Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

December 14, 2016

Art History

I have recently waded through two vast Pelican histories of art in Europe 1780 to 1880 by Novotny and 1880 to 1940 by George Heard Hamilton. They are both written in the sixties. They are fascinating for what they leave out: no Sargent who was very active in Europe, no Zorn, no Joaquín Sorolla. The Novotny book especially has an agenda that is to see past painting in the light of what was to come in the future. I notice they no longer publish it which is no surprise as to me it seemed very flawed. The other is well written and thoughtful and a pleasure to read even though I find the story told a little simplistic.

After finishing them I sat back and tried to take stock of why I felt uncomfortable with them while they were still fairly fresh in my mind. The story they purport to tell is of this great voyage of discovery, artists as explorers or scientific researchers making breakthroughs and discovering new lands for human expression to thrive in. The drive for this is assumed to be the vaunting ambition by the geniuses the era was fortunate to be blessed with and the rejection of the old. The word revolution is often used. Also the shock of the ancient regime when faced with these prodigies of modernity is given great weight. This I feel is overstated as for the most part societies seem to have taken up anything novel with considerable enthusiasm with the “Rock and Roll is the work of the Devil” voices in the minority.

In other walks of life the ideas of the sixties, central town and social planning have been reassessed. We no longer believe men with university degrees, pipes and glasses reorganising the world for the benefit of the lumpen and ignorant masses is a good or a proper idea. Much of the idealised view of science, medicine and advancement to a bright shiny future have also been reconsidered. Art history and art opinion though is much the same today as these books written in the sixties it is as if new thought has been frozen with anything fresh roughly warped to fit into the pattern already laid down.

It is with this overall pattern I take exception. I think the flaw in the whole thing is in the view of what topology art might inhabit. It is perhaps seen by the authors and indeed current artists and historians as a land with boundaries that can be pushed back with terrae incognitae waiting on the other side of a line to be explored by plucky creative souls. The other analogy could be with science, unknowns being researched with bold experiments, analytical thought and inspired perception. The assumption is that there is an endless ocean of artistic thought to be navigated and conquered. Unlike scientists or explorers though the past is discarded by art historians, beyond a certain point its relevance only in that it was a step towards this new and always contemporary fertile ground.

It is I agree a wonderfully romantic vision. It flatters the artists and casts them in a heroic light sailing against the winds of tradition to discover new and uncompromising truths. It gives art historians a context, a larger theme and a style of language to set their writings in. It offers endless opportunities for faux scientific and cod philosophical art speak. It is all in all the most comfortable of rebellions, a risky business with chance excluded, derring do with no actual danger. The problem I feel is that the whole premiss is untrue and misleading. It distorts our ideas as to what culture is, narrows our possible horizons and imprisons any of an up and coming generation to an ever turning, but ever stationary wheel.

For a start, human created content is not really like a land with undiscovered parts. Though if you must have the metaphor you might say that the land is always the same, and only the travellers and the journeys they make within it change. The science part is less easy to recast, there is knowledge theory and method to be learnt, but no breakthroughs only seeing old knowledge with fresh and ever renewed eyes. For each generation of artists there is much the same dressing up box of media, intent and style available, it is what they choose to do with them that counts.

This tiptoes into the realm of philosophy which is another field that contemporary art and art history tends to look at in an envious manner. It is a flattering thought that artists creating objects are deepening the well of human understanding in some manner. Words and ideas however are the tool for this purpose not paintings or sculptures however much they label themselves conceptual. This perhaps explains the increasing need of the visual arts for words to augment and explain or more often confuse.

Both books shuffle uncomfortably over the pivotal moments in the fragmented story of the period they cover.  Hardly any mention is made of the great exhibitions of tribal art and the trickle of cultural objects from far away that grew into a flood. Photography is passed over with hardly a mention, even though it was to destroy a large part of the reasons why many cultural objects were made in the first place. The industrial revolution that replaced objects we used to make with our hands and minds with cheap and flawless substitutes gets little attention. The social turmoil that changed a business dependent on a few hugely wealthy clients to one supported by many with more humble means would seem worth a mention too but doesn’t get one. Even the invention of private and later civic art collections in the form of galleries and museums seems not to have been really considered as a possible influence on the nature of what is created in that time period.

