Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

August 14, 2014

Observationalism

Filed under: Art History,Drawing,Painting,Philosophy,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Rob Adams @ 4:29 pm

Yes a new “ism” I had thought there must have been a movement in art history that had laid claim to the term, but it seems not. Well now it’s mine! I thought of it when I was trying to find a term for what I was doing. In simple terms I am translating what I see on to a flat surface using paint or other media. The key to this is in the “translation” word. I am not copying, I am finding equivalents.

So some definitions, being an Observationalist means you are empirical taking your cues from the world, responding to the experiences of the world that your senses bring you. You are neither trying to add a subtext from elsewhere nor trying to exclude all your individual nature. You are rendering how you personally see it, filtered through the constraints of ability and medium. I am trying to make an object that is eloquent in presenting how I saw a time and place, but not an unbiased representational record.

Realism, has aspects of Observationalism but tries to exclude style and idealisation. When you re-arrange a landscape to improve the composition or adjust the tones to create a focus then you are idealising. If you make all your trees like Claude Lorraine then you are inventing or fantasising, which is different. Style comes in two flavours, the part that results from the manner in which you carry out the act of painting and the other variety that is adopting the style of another. An Observationalist should embrace the former, but the latter should only be influence not aping. There is a difference between being influenced by Wesson and “Painting the Wesson Way”. If you are an Observationalist you are painting your own way based upon personal practical experience, which includes influences from looking at the work of others.

There can be a degree of abstraction but abstraction is not the point. There can be a degree of impressionism but impressionism is a method not an ambition. There can be an element of photographic realism, we are so influenced by the photographic image that some influence is inevitable. So we might shift the tones of our painting towards how a camera might see a scene but not try to make an image that could be confused with a mechanically produced image. If painting from the figure there can be character and activity but not story telling. So a few people sitting at a table would be fine but to have them arranged to make some moral point would not. I will add some images to make the finer distinctions clear as words are not adequate.

Some of the ideas from this screed came when a few days ago I was working upon a studio picture. It consists of a London scene with quite a few cyclists passing by. It came about when I was photographing a scene that I thought had potential for a painting when a stream of bicycles passed by. Thinking that they looked wonderful I took a whole sequence of pictures and the studio picture will contain various cyclists arrange to form a composition. The final image should look completely naturalistic. To my mind this will fit into my new “Ism” if I added a chimpanzee riding one of the bicycles it would not. I had experienced the cyclists but not the chimp!

To refine the thinking a little further. Suppose I am painting a landscape. The composition would be improved with a tree holding up one side of the composition. This would fit our new school to my mind. If however I had  a rather dull landscape and invented a dramatic tree to be the centre of interest then it might not. I could paint a dramatic tree but find it’s location a disappointment. I might then walk a few yards further on and see a setting that was perfect, stop and paint in a new background. This would be fine as both elements are observed. What I am saying is that a picture may be a mixture of observed elements, indeed some such as figures might be made up using the experience of previous observations. However if I made a portmanteaux image of observed elements on one canvas then there would no longer be a single plausible view point and the viewer could no longer put themselves behind the eyes of the painter.

To dice it finer still painting a crashed car would be on message. Painting the crash in action with one car in mid air less so. Just to make my own life difficult, how about if I welded up a support to hold a car in a dramatic in the air position and then sat and painted it? To my mind not as you would be adding a narrative that was the real subject of the painting not the object itself. However this is art, and we cannot draw hard and fast lines. I am not trying to be prescriptive. There would inevitably paintings that had a degree of observational content but had some other raison d’être. An example of this would be an allegorical scene produced using studies from life. I would feel the studies themselves would fall into the Observational net, but the final painting not, as it is about the Allegory not the observed parts.

So, are you an Observationalist?

Steve Mumford, iraq,drawing

This drawing is by Steve Mumford done in Iraq. To my mind purely observational even though there are current political overtones the drawing has no agenda. Click on the picture to see more of his work.

 

gassed sketch, singer sergeant

This sketch for Gassed by John Singer Sargent is also observational, but posed for a narrative purpose so one step away from pure observationalism.

 

Gassed, Singer Sargent

The final picture is a further step away, here observation is a tool at the service of the narrative.

 

Paul Nash

Lastly a painting by Paul Nash. Here the observational content is even less, the narrative and abstract qualities dominate.

 

So there we are I have created a new school. Unlike most new art “isms” it already has members… Rembrandt with his portraits, Monet with his landscapes, Turner in his sketches, Degas with his laundry women, even perhaps our cave man drawing a bison. It is good to feel the weight of history on your side!

 

May 24, 2014

Focus

This is a subject I am very much feeling my way with. Having been painting pictures for framing for a little while now and looking at a huge swathe of paintings by others I have come up against the issue of hardness or softness of edges. People talk a fair bit about the importance of edges and getting the mix of lost and found edges right, but no one talks a great deal about why this might be so.

If you stand before a scene in ordinary light then the edges of everything look pretty crisp. They even look crisp in fog! So why would we like blurry edges in paintings if we don’t have them in real life? Indeed can you think of anything other than a bank of fog that actually has a blurry edge? Some close too things have soft edges such as curved surfaces where one eye sees further round the curve than the other. This incidentally only happens on vertical or nearly so curved surfaces such as a cylinder sitting on its round end. If you rotate the cylinder to lie on its curved surface then the now horizontal edge will be sharp due to out eyes being side by side.

The other effect we see in photography is soft focus. Our eyes do it too. This is what is called depth of field. Depending on the light levels if we focus on a nearby object then the distant one will be soft and if we then focus on the distance the nearby object will in turn become blurred. The human eye does a different sort of soft focus in that objects in the centre of out attention will be sharp but those on the peripherally will be soft and ill defined. Try it your self, I am amazed at how amorphous even objects a little off the central axis become. It is a little hard to stop your eyes following your attention and moving!

