Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

October 10, 2017

Sight Size and other tricks

I find it odd how particular techniques in painting get a fan club type following. Wet into wet for watercolour is one and I suppose plein air another. Sight size is an interesting one. It comes from academic training where you set up your drawing of a plaster cast so that from a certain position both cast and drawing appear next to each other at exactly the same scale. All observations need to be made from this viewing point. It was much used by portrait painters such as Singer Sargent to get good likenesses and accurate tones. Although it appears Sargent only set up the painting in this way for parts of the process and to check progress. It was never intended however to be a method used in all circumstances. Here is a link that gives a good description of the method: Sight Size.

If for example you want to paint a wide view then getting both your scene and the painted image the same scale would be pretty tricky. Also if you were painting a subject that was far away then your picture would have to be very small or your viewing point would have to be a very long way from your canvas! Sight size drawers tend to use plumb lines etc though a threaded frame over the subject would seem to be easier and quicker IMO. This is not a debunking of the method, I think everyone would benefit from learning and trying it. I do however feel over reliance on the method can produce rather stiff soulless paintings. The method shows it’s weakness in the work of atelier students who tend to produce identikit sub Sargent paintings and academic drawings that all seem to be from the same dead hand. That said many of those students move on and successfully establish their own identity.

Really the method is part of a whole suite of techniques to get the perceived and very 3D world down on 2D paper. Plumb bobs are good if you have never used one then I suggest you give it a whirl. If you use a black thread you can put little blobs of white paint every inch which helps transfer information. Their main use though is to make it easy to determine how things in your subject relate along a line. You can use it to translate horizontal information or angles as well. All of these methods depend on you returning to the exact same position to make your measurement. The easiest by far to use but more tricky to set up is the threaded frame. Really you need a separate stand for the frame, but as with the plumb line I would encourage everyone to try it out.

What I would not advise however is to make any of these methods into  your everyday standard painting procedure. Their use is to teach you how to make comparisons of scale angle and alignment. Your aim in using them should be to evolve the ability to do those measurements by eye, this may seem hard but it is surprising how quickly the brain catches on and eventually they become second nature. Nonetheless I still get out my frame for work where it is very important that exact proportion are achieved.

Its disadvantages are that it is a monocular method, it allows you to see the world pretty much as a camera does. In turn this means it has all of the problems associated with camera images, the distorted proportions at the edges of the frame which become impossible to hide as the view widens. The method assumes we should only see what we can see with our head fixed, but to my mind this is only a small part of the visual experience, it is literally too narrow. To paint wider or higher than convenient views requires a whole other set of skills including constructive perspective both linear and hyperbolic. Also a number of adjustments such as sliding vanishing and eye points. Although this sounds hifalutin and complicated the actual application can be taught to anyone in a day or two.

A very mixed bag of work in this post as I have been dodging between media .

Blandford Forum, Dorset, drawing, pen and ink

This is Blandford Forum in Dorset. The challenge here was to reduce the busyness of the scene without loosing the impression of complexity. If you succeed in doing this people come up and say, “Oh look at all that detail” and “Just like a Photograph!” For windows it is important to get both consistency and variety into them. So I try to keep the position and rhythm accurate but vary the mark made to indicate them. Pen and Ink.

Blandford Forum, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

Here is one where sight size would let you down! You would have to have your nose touching the paper to get this view. The camera could not produce it either, the building on the left would be very distorted. It is really a composite view as I am both raising my head to look up and turning my head to look left. A point that is vital to fix is the one where you look straight ahead. People assume that in a drawing the straight ahead point must be in the middle but here it needs to be far to the right where the road ends. Each of these movements causes swings in perspective that result in distortion. So what appears a simple scene is actually quite complex to construct. In practice I sketch in the rectangles of the facades and adjust them to find the best compromise between observation, what I “know” is there and the restrictions of a flat surface. Here the key line to track is the join to the walls and roofs. Pen and Ink.

Cardigan, Llanchaeron, Wales, pen and ink, drawing

This is Llanerchaeron in Wales a beautiful walled garden. I only had time for this quick sketch but would have been happy drawing there all day. I decided in the end it needed slight touches of colour. This is always tricky as the temptation is to add more, but I think greens would have been too much so I left them all out. Pen and wash.

St James, Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is St James in Shaftesbury. I very rarely do a half sheet en plein air in watercolour as splashing it on with big brushes is the only option so the drying time becomes key. The other reason is that they are expensive to frame, rarely sell and if you do sell they get a lower price than a far smaller oil. This subject was a gift though and it was great fun to paint as is often the case the light improved as I worked but with watercolour you cannot easily chase the light. Once I got home I felt I could get more atmosphere in by washing back and as it was a 1/2 sheet  I  used the garden hose! It is nearly always worth taking such risks I find even if a few almost alright watercolours bite the dust. Watercolour.

Worbarrow bay, Dorset, oil painting

This one put me through the mill and I nearly abandoned the whole thing. It is Warbarrow bay near Tynham in Dorset. I find these looking down at bays type compositions very difficult especially when they include foreground. I had a plein air watercolour and photos but I still ended up trying several different tonal arrangements over a few weeks. It still may not be finished, I might cut it down as I think a better picture could be had by loosing a 1/3 rd of the right hand side. 24in by 12in Oils.

