Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

June 11, 2013

A Different Light

Filed under: France,Painting,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 2:11 pm

Well, I have returned after 10 days painting in Brittany. It is always a mixture of pleasure and disappointment when you view the results of such adventures. Before I set off I always research my destination on Google to see what might be there. This might be a mistake as it gives you ideas of paintings that might not be there in reality. Although you need a good subject or motif, good lighting and mood is probable more telling. I have found that an unprepossessing road in London with a great moment of light makes a better picture than all the towers and battlements of Windsor Castle on a dull day! The trip this time was organised by Michael Richardson and his partner Kate Borg, who do a great job of shepherding 20 or so painters around a foreign land. I always take far too much painting stuff, a simple calculation should tell me that 30 oil boards is too many, but better than too few I suppose.

Once you arrive  of course reality takes hold. It is impossible to go from one painting to another, there is always the wandering about looking for something that might make a picture. So 3 paintings a day is about all I can manage. Most of those are small sketches and oddly the small quick impressions are nearly always my personal favourites.The Île de Ré was this year’s destination. After last years weather I took a suitcase full of inappropriate rain gear… which I didn’t use. Trevor Chamberlain was with us and it is rumoured he can control the weather so it was sunny throughout.

I always find it a little tricky to adapt to a new place. The light seems different somehow and the local colours always are distinctive. This means a new palette has to be found by trial and error. Some colours go out and others are added. This time Burnt Sienna got the chop and was replaced by Terra Rosa. Cobalt blue went into storage and Ultramarine and Turquoise were added. Cadmium red was too potent so it got replaced with Magenta. Despite this change around I really struggled with the oils, and despite my packing 20 or so boards only 5 or 6 rather poor oils got completed. My oil painting is really at an early stage and although I can usually get what I want in the studio the rigours of plein air cause rather a lot of misses. This was compounded this time by the fact that I just could not find the right hues for the buildings. The trouble is that after the first few go wrong you loose confidence and that makes the next effort all the harder.

In contrast the watercolours were flying off the brush! There is something in that bright light and warm hued buildings that is easy to catch in transparent media. You always have the light of the paper shining through suffusing the painting with light. I did one subject twice once in oils and once in watercolour, the comparison was a little painful with the watercolour far superior. This means I will have to mostly to put the watercolours to one side for a while and concentrate on the oils. This may seem illogical but getting better in any area means a certain amount of pain and in order to do good paintings in a different media  the requisite number of bad ones need to be painted!

I’ll do the paintings in order as best as I can remember, but some were done on two visits. There are a few complete car crashes which I will keep private!!


HMS Warrior, portsmouth, ship, watercolour, plein air

I travelled down to Portsmouth to meet the coach and was a little early. No trouble passing the time though as HMS Warrior is moored at The Hard and

the light was spectacular. This is a very quick 7in by 5in but I shall be attempting a bigger one similar to this.


St malo, France, Brittany, street, watercolour, plein air

The ferry docked at St Malo and I was eager to paint there as my last visit was pretty much a washout due to rain. This was a bit of a monster of a scene

but I wanted to feel I was properly started. This is one of several streets stuffed with posh shops. Rather a lot to squeeze into 7in by 5in but great fun.


St Malo, Brittany, France, watercolour, chapel, plein air

This is a little chapel we came across. The sun was only there for a moment so I had to try and keep it in my mind as I painted. I sketched the line of the

shadow on the building to the left of the chapel in the first few moments of drawing. Once you have that clue it is possible to work out what the rest of the

lighting would be. I couldn’t resist the car, people laugh at me for putting them in but they are a feature of our world and bring the picture up to date. You also

have to consider that in 40 years time that oh so modern car will look quaint! Easier to draw too than the horses and carriages that earlier painters were stuck

with. 7in by 5in again.


St Martin De Re, brittany, france 2cv, watercolour, plein air

The next morning I bounced out of bed at dawn to do this quick sketch, then settled down and painted a truly execrable oil which I wiped off before going

to have my breakfast in a somewhat chastened state. To add insult to injury the next watercolour was a stinker too! 7in by 5in.


St Martin de Re, brittany, France, watercolour, plein air

The next morning it was a relief to paint this which was fun to do. I spent the rest of the day wandering about to get the feel of the place. I did start a pen

drawing of a nearby street but a shop keeper placed a huge post card stand right at my feet so I had to abandon it! 9in by 7in in an old Whatman pad.


