Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

July 3, 2015

A Trip to France Part 1 The Drawings

No philosophy or art babble in this post! I have been on my yearly trip with the Wapping Group and friends to France. Despite having all my paints with me I spent a lot of time drawing. Not an intentional decision, but often a sketch book is just the thing for recording your impressions. Sadly original drawings are a disregarded commodity, if you do a print series from them each print could fetch more than the original would! I have always loved drawings myself, they seem to illuminate what an artist is about more than anything else. With an artist like Rembrandt it is like seeing his mind at work. I think maybe it is that the artist didn’t really think anyone else was going to see the work so the result is unselfconscious. Certainly Rembrandt’s landscape sketches inspired me from when I first saw some in the 70’s at the British Museum. I now know that he was perhaps the first to head out with his reed pen and bottle of ink and sit in a field and draw what he could see. Not as a reference it would seem as they don’t appear as backgrounds to etchings, but just for fun.

The other thing about drawing is that it is minimal. With pen you have a line and groups of lines and bare paper and that is it. Whatever you are seeing before you has to be defined in a combination of those three things. This in itself is a good way to learn how to break down a scene into equivalents… there is no real possibility of producing a full rendering so each part must be pared down as much as possible and areas that are similar combined. Although this is limiting it is also in an odd way liberating. It is a halfway house between representation and calligraphy.

In the drawings on this trip I used a toned paper so I have the luxury of one more element, heightening with white. This is for the simple reason that to do a tonal pen drawing on white requires many more layers of hatching all of which take time. With the soft blue of the paper supplying a mid tone far fewer lines are required. The paper I have used is Turner Blue from Ruscombe Paper Mill this is a reproduction of the kind of paper Turner might have used in his small sketchbooks. The paper is slightly textured, about 130lb in weight and very strongly sized. The texture means the pen grips the paper a little supplying resistance whilst still being fine enough to draw rapidly without catching. The heavy sizing means the white highlights sit on the surface and stay very bright and clean.

The pens and the inks I use are made by Noodlers. The drawings below are mostly made with and Ahab fountain pen which has a huge ink capacity which is very much needed as drawing uses ink like no tomorrow. These pens have flexible nibs which allow far more variety of mark than a standard pen would. Indeed they are very similar in feel to Gillott steel drawing nibs, but without the dipping and blotting! The ink is Noodlers too, in this case Bulletproof Brown which is both lightfast and waterproof.

The white used for heightening is Dr Martins Bleedproof White. Most of us have used Chinese White or White Gouache and found they look great when you apply them but then dull to a dirty grey. Bleedproof white however does not do this and stays just as white as when you apply it. It also makes a dilute wash that looks very clean when dry, which adds interesting possibilities.

So that’s all you need, I’ll make a list: One pen, pencil, putty rubber, small sable brush, Bleedproof White, sketch pad, small vial of water to moisten the white. All this goes in my waist coat pockets leaving only my lightweight Walkstool to sling over my shoulder. I use the Walkstool because it is very light has a big comfortable seat and is quite high at 26in. In townscapes especially sitting on a low stool gives you a poodle’s eye view of the world and backache to boot!

Before we get to France however we start the day before in Dorset…

 

Stourpane, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

This is Stourpane on a really hot day. I loved the contrast between the ideal Dorset village and the spider’s web of wires. Although is seems odd the picture would be dull if they were not there. They act as a compositional glue holding the picture together. All these drawings are about 9in by 7in.

 

St malo, france, pen and ink, drawing

France! We arrived in St Malo after an overnight ferry. It was overcast and the light was very diffuse. These are the sort of conditions that make painting quite difficult. Strangely pen drawing is perfect for this sort of light. Areas are defined by texture as much as tone. I use vertical hatching for the walls always inserting a few breaks to indicate that the walls are old and not perfectly smooth. Roofs are horizontal if square on to us but angled if receding. The trick is that once you have assigned a style of hatch to a type of surface keep it consistent. Also you want the line to do as much work as possible, so direction should relate to the direction of the surface if it has one. Objects that have no particular direction like a tree for example can be rendered with a dotted and scribbled texture. Cars are more tricky but I just indicate a few major surfaces and leave the rest to the imagination. The pavement and streets are slightly different in that I want to show recession or depth. So the ground surfaces are done in a mixture of perspective parallel hatching and almost horizontal to indicate both flatness and direction.

