Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

January 18, 2017

Christmas in Co Clare

Well that is the old year over with and the new one started. As always it is a moment to take stock. I started this quest to focus on my own work about 6 years ago now. The quest to improve has as far as I can tell born a certain amount of fruit, but it is always hard to tell for the artist as your expectations and hopes change too, so you always tend to feel you are falling short. I have hugely enjoyed learning new ways to do things and getting a more refined view of things I already thought I knew. You never of course completely learn anything you only add to or update your store of experience.

This blog has been a pleasure to do also, forcing me to think more clearly about various aspects, both practical and intellectual, in order to set down my thoughts. Reading back I don’t always agree with my earlier self, which is again a good thing as it shows I am perhaps not too set in my ways. I have been astonished at how many people have viewed my paintings and ponderings. People obviously have far too much time on their hands!

Painting as a business has been slower and harder to assess. The activity now pays for itself and supplies a tiny profit… I work, I estimated, for the hourly rate of 50p an hour, so I will have to take myself to court for breaching the minimum wage! In actuality I could have probably made enough to get by on. The problem is that I would have had to halve the painting time and devoted those hours to actively selling and promoting. This would increase income and lower the output of pictures. This would hardly matter as I suspect very few artists sell more than 20% of their output and many more far less.

It is very hard to assess your own progress. You are too close and it is almost impossible to view the facts dispassionately. The tendency is to veer between elation and despair, which is probably about right if I can keep the swings to a moderate amplitude! I find it a little hard to divide up my attention, I am always being tempted by new and interesting byways. Printing has been the only one I have allowed myself to take which had proved very worthwhile. Forcing me into new ways of thinking in order to exploit the process.

If I was to point to one worthwhile thing I have discovered so far it would be that limits are very important. We live in an age of almost unlimited possibilities and an almost complete lack of rules. We tend to scorn anything that we perceive as reducing our choices, after all barriers are there to be overcome, are they not? Well if they are real barriers yes, but todays barriers are tissue thin except for the one of unlimited choice which we tend to ignore.

Rules have another importance which is harder to get your head around. Without them it is impossible to track your progress at all. Without aims that can be defined how can you estimate degrees of success or failure? Is the picture I just painted good or bad or what mix of the two? At what point and by what criteria do decide if a painting is a triumph or an epic fail? What is the role of technique in success or failure? I increasingly get to the point where I can’t find anything technically wrong with a painting, but it still doesn’t quite fly. Just because you can do something does not mean that you should, technique is very beguiling in this respect.

Other painters often talk to me of their quest to simplify and reduce, which I understand and share, but can’t somehow think it quite that straightforward. A picture after all could be averaged to a single tone if the process was taken to extreme. What if the subject itself is most notable for its complexity? The idea is of course that we exclude detail that is not telling and distracts from the whole. The theory is that as in making whisky you distill and increase the potency of your image. Like all oversimplifications it is beguiling but doesn’t really bear up under close examination. There are after all many great works of art that are a blizzard of detail. If I imagine myself standing next to the 15C painter Van Eyck and saying to him,” It’s a good effort my dear chap, but rather overworked don’t you think? Have you tried being more expressive? Perhaps you should use bigger brushes.” it doesn’t quite work, I think you will agree.

So a quest for the new year is: what is the relationship between the quantity and quality of content? What is the relationship between a picture that makes a good first impression and one that will beguile and intrigue over time? Like all things to do with art I don’t expect to resolve anything, just go through the process of considering which will perhaps shed a little light.

So on to Christmas paintings. Watercolour was the order of the day and mostly just sketches in my Moleskin. I also didn’t manage much painting on the spot but just looked, sketched out and took photos and painted in the evening. Not an intentional methodology but rather a pleasurable one I found.

Ireland, County Clare, watercolour, Burren

Here I am in the Burren in County Clare in Eire. The area is very distinctive with its limestone pavements, grikes and erratic boulders. I always paint at least one picture of this subject when I visit. A large amount of imagination here as my reference was a black silhouette. I rather enjoyed trying to paint my memory of it a few hours before. The result gets nearer than the photo to the mood, the rays of light which were not in the reference I later realised were the result of dirty spectacles!

