Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

March 13, 2014


This is something that has caused me a certain amount of grief. Many years ago I was warned by a really well known illustrator that a very distinctive personal style was often a problem. He pointed out that once you had established and were known for a distinctive style you wouldn’t be asked for anything else. What is more if your style was a hit and then went out of fashion you were left high and dry with very little work.

This in the event was not a problem for me. I am a born mimic and can usually paint in most styles in a reasonably convincing way. Indeed a lot of my illustration work came with the requests like, “Could you do this in whatshisname’s style as he isn’t available.” I became quite useful and garnered a fair bit of work on this basis. It broadened the range of skills that I had which was I suppose a plus.  The disadvantage was that I didn’t develop much of a distinctive personal style myself! I would have an idea and think that it would suit this style or that, swopping between them as if changing hats.

This problem was brought into focus when I started to paint pictures for myself not for commission. At first my acrylics were so varied in style that if they were hung on the wall side by side nobody would guess they were by the same painter! In watercolours I had more to build on as I had been filling small sketchbooks for years with topographical paintings from holidays etc. Here at least my style was reasonably consistent. With oils however I tended to swing between the finished and sketched or the broad and the detailed. Looking at my wall of recent paintings I do at last see a style emerging, which has led me to think on it further.

I now think the matter of style can be a very thorny issue. The same problem occurs with easel painters as it does with illustrators. If your style is very distinctive, say you outline most things with a primary or some such, then if you stop that practice then the pictures won’t be what people expect of you. Also you will only be able to do such pictures where that particular quirk works well. A subtle misty mood for example would be nigh on impossible. You have in essence painted yourself into a cul de sac, you can only paint the subjects that suit your style.

It happens I think because people wish to reprise past successes. They paint a nocturne which is very much of a hit and thereafter do nocturnes until they turn up their toes!

Looking back at art history you can see examples of artistic type casting. De Chirico is quite a good one. He became famous for his surreal paintings, but later in life attempted to paint in a more classical manner. (much to the horror of art historians who really don’t like you to step outside your box!). He came to the other style without the required skill and so visibly struggled. The technical hurdles of drawing, observation and paint handling for the classical inspired work being far higher than for the surreal ones. No one really wanted his new work so he had to keep on knocking out the old surreal stuff to make a buck. The problem for De Chirico was he had become type cast, his style had become a straight jacket that imprisoned him. De Chirico is laudable I feel because he at least tried to throw off the chains. Other artists having established their own comfortable little walled garden never thereafter step beyond its bounds.

Another example would be Samuel Palmer, in his youth he had mental problems and painted in a visionary style. But later he settled on to a more even keel and painted in a fairly straight observational manner. In both styles he is very good, but due to the existence of his hallucinatory and romantic early work the later efforts will never be really appreciated. Indeed books on him often only feature later work briefly at the end!

Other painters, just peg away at the same dreary stuff year after year. Oddly the art world gives brownie points for dogged persistence. If you spend 30 years arranging pine cones into mandalas in the depths of Siberia it must they argue be more than a passing phase. I can’t imagine what a dreary existence it must be to be someone like Bridget Riley knocking out the same Op art tedium year after year. Mind you she no longer bothers to do them herself but has helpers do the donkeywork. Not that the end results aren’t very decorative, but I’d prefer to have a William Morris on my wall any day!

So I now feel that too strong a personal style is a bit of a handicap. We all hope to be different and noticed but in a world where everybody is trying to be just that, different becomes the new same. What you hoped might separate you from the crowd does just the opposite. The real rare thing in life and art is not someone doing something different but someone doing something really well.


Greenwich, Royal Hill, pen and ink, Drawing, London


I have as I believe mentioned before decided to draw more in pen and ink. This is already paying dividends as by reducing your  choices of tone and mark you are forced into finding ways of explaining your subject that only require line and tone. With such a limited menu of marks everything has to earn its keep. Hatching with its strength order and direction becomes very important. If you do a building wall in just vertical lines then it becomes dead and featureless. In real life there are many variations so if you break up mostly vertical lines with the odd angled group then you are showing both that it is vertical and flat but also that it is varied in its surface. For a smooth concrete wall you would add very few disruptions, for a worn dirty tenement far more.

