Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

December 22, 2014

What is a picture?

I occasionally try to reassess where I am, having just had a very unsuccessful exhibition with no sales or indeed visitors to it. It is easy to be despondent, but I am a veteran of pulling myself up by my bootstraps so I tend not to go into a emotional spin as I would have done a decade or so earlier. I have sold enough paintings to know people will buy them and with no visitors going to the show, I am plainly in the wrong place at the wrong time. The problem for me is that I don’t really want another career, I have had three or four already. I am forced to the obvious conclusion that successfully selling pictures will take more of my time than painting them. At my stage of life I just do not have that time to spare. I am hugely fortunate that I don’t need as yet to sell them to put food on the table! So what I want to consider is what a painting should and should not be from my own selfish point of view.

I do a particular sort of painting which is intended to be processed in a certain way. I don’t paint something that has any surprises hidden away. So no incongruities, my early work was rife with them and I still do them occasionally as in this year’s Christmas card. They are fun but a cheap trick really. I could make my images out of a lot of smaller things, buttons insects you name it. This is quite popular direction at the moment but another cheap trick that soon palls. I could make my paintings very big or very small, or paint them on an unexpected surface like an elephant. Again fun, but only for a moment. So what am I up to?

Well, I don’t want any stylistic, methodistic or conceptual quirk. No easy fashionable trait that appeals to some ephemeral interest. I want to trim away any connection to conceptualism, I am not a purveyor of ideas in paint. I do not want to foist my emotion upon you, or the sweaty recesses of my subconscious. I don’t want to shock, educate, challenge or disgust you. I do not want to explore new possibilities or break new ground, I want no box to think outside of, no edge to bleed. I do not want to have originality and novelty as my guiding light. I don’t want to re-appraise the past or anticipate some imaginary future.

I paint on flat surfaces that are rectangular not because they are interesting, but because they are mundane. They are the average the unremarkable, I don’t want what I do to gain any especial significance from its form. I don’t wish to record for any posterity or comment on any contemporary shared experience. I want neither the poetic , the gritty reality nor the romantic. Of course I inevitably do many of the things listed above, but perhaps I should count it as a failure when I do. It is easier indeed to list the things I do not wish my work to contain than to dissect out the things that I do.

So, what is this picture I wish to paint? Firstly it is a picture. This means it is to be looked at and processed with the every day equipment we use on the actuality that surrounds us. So it is an illusion, but a knowing one, there is no expectation of fooling anyone or deluding them. It is easy to be lured down the path of abstraction, to believe that by simplifying you are distilling and increasing the potency of your work. Simplicity and complexity are however just tools in the box to be used at will, not ambitions to be striven for.

I suppose I get nearest to my aim very occasionally with a simple life drawing. Perhaps something that took 5 minutes. You have no time to consider or plan, no chance to fear failure. There is merely the surface, the paint, the eye, the hand with the brush and the subject. There is one other thing though. There are the myriad tangled paths laid down over many years in the few pints of porridge in my head, without these nothing can occur, but with them maybe something approaching a small miracles can be achieved, humble ones it is true, but miracles none the less. Lazarus is raised from his bed, but not perfectly, a bit of a squint and a bad limp, but I hope breathing not dead!

On a few watercolours recently I really tried to track my thinking, emotion and get at how that related to the actual process and progress of the making. Which bit of me is being satisfied and what is it that provokes me to continue. Firstly just the exercise of a skill that has been built up over a lifetime is rewarding. Not in any deep sense, but in the simple sense of solving a difficult crossword. All paintings start with the hope of what they might be, like a skier you are at the top of the mountain with the steep route down laid out before you. Like our skier I anticipate the run ahead. Also like the skier once you have pushed off gravity and dealing with events on the ground to be covered form the actual experience. So there is that excitement of thrills and potential spills about the activity. The analogy breaks down though due to the fact that a painting is a thing that accrues from many small actions many of which are evident in the final work.

