Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

March 21, 2018

Significance.

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 9:56 pm

How important is history and context to art? Last night I watched a documentary that plainly thought context was everything. Simon Schama in the series Civilisation was of the view that art, specifically contemporary art, was fulfilling a visceral need and helping us come to terms with our lot of living in a deeply flawed and unjust world.

Fine sentiments, but where was the evidence for this? Well millions of people visiting to look at the stuff that is surely a good solid fact. So if we take Tate Modern which draws in 5.5 million per year, it sounds a lot doesn’t it? However London receives 19 million tourists per annum so most Tate visitors are in this category. We actually don’t know how many visitors are Londoners, very few I suspect. How many of these visitors gain some sort of moral solace from their visits? I would propose almost none. The numbers gaining gastronomic satisfaction in the cafe could be much higher I might suggest.

There are 60 odd million souls in the UK so how many of these are being reached? The answer is of course vanishingly small. If there really is this deeply seated need that Mr Schama went on about, almost none are getting it satisfied by looking at contemporary art. It is worthwhile considering that the three most popular soaps gain an audience of 1050 million people a year which pretty much dwarfs the art figures IE one 200th.

We are plainly, on average, not too keen on getting our art fix. Could this be because it is largely irrelevant to our lives? I am by the way not claiming any extra relevance for old art, it manages much the same sort of figures with the national gallery coming in at 6.5 million. So Art with a capital A is not important to us as a nation at all. It is only viewed by a vanishingly small elite, even more minuscule if we remove the casual tourist drop-ins and only consider the serious art viewers. So what sort of visual eye candy is enriching the average UK citizen’s eye on a day to day basis? Well a front runner must be packaging. Packaging is probably the most message heavy and art heavy imagery that crosses our visual field on a day to day basis.

Mr Schama was keen on showing artists that were, he thought, dealing in hard subjects of injustice and oppression. However you need to look more critically than Mr Schama who is too keen on greasy schmoozing with the artists to engage any critical faculties. There was a bit of work about refugees by Ai Weiwei. A huge black inflatable filled with black inflatable refugees. An interesting object, but does it make us any wiser about the plight of refugees? Who benefitted from its making and display? I suspect not the refugees in any practical way. Ai Weiwei and the galleries seem the greatest beneficiaries. I am not sneering at the artist’s efforts or questioning the worthiness of his intent, it is just that the making of the art has and can have no real bearing on the tragedy, it just feeds on it. If there were no tragedy there would have been no art and the object is meaningless once its context is removed and the tragedy forgotten. Imagine the same object bright pink and in a shopping mall.

Mr Shama hasn’t a critical bone in his body though. Another Chinese artist did forgettable stuff with gunpowder… I can’t even be bothered to look him up. The process and results were in my opinion laughable, a side show at best, all bang and no buck. The relevance of it all to big ideas and what it was meant to be commenting on were vague too. Our host oozed wonder and sycophantic praise at the results, which I have to admit infuriated me so much it made me shout at the telly.

In the initial program (I watched them in the wrong order) dealing with the first signs of ancient art underlined his poor thinking and dogmatism. When looking at cave drawings in Spain he averred: “These were not just works of art, but works of memory.” Her states this as a certainty. In his world our ancestor looked at the buffalo on the plain, fixed it’s aspect in their no doubt deeply shamanic mind and then scuttled down into the depths to draw these distinctly realistic looking bison. So did our ancient predecessors only make such images in caves? It seems more likely that the only surviving ones are in caves and they actually used such imagery elsewhere above ground too. Yet as artists we know that practice makes perfect… so the cave artist must have sketched on slate or bark, or skin to gain the facility to make the marks. It seems likely the artist looked at bison while doing this… it would be silly not to. Why would they not take sketches down with them? Alas no, Mr Shama believes in the magic man, it surely it could not be anything as prosaic as practice and observation producing these ritual images. Well the drawings look exactly the same as observed drawings do, so it seems perverse to propose they are anything other than just what they appear to be.