This is Royal Hill in Greenwich. I have decided that dip pens though lovely are too much to fight with en plein air so this is done in fibre tip. I am using a watercolour Moleskin as I quite like the fact that if you move the pen quickly you get a faded dotty line.

St Pauls, London, City, Pen and Ink, drawing


Another one, quite a fearsome subject but it only took about an hour to render. It is one of the hardest things to learn to leave enough white to allow the subject to breath. In reality the sky was much darker than the sunlit dome but IMO the drawing would not have been improved by hatching the sky area.

Greeenwich, Royal Naval Hospital, watercolour

A very quick sketch done battling the wind. It was a super day with wonderful light, hopefully I will get some studio pictures from the day. This is the entrance road to the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich. It is now a music college so you draw to the sounds of music issuing from various windows!

Watercolour 5in by 7in.

Blackheath, London, Oil Painting


This is Blackheath, painted on an early morning expedition with Graham Davies. I had spotted this subject looking very beautiful several times but never been able to stop. I have to sort out the figures as they make an “M” it is odd how things like this can strike you several days later when your eye passes over a painting.

Oils, 10in by 14in.

Fleet St, London, City, Urban, Oil painting, plein air


This was done on the most gorgeous day with the Brass Monkeys. We arrived at dawn and were faced with the most astonishing light. The problem with painting at dawn is that the subject starts out gorgeous and then gets less so as the light increases. As result this had to be painted very quickly. I am attempting to paint a little bigger so it was the first serious outing for my new larger pochade. I must say it worked very well, I was surprised that painting a notch bigger did not really take that much more time. This is St Pauls from Fleet St. I will do a studio painting from this but decided not to work up the sketch any further.

Oils 12in by 16in

St Pauls, London, plein air, oil painting


The next one of the day. I had textured my board more than I usually do as an experiment. It works well but I got it a mite to strong I shall have to experiment to find a prime finish that suits me. Up until now I have been painting on quite smooth boards. Which is quite difficult but good for you as the brush strokes must be well thought out. But for this sort of atmospheric subject a textured surface works better.

Oils 12in by 12in.

St Pauls, Oil painting, London, plein air


I don’t know what kind of coffee I had early that morning but I painted like a demon all day! Partly it is being out with a group of fellow painters which is very pleasant and inspiring. Another that would be worth taking into the studio. As I posted this I noticed the tower cutting the sky was too strong so had to stop typing briefly to soften it! St Pauls again, which means I did it 4 times in the day!

Oils 12in by 20in.

January 3, 2014

The Fear of Failure

We all I suspect familiar with that moment when we put off doing an unpleasant but unavoidable task until a later date. I used to do it on a regular basis when doing uninspiring illustration jobs, to such a degree that I frequently had to work through the night to hit deadlines. I can still remember the feeling, once I had actually got down to starting a job, of the awful realisation that I had under estimated the work involved and was at serious risk of not delivering on time. Over the years I got better at both starting early enough and also to more accurately predict the scale of the task. Oddly if the job was at the limits of what I felt myself capable of I would start almost immediately incase the unknown territory proved intractably boggy.

This brings me to my topic for this post. Now I am painting in a way that allows me to follow my own muse rather than fulfil the requirements of others, there are no deadlines. No one is telling me that I have to get a painting done but myself. This in turn brings a curse that most artists will recognise… procrastination. If I had actually painted in all the moments that were potentially available for the activity then a great deal more work would have been done! I actually don’t think this matters too much, I feel that all these little and often unimportant activities we fill our days with are valuable to our sense of self and our journey through the years.

There is however another sort of procrastination that is fuelled by the fear of failing and the avoidance of disappointment. Also in many of us is the fear of others seeing that failure. We like to avoid others seeing the moments when we stepped up to the plate, made a wild swing and missed the ball entirely. I do post here the paintings that I feel miss the mark, but I do not for the most part post the the ones that in my eyes at least are complete train wrecks. A part of me feels that I ought to, as people might find it encouraging that experienced painters do not always pull something if not necessarily a rabbit out of the hat. The other part feels that they should be swept well an truly under the carpet. There is a real danger as well in that people will always judge you on the worst work displayed rather than the best. This does not matter too much on a blog such as this, but if you are showing a portfolio to a client they will inevitably look at less good work and think that is what you might deliver if given a commission.

