Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

July 16, 2017


Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 9:30 am

Natural, if ever there was a word or idea that has been more misused I can’t think of one. It’s inverse too, “unnatural” is often brought to bear on anything we vaguely disapprove of when we can’t think of a rational reason reason for the dislike. “She/he is a natural.” Purports to explain talent, or more likely as a comforting explanation of our own lack of achievement. We use it to explain bogus logical sequences: “They over thought the whole thing, so naturally it all went wrong.” Natural has been put in front of so many things that I hardly know where to start. Natural Philosophy. Natural Science. Natural Law. Natural Wastage. Natural Birth. There are forces of Nature. Naturism. We explain our own misdeeds as going against our better nature. Behaviourists and others agonise over nature versus nature. Nature is at the same time the nurturing mother and red in tooth and claw.

In general we mean natural as made or carried out by intellect as opposed by stuff that just happens. The division of the universe into things effected by the workings of conscious thought and those that are not. A problem is of course that intellectual processes are also just stuff that happens, so any neat division starts to look a little fuzzy. People seem to love to divide things into Natural/good Unnatural/bad in an Orwellian Animal Farm manner. Natural ingredients are plainly better than unnatural ingredients even though almost every single possible ingredient has, due to breeding or processing, had something done to it. Part of the blame is of course the dippy Rousseau idea that humanity in its natural state is especially noble. An idea that we are quite fond of which is as far as I can see not supported by any evidence or logic. At the same time if we do act naturally we are accused of being “beastly” or “feral” … dammit you just can’t win can you?

I play music as well as painting so often find parallels between the activities. With music as you progress you soon run into the problem that at first you have to “make” it happen until you are practiced and skilled enough to “let” it happen. Musicians talk of muscle memory, but as all memory takes place in the brain “motor” memory is a better description. The brain stores frequently used routines (playing scales) in a different way to lesser used ones. When enough of these actions are automated then playing a tune is often a matter of turning off the conscious control and just letting it happen… naturally. Musicians also know that any conscious intervention to the action stream can cause you immediately to crash and burn. There you have to draw a line under the parallels as music is a linear sequence of actions to a strict timetable whereas painting is a more languid temporally flexible affair. However the learnt sequences of actions are important to both.

Here is where the popular  view of the art of painting seems to have taken a strange turn. If you talk to most painters they don’t practice, that is we tend not to try and establish routines in any systematic way. When I was learning to draw with a pen I spent many hours practicing parallel hatching and controlling the weight of a line. Not to make a finished drawing but just to learn fine control. To learn the airbrush it was even more necessary as the motor actions had to be so precise. So why are musicians more likely to practice the nuts and bolts of their art separate from performance and painters mostly scorn to? How many of you have practiced making brush marks or watercolour washes in isolation away from making a painting? Or accuracy for its own sake rather than in the making of a bit of potential art? With painting we tend to go down the road of learning on the job rather than honing our skills. Part of this is that we tend to believe that such systematic practice is an unnatural activity whereas creating a bit of art should spring into being naturally.

There is of course nothing wrong in learning on the job. You don’t need to gain skill by organised practice in either painting or music. It does however give greater freedom if you do. Mind you I would be the first to acknowledge that being over systematic can also be a problem leading to inflexibility. As in most things a degree of balance seems to me the most likely strategy to produce consistent improvement in ability. I see many potentially capable artists hamstrung by this belief that art is naturally present in all of us and we merely need to remove obstacles of thought, self consciousness and introspection to allow it to naturally flow. Hence all the slightly comical attempts to “let go” and be “free” to which my question is, let go of/be free of what?

This is a topic I return again and again to as it seems to cause a great deal of frustration in people who would love to be able to paint or draw better than they currently do. Alas much of the “wisdom” that is on offer from approved published and teaching sources is frequently misleading due to their proponents just parroting guff about being “free”, “loose” or instinctual and never really questioning the underlying ideas. We would love to believe in magic as the advertising world well knows with products being magic this or that, but neither painting or anything else happens by magic. It happens by practice and study. Just as with learning walking as a toddler, we try, fail, get up and try again until we learn how to walk to whatever destination we might choose. The magic, if you must have some, might be in in choosing the destination as against the means of travel. So you see it is the natural way of learning things, so why not apply it to art?

There is a backlog of stuff I haven’t published so the following bits of artiness are a little random!

Corfe Castle, Oil painting, Dorset, nocturne

This was done in a rush when passing through Corfe one evening. The plein air it is built on was done in just 3 colours Raw and Burnt Umber and Burnt Sienna and of course White. The intention was to drift colour in at the end but I ran out of light. The result was a little uninspiring so the board got put to one side. A few weeks later I was short of something to paint and thought I would have a fiddle. I put colour in the sky first  intending to work my way across with glazes after that. As soon as the sky was in it had a very dramatic effect and the picture looked somehow almost finished. I dropped bits of sky hue into the foreground and a few hints of ochres and orange in the landscape and then broke for lunch. On my return I suddenly thought it looked more like a nocturne than an evening painting so I added an impossible moon and the picture was done! 16in by 8in Oils.

