Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

November 24, 2014


Filed under: Art History,Painting,Watercolour — Tags: , , , — Rob Adams @ 2:05 pm

I went to see the Constable exhibition at the V&A. I was painting in a very wet Knightsbridge and took refuge from the rain for an hour or so. I nowadays try to distance myself from all I know and have heard of an artist when I look at their pictures. What would the reaction be, I try to think, if an unknown posted this on an online painting forum… how many “likes” would it garner. It is not easy to look afresh, this is after all Constable, one of the greats of British landscape. The exhibition is well worth seeing as it includes paintings by artists who influenced him, both from the past and his contemporaries. So we had Thomas Girtin who he admired hugely and Ruisdael who he copied with great attention to detail. The exhibition also included the sketches and so forth where they when available, which I always like because they show how an artist sets about his business.

Firstly there was much I very much liked. The small plain air sketches and pencil studies. One or two of which have a lovely immediacy and delicate touch. It was here that the heretical thought occurred… if I found an unknown one of these and posted it under an assumed name on UKPleinair (a Facebook group with many fine painters as members) would it stand out? After racking my brains I had to conclude most would not. Indeed many were well below the standard that some artists currently post. The very best would I expect garner praise and positive feedback of course but not I have to conclude adulation. A few examples would be appropriate I suppose.

constable sketch

Here is a middling quality painting. You have to say though perfectly pleasant it is ordinary. Other painters of the time such as Turner and Girtin were doing far better work on the average in my opinion.


Constable sketch

Here is another from later in life. Some nice enough bits but the trees to the left are clumsy as is the composition. The distant blue is a good touch but once again nothing remarkable.


Constable sketch

Here is another, very briskly painted but heavy handed with some ugly brushwork. If it was not by Constable you would possibly throw it out! Because it is by Constable we earnestly peruse it, but to my eye it is just a poor painting.


constable study

This is a sketch for a bigger picture. I find, as Turner and the other Academicians did, that the crude muddy brushwork and the shotgun white highlights just don’t work. The red browns also overwhelm the painting and sit unpleasantly with the blue.


constable salisbury

Now to dig myself a deeper hole still I will consider one of his iconic later paintings. Here is the sketch. There is very little good here. The drawing is poor with Salisbury cathedral toppling to the left. As for the stand of trees on the left, what was he thinking? The sky usually one of his stronger points also is marred by ugly fussy and ill considered white highlights.


constable, salisbury

Here is the final result. It looks better here than in the flesh. The whole picture is smothered in distracting white speckles. He used to call this his “snow” and knew that other painters disliked it. The drawing is a little improved but the river on the right climbs impossibly up the picture plane and there appears to be a miniature village built into the undergrowth on the far bank. Once again the trees are terrible especially the overworked branches at then top. Is it just me but those horses look more like Shetland ponies rather than cart horses!

Poor Constable I hate to say it but I think he has been built up greater than he really was. It is not his fault of course he has been taken by art historians to represent the precursor of impressionism. He is in fact, I feel, a very hit or miss painter who struck a few very high points here and there but struggled in later life to find his way. I liked his Water-meadow near Salisbury far more than his Haywain and some of his oil sketches more than both. He was of course influenced as all artists of the period were by Claude Lorraine and there was a fine example there. His real contribution was pioneering the working out of doors from life, though the curators of the show didn’t appear to notice that several of the so called plein air sketches had glazing over impasto white which makes it unlikely that they were actually done on site. I will end with my favourite thing from the show. A small oil sketch on a bit of millboard.


oil sketch, constable

This is altogether delicious with a light touch and subtle colouring.

September 12, 2014

The perils of perfection

Filed under: Dorset,London,Painting,Thames,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 10:47 am

I have always been interested in big questions. What we are doing here etc. As I have read and lived longer I no longer expect answers but rather find the questions engaging for their own sake. Reading about philosophy, religion and science have been an abiding interest my whole life.

I tend to focus on the world in which I find myself rather than my own internal workings. I have meditated and it has taught me that I am possibly the least interesting thing in my own world. I have gazed at my navel and found it distinctly dull! Initially everything as far as I can see comes from the outside in. You can give out no reaction into the world other than a reaction to what has been previously perceived. Yes, I’m afraid we are back to painting… That damn silly idea that we are somehow painting what is within us.

To make it absolutely clear. As far as I can see everything you emote, paint, write or crochet was prompted by external influence. You only processed the information, gave it back a little changed or perhaps garbled. You might say gave it back as a reflection seen dimly in a flawed mirror. You can perhaps glean a little of the painter from a painting it could maybe say a little about out inner nature, but the hints and clues are encoded into the imperfections of what we create when we echo back our perceptions on to canvas.

So here we go, this post’s idea. Imperfections are sometimes a good thing. Firstly we all find it hard to relate to perfection. Those stark modernist interiors so loved by architects seem made for some other more ideal, tidier person than ourselves. The obsessive recreations of photographs which seem to me to have little resonance other than the marvelling at the patience of the artist and whatever charms the original image had. Perfectly executed abstracts with no indecision to be seen are like a door shut in my face.

