Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 15, 2016

Gut Feelings

I was watching a video with a well known artist pondering the ins and outs of painting. There was the usual lone figure wandering the hillsides with sketch book in hand, the piano music swelled as this sensitive soul opened his heart to the underlying whispers of history and usage that imbues our 21st century landscapes. We then followed him to his paint spattered garret where he explained his methods. All well and good, (by the way I happen to like this painters work.) he then explained how he tried to take risks and followed his instincts and gut feelings rather than his head.

At this point my antennae raised, I am sure he is being honest about what he thinks is going on. However we all have to watch that bit of us that self mythologises and tries to woo the world into looking at us with respect and admiration. It was the “gut feeling” comment that set me to thinking. Most artists I know are very keen on “intuitive” painting from the “heart” or the aforementioned “guts”. Indeed it would seem we should paint from everywhere and anywhere but our brains. Firstly even though I know it is obvious we don’t paint by inspiration from any part of our giblets. Our spleens, kidneys and even our sainted pancreases play little part in the process.

Whether you like it or not it is the pathways of the brain that do the business. Yes, yes I know they are just metaphors for instinctual responses. A little look at these responses is maybe called for here. Where did they come from? What was their purpose before we painted or surfed the internet? Also there may be two things being conflated. Firstly there are muscle memory and routines of repeated action that are created by establishing pathways in the brains structure. If you do an action repeatedly, such as drawing then bit by bit certain aspects get automated. Judging angles, distances or tones for example. Just the dexterity needed to wield the brush and lay the paint on the surface. These are bits of your brain that are trained up and can run like a piece of software that does not need conscious control.

The other bit is the function that supplies quick assessment on the fly. There is not time to assess properly many things in life because to do “due diligence” would take too long and an answer is needed now. So our early man didn’t ponder whether that tigerish shaped shadow was actually a tiger he just legged it on receiving the instinctive assessment. We use this method to quickly assess people we meet. We call it first impressions, here we do usually treat them with suspicion and are usually prepared to reassess over time. David Kahneman who got the Nobel prize for his work in this area made several experiments that showed up the flaws in the process.

He sent to two groups of surgeons a description of a patient and asked them to say whether they would operate. The descriptions were identical except for one thing. In the estimate of the likelihood of success one group was told the probability was 30 percent that the patient would die, the other group was told the survival rate was 70 percent. Worryingly the 30 percenters mostly said the operation  should not go ahead and the 70 percenters said that it should. The bit of these eminent men’s brains (or maybe their guts) supplying their assessments was of course the same bit of the brain that our painter was relying on to give his work that extra something!

My suspicion of this auto assessment feature of the mind has been with me for a while. Although is is the bit that tells you something might not be quite right, it is also the bit that tells you your drawing is all right or even good when it isn’t. A quick look at a drawing in the mirror will often show this tendency up. When in everyday life the quick response feature lets us down we cheerfully confess to being mistaken, so we do understand its flaws. So why do artists elevate the automatic reaction process to a touchstone of expressiveness and sensitivity?

The answer I fear is superstition and the belief in magic. We still, despite all the evidence to the contrary,  believe we have souls. Some higher part of our being that is pure and responds to the inner rightness of things. The important thing of this extra bit of us is that it is incorporeal and thus stands a chance of surviving extinction. An idea we for obvious reasons are quite keen to believe and reluctant to question. We have decided, it would seem, that this higher self is also responsible for imbuing our paintings with extra spirit too, in some mystical, druidical “art mojo” transfer process.

We spend quite a bit of time exhorting each other to log on to this aetheric wi-fi network in order to express ourselves, tap into underlying energies and be spiritually intuitive. To be free, unrestrained by mere logic and sense etc as if our learning and more considered thinking processes were some kind of ball and chain around our creative ankles. I think this idea comes from confusing the two parts of instinctive or intuitive actions. For our hardwired dexterity and spatial assessment functions the conscious mind can put a spanner in the works as any musician will tell you. When we paint or do anything that occupies our grey matter to the exclusion of all else self awareness is often the first casualty. This is why the hours fly by when we are very involved. This does not however mean that our actions are then being directed by any “higher” consciousness we are actually using previous learnt actions and prior experiences to carry out the picture making process.

To return to our lonely painter on the hillside. Why, if he is trying to “take risks”, and follow “gut feeling”, do his paintings all turn out much the same? Could it be like the rest of us he is following well worn and hard learnt pathways? We have all pondered why, however we experiment and push the boat out, our paintings still are recognisably “ours”. At some point we have most of us decided to tear up the rulebook and do it differently this time only to find that the finished article could hang in perfect harmony next to any other examples of our oeuvre.

