintings outside of the very obvious winners and losers. I can always see good bits and so so bits in any painting I do, but often what stops the whole from working is extremely hard to pin down. It might be so underlying like a boring composition, so you have a decently painted but unexciting picture. Some are a little easier in that they have a part that is either distracting from or otherwise letting down the rest of the show. These go on my surgery pile. The really hard ones are the ones that there is something worrying me about it but I cannot put my finger on what might make the painting come to life.

How about, “Ask a friend.”? Well another brave painter I know made a Facebook group where we can put up the puzzlers and have another less emotionally involve eye assess the problems. I had previously floated this idea myself and received such sweepingly negative feedback that I didn’t do it myself. Painters it would seem are nervous of the opinions of others and would prefer not to hear. I am not unsympathetic with this as in my teens and early 20’s before I worked in the commercial arena if anyone voiced a doubt on any drawing I would immediately rip it up. Thank heaven I next worked on commercial jobs where the option wasn’t a practical possibility and in the commercial world you would receive negative feedback as a matter of course. Fortunately this soon broke me from a childish habit. At first I would argue with the client, but in later years this was reduced to a brief whine and a sulk!

So why are we so touchy? I think it is because in daily life to get on with each other we try to be polite. If you go to dinner and the host’s cooking is less than the full Delia Smith we smile anyway and lie about how much we are enjoying it. You always answer the, “What do you think of my new hairdo?” question with a peon of praise rather than mentioning that you have seen more stylish mops propped up in janitor’s buckets. We know instinctively it is kinder to let such poor souls continue life in a happy delusion rather than force them rudely into depressing reality. So it is with pictures and painters.

I have over the years tried various cunning methods of slipping a helpful suggestion past someone’s guard. One is to heap praise on various other aspects of the daub before mentioning the defect. It doesn’t work. You could spend an hour outlining the genius of the painter, the astounding masterfulness of every aspect of the work, you can bemoan your own inadequacy and express envy at their having painted such an astounding picture that the whole of western art might have to be rethought. This will all be received with an ever smugger expression or various insincere, “Oh you are just saying that!” and “Surely not.” protestations.

Then you say, “It’s only a tiny, tiny thing but I’m not too sure about that slash of bright yellow in the foreground…”

As the “but” hangs in the air the sunshine immediately darkens and thunderclouds roll in. The previously cheerful bubbling springs promptly dry up and the warm limpid pools before them freeze over.  The ice that has instantly appeared under foot cracks menacingly. If any piano is playing at that moment it ceases leaving a discord hanging in the air and every head in the vicinity turns towards you. You look down and like Wile E. Coyote you have walked off a cliff and the canyon bottom is 2000ft straight down. Yes the mood has changed, all the positives evaporate like spit on a red hot frying pan. You have dared to be NEGATIVE. As we all know it is now a sin to be negative in any way. Positive thinking is espoused in books devoted to the subject. I used to go to brainstorm meeting where any negative comment was forbidden however stupid the idea put forward. Any possible failure must be described as “deferred success”.

All this is a pity really. We still have advice and criticism of course, but this must be in a clearly defined “teaching” context. So the best advice I can offer here on this subject is to learn to put some kind of emotional distance between you and your work. I know. I know. Your work is the expression of your innermost soul and you have torn off your skin to expose your quivering flesh to the unkindness of existence. None the less a little emotional distance will allow you to determine whether you have painted an existential cry of despair from a primeval man trapped in a mechanised universe, or a pitiful squeak from a pampered mammal in the grip of affluenza.

Corfe, castle, oil painting, Dorset, Rob Adams

I have had this 36in by 12in canvas stretched up for a while… it even had a frame but I couldn’t quite come up with anything to paint on it! I decided in the end on this wide view of Corfe. What I attracted me to it was the way the tones that described the light subtly changed from left to right. I arrived at its current state intending to go further but in the end decided not. If I hadn’t had the frame to check the effect in I might well have resolved it more. Oils.


Studland bay, Dorset, sea, oil painting, plein air, Rob Adams

A great day out by the sea. This is Studland Bay. The tide was lapping at my boots by the time I finished! The underside of the waves was the most intriguing tone and I had to have several goes at mixing it. 14in by 10in Oils.


Dancing Ledge, seascape, plein air, oil painting, Dorset, Rob Adams

I toiled out through the mud to Dancing Ledge after, only a sketch really as the time and light was rapidly on the move. I took a set of photos as the light fell away which might make a studio picture in due course. Sometimes there is no real time to consider composition, if I had had more time I would have walked too and fro to check different aspects of the scene, in real life though if I had actually done that the light would have gone and I would have had no painting at all. It is a bit of coast I need to walk this bit of the coast more so I know which bits might make a good painting. If the light is looking good you can then go directly to the spot with no messing! 16in by 10in Oils.