Everything in the books is driven by the need to create some narrative. A story line to hang the work of artists of each period on, like washing pegged out in a neat easily comprehendable row. However to my eye the history and nature of created objects is actually arranged in a wildly non linear manner and has the possibility to be categorised in a plethora of different ways. There have been cups made from the dawn of time and drawings too. In each particular era the human souls who created them came to the act of making afresh. They saw some results of what those who came before had done, but each time for them the learning, the doing and the achievement was entirely new.

For example you cannot sensibly put the describing of the human form which has gone on for 30,0000 or so years into a neat progression. At different times the purpose of such objects could swing from the individual to the universal, or from the observational to the symbolic, so there is no progression. We had stick men then and they are still with us today, we had carefully observed recordings of animals and they are also with us still. We have had abstract patterns and arrangements in our lives since the very dawn of culture. They have not got any better or advanced in any meaningful way, the idea of steady advancement is irrelevant to that category of created thing. You can more sensibly place Picasso’s portraits with tribal works done in similar manner many times over the eons. All you can say is that both the 19thC Spaniard and some 10thC African took that particular hat out of the dressing up box and gave it a very pleasing whirl.

The function of art is really I have come to believe very simple. It is simply a thing crafted to engage and enrich our perceptions. The world as it stands does this, art objects are merely those that are made by conscious intent. One occurs the other is made to occur. The rest is merely a matter of where the creation might stand as far as effectiveness and universality goes.

A mixed bag of work this time I am hopping here and there and cannot seem to settle to one thing.

Ramsgate, plein air, oil painting, Kent

A visit to Kent, this is Ramsgate. Wasn’t really on form and several paintings hit the scrap pile! This one worked better though. 10in by 7.5in oils.

 

ramsgate, Kent, oil painting

This was done on my return and is Ramsgate again, very interesting town with lots of varied subjects. I spent quite a lot of time just wandering and looking, which in its way is just as rewarding as painting. 16in by 10in Oils.

 

Ramsgate, oil painting, Kent

Yet another Ramsgate one, not sure this is quite done, it is up on the wall at the moment to consider. Some pictures get to a point where they are on the very edge of working well, but some niggling feeling tells you there is more to be done. The hard thing is to establish exactly what that “something” is of course. The green awning is crime suspect no 1 at present! 14in by 10in oils.

 

Ramsgate, The belgian Bar, interior, pen and ink, drawing

Last one from Kent. We went to the Belgian Bar to eat in Ramsgate and I could not resist a quick sketch. Pen and Ink.

 

Dorset, road, watercolour, painting

Back to Dorset and the light has just been amazing, one of the best Autumn seasons I can recall. Especially as due to building works I missed last years season entirely. I have done this road a few times and it always rewards. Here I did two watercolours at the same time, this one only got to pencil stage but it is a good thing to do as there is always waiting around for the damn stuff to dry so having another picture on the go keeps you occupied. Watercolour.

 

Dorset, landscape, watercolour, painting

Here is the other in the pair. This one got a bit further on I got it drawn out and the shadows blocked in. Here the washes went over the shadows rather than working from light to dark. I like they way the overlaying washes slightly dissolve the previous layer. You do have to be vary careful and lay the washes in one pass as stirring it around at all makes mud very quickly. Watercolour

 

Dorset, landscape, watercolour, painting

I decided I might make a linocut of the same scene and this is the first stage in reducing it in complexity. I prefer to do this in stages, the next stage I will do on the computer as I can preview the different plates easily. Hopefully with more experience I will be able to leave out that stage eventually. Watercolour.

 

Milton Abbas, watercolour, Capability Brown, painting, landscape

Another one that has linocut potential. This is Milton Abbas where the lord of the manor moved a whole town so that Capability Brown could improve the view. This is a section of Mr Browns efforts! 9in by 6.5in watercolour.

