Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

October 18, 2016


For an artist it is a bit strange to consider what might happen to a painting after it leaves your care. I suspect long dead artists would be bemused by what is said and paid for their works. Each painting carries with it a story, a bit of history true or false, that makes up its provenance. As well as this there is the story attached to the artist, which may or may not represent the true course of his or her’s life. The difficulty arises of course in that all this information is not actually attached to the physical work of art and the connection can get lost, forgotten or forged.

Where I wonder is the visual value of the work itself? Indeed it seems the actual appearance of a painting is of a lesser importance than the story attached to it. So you might have a terrible Monet (and there are plenty of pretty average ones) with a cast iron paper trail from artist to current owner and it would be worth far less that a brilliant painting by a lesser known soul. The fact that the Monet hung on the wall would disappoint and the other painting reward on every viewing seems irrelevant.

Paintings can fall from grace, a Van Dyke can be demoted to “School of” and the painting will be dismissed with a brief glance rather than admired. Again this is seemingly unconnected to the actual painting. What about the people who admired the picture before its fall from grace, was their aesthetic appreciation wasted… wrong or misguided? You can imagine after research a label being changed by a gallery assistant. A visitor who had been particularly taken with the painting could return ten minutes later for another look and might find that the “Van Dykeness” of the painting had evaporated!

I can only conclude that the only guide is your eyes and the less back story you know the better. All those words only obscure and don’t illuminate the actual object. They do change how we view a painting, but sometimes not in a useful way. It might be better indeed if galleries didn’t label pictures at all. The could just have numbers and if you liked a picture you could call up its known history.

With some painters the mystique of the artist completely overwhelms the artwork. Andy Warhol’s work I find after first impressions dreary and dull, like a quite good one liner repeated ad nauseam, but his story of decadence and nihilism and his place in his milieu is fascinating. Except for a very brief period Van Gogh’s was I feel pretty uninspiring, but his life story and monumental self pity make a great story.

Really we should be looking for those brief moments when an artist by some confluence of skill, inspiration and luck creates a masterpiece. This might be only once in a career, or indeed for most of us, never. It is fine to give extra admiration to artists like Rembrandt who scaled the heights more than others, but not alright to inappropriately elevate works where he fell short. It is unfair to the artist also. Imagine if you came back from the dead to find everyone admiring some complete stinker you painted!

I have got a bit behind with posting, I was vaguely thinking of splitting post into oils watercolour or prints but I think it is best to stick to a vaguely linear storyline. I vary between thinking I do too many different media to thinking I must try some others. Printing is occupying my thoughts a fair bit as it is new territory and now I have got started I begin to see all sorts of exciting possibilities. So I’l start with that.


Hammersmith Bridge, London, linocut, print

So this is a reduction print of Hammersmith Bridge. For those who are not linocutters the reduction method is where all the colours are produced with the same block. The palest colour is cut first and all the edition printed, then more of the block is cut away for the next colour. So all the colours overlay. I based this on a plein air rather than the photo of the same scene as the painting already had a simplified tonal scheme and I did not want it to be too precise. Next I am going to attempt a double reduction print where two plates are cut away to produce one image.

It is holiday time and this year I went to Newport, the one in Pembrokeshire  Wales. As the holiday was a social one only a few scribbles got done, but I came back with plenty of photos and ideas.

White Sands, pembrokeshire, wales, watercolour, plein air

This is literally 20 min splashing away at Whitesands near St Davids. The wind was so brisk that holding everything was a nightmare. I had to hold down my palette with my food to prevent it taking to the air! It is also quite tricky when the wind is constantly fluttering your paper. The odd thing is though that when painting outside all this somehow adds to the result. The impossibility of being precise made me just go for the brilliant autumn light, which was really all the scene needed. 7in by 5in watercolour.


Hambledon Hill, dorset, hill fort, watercolour, painting

On my return I was determined to get up Hambledon Hill which is directly behind my house. I do not go and sketch up there enough. I decided the very end of the day would be best and very lovely it was. It is one of those scenes though that looks astounding to the eye but is very hard to translate into a painting. I settled on this as it had great flowing structure. 7in by 5in Watercolour.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, blackmoor vale, watercolour, painting

I started this more in hope than expectation. I couldn’t get into a position where the hill would figure in the composition so I just did a square on job attempting to catch the light. I must start to mark down compositions on the hill I like and return to them, rather than trying to find a new picture each time. 7in by 5in Watercolour.


