Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

April 15, 2017

Good Drawing

You have to be careful using terms like “good”. Because any one who hears a statement like “Good drawing is the key to good painting.” could jump to conclusions. My drawing is fairly straightforward, I draw what I see for the most part roughly where I see it and in the general proportions I see it. So when I make statements like the one above people assume I mean that good drawing is going to look like mine. They also assume I can only draw that way, not that I have chosen to work in that manner. In reality I have made my living from drawing and have been asked to draw in quite a few different styles for many different purposes. The one I use now is just the one I have settled on in my dotage.

The key to good drawing in my opinion is in my last sentence: Purpose. A drawing is good when it is fit for its purpose. That might be planning out a kitchen, or a study of hands for a pieta. Each will require a different approach. Each may require similar set of skills but in differing proportions.

Many people seem to approach drawing like writing a signature. They do it the way they do in their own manner and that is it. This can be fine but it is very limiting. When I was at college there was someone we knew who had what I now call a lovely line. His sense of how a line should move across the page was exquisite. I on the other hand had a rather clumsy and laboured line that struggled to flow. Even when I tried to make the shapes elegant they somehow didn’t really sing. I now realise that was perhaps just as well. My friend could only do that line, he would struggle to do an ugly one. I on the other hand had the ugly one well and truly nailed down and so had plenty of room to make the long journey to a certain degree of improvement!

I would like to report that I set to and systematically worked to improve my line but I didn’t. Like most people I struggled on with the one that came naturally and thought that I was stuck with it. It was not until years later that I noticed after years of drawing stuff for work occasionally an elegant line crept in here and there. Just the process of drawing all day every day had wrought a change.

It is hard to look back and work out how your own progress came about and for what reason. My first love with drawing at about 15 or so was architecture. I loved drawing churches, castles and cathedrals. Buildings are generally on grids so tracking where lines ran, their angle and where they met was something I became pretty good at. Unwittingly I had taught myself the beginnings of accuracy.

Accuracy. Now this is an unfashionable quality. If I was to poll my life drawing group they would mostly I suspect put accuracy very low down on their scale of important things to learn. When I mention it I get the reply, “Oh, I don’t do accuracy!” The majority would I suspect put “expression” at the top of their wish list of attainments. Yet I suspect the thing that is most standing in the way of their expressiveness is their weakness in the very area they dismiss so airily.

So what do I mean by accuracy? People tend to jump to the conclusion that it means getting things in precisely the “right” place. Like a sort of graph or the imitation of the tracing of a photo using direct measurement and observation. However that is not what I understand by accuracy. For a start the artist is a quivering mammal. Swivelling head, eyes and torso. Shuffling and bobbing about from here to there. They might be drawing another mammal who is also shifting about albeit unintentionally. The result of all this is that a line in a certain place one second is in a different place the next.

So accuracy is about getting something in a plausible and possible place, or more often recording several of them in the same area. You then have the option of strengthening or suppressing various lines to best express the changing form. However in order to collect these varied lines you need to be able to measure proportion, distance and angle in order to get your mark within the zone of beleivability. With figure drawing you do not just have placing individual marks, you have to relate each to the whole. Your first mark will always be right, it is the second and following marks and the relation ship between them that is critical. So it is possible to make an acceptable mark and then undermine it with another less well chosen one.

Quality. As well as where a line is there is also “how” it is. This can be how hard or soft it is. How assertive or tentative it is. How it changes along its length. How wide it is, what texture… there are an infinite number of combinations of all of these. Quality of line or mark is an area where I see great deal of confusion and once you think of all the variables then some sympathy is due! This is not helped by muddled teaching. I hear a great deal of, “Draw with a long stick dipped in ink.” or a badger dipped in tomato sauce… As if changing the medium or difficulty of application could somehow magically lead you to an expressive transcendence. The result is often an ugly mess, sometimes a quite nice looking mess, but only rarely has a great deal to do with the subject. This approach is so ingrained and hallowed I no longer really try to argue with it. Different media and means of application are a very powerful set of tools to express information or emotion on paper, but there must be intent, accident is not good enough. It maybe that an accident is the result of attempting to carry out an intention, it may be a happy one or otherwise, but the original intent needs to be there, not random activity hoping to get lucky. Which brings me to:

Intent. Why are you doing the drawing? Will you use the information collected to paint a picture? Use it as an accurate guide to build a kitchen? Is it a practice piece to hone your ability? Is it an experimental thing to find out what might be possible by some different approach? Is it finished work to hang on the wall? I think you can see that each of these might require a different type of drawing. The important thing is that you actually have an intention and are not just setting out randomly as you might on a doodle on the corner of an agenda during a particularly dull meeting. A drawing is as far as I can see always of, or for, or about something. You might well start out with one intention and discover as you work something else to focus on, but that still requires the original intent to be there.

Uncertainty. When we see things we take in a quick general assessment and then scan over in detail with a part of our eye called the fovea. This means we cannot see the whole figure all at once in detail. So if you resolve and make definite every part of the figure then the result will be stiff and lifeless like those laboured drawings from ateliers. In navigating the world we are unsure about quite a bit of what we see and one of the hardest things to learn in drawing is to reflect that uncertainty and its different degrees. If you have difficulty in estimating an edge that say runs around and out of sight then you can leave it vague. It will look better and even more realistic because when looking at the world our eyes and brain are dealing with this sort of thing constantly. This is why we are quite happy with sketches with bits unfinished or just hinted at. As Braque said, “If there is no mystery there is no poetry.”

When drawing you have an important factor on your side. The viewer wants to see something in your scribbles and will do their very best to fish some sense out of the morass of possibly ill considered marks. They will even pat themselves (and you) on the back for extricating some sort of vision from your effort. Don’t be fooled though they are really patting themselves on the back for being perceptive, not you for being a genius. When people look at a really good drawing it zips through their eyes and into their brains and evokes a response before they can do any analysis. If anyone looks at your drawing and then they are plainly taking a moment or two to formulate a response then it probably means your expressive marks have possibly not quite made the grade! Of course drawing is so hard that most of everyone’s effort will fall Ito this category. Every now and again though one will take flight and if you master the skills behind the art then that will happen more frequently.

I should follow that up with some examples of my life drawing OKish and not so OKish so you can see by the duff ones how hard it is to put all the above into practice!

 

Life drawing, figure

Here is a very unresolved one. I doubt if there is a single thing in the right place. It was done in 1min so I’m not too upset about that. What it does show is that your eye is very very good at picking the human form out of a set of approximate blobs.

life drawing, watercolour, figure

Here is a more resolved one done in 30min. You can see here that I leave each mark to stand. I don’t try to erase the ones that have gone astray. Nonetheless I can see I have over explained the closest arm and under explained the turn of the shoulders compared to the hips.

life drawing, figure, watercolour

Another 30min done directly after. Here there is less resolving and more uncertainty about edges but somehow the whole thing works better. The previous one was sketched out in pencil but this one was just painted. A painting done very quickly like this is a collection of different observations each observation varies in accuracy and certainty. The success or failure hangs on how these parts relate. You might get two parts that are really well described but not in the right position relative to each other. A worse painted bit in the right place might work better!

pen drawing, life drawing, figure

Here is a 30min drawing done with a specific intent. I was describing tone only and leaving the interpreting of volume and edge to the viewer. I intentionally reduced my options to a vertical hatch with only a few erratic fills to prevent it from being too mechanical. I allowed myself a very few lines under forms which were put in only at the last minute. The white adds a further step up in tone that allows the paper itself to play a major role. I notice I did in this case pencil out, as this sort of drawing is not “free” but analytical.

pen drawing, life drawing, figure

Here is a 3min one using the same mix of media. Here though line is of greater importance and the initial pencil plays more of a part. The white is really there just to push the paper back and the hatch to indicate shadowed areas. There is no attempt to show accurate tone values.