To consider the obverse for a moment there is also a problem with those works which are all imperfections through lack of intent or skill. A resonant imperfection is perhaps an aiming high and falling short or hitting a another part of the target than that which was aimed for. Wildly throwing stuff over your canvas is telling others very little about the artist, only about the nature of randomness or the physics of falling and dribbling paint. Many seem to think that expressiveness is caused by the vigour of the application and the suppression of the intellect. Such a work may well be decorative and exciting to behold, but only has a subtext that the viewer brings to it not what the creater imbued it with. A work of art is not a certainty expressed but more of an uncertainty made flesh.

Making a work of art is always I feel treading on the edge of what is possible for an individual human being to achieve. Un-intuitively if you set yourself a goal that simple enough to be actually achievable then you have I suspect by definition already failed.

I often hear painters referring to the work of others as too tight, or “Tight as a duck’s arse.” There might be no element in the painting wrong but still there is no life. What it really means is that if everything is resolved then there is no mystery for the imagination of the viewer to dwell in. Excessive clarity and certainty lock the viewer out, they can view but not inhabit the painting. I have been wondering of late why this is so and come to a few tentative conclusions.

We do not for the most part perceive things accurately, it would take up too much processing power. So what we do is look for discontinuities. If something is vaguely plausible then the eye will accept it, but if it somehow falls outside those bounds it draws more attention as a potential risk area. When this ability to sort the seen environment developed it was, I am guessing, for spotting problems and threats, not looking at paintings. However I think much the same happens with a made image. If you take an abstract, say in the manner of Barnet Newman, then spray a representational face in one corner, that face will destroy the abstract qualities and a hue and cry will duly follow. Adding another stripe while the museum attendant isn’t looking could be missed for weeks or longer. The first is incongruous the second in keeping.

When you paint an observed image of a city the same sort of thing occurs. A variation in the style of the windows will pass unnoticed but an inaccuracy in the perspective will cause unease. When you paint a scene there is a locus of position and other attributes that lies within the possible, but if you overstep those bounds then it will feel wrong to the veiwer. This is not necessarily something to be avoided it is more of a tool to be aware of and exploit. The more an image is defined the more the possibility of some part feeling wrong increases and also the further it gets from the way we actually perceive the world.

This is the reason I find over defined figures feel stiff and can look frozen in place. If the flower garden you paint is too perfect then it feels as if the wind could never blow nor birds fly. As I get older my paintings seem to get untidier. This is partly reducing patience but also because I fear killing the painting by overworking. It is better I have discovered to stop early than to go on until it has no life!

Not so many paintings as I have been busy painting house walls white rather than pictures.


Southwark, London, plein air, oil painting, wapping group

The Shard has changed many scenes in London, this is the view from Southwark Cathedral. It is a dramatic object that tends to dominate any scene, but on the whole I like it. It is a struggle to fit into a painting though. 10in by 10in oils.


Shard, London Bridge, London, Southwark, oil painting, Wapping group

A sucker for punishment I took it on again! I thought the vertical format would be a good idea but seeing it on screen tells me that cropping 4in off the top would improve the picture hugely. So much so that I might do a studio one of this. I will have to go back and look at it in various lights first. 16in by 10in. Oils.


Southwark, London, plein air, oils, wapping group

Last one from Southwark. It was a Wapping Group day so I sat with Steve Alexander and did this. Only 30 min or so but the best of the day. I had to adjust a few of the figures later to make the composition revolve around the two lighter figures. 8in by 10in oils.


St John Smiths Square, London, plein air, Wapping group, oil painting

Another Wapping Group day this time around the Westminster area. This is St John Smiths Square. A very beautiful square but hard to get away from the church which fills the centre. The light teased me horribly on this one, the light through the trees attracted me to paint it then the day went gloomy! I pegged away at it and was just packing up when the sun came back, so I whipped out my brushes again and added the touches of light. Amazing how so few touches of tone can transform an otherwise dull painting. 10in by 14in oils.


St John Smiths Square, London, plein air, oil painting, wapping group

I moved around the square for this one, only a sketch I shan’t take it further but I will return to the square as it has a couple of great subjects to paint. 10in by 10in oils.


mill bank, London, thames, wapping group, oil painting

I stood with the traffic bombing past me along the Millbank opposite the Tate. I liked the swoop of the road and the afternoon light which was warming as the evening drew on. It is not possible to resolve a complex picture like this in an hour, but I try to work over them evenly so everything is at the same level of focus. If you do this they feel finished even though much is left incomplete. 10in by 16in.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour

While working on my new house in Dorset I managed to get a couple of sketches done on my daily walk over Hambledon Hill. I am really looking forward to painting these landscapes more intensively. While painting this the the wind was moving the paint across the paper like mad… so I can’t really claim to have painted the sky it was mostly done by the weather! 8in by 10in watercolour.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour

Another view of the hill, it transforms dramatically with the light. The next day I went up later and the light was fabulous but I didn’t have my paints with me and my camera ran out of battery! 5in by 7in watercolour.


Hambledon hill, Dorset, watercolour

It is hard to make good compositions on the hill. This look wonderful to the eye but somehow doesn’t come together into a picture. 5in by 7in watercolour.

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