Hanford House, Oil painting, Plein air.

More nocturnal wanderings. This is the school Hanford House, I was retuning late from a very unsuccessful attempt to paint Hod hill when I passed Hanford and saw how the evening light was giving a great mood. The drawing is mostly from memory of the watercolour I painted a week or so before as I couldn’t get into a good compositional position without risk of being taken as a dodgy prowler! I blocked it in very quickly in about 20min as the light faded thinking to rework it later but next morning it looked just fine if a bit spooky. 10in by 8in Oils.

Salisbury, Wiltshire, Oil painting, Plein air

A visit to Salisbury on business. I have painted this view from the top of the car park before so couldn’t resist quickly having another go. I must get up the in the early morning or evening as it would be fantastic subject in dramatic light. 10in by 8in Oils.

Corfe castle, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

Corfe on a mostly overcast day. A great position to view the castle but it needs a better day. I might try to do a studio one though as there were some flashes of good light as I painted which I have photo ref of. 10in by 7in Oils.

Corfe Castle, Dorset, Plein air, Oil painting

Same day same problem. It is always a toss up at this time of year between getting your greens too murky or too… well… green! 10in by 7in Oils.

Corfe Castle, plein air, oil painting

An embarrassing one. Sometimes I regret my decision to post the ones that went wrong! The Landrover was a desperate attempt to jolly it up. I will return to this view though. I might even set to and try to rescue this one… 14in by 10in oils.

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, oil painting, Dorset

I have been neglecting to do much studio painting again so here is a version of the ever chocolate boxy Gold Hill. I went to a private view in the gallery nearby as the light was going over. Private views are odd events where you drink execrable wine and talk while ignoring the pictures on the wall. So having lost the will to live I snuck outside to take a few snaps on my phone. The scene is so well known that it is tempting to try to kick against the perfection of the subject, but here I just went with the flow. 14in by 10in oils.

Corfe Castle, Dorset, Plein air, oil painting

At last Corfe in good light! I had been dropping pictures off at the excellent Gallery at 41 in the town. I had intended to explore the different possibilities and views as it is a subject that fascinates. It is so much easier painting when the light is interesting, I brushed this in pretty briskly and was pleased to get the balance of detail in the castle about right. It is a subject that is very easy to over do. 14in by 10in Oils.

Landscape, Dorset, Oil painting, plein air

A day out painting with a painting friend Sue Fawthrop. As she was driving I only vaguely know where this is… near Dewlish I think. Those summer greens in full sail… the sky was full of puffy clouds that I had to mostly take out as the whole picture looked too busy once I had it home. 16in by 10in Oils.

Dorset, landscape, oil painting, plein air

Another nearby. I painted one from across the other side of the road which was ghastly. It is underneath this one so the evidence is destroyed! Sometimes a painting just doesn’t fly so there is nothing for it but to wipe it off and give it another go. I very rarely turn a flawed picture around by struggling on with it. This one was a pleasure to paint and who knows maybe doing the previous stinker helped this one work better. 10in by 7.5in oils.

Fontmell Down, Dorset, landscape, oil painting, plein air.

The light looked interesting so I zoomed up to the nearby Fontmell down to have a quick paint. I threw an old painting of the down that was dull and uninteresting and done in poor light into the car and painted this directly on top of it. Even though the light was quite different it made painting this so quick and straightforward that it is something I will try again. 14in by 8in oils.

That’s it caught up on the oil paintings at least!

May 30, 2017

Picking it Apart

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 11:54 am

It is tempting when out painting to set up and just dive in. I do it myself though when I do though I mostly regret it, especially when doing watercolours as it is virtually impossible to change course once started. So I thought in this post to detail exactly how you might pick various scenes apart. Even going through the basic “I’ll get the sky wash in first, then the darkest shadows.” makes you stop and consider. You do not want really to stop and go into that mode of thinking whilst actually painting, because each time you do it breaks the flow. I deliberately decide which problems I am going to deal with first. If it is a street scene with one side in shadow, then I need to get the sky, lit side of the street, shadowed side of the street and road surface tonal ranges sorted out so I don’t have to suddenly darken a third of the canvas, which with oils means wiping back the whole area really. With watercolour I might consider the order of my washes. Some areas might be best  with an establishing wash then darker passages over the top, other areas might be better with the darks painted in first and the washes laid over the top to merge and soften. In watercolour especially I might gauge that a key wash needs to go in first because if it goes pear shaped then the painting will need to be restarted. Which you hardly want to do an hour in!