The final moments of a picture are the ones that have the greatest emotional weight. The idea of when something is finished is a difficult one that I am I think going to struggle to define. I actually don’t like the word finished, complete is a better term I feel. In the event a painting could be considered complete at quite a few stages in its development. We all know the sinking feeling that your picture probably looked better half an hour ago! The real reward though is when it all comes together and the result is greater than the sum of the actions that made it. That is what I mean by complete, when it needs nothing added or taken away.  Only the artist feels this feeling, whether it adds up to a painting that others might enjoy I don’t know. I do know that a day that includes a painting that I am pleased with is a very good day perhaps indeed that is all that matters!!

This post is quite heavy on the life drawings, as I have said these are some of the things that please me most but are least liked by others I suspect. Certainly I can’t imagine them ever selling. I have been very busy building a new studio but have managed to sally forth and paint a few times.

 

Blackheath, sunset, London, oil painting

This one of Blackheath in London was very fast and furious, the sun was setting fast so it all had to be done in 30 min. Great fun to do, the colours are especially hard to judge as the light fades on your palette and painting until you can’t really see what you are doing. I try to remember where I mixed each area of colour so that once home I am not unpleasantly surprised! 10in by 16in Oils.

 

Child Okeford, Dorset, High St, Oil painting

There could hardly be more contrast! From glorious sunset at the end of a lovely day to the grey beginnings of a very wet one. This is Child Okeford where I now live, so you will see more from here. I have a few unfinished ones of this scene as it looks good in different lights. Unfortunately the best views are from standing in the road so they will have to be done from reference. 10in by 14in. Oils.

 

Dungeon Hill, Dorset, watercolour, painting

This is the view from the interestingly name Dungeon Hill just south of where I am now in Dorset. There is a forgotten hill fort on top of the hill where I will paint again in the future. 8in by 10in watercolour.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour, Painting.

This is the wonderful Hambledon Hill on a very chilly morning. I had to really struggle to get the soft feeling that the light had and to keep the areas of contrast balanced. 6in by 11in Watercolour.

 

Sketch, figure painting

Rather a swathe of figure work now I fear! I have joined a local group of life drawers. The session takes place in a village hall where on wall is glass. I absolutely love the light which streams in from one side. This is 10 min.

 

life drawing

Even less time for this, 5min or so, just enough time to get the silhouette and the stance roughly in.

 

Life drawing

Another very quick one, these quick studies are very good for honing your observational skills, there is no time to be fussy.

 

life drawing

Another 5 min. Watercolour is wonderful for these rapid studies.

 

figure drawing

A slightly longer pose this was 15 min I think.

 

life drawing

I loved doing this one, I only just had time to pick out the figure from the initial broad washes.

 

life drawing

At last a 30 min one, I love foreshortening it is so hard to get it convincing and not just looking misshapen!

 

life drawing

This session I tried to really reduce my media to just two elements, wash and line in two colours. I start with the wash and then add just enough line to explain the form.

 

life drawing

I very much enjoyed painting this against the light. You have to try to avoid over stating any area. Here I overworked the hand on the knee, whereas the hand on the chin is just the right level of tone and line.

 

life drawing

More foreshortening I was almost sitting on that foot!

 

life drawing

I actually stopped before the pose finished here, there seemed nothing more to add.

 

life drawing

On the next session I added toned paper to the mix.

 

Life drawing

Very quick again about 5min.

 

I added touches of chalk here, maybe paint would have been better.

 

I will do more of these line and wash ones they are great for stating the basics, the line and the wash each compliment and don’t do each others work.

 

life drawing

Longer poses I think paint rather than chalk in future. The line gets a little lost here I must be less heavy handed with the tones on the longer poses.

 

life drawing

Last one I got all the elements working decently here. Sorry for the swathe of life drawing now for something completely different…

 

Christmas Card

Many thanks and a Happy Christmas to all the people who read my waffle or look at the pictures and the odd poor soul who peruses both!

