Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 7, 2017

Expression

Before I started writing this blog I never really gave much thought to the terms that artists and art historians tended to attach to supposed works of art. I have repeatedly found that if examined the various isms and ists are more for the convenience of historians and theorists than for artists themselves. So even though it will cause me to go over some old ground I thought I might consider a few of them in more detail and see where I am making assumptions or just accepting opinion without examination.

Expression is today’s term. First a definition from the Oxford Dictionary: ‘The action of making known one’s thoughts or feelings.’ Pretty straightforward every word spoken and picture painted partakes of this. It is so inclusive that I need to narrow it down to just the visual arts. Expressionism, the dictionary states: ‘A painter, writer, or composer who is an exponent of expressionism, seeking to express through their work the inner world of emotion rather than external reality.’ so maybe structured thoughts are out and feelings or emotions are in.

The Tate Gallery tells us: ‘In expressionist art, colour in particular can be highly intense and non-naturalistic, brushwork is typically free and paint application tends to be generous and highly textured. Expressionist art tends to be emotional and sometimes mystical.’ Wikipedia says: ‘Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas.’ I think Wiki wins there… the Tate seems to think swishy brightly coloured thick paint might be the key…

The traditional key work that is credited with firing the shot that started the expressionist sprint was The Cry by Edvard Munch but I think perhaps we can look back further than that. There are hints of it in El Greco for example. Western art’s interest in attempting to describe our inner workings in a symbolic manner really got going with the arrival of tribal art from Africa and the huge exhibitions in Paris of ethnographic art. They are  rather condescendingly sometimes labelled it ‘Primitive’.

Tribal art is much the same from wherever or whenever it comes. I’ll put some examples below and see if you can identify them by culture and period!
African, tribal, masks

Some are easy (no I am not going to label them)  but others are harder… there is even a modernist one in there. I’m more taken by the similarities than the differences. I prefer most of these to western 20C expressionism, the difference is perhaps that all the tribal ones have a purpose in giving the fears and superstitions of a mysterious and dangerous world a concrete tangible form in the hope of placating or protecting. I think they for me more visceral and less self-conscious.

mask, picasso

If you place a Picasso head next to the tribal one that inspired it, as above, I cannot help but feel that the African one has more depth, but you can see the connection.

So what is going on? Tribally organised societies worldwide and all through history seem to produce much the same sort of art. They collide representation with decoration, symbolism, stylisation and abstraction. As soon as a culture becomes larger and necessarily more settled, layered and organised the art produced changes. We tend to call these ‘early’ and ‘late’ and ascribe a linear development, but I think that is not all that is going on. Very early pre-dynastic Egyptian art is pretty much tribal standard, but as they move from tribal to civilised the art becomes more and more easy to identify as being from a distinct and separate culture. I think what has happened is that the required rule making that suffuses any organised living is carried through to making rules about the art the society makes.

The art in larger more organised cultures seems to fulfil a slightly different function. One is that it is codifying memory or history, not necessarily as a true record, but more how powerful individuals or groups wish it to be remembered. So we get friezes depicting great victories and the glorification of rulers, specifically underlining their connection to whichever gods. So the later art is specific and the earlier tribal art less so. It represents a movement from representing the group to transferring information down the generations and glorifying the individual. This is what you would expect really, in a large grouping it is harder and more desirable for the individual to stand out from the crowd and signal power and status. Thus a movement from the communal to the individual. The tribal head was about the fears and hopes of a small community in a dangerous world, Picasso’s was about Picasso as an individual within a greater society.

This is reflected in the role of the artist in the community. Tribal artists are  all anonymous it is, as far as I can find, unknown for any kind of maker’s mark to appear. This means the artist didn’t consider it important for anyone to know that they specifically made an object in the long term. They almost certainly would have enjoyed any social status that accrued from their skills, but they didn’t seem to have any ambition to have their individual identity as an artist passed down the generations. There was after all as far as we know nothing to stop them including an authorial symbol on each of their works.