How we actually take in the world is by scanning our surroundings in little darts and jumps called saccades. Our brains are not fast enough to process fast movement, if you try waving your fingers in front of your face you will find that they become blurred quite soon. So the eye moves in sudden jumps and pauses as it picks out information from our surroundings.

Yet another aspect of visual definition is specificity, so a tree will not usually be as visually defined as a person. If you did a picture with blurry people and sharp trees then people would find it a little odd. The same painting with blurry trees and defined people would however be quite unremarkable.

So as you see we have a quite a few reasons to be blurry in our paintings! This in turn makes softening and hardening of edges quite a powerful tool in the painter’s tool box. When I look at other painters and indeed myself I suspect people learn to use softening of edges in an empirical, this works, that doesn’t manner. Having thought it through a bit I think it might be exploited in quite a few interesting ways.

An extra layer of complexity is caused I think due to the fact that the same visual system is being used by the viewer of a painting as the painter. If the trees in a painting are soft then a viewer will appreciate mood and colour but not so much form or botanical detail (painters of course will admire the soft edges but they are just weird!) . The non painting eye will move on to whatever in the picture is more defined but the softer areas will still be supplying mood. It is immediately apparent to me that having things inappropriately over-defined in an area of a picture can be a distraction and weaken the overall impact.

I am of course talking about a certain type of picture, the impression of time, place and weather. People tend to confuse the different ways we can read a picture, so a detailed picture is inviting a different sort of looking and appreciation than an impression. They are not I feel better or worse per se. Indeed you could maybe mix the two if you were very clever.

Where I need to improve the control of focus is in my oil paintings. With watercolour I tend to use wet edges and so forth automatically, but with oils I have to think it through. Also with watercolours you are often working from the very amorphous to the definite as a matter of course. There it is that is the nature of painting there is always more to learn and deficiencies to make good! Enough complaining, a few drawings and paintings.

Tower Hill, London, watercolour

I am in a quandary with paper at present. Arches, my favourite paper has become very poor in quality of late. I have a couple of rolls which will keep me going a few years in the studio, but for painting en plein air I used the glued blocks. These alas have become very poorly sized as have the single sheets, making the washes dry dull and lifeless. The surface of the paper is not as tough as it should be either so lifting out becomes a risky process.

As an experiment I have bought some paper from the Ruscombe Mill in France. They make recreations of historical papers. So I bought a few sheets of David Cox and some Thomas Girtin types. The paper is much lighter in weight than we use now and must be stretched. Also it has more inclusions and is less white. I must admit I was slightly horrified at the uneven surface when I first unpacked it. None the less I stretched up some and took it out.

The one above is done on the David Cox. The paper contracts fiercely when stretched so I had to use my Artmate. As always when using a new paper you have to just dive in and I found it hard going at first. It doesn’t react well to wet into wet so washes must be laid cleanly and in one go. The scene above was done in around 45min and could have done with more careful drawing out. Altogether though it has quite a pleasant quality and now I know what it does well I can try and exploit its qualities. The paper is very very tough so lifting out is easy. Its weakness is that washes even when quite concentrated dry a little pale.

I did this sitting just by the Tower of London looking towards the city. 10in by 14in.

 

St Katherines Dock, London, watercolour

Second one of the day. It was a Wapping Group day so I sat near the Dickens Inn at St Katherines Dock. This is the Thomas Girtin paper. It is less white a sort of soft buff colour. Unlike the David Cox it took to wet into wet well as you can see by the softer feel. Also stronger tones were easier to achieve. All in all very pleasant to paint on, I shall be intrigued to try a larger painting as this one is only 5in by 10in. Strong whites will need to be painted in with body colour, which is of course just how Girtin often worked.

 

Spitalfields Market, London, drawing

The Brass Monkeys were at Spitalfields. We met at one of the cafes in the Market. While I drank my coffee and chatted I drew the passers by. I am going to try and add a little more character to the figures in my drawings to make them a little less architecty . Generic figures are OK but ones that tell a bit of a story are better I am beginning to think. 5in by 7in.

 

Spitalfields, London, Hawksmoor, drawing, pen

This is the view down Brush St to Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Christchurch. I had to hatch the sky later as no time to do on site. 7in by 9in. Here generic figures are fine as the church is the star.

 

Brush St, Spitalfields, London pen drawing, shop

A smaller pen sketch also in Brush St. Here I could have done with some more definitive types of people. 5in by 7in.

 

South Bank, Thames, London, pen and ink, Drawing

Sorry, yet more drawing… it is just a way of avoiding the oil paints maybe! Here I struggled to find something to make a picture of and abandoned two at the pencil stage. Then this confident young man walked past plainly on a mission unlike the dawdling tourists. I drew him in first and then built the rest of the picture around him. This is also on Ruscombe paper, quite resistant to draw on but gives a nice quality in the final result. This is the South Bank and another day out with the Wappers. 6in by 8in.

 

South Bank, Thames, London, Ice cream van, pen drawing

I am off to Florence for a painting trip so my next move was to go shopping to stock up on pens. I found this odd white pen which allowed hatching on the cream paper. Interesting effect, I shall be using it more. 6in by 8in.

 

Nude, Life drawing

A few life drawings to finish off. I was trying to keep things simple so just black and white.

 

nude, life drawing

I added red here and regretted it slightly.
Life drawing, nude

Last one, learnt my lesson and went back to black and white! Next post should be the glories of Florence…

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