 

Trees, watercolour, dorset, painting

One that didn’t quite fly, I had done an oil of this which is below and wondered if it would make a print, so this watercolour was just to see if it would. The answer is probably no! 9in by 6.5in watercolour.

 

Dorset, trees, oil painting, road

Here is the oil, I made a fair few changes to the road and sky after this scan but this is when it was mostly done. 14in by 10in oils.

Thats it for this batch, have a fair bit more to post but the Christmas season is approaching like an express train and I am unprepared!

Here is this year’s Christmas card… a good one to all if any who peruse this daubing and waffling!

Christmas card, drawing

November 15, 2016

Gut Feelings

I was watching a video with a well known artist pondering the ins and outs of painting. There was the usual lone figure wandering the hillsides with sketch book in hand, the piano music swelled as this sensitive soul opened his heart to the underlying whispers of history and usage that imbues our 21st century landscapes. We then followed him to his paint spattered garret where he explained his methods. All well and good, (by the way I happen to like this painters work.) he then explained how he tried to take risks and followed his instincts and gut feelings rather than his head.

At this point my antennae raised, I am sure he is being honest about what he thinks is going on. However we all have to watch that bit of us that self mythologises and tries to woo the world into looking at us with respect and admiration. It was the “gut feeling” comment that set me to thinking. Most artists I know are very keen on “intuitive” painting from the “heart” or the aforementioned “guts”. Indeed it would seem we should paint from everywhere and anywhere but our brains. Firstly even though I know it is obvious we don’t paint by inspiration from any part of our giblets. Our spleens, kidneys and even our sainted pancreases play little part in the process.

Whether you like it or not it is the pathways of the brain that do the business. Yes, yes I know they are just metaphors for instinctual responses. A little look at these responses is maybe called for here. Where did they come from? What was their purpose before we painted or surfed the internet? Also there may be two things being conflated. Firstly there are muscle memory and routines of repeated action that are created by establishing pathways in the brains structure. If you do an action repeatedly, such as drawing then bit by bit certain aspects get automated. Judging angles, distances or tones for example. Just the dexterity needed to wield the brush and lay the paint on the surface. These are bits of your brain that are trained up and can run like a piece of software that does not need conscious control.

The other bit is the function that supplies quick assessment on the fly. There is not time to assess properly many things in life because to do “due diligence” would take too long and an answer is needed now. So our early man didn’t ponder whether that tigerish shaped shadow was actually a tiger he just legged it on receiving the instinctive assessment. We use this method to quickly assess people we meet. We call it first impressions, here we do usually treat them with suspicion and are usually prepared to reassess over time. David Kahneman who got the Nobel prize for his work in this area made several experiments that showed up the flaws in the process.

He sent to two groups of surgeons a description of a patient and asked them to say whether they would operate. The descriptions were identical except for one thing. In the estimate of the likelihood of success one group was told the probability was 30 percent that the patient would die, the other group was told the survival rate was 70 percent. Worryingly the 30 percenters mostly said the operation  should not go ahead and the 70 percenters said that it should. The bit of these eminent men’s brains (or maybe their guts) supplying their assessments was of course the same bit of the brain that our painter was relying on to give his work that extra something!

My suspicion of this auto assessment feature of the mind has been with me for a while. Although is is the bit that tells you something might not be quite right, it is also the bit that tells you your drawing is all right or even good when it isn’t. A quick look at a drawing in the mirror will often show this tendency up. When in everyday life the quick response feature lets us down we cheerfully confess to being mistaken, so we do understand its flaws. So why do artists elevate the automatic reaction process to a touchstone of expressiveness and sensitivity?

The answer I fear is superstition and the belief in magic. We still, despite all the evidence to the contrary,  believe we have souls. Some higher part of our being that is pure and responds to the inner rightness of things. The important thing of this extra bit of us is that it is incorporeal and thus stands a chance of surviving extinction. An idea we for obvious reasons are quite keen to believe and reluctant to question. We have decided, it would seem, that this higher self is also responsible for imbuing our paintings with extra spirit too, in some mystical, druidical “art mojo” transfer process.