St Martins, London, oil painting

I recently visited London to see some exhibitions and just before the heavens opened the light on St Martins in the Fields was fantastic. No paints with me so this is done from phone snaps. Another one that might loose a couple of inches from the top! 16in by 12in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air

I escaped to Wales for a few days and was greeted by blustery weather and fantastic skies and seas. This is Newport in Pembrokeshire and I had very little time to paint before being chased off the beach by the tide. I got rather too involved with the ruffled surface of the water which seemed to have every colour under the sun in it. 10in by 8in oils.

Moylgrove, Ceibwr Bay, Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

This is Ciebwr Bay near Moylgrove in Pembrokeshire. This is painted sight size  as I hadn’t used the method in a while. I can’t say it made much difference as far a judging things goes, a little easier to judge relative tones maybe. I did use my tone guide which is just a bit of very black plastic with a dab of titanium white on it. This allows you to more easily judge how far away the darks are from being black and the lights from white and their average  hue. It was astonishingly windy and I had to anchor my easel to some big rocks. It makes it impossible to do really accurate brushstrokes as your board is flapping like mad! 12in by 10in Oils.

Wales, cliff, plein air, oil painting

Done on the same day but a bit down the coast. I had almost given up finding something to paint when I spotted a patch of sand that made an interesting contrast. Even windier than the last but very interesting to paint. 12in by 8in Oils.

Wales, Pembrokeshire, plein air, oil painting

Another day another cliff top. After a rough block in I kept my eye on the changing sun light sparkling on the sea, the whole key of the picture had to be organised so that the highlight would eventually be punchy enough.  This meant keeping the landscape tones within quite tight bounds. To much highlighting would have ruined the balance. Another very windy one it was only possible by backing up close to a wall. 14in by 10in Oils.

Llangrannog, Cardigan, plein air, oil painting

Yep it’s another windy beach! This is Llangrannog near Cardigan. Sight size again as it was convenient, it did help here in getting the drawing in quickly, the method makes drawing errors very easy to spot. Many pauses as the rain came down, though I loved the muted tones the foul weather created. I still far prefer painting on a stormy day than a bright sunny one. 14in by 10in Oils.

Newport, Wales, Dinas Head, plein air, oil painting

This is Dinas Head from Newport. Only a very quick sketch. The light was changing rapidly as the cloud shadows brightly lit or threw different areas into shade so I might do a studio one or over paint this one using the various photos I took as it changed as reference. 16in by 10in Oils.

Newport, parrog, Wales, plein air, oil painting

More Newport and more very muted light. I might chop this one down and frame it tighter. I loved the tone of the yellowy house, very hard to get right and I wiped and redid it at least 5 times. 16in by 10in Oils.

Porthgain, Wales, Pembrokeshire, oil painting

I took my time with this one, it is Porthgain which  would like to do more of as it has very interesting part ruined industrial buildings. I was nice to paint a calmer brighter moment with the storms over. 16in by 8in Oils.

For the visit to Wales I used a quite restricted palette heavy on the earth tones as follows: Cobalt Blue, Unbleached Titanium, Titanium White, Naples Yellow, Raw Umber, Burnt Sienna and a tiny bit of Cadmium Orange on the last one.

 

October 18, 2016

Authenticity

For an artist it is a bit strange to consider what might happen to a painting after it leaves your care. I suspect long dead artists would be bemused by what is said and paid for their works. Each painting carries with it a story, a bit of history true or false, that makes up its provenance. As well as this there is the story attached to the artist, which may or may not represent the true course of his or her’s life. The difficulty arises of course in that all this information is not actually attached to the physical work of art and the connection can get lost, forgotten or forged.

Where I wonder is the visual value of the work itself? Indeed it seems the actual appearance of a painting is of a lesser importance than the story attached to it. So you might have a terrible Monet (and there are plenty of pretty average ones) with a cast iron paper trail from artist to current owner and it would be worth far less that a brilliant painting by a lesser known soul. The fact that the Monet hung on the wall would disappoint and the other painting reward on every viewing seems irrelevant.

Paintings can fall from grace, a Van Dyke can be demoted to “School of” and the painting will be dismissed with a brief glance rather than admired. Again this is seemingly unconnected to the actual painting. What about the people who admired the picture before its fall from grace, was their aesthetic appreciation wasted… wrong or misguided? You can imagine after research a label being changed by a gallery assistant. A visitor who had been particularly taken with the painting could return ten minutes later for another look and might find that the “Van Dykeness” of the painting had evaporated!

I can only conclude that the only guide is your eyes and the less back story you know the better. All those words only obscure and don’t illuminate the actual object. They do change how we view a painting, but sometimes not in a useful way. It might be better indeed if galleries didn’t label pictures at all. The could just have numbers and if you liked a picture you could call up its known history.

