Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 24, 2017

Art and Craft

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Portraits,Portraits,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 1:56 pm

When I was at art college doing a degree in Fine Art Sculpture practical matters were of secondary importance and the purview of mere “technicians”. The painters didn’t even have that as practical issues were ignored, no technicians required. They did not even know the very basics such as how to stretch and prime a canvas decently. There was no colour theory, no teaching of proportion, or any of the basic painting and drawing skills. I dare say it is still largely the same today. So what were we being taught?

Well that is a tricky one. We had a certain amount of art history, aimed possibly at removing any hint of fuddy duddy traditionalism from our heads. Most of it was about how the modern art project swept to victory against the forces of traditionalism from the Impressionists onward. What was taught to us by the fine art tutors is hard to define. A lot of it was swathed in art speak so we were quizzed about our “realms of concern” or what our art was about. In old fashioned parlance “subject”. A fair bit of teaching was aimed at fitting you somewhere neatly into the current art genre of exploration and questioning. The questioning part was I have found useful, though I now realise that one set of unquestionable things had merely been replaced by another. The focus was I suppose almost completely on “what” and “why” but very little on “how”.

I have puzzled for years about my art college experience, trying to put it into some kind of rational context. At first I felt angry as it wasted the years when I could have learnt things that took an age to find out and learn for myself later. Accurate drawing, anatomy, colour theory, usage of art materials and compositional theory, all these would have been easier if an experienced knowledgable person could have taught me the basics. I feel if I had learnt all that at that age when we are like a sponge I would be further on in my craft than I now am. The thought that much the same thing is still happening to young people in fine art colleges today is a sad one. So where did it go wrong? Well from writing and thinking on this blog over the past few years I have come to have the inkling of an idea.

The art revolution occurred at a moment when painting was in a difficult place, indeed because it was in a difficult place. Photography had arrived threatening a large chunk of the bread and butter work of artists. Mechanical reproduction of images had reached new levels of cheapness and quality. Also examples of the art of other cultures were becoming commonplace and more importantly proving very popular. This followed on the blows delivered in the previous centuries where art had lost a great deal of its purpose as a tool for selling organised religion. A divide had opened up between artists serving the reproduction and design market and the pictures on the wall market for the wealthy which was largely served by “gentlemen” painters who were required to operate within the bounds of the polite society of the times. This is what we now call “Fine”. Similar artificial divides had been in evidence in the previous centuries such as the silly arguments about which of the arts had precedence over the others.

The idea that particular sorts of painting were of different worth took hold more firmly in that time. History Painting was top dog, followed by Portraiture, then Landscape and finally Still Life. The atelier system as we think of it today really came into being at this time too, with the society painters forming cliques of young followers to carry the master’s style far and wide. The Napoleonic amalgamation of the separate academies into one had brought a new stricter systematic method to the teaching of all the arts. Then the revolution occurred. At first it was basically a scientific take on how we see prompted by the novelty of cameras. The camera caught real moments and the painters naturally wanted to emulate this. Previously all paintings were imaginary staged composite concoctions made by posing models and arranging props to tell an idealised narrative.

So the first thing that went was explicit storytelling narrative, we still had figures and activity, but less moralistic and idealistic content. compositions became as the photographic ones – truncated and cropped. Subject broadened hugely encompassing everything from dreams to everyday moments. We all know the resulting progression through abstraction to the plethora of isms we now have. A few things though did not get thrown out with the baby, some things stuck to the tin bath. One thing was fashion. Painting and other art still served fashion. It might have become a wildly oscillating Alice Through the Looking Glass version of fashion, but nonetheless  what was required of us at college was that our work fitted and did not step outside of the established fashion which was generally then known as modern now just called “contemporary”. The other thing that was retained was a simplified version of the precedence of the arts. With art for display on walls, or plinths, in galleries or for investment set above work that served any another purpose.