We spend quite a bit of time exhorting each other to log on to this aetheric wi-fi network in order to express ourselves, tap into underlying energies and be spiritually intuitive. To be free, unrestrained by mere logic and sense etc as if our learning and more considered thinking processes were some kind of ball and chain around our creative ankles. I think this idea comes from confusing the two parts of instinctive or intuitive actions. For our hardwired dexterity and spatial assessment functions the conscious mind can put a spanner in the works as any musician will tell you. When we paint or do anything that occupies our grey matter to the exclusion of all else self awareness is often the first casualty. This is why the hours fly by when we are very involved. This does not however mean that our actions are then being directed by any “higher” consciousness we are actually using previous learnt actions and prior experiences to carry out the picture making process.

To return to our lonely painter on the hillside. Why, if he is trying to “take risks”, and follow “gut feeling”, do his paintings all turn out much the same? Could it be like the rest of us he is following well worn and hard learnt pathways? We have all pondered why, however we experiment and push the boat out, our paintings still are recognisably “ours”. At some point we have most of us decided to tear up the rulebook and do it differently this time only to find that the finished article could hang in perfect harmony next to any other examples of our oeuvre.

A bit of a mish-mash of work this time, I decided I had been rather ignoring the watercolours. For most of these paintings my liver was in charge… and kidneys of course, kidneys are very good for watercolours.

 

Bulbarrow, Dorset, oil painting, road

I think this was Okeford Hill in the background, I had been driving round the lanes on a damp day looking for a subject and thought this was interesting. However after 15min when I had only blocked in the basics the day decided to mutate into a glorious sunset. Not having any more boards with me I debated wiping off and redoing but took it home and fiddled with it in the end. I tried to go back a few days later only to discover I couldn’t remember which road I was on! I must mark scenes on the map, you always believe you will recall where good scenes are but in reality you just don’t. 16in by 7.5in oils.

 

moreton, Dorset, oil painting, ford, puddle

This is the ford at Moreton in Dorset. It doesn’t quite work and is rather like a stage set awaiting the actors, I am debating whether just to wipe it or try a rescue operation. In such situations where a painting is not particularly bad but doesn’t quite cut the mustard either I scan it in and mess with it in Photoshop rather than working in paint. This was the second larger 20in by 16in I have tried plein air and neither painting has really worked. Oils

 

rejig, moreton

Here is my idea, I am now considering whether to do it in paint! The couple came past as I was painting and I snapped them, there were horses too but they didn’t seem to work as well.

 

Dorset, Roads, oil painting, plein air

Last one of the day, I only had 20 or so minutes to get this done. Needs to be redone to a wider format but I was pleased with the mood. 14in by 10in Oils.

 

Self Portrait, Rob Adams, oil painting

It has been awhile since I did one of these. Yes folks it is me, self portraits are great fun but hard. You are never quite sure if the result looks like you which is both an advantage and disadvantage. On the one hand you just have to try and be accurate and observe methodically, but on the other the result can be lifeless. I had intended to just paint for an hour, but went on for an extra half in the end. I will try a double mirror one maybe, then you don’t end up gurning at the viewer. 10in by 16in Oils.

 

Twyford, Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is the road to Twyford from Shaftesbury, a great view and one I will be returning to. It did somewhat try my patience with the drying so I resorted to the cars heater blower! 9in by 6in watercolour.

 

Shaftesbury, Dorset, watercolour

This is Shaftesbury, the town is quite high so we are actually in a cloud! I just drew this out in pencil and moved on, washes would never have dried in an age. It was actually great fun to watercolour later allowing bits I couldn’t remember to fade into murk and just trying to remember the atmosphere. 9in by 6in Watercolour.

 

Bedchester, tree, lane, Dorset, pen and ink, Drawing

Here I am planning another lino cut. The view is a lane near Bedchester. I am finding the pen and ink drawings very good for planning prints. I must however get some actually printed. I have two sets of blocks ready to go so need to get printing!

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