Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

March 4, 2018

Failure and Success

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 11:08 am

We all know when a painting has gone very wrong, mostly we are pretty clear when we have triumphed against the odds. Which leaves all the ones that fall somewhere in-between. I have been reviewing my oil paintings for the year and reckon that out of about 140 oil paintings 33 fall into the successful bracket. 40 fall into the sand them off and reuse the board category. I must note that the truly cataclysmic ones got wiped off immediately! This is the way it is if you mostly paint plein air, you just have to accept that any day out painting has only a 30% chance of producing a decent painting. Anyone doing the maths on the above will conclude that 60 odd pictures fall into the, “Not completely sure about this one.” bracket.

So how do I judge whether it’s a goodun or a baddun or an inbetweenun? I wish I could say and promptly type in a wise, pragmatic rule of thumb method of assessing your own efforts to help beginners and others who meet the same issue. Well I can’t. I find it excruciatingly difficult to judge my own paintings outside of the very obvious winners and losers. I can always see good bits and so so bits in any painting I do, but often what stops the whole from working is extremely hard to pin down. It might be so underlying like a boring composition, so you have a decently painted but unexciting picture. Some are a little easier in that they have a part that is either distracting from or otherwise letting down the rest of the show. These go on my surgery pile. The really hard ones are the ones that there is something worrying me about it but I cannot put my finger on what might make the painting come to life.

How about, “Ask a friend.”? Well another brave painter I know made a Facebook group where we can put up the puzzlers and have another less emotionally involve eye assess the problems. I had previously floated this idea myself and received such sweepingly negative feedback that I didn’t do it myself. Painters it would seem are nervous of the opinions of others and would prefer not to hear. I am not unsympathetic with this as in my teens and early 20’s before I worked in the commercial arena if anyone voiced a doubt on any drawing I would immediately rip it up. Thank heaven I next worked on commercial jobs where the option wasn’t a practical possibility and in the commercial world you would receive negative feedback as a matter of course. Fortunately this soon broke me from a childish habit. At first I would argue with the client, but in later years this was reduced to a brief whine and a sulk!

So why are we so touchy? I think it is because in daily life to get on with each other we try to be polite. If you go to dinner and the host’s cooking is less than the full Delia Smith we smile anyway and lie about how much we are enjoying it. You always answer the, “What do you think of my new hairdo?” question with a peon of praise rather than mentioning that you have seen more stylish mops propped up in janitor’s buckets. We know instinctively it is kinder to let such poor souls continue life in a happy delusion rather than force them rudely into depressing reality. So it is with pictures and painters.

I have over the years tried various cunning methods of slipping a helpful suggestion past someone’s guard. One is to heap praise on various other aspects of the daub before mentioning the defect. It doesn’t work. You could spend an hour outlining the genius of the painter, the astounding masterfulness of every aspect of the work, you can bemoan your own inadequacy and express envy at their having painted such an astounding picture that the whole of western art might have to be rethought. This will all be received with an ever smugger expression or various insincere, “Oh you are just saying that!” and “Surely not.” protestations.

Then you say, “It’s only a tiny, tiny thing but I’m not too sure about that slash of bright yellow in the foreground…”

As the “but” hangs in the air the sunshine immediately darkens and thunderclouds roll in. The previously cheerful bubbling springs promptly dry up and the warm limpid pools before them freeze over.  The ice that has instantly appeared under foot cracks menacingly. If any piano is playing at that moment it ceases leaving a discord hanging in the air and every head in the vicinity turns towards you. You look down and like Wile E. Coyote you have walked off a cliff and the canyon bottom is 2000ft straight down. Yes the mood has changed, all the positives evaporate like spit on a red hot frying pan. You have dared to be NEGATIVE. As we all know it is now a sin to be negative in any way. Positive thinking is espoused in books devoted to the subject. I used to go to brainstorm meeting where any negative comment was forbidden however stupid the idea put forward. Any possible failure must be described as “deferred success”.

All this is a pity really. We still have advice and criticism of course, but this must be in a clearly defined “teaching” context. So the best advice I can offer here on this subject is to learn to put some kind of emotional distance between you and your work. I know. I know. Your work is the expression of your innermost soul and you have torn off your skin to expose your quivering flesh to the unkindness of existence. None the less a little emotional distance will allow you to determine whether you have painted an existential cry of despair from a primeval man trapped in a mechanised universe, or a pitiful squeak from a pampered mammal in the grip of affluenza.

Corfe, castle, oil painting, Dorset, Rob Adams

I have had this 36in by 12in canvas stretched up for a while… it even had a frame but I couldn’t quite come up with anything to paint on it! I decided in the end on this wide view of Corfe. What I attracted me to it was the way the tones that described the light subtly changed from left to right. I arrived at its current state intending to go further but in the end decided not. If I hadn’t had the frame to check the effect in I might well have resolved it more. Oils.