Kilthurla, Galway, Kinvarra, plein air, watercolour, painting

A road near Kilthurla close to Kinvarra. A sketch done on the spot very very fast as the light was going rapidly.

Kilthurla, Kinvarra, ireland, watercolour, painting

The same scene from reference that evening, would you have known which was plein air? I’m not sure I would. All plein air painters reading this will now feel sure that they could spot the one done from reference instantly. But what if I was fibbing and it is the other way round?

The new line, Clare, Ireland, watercolour, painting

Now if you tried to do this en plein air you would be dead! This is called the “New Line” it is a famine road built by a program to give work and thus payment to the impoverished during that great and bitter catastrophe where for the most part the wealthy stood by and allowed the poor to starve. Some of these roads were never finished and remain as roads to nowhere. The labour must have been immense with it all being done by hand in the harshest of landscapes. They must have slept and lived on site. As a result these roads are arrow straight and nowadays a race track for cars.

Finvarra, watercolour, painting, ireland

Rather over cooked this one, got the balance between foreground and background wrong. This is on Finvarra which is almost an island.

Ballyportry, castle, co clare, watercolour, painting

This is Ballyportry castle near Corofin. A subject I have painted many times. We had wonderful skies throughout my visit. Watercolour is so good at describing luminosity. Far harder in oils.

Ennis, ireland, watercolour, painting, street

This is County Clare’s county town Ennis in a pre Christmas frenzy. To complete the scene you should imagine distorted and very mawkish country and western seasonal songs being played through tinny tannoy speakers scattered liberally around the town. I had to stand in this spot for nearly 20min until I got a few moments when it wasn’t solid stationary traffic. Its hard being a painter sometimes.

weir village, co clare, ireland, watercolour, painting

This is near Weir Village in Co Galway. I hadn’t explored this part of the coast and will return as it has an interesting flavour with low-lying land divided by long inlets from the sea.

Dunguaire Castle, Kinvarra, Galway, watercolour, painting

This is Dunguaire castle near Kinvarra. I sketched this out pretty much completely and then “coloured it in” in the evening. The underlying wash went awry so I added body colour which in the end worked better than the wash would have… serendipity in action!

Dysert O'Dea Castle, Co Clare, ireland, watercolour, painting

This is Dysert O’Dea castle the local clan chieftains’ hangout. This is a very quick scribble as I was plodding around soggy fields looking for good viewpoints. I saw several but all impossible to get to without swimming.

East Clare, watercolour, painting

Don’t know why I did this random road in East Clare… anything to distract from the first hangover of the New Year maybe…

Kilmacduagh Abbey, Galway, watercolour, painting

Actually got most of this done on site. Sitting in my nice warm car mind you… It is Kilmacduagh Abbey which I have done many times. Pleased with this one though so might do an oil from it.

Kilmacduagh Abbey, drawing, pen and ink

To that end I did a drawing from the watercolour. Think I prefer the wider format though.

Dunguaire Castle, drawing, pen and ink

Dunguaire Castle again. It is in a great position I must do an oil next time I go over.

Dunguaire Castle, sheep, drawing, pen and ink

Dunguaire again but with added sheep. I will do an oil of this as I haven’t done a sheep painting in a while…

Motte, drawing, ireland, pen and ink

I forget the name of this place not far from Durrow, it is an old Motte on which a stone castle would have stood. A bleak spot and I got very cold.

Aughinish, Kinvarra, pen drawing

This is the causeway to Aughinish near Kinvarra. I had just sat and watched a truly spectacular sunset and not bothered to paint it! I have learnt to just appreciate sunsets and only paint the more tasteful ones.

Well that is it, as always I am surprised at how much I got done at the same time as feeling I should have spent less time spacing about and more time painting.

December 14, 2016

Art History

I have recently waded through two vast Pelican histories of art in Europe 1780 to 1880 by Novotny and 1880 to 1940 by George Heard Hamilton. They are both written in the sixties. They are fascinating for what they leave out: no Sargent who was very active in Europe, no Zorn, no Joaquín Sorolla. The Novotny book especially has an agenda that is to see past painting in the light of what was to come in the future. I notice they no longer publish it which is no surprise as to me it seemed very flawed. The other is well written and thoughtful and a pleasure to read even though I find the story told a little simplistic.