The problems get more acute painting en plein air, the light will not hang around for you to um and ah about the finer points of composition. I have trained myself however to mostly stop and consider at least the basics. Firstly what is it about the scene that has made you decide to paint it? Is it the lighting? The arrangement of light and dark? The content? The mood? It might of course be more than one. If however the answer is, I’ve been walking around looking for something to paint for an hour and this will just have to do… Then perhaps it is best not to start! I don’t often begin something with that, ho hum this will do feeling and produce something that is worth keeping. In such cases just drawing and sketching might be the order of the day. The very best subjects cry out to be painted and these are often the easiest to paint. Often because they have some clear motif that is straight forward to express. The only danger then is loosing focus on your initial vision and getting side tracked.

With oils you can change your mind and wipe out stuff that doesn’t work. It is a medium made for guessing then refining. So you can plan a picture to take advantage of that. Watercolour is however another kettle of fish. I have recently been doing a few watercolours of the Dorset landscape as it changes with the summers advance so I will try to explain what I recall of how my reasoning went when I set them out. Watercolour is not quite as “one shot is all you’ve got” as some painters say, so it is often possible to hedge your bets a little to allow for final adjustments. I often find it is these final overall adjustments that make all the difference and bring a painting to life.


Win Green, Dorset, watercolour, plein air, painting

This is Win Green the highest point of the Cranborne chase in Dorset. A very simple scene with only 3 elements really. Sky trees and grass… what could possibly go wrong? Time was an issue, those clouds were the forerunners of some serious weather! When I first sat down the clouds I could see were fairly benign so I decided to actually play them down a bit. In reality they were more dramatic but I felt they would dominate. What took my eye was the clump of trees growing on the bronze age barrow.

So after sketching out I did a graded wash over sky area from blue to a pink going right over where the trees would be. I could have done the whole sheet but then I would have had to wait while it all dried. As it was I could carefully wet the grass area leaving a tiny dry gap between hill and sky. I also left dry the areas which would be the pinkish bits of the path. I then started dropping greens both warm and cool into the wet areas. When I want granulation I put down the colour quite strong and then add a touch more water, this allows the grains to separate. If you tap the edge of the paper is makes the effect stronger as it causes the pigment grains to drop into the dips in the paper texture.

I now was forced to wait while the whole lot dried. Not too bad though as there was a bit of a breeze. I actually laid in the clouds when there was a tiny bit of dampness still in the first wash. For the clouds I premixed a purple for the darks and then made a pinker and lighter version. It is vital with watercolour to have a bit of test paper to try out your mixes as they look quite different in the palette. I washed in the pinker version first, making the cloud shapes with the side of the brush. I like to introduce a bit of randomness in the way  apply clouds and then keep the lucky accidents and adjust the bits I don’t like. Once the pinky colour was in I added the darker one to the top of the cloud shapes and let it merge downwards. You can control this process by tilting your paper. Lastly I dropped in a little clean water in the centre of the two biggest clouds to give them a bit of a glow.

The grass was now ready to finish so I washed in the path and then added a few marks to accentuate the curve of the hill. A short wait and the sky was then dry enough to add the trees. I laid in the whole of the shape with quite strong warmish green and then waited for it to reach a damp but not dry state. If the first wash is too dry and additions will be hard edged too wet and the whole lot merges. Once I reckoned it was about right I dropped in the strong darks. That was pretty much that… about 45min from start to finish.

Win Green, Dorset, watercolour, plein air, painting

The first lot of rain had missed me so I decided to chance my arm and go along the Ox drove and look back at the Clump. Sun was coming and going but I decided I liked it without sunshine. Compositionally I had to do some cheating as the clump was too small and too far left. With this sorted out I washed in the sky in much the same manner as the previous one except this time I added the darks to the bottom of the cloud shapes rather than the top. In between waiting for the first sky wash to dry I washed in the pink of the road and fence posts.

With all that dry I dealt with all the grass. I wanted to try and get the really quite odd green which seemed to have reddish purple areas. I mixed a good deal of quite strong colour and then laid it all in leaving just the fence posts and the road dry. I then tilted the paper so that the bottom right corner was at the bottom and allowed my reddish colour to run right through the base wash. I was then stuck for anything to do so I just had to wait for it all to dry.

Once ready it only took 10 min or so to finish off the tree shapes working quite dry and allowing the brush to make the marks. Last touches were a few bits of body colour where I had accidentally lost the road line. 9in by 7in Watercolour.

