Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

March 24, 2018

Art for the End of Times

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

The age of discovery is drawing to a close. The scientific theories are done with, there will never be another dramatic moment of displacement in a bathtub that prompts the cry of Eureka! No fresh and shiny E = mc 2‘s no more 2πr2′s hidden in the woodwork. We will never again discover the unexpected fact that blood circulates, or find out how nerves do their electrochemical tango. There will be no more elements that last longer than a pico second to extend the periodic table. No new languages, no new geometries, we have found it all, made it all. The world of knowledge is perhaps a little like a sphere and we have pretty much mapped out all the continents upon it.

So now we are in the age of refinement, dotting the i’s, looking after the p’s and q’s. We might voyage to new planets, but never be surprised that they were there in the first place. We are encyclopaedia collators, we are indexers, we arrange ducks in rows. We wistfully talk of escaping the box and finding some mythical bleeding edge, but really we are at the end of innovation and at the beginning of a long age of tinkering with infinitely recessive boundaries.

There will be no new art movements, no new impressionists, we have been abstract, surreal and can only repeat the old well trodden expressions, there will be no more new, just warmed over old. Who could have expected human understanding to have grown so fast? We have the jigsaw puzzle on the table and the box is nearly empty. There are only a couple of pieces of sky to go and a bit of sea lost under the sofa, but the picture on the whole is just about complete. We are just a little disappointed that it does not quite match the one with the jolly bearded chap in the clouds that we imagined might be printed on the box!

Should we retire? Is our job done, like Deep Thought in Hitchhikers Guide have we found our 42? Should we become whimsical and quirky, always looking for some brief glimmer of newness to punctuate the ennui? Return to big wigs and farthingales, go mad for Steampunk? Butterfly at being this of that for just a day or two before moving on to paint a prettier flower? The world has enough books, tunes, plays and paintings to amuse anyone for a century or more. It sometimes seems pointless to paint another when there are so many better ones already available.

There is that word, “available” we are drowning in available. If I want to look at Russian painting, clickety click on my key board, and hey presto there it is. Not only that but most of the images are better than the ones you would have got in that 60 quid book 20 years ago, certainly there are far more of them. Affluenza doesn’t just effect material things it effects culture too. In times past you had a music collection… serried ranks of cd’s and Lp’s proudly displayed. Now you can rent any tune for the price of an advertisement. We don’t need collections, I sold all my art books, I never looked at them, they just took up space.

So, I must ask, does it matter? Most of human lives throughout history have been lived without a hint of new. In Tudor times, before the revelatory rush had really got started, it was a compliment to tell an artist that what he had done was almost as good as what everyone had always done before. They had guilds to prevent any possibility of innovation or deviation from the approved way. So no, maybe it does not matter.

Still for an artist today the idea of originality and newness is made out to be of vital importance. How cruel fate can be! We are like explorers born just as the last of the “Terra Incognitas” are filled in and the final “Here be Dragons” neatly erased. We have explored right round the world and met ourselves coming back in the other direction. Fortunately for us the world of ideas is fractal as a fern. We have broadly mapped out the major fronds, but each frond is made of smaller fronds and they too of smaller yet. So perhaps our world is unconfined, I can paint landscapes that make just a section of a part of the serrated edge of our landscape frond a tiny bit frillier.

For what is vaguely known as contemporary art this is a slight problem. Its avowed mission is to find new fronds, to go as Star Trek tells you, “Where no man has been before.” To this end they rush about making submarines out of tyres, piling up things to make other things, incongruity is king. All to no avail though, as, like our explorers who spot a hopeful new shore, upon landing they find footprints of men who were there before them in the sand, already softened by the tide. They have all the time only been filling in a few small wriggles in a coastline already mapped.

What has brought all this on you might wonder? Well the fear of Venice is beginning to set in. The most painted place ever. The most mapped in paint, its every mood, however transient, daubed by someone. There is a veritable Everest of paintings, an unstoppable grinding glacier of topographical art heading my way! All sorts of silly ideas pop up in my head, ignore the famous scenes, just paint dead ends and wheelie bins. Get behind the hollow tourist facade and tell it how it really is. I know of course that reality is not Venice’s strong suit, it is the oldest and most successful Disneyland on the planet.

