Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

January 31, 2018

Chocolate Box

Since moving to Dorset I have been faced with a seemingly endless pretty villages with comfortably settled thatched roofs crowning rose wreathed cottages. I have to date not painted many of them, but feel that I perhaps should. I tell myself that I need a new angle on them that will lift them above the twee. A well placed skip, a sewage lorry pumping out a cesspit, a recently deceased pensioner lying unremarked in the road while the Range Rovers power by. Please God don’t let me become Helen Allingham, a snobby part of me cries.

I am going to Venice in the coming spring and that has brought a similar problem to mind. Venice has been painted and painted. In every mood from every angle it has beguiled generations of artists and made them produce… well pretty pictures. A few have broken the mood, Whistler, Sickert and Sargent but only if you are careful in your choices, they each painted some pretty pretty ones too. Turner as usual scorned his subject matter and just made it up, moving palaces and indeed entire districts around to suit his compositional needs. Later Thomas Moran one of the Hudson River school did many Turnerish views of Venice with overexcited skies and a mixed salad of all sorts of dramatic lighting, perplexingly occurring all at the same moment. I started to randomly put in artists names with Venice, Monet, Renoir, Parkes Bonnington, Allingham, Myles Burket Foster… it would be almost shorter to list those who didn’t have a splash at it!

Which makes me ask the question, what do I do in Venice? To be honest I have been avoiding the place. Which prompts the next question, does it matter if I don’t produce anything that is particularly new and distinctive from painting the city? Should I take to the outskirts and paint the industrial estates that house the service infrastructure needed to deliver food and goods to a roadless city drowning beneath the flood of millions of hungry visitors? On the surface of it the place is absolutely clogged with things just up my street, churches and palaces ad infinitum and maybe that is the problem.

The Dorset villages present much the same issue, but closer to home. They are determinedly chocolate box and that is irredeemably uncool to much modern sensibility. The term chocolate box was coined from the pictures painted to adorn Cadbury boxes. Before Helen Allingham painter Myles Burket Foster churned out many a saccharine image that got used for such purposes. Although a little research shows that the manufacturers spread their net pretty wide with even Velasquez getting pressed into service!

So why do we shrink from pretty? I do, my Mother used the term “chocolate box” frequently and when we went to the Birmingham art gallery she bemoaned the sentimentality of Victorian art in general. We shrink a little from Murillo and his sentimental Virgins and street urchins. I have only with a certain reluctance painted Gold Hill the iconic Hovis hill in Shaftesbury. It’s a great view it has everything going for it… except it is eyewateringly pretty. The resulting paintings would look dandy on a chocolate box too. I see fellow “serious” artists shrink from them. They do not see the painting, the subject overwhelms, or should I perhaps say that their educated sense of taste does.

It is very hard to look at these or the images of sentimental syrupy Victoriana without your inbred sense of kitch kicking in. It is even harder to view them as a Victorian might have done. Did all Victorians have bad taste? We can’t say they were all visually naive and ignorant. Lots of clever sophisticated eyes looked and liked. I can look at the absurd confections of Tiepolo or Tintoretto with a great deal of pleasure even though they contain many of the same elements. Are these images OK just because they are safely insulated by a reassuring quantity  of time? I am forced reluctantly to consider the problem might be with me and my cultural indoctrination, not the subject matter or overt sentimentality.

People really do have syrupy sentimental feelings, just look at people crooning over babies, cute toddlers or wide eyed kittens. We are told to paint our inner feelings, are those particular ones exempt? A besotted artist might gaze adoringly into their muse’s dewey eyes, then paint their perception thus shaded by sentimental adoration. Is that interior transfiguration not a perfectly bonafide subject? It is part of being human after all. Maybe as artists we are just scared to tread such dangerous and potentially embarrassing emotional territory or admit any weakness that it might hint at. You might after all be thought “soppy” and who could bear that? Give me pain and torment, misery and nihilism, but please don’t threaten me with pleasure or pretty! It’s OK if it is “ironic” though… a cop out in my mind, perhaps a lack of the courage to face it head on…

Is all this going to provoke a string of kitten and baby pictures… well no, but I will perhaps try to do a few of those scary villages. As to Venice, well I just have to wait and see and try to achieve the impossible which is to put out of my mind all preconceptions.

