Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

April 16, 2018

Venice

Venice. Like all artists I went there knowing it already. I wondered what I would make of it and if I could add anything worthwhile to the morass of artwork that takes it as a subject. Would I find the “real” Venice? The answer of course is no. There is no real Venice, Venice is a fantasy. Venice is a theme park and all the life that goes on there is devoted to the commercial maintenance and operation of the dream.

Venice is a city wide tourist trap, a veritable sea girt Alcatraz for visitors to do their time in. A Venice street goes: mask shop, fake Murano glass shop, taverna, mask shop, restaurant, mask shop, fake Murano glass shop etc ad infinitum. After Napoleon conquered the city it slowly died until finally we are left crawling over it like flies admiring its beautiful corpse.

There are legions of immigrant workers slaving in its kitchens reheating dishes shipped in each day from the factory kitchens on the mainland. In China they labour to make the masks, glass, paintings and other tourist trash. There is an imaginary transport system that never takes anyone anywhere but on circular tours… no one brings their shopping home by gondola!

If I had been by myself I would have quickly done the rounds and been out of there pronto. Fortunately I was there with other artists and their company made all of the difference. The plethora of mask shops could be laughed at and the madness admired. I could rise early immerse myself in painting and join in with the fantasy.

So how is Venice as a subject for an artist to paint? Firstly there are subjects everywhere, if you came across any of them in a town in the UK you would set up your easel in a flash and set to. In Venice though every aspect and all directions are paintable. As Einstein said, everything is relative. You almost immediately start to rank the possible scenes and try vainly pick out the best of the best. Venice is also all very similar, endless repetitions and rearrangements of the same few ingredients.

Anyone who looks at my work will know my fondness for architecture and old buildings in general. In theory Venice is a cornucopia of perfect Rob Adams subjects, gothic palaces, mad baroque churches, cool classical facades and rustic mouldering buildings, roofs crowned snaggle toothed by random chimneys. Mostly though I painted legs. Visually the buildings reach down from the sky and are carried on the backs of the dark serried ranks of the innumerable visitors who obscure the join of buildings to street.

I am told that it was quite empty by Venice’s standards, I shudder at how in must be in high season. On the other hand I love watching people and enjoy seeing how they group, linger and go about their day. I enjoyed the contrast between drifting tourists and workers on missions trying to weave between them. Oddly I did not really notice the absence of cars. I did warm to the place after a while, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it just being a playground. The place reminded me of a computer game where you wander a city built by a long dead civilisation looking for clues and prizes while avoiding the ghouls hidden in dark passages.

So to the paintings, I will try and do them in the order they were painted.

 

Venice, Rialto, market, oils, plein air

Up early on the first day and off to the Rialto fish market. I was sharing the apartment with Ian Layton who is an old Venice hand who knew all the best spots! Quite a tricky subject, the light burning in from the outside is what struck me so I tried to paint that. I can see now that the effect needed to be exaggerated more with the interior darker and the outside almost completely burnt out. 12in by 7.5 in oils.

Venice, Rialto, plein air, oil painting

On the way back from the Rialto we were taken by this scene where the sun was slowly coming across on to our side of the Grand Canal. I had primed my boards a sort of Venetian red which mostly just right, but I should have done a few a more ochre colour. Like so much of Venice the fringe of people ran in a strip all the way across. I quite liked the more determined folk leaving the vaporetto on the right contrasting with the moochers on the left. 15in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, plein air, oil painting

Here is a very trad early morning Venice view. We were all painting away in a line getting spots on our retinas! Once the key was decided and the tones established a straight forward subject to paint. The main pitfall people tumble into is getting everything initially too light. If the painting is too high a key is is impossible to describe the sparkle on the water unless you have neon paint! 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Gate to the Arsenal, Venice, pen and Ink

In the afternoon I went to the Arsenal, no not to watch the football, the Arsenal in Venice was the manufacturing powerhouse that maintained its naval dominance of the Mediterranean. In celebration of this they gave it grand gates flanked by comedy lions. Like so much of Venice it is hard to get exactly the vantage point you would like without falling into a canal and getting wet. I should have done more drawing, the only reason I might return to Venice is to concentrate on the wonderful architecture. Pen and Ink.