 

Le Croisic, France, pen and ink, drawing

This is Le Croisic where we were based for the first week. Here I have quite a lot of different surfaces to indicate. I have used more or less the same mix as before. The exceptions are the harbour walls and the water. The walls are very rough and vary a lot in tone so the hatching is varied too. I am not drawing every course of stones just giving hints that there may be courses and variation in angle of hatch to show variation. Added weight is got by including a few crosshatched areas. You have to be careful not to loose all the paper as a very solid black would be wrong here, though they do have their uses. The water cannot be dealt with like a road surface because it is reflective. The almost horizontal hatching indicates both the surface and the occasional disruption from a wave. Then the reflections are indicated by variations of density. A very few wandering vertical lines complete the feeling that the surface is water.

I add the whites at the very end and use as little as possible. Here the sky needed lightening in areas both to indicate cloud but also to add the feeling of the buildings being predominately backlit. The boats are picked out too and also the key division of the road surface which is directly sunlit.

 

Le Croisic, France, pen and ink, drawing, sketch

Later I did the same scene again but at a different time of day. I have used all the same methods but here reduced the highlights to represent the softer lighting. All the tones are arranged to allow the plain paper to represent sky. The building below the church is left plain also to supply a focus and a route down for the eye to the harbour and the boats.

 

Le Croisic, France, pen and ink, drawing, sketching

 

Le Croisic again. I had just mad a complete dog’s dinner of an oil of this scene so I sat down to sketch it quickly to recover some of my pride. I only had 20 minutes so I vignetted it strongly. In the oil I made the mistake of loosing track of the fact that the lit gable end was the focus around which the rest of the picture had to be built. Instead I got over involved in the boats and the cafes. A vignette shows just how brutally you can reduce the periphery and still have a perfectly comprehensible scene.

 

St Nazaire, France, harbour, pen and ink, drawing, sketch

This is the port of St Nazaire. I drew it from the top of one of the huge U-boat pens. At first seems impossible to get down such a complex scene. What I looked for here was what tied the scene together. After looking a while I decided that the water was the key area to get right. That and the sky are the only quiet areas so needed to be dealt with in as minimal a fashion as possible. Nonetheless the water still had to carry the information of depth flatness and reflectivity. A great deal to express with very few marks! There is a lot of leeway in the busy harbour detail, a wrong line or bit of erratic drawing will not stand out. The water was a different matter and I added lines very carefully and stopped as soon as I had enough hints to tell the story.

 

Le Croisic, salt pan, pen and ink, drawing

A very simple sketch. I was wondering how to make anything of the pools where they store the live oysters when a tractor headed out do drop a load of tasty molluscs in the drink. I only had time to scribble in a horizon line and sketch the tractor before they left. Once they had gone I had to decide what to do with the rest. The paper needed to stand for the still pools so I lightened the whole sky with a thin white wash. Then I could apply full strength white for the rest of clouds. I kept the distant shore mostly vertical to make it a little abstract. Only broken by a couple of highlights and the tower of the church in Guerande on the other side of the salt marshes.

 

Guerande, pen and ink, drawing, sketch, France

This is the same church in Guerande close to. What interested me here was the clutter of the cafes and the vans clearing away the market. I was sitting in a wildly exposed spot and getting baked by the sun. There was no getting around the fact that to get to the bit I was interested in a whole church needed to be drawn. People often find such subjects forbidding to draw and are put off by the morass of detail. If I had put in all the detail it would have taken forever and looked awful so I had to decide which bit to build it around. I chose the window and positioned it very carefully by holding my paper up to the scene and marking key levels off on the side of the paper. You can measure with your pencil, but I find it far more accurate and simple to hold the paper up to the actual scene. I don’t mark many things just the main architectural breaks and the tops and bottoms of things. Once the window was positioned I worked out from there. I stopped adding content as soon as each part of the building looked complete. In this way it appears that there is a lot of detail, but most of it is actually in the viewers mind’s eye. Once the hard labour of the church was done I got to draw the bit I was really interested in! I indicated the ground with as little as possible. Just giving hints of paving and perspective. No more is needed as the imagination supplies the rest. This minimal approach also helps with the impression of the sun light beating down and bouncing back up again. By the time I had done all the pen work and erased the pencil the light was fully on the church facade. I had to remember back to how I first saw it where only a few parts of the tower were catching the sun.

 

Honfleur, pen and ink, France, drawing, sketch

This is Honfleur where we spent a couple of days on our way home. I was a little lost as to what to draw when this very large lady and her tall thin companion came down the street. I suddenly saw how they might be set against the shadowed facades. This was a very busy spot so I had to just scribble in whichever bits I could see between the crowds of tourists. Most of the work here is in the facades with lots of hatching. It is important to vary the vertical hatch to add interest. With pen you can make the same tone with close thin lines or more widely spaced thick ones. This results in the same overall tone but gives quite a different quality. With the windows you must be very careful not to over detail and also not to make each identical. Again the white was kept to a minimum.