St Martin de Re, brittany, France, watercolour, plein air

Next morning I settled to painting this larger picture. The close streets are quite hard to find subjects in I find and I didn’t want to do a straight architectural

study. Not a complete success but quite interesting. 14in by 10in.


St Martin de Re, Brittany, france, plein air, watercolour.

The next victim was a more conventional view of the same scene. Done on the last of an old Whatman pad that must be 50 years old. 10in by 7in.


Citadel, St Martin de Re, Brittany, France, watercolour, plein air

Before heading to the restaurant Graham Davies and I walked out to the old citadel now a prison that has this magnificent gate. It is easy to get caught up in the

architectural detail in a subject like this. If you are doing a study of the carving themselves this is fine, but in an impression you are trying for the effect of a

briefer look even a glance. In this case the detail must be indicated rather than defined which is in some ways harder but no more or less worthwhile in my

opinion. 7in by 5in.


St Martin de Re, Brittany, France, oil painting, plein air

The first of the oils I can bear to post. It is a collection of parts that just doesn’t make a picture. There are passages I like but if it doesn’t coalesce into a

whole then they are worthless. Some of the problems are compositional a good figure or two would help focus the picture. I knew it wasn’t working and

started to pack up only to realise my camera had been stolen. Either filched from my bag or I might have carelessly left it on view after snapping possible figures.

Fortunately I had transferred most of my pictures to my ipad but I still lost a day. When things like this happen there is no point in letting them ruin the trip,

that would mean they had stolen more than just a few circuit boards and a bit of glass! 10in by 8in oils.


La Flotte, Il de re, France, Brittany, watercolour, plein air

Nowhere sold cameras in St Martin so I had to go to outside La Flotte the next town along the coast where there was an industrial park that had a camera

shop. The walk along the coast was lovely but I was focussed on getting a new snapper. After a great deal of looking, asking and a fair few kilometeres

I succeeded and on my way back through la Flotte I very quickly painted this. It’s only a note really but such 10 minute scribbles are amazingly useful

if you come to do a studio version from a photo. When I got back and we had all eaten we did a nocturne of the harbour… the result seen next day was

interesting but probably not art! 5in by 7in.


St Martin de Re, Brittany, France, Watercolour

This was done over a few days. The drawing was done on my way back from La Flotte. I then next day did most of the washes and finally

finished it off from memory in my room. It needs its tree shadows simplifying now I see  it on screen, but that is easy to do. 10in by 9in.


St Martin de Re, harbour, france, boat, ship, oil painting

Another go at an oil. This was done over two days as well. I wrestled with the building tones, wiping out and repainting I forget how many times. The

composition is irredeemably lopsided a ship on the left might help I suppose. Once home I toned down the blues a little as they were a bit “tubey”.

Again some nice enough bits but no cigar. I never really finished the boats but probably won’t bother now. 14in by 10in.


St Martin de Re, Brittany, France, oil painting, plein air

I decided to give myself a bit more of a chance and do an oil of a subject I had already done in watercolour. It mostly went well, certainly

an improvement on previous oils. I am still struggling with the building tones especially the lit ones. This will be OK I think with a bit of cropping

an inch off the bottom and the right will improve the picture I feel. 10in by 12in oils.


Nocturne, St Martin de Re, Brittany, France, oil painting, Harbour

It was nocturnes again that evening. I had taken the precaution of removing the more dangerous colours before starting. The light is only there for 10

minutes and thereafter it gets increasingly difficult to see either the subject, your palette or indeed the painting! A bit over the top on the Turquoise but

great fun as there were ten or so of us lined up on the harbour wall much to the amusement of passers by. 10in by 8in.


St martin de Re, Brittany, France, watercolour, plein air

Very near to the first oil. Oh so much easier for me in watercolour. To a large degree confidence I realise but watercolour just catches the feeling of Light.

10in by 8in.


St Martin de Re, brittany, watercolour, plein air

This is another of the great fortified gates into St Martin, the citadel is to the right. 7in by 5in. The last one from St Martin.


Dinard, Brittany, France, watercolour

We had a few night in Dinard near St Malo to finish off our stay. The weather had broken and I did this quick painting of the wet streets in the evening.

A coach whipped along the narrow road and nearly removed my brolly and left arm so I finished this off back at the hotel! 7in by 5in.


Dinard, waterclour, France, beach

Up soon after dawn again.The beach at Dinard, so posh that the beach huts have stone columns. So beautiful at that time of day. 10in by 8in.


