Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

March 25, 2014

Getting Better

If you think I am going to tell you a sure fire way then disappointment awaits! There are a few things I do try and do however to make the trajectory up rather than flat or even worse down. Firstly just do it enough, if you don’t use it you don’t completely loose it but you really do loose some ground. Learning anything reinforces pathways in the brain. Research tells us that there are real physical changes with pathways that are frequently used gaining more connections and better blood supply. If you don’t keep those pathways busy the body for economy’s sake will reassign resources and doing what had become easy will become harder once more. This is hardly any different from any exercise so it should be no surprise.

One major area that can cause frustration is learning mistakes. Anyone who plays a musical instrument will tell you that practicing mistakes is all to easy. We can accidentally reinforce errors my making them frequently. I often see this with painters too, where a way of doing things has become set in their method and even though they intellectually know there is something wrong, when they come to paint they are forced by habit down the same less than ideal turnings. I have not only seen this in others alas, but also often in my own processes.

The only way to correct and get over such obstacles is to separate out the problem area and just practice that bit in isolation. So if you have difficulty with tone simplify the issue. Drop colour, give yourself only 4 tones to work with and paint until you have worked up some new pathways. A warning here, it takes a lot of effort to “unlearn” something. You will find that you can practice up a new way of working in the studio only to find that the old bad habits reassert themselves when painting out of doors under pressure. So it is a good idea to take your four tones out into the landscape and get the new habit well and truly programmed in!

The same can be done in any area. If you have problems with figures then get photos and draw thumbnails from them. You can even trace over them multiple times. I have myself traced over the standard London taxi until I can draw them from memory at any angle. It takes a surprisingly short time to get to a stage where you can just draw one without reference. The same is true with figures if you can draw believable silhouettes from memory then you can adapt those to catch the figures that are really there on the day.

Those are a few ways of dealing with identifiable weaknesses. Harder is to take what is already working adequately and push it up to the next level. For me the process is more or less the same. Take the thing apart and then reassemble. It helps to change media and method, also to introduce constraints which forces you to do more with less. An example of this is I often see people always painting with the same palette, if you always put out the same colours you are closing doors off that might have interesting rooms behind them. As a guide if you get too comfortable with a particular way of doing things it is probably time for a shake up!

One activity that will always highlight weak areas is life drawing. This is why I always advise people who want to improve to find a session and attend it regularly. I’m afraid I can almost guarantee it will be a slightly depressing experience. You will go dreaming of Michelangelos and return with childlike misshapen gargoyles! It is this cruel contrast that makes life drawing so valuable. You can see clearly that you are falling short and once you can see that you can move to make improvements. The aim of life work for me is not to produce anything of great artistic merit, but to stress the skills I have already attained to breaking point.

One note of caution there are always kind souls at life sessions who will say things like accuracy doesn’t matter and expressing yourself is the most important thing. I am not saying accuracy is the only thing but it is not inimportant. If your accuracy is a weak point then measure like mad until you have dealt with it. It is getting these technical hurdles somewhat tamed that allows expression to flow freely. Before you can be really be free and react to momentary inspiration you have to take the time and effort to strike off the chains that hold you back!

Note of caution no: 2. Fetishising technique is just as bad in my opinion as downplaying it. The Atelier and similar approaches tend to raise technical competence to a be all and end all. The lie to this is given by the uninspiring and dismal output of the students whose life drawings might well have linear and tonal accuracy but are in themselves lifeless. They take living flesh and turn it to perfectly rendered lifeless static stone. If you don’t get the feeling that the model fidgets and might get up and stretch at any moment you have failed just a surely as if you got the head the wrong size!

Now for some examples of how I haven’t managed to practiced what I preach!


Fleet Street, St Pauls, London, oil painting


The first of a batch of new London pictures. This is based on the plein air from the last post. I wanted to roll back the day to the moment we arrived so used the photo ref to change the feel of the light. Still a little but to do, the distance is too busy and crisp so I will soften with a glaze or two once dry. 16in by 24in oils.


The Strand, London, oil painting


This is the Strand looking West. Still a fair way to go on this but the basics are in and I am happy with the overall mood. The final adjustments have to be made very carefully so as not to overwork. 16in by 20in oils.


Strand on the Green, Thames, Plein air, brass monkeys, watercolour


A day out to the Strand on the Green near Chiswick and Kew. This was a Brass Monkeys day and the weather was a little chancy. I did this view twice the previous version was so awful I binned it! Quite difficult to paint with hail bouncing off your paper! 6in by 9in watercolour.


Thames, London, Strand on the Green, watercolour, plein air


Last one of the day I got myself positioned behind one of the pylons of the railway bridge which held off the worst of the very chilly breeze. 9in by 14in watercolour.


life drawing

I am watercolouring in the life sessions at present. It is very hard to get a study done in 30min but it is great for teaching you how to make important decisions on the fly!


life drawing

Here is an example of ringing the changes I added reed pen and ink to my very limited palette of red ochre and ultramarine.