 

Honfleur, France, pen and ink, sketch, drawing

After a hard day bashing away with the oils it was a relief to dump my kit and go out with just my pens. Much of the character of Honfleur is in the fashionable and not so fashionable folk parading to and fro. I liked the simple backdrop of the building with the empty sky beside it so I just sat and scribbled people that took my fancy as they passed. You can’t get a whole figure in with one bite so most of these are composites of several passers by. Once I decided that the population was high enough I set to work inking over the pencil. The man still has to have his stick added as I forgot to put it in!

 

Honfleur, france, pen and ink, drawing

Last one from Honfleur. I wanted to do something out of the tourist zone and this took my eye. The avenue of trees was tricky as I would have liked to have left the sunlit areas plain but for the rest of the image they had to be darker. I decided to use an abstract hatch, which was a bad move I now feel, a simple vertical one would have been cleaner.

 

wappers, sketch drawing, faces

Lastly some of my fellow artists on the coach. When people are moving about I start several faces at once and fill in bits as they return to the pose I want. You soon find that everyone has typical positions they return to so bit by bit you can get a drawing done. Just the pencil was enough here. I was tempted to add ink but the softness of the pencil seemed just right. The few highlights just give enough of a lift to hint at volume and light.

That’s it, Oils and Watercolours next…

May 27, 2015

Art and Science

The rise of science roughly mirrors the downfall of the arts in society’s estimation. Art had been very much in the camp of belief as to put it baldly: that was where the work was. Art and artists have always adapted to the needs of whoever was at the top of the heap. This new master of reason and experimentally tested knowledge had no real need of paintings. The futurists, Bauhaus and constuctivists all made hopeful offerings, but neither science, industry nor the general public were much interested. The artists let’s be honest didn’t find much inspiring in it either, there were a few portraits of worthy enquirers next to their instruments and Rembrandt’s autopsy, also that one of the dove dying in a glass sphere by Joseph Wright. Hook’s wonderful drawings of what he saw through the microscope deserve an honourable mention too.

Religion faced much the same problem. The religious establishment at first welcomed scientific enquiry, confident it would inevitably confirm their beliefs. However once the discoveries of science began to squeeze the Deity into a smaller and smaller corner they lost their enthusiasm and started to lock the scientists up and threaten to burn them if they didn’t deny their findings. Painting in a similar way as religion was a lens through which the world might be seen in a new perspective, but science had an ace… it was demonstrably true. Religion might say that miracles occurred and heavy objects might fly through the air, but they couldn’t come up with the goods to order like science could. A jumbo jet would have been given a miraculous cause if seen by our forbears. Indeed that is exactly what happened when isolated tribes saw American planes landing on strips cut into their jungles. Aha, they thought, if we cut a strip of our own then planes carrying treasure will be drawn to land. Poignantly they even carved the radio equipment out of wood. Cargo cults are a fascinating window into religious logic.

Now we might think how foolish those islanders were, but given the state of their inherited knowledge I think it was a pretty good call. What is more uncomfortable is that the current thinking underpinning the worth and purpose of Art is several degrees worse. How this occurs in the first place is worthy of consideration. Roger Scruton has talked interestingly on this and introduces the idea of the “liar” and the “fake”. The liar is aware of his or her own dishonesty, but the fake intentionally chooses for whatever reason to believe in or espouse something untrue. Or as I myself think, think they carefully don’t examine certain underlying concepts as that might bring the whole intellectual house down. Certainly art theorists and critics often seem to elevate weak suppositions into axioms to bolster their view of things.

Is it really possible that our whole current art thinking is just a fantasy? Well, looking back in history you would have to say yes. At some point in history some probably perfectly intelligent persons thought that killing children might improve the crops… or carving huge stone heads secure the future. The idea that an object becomes imbued with an extra iconic quality merely because an artist says so is just as silly. There must have been people who thought and even said that sacrificing children was not the way, but public and establishment opinion was plainly not on their side. So it is today, I might rant and rail, I can attempt to make sure my arguments are coherent and well founded, but almost certainly to no avail.

