Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

January 13, 2014

Of Convention and the Abstract Nirvana

Filed under: Essex,Ireland,Painting,Thames,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 12:33 pm

Oh what high reasons we must have to put paint brush to paper nowadays. Looking at a bit of blurb on the Royal Institute of Watercolour Painters one person was reassessing the landscape, they don’t appear to have been referring to any previous assessment which seemed odd. Another presented what looked like a bit of old wall which was really a worried bit of overworked painted paper. He was concerned about almost invisible scuffs and scrapes, pleasant enough in a polite Ben Nicholson, don’t scare the sheep sort of way, but hardly plumbing the intellectual depths. One was keen to be challenging convention, seemingly unaware that the conventions she was challenging had died the death 50 years ago and that almost every artist since has been self-righteously kicking the long cold corpse ever since. Also she seemed to be challenging convention by sticking firmly to the current set of conventions, which as I keep on saying are getting quite long in the tooth.

Yes artists revolted against the stultifying grip of academicism and the history painters and rightly so, but that was a hundred years ago as I have mentioned before. That battle has been fought and won. To present yourself as still fighting the forces of “traditionalism” today in the 21st century is absurd one would think. It all comes I think from the lovely feeling of kicking against the traces. The Bauhaus the Blau Richter and a plethora of others were kicking against real traces not ones long broken by the efforts of others! How easy it is to revolt against something that is long gone and a mere ghost. You can be revolting but still gathered into the bosom of the establishment which thinks that revolution (of the right sort) is the bees knees.

The triumph of contemporary art as we term it is an odd thing at first glance. Most of the practitioners do the most dreary of day to day actions. In fact the drearier the better, so arranging a few thousand tyres into a big submarine or painting a thousand individual dots is just the thing. Personally I would rather spend all day putting the walnuts on a never-ending line of walnut whips as they would give the public more potential joy, but each to their own. Much of it is so little fun it can be safely farmed out to assistants and art facilitators of various kinds. While you as the artist are left to do the meeting and greeting, marketing and partying that are I suspect the mainstay of the artistic life. It is only when you look at it this way you realise what a strong hand modern and post-modern art has.

You don’t have to spend years and years getting skilful at something and then realise you still have an endless amount still to learn. You stand very little chance of being sneered at for your lack of talent. It  brings job opportunities where doing bugger all but appearing mysteriously superior is the mainstay of your day. You have a secure but slightly racy position in the social hierarchy. You have a simple answer to the “What do you do?” question at parties that prompts interest and conversation. You are freed from lots of tiresome social requirements such as consideration of others, modesty and any dress code. All of this and you are also a cool subversive revolutionary storming the barricades of tradition and convention! As the troops that once defended these barricades are long dead you don’t even need take any risk. All in all, what’s not to like?

Well there is a downside. You cannot assess your own progress, as that is decided by others. Nobody really wants what you do except as maybe a counter in a financial game or a notch on a collectors bedpost. You have really not helped anyone much except yourself, which makes for the emptiest of lives. In John Carrel’s “Smallcreeps Day” the protagonist seeks to find out what the part he has been assembling his whole life was actually for. He traces it through the huge factory and eventually discovers that the other half of the factory is devoted to disassembling what has been already made. Returning the parts to bins to be taken for reassembly once more in a futile endless circle. That is why artists talk of reassessing and exploring, they want somehow to feel they are doing work of some social import. Well an artist might cheer an individual life here and there, but to change, reassess or reform society itself is aiming perhaps a little too high. Though taking up the stance that you might be spreading some important message must be good for the ego I suppose.

Another underlying trend is the jealousness towards science. Ever since science has been such a success everybody tries to steal its clothes. The snake oil and cosmetic firms, the nutritionalists and quacks all seek to talk up their work with sciencey words. Even religion wants a piece of the action despite the self evident risks. Art suffers in much the same way. Scientific terms such as investigation, experimental and so forth litter artists statements. As if they are undertaking some portentous and important work of discovery or exploration which will further the wisdom of mankind for the benefit of all. Well I am pretty sure that is not the case. I feel however to make something humble that brings a little light or joy momentarily into somebody’s life is a worthwhile act. But science it ain’t.