Some of the first maker’s marks were used by stonemasons, but these seem to be to do with payment rather than gaining any sort of personal kudos. The people or institutions who were commissioning work had little or no interest in the individuals that created them. The earliest named artists I can find were Greek, interestingly that this also coincided with the arrival of lifelike observed works representing specific individuals . China also had signed artists from around 400AD but Chinese paintings are more akin to poems than illusions and writers had identified the authorship of their work from long before visual artists had thought it important.

I realised we are a fair way from Expressionism the art movement but the movement toward the concern of the artist to be identified with his or her work seems to me a key factor. How many artists today don’t care whether their work is credited to them personally? There is more and more the pressure for an artist to make work that is theirs and theirs alone with a singular identity.

So Expressionism grew out of the feeling that in the process of becoming ‘civilised’ we had lost something primal. Rousseau’s theories of the ‘Noble Savage’ etc gave weight to the idea. Childhood, the loss of innocence and the attempt to regain it was also an idea of the time. The artists so inspired soon found that it was impossible to make the return to tribal innocence. How could they when they were inevitably products of an organised stratified society? They could not express tribal fears only individual existential ones. Most modern attempts at tribal styles seem to me to be pretending, perhaps only some graffiti really succeeds.

This begins to explain why the the Tate’s description of the term is so woolly and has to fall back on describing the way the paint is applied. The explanation that it is trying to give voice to inner emotions and visceral feelings is a better one but still I feel falls short.

When we use the term when we talk to each other about our and others work we talk of ‘expressiveness’. We rarely specify what is expressed, only that the appearance of the work signals that expression was the intent. The unspoken assumption is that this thing being expressed is so inchoate that words would not suffice. We also assume that the resultant work encapsulates the emotional state of the artist over the period the art was produced. This might mean turmoil or calm or refer to the recalling of an emotional memory.

Music perhaps has some parallels that might be useful. We are used to music provoking emotions, joy, sadness or whatever. Also for the most part music eschews the use of mimicry. You might, and many do, put forward that such work is a sort of visual music. However music has a time element. Also it has an element of patterning we call rhythm. It is perhaps most like decoration in the visual arts. Oh dear, I don’t think many expressive painters want the epithet of ‘decorative’ hung around their necks!

So ‘Expression’ doesn’t seem to be that useful as descriptive term, other than to  describe the apparent vigour of the application of materials. It is a handy term to compliment someone it you can’t find anything specifically good to mention I suppose.

I often find it useful to look at the purpose created objects fulfil. If we return to the tribal mask and the Picasso. We can say that the mask was made as a theatrical costume to transform a performer from a recognisable individual to an archetype for the benefit of an audience. The mask’s maker presumably benefitted personally status wise. The Picasso was painted to further the career, the bank balance and reputation of Picasso. It also was a decorative item enhancing a wall and the owners potential wealth and status as it might be perceived by others.

That’s it, here are some decorative items made for the enhancement of walls and the momentary entertainment of web surfers…

life painting, oil painting

I made a further attempt to translate a life drawing into an oil painting… better than my last attempts but still no cigar. For me the result has to be a step up from the drawing, but if the painting is to be observational then this is merely a painting of a drawing. 10in by 14in Oils.

self portrait, oil painting, rob Adams, head

This was done straight after… Self portraits are always intriguing. You know your own face but its perceived aspect is overlaid with our hopes and fears. When we view ourselves in the early morning mirror we might either think, ‘decaying wreck’ or ‘handsome beast’ depending on the self deluding swings of our moods. Here I was pissed off at the previous failure and short of ideas so I just leant the mirror up against my iMac and painted what I saw… hence the rather unusual angle! You soon forget that it is you in the mirror the face becomes a stranger to explore. In fact I suppose due to vanity your own face is more strange to you than that of a passer by. 10in by 12in oils.