The art lie is a very profitable lie. It is the same with quackery. Once upon a time you merely said that this or that object was blessed by some saint or other and would heal you. Now they make up sciencey sounding nonsense about energies, realignments, detoxes and infinite dilutions. Art has stepped neatly in the footsteps of quackery, artists now explore, investigate, experiment and question. It grieves me I have to say that my chosen activity in life seems to require hawking the results in a somewhat dishonest manner. I know that my paintings have no special extra quality. There is no spiritual energy in them, they cannot really reach out but only offer the possibility of aesthetic reward if the viewer reaches in. They are what they are: board, paper and paint arranged in a pattern, there is no magic quality. That does not however mean that they cannot be interesting or gauged to attract attention and give pleasure.

Now that is an idea that is out of vogue… visual pleasure, a fair few contemporary painters would recoil in horror at the thought. However if there is one thing that I have found by painting out of doors is that people get pleasure from paintings. Perhaps one in fifty walking by will stop and exclaim that your painting is beautiful and there must be more that are intrigued but too shy to say. Now 2% is a lot of people, so all hope is not lost! The problem is that that 2% have very few places to see current painting, and even if they do we have an art establishment and media assuring them that they are backward looking and irrelevant in any case. As with the child sacrificers and the heretic burners most people will just accept it if the powers that be say it must be so.

The real magic, if it can be so called, is the astonishing luck of being embodied as a conscious thinking being who is capable of appreciating paintings and all the other wonderful things that surround us..

I have been enjoying the oils now that I have my new studio up and running. having a sky light is wonderful and makes it so much easier to judge tones. Clear days give a rather blue cast which has to be taken into consideration, but painting in there is a real pleasure. It is also lovely sitting with the doors wide open and the sound of the birds, bees, tractors, screaming children, lawn mowers and chainsaws drifting in.

 

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset, oil painting

This is the famous “Hovis” view of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury in Dorset. It took a couple of goes as by the time I had finished drawing it out the light had moved on to the fronts of the houses which wasn’t the picture I wanted to paint. Next day the light was better though, softer with a delicious haze into the distance. Chocolate box I know, but it is not the sort of subject that lends itself to a painting with any street cred. Maybe I should add a skip and a burnt out car or two… 10in by 12in Oils.

 

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset, Nocturne, Oil Painting

A week later I washed up in Shaftesbury again, but late in the evening to attend a friend’s private view. After eating a curry, I had a mad urge to paint a nocturne… this is not it really as I don’t think any of the first session is left! The atmosphere and general tones survive though. 12in by 16in Oils.

 

Battersea, Thames, London, plein air, oil painting, barge

A quick trip up to town to paint with the Brass Monkeys. This is Battersea, I don’t paint many barges but this one took my fancy due to the angle at which it was moored. 8in by 10in Oils.

 

Blandford Forum, Wet day, street, Dorset, oil painting

This was an experiment in that I did a grisaille to establish the tones. I was working in part from a pen drawing done on the spot and also from a rather blurry phone snap. Here it is in its first stages about half an hour in.

 

Blandford Forum, Dorset, Oil Painting

The subject is Blandford Forum in Dorset again. As rebuilt in early Georgian times by the Bastard Brothers after the old town was destroyed by a great fire. Doing the monochrome layer underneath gives a great unity of tone which is important in a picture like this where many of the tones are quite close. Dull days are especially interesting to paint for this reason. 12in by 16in Oils.

 

Wells, St Cuthberts, oil painting, Somerset

This is Wells in Somerset. Not the cathedral but St Cuthberts. It was a fantastic day with tremendous light but I didn’t have my oils with me so this is a studio picture. Lots to paint in Wells and it is only 40 min away. I really am spoilt for choice where I am now. 12in by 16in Oils.

 

Baker Arms, Child Okeford, Dorset, watercolour

I quick dash with the watercolours. this is Child Okeford and my local pub The Baker Arms. Would love to paint this angle en plein air, but a 4 by 4 would run you over, so this is studio. Watercolour. 7in by 12in

 

Thames, London, Tower Bridge, pen and ink, drawing

To town again to meet with the Wapping Group. I travelled light so stuck to the pen and ink.

 

Southwark, London, pen and ink, Drawing

This busy corner took my eye and I crouched under my brolly to do this.

 

Southwark, London, Pen and Ink, cathedral

Last one of the day. This is Southwark Cathedral.

 

Child Okeford, St Nicholas, Dorset, pen and Ink

This is St Nicholas in Child Okeford, I was very taken with the splashes of afternoon light across the road. I sometimes get chastised for putting in vans and such… but who could leave out a magnificent example of a 2014 Mercedes Sprinter? I shall ignore them, philistines all…

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