Life drawing

Here we are pared down even more just line with the reed pen and a single wash. 7min.


life drawing

Here I have added reed pen but stressed the colour a little more. It is all about getting the most from the available resources.


life drawing

I made retaining the whites here my main intent. Very tricky as I am not drawing first. The reason for not drawing is to build confidence in putting brushstrokes down. Confident strokes add a lot to the liveliness of the end result. It is worth practicing taking a brush and practicing swelling and reducing the mark using varying pressure. This helps when you need to lay in a stroke that defined form as well as tone.


life drawing

This was as they say “challenging” … getting the extreme perspective in and believable is always very hard.


life drawing

This shows how much you can get down in 10min… you just have to accept with life sketches that 90% are fit only for the bin!

December 7, 2013

Art Education.

In a conversation recently I took the position that art colleges teach drawing very poorly. I was quite fairly asked how do you know that? To which I had to admit I only had my own experiences from three decades ago and word of mouth from current art students to whom I had talked. So quite casually I started to look at art college’s websites and then looked at the work of the tutors who might be expected to teach the students to draw. The results were truly depressing. Almost no colleges had an even halfway competent draughts person on their staff, some of them had professors of drawing, who spouted guff about how important it was to them. They did not seem however to have found it important enough to spend the time learning the relevant skills.

Everywhere was the opinion that drawing was some kind of metaphysical prayer state where you could commune with the inner self in the purest way. I downloaded staff lists and pictures of the tutor’s work with the intention of posting them in this page, but really I only found one tutor with a reasonable skill level and that was at Falmouth. No where else was there a person who would have had the ability to teach a student drawing skills if they wished to learn. Below is a list of attainments that a student of art will be taught. This one is from the University of Kent:

Subject-specific skills

You develop the following subject-specific skills:

  • effective deployment of terms and concepts relevant to understanding art in a contemporary context 
  • the ability to locate evidence from a wide range of primary and secondary sources, and interpret it in relation to the aims and conceptual framework of fine art practice
  • the ability to present, explain and defend a visual art project, in both its developmental and final states, employing argument and interpretative skills relevant to professional practice
  • the ability to draw upon understanding of the materials and processes central to a variety of fine art media, as well as the technical skills necessary to produce practical work in these contexts
  • the ability to critically evaluate a range of different conceptual and practical methodologies and approaches to both understanding and making art in a contemporary context
  • the ability to competently perform the tasks necessary for contemporary professional artistic practice, including skills of display and dissemination of work, fundraising and gallery negotiation
  • the ability to manage a fine art studio and studio project, including time management, budgetary control, space management and the acquisition and maintenance of equipment
  • the ability to place art works produced by the learner or others into a historical, and conceptual context, employing analysis and critical interpretation to forge connections between practices that elucidate the process of creation.

Transferable skills

You gain transferable skills in the following:

  • communication: articulate ideas and information comprehensibly in visual, oral and written forms; organise information effectively respond to written sources; adapt style for different audiences; use of images as a communication tool
  • information technology: source, navigate, select, retrieve, evaluate, manipulate and manage information from a variety of sources; select and employ communication and information technologies; produce written documents; employ advanced software for module projects and tasks
  • working with others: interact effectively with others, for example through collaboration, collective endeavour and negotiation; accurately define and review the work of others; skills of negotiation and persuasion in relation to the planning and execution of a project or the dissemination of its outcomes
  • improving own learning: study independently, set goals, manage workloads and meet deadlines; explore personal strengths and weaknesses; develop autonomy in learning; ability to listen effectively and so to learn from and participate constructively in discussion; update knowledge and skills, seek and use feedback, critically reflect on and improve performance
  • problem solving: identify and define intellectual and practical problems; explore alternative solutions and discriminate between them; creative experimentation; focus and apply attention to detail; gather, organise and deploy ideas in order to formulate arguments cogently and to express them effectively both orally and in written form; make subtle and discriminating comparisons of texts and visual artefacts; research and evaluate sources in the process of carrying out independent study.

There is a hint that practical skill might be learnt at bullet point no 4, but don’t get your hopes up, I could see no tutor at the college who had any competence at all in the area of drawing.

You might think I am exaggerating, but the evidence due to the internet, is there for all to see. So if you doubt me it won’t take you more than 10 minutes to check. If you do find a good drawer let me know and I’ll post the fact here with pleasure! I might also add that some colleges seem very coy about their tutors and what work they do. With good reason in my opinion, very few would have any chance of making a living at art outside the cushioned oasis of the education system. There is a requirement that art tutors exhibit occasionally, but in most cases this seems to be very perfunctory.

I know that the colleges would respond that I am talking about an outdated skill and what students need is skills in video, self publicity and curation. I don’t disagree, those skills are needed, but drawing is more important and fundamental in my opinion. The evidence online shows they do not appear to have the resources to teach in this area even if a student requested it. If these colleges were private I would have no complaint, but they are not, they are funded by the state.