In the event of course I will go and paint and draw stuff that looks pretty much like what everyone else has painted. I will then put them in my attic as Venice paintings don’t sell in Dorset. They will make a dandy blog post and garner a few ego boosting “likes” on Facebook and I will move on. The real gain will be inside my head. I will have been and looked. I will have observed tricks of the light, embellishments of stone, reflections in water. I will have been immersed in the place and be made a little bit different inside. An extra, hopefully elegant, wrinkle will be defined on my own personal frond. Like painting a portrait, they are much the same, we have been painting faces and bodies for thousands of years, but this will be through my eyes which will be, in the smallest humblest way, a first. Then I will paint Blandford with a little bit of Venice sitting behind my eyes.

Fontmel Down, Dorset, Plein air, oil painting

A bright and breezy morning up on Fontmel Down, I’m not quite done with it yet and might have to return for another bash. I am showing it here with the bottom cropped, but I might reverse that and crop the top instead. It is one of those that has a decent picture in there somewhere, I just have to muck about with it until it gels. 16in by 10in Oils.

Fontmel Magna, oil painting, Dorset, plein air

Here is Fontmel Magna later the same day once the rain had set in. Quite pleased with this one as it is great subject and I managed to get a feeling of the day down. I need to try it again in different lights and a slightly more refined composition. I love painting in the rain, everything is transformed, if only the practicalities of holding the umbrella and such were easier. Though the painting stayed mostly dry, the rain ran down my neck and made my boxers soggy! 14in by 10in Oils.

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset, oil painting

A studio painting of the famous Gold Hill in Shaftesbury from the first bout of snow. By the time I arrived here I was too cold to paint any more so just took snaps. Great fun to paint, I mixed up all my tones first as without sun the contrasts were very subtle. With snow scenes it is very tempting to take every area to white which ends up looking crude. 16in by 10in Oils.

Portland, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

Here we are on the Isle of Portland, the snow is gone and the sun is out. This is a great spot on the West side of the island I had not been to before. This was only one of the possible paintings to be done on this spot. The morning was quite misty with the last of the sea fret being dissolved by the sun. The tone of the distance was very hard to nail down. Too light and there was not enough contrast with the sea and sky, to dark and the feel of the atmosphere between you and the cliffs is lost. 10in by 12in Oils.

Portland Bill, Dorset, sea, plein air, oil painting

Are we in Corfu? Is this the Adriatic? No this is the same day looking South from Portland Bill! There was a great vantage point for the waves coming in so I decided a sea study was the thing to do. When people paint sea they often struggle with the fact that it is always the same but always different too. The result is that they impose their imagination upon it and it becomes rather static. My tactic is to get the tones and colours of the whole scattered about but not really resolved. Then I observe each smaller area and do a snap shot study of what is going on. Once done I just watched for a bit before putting a few features that tied the whole together. So the main wave was the very last thing to go in. 10in by 12in Oils.

Hambledon Hill, snow, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

The Mediterranean is gone and the Arctic swiftly returns! Our second batch of snow was bonus and I was determined to paint it. I waited and waited for the light to move from grey to sun before going up Hambledon Hill. When I got there I found the wind and sun had removed the snow from raised areas revealing the scars in the ground left by the walkers ascending to the earthworks that crown the hill. I got completely lost in painting this it had such fascinating contrasts. The snow came in handy too as I could build a level platform to paint from by kicking it in a heap and stamping it flat! Once again I took a deep breath before starting and mixed the key tones before doing anything else. 10in by 10in Oils.

Child Okeford, Church, snow, oil painting

The last of the snow. On my way back the light on the church and reflecting on the remains of the snow look pearlescent and very beautiful. However I was pretty cold and had a very wet bum from sliding down Hambledon Hill so I just blocked the bare bones of the focal point of the view and took a few photos. Thank heaven I did even that small amount as when I looked at my snaps they were just grey with none of the colours I remember seeing! So I had to work mostly from imagination colour wise and there is none of the original lay in left. In the last stages I put the photos away and allowed myself to play. 14in b y 10in Oils.

Next Post will suppose be Venice… wish me luck!

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.

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