The baby in the cold outside the door was craft or skill. Something hardly ever mentioned in my college years and after without the word “mere” inserted before it. Something to be avoided not sought. Craftsmen had skills and they were for our new snooty art elite very much tradesperson’s entrance. Suitable for illustrators and their commercially tainted ilk only. I worked in the commercial arena for 30 years after leaving college. In that time I didn’t paint a single picture to go in a frame. Partially I think because of my disaffection with the fine art world in general being compounded by being told by others that as I was an illustrator I couldn’t be a “real” artist.

It was only later when I was building and painting film and theatre sets and having to employ people that I found that ex “fine art” degree students were easily the best people to have on your side. I have thought about this more in recent years and realised that although like myself they were missing many skills they had inventive strengths and would come up with new ways of doing things. A vital quality when many of the jobs were novel, such one where we had to build a model city entirely out of biscuits! They also very quickly learnt new skills and ways of doing things. Specialist commercial artists were less flexible and more likely to say something was impossible to do.

My views were again challenged when I gave up commercial work to paint landscapes. The people in this world had skill in plenty, but their view on contemporary art were of a simplistic “a child could do it” and “emperor’s new clothes” nature. Then I came across the Art Renewal movement and the reconstituted atelier system. These people wished appallingly to return to the artistically constipated time of 19th century France with its vapid underdressed sirens and bogus historical painting. For me, despite my earlier disaffection, this was just throwing out a different baby to freeze in the snow. There is always the desire to return to some previous elysian past, some golden age populated with people who would of course agree with us. On examination though these visions of the past never hold up and you might well find that they in turn hankered for a return to the values of a yet earlier era.

So too hell with fashion and daft snobbish divisions. I want to keep the freedom of subject, thought and method that the modern movement brought. I don’t mind silly and badly thought out conceptual art or indeed any of the fun of the fair Turner prize fodder. However I also feel we should make a place and recognise the worth of people who spend life time fully mastering an artistic skill. What they produce enhances the present and the result of their labours will likely in the future be among the objects our age is remembered by. That you cannot go to art college and expect to find anyone there with a fully developed skill in drawing capable of teaching you, only pretentious drivel about “mark making” etc, is appalling.

So what can be done? If you look at the Crafts Council site it is at first hard to work out what they want. The dread words “experimental” and “contemporary” are much in evidence. Quite a bit of the featured content could be invisibly dropped into a Fine Art council site. Painting and drawing are noticeably absent… illustrators oddly don’t get to be craft at all. I get the distinct feeling they would prefer craft to move towards proper art rather than that pesky skill stuff. On the fine art side there is nothing. Well NAFAE the grandly titled National Association For Fine Art Education… which appears to do nothing whatsoever at public expense. Their meeting reports are a miracle of purposelessness. So who decided on the curriculum, quality of teaching and general standards in fine art colleges? Well no one. There are no checks at all as far as I can see as to whether these publicly funded institutions are doing their job. Indeed there would be no point in checks or assessments as no standards or aims are in place to be measured.

Now these things are decided by someone, but who, and what criteria? Looking at it critically the purpose of Fine Art colleges seems to me to teach students to become teachers of fine art in Fine Art colleges. Only a tiny, tiny minority actually end up make their living from selling or exhibiting. So gainful employment is mostly only possible in an art college and indeed most fine artists, even the well known ones, are dependent on lecturing work. How these jobs are handed out is another mystery. I searched for adverts… they are thin on the ground, virtually non existent! Here is the what the job entails blurb from the one application I could find:

“With a background in emergent/experimental forms of Art practice and/or related areas of creative cultural practice and research, you will lead on the innovation of integrated approaches to studio art teaching and the critical and historical context of practice. The successful candidate will have extensive knowledge of recent practices,theories and frameworks in contemporary art, and be able to teach both Fine Art and Fine Art & Illustration students through innovative approaches to teaching and learning.  The post-holder should have a developing research profile in scholarly or practice-based research with ambition to contribute to the School’s growing research agenda and must have a proven track record of exploring new and emerging modes of practice and scholarship.”

So what exactly is to be taught? “Practice” is a word used 5 times, I Googled “Fine art practice”  and a blizzard of art colleges came up, but no one seemed too keen on defining it in any way… even the links to the colleges only led to vague assertions about “methodology” if skill is mentioned it is mostly linked with the business skills required for making your way in the gallery and institutional world. The message re the art itself is that you will be tutored, but not taught.