Indeed Shama seems to believe in the “an artist is a special person” theory in his bones. For him artists are there looking at the big picture, warning and chiding us to become better people. A sort of priesthood of whistle blowers calling time on man’s inhumanity to man. A race set apart seeing our weaknesses from a lofty height. Seeing significance that other poor mortal eyes cannot distinguish. Why poor old artists should be lumbered with this role rather than plumbers is beyond me. Throughout history artists have, as far as I can see, not attempted to undertake this role merely because it is not the best medium to communicate ideas or moral standpoints. Writing and speaking are the weapons of choice in this arena, not paint. Of course they have frequently been asked to “sell” moral stand points for others, but that is just a job of work.

The second in the series on the human form in art hosted this time by Mary Beard could not have been more different. She had real insights as the the connection between the objects and the cultures that produced them. She stressed that the figures on Greek vases were everyday things bringing small pleasures to people in their everyday lives. Where Mr Schama is dogmatic and so sure he himself exists on a morally superior level, Ms Beard is full of may be’s and might be’s, alive to the ambiguities rather than trumpeting personally held certainties

In the third programme Shama makes his portentous way through my own speciality, landscape. He writes well, he is eloquent, but he is also a fantasist, drunk on his own mellifluous words. He is like one of those old Disney wildlife programmes which constantly tries to see animals in a humanised anthropomorphic manner. He is, you might say, more Johnny Morris than David Attenborough. He wants to shoehorn contemporary concerns and intentions into historical painter’s minds. I suppose because he cannot imagine any other mental landscape or feels that because they were artists they must have thought that way even though none of them mentioned it at the time. A survey of landscape that misses out both Impressionism and the earlier topographical revolution in Britain is in any case fatally flawed in my view. Where was Claude Lorraine, or Constable we wonder?

I was naive in thinking it could not get worse. His meditation on colour was verbal diarrhoea, with him gurning franticly at the camera as his mostly unfounded flights of verbal fantasy were expounded. He knows almost nothing it would seem of the craft of painting. He cannot look beyond the febrile visions it produces in his own head. Never thinking for a moment that the artists and others might have differing experiences. Such is the peril of an overinflated ego.

He confuses of course the making of art with the consumption of art. An art object may of course become iconic or shamanic at any point after it is made, but this happens after the artist has dealt with all the practical aspects. The artist does not imbue an object with any iconic significance, the viewer does. We know this really, if we put Ms Emin’s bed in a twenty something’s bedroom it is prosaic. If we put it in a gallery it is significant. The bed is the same in both instances so it is the act of putting it in a gallery that added the iconic element. The actual making of the thing was irrelevant. You might say it is Ms Emin’s decision to exhibit it that was the art act. However if we consider Sigmund Freud’s famous couch, now in his museum. Which it seems to me could be considered to be an iconic object in very much the same way as Ms Emin’s bed is. Since he bought it he was the person who is responsible for its current placement and context. Now we would not think Freud was a visual artist, or indeed the couch maker, or the upholsterer. It’s significance is entirely created by the viewer and by the viewer’s prior knowledge of Freud.

There is of course no real problem with Simon, and no doubt most of his viewers, believing in fairy stories. It is however a problem if artists begin to believe it themselves. As with storytellers artists must stand at a distance from the tale they tell. Do not confuse the inner music of a musician with the landscape created by the music in a listener’s mind.

Well I’m glad to get that off my chest. Time to catch up on the watercolours…

Dorset, watercolour, painting, plein air

I was here at the wrong time of day really. It does not look like it, but 6in behind my backside when I painted this is the A350… immanent threat of death by lorry certainly makes you paint fast! I have seen this view look so magical but it has to be 6am on a misty day. 9in by 6in watercolour.