Studland bay, Dorset, sea, oil painting, plein air, Rob Adams

A great day out by the sea. This is Studland Bay. The tide was lapping at my boots by the time I finished! The underside of the waves was the most intriguing tone and I had to have several goes at mixing it. 14in by 10in Oils.


Dancing Ledge, seascape, plein air, oil painting, Dorset, Rob Adams

I toiled out through the mud to Dancing Ledge after, only a sketch really as the time and light was rapidly on the move. I took a set of photos as the light fell away which might make a studio picture in due course. Sometimes there is no real time to consider composition, if I had had more time I would have walked too and fro to check different aspects of the scene, in real life though if I had actually done that the light would have gone and I would have had no painting at all. It is a bit of coast I need to walk this bit of the coast more so I know which bits might make a good painting. If the light is looking good you can then go directly to the spot with no messing! 16in by 10in Oils.


Beaminster, oil painting, Dorset, plein air, Rob Adams

This is Beaminster on a beautiful crisp morning. I was perched on an awkward corner with the passing Range Rovers trying to drive over my toes. After doing this I promptly came across a better view just round the corner. I might come back to this one though, I quite fancy trying to get a square crop. The sky was the most amazing flat blue, I was temped to add some clouds but in the end just left it as it was. 12in by 10in Oils.


Beaminster, plein air, oil painting, Dorset, Rob Adams

Up in the hills a bit south of Beaminster, lovely slanting light that was only there for a moment then gone. I soldiered on anyhow but really I was painting a fading memory rather than what was in front of me. I should have just stopped and restarted! 14in by 10in Oils.


Old Harry Rocks, Dorset, cliffs, coast, oil painting, Rob Adams

Entertainment for a wet afternoon. I couldn’t settle down to paint so I set about preparing a few boards. I had one which was of Lyme Regis that I had had hopes of and even made a frame for but I couldn’t get it to work from the information I had. So I sanded off Lyme Regis and as I did so a ghost of Old Harry rocks appeared. I then remembered I had started en plein air blocking in a picture of Old Harry on this board… having blocked it in I decided I didn’t like the composition… and started again on a 16in by 10in board- hence the ghost. My studio self quite liked the wider view so I dug out the photos from the day and set to. I remember struggling with the chalk cliffs on the other version so I experimented with using the knife on this one. I rarely use a palette knife except to scrape back so I am not as deft with the instrument as I might be. One reason I don’t often use a knife to apply paint is I don’t like impasto in dark or shadow areas, so I just used it in the lightest areas in the centre of interest. I found it hard to shake off the memory of the previous painting but quite pleased with the result. 20in by 10in Oils.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, plein air, oil painting, Rob Adams

The day before painting this I had walked up on Hambledon Hill with a friend and noticed the light was perfect for painting. So as the next day was sunny I ascended at the same time with my paints. The light was glorious but the wind meant I had to hang on to everything as I painted. Still I rather like this viewpoint, it is harder than you might think to get a satisfactory picture out of the hill. It is so expansive and dramatic that you always feel you have failed to catch its essence. 16in by 10in Oils.


Shillingstone Station, Dorset, plein air, oil painting, snow

Snow at last! This is the slightly surreal Shillingstone Station. The line is long gone so it only has a 200 metres of track. I found I had made a slightly painful choice as it was rather exposed as you can see by the snow blown in lines across the platform… Also there was fine snow blowing in the wind that got over everything. Due to all this I only got 20min before it got too painful and I had to escape, still after a tidy up it has an interesting atmosphere the light is quite unique in a blizzard! 10in by 6in Oils.


Child Okeford, plein air, snow, oil painting, Dorset

A view across the fields on my way back to Child Okeford. I liked the way the wind had blown the powdery snow into any dip, bringing out the shapes in the ground. I did this in a very brisk 15 min as conditions had got worse and the snow was threatening a genuine blizzard! 10in by 7in Oils.


Child Okeford, snow, plein air, Dorset, oil painting

I wasn’t going to do another but saw this odd line the path made in the field and thought I could get it down quickly. Ha! It longer than both the others and I nearly died of the cold. Painting large areas of nothing much is the hardest thing to do and the field seemed to take forever. Still the effort was worth it as it is my favourite of the day. 10in by 7in Oils.