So how are these jolly nice, well paid and I suspect cushy art tutor jobs being handed out? I cannot answer this as there is a deafening silence on the subject. I suspect they are handed out through personal patronage, no doubt dressed up in the appropriate “open to all” clothing by being briefly advertised on individual college sites. There seems no attempt to reach far and wide. All this must in my view result in an incestuous clique and all my experiences lead me to believe this is mostly the case. Only people who back the current methodology and status quo can gain entry. So the system is self maintaining for the main purpose of continuing the institutions unchanged existence, not primarily for educating anybody. Students are merely the fodder that bring in the cash from the state which keeps the show on the road, teaching them anything of practical worth is by the by.

It is traditional to blame someone for public institutions gone awry, but really if a cushy number turns up people will always try to keep it going. They have no incentive to try to institute or reach definable standards, just the reverse. People in the system mostly did not learn any transferrable practical skill so they are hardly likely to welcome that becoming a job requirement. For government it is attractive too. If there are no definite standards or assessments then no failures can occur. They can tick the “supporting the arts” button and relax.

I have gone on enough maybe, but I find it infuriating that a young person with ability and interest in art cannot get a decent unpretentious education to further their hopes and ambitions. So what might a solution to breaking the cycle look like? Well I don’t think the current fine art colleges will or can change. So replacement rather than revolution might be easier. However private colleges are only open to a wealthy few and suffer from wishing to return to some imaginary age equally as hide bound as the current fine art establishment. What I think might do the trick is to undo the divisions between commercial craft and fine art. If we taught the “how” to people and left the “why” and “what” to the individual then the students could gravitate towards the theoretical/experimental or the practical/skill side or indeed anywhere in-between. Delivering such a change would be a life’s work as only setting such an establishment up and then hopefully pointing to its success and benefits would allow incremental change to spread.

Every area of art and craft has its outer limits and exploring these is important, but so are the less glamorous areas of skill and craft which in my view supply the firm terra cognita from which exciting leaps into the unknown can be more effectively made.

No exciting leaps here… only a few hopefully entertaining bits of shuffling along…

self portrait, oil painting, rob adams

It’s my ugly bonce again! I found myself at loose end unable to make a start on anything and with a pile of rapidly congealing expensive oil paint on my palette. Not the best reason to do a painting maybe. I am working very hard on tone at the moment. How to navigate areas of subtle close tone convincingly. The eye always wants to give every part of an image to much contrast and it can actually be very hard to determine the true relative tone of any area. I couldn’t be faffed with drawing so I gridded up my mirror with a felt tip pen. This isn’t so accurate as to cause stiffness, but will allow you to get everything in proportion without too much trouble. It is very important to look at your painting in the mirror at regular intervals as it is surprising how far an eye can migrate with several wiping outs and re-paintings. 10in by 16in Oils

 

East Hill, Corfe, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

I went to Corfe to deliver pictures to the Gallery at 41 who have kindly taken me on their books. It was a glorious day so I walked up to Ballard Down and then to East Hill to look down on the town. If ever there was a subject where close tones were to the fore then this was it. A real battle not to see too much and to get the tonal layers properly separated but still related. I ended up with 3 distinct areas on my palette which I tried to keep separate as much as possible. 10in by 8in Oils.

 

Corfe, Dorset, plein air, oils, painting

I was on my way down as was the sun when I came across this scene and just had to paint it. Very awkward as I was on a killer slope and my ankles were not amused! Fortunately the colours were already pretty much mixed and just needed warming to reflect the sun having dropped. I laid in the whole thing in 4 simple areas, sky, distance, the town and the bushes. I tried to get a mix of warm and cool in each area whilst keeping the tone more or less flat. The only thing to do after that was to indicate and hint at the detail within each zone. 12in by 12in Oils.