Child Okeford, watercolour, painting, Dorset

In Child Okeford this is often my view in the morning coming back fro the shop with my pint of milk and a paper. I often looks wonderful so I thought I had better paint it. A very simple watercolour done in two colours and only about 4 tones. 10in by 6.5 in Watercolour.

Eggarden Hill, Dorset, watercolour, painting

This is the view from Eggardon hill. Quite a complex subject but a simple method. I painted all the shadow areas first taking as much time as it needed. Then I laid the colour washes over the top in big areas allowing them to wash back some of the initial shadows. Lastly I strengthened a few of the nearby darks. 10in by 8in watercolour.

The Stour, Dorset, river, flood, watercolour, painting

Another one with the traffic uncomfortably close! This is the river Stour in full spate. I had to stand on a narrow bit of concrete on the bridge so a little rushed, but I have some great photos so I hope to do a studio one in a while. 10in by 7in Watercolour.

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour, painting

I can never resist this view of Hambledon Hill, it is one of those scenes that transforms dramatically with the light. Every time I pass I stop to admire it and if it looks good and I have time I paint it. 10in by 6in Watercolour.

Corfe Castle, Dorset, watercolour, painting

This and the next one were done from phone snaps, but are of an interesting vantage point of Corfe Castle. A great spot and the land owner has said he is happy for us to paint there so I will be back! 14in by 7in Watercolour.

Corfe castle, Dorset, watercolour, painting

Last one hard to believe this is only a few yards from the previous view. I must go back at some differing times of day to see how it changes. 14in by 7in Watercolour.

May 13, 2017

Brushwork

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 6:40 pm

Something painters occasionally compliment each other on or otherwise obsess about is brushwork. I have done it myself… it is a safe compliment if there are no other redeeming features in a painting you have to react to.

“I rather like the handling of the paint on that barn!”

“Barn? It’s portrait of my uncle.”

“Ah… is it… ? Jolly good brushwork though…”

I thought in any case it would be a good subject for a post… I have been blogging about painting for a while now and new subjects are getting harder to think of. As I have often found however as soon as I start to organise my thoughts niggling contradictions soon arise.

Good for what? Was my first thought. A brush stroke could be the dogs B’s in one context and its dinner in another. What makes it good? Is it confidence? When I asked the question of fellow painters that seemed a major factor. I can however think of lots of situations where a bold confident stroke would be inappropriate and an uncertain, indefinite and tentative one just the thing. Also as Degas says it only has to give the impression of confidence it does not require actual confidence to make that apparently confident mark. Singer Sargent used to repeatedly re-do brush stroke over and over wiping them off if they didn’t have the right “I just dashed this portrait off.” feel.

I do admire as others do when brushstrokes appear  to have just been let lie and not fiddled with… people say fresh and other nice things if you get that effect. Though as an experienced fiddler I know full well that the not fiddled with look often requires a great deal of covert fiddling in order to achieve that coveted not at all fiddled with appearance.

It occurs to me too that brushstrokes need not be visible at all as such, the word blending appeared to cause shudders to run through the more delicate and elevated artistic souls. Pointillism also failed the test, divisionists of all sorts that just use a repeated dab seemed to be in the non mustard cutting zone for brushwork. Any kind of flat filling in is no good unless it has “movement” whatever that might mean, just signs of the paint being applied I assume. Glazing would seem iffy too, but best not to bin the family Rembrandt just on my say so.

There seemed one factor that was to the fore. That was that artists want people to be able to believe they discern clues as to their emotional state during the act of creation from the manner in which the paint was applied. So leaving big drips showing through, quick patchy scumbling over ground layers and signs of rapidity and urgency in general. Signs of corrections made but not hidden get brownie points too. All in all it is starting to look as if all that “free” brushiness might be just as contrived in its own way as a smoothed off portrait by Bronzino!