Venice, mist, plein air, oil painting

Mist! We got up early and the sea mist had come in transforming the city. I was focused on the painting I imagined I would do after this one as the sun burnt through. A mistake as I abandoned this one early and it was better than the subject I was eagerly anticipating. Still I had more than enough down and only had to finesse the figures and drag pale blue over the distance to finish. Once again control of tone was the key. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, Plein air, oil painting

This is what appeared out of thew mist! I should have been in a different place about a mile away but I just had to set to and paint what I had in front of me. I never quite finished as the light moved on so rapidly. This one is no more as I painted a different one on top due to running out of boards! 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, pen and ink, drawing

I drew this as I waited for my expensive and badly cooked supper in a restaurant. As it turned out the passing mosquitos had a better meal than I did for no charge at all… Pen and Ink.

Venice, canal, plein air, oil painting

My first canal painting. There are endless versions of the narrow canal with the thin vertical strip of light and reflection, but this was more open and attractive as a subject. I placed the bright vertical strip of the canal edge first as I felt it was the key to the composition. In the bright light I found myself quite frequently putting in all the lights first allowing the prime colour to stand in initially for the buildings etc. I found myself using a lot of black in the mixes as it seemed just right for the character of the greys the city is steeped in. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

St Marks square, Venice, cathedral, plein air, oil painting

Later that day I painted in that famous stage set St Marks Square. The afternoon light was flat on the facades reducing them to cutouts. I was sitting on the arcade steps and painted hand held. I was lucky not to get moved on by the gestapo who strut about the square. I tried not to get too involved in the architecture as getting the tones right was the challenge. In the event I had to very slightly lighten the cathedral later in order for the whole thing to gel. 16in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, pen and ink, drawing

I decided the next day was a wandering about drawing and watercolour day. This is the Campo San Rocco… how could I resist the light slanting across this mad baroque confection. The school to the left is just as barmy but only plays a supporting role here. These wonderful buildings seem to almost never appear in paintings done by recent visitors. I suspect people find them just too much to take on. In actuality they are just divided rectangles, the complexity is not structural but an overlay on a simple grid. The trick is to firmly establish the underlying grid within which the decorative elements sit. Once that is done the mad stone salad of detail can be suggested rather than over defined. Pen and Ink.

Venice, watercolour, plein air

My first watercolour of the trip. Though the stalls are full of the worst tourist tat they make good compositional punctuation marks. Watercolour easily captures the luminous quality of the light. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

Campo Formosa, Venice, plein air, oil painting

This is an early morning Campo Formosa, the light was a real challenge and I nearly abandoned it. As so often I found in Venice the people are the key to a satisfying composition. In each painting I found myself more and more considering the makeup and grouping of the figures. 12in by 10 in Oils.

Campo San Giovanni, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Next Campo! This is St Giovanni, one of the most interesting to paint. Odd how the old Venetians were not in the slightest bit embarrassed about putting up huge statues of themselves. Getting the horse in the right relationship to the rest and not over detailing were the biggest challenges here. Once again many of the greys were made using black. 12in by 10in oils.

Gondola repair, Venice canal, plein air, oil painting

Another day another canal. Here is where they service the gondolas. In my jaundiced opinion they look better upside down! The thrown together industrial sheds make an interesting contrast with the grand edifices behind. Not far from here the mask shops dry up and the grass grows between the stones. There are run down tenements and washing hung between the buildings. This is where some of the workers live, though it is only the briefest fringe before the industrial port. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Campo Santo Stephano, Venice, pen and ink, drawing

On the way back to the apartment I saw there two girls hanging out and doing phone stuff. They are students in the college on Campo Santo Stephano, a little glimpse of ordinary existence. Pen and Ink.

St marks Square, Venice, plein air, oil painting, nocturne

After supper it was nocturne time in St Marks. The wet paving made it a great subject. I rubbed violet blue over my board before leaving base which made a great ground, indeed most of the paving is just the resulting prime colour. Very quick hardly more than 20 min. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Rialto Market, pen and ink, Venice, drawing

Another day where I just took my drawing stuff and travelled light. We all met at the Rialto fish market in the morning.  It is very nice to have other painters about to chat and laugh with. I found myself a little corner to sit and draw out of the way. The light was moving very fast so the first thing after setting out the drawing was to get in the paving, shadows and key figures. I also painted in the white first rather than at the end as I usually do. This was a real help in getting the darks the right value. Pen and Ink.