Badbury Rings, Beeches, avenue, Kingston Lacey, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

Such a great time of year to paint! This is the wonderful avenue of beech trees near Badbury rings. No chance of doing anything other than indicate the mesh of branches with general tones. Here I laid in all the sky shapes first and then the green bits as that more or less defined all the drawing. The base tone of the board was a mottle red brown so I could see the painting as a whole from quite early on. Quite pleased with this as I have made a mess of this subject a couple of times before. It is still not quite what I want, but I can see maybe now how to get a decent painting out of this wonderful subject some time in the future. 16in by 10in Oils.

Kingston Lacey, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

Later the same day… this is around the back of Kingston Lacey near the church. Oaks rather than beeches. Trying to catch the feel of the late autumn was my aim, some might not paint the van but I needed something to build a rough composition around. 12in by 8in Oils.

Beeches, Badbury Rings, oil painting, plein air

Last one of the day and the best I feel. Not a spectacular composition but just the thing to showcase the wonderful light. Again I did the sky areas first so that it defined the drawing. Also it was the main event so that also helps to get the picture headed in the right direction. 12in by 8in Oils.

I have been busy with things other than painting so not a many paintings have got done. The prospects aren’t good for the next month either with the threat of a serious bout of framing hoving into view. I have let the Lino cut printing slide… where does all that time go!

November 7, 2017

Expression

Before I started writing this blog I never really gave much thought to the terms that artists and art historians tended to attach to supposed works of art. I have repeatedly found that if examined the various isms and ists are more for the convenience of historians and theorists than for artists themselves. So even though it will cause me to go over some old ground I thought I might consider a few of them in more detail and see where I am making assumptions or just accepting opinion without examination.

Expression is today’s term. First a definition from the Oxford Dictionary: ‘The action of making known one’s thoughts or feelings.’ Pretty straightforward every word spoken and picture painted partakes of this. It is so inclusive that I need to narrow it down to just the visual arts. Expressionism, the dictionary states: ‘A painter, writer, or composer who is an exponent of expressionism, seeking to express through their work the inner world of emotion rather than external reality.’ so maybe structured thoughts are out and feelings or emotions are in.

The Tate Gallery tells us: ‘In expressionist art, colour in particular can be highly intense and non-naturalistic, brushwork is typically free and paint application tends to be generous and highly textured. Expressionist art tends to be emotional and sometimes mystical.’ Wikipedia says: ‘Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas.’ I think Wiki wins there… the Tate seems to think swishy brightly coloured thick paint might be the key…

The traditional key work that is credited with firing the shot that started the expressionist sprint was The Cry by Edvard Munch but I think perhaps we can look back further than that. There are hints of it in El Greco for example. Western art’s interest in attempting to describe our inner workings in a symbolic manner really got going with the arrival of tribal art from Africa and the huge exhibitions in Paris of ethnographic art. They are  rather condescendingly sometimes labelled it ‘Primitive’.

Tribal art is much the same from wherever or whenever it comes. I’ll put some examples below and see if you can identify them by culture and period!
African, tribal, masks

Some are easy (no I am not going to label them)  but others are harder… there is even a modernist one in there. I’m more taken by the similarities than the differences. I prefer most of these to western 20C expressionism, the difference is perhaps that all the tribal ones have a purpose in giving the fears and superstitions of a mysterious and dangerous world a concrete tangible form in the hope of placating or protecting. I think they for me more visceral and less self-conscious.

mask, picasso

If you place a Picasso head next to the tribal one that inspired it, as above, I cannot help but feel that the African one has more depth, but you can see the connection.

So what is going on? Tribally organised societies worldwide and all through history seem to produce much the same sort of art. They collide representation with decoration, symbolism, stylisation and abstraction. As soon as a culture becomes larger and necessarily more settled, layered and organised the art produced changes. We tend to call these ‘early’ and ‘late’ and ascribe a linear development, but I think that is not all that is going on. Very early pre-dynastic Egyptian art is pretty much tribal standard, but as they move from tribal to civilised the art becomes more and more easy to identify as being from a distinct and separate culture. I think what has happened is that the required rule making that suffuses any organised living is carried through to making rules about the art the society makes.