pen and ink drawing, life drawing, figure

Here is a sort of halfway house done in 15min. The difference to the previous two is that I am using the hatch to describe form and pick out direction and indicating the angle of planes. You cannot show everything in a drawing so you have to apply limits at least initially. When I fail to do this or cannot find anything in a pose that I can see how to explain, then a poor result is more or less certain.

life drawing

Another day another medium. For me it is important to chop and change my medium. Conte stick is very adaptable allowing you to use both line and flat tonal marks. This only a couple of minutes and you can see where I am testing out lines in different places. Once you have one line down it is easier to see where it should have been and add another.

life drawing

This was 2min but actually 1min, I spent the first minute wondering how to start! When you draw a line try to make is do as much as possible in a single stroke. Actually think about varying the pressure to make it change over its length. In this sort of time frame there is no possibility of accuracy so this drawing is made up of about 50 marks attempting to represent 50 rapid observations.

Life drawing, conte

20min This was done in tone with only a few lines here and there put in at the end. Many people start with the delineation then “fill in” or shudder… “do shading”. It is so much easier to do the lines last as you have all the tonal shapes already there to guide you. People feel I suppose that you need the lines to plot the form, but there is no reason you cannot place tonal blocks and shapes in roughly the right places.

life drawing

10mins. Here the tonal blocks are quite clear and the line less insistent. When I am looking for blocks of fairly consistent tone I often, at least for the first key shapes, softly mark out the boundary and placement and then try an fill that area with a single stroke. I see many people going in with marks that are to strong too soon. The feeling is I suppose that pressing hard expresses confidence. That however means you are possibly trying to say something about you and how you would like to be seen to draw, rather than your actual purpose which should surely be to say something about what you have seen in the model!

life drawing

Here is one where I rather lost the plot! There is at the same time too much and too little information. You can tell I am struggling by the addition of directional lines to existing toning. I was I think distracted by the foreshortening whereas the real story is perhaps about the tone values.

pen and ink drawing, figure drawing, life drawing

Back to the pen and ink. Note I have been careful to break my lines if I am delineating an edge. If they are too certain as the one on top of the nearest shin is then they undermine the whole. The little touches of white here are very important for such tiny areas of tone they make a great deal of difference to the whole. Always remember any added marks makes a difference to every other mark already there.

life drawing, watercolour

This was one from a whole days life drawing which is a real luxury. My plan here was to retain the whites at all cost to describe the light flooding in over the figure. It is always fun when something really strikes you about a pose. The hard bit is sticking to it and not getting distracted and putting too much in. About 20min I would guess.

life drawing, watercolour

Here I remember trying to keep it all to single brush strokes. Of course what you sacrifice by this approach is flow the result is more like a mosaic in feel. I had decided from the outset to describe angularity as that was what struck me about that particular pose. To that end I didn’t allow myself curved strokes only lines and blocks. As to whether those decisions were the best ones, who can say?

life drawing, watercolour, figure

Another from the same day. It is amazing that as I post these and see the image I immediately remember how I felt when doing them on the day. With this one I thought, “What the hell do I do with this?” Being very unsure I just stopped and looked. Eventually what took my eye was the fact that the bum and hips made an almost perfect circle! A very thin twig to hang a painting on but once I had that imaginary circle placed the rest sort of followed along. It is very hard to do a painting of a pose that looks weird from the outset. Even in a photo this pose would have looked quite abstract. So I was quite pleased to have got something down that made sense.

life painting, drawing, figure

Here is one where I really struggled. Almost in desperation at the end I added some body colour which unusually staved off complete disaster. Sometimes drawings get to that stage where nothing is particularly wrong but nothing really right either. Still, more like a battlefield than a work of art!

That’s it for life drawing for a while, these life drawing posts are always the least popular which is a little sad as I would always encourage any painter to regularly challenge themselves with attempting the seemingly impossible. As you can see from the images above only very rarely will you get a result that could be chalked up as a success, but the striving will teach you a tremendous amount that will help in any other painting you attempt whether observational or abstract.

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.

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