Old Harry, Dorset, cliffs, sea, oil painting

At last a chance to sit down and get some studio pictures done. I wanted to do an oil of Old Harry based on the drawing I had already done. Remembering how nice it was how the cliffs came out of the blue on the paper in the pen drawing I wanted to do the same here but more dramatically. After drawing out I spent a lot of time mixing the tone base of the sea. It had to be dark enough to allow the cliffs to be brilliantly lit, but light enough to take dark reflections. Once I had decided on a tone I swept it right across using a 2in brush and then wiped out the bits where the stacks were to go. I don’t take this approach often enough really. It does have some disadvantages though as it can look too slick and pat, which is why I usual paint round rather than through. But in this case it worked well. 16in by 10in oils.


Newport Bay, Pembrokeshire, wales, oil painting

Here is the first of the Welsh ones. This is the view over Newport Bay which I have painted many times before. It is one of those views I always find something new in. It would be great to do a whole series through the seasons. I love the tone of the greens this time of year they become a warm olive colour which was a great contrast to the hillside where the grasses and bracken were already in there autumn colours. 16in by 10in oils.


Newport sands, beach, wales, pembrokeshire, oil painting

This is Newport sands, wonderfully reflective as the sea had only just withdrawn. Scanning makes it rather more contrasty than it really is, it is very hard to catch subtleties in images to go on line. 12in by 12in Oils.


Porthclais Harbour, wales, pembrokeshire, oil painting

I started this picture of Porthclais Harbour near St Davids thinking the distance and wedge of sky was the main thing. The painting soon informed me I was wrong and the water was the main event!  16in by 10in oils.

That is all for Wales, I find it very hard to paint from reference after the memory of the real place fades.


Hambledon Hill, dorset, hill fort, oil painting

Hambledon Hill again. This was done the next evening after the earlier watercolour. I had intended to do the same view but decided to try to catch the milky light. Not helped by the fact I forgot my brush roll so only had a 1in sable that was in the bottom of my bag left over from life drawing. Still the soft brush was oddly appropriate and allowed me to drag in the subtler tones in broad strokes. 16in by 10in Oils.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, oil painting, hill fort

Last one, a studio oil based on my earlier watercolour. I had to put away the watercolour in the end as this became quite a different painting. I decided in the end what I wanted to do was contrast the texture on the foreground right with the hazy smoothness of the distance. Quite pleased with the result as it emphasises the wonderful flow that the hill has. 24in by 12in Oils.



September 23, 2016


Filed under: Art History,London,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 11:22 am

It is one of the most popular art movements ever, you might almost say the very first art movement as such. There had been previous sea changes like the Renaissance or the Pre Raphs who were trying to revive some imaginary golden age as were the academic movements in France and elsewhere. You had movements that wanted to concentrate on a particular subject such as the Orientalists or shift in subject matter linked to romantic notions such as the change from Myth and History to Pastoralism with the Barbizon School. It was the Barbizon influence that had a direct influence on the formation of impressionism, it was they who were part of the europe-wide interest in painting en plein air.

Greater than all these forces however was the arrival of photography. Much early photography was done in a studio trying to mimic painterly values with classical backdrops etc, but from the very beginning photographers turned their lenses on the world around them. This was the beginning of a new subject matter. Everyday life had never really figured in painting before, yes there had been morality pieces staged in everyday settings, but they were always secondary to the moral message. There were idealisations of the pastoral life such as Millet. Portraits idealised and warts-n-all of course continued throughout, but they had a specific function to fix an individual in recorded history. Earlier and of course influential were the topographical artists such as Turner and Constable, but plein air sketches were for them raw material to be used in the studio afterwards.

Photography also demonstrated something else. Despite us all being immersed in the actual world around us, it surprised people as to how their world appeared suddenly unfamiliar fixed in the monochrome frame of the photographic image. It showed that artists had until then had for the most part looked, but not actually seen. That this caused a huge shift in representational painting is hardly surprising. Indeed all of the impressionists were keen photographers and many of these “impressionistic” moments we so admire were done in part from photographs even post impressionists Cezanne for example used photography a great deal. The idea that photography would replace and supplant painting had I suspect not really been considered or believed possible. This is a repeated human trait, I well remember the arrival of digital photography as I worked at that time building sets for photographs. All the art directors, and photographers were of the opinion that the complex chemical magic of film would never be out done by this upstart technology. We all know how that turned out!

There is much made of the ideas of optical mixing which were taken to extremes by the pointillists and divisionists, but really very few impressionist paintings stuck to that theory. The brushwork in a Manet or a Degas is not really very much different from what had gone before indeed they admired Velasquez for his painterly strengths. There was very much the idea that science was applicable to painting. Everything in that era was being studied and arranged in order and it would have been odd if painting had been left out of dissection and experimentation. It was I presume the discoveries by Newton and others that prompted the idea that colours could be optically mixed.