The art in larger more organised cultures seems to fulfil a slightly different function. One is that it is codifying memory or history, not necessarily as a true record, but more how powerful individuals or groups wish it to be remembered. So we get friezes depicting great victories and the glorification of rulers, specifically underlining their connection to whichever gods. So the later art is specific and the earlier tribal art less so. It represents a movement from representing the group to transferring information down the generations and glorifying the individual. This is what you would expect really, in a large grouping it is harder and more desirable for the individual to stand out from the crowd and signal power and status. Thus a movement from the communal to the individual. The tribal head was about the fears and hopes of a small community in a dangerous world, Picasso’s was about Picasso as an individual within a greater society.

This is reflected in the role of the artist in the community. Tribal artists are  all anonymous it is, as far as I can find, unknown for any kind of maker’s mark to appear. This means the artist didn’t consider it important for anyone to know that they specifically made an object in the long term. They almost certainly would have enjoyed any social status that accrued from their skills, but they didn’t seem to have any ambition to have their individual identity as an artist passed down the generations. There was after all as far as we know nothing to stop them including an authorial symbol on each of their works.

Some of the first maker’s marks were used by stonemasons, but these seem to be to do with payment rather than gaining any sort of personal kudos. The people or institutions who were commissioning work had little or no interest in the individuals that created them. The earliest named artists I can find were Greek, interestingly that this also coincided with the arrival of lifelike observed works representing specific individuals . China also had signed artists from around 400AD but Chinese paintings are more akin to poems than illusions and writers had identified the authorship of their work from long before visual artists had thought it important.

I realised we are a fair way from Expressionism the art movement but the movement toward the concern of the artist to be identified with his or her work seems to me a key factor. How many artists today don’t care whether their work is credited to them personally? There is more and more the pressure for an artist to make work that is theirs and theirs alone with a singular identity.

So Expressionism grew out of the feeling that in the process of becoming ‘civilised’ we had lost something primal. Rousseau’s theories of the ‘Noble Savage’ etc gave weight to the idea. Childhood, the loss of innocence and the attempt to regain it was also an idea of the time. The artists so inspired soon found that it was impossible to make the return to tribal innocence. How could they when they were inevitably products of an organised stratified society? They could not express tribal fears only individual existential ones. Most modern attempts at tribal styles seem to me to be pretending, perhaps only some graffiti really succeeds.

This begins to explain why the the Tate’s description of the term is so woolly and has to fall back on describing the way the paint is applied. The explanation that it is trying to give voice to inner emotions and visceral feelings is a better one but still I feel falls short.

When we use the term when we talk to each other about our and others work we talk of ‘expressiveness’. We rarely specify what is expressed, only that the appearance of the work signals that expression was the intent. The unspoken assumption is that this thing being expressed is so inchoate that words would not suffice. We also assume that the resultant work encapsulates the emotional state of the artist over the period the art was produced. This might mean turmoil or calm or refer to the recalling of an emotional memory.

Music perhaps has some parallels that might be useful. We are used to music provoking emotions, joy, sadness or whatever. Also for the most part music eschews the use of mimicry. You might, and many do, put forward that such work is a sort of visual music. However music has a time element. Also it has an element of patterning we call rhythm. It is perhaps most like decoration in the visual arts. Oh dear, I don’t think many expressive painters want the epithet of ‘decorative’ hung around their necks!

So ‘Expression’ doesn’t seem to be that useful as descriptive term, other than to  describe the apparent vigour of the application of materials. It is a handy term to compliment someone it you can’t find anything specifically good to mention I suppose.

I often find it useful to look at the purpose created objects fulfil. If we return to the tribal mask and the Picasso. We can say that the mask was made as a theatrical costume to transform a performer from a recognisable individual to an archetype for the benefit of an audience. The mask’s maker presumably benefitted personally status wise. The Picasso was painted to further the career, the bank balance and reputation of Picasso. It also was a decorative item enhancing a wall and the owners potential wealth and status as it might be perceived by others.