There is no getting away from the fact that it is an unpleasant feeling when you work away at a painting and at a certain point you realise that damn thing is not only bad, but also that there is nothing much you can think of that would put it right. Not only a car crash but a right off as well! When you sit down to watch the telly in the evening when earlier you scraped off a whole day’s or more work, you do not do so feeling fulfilled! I can talk until the cows come home about success being built on failure, this my be true, but none of us relish those moments when our noses are rubbed in the fact that our feet are truly made of clay.

It is this fear that often stops me and I am sure many others from starting a painting in the first place. I am especially prone to putting off beginning a painting that I have visualised in my minds eye but think carries a high probability of failure. Sometimes I find myself starting a different but easier subject in order to put off the evil day. I have over the years developed methods of grasping my own boot straps and giving a good old tug!
One is the ski jump method, just pushing yourself over the brink before you have had time to think it through. This has the disadvantage in that not taking the time to think a painting through increases the possibility of failure. My alternate method is to think about beginning and all the subsequent steps so much that I build up such a head of steam that I just have to start. Generally it would be a mixture of the two though.
I have been trying to find sage advice to write here that might help others faced with moments of prevarication and foot dragging but am struggling a bit do do so. I think the best thing I can offer is that you do recognise the problem and develop your own individual strategies for launching yourself into action. I sometimes wonder in myself if occasionally I do paintings in order to avoid doing other things in life that are necessary  but less fun!

I have as I usually do gone to visit friends in Ireland for the Christmas period. This explains the rather large gap in posting. I go to see and catch up with friends not to paint so there are only sketches rather than anything large. I always come back with a heap of half done rained off paintings too, which I will hopefully finish off once home. My new years resolution is to make a determined assault on the open exhibitions. Last year I didn’t plan well enough and had limited success, this year I will consider what to put in more carefully in the light of having seen most of the shows.


Blackheath, London, plein air, oils

This is The Hare and Billet on Blackheath. Steve Alexander joined me for a few days to paint around London. I must do more up on the heath

as there are some great views especially at this time of year when the light is so low. 10in by 16in. Oils.


Putney, plein air, Brass Monkeys, oil painting, London

The last day out with The Brass Monkeys before Christmas. This is the river front in Putney. The light was very hard and I struggled with this.

10in by 12in.


Putney, Thames, River, London, Plein air, oil painting

We were about to give up due to the rain but the light picked up a bit. This is by the Rowing Club. 10in by 14in oils.


polesden lacey, watercolour

Steve and I dropped in to Polesden Lacey on the way to Surrey. It was wet but we painted anyhow!

I always rather like the mood of wet days, but the paint was very slow to dry. 5in by 7in.


River Nore, Ireland, watercolour

This is a bridge over the River Nore in Ireland. I had just slept in the car so this is the half light just after dawn with the first of the traffic.

5in by 7in


Templemore, Ireland, watercolour

Partway across Ireland, this is Templemor, a few bits of sun around but almost the last!

5in by 7in. Watercolour.


Ballyportry, clare, ireland, castle, watercolour

This is Ballyportry in Co Clare, a subject I have done a fair few times. I had to move the puddle so that it reflected the bit I wanted! 7in by 5in.


Burren, Co clare, ireland, watercolour

Another subject I am very familiar with. The Burren in Co Clare has a strange often mournful air. I painted this in the very last of the light.


Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolor

Returning back from a walk. I only got to sketch this and put in a few key tones before the heavens opened. If I only have a very short moment

then I try to get the most distinctive thing down. Here it was the tone of the sky and the distant lit trees. The rest had to be put in later but for me

that contrast was the key element. 10in by 4in. Watercolour


Burren, co clare, watercolour, ireland, cooloorty

A very rapid sketch where I was just experimenting with ways to do the wild hedgerows of the Burren. 5in by 7in.


Flaggy Shore, Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolour

This is the evening light on the “Flaggy Shore” near Lough Murree. The stormy weather gave some amazing sights in the evenings when it often

seemed to clear for a short while.4in by 10in watercolour.


Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolour

Mostly imagination, from the memory of a moment on a walk at the end of the day. 5in by 7in. Watercolour

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