Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

March 13, 2014

Style

This is something that has caused me a certain amount of grief. Many years ago I was warned by a really well known illustrator that a very distinctive personal style was often a problem. He pointed out that once you had established and were known for a distinctive style you wouldn’t be asked for anything else. What is more if your style was a hit and then went out of fashion you were left high and dry with very little work.

This in the event was not a problem for me. I am a born mimic and can usually paint in most styles in a reasonably convincing way. Indeed a lot of my illustration work came with the requests like, “Could you do this in whatshisname’s style as he isn’t available.” I became quite useful and garnered a fair bit of work on this basis. It broadened the range of skills that I had which was I suppose a plus.  The disadvantage was that I didn’t develop much of a distinctive personal style myself! I would have an idea and think that it would suit this style or that, swopping between them as if changing hats.

This problem was brought into focus when I started to paint pictures for myself not for commission. At first my acrylics were so varied in style that if they were hung on the wall side by side nobody would guess they were by the same painter! In watercolours I had more to build on as I had been filling small sketchbooks for years with topographical paintings from holidays etc. Here at least my style was reasonably consistent. With oils however I tended to swing between the finished and sketched or the broad and the detailed. Looking at my wall of recent paintings I do at last see a style emerging, which has led me to think on it further.

I now think the matter of style can be a very thorny issue. The same problem occurs with easel painters as it does with illustrators. If your style is very distinctive, say you outline most things with a primary or some such, then if you stop that practice then the pictures won’t be what people expect of you. Also you will only be able to do such pictures where that particular quirk works well. A subtle misty mood for example would be nigh on impossible. You have in essence painted yourself into a cul de sac, you can only paint the subjects that suit your style.

It happens I think because people wish to reprise past successes. They paint a nocturne which is very much of a hit and thereafter do nocturnes until they turn up their toes!

Looking back at art history you can see examples of artistic type casting. De Chirico is quite a good one. He became famous for his surreal paintings, but later in life attempted to paint in a more classical manner. (much to the horror of art historians who really don’t like you to step outside your box!). He came to the other style without the required skill and so visibly struggled. The technical hurdles of drawing, observation and paint handling for the classical inspired work being far higher than for the surreal ones. No one really wanted his new work so he had to keep on knocking out the old surreal stuff to make a buck. The problem for De Chirico was he had become type cast, his style had become a straight jacket that imprisoned him. De Chirico is laudable I feel because he at least tried to throw off the chains. Other artists having established their own comfortable little walled garden never thereafter step beyond its bounds.

Another example would be Samuel Palmer, in his youth he had mental problems and painted in a visionary style. But later he settled on to a more even keel and painted in a fairly straight observational manner. In both styles he is very good, but due to the existence of his hallucinatory and romantic early work the later efforts will never be really appreciated. Indeed books on him often only feature later work briefly at the end!

Other painters, just peg away at the same dreary stuff year after year. Oddly the art world gives brownie points for dogged persistence. If you spend 30 years arranging pine cones into mandalas in the depths of Siberia it must they argue be more than a passing phase. I can’t imagine what a dreary existence it must be to be someone like Bridget Riley knocking out the same Op art tedium year after year. Mind you she no longer bothers to do them herself but has helpers do the donkeywork. Not that the end results aren’t very decorative, but I’d prefer to have a William Morris on my wall any day!

So I now feel that too strong a personal style is a bit of a handicap. We all hope to be different and noticed but in a world where everybody is trying to be just that, different becomes the new same. What you hoped might separate you from the crowd does just the opposite. The real rare thing in life and art is not someone doing something different but someone doing something really well.

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Greenwich, Royal Hill, pen and ink, Drawing, London

 

I have as I believe mentioned before decided to draw more in pen and ink. This is already paying dividends as by reducing your  choices of tone and mark you are forced into finding ways of explaining your subject that only require line and tone. With such a limited menu of marks everything has to earn its keep. Hatching with its strength order and direction becomes very important. If you do a building wall in just vertical lines then it becomes dead and featureless. In real life there are many variations so if you break up mostly vertical lines with the odd angled group then you are showing both that it is vertical and flat but also that it is varied in its surface. For a smooth concrete wall you would add very few disruptions, for a worn dirty tenement far more.

This is Royal Hill in Greenwich. I have decided that dip pens though lovely are too much to fight with en plein air so this is done in fibre tip. I am using a watercolour Moleskin as I quite like the fact that if you move the pen quickly you get a faded dotty line.