Self portrait, oil painting, rob Adams. artist

I enjoyed doing the previous painting so a few days later I set up the mirror again. This time I considered the composition (even cut my hair!) and put the mirror up on a tripod. Very hard to get both yourself and the mirror in the right relationship! I resorted to poking the legs of the tripod with a long pole to nudge it into position. Then you discover that the ideal pose position is very far from an ideal painting position… so the result is a compromise. I must get a bigger mirror too. With a self portrait you cannot judge likeness, all you can do is observe and put down the observation as best you may. So I blocked in quite freely and then took it one stage further tonally. Next I more or less ignored what was already there and redrew as accurately as I could in black over the top. Once that was done I adjusted with colour until the black redrawing was mostly gone, then repeated the process again. I rather enjoyed the method as it led to increasing accuracy without getting into excess concentration on any particular aspect. Next I took a photo with the camera on the tripod in place of the mirror and considered the outcome by comparing the two… Is the result ‘expressive’?… Who knows, I hardly care. 12in by 15.5in

Kingston Lacey, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

A day out painting on a very strange day when a storm had blown dust from the Sahara and caused the sun to be bright pink at midday. This is Kingston Lacey but the light was so odd I mainly tried to get the light in the sky something like. 12in by 10in Oils.

St Marys, tarrant Crawford, plein air, oil painting

This is the same day, it looks like late evening not mid afternoon! This is St Mary’s at Tarrant Crawford. Again I really tried to catch the strange light and how warm and subdued it made the scene. 14in by 10in Oils.

Langton Matravers, oil painting, Dorset, plein air

A painting day by the coast at Langton Matravers. This was the best of the day but I rather struggled to find a scene that inspired. The skies were racing past and very bright. 16in by 10in oils.

Langton Matravers, plein air, Dorset, oil painting

More from Langton Matravers, so hard to get the tone relationship between sky and land. To mimic the observed reality either the sky must be white or the land black! I decided perhaps wrongly that the dazzle in the sky was the thing to aim for. 16in by 8in Oils.

Langton Matravers, reflection, Dorset, oil painting

A very quick daub before a cake break! Will be sanded off but a great exercise. I don’t do enough just painting stuff to improve my observation.

Chapmans Pool, Dorset, sea, cliffs, plein air, oil painting

A very rapid study of Chapmans Pool. The light was tremendous but too rapidly changing to really nail it. I have a sequence of photos so I might attempt a studio picture in a wider format.

Pilsdon Pen, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

This is the view from halfway up Pilsdon Pen. A great area I will return to. 10in by 8in Oils.

Lewesdon Hill, Dorset, plein air, beeches, oil painting

This is one of the amazing beech avenues up on Lewesdon Hill. I was quite pleased but did not spend enough time on this or consider the composition beforehand properly so once home I set about doing a studio one. 10in by 8in Oils.

Beeches, Lewesdon Hill, oil painting, Dorset

Again not too bad and looks good in a frame, but in reducing that mad complexity to simpler areas of paint you lose something of the essence of the place. 20in by 12in Oils.

Lewesdon Hill, beeches, drawing, plein air, pen and ink

I had to go into Dorchester the next week so went back and tackled it with pen and ink. The result after nearly 3hrs is much nearer to how the place feels, so the next step is to go again and see if I can manage similar in oils. Sometimes simplification is not the answer, especially if busy fractal complexity is the main story the subject is telling you. A4 pen and ink.

October 10, 2017

Sight Size and other tricks

I find it odd how particular techniques in painting get a fan club type following. Wet into wet for watercolour is one and I suppose plein air another. Sight size is an interesting one. It comes from academic training where you set up your drawing of a plaster cast so that from a certain position both cast and drawing appear next to each other at exactly the same scale. All observations need to be made from this viewing point. It was much used by portrait painters such as Singer Sargent to get good likenesses and accurate tones. Although it appears Sargent only set up the painting in this way for parts of the process and to check progress. It was never intended however to be a method used in all circumstances. Here is a link that gives a good description of the method: Sight Size.