November 28, 2014

Treasure

After the slight disappointment of the Constable I went wandering around the V&A. I only did a few rooms, any more than that and the brain shuts down! I found myself in the medieval galleries, cases full of the most exquisite metalworking and ivory carving. They are a wonder to see with untold hours of human life gone into their making. There was a Bishop’s crozier that could well have taken a whole year or more of labour. It occurred to me that making treasure was an important part of the artists remit. Not just an object that has value to those that know, but an object it is hard to imagine anyone leaving in the skip should they spot it there. I am quite fond of the skip definition of visual art. If you chucked it in a skip would anyone who looked in rescue it? If they wouldn’t then it probably ain’t art! Mt R Mutt’s urinal might well be filched but only for its plumbing possibilities!

Artists have in recent years seem to have largely avoided the treasure aspect. With a true object of desire all the desirability is bound up in the object itself it does not need any history attached. I realise that solid gold objects or diamond encrusted skulls will be whipped out of the skip tout de suite, but so would bundles of used twenties! Some of the objects in the V&A are just there because of their historical interest but by far the most are there because of the intrinsic beauty of the object. Most are unattributed so whether the maker had an ear truncation moment in his or her past or not is plainly irrelevant. The other thing that struck me was that size was an issue. Treasure in an uncertain world seemed to need to be portable. Though there are large things for the most part they fit into a display case. This would explain those buried classical statues, just too big to carry off.

So, how to imbue you efforts with the treasure quality and make them worth a passer by swiping from our skip? The object need not be made of intrinsically valuable stuff, so I will exclude such objects as they muddy the water. So perhaps just a painting in a cheap damaged frame. I doubt many mass produced prints would be rescued, but what I really want to know is will one of my paintings be spared the landfill. I suppose it would be easy to test and I am quite tempted to try.

Sticking for the moment to theory. To my eye unifying quality creating the desirability of the items in the V&A is that they display expressed human skill and more than that the joy in expressing that skill. An object of utility might well express skill but a useful and beautified object revels in it. This is plainly in large part why they survived, generation after generation have found something pleasing about these objects and preserved them.  Many of course as an expression of portable wealth, but that wealth value is caused by the object being pleasing and thus desirable.

This is why I think the skip definition works so well. Today we look to an object’s location and presentation to judge value. You might put a bit of paper with numbers over it in a dustbin and no one will look at it twice. Put that same bit of paper in a safe and it would be viewed differently. The same occurs with current art objects. Put them in the Tate Modern or a swish penthouse flat and we quickly assess them to be Art and hence of value and consideration. Scatter the contents of the Tate Modern that had no intrinsic material value into skips around the capital and I wonder how many would be still there next day? I bet if you scattered the V&A contents in the same way they would have a far larger survival rate.

So when you look at at a heap of bricks on a gallery floor and have that art feeling you are not being clever and sophisticated, you are being pleasantly deluded about both the art and the quality of your own discernment. On the other hand when you pass by a skip and spot a beautifully carved panel in an old and broken wooden chest half covered with bricks and take it home to keep and admire then you are having a true aesthetic moment. If you leave the carving in the skip and take the bricks home and arrange them on the floor you are plainly an idiot! There is of course the unlikely scenario where you spot a nice bit of carving outside a posh house and just as you were about to take it home notice that the name on the brass plate by the door is C, Andre. You would then of course take the bricks home in triumph and call the auction house. This however is love of money not art!

Of course the treasure aspect is not the only factor. Most of my paintings are experienced for free by people on line. By the feed back some have a pleasing experience when looking at them. Value or treasure does not come into it. This is, I freely admit, a circle that is hard to square. If I do not sell the pictures then I am just supplying free entertainment to others. Either as an act of generosity, need for attention, hope of future gain or most likely a mix of all. This is partly why I am going to try to exhibit more, and the first toe in the water is on this month when I am exhibiting with my friend Graham Davies for a couple of weeks. The details are below! PS be sure to check any skips in the area… you never know!