Beaminster, oil painting, Dorset, plein air, Rob Adams

This is Beaminster on a beautiful crisp morning. I was perched on an awkward corner with the passing Range Rovers trying to drive over my toes. After doing this I promptly came across a better view just round the corner. I might come back to this one though, I quite fancy trying to get a square crop. The sky was the most amazing flat blue, I was temped to add some clouds but in the end just left it as it was. 12in by 10in Oils.


Beaminster, plein air, oil painting, Dorset, Rob Adams

Up in the hills a bit south of Beaminster, lovely slanting light that was only there for a moment then gone. I soldiered on anyhow but really I was painting a fading memory rather than what was in front of me. I should have just stopped and restarted! 14in by 10in Oils.


Old Harry Rocks, Dorset, cliffs, coast, oil painting, Rob Adams

Entertainment for a wet afternoon. I couldn’t settle down to paint so I set about preparing a few boards. I had one which was of Lyme Regis that I had had hopes of and even made a frame for but I couldn’t get it to work from the information I had. So I sanded off Lyme Regis and as I did so a ghost of Old Harry rocks appeared. I then remembered I had started en plein air blocking in a picture of Old Harry on this board… having blocked it in I decided I didn’t like the composition… and started again on a 16in by 10in board- hence the ghost. My studio self quite liked the wider view so I dug out the photos from the day and set to. I remember struggling with the chalk cliffs on the other version so I experimented with using the knife on this one. I rarely use a palette knife except to scrape back so I am not as deft with the instrument as I might be. One reason I don’t often use a knife to apply paint is I don’t like impasto in dark or shadow areas, so I just used it in the lightest areas in the centre of interest. I found it hard to shake off the memory of the previous painting but quite pleased with the result. 20in by 10in Oils.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, plein air, oil painting, Rob Adams

The day before painting this I had walked up on Hambledon Hill with a friend and noticed the light was perfect for painting. So as the next day was sunny I ascended at the same time with my paints. The light was glorious but the wind meant I had to hang on to everything as I painted. Still I rather like this viewpoint, it is harder than you might think to get a satisfactory picture out of the hill. It is so expansive and dramatic that you always feel you have failed to catch its essence. 16in by 10in Oils.


Shillingstone Station, Dorset, plein air, oil painting, snow

Snow at last! This is the slightly surreal Shillingstone Station. The line is long gone so it only has a 200 metres of track. I found I had made a slightly painful choice as it was rather exposed as you can see by the snow blown in lines across the platform… Also there was fine snow blowing in the wind that got over everything. Due to all this I only got 20min before it got too painful and I had to escape, still after a tidy up it has an interesting atmosphere the light is quite unique in a blizzard! 10in by 6in Oils.


Child Okeford, plein air, snow, oil painting, Dorset

A view across the fields on my way back to Child Okeford. I liked the way the wind had blown the powdery snow into any dip, bringing out the shapes in the ground. I did this in a very brisk 15 min as conditions had got worse and the snow was threatening a genuine blizzard! 10in by 7in Oils.


Child Okeford, snow, plein air, Dorset, oil painting

I wasn’t going to do another but saw this odd line the path made in the field and thought I could get it down quickly. Ha! It longer than both the others and I nearly died of the cold. Painting large areas of nothing much is the hardest thing to do and the field seemed to take forever. Still the effort was worth it as it is my favourite of the day. 10in by 7in Oils.


Fontmel Down, Dorset, snow, oil painting

It had well and truly snowed overnight so I had to go and attempt to paint it. I didn’t think I would be able to get to paint Fontmel Down as the roads were very bad, but heroic farmers had cleared some roads up the hill and my car is a 4 by 4. I had thought the painting on the station was painful but this was on another level. The cold wind was like having knives driven into my face! All I could manage was to block in the basic tones before I ran whimpering back to the car. Mind you the great thing with snow is the way it simplifies the scene so it did not take a great deal to finish off. I’ll do a studio one of this I think as would like a wider view. 10in by 6in Oils.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, oil painting, snow

Last snowy one. On my way back with the snow threatening to close in again I saw this and after checking the wind decided to give it a go. After drawing out I blocked in all the snowy bits whilst carefully leaving any dark areas uncovered. Once done the painting looked more or less complete so I packed up and added a few brown and purply tones over the remaining bits of ground back in the studio. The warm priming works surprisingly well for snow pictures. On all of these I blocked in the pale tones leaving the darks. I takes a little longer leaving the darks but looks much better than trying to lay the darks over underlying lights. 10in by 8in Oils.


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