If for example you want to paint a wide view then getting both your scene and the painted image the same scale would be pretty tricky. Also if you were painting a subject that was far away then your picture would have to be very small or your viewing point would have to be a very long way from your canvas! Sight size drawers tend to use plumb lines etc though a threaded frame over the subject would seem to be easier and quicker IMO. This is not a debunking of the method, I think everyone would benefit from learning and trying it. I do however feel over reliance on the method can produce rather stiff soulless paintings. The method shows it’s weakness in the work of atelier students who tend to produce identikit sub Sargent paintings and academic drawings that all seem to be from the same dead hand. That said many of those students move on and successfully establish their own identity.

Really the method is part of a whole suite of techniques to get the perceived and very 3D world down on 2D paper. Plumb bobs are good if you have never used one then I suggest you give it a whirl. If you use a black thread you can put little blobs of white paint every inch which helps transfer information. Their main use though is to make it easy to determine how things in your subject relate along a line. You can use it to translate horizontal information or angles as well. All of these methods depend on you returning to the exact same position to make your measurement. The easiest by far to use but more tricky to set up is the threaded frame. Really you need a separate stand for the frame, but as with the plumb line I would encourage everyone to try it out.

What I would not advise however is to make any of these methods into  your everyday standard painting procedure. Their use is to teach you how to make comparisons of scale angle and alignment. Your aim in using them should be to evolve the ability to do those measurements by eye, this may seem hard but it is surprising how quickly the brain catches on and eventually they become second nature. Nonetheless I still get out my frame for work where it is very important that exact proportion are achieved.

Its disadvantages are that it is a monocular method, it allows you to see the world pretty much as a camera does. In turn this means it has all of the problems associated with camera images, the distorted proportions at the edges of the frame which become impossible to hide as the view widens. The method assumes we should only see what we can see with our head fixed, but to my mind this is only a small part of the visual experience, it is literally too narrow. To paint wider or higher than convenient views requires a whole other set of skills including constructive perspective both linear and hyperbolic. Also a number of adjustments such as sliding vanishing and eye points. Although this sounds hifalutin and complicated the actual application can be taught to anyone in a day or two.

A very mixed bag of work in this post as I have been dodging between media .

Blandford Forum, Dorset, drawing, pen and ink

This is Blandford Forum in Dorset. The challenge here was to reduce the busyness of the scene without loosing the impression of complexity. If you succeed in doing this people come up and say, “Oh look at all that detail” and “Just like a Photograph!” For windows it is important to get both consistency and variety into them. So I try to keep the position and rhythm accurate but vary the mark made to indicate them. Pen and Ink.

Blandford Forum, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

Here is one where sight size would let you down! You would have to have your nose touching the paper to get this view. The camera could not produce it either, the building on the left would be very distorted. It is really a composite view as I am both raising my head to look up and turning my head to look left. A point that is vital to fix is the one where you look straight ahead. People assume that in a drawing the straight ahead point must be in the middle but here it needs to be far to the right where the road ends. Each of these movements causes swings in perspective that result in distortion. So what appears a simple scene is actually quite complex to construct. In practice I sketch in the rectangles of the facades and adjust them to find the best compromise between observation, what I “know” is there and the restrictions of a flat surface. Here the key line to track is the join to the walls and roofs. Pen and Ink.

Cardigan, Llanchaeron, Wales, pen and ink, drawing

This is Llanerchaeron in Wales a beautiful walled garden. I only had time for this quick sketch but would have been happy drawing there all day. I decided in the end it needed slight touches of colour. This is always tricky as the temptation is to add more, but I think greens would have been too much so I left them all out. Pen and wash.