After finishing them I sat back and tried to take stock of why I felt uncomfortable with them while they were still fairly fresh in my mind. The story they purport to tell is of this great voyage of discovery, artists as explorers or scientific researchers making breakthroughs and discovering new lands for human expression to thrive in. The drive for this is assumed to be the vaunting ambition by the geniuses the era was fortunate to be blessed with and the rejection of the old. The word revolution is often used. Also the shock of the ancient regime when faced with these prodigies of modernity is given great weight. This I feel is overstated as for the most part societies seem to have taken up anything novel with considerable enthusiasm with the “Rock and Roll is the work of the Devil” voices in the minority.

In other walks of life the ideas of the sixties, central town and social planning have been reassessed. We no longer believe men with university degrees, pipes and glasses reorganising the world for the benefit of the lumpen and ignorant masses is a good or a proper idea. Much of the idealised view of science, medicine and advancement to a bright shiny future have also been reconsidered. Art history and art opinion though is much the same today as these books written in the sixties it is as if new thought has been frozen with anything fresh roughly warped to fit into the pattern already laid down.

It is with this overall pattern I take exception. I think the flaw in the whole thing is in the view of what topology art might inhabit. It is perhaps seen by the authors and indeed current artists and historians as a land with boundaries that can be pushed back with terrae incognitae waiting on the other side of a line to be explored by plucky creative souls. The other analogy could be with science, unknowns being researched with bold experiments, analytical thought and inspired perception. The assumption is that there is an endless ocean of artistic thought to be navigated and conquered. Unlike scientists or explorers though the past is discarded by art historians, beyond a certain point its relevance only in that it was a step towards this new and always contemporary fertile ground.

It is I agree a wonderfully romantic vision. It flatters the artists and casts them in a heroic light sailing against the winds of tradition to discover new and uncompromising truths. It gives art historians a context, a larger theme and a style of language to set their writings in. It offers endless opportunities for faux scientific and cod philosophical art speak. It is all in all the most comfortable of rebellions, a risky business with chance excluded, derring do with no actual danger. The problem I feel is that the whole premiss is untrue and misleading. It distorts our ideas as to what culture is, narrows our possible horizons and imprisons any of an up and coming generation to an ever turning, but ever stationary wheel.

For a start, human created content is not really like a land with undiscovered parts. Though if you must have the metaphor you might say that the land is always the same, and only the travellers and the journeys they make within it change. The science part is less easy to recast, there is knowledge theory and method to be learnt, but no breakthroughs only seeing old knowledge with fresh and ever renewed eyes. For each generation of artists there is much the same dressing up box of media, intent and style available, it is what they choose to do with them that counts.

This tiptoes into the realm of philosophy which is another field that contemporary art and art history tends to look at in an envious manner. It is a flattering thought that artists creating objects are deepening the well of human understanding in some manner. Words and ideas however are the tool for this purpose not paintings or sculptures however much they label themselves conceptual. This perhaps explains the increasing need of the visual arts for words to augment and explain or more often confuse.

Both books shuffle uncomfortably over the pivotal moments in the fragmented story of the period they cover.  Hardly any mention is made of the great exhibitions of tribal art and the trickle of cultural objects from far away that grew into a flood. Photography is passed over with hardly a mention, even though it was to destroy a large part of the reasons why many cultural objects were made in the first place. The industrial revolution that replaced objects we used to make with our hands and minds with cheap and flawless substitutes gets little attention. The social turmoil that changed a business dependent on a few hugely wealthy clients to one supported by many with more humble means would seem worth a mention too but doesn’t get one. Even the invention of private and later civic art collections in the form of galleries and museums seems not to have been really considered as a possible influence on the nature of what is created in that time period.

Everything in the books is driven by the need to create some narrative. A story line to hang the work of artists of each period on, like washing pegged out in a neat easily comprehendable row. However to my eye the history and nature of created objects is actually arranged in a wildly non linear manner and has the possibility to be categorised in a plethora of different ways. There have been cups made from the dawn of time and drawings too. In each particular era the human souls who created them came to the act of making afresh. They saw some results of what those who came before had done, but each time for them the learning, the doing and the achievement was entirely new.