Win Green Clump, Bowl barrow, watercolour, Dorset,plein air

I knew I was risking fate to start this one… Here I did a fairly random background wash with a few blueish darks. Once that was dryish I laid in the cloud shapes with a very pale pink and then keeping the paper very flat dropped in colour to the wetted areas. I was then snookered and had to wait for it to dry. Just as it was ready the rain began and I had to pack up. Even though my car was only 200yrds away I got completely soaked!

Back at home a day or so later I considered the photos and finished it off pretty much in the same way I did the first one. The only difference being I used Zoisite for the green as it granulates very strongly. A very few marks on top to accentuate the flow and it was finished.

Probably the best of the three, but in a way doing the first two taught me how to approach this one. 9in by 7in Watercolour.

Wimborne Minster, Dorset, watercolour, plein air

A visit to Wimborne Minster. I had to go deep into the shrubbery to get this view. Often the case with churches that you cannot get far enough away get a good composition. Rather rushed this one as the weather was threatening. I have no complaints as to that though as rapidly changing weather gives more possibilities for moments of dramatic lighting. With all architectural subjects drawing is key. Trees, hills and shrubbery are relatively forgiving of drawing errors. People, buildings, cars and animals far less so. 9in by 7in Watercolour.

Badbury Rings, Dorset, painting, watercolour, plein air

On my way home from Wimborne I couldn’t resist Badbury rings. I have painted it a few times without much success and I walked all the way around it unable to settle on a view. I was on my way back to the car having given up when I looked back and saw that the rings were lit by a shaft of sunlight. Without even setting up I quickly sketched the light and shade shapes trying to fix the effect in my mind. I use a method to do this I look at the scene then I close my eyes and try to visualise it in my mind’s eye. Then I open my eyes and compare the mental image to the reality. Then I repeat the process a few times. I find that then when I am painting the mental image is still there, albeit as a simplified cartoon, to refer to. The banks and the shaft of light were the very first thing I put in once painting. I would have preferred to do the sky first normally but here it was was vital the get the transitory effect on the paper as soon as I could before memory faded. Also the tones needed to bring out the shaft of light would set all the rest of the tone decisions in the painting. I would almost certainly have put the sky in too strongly if I had put it in with nothing else in the painting. The track was actually off to the left but I moved it to give a lead in. 9in by 7in Watercolour.

Corfe Castle, watercolour, plein air, Dorset, painting

On this day I decided to go looking for views of  Corfe. So I walked from Corfe a way up the hill to Kingston checking the views as I went. This is a view of two parts the foreground and the background are about a mile apart! The light was bit murky which was a pity as the scenes were ones that really needed good light. I sat and painted the castle and sky but didn’t much like the fore ground so packed up and moved on. In the end I walked all the way to Chapmans Pool which was affair old hike. Later in the day I drove along one of the small roads out of Corfe and saw a track weaving away and just for fun decided to add it to the castle sketch! 9in by 7in Watercolour.

Chapmans Pool, sea, Dorset, Jurassic Coast, watercolour, painting

Sea mist had been obscuring everything and I nearly didn’t climb down to the Pool. I have done it once before and found it tricky because it is so unreal. The mist made it even more unworldly but I just couldn’t find a good viewpoint. I will need to use the photographs I took to sort out my composition and return on a better day. 9in by 6in Watercolour.

Chapmans Pool, Dorset, jurassic coast, plein air, watercolour, painting

I had more or less given up on Chapmans Pool but decided to walk around to the fishermen’s huts. I never got there as this took my fancy. The mist above gave a strange light as it thinned allowing the sun weakly through and I liked what it did to the colours. 9in by 8in Watercolour.

Hanford School, Dorset, watercolour, painting

Hanford school which has wonderful gardens and a fine Tudor house had an open garden day. I didn’t take my paints so this is done from reference but I shall try and go back as there are some super subjects there and it is very near. I relit this entirely using my imagination the photos were of a bright sunny dat with blue sky and fluffy clouds! I decided it needed a more gothic feel. 9in by 7in Watercolour.

Salisbury, wiltshire, watercolour, cathedral, plein air

Another day out, this time to Old Sarum and along the Avon. My main interest was to explore views of Old Sarum for future expeditions. This is another one with dislocated foregrounds and backgrounds. The cathedral liked great rising above the fields but the foregrounds were not good. I settle on this one about half a mile on… irritatingly I found an even better one after I had painted this one in! I must do the walk from here to the cathedral as I suspect there are some great views including the river as you approach. 9in by 6in Watercolour.

Old Sarum, Salisbury, watercolour, Wiltshire, plein air

Finally to Old Sarum itself. The day was not ideal bright sun and middle of the day are one of my least favourite painting moments. I felt I should give this a go however. I enjoyed doing it once I got going, the fade to the distance was a real challenge and as always the greens are tricky. I actually got out the sap green for this one. 9in by 7in Watercolour.

That’s it… I need to get the oils out soon or I will forget how to use them!

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