St Stae, Venice, pen and ink. drawing

Deep breath before I started this one of St Stae. I am sitting as far away from the building as possible without tumbling into the Grand Canal… but still too close for comfort. To get what I wanted in I used spherical perspective so that few of the perspective lines vertical or horizontal are straight. This sort of construction is very tricky to do en plein air especially as I don’t like it if the distortion is too obvious. I spent quite a lot of time getting the facade laid out, deciding what should be warped and what kept straight. A very satisfying puzzle though and I enjoyed trying to suggest the bonkers architecture. Pen and Ink.

Santa Maria del Giglio, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Santa Maria del Giglio and rain at last! I had been dying to paint the wet streets. Also it sweeps many of the visitors away and those that are there are rushing to avoid the wet. I was in a discrete dead end corner so I could paint away at my leisure. A bit of a relief as most of the paintings so far had been a bit of a rush to catch the light. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

La Salute, St Marks, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Later I went to St Marks to look across to La Salute. I was hoping for more rain, when it came it was very brief so I got brollies but not the wet paving. I was forced to make the reflections up at the apartment after. Some of this was painted hand held as the gestapo made me fold up and put away my tripod. The highest leg count so far I think. 16in by 7.5in Oils

St Giovanni, Venice, watercolour, plein air

Last one of the trip! This is Campo Santo Giovanni again. I loved the angled shadow but it moved very rapidly. Had to be watercolour as my oil boards had run out! I then proceeded to do another that went completely pear shaped and had to be torn up… 5in by 5in Watercolour.

So there is my Venice. I might return to draw some of the buildings and I am glad I went and saw it all in the excellent company of my fellow daubers. Venice itself I found sad and defaced by the lazy, cynical, rapacious hand of greedy tourism. The mask and trinket vendors have done far more to besmirch this beautiful relic than any of the many graffiti artists have.

January 31, 2018

Chocolate Box

Since moving to Dorset I have been faced with a seemingly endless pretty villages with comfortably settled thatched roofs crowning rose wreathed cottages. I have to date not painted many of them, but feel that I perhaps should. I tell myself that I need a new angle on them that will lift them above the twee. A well placed skip, a sewage lorry pumping out a cesspit, a recently deceased pensioner lying unremarked in the road while the Range Rovers power by. Please God don’t let me become Helen Allingham, a snobby part of me cries.

I am going to Venice in the coming spring and that has brought a similar problem to mind. Venice has been painted and painted. In every mood from every angle it has beguiled generations of artists and made them produce… well pretty pictures. A few have broken the mood, Whistler, Sickert and Sargent but only if you are careful in your choices, they each painted some pretty pretty ones too. Turner as usual scorned his subject matter and just made it up, moving palaces and indeed entire districts around to suit his compositional needs. Later Thomas Moran one of the Hudson River school did many Turnerish views of Venice with overexcited skies and a mixed salad of all sorts of dramatic lighting, perplexingly occurring all at the same moment. I started to randomly put in artists names with Venice, Monet, Renoir, Parkes Bonnington, Allingham, Myles Burket Foster… it would be almost shorter to list those who didn’t have a splash at it!

Which makes me ask the question, what do I do in Venice? To be honest I have been avoiding the place. Which prompts the next question, does it matter if I don’t produce anything that is particularly new and distinctive from painting the city? Should I take to the outskirts and paint the industrial estates that house the service infrastructure needed to deliver food and goods to a roadless city drowning beneath the flood of millions of hungry visitors? On the surface of it the place is absolutely clogged with things just up my street, churches and palaces ad infinitum and maybe that is the problem.

The Dorset villages present much the same issue, but closer to home. They are determinedly chocolate box and that is irredeemably uncool to much modern sensibility. The term chocolate box was coined from the pictures painted to adorn Cadbury boxes. Before Helen Allingham painter Myles Burket Foster churned out many a saccharine image that got used for such purposes. Although a little research shows that the manufacturers spread their net pretty wide with even Velasquez getting pressed into service!

So why do we shrink from pretty? I do, my Mother used the term “chocolate box” frequently and when we went to the Birmingham art gallery she bemoaned the sentimentality of Victorian art in general. We shrink a little from Murillo and his sentimental Virgins and street urchins. I have only with a certain reluctance painted Gold Hill the iconic Hovis hill in Shaftesbury. It’s a great view it has everything going for it… except it is eyewateringly pretty. The resulting paintings would look dandy on a chocolate box too. I see fellow “serious” artists shrink from them. They do not see the painting, the subject overwhelms, or should I perhaps say that their educated sense of taste does.