For example you cannot sensibly put the describing of the human form which has gone on for 30,0000 or so years into a neat progression. At different times the purpose of such objects could swing from the individual to the universal, or from the observational to the symbolic, so there is no progression. We had stick men then and they are still with us today, we had carefully observed recordings of animals and they are also with us still. We have had abstract patterns and arrangements in our lives since the very dawn of culture. They have not got any better or advanced in any meaningful way, the idea of steady advancement is irrelevant to that category of created thing. You can more sensibly place Picasso’s portraits with tribal works done in similar manner many times over the eons. All you can say is that both the 19thC Spaniard and some 10thC African took that particular hat out of the dressing up box and gave it a very pleasing whirl.

The function of art is really I have come to believe very simple. It is simply a thing crafted to engage and enrich our perceptions. The world as it stands does this, art objects are merely those that are made by conscious intent. One occurs the other is made to occur. The rest is merely a matter of where the creation might stand as far as effectiveness and universality goes.

A mixed bag of work this time I am hopping here and there and cannot seem to settle to one thing.

Ramsgate, plein air, oil painting, Kent

A visit to Kent, this is Ramsgate. Wasn’t really on form and several paintings hit the scrap pile! This one worked better though. 10in by 7.5in oils.

 

ramsgate, Kent, oil painting

This was done on my return and is Ramsgate again, very interesting town with lots of varied subjects. I spent quite a lot of time just wandering and looking, which in its way is just as rewarding as painting. 16in by 10in Oils.

 

Ramsgate, oil painting, Kent

Yet another Ramsgate one, not sure this is quite done, it is up on the wall at the moment to consider. Some pictures get to a point where they are on the very edge of working well, but some niggling feeling tells you there is more to be done. The hard thing is to establish exactly what that “something” is of course. The green awning is crime suspect no 1 at present! 14in by 10in oils.

 

Ramsgate, The belgian Bar, interior, pen and ink, drawing

Last one from Kent. We went to the Belgian Bar to eat in Ramsgate and I could not resist a quick sketch. Pen and Ink.

 

Dorset, road, watercolour, painting

Back to Dorset and the light has just been amazing, one of the best Autumn seasons I can recall. Especially as due to building works I missed last years season entirely. I have done this road a few times and it always rewards. Here I did two watercolours at the same time, this one only got to pencil stage but it is a good thing to do as there is always waiting around for the damn stuff to dry so having another picture on the go keeps you occupied. Watercolour.

 

Dorset, landscape, watercolour, painting

Here is the other in the pair. This one got a bit further on I got it drawn out and the shadows blocked in. Here the washes went over the shadows rather than working from light to dark. I like they way the overlaying washes slightly dissolve the previous layer. You do have to be vary careful and lay the washes in one pass as stirring it around at all makes mud very quickly. Watercolour

 

Dorset, landscape, watercolour, painting

I decided I might make a linocut of the same scene and this is the first stage in reducing it in complexity. I prefer to do this in stages, the next stage I will do on the computer as I can preview the different plates easily. Hopefully with more experience I will be able to leave out that stage eventually. Watercolour.

 

Milton Abbas, watercolour, Capability Brown, painting, landscape

Another one that has linocut potential. This is Milton Abbas where the lord of the manor moved a whole town so that Capability Brown could improve the view. This is a section of Mr Browns efforts! 9in by 6.5in watercolour.

 

Trees, watercolour, dorset, painting

One that didn’t quite fly, I had done an oil of this which is below and wondered if it would make a print, so this watercolour was just to see if it would. The answer is probably no! 9in by 6.5in watercolour.

 

Dorset, trees, oil painting, road

Here is the oil, I made a fair few changes to the road and sky after this scan but this is when it was mostly done. 14in by 10in oils.

Thats it for this batch, have a fair bit more to post but the Christmas season is approaching like an express train and I am unprepared!

Here is this year’s Christmas card… a good one to all if any who peruse this daubing and waffling!

Christmas card, drawing

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