All paintings are illusions even abstract ones and the clues that artists give us from which we are meant to derive extra meaning are illusion too in their own way. It also means that the way we as painters judge quality of work is just as tied to our era and received culture as it ever was. A Victorian painter might have given points for sentiment, smoothness of finish and classical allusions. A Flemish still life artist on the accuracy of the tulips and the perfection of the dew drops on the leaves in their still life. In looking for expression, brevity of means and truth to materials we are not really any different or indeed advanced.

Not to worry though painting was always driven by fantasy. From the juicy mammoth painted in a cave which is surrounded by lucky hunters, to the saint being swept up to a reward in heaven, the recording eye of the impressionists uncluttered by literature or history, the impending technological triumphs of the futurists and the sweeping reductions of the abstractionists, to the artist as media magician waving the wand of deconstruction and finally the all powerful curator using the art of others as their preferred medium; all are dreams for the epochs in which they are set, fulfilling yearnings to bring relevance and meaning to a bewildering and intractably opaque existence.

Well I didn’t expect to end up delving into such philosophical backwaters just from considering a humble dab of paint!

I am painting pictures faster than I can blog them at the moment, so a rag bag of leftovers in this post. You can amuse yourselves by trying to determine the state of my soul from my wishy washy brushwork…

Rawlsbury Camp, Iron Age fort, watercolour, plein air, painting

This is Rawlsbury Camp on the side of Bulbarrow Hill. One thing about having moved out to the sticks is that I get to paint the same subject in lots of different moods. It is all getting very green now which I always find harder than the russets and greys of the winter. 13in by 7in watercolour.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour, painting

Another old favourite. This view always fascinates me. I frequently pass by it on my way elsewhere and nearly always stop to see what mood is on offer that day. This is done from a very dodgy iPhone snap. 13in by 6in Watercolour.

 

Fontmell Down, Dorset, plein air, watercolour, painting

A slightly different take on Fontmell Down. Quite difficult indecisive light and I was sitting on a very slopey bit of ground.  I love the dry valleys that are a characteristic of the Dorset chalk lands but they are hard to make into a good composition. 10in by 6in Watercolour.

 

Fontmell Down, Dorset, plein air, watercolour

The clouds were gathering for my second one. This view is so distinctive I must think of some new variations. The painting looked dreadful until the last dark foreground wash went in and then seemed to suddenly make sense. 10in by 7in Watercolour.

River Stour, Child Okeford, Dorset, watercolour, plein air

I have been wanting to do this view for ages. The problem of doing it is that you have to stand on a narrow concrete ledge on the bridge over the Stour with huge tractors pulling slurry tanks zipping by inches behind you. The light was very kind to me staying so constant that I could take my time. The wind was very chilly and was drying the washes a bit too quick, but I became so involved two hours were gone in a flash. 13in by 7in Watercolour.

 

River Stour, Dorset, watercolour, plein air, painting

Next day I went back to do the less interesting view from the other side of the bridge. The cloud shadows were regularly throwing either foreground or background into shade. I decided I would have the nearby river shaded which I now think was a bad call… with oils I could have jumped horses but not with watercolour alas! 10in by 7in Watercolour.

 

Mudeford, watercolour, painting, Dorset

This one of Mudeford was done from the oil that appears in the previous post. When I was painting the oil I felt I had chosen the wrong media so this was to find out. The result? Well better than the oil but still a little boring. 10in by 7in Watercolour.

Mudeford, crabbing, Dorset, watercolour

Slightly reluctant to post this one! Usually when I do a painting where a figure is front and centre I put it in first so if it goes awry you can start again without much time lost. But here I finished the rest of the picture then botched the figure! I post it as a warning to you all! 10in by 7in watercolour.

 

Melbury Hill, Dorset, plein air, watercolour

I got up very very early to do this one of Melbury Hill. I had seen the view a few days before and thought it might make a good painting but the actual day disappointed a little. Still on the way back I saw a different view that I will definitely be returning to do. I might have another look at this in the evening light. 10in by 6in watercolour.

 

 

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