Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

June 15, 2015

The curse of the category

Filed under: Drawing,London,Painting,Surrey,Thames,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 10:18 am

I am of course going to consider the penchant we have of pigeonholing. We love to sort things into groups and give them names. Then we can ascribe other qualities with a broad and uncaring brush. With life forms we call this taxonomy. With paintings we use  categories based on style, content, historical period, use, intent etc. So if we have a painting it might be an illustration or a decoration or fine art and so forth. With taxonomy the rules are clear a life form cannot be a member of more than one genus. With paintings however a work might be comfortably placed in several. So one of Raphael’s frescos in the Vatican might be a) a work of art, b) illustrating a theme, c) decorating a room. d) an example of renaissance painting. Not so easy here to differentiate and put into discrete categories.

In conversation with other artists they all seem to agree with the current wisdom that contemporary illustration cannot be considered fine art. However if I ask, “Is Rembrandt’s “Feast of Balthazar” fine art?” they say yes it is. I then say but it is an illustration of a biblical event. I might get the reply that it was a personal response to a story by the artist. I add that actually it was a commission. Then the conversation usually goes down hill from there. Despite it being true in earlier times artists today generally seem unwilling to allow illustration up on the pedestal of fine art, but do wish to share the pedestal with great works of previous eras that I think fall comfortably into the illustration category. I have had this conversation many times now always with the same result, people believe that illustration is somehow inferior in the aesthetic stakes, but cannot come up with any cogent argument as to why that should be true now but not in the past.

So what is going on? This post is as much to pick the arguments apart for my own benefit as to promote any views on the matter. I have been both sides of the divide, so maybe that gives me a perspective on the conundrum that gives some small insight. Another area where this effect is seen is literature. A book can be a work of literature, or a genre. If it is genre, say a detective story, then the Booker people are not going to be interested whatever the literary merits. All genres are not equal of course, “historical” is above “mystery” which is in turn above “science fiction” which is above “romance”. These categories are to do with marketing not the end product not with the quality of the wordsmithing in-between the covers. However critics and most readers appear to use the marketing category to assign aesthetic worth. I have lost count of the number of times  have recommended a book only to have someone say, “I don’t like science fiction.” I ask have you read any? They say “No” I say have you read “Brave new world” They say, “Yes.” I say “Aha! That’s science fiction!” and once more the conversation goes downhill from there. One thing is always the same, no one will reconsider their opinion and when they have the basis of that opinion questioned and find they cannot justify it they seem to hold that opinion even more firmly that before.

If you think I am going to give the impression I am above this trait then you would be wrong. If you read Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” you might reluctantly have to admit as I did that many of our opinions and most of our intuitively held views are very poorly founded and often wrong entirely. What Kahneman shows is that even when this is pointed out to us we still cleave to our previous opinion because it is programmed in at a lower level. This part of our minds delivers snap judgements on anything and everything without the need for cogitation. In everyday life this is wonderful as it gives us a way of dealing with a hugely complex world that would overwhelm us otherwise. We could not possibly take the time to reason through everything in life.

This process works with pictures too. People often say that they don’t like this or that sort of painting. Choose your genre, say Pre Raphaelites. This is one that has caused me a deal of difficulty. One of my first experiences with paintings in galleries was at the Birmingham Art Gallery. Is a boy of twelve or so I was entranced by the glowing colours and did not know to dislike the sickly sweet emotions portrayed. Later when doing a degree in fine art I learnt to dislike them as was de-rigueur in a college of that period. So I had two opposing instinctive responses to that kind of work. If I was a computer I would crash and need to be rebooted, but humans are made of sterner stuff and can believe both opposing views at the same time! If I stand back and am analytic then I would have to say most of the Pre-raph output is average to poor, but I can find some gold amongst the spoil as well. IE exactly the same as any other genre or period of work. Nonetheless despite knowing that when I first glance at one of their paintings it is the unconscious assessments all be it conflicting that are first through the gate.