Beach, Dinard, France, oil painting, plein air.

After stuffing myself with coffee and croissants I went down of the beach. The tide had dropped and the reflections in the sand were lovely. The wind however

had gone in the opposite direction to the tide and was blowing at 40 knots! I had to hang on to everything and my paint rag is still there somewhere! I did much

better on this one. I had ideas about what I would do in the studio after but in the event I just left it as it was. 10in by 14in oils.


Dinard, france watercolour, plein air

Later I walked over to the other side of the town with Mike Richardson. He painted the bay but I was taken by this odd scene. 7in by 5in.


Dinard, brittany, France, watercolour, plein air

Dinard is strewn with mad gothic mansions all around the bay. I could not resist painting a few of them. I nearly got cut off by the tide doing this one.


Dinard, france, watercolour, plein air

Last one another mansion against the fading light. A fantastic trip which I enjoyed hugely despite ups and downs. Such a pleasure to paint

in company and spurs you on to greater efforts. I must set to and get some studio work done before the memories fade.

February 1, 2013

The Doldrums

It happens to us all I’m afraid. Somehow it starts to feel that your painting is going nowhere and you can’t see the way forwards. I have been there so many times over my career that it is like an old acquaintance. I have not been helped this year so far by almost a full set of rejections from the open exhibitions. The New English, ROI, RBA, Threadneedle all passed over my work. I did get into the RSMA and the RWS so not a complete washout! I know all artists must feel the same, but when I go to the exhibitions it is hard to look at what has been deemed worthy and think, “Am I really worse than this?” I would love to see the choosing process, by my lights much of the content in these exhibitions is of quite a low to moderate technical standard. Only a very few would be considered good enough for commercial work.

One thing that does strike me is that what is chosen it for “poke my eye out” qualities. Most the chosen work  leans towards the brash, only a few that are at all subtle gets through. This makes me suspect the paintings are “paraded” past the judges and most don’t get more than glanced at from a distance. I must be careful here lest I tread into “sour grapes” territory! I will in future selections choose more contrasty colourful  pictures as I suspect that is what in being picked up on. This is a bit of a pity as my current interest is leaning towards more subtle close tones. I shall persist with the open exhibitions, learning what gets attention and what is likely to get passed over is very difficult, I’m told by long standing exhibitors that they can never see any rhyme or reason as to whether they get in or not, so I may just have to accept  that it is a lottery. The lack of progress is disheartening though as until I have exhibited several times I am unlikely to be able to join any of these societies. If you are in the club you get your pictures in the open and other exhibitions  with a degree of certainty. I can see I have started the process a little too late in life.

Back to the doldrums. I don’t seem to be able to complete studio pictures at present. I have six or seven looking at me with what I sometimes imagine to be resentment. None of them are at a stage where they could be written off as disastrous , but I don’t seem to have the will to get down to finishing them. The plein air work is mostly fine, but needs a certain extra something, to many of the paintings are pedestrian and fit only for the cupboard and eventual overpainting. I need to focus on painting fewer but choose the subjects more carefully. I tell myself again and again not to do a painting just because I am somewhere with the intention of painting, but only when the subject has really taken my imagination and I can see how it can be made into a good picture. It is very, very rare I find for a mediocre subject to make a good final painting, in fact I can’t recall ever having achieved it in all my years of painting! To get good pictures you must contrive to get yourself in front of good subject matter, but that alas is much easier said than done.

In order to get myself up and running again I intend to do another series of 10 or so London studio watercolours my eventual aim being to have enough of them for an eventual exhibition. To raise the stakes I also intend to complete another 10 oils in the same vein. Seeing as I’ve announced my intentions I hope to have painted myself into a corner and will have to set to!

This post is a sort of retrospective, I wish to sort of look back and take stock. This can be a depressing activity when you look back and find that there has been little or no improvement in 30 years! This is somewhat of an illusion though as a success can occur at any stage in a painting life. When I look back the number of successes compared to failures seems to fairly consistently improve and that is all I suspect anyone can hope for. My review will consist of a painting or two from each decade from the 70′s onwards. Starting in the 1970′s.

Father Sleeping
I was in my early years much more of a drawer than a painter, this must be 1970 as it is marked by my A level art teacher. She was called “Glam” as she was very tweedy in dress and not keen on fashion. She encouraged me to work in pen and ink. I remember her being furious with the examiners that I didn’t get a better grade at A level. I’m not sure I had studied other artists much at that stage. I do however remember cutting the pen and ink illustrations from the radio times, which as I recall were of a very high standard.