A bit of a mish-mash of work this time, I decided I had been rather ignoring the watercolours. For most of these paintings my liver was in charge… and kidneys of course, kidneys are very good for watercolours.

 

Bulbarrow, Dorset, oil painting, road

I think this was Okeford Hill in the background, I had been driving round the lanes on a damp day looking for a subject and thought this was interesting. However after 15min when I had only blocked in the basics the day decided to mutate into a glorious sunset. Not having any more boards with me I debated wiping off and redoing but took it home and fiddled with it in the end. I tried to go back a few days later only to discover I couldn’t remember which road I was on! I must mark scenes on the map, you always believe you will recall where good scenes are but in reality you just don’t. 16in by 7.5in oils.

 

moreton, Dorset, oil painting, ford, puddle

This is the ford at Moreton in Dorset. It doesn’t quite work and is rather like a stage set awaiting the actors, I am debating whether just to wipe it or try a rescue operation. In such situations where a painting is not particularly bad but doesn’t quite cut the mustard either I scan it in and mess with it in Photoshop rather than working in paint. This was the second larger 20in by 16in I have tried plein air and neither painting has really worked. Oils

 

rejig, moreton

Here is my idea, I am now considering whether to do it in paint! The couple came past as I was painting and I snapped them, there were horses too but they didn’t seem to work as well.

 

Dorset, Roads, oil painting, plein air

Last one of the day, I only had 20 or so minutes to get this done. Needs to be redone to a wider format but I was pleased with the mood. 14in by 10in Oils.

 

Self Portrait, Rob Adams, oil painting

It has been awhile since I did one of these. Yes folks it is me, self portraits are great fun but hard. You are never quite sure if the result looks like you which is both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand you just have to try and be accurate and observe methodically, but on the other the result can be lifeless. I had intended to just paint for an hour, but went on for an extra half in the end. I will try a double mirror one maybe, then you don’t end up gurning at the viewer. 10in by 16in Oils.

 

Twyford, Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is the road to Twyford from Shaftesbury, a great view and one I will be returning to. It did somewhat try my patience with the drying so I resorted to the cars heater blower! 9in by 6in watercolour.

 

Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is Shaftesbury, the town is quite high so we are actually in a cloud! I just drew this out in pencil and moved on, washes would never have dried in an age. It was actually great fun to watercolour later allowing bits I couldn’t remember to fade into murk and just trying to remember the atmosphere. 9in by 6in Watercolour.

 

Bedchester, tree, lane, Dorset, pen and ink, Drawing

Here I am planning another lino cut. The view is a lane near Bedchester. I am finding the pen and ink drawings very good for planning prints. I must however get some actually printed. I have two sets of blocks ready to go so need to get printing!

November 4, 2016

Keeping it fresh

One of my greatest concerns is getting stuck in a rut. I can think of nothing worse than churning out the same old but slightly different painting again and again. Commercially this is a very foolish attitude. Looking at successful artists many hit on a winning formula and then stick to it… I just saw a load of fresh stuff by Anthony Gormley, ‘eco porn’ the rather cynical half of me mutters. Don’t get me wrong they are attractive and pretty… innocuous even, but the man hasn’t moved on in decades, I would go stark staring mad rearranging autumn leaves into pretty patterns every year for a decade! Indeed that is what we were encouraged to do at college in the 1970’s, find your “realm of concern” and then stick with it. The only way to become a serious artist was to find something really dreary like welding rusty girders together and then do nothing else for forty years. The theory was that if an artist had been doing the same thing for decades they must be doing “important” work. Indeed if you hit 5o years of doing something mindlessly tedious, Bridget Riley springs to mind, then they will give you a bonanza retrospective in the Tate Modern!

I do have some sympathy, I am disturbingly fond of slow tedious work myself it is engrossing in a ‘digging a ten foot hole with a teaspoon’ sort of way. Your troubles melt away as you incrementally conquer a couple of square feet of delicate pen hatching. However for me a large part of being a painter is getting better, being able to do something in a way I couldn’t do before. Inevitably as you get older the degrees of improvement get ever smaller, but that is just relativity at work. When you know almost nothing then big steps up are easy and almost inevitable if you work at it, after forty years or more though each step up the hill becomes ever harder to make.