Art Historians seem to have suffered from the science bug from early on. Art history became presented as a series of discoveries and advancements to ape the progress of science. So we have the “discovery” of perspective, and the imposition of the progress towards abstraction via the Impressionists. Almost as if abstraction had not existed before, ignoring the fact that patterning and the arranging of shapes was likely the first sort of art mankind made. There is not even the slightest reason indeed why abstraction should be considered an advance. Still artists and  art writers like to plot progress towards abstraction as if by casting off of shallow representational concerns the artist is  reaching towards nirvana and a true purity of expression.

I suppose at some time in the past an artist was a seer. I dare say religion, art and even power shared the same bed in prehistoric times. Even in the Renaissance artists held a special position responsible for encouraging the troops. The power had long since been stripped from the profession of course, but they had a real place in the hierarchy. Oh how we are fallen now. We purvey decorative items for the home and investment items for the rich and gullible. This is not altogether a sneer. I feel making something beautiful that has a place in someone’s home that they may glance at now and again in a pleasurable manner is a very worthwhile activity. Even if the feeling of the owner is partly made up of pride of possession. I have items like that of my own. I have an 18th century watercolour that hangs in my bedroom. I may not notice it for months at a time, but every now and again it catches my eye and brings a little pleasure. What more could an artist ask?


Leigh on Sea, Thames, Essex, Brass Monkeys, Plein air, oil painting

Somewhat short on paintings this post, I have been rather busy with commercial work. I have at some stage to stop doing paid work but at least

I have reduced it to a quite small number of days that I like to get out of the way early in the year! The picture above is from the first outing for

the Brass Monkeys this year. It is the glorious mud of Leigh on Sea in Essex. I have put a photo below which shows how easy it is to be over-

whelmed by the scene before you! When presented by such a vista it is very easy to become paralysed by the sheer immensity of it. Also while you

paint it is hard to see your own effort as anything other than a very dim reflection of the real thing. here I tried to get down the feel of the light

first and foremost. The arrangement of boats etc was very secondary.  10in by 16in oils.


Leigh on Sea

As you can see my poor wee painting is swamped by the glorious scene! Interesting how the camera sees the whole thing in more cool tones

than my eye. People often say how much better the eye is but I have to say I often like what both see. I often peer at the little screen of my camera

to see what the technological seer makes of the view I am about to paint. Indeed it often gives a very good idea of the main tonal divisions. This is

because the eye had a built in constantly updating tonal adjustment that varies over the whole scene before us. It is like a multiple exposure but can

have a flattening effect because we very often get the mid to dark areas too light. Here we tend to see the mud as bright as the sky, but in reality it is not.


Leigh on Sea, Essex, plein air, Brass Monkeys, oil painting

I narrowed the focus for this one. I reality the blues ranged from Turquoise to Ultramarine, but I made them all Cobalt based to give harmony.

I have painted this view before and made a bit of a mess of it so was glad to make a better fist of it this time. I shall do a studio picture from

this day but it probably won’t have the charm and immediacy of these 45min sketches. 8in by 10in oils.


Leigh on sea, Essex, Brass Monkeys, oil painting

Last one from Leigh on Sea. The sky had been fantastic all day, I could easily have just done repeated sky studies. The wide horizons make Leigh

a perfect venue for the activity. 8in by 10in oils.


Gleninagh, Castle, Burren, Ireland, Plein air, oils

Some of the backlog from Ireland. I didn’t get the chance to do many oils. This is Gleninagh Castle on the wild Atlantic shore of the Burren.

I have painted the distinctive rock formations of the Burren a lot of times now and am beginning to get the hang of the stuff. The blues of

the sky went muddy on site so had to be freshened later. 8in by 10in oils.


Camus Bridge, Tipperary, Ireland, plein air, oil painting

This is an un-named castle at Camus Bridge on the Suir. I had only a very brief go at this only half an hour. Though it looks a peaceful scene

I was standing with my pochade on a wall with traffic whizzing past my backside! After a lorry nearly took me out I decided to retreat…

8in by 10in oils.

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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