That’s it, here are some decorative items made for the enhancement of walls and the momentary entertainment of web surfers…

life painting, oil painting

I made a further attempt to translate a life drawing into an oil painting… better than my last attempts but still no cigar. For me the result has to be a step up from the drawing, but if the painting is to be observational then this is merely a painting of a drawing. 10in by 14in Oils.

self portrait, oil painting, rob Adams, head

This was done straight after… Self portraits are always intriguing. You know your own face but its perceived aspect is overlaid with our hopes and fears. When we view ourselves in the early morning mirror we might either think, ‘decaying wreck’ or ‘handsome beast’ depending on the self deluding swings of our moods. Here I was pissed off at the previous failure and short of ideas so I just leant the mirror up against my iMac and painted what I saw… hence the rather unusual angle! You soon forget that it is you in the mirror the face becomes a stranger to explore. In fact I suppose due to vanity your own face is more strange to you than that of a passer by. 10in by 12in oils.

Self portrait, oil painting, rob Adams. artist

I enjoyed doing the previous painting so a few days later I set up the mirror again. This time I considered the composition (even cut my hair!) and put the mirror up on a tripod. Very hard to get both yourself and the mirror in the right relationship! I resorted to poking the legs of the tripod with a long pole to nudge it into position. Then you discover that the ideal pose position is very far from an ideal painting position… so the result is a compromise. I must get a bigger mirror too. With a self portrait you cannot judge likeness, all you can do is observe and put down the observation as best you may. So I blocked in quite freely and then took it one stage further tonally. Next I more or less ignored what was already there and redrew as accurately as I could in black over the top. Once that was done I adjusted with colour until the black redrawing was mostly gone, then repeated the process again. I rather enjoyed the method as it led to increasing accuracy without getting into excess concentration on any particular aspect. Next I took a photo with the camera on the tripod in place of the mirror and considered the outcome by comparing the two… Is the result ‘expressive’?… Who knows, I hardly care. 12in by 15.5in

Kingston Lacey, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

A day out painting on a very strange day when a storm had blown dust from the Sahara and caused the sun to be bright pink at midday. This is Kingston Lacey but the light was so odd I mainly tried to get the light in the sky something like. 12in by 10in Oils.

St Marys, tarrant Crawford, plein air, oil painting

This is the same day, it looks like late evening not mid afternoon! This is St Mary’s at Tarrant Crawford. Again I really tried to catch the strange light and how warm and subdued it made the scene. 14in by 10in Oils.

Langton Matravers, oil painting, Dorset, plein air

A painting day by the coast at Langton Matravers. This was the best of the day but I rather struggled to find a scene that inspired. The skies were racing past and very bright. 16in by 10in oils.

Langton Matravers, plein air, Dorset, oil painting

More from Langton Matravers, so hard to get the tone relationship between sky and land. To mimic the observed reality either the sky must be white or the land black! I decided perhaps wrongly that the dazzle in the sky was the thing to aim for. 16in by 8in Oils.

Langton Matravers, reflection, Dorset, oil painting

A very quick daub before a cake break! Will be sanded off but a great exercise. I don’t do enough just painting stuff to improve my observation.

Chapmans Pool, Dorset, sea, cliffs, plein air, oil painting

A very rapid study of Chapmans Pool. The light was tremendous but too rapidly changing to really nail it. I have a sequence of photos so I might attempt a studio picture in a wider format.

Pilsdon Pen, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

This is the view from halfway up Pilsdon Pen. A great area I will return to. 10in by 8in Oils.

Lewesdon Hill, Dorset, plein air, beeches, oil painting

This is one of the amazing beech avenues up on Lewesdon Hill. I was quite pleased but did not spend enough time on this or consider the composition beforehand properly so once home I set about doing a studio one. 10in by 8in Oils.

Beeches, Lewesdon Hill, oil painting, Dorset

Again not too bad and looks good in a frame, but in reducing that mad complexity to simpler areas of paint you lose something of the essence of the place. 20in by 12in Oils.

Lewesdon Hill, beeches, drawing, plein air, pen and ink

I had to go into Dorchester the next week so went back and tackled it with pen and ink. The result after nearly 3hrs is much nearer to how the place feels, so the next step is to go again and see if I can manage similar in oils. Sometimes simplification is not the answer, especially if busy fractal complexity is the main story the subject is telling you. A4 pen and ink.

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