Fontmel Down, Dorset, snow, oil painting

It had well and truly snowed overnight so I had to go and attempt to paint it. I didn’t think I would be able to get to paint Fontmel Down as the roads were very bad, but heroic farmers had cleared some roads up the hill and my car is a 4 by 4. I had thought the painting on the station was painful but this was on another level. The cold wind was like having knives driven into my face! All I could manage was to block in the basic tones before I ran whimpering back to the car. Mind you the great thing with snow is the way it simplifies the scene so it did not take a great deal to finish off. I’ll do a studio one of this I think as would like a wider view. 10in by 6in Oils.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, oil painting, snow

Last snowy one. On my way back with the snow threatening to close in again I saw this and after checking the wind decided to give it a go. After drawing out I blocked in all the snowy bits whilst carefully leaving any dark areas uncovered. Once done the painting looked more or less complete so I packed up and added a few brown and purply tones over the remaining bits of ground back in the studio. The warm priming works surprisingly well for snow pictures. On all of these I blocked in the pale tones leaving the darks. I takes a little longer leaving the darks but looks much better than trying to lay the darks over underlying lights. 10in by 8in Oils.


October 10, 2017

Sight Size and other tricks

I find it odd how particular techniques in painting get a fan club type following. Wet into wet for watercolour is one and I suppose plein air another. Sight size is an interesting one. It comes from academic training where you set up your drawing of a plaster cast so that from a certain position both cast and drawing appear next to each other at exactly the same scale. All observations need to be made from this viewing point. It was much used by portrait painters such as Singer Sargent to get good likenesses and accurate tones. Although it appears Sargent only set up the painting in this way for parts of the process and to check progress. It was never intended however to be a method used in all circumstances. Here is a link that gives a good description of the method: Sight Size.

If for example you want to paint a wide view then getting both your scene and the painted image the same scale would be pretty tricky. Also if you were painting a subject that was far away then your picture would have to be very small or your viewing point would have to be a very long way from your canvas! Sight size drawers tend to use plumb lines etc though a threaded frame over the subject would seem to be easier and quicker IMO. This is not a debunking of the method, I think everyone would benefit from learning and trying it. I do however feel over reliance on the method can produce rather stiff soulless paintings. The method shows it’s weakness in the work of atelier students who tend to produce identikit sub Sargent paintings and academic drawings that all seem to be from the same dead hand. That said many of those students move on and successfully establish their own identity.

Really the method is part of a whole suite of techniques to get the perceived and very 3D world down on 2D paper. Plumb bobs are good if you have never used one then I suggest you give it a whirl. If you use a black thread you can put little blobs of white paint every inch which helps transfer information. Their main use though is to make it easy to determine how things in your subject relate along a line. You can use it to translate horizontal information or angles as well. All of these methods depend on you returning to the exact same position to make your measurement. The easiest by far to use but more tricky to set up is the threaded frame. Really you need a separate stand for the frame, but as with the plumb line I would encourage everyone to try it out.

What I would not advise however is to make any of these methods into  your everyday standard painting procedure. Their use is to teach you how to make comparisons of scale angle and alignment. Your aim in using them should be to evolve the ability to do those measurements by eye, this may seem hard but it is surprising how quickly the brain catches on and eventually they become second nature. Nonetheless I still get out my frame for work where it is very important that exact proportion are achieved.

Its disadvantages are that it is a monocular method, it allows you to see the world pretty much as a camera does. In turn this means it has all of the problems associated with camera images, the distorted proportions at the edges of the frame which become impossible to hide as the view widens. The method assumes we should only see what we can see with our head fixed, but to my mind this is only a small part of the visual experience, it is literally too narrow. To paint wider or higher than convenient views requires a whole other set of skills including constructive perspective both linear and hyperbolic. Also a number of adjustments such as sliding vanishing and eye points. Although this sounds hifalutin and complicated the actual application can be taught to anyone in a day or two.

A very mixed bag of work in this post as I have been dodging between media .

Blandford Forum, Dorset, drawing, pen and ink

This is Blandford Forum in Dorset. The challenge here was to reduce the busyness of the scene without loosing the impression of complexity. If you succeed in doing this people come up and say, “Oh look at all that detail” and “Just like a Photograph!” For windows it is important to get both consistency and variety into them. So I try to keep the position and rhythm accurate but vary the mark made to indicate them. Pen and Ink.

Blandford Forum, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

Here is one where sight size would let you down! You would have to have your nose touching the paper to get this view. The camera could not produce it either, the building on the left would be very distorted. It is really a composite view as I am both raising my head to look up and turning my head to look left. A point that is vital to fix is the one where you look straight ahead. People assume that in a drawing the straight ahead point must be in the middle but here it needs to be far to the right where the road ends. Each of these movements causes swings in perspective that result in distortion. So what appears a simple scene is actually quite complex to construct. In practice I sketch in the rectangles of the facades and adjust them to find the best compromise between observation, what I “know” is there and the restrictions of a flat surface. Here the key line to track is the join to the walls and roofs. Pen and Ink.

