Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

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.

August 14, 2014

Observationalism

Filed under: Art History,Drawing,Painting,Philosophy,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — Rob Adams @ 4:29 pm

Yes a new “ism” I had thought there must have been a movement in art history that had laid claim to the term, but it seems not. Well now it’s mine! I thought of it when I was trying to find a term for what I was doing. In simple terms I am translating what I see on to a flat surface using paint or other media. The key to this is in the “translation” word. I am not copying, I am finding equivalents.

So some definitions, being an Observationalist means you are empirical taking your cues from the world, responding to the experiences of the world that your senses bring you. You are neither trying to add a subtext from elsewhere nor trying to exclude all your individual nature. You are rendering how you personally see it, filtered through the constraints of ability and medium. I am trying to make an object that is eloquent in presenting how I saw a time and place, but not an unbiased representational record.

Realism, has aspects of Observationalism but tries to exclude style and idealisation. When you re-arrange a landscape to improve the composition or adjust the tones to create a focus then you are idealising. If you make all your trees like Claude Lorraine then you are inventing or fantasising, which is different. Style comes in two flavours, the part that results from the manner in which you carry out the act of painting and the other variety that is adopting the style of another. An Observationalist should embrace the former, but the latter should only be influence not aping. There is a difference between being influenced by Wesson and “Painting the Wesson Way”. If you are an Observationalist you are painting your own way based upon personal practical experience, which includes influences from looking at the work of others.

There can be a degree of abstraction but abstraction is not the point. There can be a degree of impressionism but impressionism is a method not an ambition. There can be an element of photographic realism, we are so influenced by the photographic image that some influence is inevitable. So we might shift the tones of our painting towards how a camera might see a scene but not try to make an image that could be confused with a mechanically produced image. If painting from the figure there can be character and activity but not story telling. So a few people sitting at a table would be fine but to have them arranged to make some moral point would not. I will add some images to make the finer distinctions clear as words are not adequate.

Some of the ideas from this screed came when a few days ago I was working upon a studio picture. It consists of a London scene with quite a few cyclists passing by. It came about when I was photographing a scene that I thought had potential for a painting when a stream of bicycles passed by. Thinking that they looked wonderful I took a whole sequence of pictures and the studio picture will contain various cyclists arrange to form a composition. The final image should look completely naturalistic. To my mind this will fit into my new “Ism” if I added a chimpanzee riding one of the bicycles it would not. I had experienced the cyclists but not the chimp!

To refine the thinking a little further. Suppose I am painting a landscape. The composition would be improved with a tree holding up one side of the composition. This would fit our new school to my mind. If however I had  a rather dull landscape and invented a dramatic tree to be the centre of interest then it might not. I could paint a dramatic tree but find it’s location a disappointment. I might then walk a few yards further on and see a setting that was perfect, stop and paint in a new background. This would be fine as both elements are observed. What I am saying is that a picture may be a mixture of observed elements, indeed some such as figures might be made up using the experience of previous observations. However if I made a portmanteaux image of observed elements on one canvas then there would no longer be a single plausible view point and the viewer could no longer put themselves behind the eyes of the painter.

To dice it finer still painting a crashed car would be on message. Painting the crash in action with one car in mid air less so. Just to make my own life difficult, how about if I welded up a support to hold a car in a dramatic in the air position and then sat and painted it? To my mind not as you would be adding a narrative that was the real subject of the painting not the object itself. However this is art, and we cannot draw hard and fast lines. I am not trying to be prescriptive. There would inevitably paintings that had a degree of observational content but had some other raison d’être. An example of this would be an allegorical scene produced using studies from life. I would feel the studies themselves would fall into the Observational net, but the final painting not, as it is about the Allegory not the observed parts.

So, are you an Observationalist?

Steve Mumford, iraq,drawing

This drawing is by Steve Mumford done in Iraq. To my mind purely observational even though there are current political overtones the drawing has no agenda. Click on the picture to see more of his work.

 

gassed sketch, singer sergeant

This sketch for Gassed by John Singer Sargent is also observational, but posed for a narrative purpose so one step away from pure observationalism.

 

Gassed, Singer Sargent

The final picture is a further step away, here observation is a tool at the service of the narrative.

 

Paul Nash

Lastly a painting by Paul Nash. Here the observational content is even less, the narrative and abstract qualities dominate.

 

So there we are I have created a new school. Unlike most new art “isms” it already has members… Rembrandt with his portraits, Monet with his landscapes, Turner in his sketches, Degas with his laundry women, even perhaps our cave man drawing a bison. It is good to feel the weight of history on your side!

 

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