This also works with positives. We might be educated that this or that artist is “important” this in turn makes us see the works in a different way that has less to do with the actual visual stimulus being received than we might imagine. This was brought into focus for me a few years back when I saw a huge Van Gogh exhibition in Basel. I arrived with the learnt and unquestioned opinion that he was one of the all time greats and a pivotal figure in painting. I believe there were 14 rooms in total in strict chronological order. I was entranced by room 13 where his works take on a visionary glow, then less impressed by room 14 where derangement sets in. Puzzled I went back and did the first rooms again. When I really thought and looked as dispassionately as I was able the early rooms were almost entirely between dreadful through to dull but worthy with the odd bright spark of things to come. Looking at the time line it would seem that Gaugin’s influence was the key to Van Gogh’s brief transcendent moment. Van Gogh’s paintings from that period are lovely and decorative, but did they inspire later painters to paint in that manner..? Well like most idiosyncratic artists such as Blake, not really as the manner is so personal.

It is very hard for anyone including myself to separate out the received wisdom on Van Gogh as our subconscious has been so well primed. This is not really a problem for a gallery visitor, as they will enjoy the works and not be concerned as to the genesis of their reactions. For an artist it is a different matter, we need to be able to pick out concrete factors that might lift our own work a step up. I am afraid that the knee jerk assessments of our subconscious really do not help in this regard. My intellect tells me that all types of painting from illustration to portraiture to abstraction will throw up up high peaks on the graph of excellence, however personal and intangible the factors that make such judgements are. For myself I try to look out for these highs wherever they might be found. As we all do I will inevitably miss many that might hold useful inspiration merely because my lazy conscious mind is on autopilot and being steered by the unthinking and largely unfounded judgements delivered up by my unconscious. I feel sure this trope will have neither  convinced nor unconvinced anybody, but any contrary argument not founded on opinion would be welcome, especially if it confounds me!

Only a few paintings since last post, I am gearing up to go to France, so the next post will have a continental flavour!

Fulham Palace, London, Plein air, Brass Monkeys

This is the gate to the walled garden at Fulham Palace. It was drizzling and very quiet so I was happy painting away. I loved the soft tones that the rain gave. 8in by 10in oils.

 

Fulham Palace, oil painting, London, plein air

The rain really set in after we had had a leisurely sandwich and coffee. I was lucky, sheltered under a substantial tree, others of The Brass monkeys were out in the full downpour… This is the main entrance to the palace, it is a lovely place that the tourists don’t seem to find. 10in by 8in oils.

 

Hampshire, Fordingbridge, plein air, oil painting

It is hard to believe that this is the same day! After leaving Fulham I drove back to Dorset via the New Forest. This is Fordingbridge, this scene looked so lovely I decided to stop and paint. Hard to get a good viewpoint, in the end I parked my car conveniently for me and inconveniently for everyone else and painted from in front of it. I was forced to be very quick so this is about 30 minutes worth. 10in by 7.5in Oils.

 

Richmond, surrey, oil painting, plein air

This is Richmond Green on a day out with The Wappers, I have painted this corner a few times before. This time I really struggled, the first one from a different angle I wiped off. Then I started this but just could not get it to gel, I had bollards across the foreground and some near figures. I had it up on my kitchen dresser for a few days and decided in the end the story was about the line of activity running across the lower third. I took out everything that conflicted with that and suddenly I had a picture. It is always gratifying to rescue a painting that goes astray! 10in by 14in Oils.

 

Richmond Hill, Pen and Ink, Wapping Group

Before I did the last painting I did a couple of pen drawings. This is Richmond Hill, I love the simplicity of the medium. I have a lot of these drawings now and wonder what to do with them. People don’t buy drawings really nowadays, I might get some printed up into cards.