St James, Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is St James in Shaftesbury. I very rarely do a half sheet en plein air in watercolour as splashing it on with big brushes is the only option so the drying time becomes key. The other reason is that they are expensive to frame, rarely sell and if you do sell they get a lower price than a far smaller oil. This subject was a gift though and it was great fun to paint as is often the case the light improved as I worked but with watercolour you cannot easily chase the light. Once I got home I felt I could get more atmosphere in by washing back and as it was a 1/2 sheet  I  used the garden hose! It is nearly always worth taking such risks I find even if a few almost alright watercolours bite the dust. Watercolour.

Worbarrow bay, Dorset, oil painting

This one put me through the mill and I nearly abandoned the whole thing. It is Warbarrow bay near Tynham in Dorset. I find these looking down at bays type compositions very difficult especially when they include foreground. I had a plein air watercolour and photos but I still ended up trying several different tonal arrangements over a few weeks. It still may not be finished, I might cut it down as I think a better picture could be had by loosing a 1/3 rd of the right hand side. 24in by 12in Oils.

St Martins, London, oil painting

I recently visited London to see some exhibitions and just before the heavens opened the light on St Martins in the Fields was fantastic. No paints with me so this is done from phone snaps. Another one that might loose a couple of inches from the top! 16in by 12in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air

I escaped to Wales for a few days and was greeted by blustery weather and fantastic skies and seas. This is Newport in Pembrokeshire and I had very little time to paint before being chased off the beach by the tide. I got rather too involved with the ruffled surface of the water which seemed to have every colour under the sun in it. 10in by 8in oils.

Moylgrove, Ceibwr Bay, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

This is Ciebwr Bay near Moylgrove in Pembrokeshire. This is painted sight size  as I hadn’t used the method in a while. I can’t say it made much difference as far a judging things goes, a little easier to judge relative tones maybe. I did use my tone guide which is just a bit of very black plastic with a dab of titanium white on it. This allows you to more easily judge how far away the darks are from being black and the lights from white and their average  hue. It was astonishingly windy and I had to anchor my easel to some big rocks. It makes it impossible to do really accurate brushstrokes as your board is flapping like mad! 12in by 10in Oils.

Wales, cliff, plein air, oil painting

Done on the same day but a bit down the coast. I had almost given up finding something to paint when I spotted a patch of sand that made an interesting contrast. Even windier than the last but very interesting to paint. 12in by 8in Oils.

Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

Another day another cliff top. After a rough block in I kept my eye on the changing sun light sparkling on the sea, the whole key of the picture had to be organised so that the highlight would eventually be punchy enough.  This meant keeping the landscape tones within quite tight bounds. To much highlighting would have ruined the balance. Another very windy one it was only possible by backing up close to a wall. 14in by 10in Oils.

Llangrannog, Cardigan, plein air, oil painting

Yep it’s another windy beach! This is Llangrannog near Cardigan. Sight size again as it was convenient, it did help here in getting the drawing in quickly, the method makes drawing errors very easy to spot. Many pauses as the rain came down, though I loved the muted tones the foul weather created. I still far prefer painting on a stormy day than a bright sunny one. 14in by 10in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Dinas Head, plein air, oil painting

This is Dinas Head from Newport. Only a very quick sketch. The light was changing rapidly as the cloud shadows brightly lit or threw different areas into shade so I might do a studio one or over paint this one using the various photos I took as it changed as reference. 16in by 10in Oils.

Newport, parrog, Wales, plein air, oil painting

More Newport and more very muted light. I might chop this one down and frame it tighter. I loved the tone of the yellowy house, very hard to get right and I wiped and redid it at least 5 times. 16in by 10in Oils.

Porthgain, Wales, Pembrokeshire, oil painting

I took my time with this one, it is Porthgain which  would like to do more of as it has very interesting part ruined industrial buildings. I was nice to paint a calmer brighter moment with the storms over. 16in by 8in Oils.

For the visit to Wales I used a quite restricted palette heavy on the earth tones as follows: Cobalt Blue, Unbleached Titanium, Titanium White, Naples Yellow, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna and a tiny bit of Cadmium Orange on the last one.

 

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