You can however make improvement a bit more likely with a bit of planning. The simplest way is to try something new. Recently I have set about doing some printing which is something I have never done before. Although it is early days it has already taught me something by the requirement to massively simplify, that is I find proving useful in my oil painting. As I might only have four tones to play with in a lino cut I soon found those tones needed to be very carefully chosen and extremely accurate relative to each other. What, I couldn’t help but wonder, would be the result if I took that much care in setting out an oil painting? The answer is it makes the painting better balanced and more coherent. I then took it a step further and removed most of the colour from my initial block in, using only warm or cool greys. This had the immediate benefit of telling you if your tonal structure is working, with the colour gone it is considerably easier to get the contrasts working properly.

I think this way of working will mean economies as well. On my last outing I mixed a set of three base greys each in a warm or cool version, these can be mixed from left over paint. Also they can be mixed with basic earth colours which are inexpensive, there is not much difference between a student quality yellow ochre and a premium one as the basic ingredients are very cheap.  With oils you can then “drift” colour in afterwards. The only hitch was in a few areas where I wanted a really clean hue I had to wipe off before applying fresh colour. I am setting off on a largish studio picture this week so I will see how the method works on a city scape. For landscapes it gives a unity that I have been struggling to find especially in the greens.

On another subject I have started a new painting group down here in Dorset called The Hardy Monkeys  as I cannot easily get up to London to paint more than once a month. Only the two of us on the first one but I dare say it will grow. I’ll start with our first outing…

 

Corfe Castle, dorset, pen and ink, drawing

The very wonderful Corfe Castle was our first venue. We didn’t have to go far to get  a great view. The light was poor but that is where pen and ink excels.

 

Corfe Castle, Dorset, watercolour, painting, art

A very quick watercolour sketch in my Moleskin, I have been neglecting my sketchbooks of late, so it was good to slap this in without too much planning. 7in by 5in watercolour.

 

Corfe Castle, oil painting, plein air, art

We drove this way and that to see what vies were available. The whole area has some great scenery aside from the dramatic gap and the castle so I will be going back to paint again. With this I blocked in with very muted colour and then added stronger tints by brushing in and mixing on the board. Slightly scary as when you first drop the colour in before brushing it around it looks miles to strong. One result of this method is that it is easier to allow your self room to punch up areas at the end to emphasise. It is all to easy to get into a position where you can’t go brighter, darker or stronger in hue, this approach makes that sort of cul-de-sac less likely. 14in by 10in oils.

 

rawlsbury camp, dorset, landscape, oil painting

This is the wonderful Rawlsbury Camp a bijou promontory fort from the Ironage. This was done from a photo and a watercolour. I used the structure from the photo and then referred to the mood and colour of the watercolour which is below. I didn’t quite stick to my greys approach but laid in with muted tones of greeny bluey grey. It was really interesting to do as more than a little imagination was required! In the end I put away both the photo ref and the watercolour and painted without reference. 16in b y 10in Oils.

 

Rawlsbury Camp, Dorset, watercolour, painting, plein air

Here is the watercolour mostly done on the spot. I didn’t stick exactly to the colour scheme as you can see. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

 

Maiden Castle, watercolour, art, dorset

Earlier the same day I sketched at Maiden castle. Such a strange landscape, I am going to have to find a different approach if I am to do it justice. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

 

Stourhead, oil painting, plein air, Wiltshire, art

An outing to the wonderful Stourhead in Wiltshire. The autumn colours were in full swing. Another new thing I am attempting is to paint plein airs a little larger. I have made myself a new painting rig that allows much larger boards while still being light… a painting kit nerdy post will feature next time! Again I didn’t quite have the courage to lay in completely in greys, all that colour turned my head! I didn’t notice much difference painting on a larger 20in by 16in board, I just used bigger brushes! The image above is cut down to 20in by 14in as I though it made a better composition. Oils.

 

Stourhead, painting, oils, plein air, wiltshire

Mostly used the greys to lay in. This is Stourhead again as the day ended. I had to be very fast as the light was very much on the move. Using almost no colour at first made the lay in very quick and easy and left me plenty of tonal headroom for bright accents. The dark reflection is a little too heavy but I will dry brush it back in a day or so. 14in by 10in Oils.

 

Shroton, oils, painting

At last I bit the bullet and laid in with just warm and cool greys! This is Shroton a village nearby. I had all my greys premixed in little pots. It was very hard to resist dipping into bits of colour but I resisted the temptation. This lay in only took 15 min, which was just as well as it was preparing to rain on me!

 

Shroton, Dorset, oil painting, art, plein air

Here is the finished painting. I intended to take snaps as I worked but got so involved I forgot alas. It was amazingly easy to drop colour in with only a few bits of the sky needing to be wiped back. The watery sunshine came and went until the rain started which was a bonus. 16in by 10in Oils.

That’s it for this post… more autumn to come I hope as the November light is gorgeous.

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