 

Exhibition

I am showing 20 or so London paintings mostly local to the area where I live. There that’s the promotion done now for recent paintings!

 

Strand, London, bicycles, oil painting

This is a moment I definitely could not have captured en plein air! We are looking West up the Strand. As I waited to cross the road a seemingly endless parade of holiday cyclists passed before me. It look oddly joyful and I snapped away like mad to try to catch the moment. As is often the case the photos looked very disappointing once looked at at home. If I just came across them a year from now I would hardly have set out on a big painting based on them. However I wanted to attempt to recapture some of the moment as I recalled it so this is my attempt. I’ll put my reference photo below so you can see what I have kept and what I have changed. I took several sets of cyclists and rearranged them to set the mood. The shape is a triple square which I hadn’t deliberately tried before. 12in by 36in oils. I have since toned down the blue T shirt!

 

Strand London

It was the wonderful shadows as much as anything that attracted me.

 

Dorset, Shroton, Watercolour

Now for something different. I was due to paint with the Brass Monkeys in London so in order to find out how it was to go up to London and back in the day I set off to Gillingham Station. I had left home early intending to take photos of the morning which was gorgeous with sun and slowly clearing morning mist. Near Shroton on my way I saw this and could not resist. I got everything in bar the sheep who only had their shadows present. Time had passed and I came within a few minutes of missing my train. The picture had to wait a week before the sheep were reunited with their shadows!

 

Royal Exchange, London, plein air, oil painting

In order to promote and exhibition for the United Society of Artists at Bankside I painted with Michael Richardson at the Royal Exchange. It was a wet day but I love London in that sort of weather. This is the Bank tube entrance. 10in by 12in Oils.

 

Royal Exchange, London oil painting, plein air

Next I took on a wider view looking up Cornhill. It was great fun to do this and I kept it all as loose as possible. Only a sketch really but might well be a big picture eventually. 10in by 16in. Oils

 

South Bank, Bankside, London, Thames, oil painting

The day of the private view I painted outside the gallery. In tried again not to define too much, not really a finished painting but it catches a little of the feel of the day. 10in by 16in oils.

 

bankside, thames, London, oil painting

I then did this very fast 20 min sketch as the light faded. Our efforts were hung on a “wet wall” in the main show which seemed to garner some interest but no sales! 10in by 12in but cropped here. Oils.

 

Victoria and Albert Museum, Cromwell Rd, oils painting

The next Brass Monkey day was on an extravagently wet day in Knightsbridge. The Met office forecast the previous day was covered in yellow warning triangles so I came prepared! I only took my tiny 5in by 7in Pochade and painted with my umbrella handle stuffed down one trouser pocket and gripped under my painting arm. With the other hand holding the pochade I had plenty to contend with and was glad the panels were only 5 by 7! This is just outside the V&A. The tones and reflections were absolutely gorgeous.

 

Knightsbridge, London, Plein air, oil painting

After having visited the Constable show I painted this which was so much fun, I loved the puddle in the foreground. Each of these took about twenty minutes as my arms started cramping from the effort of holding everything. 5in by 7in oils.

 

Knightsbridge, oil painting, plein air, london

This was only the drawing out and a few establishing turpsy washes when the cramps hit again and I had to stop. Once home I felt it was worth finishing. 5in by 7in oils.

 

Lewisham, nocturne, oil painting, london

A month or so ago I had bought some cheap clip on lights for reading in bed. I clipped one to illuminate my palette and held the other. I haven’t done a nocturne in a while so this was great fun. The rain kindly let up while I painted which made life easier. One of the great things with city nocturnes is that the light is not going to change so I spent well over two hours on this. I had the usual thing with colour though, despite trying to predict the change I was still surprised when I got it home and looked at it in decent light. Above is how it actually looked at home below is how I imagined it might look.

 

lighting

Only a very rough Photoshop adjustment but it gives an idea! Hopefully some landscapes of Dorset in the next instalment.

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