Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

April 10, 2014


Artists need to exhibit they say. If the lists people attach to their Biographies on websites is to believed exhibiting is very important. If you say “I am a painter” then people will ask “do you exhibit”. Up until recently my answer would be a flat “no”. Having done a couple of years now of showing bits and bobs here and there I have mixed feelings. When people say exhibit they really mean exhibit for sale. I note none of the people who list their every minor show ever say that they didn’t sell, though this must be true for the most part.

What is most odd is that there must be people who look through a list of exhibitions and then look at the work differently as it seems to have been validated by others. I have I just realised typed the key word in this matter… “validation”. For a buyer or art lover it means that they are not completely relying on their own judgement if there is a list of shows to support any view.

I am of course very jealous of those who have long lists in chronological order of galleries and group shows. I have done nothing but paint in one way or another my whole life but have only a brief flurry of shows in recent years. I am a little taken aback that people seem to think that I didn’t exist before this time and that I have only just started on art in my later years. I don’t like to say ,”well actually I can paint almost anything in any style you wish.” which would sound rather big headed but is pretty much true, in a long career I have been asked to do a bit of everything really. I get no points for having designed ten or twelve ballets, or illustrated books, or designed attractions that millions enjoy. I did rather think I might be able to sort of jump into the picture painting world, not at the top but sort of halfway or something. Not the case however, the list of exhibitions is missing so starting at the bottom is required.

I talked to the secretary of one of the Societies at the private view of one of the open shows. She said if I kept on banging in work of that quality for six or so years I might be able to apply. It was it seems not about how good your work was, but how long your list was! This may be why these institutions can’t number that many of the best painters in their specialities as members. It also means that they get stuffed full of people who are worthy and patient rather than necessarily the best. There is of course the suspicion that the lesser abled members are not too keen on people who are embarrassingly good (no I don’t mean me!) my instinct is to dismiss this idea but some of my own experience and history maybe say otherwise. I am not complaining, I have had pretty good success at getting work accepted in the couple of years that I have been trying, it’s just that I’m now not sure if that is necessarily a good sign as to the quality of my work!

It is all to do with this thing called “reputation” which has to be built up over time. A “good” reputation says this person has done a certain thing well and consistently over a number of years according to the opinion of others. As this isn’t formalised in anyway it is of course open to gross manipulation and publicists can build reputations from nothing as many a vacant celebrity shows. In the same way artists bolster their list of shows with things like: Joint show Portsmouth Lion Terrace 1976…( two pictures in a corridor at college), Greenwich group show 2009, (1 picture taped to a railing…)! It is still a show it seems even if people just passed by the pictures without noticing them.

Times they are a changing though. The internet has made getting yourself into the public gaze much easier, this blog alone has had 150000 visitors in 4 years which is great. The whole internet thing is a little strange however in that people are looking at pictures of paintings on a screen not the painting itself. This more than anything else means I must persevere with showing paintings. I have a very small shared exhibition at Oil and Water in Wandsworth coming up on the 23rd April and later in the year Graham Davies and I are doing a joint show of London pictures near Blackheath which will be more substantial. Sooner or later I must chance my arm with a larger show in town but such events mean an investment of many thousands of pounds with no guaranteed return so I must plan carefully.

Mortlake, Thames, watercolour


This is Mortlake. On the way back from Strand on the Green Chris Burdett and I were checking out future venues for the Brass Monkeys. Watercolour 7in by 10in.


Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, watercolour, London


The Royal Naval Hospital Greenwich. This one needs a few more figures maybe. I was trying to catch the very subtle light that occurs just as the sun has dipped below the horizon. For a few minutes there is this almost dreamlike atmosphere.  14in by10in watercolour.


Greenwich, Royal Naval Hospital, London Watercolour


I did this immediately after allowing myself 30 min. this is how the same scene looked 30min before. It is great fun just to dash it in what you loose in subtlety you gain in energy. People tend to fall into two camps those for whom spontaneity is all and those who like subtle restraint. Just to be awkward I enjoy both. 10in by 14in.


The Paragon, Blackheath, London, watercolour


This is the very posh Paragon in Blackheath, I have tried to paint this a few times and failed. The challenge here is to get the balance of loose and tight just right. Not a complete success but this is the best I have managed of it so far. 12in by 20in watercolour.


Millenium Bridge, Thames, Bankside, St Pauls, London, watercolour


I stretched up some paper on very light ply boards so I could paint plein air on decent paper. I have found the Arches blocks are quite different to the roll paper. The sizing on the blocks is odd and the colour never granulates giving the washes a dead feel. This is a real irritation as I spent a 100 quid on blocks which are essentially useless. I did a very simple water brush sketch initially, then had to abandon the bridge as it was too busy. I decamped to a seat on the Bankside and finished off. As I worked the sky became the oddest colour due to the sand blowing over from the Sahara and London’s very own pollution. I did my best to catch it even though it meant this is very far from a “pure” watercolour! 7in by 10in.


St Johns, Deptford, watercolour, London


Another of my stretched up boards. Again I just sketched in the basics in a cool grey with a few dark accents. Then took it home to add colour and finish off. 7in by 10in watercolour.


Market, Deptford, London, watercolour


The last of my pre-stretched boards. Once again a simple waterbrush sketch putting in all the darks. I left all mid and light areas white and coloured it from memory rather than reality. 7in by 10in.


London, Trafalgar Square, St Martins, watercolour


A larger 13in by 20in watercolour. This has been sitting half done for three or four weeks. I reached a certain stage and couldn’t see my way forwards. Oddly it was no trouble to finish off. I’m not even sure what I was fretting about now!

That’s it a very watercolour heavy post. Next I am going to try to get a few studio oils done!