 

Richmond Bridge, Pen and ink, drawing

Last one. This is Richmond Bridge. It is quite hard to find new views on the River front. This one had taken my eye a few years ago so I decided to have a go at it. Though it looks simple it was avery difficult subject with lots of elements that needed to be right. I did a much more careful pencil layout than normal. I shall do a painting of this at some stage.

May 27, 2015

Art and Science

The rise of science roughly mirrors the downfall of the arts in society’s estimation. Art had been very much in the camp of belief as to put it baldly: that was where the work was. Art and artists have always adapted to the needs of whoever was at the top of the heap. This new master of reason and experimentally tested knowledge had no real need of paintings. The futurists, Bauhaus and constuctivists all made hopeful offerings, but neither science, industry nor the general public were much interested. The artists let’s be honest didn’t find much inspiring in it either, there were a few portraits of worthy enquirers next to their instruments and Rembrandt’s autopsy, also that one of the dove dying in a glass sphere by Joseph Wright. Hook’s wonderful drawings of what he saw through the microscope deserve an honourable mention too.

Religion faced much the same problem. The religious establishment at first welcomed scientific enquiry, confident it would inevitably confirm their beliefs. However once the discoveries of science began to squeeze the Deity into a smaller and smaller corner they lost their enthusiasm and started to lock the scientists up and threaten to burn them if they didn’t deny their findings. Painting in a similar way as religion was a lens through which the world might be seen in a new perspective, but science had an ace… it was demonstrably true. Religion might say that miracles occurred and heavy objects might fly through the air, but they couldn’t come up with the goods to order like science could. A jumbo jet would have been given a miraculous cause if seen by our forbears. Indeed that is exactly what happened when isolated tribes saw American planes landing on strips cut into their jungles. Aha, they thought, if we cut a strip of our own then planes carrying treasure will be drawn to land. Poignantly they even carved the radio equipment out of wood. Cargo cults are a fascinating window into religious logic.

Now we might think how foolish those islanders were, but given the state of their inherited knowledge I think it was a pretty good call. What is more uncomfortable is that the current thinking underpinning the worth and purpose of Art is several degrees worse. How this occurs in the first place is worthy of consideration. Roger Scruton has talked interestingly on this and introduces the idea of the “liar” and the “fake”. The liar is aware of his or her own dishonesty, but the fake intentionally chooses for whatever reason to believe in or espouse something untrue. Or as I myself think, think they carefully don’t examine certain underlying concepts as that might bring the whole intellectual house down. Certainly art theorists and critics often seem to elevate weak suppositions into axioms to bolster their view of things.

Is it really possible that our whole current art thinking is just a fantasy? Well, looking back in history you would have to say yes. At some point in history some probably perfectly intelligent persons thought that killing children might improve the crops… or carving huge stone heads secure the future. The idea that an object becomes imbued with an extra iconic quality merely because an artist says so is just as silly. There must have been people who thought and even said that sacrificing children was not the way, but public and establishment opinion was plainly not on their side. So it is today, I might rant and rail, I can attempt to make sure my arguments are coherent and well founded, but almost certainly to no avail.

The art lie is a very profitable lie. It is the same with quackery. Once upon a time you merely said that this or that object was blessed by some saint or other and would heal you. Now they make up sciencey sounding nonsense about energies, realignments, detoxes and infinite dilutions. Art has stepped neatly in the footsteps of quackery, artists now explore, investigate, experiment and question. It grieves me I have to say that my chosen activity in life seems to require hawking the results in a somewhat dishonest manner. I know that my paintings have no special extra quality. There is no spiritual energy in them, they cannot really reach out but only offer the possibility of aesthetic reward if the viewer reaches in. They are what they are: board, paper and paint arranged in a pattern, there is no magic quality. That does not however mean that they cannot be interesting or gauged to attract attention and give pleasure.