St Pauls, London, City, Pen and Ink, drawing

 

Another one, quite a fearsome subject but it only took about an hour to render. It is one of the hardest things to learn to leave enough white to allow the subject to breath. In reality the sky was much darker than the sunlit dome but IMO the drawing would not have been improved by hatching the sky area.

Greeenwich, Royal Naval Hospital, watercolour

A very quick sketch done battling the wind. It was a super day with wonderful light, hopefully I will get some studio pictures from the day. This is the entrance road to the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich. It is now a music college so you draw to the sounds of music issuing from various windows!

Watercolour 5in by 7in.

Blackheath, London, Oil Painting

 

This is Blackheath, painted on an early morning expedition with Graham Davies. I had spotted this subject looking very beautiful several times but never been able to stop. I have to sort out the figures as they make an “M” it is odd how things like this can strike you several days later when your eye passes over a painting.

Oils, 10in by 14in.

Fleet St, London, City, Urban, Oil painting, plein air

 

This was done on the most gorgeous day with the Brass Monkeys. We arrived at dawn and were faced with the most astonishing light. The problem with painting at dawn is that the subject starts out gorgeous and then gets less so as the light increases. As result this had to be painted very quickly. I am attempting to paint a little bigger so it was the first serious outing for my new larger pochade. I must say it worked very well, I was surprised that painting a notch bigger did not really take that much more time. This is St Pauls from Fleet St. I will do a studio painting from this but decided not to work up the sketch any further.

Oils 12in by 16in

St Pauls, London, plein air, oil painting

 

The next one of the day. I had textured my board more than I usually do as an experiment. It works well but I got it a mite to strong I shall have to experiment to find a prime finish that suits me. Up until now I have been painting on quite smooth boards. Which is quite difficult but good for you as the brush strokes must be well thought out. But for this sort of atmospheric subject a textured surface works better.

Oils 12in by 12in.

St Pauls, Oil painting, London, plein air

 

I don’t know what kind of coffee I had early that morning but I painted like a demon all day! Partly it is being out with a group of fellow painters which is very pleasant and inspiring. Another that would be worth taking into the studio. As I posted this I noticed the tower cutting the sky was too strong so had to stop typing briefly to soften it! St Pauls again, which means I did it 4 times in the day!

Oils 12in by 20in.

February 24, 2014

On Beauty

A risky topic I suspect and rather an unfashionable one too. Roger Scruton wrote a book on it recently which I must read. You cannot say what beauty is any more than you can define joy,  love or indeed art. Concepts that are intensely personal are prone to be abused by people in arguments because due to the flexibility and nebulousness of their definitions they can be used to make points that cannot be argued against. The argument will go for example that in a particular circumstance anything can be beautiful. The weakness in these arguments is I think that a cleanly defined beautiful/not-beautiful, art/not-art boundary is assumed. However such phantasms of the human spirit can be brought more into focus even if they are not subject to an outright definition. We can for example say that for the most part we find regular faces more pleasing than ones deformed from the norm. There is a lot of research in that area that shows we like the facial features to be symmetrical and averaged. The images of many faces overlaid and blended are disconcertingly beautiful and show that we are looking for differences from the norm as a way of deciding genetic worthiness/unworthiness.

This does not always follow with real encounters of course. Someone might have a face that is transformed by character and animation. Nonetheless perhaps our underlying assessments of beauty are slanted towards the reassuring. We might admire a verdant and peaceful landscape or a dramatic mountain scene, but we might assign them differing types of beauty. For an arable farmer the verdant land would be attractive as a home whereas the rugged mountain less so. Our farmer might find them both beautiful but in contrasting ways. It is quite plain to me that the early cave painters found beauty in the animals they hunted that went beyond the straight forward desire for a successful hunt.

Thus we are immediately mired in the boggy land of the aesthetic. Hurrying on the heels of aesthetics come those who would tell us what is fitting/fashionable and what is not. Currently beauty and decoration are very much off the menu. We are supposed to like the sparse. Our dream apartments have empty spaces, plain surfaces and white walls. I cannot help but wonder if this is perhaps a choice caused by hoovers rather than aesthetic concerns! When designing exhibitions of decorative items from historical times we place them in sparse minimal cases. To me they always look a little sad in such soulless arrays, like butterflies pinned in drawers. They seem like items in a shop rather than exhibits in a museum intended to fire our imaginations.