With some painters the mystique of the artist completely overwhelms the artwork. Andy Warhol’s work I find after first impressions dreary and dull, like a quite good one liner repeated ad nauseam, but his story of decadence and nihilism and his place in his milieu is fascinating. Except for a very brief period Van Gogh’s was I feel pretty uninspiring, but his life story and monumental self pity make a great story.

Really we should be looking for those brief moments when an artist by some confluence of skill, inspiration and luck creates a masterpiece. This might be only once in a career, or indeed for most of us, never. It is fine to give extra admiration to artists like Rembrandt who scaled the heights more than others, but not alright to inappropriately elevate works where he fell short. It is unfair to the artist also. Imagine if you came back from the dead to find everyone admiring some complete stinker you painted!

I have got a bit behind with posting, I was vaguely thinking of splitting post into oils watercolour or prints but I think it is best to stick to a vaguely linear storyline. I vary between thinking I do too many different media to thinking I must try some others. Printing is occupying my thoughts a fair bit as it is new territory and now I have got started I begin to see all sorts of exciting possibilities. So I’l start with that.

 

Hammersmith Bridge, London, linocut, print

So this is a reduction print of Hammersmith Bridge. For those who are not linocutters the reduction method is where all the colours are produced with the same block. The palest colour is cut first and all the edition printed, then more of the block is cut away for the next colour. So all the colours overlay. I based this on a plein air rather than the photo of the same scene as the painting already had a simplified tonal scheme and I did not want it to be too precise. Next I am going to attempt a double reduction print where two plates are cut away to produce one image.

It is holiday time and this year I went to Newport, the one in Pembrokeshire  Wales. As the holiday was a social one only a few scribbles got done, but I came back with plenty of photos and ideas.

White Sands, pembrokeshire, wales, watercolour, plein air

This is literally 20 min splashing away at Whitesands near St Davids. The wind was so brisk that holding everything was a nightmare. I had to hold down my palette with my food to prevent it taking to the air! It is also quite tricky when the wind is constantly fluttering your paper. The odd thing is though that when painting outside all this somehow adds to the result. The impossibility of being precise made me just go for the brilliant autumn light, which was really all the scene needed. 7in by 5in watercolour.

 

Hambledon Hill, dorset, hill fort, watercolour, painting

On my return I was determined to get up Hambledon Hill which is directly behind my house. I do not go and sketch up there enough. I decided the very end of the day would be best and very lovely it was. It is one of those scenes though that looks astounding to the eye but is very hard to translate into a painting. I settled on this as it had great flowing structure. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, blackmoor vale, watercolour, painting

I started this more in hope than expectation. I couldn’t get into a position where the hill would figure in the composition so I just did a square on job attempting to catch the light. I must start to mark down compositions on the hill I like and return to them, rather than trying to find a new picture each time. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

 

Old Harry, Dorset, cliffs, sea, oil painting

At last a chance to sit down and get some studio pictures done. I wanted to do an oil of Old Harry based on the drawing I had already done. Remembering how nice it was how the cliffs came out of the blue on the paper in the pen drawing I wanted to do the same here but more dramatically. After drawing out I spent a lot of time mixing the tone base of the sea. It had to be dark enough to allow the cliffs to be brilliantly lit, but light enough to take dark reflections. Once I had decided on a tone I swept it right across using a 2in brush and then wiped out the bits where the stacks were to go. I don’t take this approach often enough really. It does have some disadvantages though as it can look too slick and pat, which is why I usual paint round rather than through. But in this case it worked well. 16in by 10in oils.

 

Newport Bay, Pembrokeshire, wales, oil painting

Here is the first of the Welsh ones. This is the view over Newport Bay which I have painted many times before. It is one of those views I always find something new in. It would be great to do a whole series through the seasons. I love the tone of the greens this time of year they become a warm olive colour which was a great contrast to the hillside where the grasses and bracken were already in there autumn colours. 16in by 10in oils.

 

Newport sands, beach, wales, pembrokeshire, oil painting

This is Newport sands, wonderfully reflective as the sea had only just withdrawn. Scanning makes it rather more contrasty than it really is, it is very hard to catch subtleties in images to go on line. 12in by 12in Oils.

 

Porthclais Harbour, wales, pembrokeshire, oil painting

I started this picture of Porthclais Harbour near St Davids thinking the distance and wedge of sky was the main thing. The painting soon informed me I was wrong and the water was the main event!  16in by 10in oils.

That is all for Wales, I find it very hard to paint from reference after the memory of the real place fades.

 

Hambledon Hill, dorset, hill fort, oil painting

Hambledon Hill again. This was done the next evening after the earlier watercolour. I had intended to do the same view but decided to try to catch the milky light. Not helped by the fact I forgot my brush roll so only had a 1in sable that was in the bottom of my bag left over from life drawing. Still the soft brush was oddly appropriate and allowed me to drag in the subtler tones in broad strokes. 16in by 10in Oils.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, oil painting, hill fort

Last one, a studio oil based on my earlier watercolour. I had to put away the watercolour in the end as this became quite a different painting. I decided in the end what I wanted to do was contrast the texture on the foreground right with the hazy smoothness of the distance. Quite pleased with the result as it emphasises the wonderful flow that the hill has. 24in by 12in Oils.

 

 

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