The main technical ingredient of impressionism was I think however slightly different and I feel tends to be somewhat ignored by art historians. They are of course swept away by the excitement of the era and the often colourful characters of the artists and their lives. The underlying principle is an older one though. Artists discovered quite early on that if you gave the right hints the viewer’s eye would fill in the rest for you. In Pompei you see areas of blocked in green with only a few leaves and branches delineated on top that this is further greenery is assumed. Later you get Frans Hals and others describing lace and rich patterns with just a hint and a splash. They discovered that this would appear more immediate to the viewer than having every thread delineated. It is this combined with direct observation that for me defines impressionism.

It is leveraging this tendency for the eye to fill in the rest that makes impressionism so immediate. Its original purpose was and is I suppose that our brains need to deliver a quick précis of our rapidly changing surroundings so we can react quickly to danger. It is very convenient for artists not to have to spell every area out in detail and a bonus that this actually produces a more involving representation to boot. The saving grace for artists is also that it is something photographs don’t do in the same way. Though a warning here, image processing by computer is catching up and may well be able to paint a pretty good impressionist painting in the very near future.

Another ingredient, also far from new, was uncertainty. When we see the world we cannot exactly define what every patch pif colour and tone is, there are large areas that may be one thing or another. So a dab of paint might be tree or wall or whatever, the viewer will unconsciously assume one or the other. This adds realism because in real life that is just how we sort the flood of incoming visual data.

At the same time from the historical viewpoint the usage painting was fragmenting and a craft tradition pushed out of a huge area of territory it had previously ruled. Any magazine publication you look at today has nearly all photographs, and even the “illustrations” are from picture libraries. Portraiture was decimated, images for political and religious purposes wiped from the map. The only territory left for the easel painter was the decorative function of adorning the domestic wall and collectors. In these reduced niches other imagery competed too pushing craft painting into a smaller and smaller ghetto. That painters reacted by desperately trying to find new purpose is I suppose hardly a surprise. So impressionism became “post” and all the plethora of other -isms and -ists started to compete to be the next big new thing.

Now more than a hundred years later the dust is perhaps beginning to settle. All the experimentation and searching for the new has actually produced nothing much new. Indeed most of the ideas that underpin current output were around by 1915. Ideas such as putting interesting looking stuff in a context that allows it to be admired,  abstraction, expressionism and symbolism have been around of thousands of years. Not much truly new in my view has been done in the 20th century and after. It takes an entirely new medium such as film to produce real novelty. Many will disagree with me on this, but most if not all contemporary work can be traced back to examples from the past. They are as impressionism is, historical styles. That said impressionism is very durable and has prospered. There is an easily followed unbroken thread through generations of artists to today. There are more impressionists painting done now than ever before and with the arrival of the internet and social media they are becoming visible. It is hard to see how they will not be worthy of a substantial chapter when the perspective of time allows the art histories of our age to be finally written. It is amusing to note that contemporary art theorists, art historians, art media and art establishments appear entirely blind to the movement, but it was ever thus with things under you nose, or beneath contempt!

I have actually managed to record a painting in the making, usually I start, get lost in the process and forget to take snaps. I’ll do that first.


Cannon St, London, drawing

Here is the inspiration. It is actually a plein air watercolour that went wrong and then was rescued with copious application of body colour. It is of a junction on Cannon St that gives a simultaneous view up 2 streets. I remember being quite pleased with it at the time and felt it might make an interesting bigger picture.


Collage, London, cannon St

Then there was the photographic information from the day. This is a collage of images put together so I can start to organise the composition. I can see I cribbed the taxi and motorbike probably from the camera monitor, as I recall it was finished on the spot, though my memory might be wrong. I have processed the colour and lighting to look as much like the sketch as possible.


Cannon St London, Block in

The canvas was 36in by 16in so I started with a 2 inch flat brush. I mixed all the tones and colours before starting painting. I must do this more consistently as it helps tremendously with the flow if you don’t have to keep on remixing little patches of paint. Also because you aren’t dipping into colour with the brushes everything stays clean. I try and keep the blocking in very broad and general. It only took about 15min to get the basics and the beginning of the flow of light.


Once the block in had dried I began to develop the drawing and think about how I wanted the focus points to work against each other. Almost the whole final tone range is in. I can see I have over developed the taxi and motor bike, which caused me problems later. The pedestrians are from the sketch but only stand ins. I paused for a day or two here.

Cannon St, London, painting

Here we are at the end of the next session. The motorcycle got removed, indeed the whole of the right is in a state of flux. The left has come on and really almost there. I have held back from the final brightening of the road and pavement.


London, Cannon St, oil painting, st pauls, oil painting

Here is close to the final stage. The painting is framed up and I will leave it where I can see it, I find that after a few weeks you can see the pros and cons more clearly. There are a few tonal tweaks and the detail of the central building has to be softened a little. As you can see the motorbike went back in but more as per the initial sketch.

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