In architecture beauty has been completely outlawed it sometimes seems. There is little built that moves beyond the grim utilitarianism of financial objectives and cupidity. When decorative items are used they are plastic panel doors with cartoon graining, the result is depressing rather than uplifting. Architects generally seem to be comfortable with repetition but not rhythm. Being uplifting and enriching our daily lives is, we seem to have forgotten, the whole point of decoration. In furniture we are in the thrall of anally retentive Scandinavians or those who wish to emulate them. I am not totally in disagreement, bad decoration is indeed often worse than none. Alas because we don’t do much training in the area of decoration the few examples that do appear are for the most part weak pastiche cobbled together from found images using photoshop. The decorative arts were once a big thing and lauded, why this is no longer true is a puzzle.

The only real thing I can think of is the advent of mechanical production. We have adjusted our aesthetic to suit the available means of production, maintenance and distribution rather than the other way round. We perhaps associate the hand made with the crudeness of DIY, some hand made objects seem to need to advertise their handmadeness by adding rusticity or similar.

We also tend to confuse beauty in a seen thing such as a mountain or an object made with no visual intent such as a worn wall with the beauty inherent in an object made by a human being who has laboured to gain a skill. If you splash paint randomly or even semi randomly on a canvas it will be nice to look at. If I wet some watercolour paper and pour colour on it I may well get a very attractive and interesting surface. This however is mostly the same sort of beauty as we get from admiring the patterns on a beach. The beauty in an art object is different because of the skill and the fact that a person has sacrificed part of their life in order to achieve the ability. Due to the arguments put forwards in the 20th century we tend to conflate these kinds of beauty. The weathered wall is not of any real cultural significance even if torn from its place and put in a gallery.

Music mostly does not suffer from this confusion. We might get an emotional surge when we listen to the wind in the trees, but we do not confuse that, except in moments of poetic hyperbole, with music. We do not confuse a person noodling on the piano in a random untrained manner with music either… the difference to a concert pianist is obvious and no one would say that the random noodling is art of the same order as the pianist’s bravura performance.

The statement that everyone is an artist is very much not true. To be an artist you must firstly be a fully formed craftsperson, only then should a small proportion of the resultant work be deemed “Art”.

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henley on Thames, Thames, flood, river, plein air, oil painting

 

This is the recent floods at Henley. Some fascinating transformations of familiar scenes. We were lucky to get some brilliant light and a mostly dry day.

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henley upon Thames, Thames, Plein air, oil painting

 

Another from the same day. The shadows were only momentarily thrown across the road. 8in by 10in oils.

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Thames Henley, river flood, oil painting

 

Last one of the day, we found a flooded road that reflected the last light. I had to paint this very rapidly! 12in by 12in oils. The first use of my new 12in by 20 in pochade… I will add pictures of it at the end for the painting gear nerds!

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interior, oil painting

 

The next day was very wet and windy so we went to and painted an interior in a friend of Steven Alexander’s wonderfully cluttered cottage. 10in by 12in oils.

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Jermyn St, Mayfair, London, street, oil painting

 

This is Jermyn Street in Mayfair painted on an expedition with the Brass Monkeys. Not quite sure what to do with this one, it is a bit like an empty stage waiting for the actors to arrive! 10in by 16in oils.

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Jermyn St, Mayfair, London, Brass Monkeys, oil painting

 

Another from Jermyn St. I had to add a figure to reduce the dominance of the car. 8in by 10in oils.

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Kent, track, Aylesford, oil painting.

 

A day out painting with friends. This is a track above Aylesford in Kent… we went to paint the dramatic wide view of the Medway valley and ended up painting a muddy track! 10in by 10in oils.

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East Farleigh, Kent, oil painting

 

This is East Farleigh, the river was in full flood but I found the light in this very attractive. I was nearly run over a few times but really enjoyed trying to make something of the split composition. Painting up a hill always produces challenges to as you have to make sure that the cues are there to explain your view point. 10in by 16in oils.

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Trafalgar Square, London

 

I don’t often do this kind of sketch, but as it was a Brass Monkey day and I also had to attend the Wapping Group private view I needed to wear clothes ungarnished with oil paint! So pen and wash was the order of the day. pen and wash is a great combination and I really should do more of them.

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St Martins Lane, London, watercolour

Last one before heading to the Mall Galleries. The day was very flat but St Martins Lane always supplies some contrast due to the height of the buildings and the narrowness of the street. 5in by 7in watercolour.

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pochade

Here it is… a mighty 12in by 20in. It is still light, but would be a bit of a handful in the wind! Due to the size it has some storage so I should be able just carry this and the tripos which will make quite a light set up for its size. Next I need to work out something for 16in by 20in canvasses…

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pochade

I also created some rain protection from the brolly that bit the dust in Dulwich a week or so ago.

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