An early watercolour I guess from around 1979. Very little of my work was from life in this period. As is often the case looking back I like this much more now than I would have then.


A very rare item, an oil painting from the 1970′s. I had thought it later but the back says 1976. I would not have thought much of this at the time, but I quite like it now. It is an odd thing but you judge the past with the knowledge of the present. The 20 year old that painted this is a stranger to me now. Indeed I can’t really claim that it is one of my works, I vaguely recall I painted it in the company of my mother using her paints. Which makes sense as I didn’t own oil paints until I inherited my mother’s. The style is one that she would have approved of, she rather despaired of my love of science fiction illustrations and comics!


Into the 80′s. I don’t recall painting it, but it is Spain. Again with my mother’s oil paint. It is very thinly painted. I probably considered this just the beginning and would have made it much more finished. I have quite a few paintings from this period that are best forgotten as I didn’t know when to leave well alone! This is a period when I was studying perspective and trying to get my illustration work up to professional standards.


A watercolour from the very end of the 80′s. I remember the holiday, one of the last I took with my parents. I am sometimes amazed at the confidence I had then. Not entirely justified as the piles of failed efforts will attest. I seemed to set out on each painting with no fear at all. I am far less certain of success now, just something the years do to you I suppose. I start keeping watercolour sketch books from about this period.


As an aside this is where illustration was taking me. My whole focus was on improving enough to get comissions. I was going two nights a week to life drawing and learning how to use Gouache and an airbrush with dyes. This was one of my first jobs for a Puffin book. To my great disappointment they didn’t use it and commissioned another artist to do it again. During this period the only paintings other than illustrations were done during infrequent holidays.


Tardebigge Church

In the 1990′s there was a brief foray into acrylics. I remember painting this with my mother’s easel weighed down with rocks due to the wind. I started with acrylics because drum scanning was coming into use and the artworks had to be flexible. Gouache if layered would crack when wrapped round the drum of the scanner. I can see the beginnings of my current style here.



This is an example from my sketch books of the period. The only watercolour painting I did was in these 7in by 5in sketchbooks. Nonetheless some of my favourite paintings are from this period. All the work on illustration was starting to make improvements in my off duty work.


Another from my small sketch books around 2003 I think. I had by now moved away from illustration and was doing scenic painting for film, advertising and television. I was quite rapidly making a name for myself in that area as I had the sculptural and construction skills that made me quite useful. It was far more fun and more pleasant than the illustration world where snobbish put downs and subtle humiliations were frequent… something that the picture painting/gallery world has unfortunately got elements of as well alas. In the Commercial world “what” you were more than “who” you were was the defining factor. I had rather forgotten that in the rest of the arts this is often not the case. Also in fairness it is a little odd coming from the commercial arena where I am somebody trusted with projects running into millions, into the picture painting world where I am a nobody makes a slightly uncomfortable contrast. Not that I can really expect any different.



I remember this day well. I went out with friends who painted scenery for the theatre. I painted this at a furious rate no more than 40 minutes. When I finished I was out of breath! It was in hindsight a turning point. I knew after painting this that sooner or later I would be leaving the very well paid  and fun entertainments world and risking my arm as a “proper” painter. 2003 I would guess.


Later in 2008, I am beginning to paint more seriously now. Still in acrylics but I am considering oils and plotting how to give up most of my paying work but still retain enough to pay the bills. Just as well I was a little circumspect as the crash proceeded to erase a considerable chunk of my savings. This painting showed me I needed to start learning to paint in oils. With acrylics the edges are far harder to control. Bravura painting in acrylics has to be just that as the stuff becomes unworkable so quickly.


Here we are up to date. One of the rejects. Nonetheless a painting I am pleased with. The problem I now face is that for whatever reason my definition of a successful painting is not what either the traditionalists or the moderns would choose. Which doesn’t bode for an easy ride!


Hammersmith Bridge, thames , London
Last weeks effort. A lovely day in Chiswick looking towards Hammersmith Bridge. I always find this sort of very crisp sparkly day hard to paint. The tide was rapidly approaching and it was blowing a gale, to make matters harder still. This looks average when the board is just bare, but once it has a frame it looks fine. Some pictures need that supporting edge that a frame supplies. 16in by 10in


Chiswick, Thames
A very quick daub. Looking straight into the sun I was chased up the shore by the tide ending up 10ft away from where I started. Only a colour note really. 10in by 8in.

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