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 17, 2017

Talent

Filed under: Drawing,Life Drawing,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , — Rob Adams @ 10:16 am

“Oooh you are soooo talented!” Anyone who reaches a certain point of competence in any creative area can expect to receive this plaudit. Before I started to write in this blog I never really thought about what it might actually mean. On the rare occasions it came my way I would just shrug it of with a sort of semi-grateful embarrassment. They might think I was granted a special ability, but I was always completely certain that I was not. The word talent was once a measure of weight like pounds or kilograms, around 25kilos although it varied between cultures. I was also a measure used in weighing silver and from there perhaps became a measure of worth. We however use it as a description of inherent aptitude.

Here the word “natural” creeps in. Natural talent… from here it is only a small step to “God given.” Which is where my hackles start to rise! In some ways the word talent is used by people to explain why others can do a thing they cannot quite imagine they themselves doing. If you believe some people are special and “gifted” then it absolves you from not having devoted any appreciable effort to achieve similar yourself. Once you start to look the same idea is deeply embedded into our world perception. We believe in gurus, priests, geniuses, high fliers, heros, astrologers, quacks and film stars. We believe in “special” people, no wonder superheroes are so popular at the box office!

In the finance world people believe in magic people who can, “Beat the market” this is despite really good evidence that this is not the case. The trackers and computer controlled investment algorithms consistently trounce them on average every year. People believe in super powered CEOs and executives who need to be paid vast sums for their magic touch. Really they were perhaps only competent and just got very lucky once or even incompetent and lucky will do. Having got lucky the mantle of specialness is laid across the shoulders of that person and they are duly expected to get lucky again. Intelligent people may know that the evidence is against this magic being true, but in practice continue to act as it it were true anyway. For the same reason gamblers who are perfectly aware of the rules of probability still hope for the magic benison of “luck”.

With talent being lucky is just one strand, but it shows we are predisposed to believe some people have a sort of extra “mojo” that makes the difference. “Special” is another word we are very fond of “Special reserve” the very peak of rareness and quality. Advertisers love the term as you can well imagine. They have though made a discovery: Specialness and quality can be separated. You can if you build up the myth make something quite ordinary “Special” and hence charge a premium rate. Fashion brands and pop stars are built by this process. This again plays to our deep feeling that we are each of us special and distinct from the herd. We even try to big it up more… “extra special” to deal with those moments when we are going down under the avalanche of supposedly special things and need to expand the category! We might even go for “unique” just one of a kind… I have seen commercial products described thus… presumably they are all uniquely the same…

I try not to swerve too far off the topic of painting, but once I started looking at where we see “magic” people I found them everywhere. Politicians, the myth of the “strong” leader, which people still cleave to even though most examples led to large piles of dead people. Healers, saints, scientists and mystics they all seem to benefit in different degrees from the invisible halo of talent. It is interesting to see who doesn’t get the plaudit… you might be a talented garden designer but farmers don’t seem to get to be magic. No one ever said, oh you are such a talented window cleaner or plumber. Artists and Architects get to be talented with wings on their heels but Builders and Bricklayers are born to live forever with feet of clay. Actors, musicians, writers and sporty types get to be special but stagehands, roadies, librarians and groundsmen do not.

I cannot help but notice you can get to be “special” by either luck or hard work. You can do something so well that people elevate you or the media can randomly focus on you and garland you with specialness like it or not! For a painter then talent is a worthless plaudit, getting good and improving at your craft is the aim and the is not done by any kind of magic. We have varying intelligence and propensity for being patient and determined. It is these factors not any semi mystical “talent” that makes an artist.

I am behind on the life drawing and painting so I will use this post to showcase my magic, God given talents in the area…

Life drawing

I always find it interesting how the eye can conjure a figure in 3 dimensions from a few blobs! Not many of these super quick ones succeed between one does it makes all the duffers worth it.

life drawing

I don’t know why it is but a square sable brush is so much better to paint the figure with than a round one. Odd really as you would think the rounded human form would be more in tune with the latter.

life drawing

I find it a great benefit to change media with life drawing, it encourages you to focus on different aspects of the figure.

life drawing

Life drawing has this built in time constraint, the model is going to pose for this long only and that is your one chance.

Life drawing

I was pleased with this one, it is sadly rare that you manage to say just enough in the right places and not too much in any area.

life drawing

I am trying to more frequently allow the figure to be cropped by the paper’s edge. This makes you concentrate on the shapes made by the areas that are not person.

Life drawing

I always seem to do better when I don’t think about the whole to much but just add observation to observation until the time runs out. Strange that the resulting drawings don’t look unfinished even though had the time been extended I would have presumably carried on adding marks.

life drawing

You can always see where you lost concentration. Here I was going well but let the whole thing down by not looking hard enough at the chest and stomach. Or maybe by making unnecessary marks that were not backed up by observation.

life drawing

One thing I strive and often fail to do is avoid seeing boundaries that I know are there but cannot quite see. It is perfectly OK if we are not sure quite where the figure ends and the room starts. That is after all often the case when we observe our world. In practice that means marks can flow past the figure’s bounds and a line can be part of both figure and background.

life drawing

It is so hard to consider all the factors at the same time and I sometimes don’t try and focus on one aspect. Here it was direction and weight of line.

life drawing

Here I really had to resist the temptation of seeing too much when due to the light I could actually see very little. People often concentrate on confidence and certainty, but uncertainty and tentative conclusions are actually a large part of our seeing experience and there is nothing wrong to my mind in expressing that aspect in a drawing.

life drawing

One where I used patches of line direction to build up the forms. It was the model’s first experience of posing and when I look at the drawing now there is a hint of the nervous tension that the new experience provoked.

life drawing

Later in the same session she has relaxed. Toned paper is wonderful for life drawing as it means large areas don’t need to be drawn at all!

life drawing

This season we have had a mix of male and female models, it shouldn’t make any difference but somehow the subtle differences of proportion and degrees of external form revealing underlying structure make the experience of drawing each fascinating in a distinctive way.

life drawing

That is it for life scribbles. I have recently taken to using oils in the life sessions for the longer poses which has caused some thrills and quite a few spills as I struggle with the process!

 

 

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