I am very behind with putting work up as I am painting and drawing faster than I blog! So we have to go back and imagine it is Christmas again… picture it: pushing a trolley through a Tescos packed with crazed shoppers, the sound of “One horse Open Sleigh” ringing in your ears…

Tenby, Wales, watercolour, plein air

I had a two part holiday this year and the first bit was in Wales. This is Tenby, which abounds with fascinating views. This is the harbour which has great viewpoints from the steep road that leads up out of it. Here I have done everything you shouldn’t do. The initial washes were dashed in after 15min, but it soon was apparent they wouldn’t be dry until late in January! So I move on and did a drawing and had a glorious fiddle to finish it off in the evening. Watercolour 7in by 5in.

Tenby, Wales, Pembrokeshire, pen and ink, drawing

I moved a bit further down the hill and sat doing a drawing as my abandoned watercolour slowly dried. The sun even came out throwing fascinating shadows across the buildings. 8in by 6in, Pen and Ink.

Newport sands, watercolour, Wales

This is the marvellous Newport sands, the weather had swept it clear of even the most hardy dog walkers, only a single lonely parked van was left, probably waiting for a break in the weather to exercise the pooch. Being a hardy bunch from Worcestershire we walked our dogs anyhow but I was rather taken by the solitary van and did this later in the evening. Watercolour 7in by 5in.

Fishguard, old town, Wales, Pembrokeshire, watercolour

At last a breezy day when my paint would dry. I had not realised my watercolour sketch book was on its last pages so this is done on vile W H Smiths watercolour blotting paper. Oddly it rather suited the scene which is of the old town of Fishguard. I did lots of washing and wiping back here but had to be very gentle as the paper was so soft. Watercolour 7in by 5in.

Fishguard, old town, Wales, Pembrokeshire, pen and ink, drawing

Next I went down to the harbour and sketched on the quay. I have drawn this a few times but never really got it how I want it, partially because you can’t set up where the view is best. That is my excuse anyhow. Pen and Ink, 8in by 6in.

Ruan, Ireland, pen and ink, drawing

Next I moved on to Co Clare in Ireland, I barely did a thing I am afraid… to busy catching up with friends and carousing! This is the road to Ruan, as you can see it rained enthusiastically nearly every day…  Pen and Ink, 8in by 6in.

Sheep skull, drawing, pen and ink

Last one, an ex-sheep. Skulls are fascinating to draw and I have done this one before, a very tricky subject in pen and ink. The table took longer to do than the actual subject! Pen and Ink 8in by 6in.

That’s it for Christmas, put the tinsel away, back to Dorset for yet more rain…

January 16, 2018

More Musings and Recent Oils

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 2:53 pm

Many things in the world are lovely or fascinating to look at. When in the West of Ireland, as I often am at this time of year, I will often stop to admire the growth of a lichen or some other wonder. Many of us admire the textures of rocks or a rusting gate. The paint flaking off an old door, the patina on an old workshop floor. You can transfer these objects directly into a gallery and the public will look and enjoy. Why wouldn’t they? The things are intrinsically interesting and if separating them from their context makes them more accessible to appreciation then all the better. It does not however in my opinion really make them art. Too much that is really just interesting in an old fashioned cabinet of mysteries way is hailed as art. Richard Long’s famed rock circles in galleries are just rocks, anyone could have arranged them in a circle in the gallery and the result would have been the same. The same with bisected sharks, it does not require a specific artist to present them.

This is of course why the much discussed urinal of Duchamp fame is art historically pivotal. How much or little intervention on an object is required to make it art? The urinal is an art historical comment and thus of interest, but not an aesthetic product of Duchamp’s hand and so the art content was supplied by the craftsman or designer who made the item. However the art world took it to mean that anything touched by the hand of the artist and declared to be art was henceforth thus sanctified. So how do we decide what is a sufficient input into a work to call it art and sit an object next to a Degas or a Rembrandt? The question is also relevant to objects made by accidental splashing or indeed painting flat areas of colour such as in a Barnett Newman. For me a hint is that a decorator with basic painting skills could do a pretty good painting in the manner of Newman, but very few people in the world, if any, could do a decent work in the manner of Rembrandt. I say “in the manner of” because we all know people can copy any painting, but that is not what I am considering here.

There are I think a few different things going on here. It is plain we have different degrees of interaction with the stuff or materials any work is made of. We also have different degrees of difficulty in the actions carried out. So how are we to link our Barnett Newman with our Rembrandt? They are both flat, both made to go on a wall, both paint applied to a surface, made for the same reason, to be looked at. We have to note however that Barnett in all likelihood could not have painted a Rembrandt, but Rembrandt could easily have painted a Barnett if he had so chosen. I think there is a clue in the difficulty of the task faced by each. Rembrandt had to balance and resolve all the things that Mr Newman had to deal with, colour, composition, structure and surface. then he had to deal with a whole other set of problems on top such as, subject, representation, space, narrative and content.