March 25, 2014

Getting Better

If you think I am going to tell you a sure fire way then disappointment awaits! There are a few things I do try and do however to make the trajectory up rather than flat or even worse down. Firstly just do it enough, if you don’t use it you don’t completely loose it but you really do loose some ground. Learning anything reinforces pathways in the brain. Research tells us that there are real physical changes with pathways that are frequently used gaining more connections and better blood supply. If you don’t keep those pathways busy the body for economy’s sake will reassign resources and doing what had become easy will become harder once more. This is hardly any different from any exercise so it should be no surprise.

One major area that can cause frustration is learning mistakes. Anyone who plays a musical instrument will tell you that practicing mistakes is all to easy. We can accidentally reinforce errors my making them frequently. I often see this with painters too, where a way of doing things has become set in their method and even though they intellectually know there is something wrong, when they come to paint they are forced by habit down the same less than ideal turnings. I have not only seen this in others alas, but also often in my own processes.

The only way to correct and get over such obstacles is to separate out the problem area and just practice that bit in isolation. So if you have difficulty with tone simplify the issue. Drop colour, give yourself only 4 tones to work with and paint until you have worked up some new pathways. A warning here, it takes a lot of effort to “unlearn” something. You will find that you can practice up a new way of working in the studio only to find that the old bad habits reassert themselves when painting out of doors under pressure. So it is a good idea to take your four tones out into the landscape and get the new habit well and truly programmed in!

The same can be done in any area. If you have problems with figures then get photos and draw thumbnails from them. You can even trace over them multiple times. I have myself traced over the standard London taxi until I can draw them from memory at any angle. It takes a surprisingly short time to get to a stage where you can just draw one without reference. The same is true with figures if you can draw believable silhouettes from memory then you can adapt those to catch the figures that are really there on the day.

Those are a few ways of dealing with identifiable weaknesses. Harder is to take what is already working adequately and push it up to the next level. For me the process is more or less the same. Take the thing apart and then reassemble. It helps to change media and method, also to introduce constraints which forces you to do more with less. An example of this is I often see people always painting with the same palette, if you always put out the same colours you are closing doors off that might have interesting rooms behind them. As a guide if you get too comfortable with a particular way of doing things it is probably time for a shake up!

One activity that will always highlight weak areas is life drawing. This is why I always advise people who want to improve to find a session and attend it regularly. I’m afraid I can almost guarantee it will be a slightly depressing experience. You will go dreaming of Michelangelos and return with childlike misshapen gargoyles! It is this cruel contrast that makes life drawing so valuable. You can see clearly that you are falling short and once you can see that you can move to make improvements. The aim of life work for me is not to produce anything of great artistic merit, but to stress the skills I have already attained to breaking point.

One note of caution there are always kind souls at life sessions who will say things like accuracy doesn’t matter and expressing yourself is the most important thing. I am not saying accuracy is the only thing but it is not inimportant. If your accuracy is a weak point then measure like mad until you have dealt with it. It is getting these technical hurdles somewhat tamed that allows expression to flow freely. Before you can be really be free and react to momentary inspiration you have to take the time and effort to strike off the chains that hold you back!

Note of caution no: 2. Fetishising technique is just as bad in my opinion as downplaying it. The Atelier and similar approaches tend to raise technical competence to a be all and end all. The lie to this is given by the uninspiring and dismal output of the students whose life drawings might well have linear and tonal accuracy but are in themselves lifeless. They take living flesh and turn it to perfectly rendered lifeless static stone. If you don’t get the feeling that the model fidgets and might get up and stretch at any moment you have failed just a surely as if you got the head the wrong size!

Now for some examples of how I haven’t managed to practiced what I preach!


Fleet Street, St Pauls, London, oil painting


The first of a batch of new London pictures. This is based on the plein air from the last post. I wanted to roll back the day to the moment we arrived so used the photo ref to change the feel of the light. Still a little but to do, the distance is too busy and crisp so I will soften with a glaze or two once dry. 16in by 24in oils.


The Strand, London, oil painting


This is the Strand looking West. Still a fair way to go on this but the basics are in and I am happy with the overall mood. The final adjustments have to be made very carefully so as not to overwork. 16in by 20in oils.


Strand on the Green, Thames, Plein air, brass monkeys, watercolour


A day out to the Strand on the Green near Chiswick and Kew. This was a Brass Monkeys day and the weather was a little chancy. I did this view twice the previous version was so awful I binned it! Quite difficult to paint with hail bouncing off your paper! 6in by 9in watercolour.


Thames, London, Strand on the Green, watercolour, plein air


Last one of the day I got myself positioned behind one of the pylons of the railway bridge which held off the worst of the very chilly breeze. 9in by 14in watercolour.


life drawing

I am watercolouring in the life sessions at present. It is very hard to get a study done in 30min but it is great for teaching you how to make important decisions on the fly!


life drawing

Here is an example of ringing the changes I added reed pen and ink to my very limited palette of red ochre and ultramarine.


Life drawing

Here we are pared down even more just line with the reed pen and a single wash. 7min.


life drawing

Here I have added reed pen but stressed the colour a little more. It is all about getting the most from the available resources.


life drawing

I made retaining the whites here my main intent. Very tricky as I am not drawing first. The reason for not drawing is to build confidence in putting brushstrokes down. Confident strokes add a lot to the liveliness of the end result. It is worth practicing taking a brush and practicing swelling and reducing the mark using varying pressure. This helps when you need to lay in a stroke that defined form as well as tone.


life drawing

This was as they say “challenging” … getting the extreme perspective in and believable is always very hard.


life drawing

This shows how much you can get down in 10min… you just have to accept with life sketches that 90% are fit only for the bin!

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