Now that is an idea that is out of vogue… visual pleasure, a fair few contemporary painters would recoil in horror at the thought. However if there is one thing that I have found by painting out of doors is that people get pleasure from paintings. Perhaps one in fifty walking by will stop and exclaim that your painting is beautiful and there must be more that are intrigued but too shy to say. Now 2% is a lot of people, so all hope is not lost! The problem is that that 2% have very few places to see current painting, and even if they do we have an art establishment and media assuring them that they are backward looking and irrelevant in any case. As with the child sacrificers and the heretic burners most people will just accept it if the powers that be say it must be so.

The real magic, if it can be so called, is the astonishing luck of being embodied as a conscious thinking being who is capable of appreciating paintings and all the other wonderful things that surround us..

I have been enjoying the oils now that I have my new studio up and running. having a sky light is wonderful and makes it so much easier to judge tones. Clear days give a rather blue cast which has to be taken into consideration, but painting in there is a real pleasure. It is also lovely sitting with the doors wide open and the sound of the birds, bees, tractors, screaming children, lawn mowers and chainsaws drifting in.

 

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset, oil painting

This is the famous “Hovis” view of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury in Dorset. It took a couple of goes as by the time I had finished drawing it out the light had moved on to the fronts of the houses which wasn’t the picture I wanted to paint. Next day the light was better though, softer with a delicious haze into the distance. Chocolate box I know, but it is not the sort of subject that lends itself to a painting with any street cred. Maybe I should add a skip and a burnt out car or two… 10in by 12in Oils.

 

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset, Nocturne, Oil Painting

A week later I washed up in Shaftesbury again, but late in the evening to attend a friend’s private view. After eating a curry, I had a mad urge to paint a nocturne… this is not it really as I don’t think any of the first session is left! The atmosphere and general tones survive though. 12in by 16in Oils.

 

Battersea, Thames, London, plein air, oil painting, barge

A quick trip up to town to paint with the Brass Monkeys. This is Battersea, I don’t paint many barges but this one took my fancy due to the angle at which it was moored. 8in by 10in Oils.

 

Blandford Forum, Wet day, street, Dorset, oil painting

This was an experiment in that I did a grisaille to establish the tones. I was working in part from a pen drawing done on the spot and also from a rather blurry phone snap. Here it is in its first stages about half an hour in.

 

Blandford Forum, Dorset, Oil Painting

The subject is Blandford Forum in Dorset again. As rebuilt in early Georgian times by the Bastard Brothers after the old town was destroyed by a great fire. Doing the monochrome layer underneath gives a great unity of tone which is important in a picture like this where many of the tones are quite close. Dull days are especially interesting to paint for this reason. 12in by 16in Oils.

 

Wells, St Cuthberts, oil painting, Somerset

This is Wells in Somerset. Not the cathedral but St Cuthberts. It was a fantastic day with tremendous light but I didn’t have my oils with me so this is a studio picture. Lots to paint in Wells and it is only 40 min away. I really am spoilt for choice where I am now. 12in by 16in Oils.

 

Baker Arms, Child Okeford, Dorset, watercolour

I quick dash with the watercolours. this is Child Okeford and my local pub The Baker Arms. Would love to paint this angle en plein air, but a 4 by 4 would run you over, so this is studio. Watercolour. 7in by 12in

 

Thames, London, Tower Bridge, pen and ink, drawing

To town again to meet with the Wapping Group. I travelled light so stuck to the pen and ink.

 

Southwark, London, pen and ink, Drawing

This busy corner took my eye and I crouched under my brolly to do this.

 

Southwark, London, Pen and Ink, cathedral

Last one of the day. This is Southwark Cathedral.

 

Child Okeford, St Nicholas, Dorset, pen and Ink

This is St Nicholas in Child Okeford, I was very taken with the splashes of afternoon light across the road. I sometimes get chastised for putting in vans and such… but who could leave out a magnificent example of a 2014 Mercedes Sprinter? I shall ignore them, philistines all…

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