It is very hard to look at these or the images of sentimental syrupy Victoriana without your inbred sense of kitch kicking in. It is even harder to view them as a Victorian might have done. Did all Victorians have bad taste? We can’t say they were all visually naive and ignorant. Lots of clever sophisticated eyes looked and liked. I can look at the absurd confections of Tiepolo or Tintoretto with a great deal of pleasure even though they contain many of the same elements. Are these images OK just because they are safely insulated by a reassuring quantity  of time? I am forced reluctantly to consider the problem might be with me and my cultural indoctrination, not the subject matter or overt sentimentality.

People really do have syrupy sentimental feelings, just look at people crooning over babies, cute toddlers or wide eyed kittens. We are told to paint our inner feelings, are those particular ones exempt? A besotted artist might gaze adoringly into their muse’s dewey eyes, then paint their perception thus shaded by sentimental adoration. Is that interior transfiguration not a perfectly bonafide subject? It is part of being human after all. Maybe as artists we are just scared to tread such dangerous and potentially embarrassing emotional territory or admit any weakness that it might hint at. You might after all be thought “soppy” and who could bear that? Give me pain and torment, misery and nihilism, but please don’t threaten me with pleasure or pretty! It’s OK if it is “ironic” though… a cop out in my mind, perhaps a lack of the courage to face it head on…

Is all this going to provoke a string of kitten and baby pictures… well no, but I will perhaps try to do a few of those scary villages. As to Venice, well I just have to wait and see and try to achieve the impossible which is to put out of my mind all preconceptions.

I am very behind with putting work up as I am painting and drawing faster than I blog! So we have to go back and imagine it is Christmas again… picture it: pushing a trolley through a Tescos packed with crazed shoppers, the sound of “One horse Open Sleigh” ringing in your ears…

Tenby, Wales, watercolour, plein air

I had a two part holiday this year and the first bit was in Wales. This is Tenby, which abounds with fascinating views. This is the harbour which has great viewpoints from the steep road that leads up out of it. Here I have done everything you shouldn’t do. The initial washes were dashed in after 15min, but it soon was apparent they wouldn’t be dry until late in January! So I move on and did a drawing and had a glorious fiddle to finish it off in the evening. Watercolour 7in by 5in.

Tenby, Wales, Pembrokeshire, pen and ink, drawing

I moved a bit further down the hill and sat doing a drawing as my abandoned watercolour slowly dried. The sun even came out throwing fascinating shadows across the buildings. 8in by 6in, Pen and Ink.

Newport sands, watercolour, Wales

This is the marvellous Newport sands, the weather had swept it clear of even the most hardy dog walkers, only a single lonely parked van was left, probably waiting for a break in the weather to exercise the pooch. Being a hardy bunch from Worcestershire we walked our dogs anyhow but I was rather taken by the solitary van and did this later in the evening. Watercolour 7in by 5in.

Fishguard, old town, Wales, Pembrokeshire, watercolour

At last a breezy day when my paint would dry. I had not realised my watercolour sketch book was on its last pages so this is done on vile W H Smiths watercolour blotting paper. Oddly it rather suited the scene which is of the old town of Fishguard. I did lots of washing and wiping back here but had to be very gentle as the paper was so soft. Watercolour 7in by 5in.

Fishguard, old town, Wales, Pembrokeshire, pen and ink, drawing

Next I went down to the harbour and sketched on the quay. I have drawn this a few times but never really got it how I want it, partially because you can’t set up where the view is best. That is my excuse anyhow. Pen and Ink, 8in by 6in.

Ruan, Ireland, pen and ink, drawing

Next I moved on to Co Clare in Ireland, I barely did a thing I am afraid… to busy catching up with friends and carousing! This is the road to Ruan, as you can see it rained enthusiastically nearly every day…  Pen and Ink, 8in by 6in.

Sheep skull, drawing, pen and ink

Last one, an ex-sheep. Skulls are fascinating to draw and I have done this one before, a very tricky subject in pen and ink. The table took longer to do than the actual subject! Pen and Ink 8in by 6in.

That’s it for Christmas, put the tinsel away, back to Dorset for yet more rain…

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