In the other arts a music student would be expected to have some skill in playing, even if they were going to compose not perform. This is because of the insight and understanding of the subject that learning to play brings. A creative writing student would be expected to be competent in grammar and sentence construction. Oddly I found that fashion departments taught drawing on the whole quite well. I have said before and will repeat. Drawing is important not necessarily for what it results in on paper, but for the understanding it brings to the person learning it. Drawing gives a vital and unique insight into the nature of looking and seeing, as well as the skill to explain what you might have learnt to others. This in my opinion is of huge value even to video and abstract artists as such knowledge and competence cannot as far as I can see be gained in any other manner. Drawing is not in itself art it is only a practical and intellectual tool, but for the visual arts at least it is a vital one and should be taught to a high level by any self respecting art college.

Here is Leeds College of Art who claim to make drawing a central plank:


Working in the drawing strand allows you to elevate your drawing from being a well understood core discipline in art practice to being the distinct and exciting art form exhibited in museums and galleries across the world. Our artists will introduce you to processes and visual drawing systems whilst also exploring the integral expressive nature of drawing which is primal, elemental and our most immediate form of image making. You will be encouraged to extend your drawing practice widely in two, three and four dimensions in a range of of materials, media and techniques.

They are distinctly coy about who might teach you but I found the information hidden away under “research”. Alas none of the staff as far as I can see have any drawing skills whatsoever…

A tiresome conclusion people seem to jump to when I make these arguments is the, “You want us to go back to drawing from plaster casts.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I find the teaching methods and intellectual stance of the so called modern ateliers absurd and equally as bad as the current state art schools. I do not want to throw out contemporary art thinking I want to enlarge and enhance it.

After that rather depressing round up a few paintings might be in order.


Nude, life drawing, watercolour, figure

I took watercolours to life drawing which is always scary. 30 min is a very short time for a study! It does however concentrate the mind wonderfully.

There is only so much that can be said in that time, only so many marks that can be set down. This means that your choice of what to explain and what

to let go of are very important. The first one was a write off but here I got the key things delineated and nothing to much overstated. Accuracy in such drawings

has to be somewhat done on the fly though I do try and get three points in a triangle placed accurately. Here I made a triangle from where the shoulder touches

the cheek to the dark of the pubis then down to where the bangle on the rt arm touches the red throw. I’ll sketch that in below.


Nude, life drawing

I hold up my brush to determine the angle of the first almost horizontal line and then get that placed. I then decide how long I wish it to be and mark the

two ends. Next I get the alignment of the long side down from cheek to wrist and gently mark the rt hand end. Finally I take the angle of the lin from pubis

 to wrist which fixes that point. The advantage of a triangle is that it is fixed in shape so you can be confident of its proportions. Once this imaginary triangle

is in place it is far easier to estimate positions and angles of the rest of the body. You could of course proceed to mark more points but in the sort of time scale

these paintings have to be done that is not an option! A final tip, make your initial triangle cover as much of the body’s area as possible.


Nude, life drawing, watercolour

The next one, another half hour. I ended up with some rather over sharp edges in the back. As always overstating is worse than understating for the

most part.


Nude, life drawing, watercolour

Last one that is fit to post! I often find that the last drawing of a session is the best. You get into the zone and start to make decisions

more efficiently and with greater confidence.


Deptford, Church, graveyard, pen drawing

I took my pen and ink out to draw plein air which was an experience. I think I will use technical pens to sketch out doors as dip pens are better in the

studio. They can be very finicky and have this ambition to dump a large blob of ink at any gust of wind! This is St Paul’s Deptford designed by Thomas



Battersea Bridge, Thames, london, watercolour

On a Brass Monkeys outing as I was heading home the view from Battersea Bridge was fantastic. I did a very quick sketch which is below and then this

studio painting. Very simple with only two colours Quinacridone Burnt Orange and Ultramarine. 10in by 10in. Watercolour.


Battersea, Bridge, Thames, London, plein air

Here’s the sketch done in less than 15 min. I pretty much stuck to this only refining the drawing from the photo. The photo was quite dark and very

vibrant, which isn’t what the eye saw at all.


Maldon, Essex, watercolour

Famous scene of Maldon in Essex. Really just a colour test I only used Ultramarine, Cadmium Red and Quinacridone Yellow, all Daniel Smith.
1/2 sheet, 140lb Arches Rough. Not sure I like this, it could be from any era! I softened the line of the water later which here is too dominant.


Deptford, Station, watercolour

I am trying to get some London watercolours done for the up coming shows. This is Deptford Station 9in by 9in. Super sun this time of year it beams

down this road like a search light!


Mary le Strand, London, oil painting, plein air

A favourite scene, this is St Mary le Strand. The day was very flat so I could take my time. The best one I have done of this, it is a deceptively difficult subject.

I’ve done it zoomed in but this time I wanted to get in the big block of quieter stuff to the right. 10in by 16in oils.


The shard, thames, London, plein air, oil painting

This and the previous one were on a Brass Monkey day, we were all surprised to find ourselves faced with a glorious sunset! I decided to revel in the colour

and not hold back. I only had 20min at the most to get this down. 8in by 10in oils.


painters, thames

Here are Mike Richardson and Terry Preen finishing off, it is so pleasant to go painting in a group!

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