Cardigan, Llanchaeron, Wales, pen and ink, drawing

This is Llanerchaeron in Wales a beautiful walled garden. I only had time for this quick sketch but would have been happy drawing there all day. I decided in the end it needed slight touches of colour. This is always tricky as the temptation is to add more, but I think greens would have been too much so I left them all out. Pen and wash.

St James, Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is St James in Shaftesbury. I very rarely do a half sheet en plein air in watercolour as splashing it on with big brushes is the only option so the drying time becomes key. The other reason is that they are expensive to frame, rarely sell and if you do sell they get a lower price than a far smaller oil. This subject was a gift though and it was great fun to paint as is often the case the light improved as I worked but with watercolour you cannot easily chase the light. Once I got home I felt I could get more atmosphere in by washing back and as it was a 1/2 sheet  I  used the garden hose! It is nearly always worth taking such risks I find even if a few almost alright watercolours bite the dust. Watercolour.

Worbarrow bay, Dorset, oil painting

This one put me through the mill and I nearly abandoned the whole thing. It is Warbarrow bay near Tynham in Dorset. I find these looking down at bays type compositions very difficult especially when they include foreground. I had a plein air watercolour and photos but I still ended up trying several different tonal arrangements over a few weeks. It still may not be finished, I might cut it down as I think a better picture could be had by loosing a 1/3 rd of the right hand side. 24in by 12in Oils.

St Martins, London, oil painting

I recently visited London to see some exhibitions and just before the heavens opened the light on St Martins in the Fields was fantastic. No paints with me so this is done from phone snaps. Another one that might loose a couple of inches from the top! 16in by 12in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air

I escaped to Wales for a few days and was greeted by blustery weather and fantastic skies and seas. This is Newport in Pembrokeshire and I had very little time to paint before being chased off the beach by the tide. I got rather too involved with the ruffled surface of the water which seemed to have every colour under the sun in it. 10in by 8in oils.

Moylgrove, Ceibwr Bay, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

This is Ciebwr Bay near Moylgrove in Pembrokeshire. This is painted sight size  as I hadn’t used the method in a while. I can’t say it made much difference as far a judging things goes, a little easier to judge relative tones maybe. I did use my tone guide which is just a bit of very black plastic with a dab of titanium white on it. This allows you to more easily judge how far away the darks are from being black and the lights from white and their average  hue. It was astonishingly windy and I had to anchor my easel to some big rocks. It makes it impossible to do really accurate brushstrokes as your board is flapping like mad! 12in by 10in Oils.

Wales, cliff, plein air, oil painting

Done on the same day but a bit down the coast. I had almost given up finding something to paint when I spotted a patch of sand that made an interesting contrast. Even windier than the last but very interesting to paint. 12in by 8in Oils.

Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

Another day another cliff top. After a rough block in I kept my eye on the changing sun light sparkling on the sea, the whole key of the picture had to be organised so that the highlight would eventually be punchy enough.  This meant keeping the landscape tones within quite tight bounds. To much highlighting would have ruined the balance. Another very windy one it was only possible by backing up close to a wall. 14in by 10in Oils.

Llangrannog, Cardigan, plein air, oil painting

Yep it’s another windy beach! This is Llangrannog near Cardigan. Sight size again as it was convenient, it did help here in getting the drawing in quickly, the method makes drawing errors very easy to spot. Many pauses as the rain came down, though I loved the muted tones the foul weather created. I still far prefer painting on a stormy day than a bright sunny one. 14in by 10in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Dinas Head, plein air, oil painting

This is Dinas Head from Newport. Only a very quick sketch. The light was changing rapidly as the cloud shadows brightly lit or threw different areas into shade so I might do a studio one or over paint this one using the various photos I took as it changed as reference. 16in by 10in Oils.

Newport, parrog, Wales, plein air, oil painting

More Newport and more very muted light. I might chop this one down and frame it tighter. I loved the tone of the yellowy house, very hard to get right and I wiped and redid it at least 5 times. 16in by 10in Oils.

Porthgain, Wales, Pembrokeshire, oil painting

I took my time with this one, it is Porthgain which  would like to do more of as it has very interesting part ruined industrial buildings. I was nice to paint a calmer brighter moment with the storms over. 16in by 8in Oils.

For the visit to Wales I used a quite restricted palette heavy on the earth tones as follows: Cobalt Blue, Unbleached Titanium, Titanium White, Naples Yellow, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna and a tiny bit of Cadmium Orange on the last one.


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