I am not saying that things that are difficult to achieve are intrinsically better. Only that the ambition is smaller with an abstract expressionist work. It is painted for an aesthetic elite. A Rembrandt may be commissioned for a wealthy individual, but it is intended to speak to all who see it. One is narrowcasting the other broadcasting. With art the wider the target is the harder it is to successfully hit it. What might please an intellectual might put off a simpler soul. To speak to each at their own level without condescension or false sophistry is an achievement indeed.

Rather a mish- mash of work this time as these oils are done over a month, I’ll add another post soon with the drawings and watercolours.

Bridport, market, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

This is the excellent Saturday market that takes place in Bridport. Very lucky both with the light and being able to squeeze myself into a gap that didn’t annoy too many people. Still I only had a little while as those lovely shadows were not going to sit there and wait for me. I very briefly sketched in both the lit pavement shapes and the sky shapes. Once I had blocked those areas in the drawing was really done as the in between prime colour stated the buildings. When I first started wit oils I used to paint tree branches over the top of my under painting. The result was never satisfactory so now I paint in the negative shapes instead. It takes longer but the result is more integrated and gives the feel of light coming between the branches. I took off 2 inches from the left when I framed it as it improved the composition. Oils 14in by 10in.

Bridport, market, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

Bridport again even quicker this one as it was time to move on. I blocked in very broadly and then scattered accents in more or less the right places! It is amazing how much you can get in with 20min of slapping the paint on. 10in by 7.5in Oils.

West Bay, plein air, oil painting, Dorset, beach

Then to the nearby West Bay. Only a colour note really as the light was going. I do find these looking down the beach paintings tricky. It is something about how the sea just runs off the painting edge. 10in by 5in oils.

Cann, melbury, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

This is looking towards Cann with Melbury Hill on the left. The weather was looking chancy but I love this scene with its winding undulating roads. It is nearby to me so I will give this another go in different light. 10in by 8in Oils.

satans square, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

Talking of returning to old scenes, this the track to the threateningly named Satan’s Square. I have painted this 4 or 5 times now and it never fails to engross me. Here the light was going fast producing some wonderful hues in the landscape. I put the reflections on the track in very first thing and then built the picture out from there. 10in by 7.5in Oils.

Kingston Lacey, Badbury, Beeches, road, Dorset, Plein air, Oil painting

This is the wonderful beech avenue that leads to Kingston Lacey past Badbury Rings. I have painted it 3 or 4 time but this is nearest I’ve got to catching the feel of the place. Quite by chance I passed by with a friend on the way to Wimborne and thought that this was a perfect time of day light wise. So I returned at the same time a few days later. Initially it did not go well as the negative shapes between the branches took forever and the result didn’t look great. Once the tree tones were in I could see my way better and after messing with the tone of the sky and road several more times it more or less came together. 16in by 8in Oils.

Wareham, road, plein air, oil painting Dorset

This the road to Wareham where the road crosses some marshy moorland. The day was gorgeous with fantastic atmospheric perspective. A bit of nothing really but I was pleased with the mood as it caught a little of the magic of the day. I had to be pretty quick though as the sun was evaporating the magic in double quick time! 10in by 7.5in Oils.

Kimmeridge Bay, Dorset, plein air, oil painting, sea

This is the famous Kimmeridge bay which has dramatic strata on show when the tide is out… This you may well notice is with the tide in! I must get a set of tide tables… Still a great view with the Clavel tower on the headland. Most of the work was in the sea which seemed to have every tone and colour present in some part or other. It is very easy to fall into the lazy paint the sea all blue habit, but when you really look it is endlessly subtle and surprising. I suppressed everything else really and made the sea the star. 14in by 10in Oils.

Christchurch, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

This is Christchurch, the forecast was rain but in the event it was lovely. It just goes to show, never be put off by the weather forecast! Besides if you only paint on bright sunny days you will miss many of the best pictures. The sun came out halfway through doing this but I was too far on to change horses. I might well do a studio one of this as I have the sunlit photos. It is rarely a good idea to chase the light, making the facades brightly sunlit would have meant adjusting the underlying tone of every single area in order to be able to express the contrasts. 10in by 7.5in Oils.

Next up drawings and watercolours.

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