Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

May 8, 2017

Being Different

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 9:39 am

A year or so ago I went to the RA summer show and was mostly unimpressed. Since then I have every now and again pondered exactly why it was so uninspiring. Many of the things there were quite entertaining, which I certainly don’t object to. Some were amusing, some disturbing, but more trying to disturb but failing. One thing I did notice was that almost all the works were either monochrome or in playroom primaries. There seemed to be few neutrals or modulated colours, for the larger part everything was straight out of the tube with only white added to pale. This has the effect of making Sean Scully’s quiet brown and black abstract leap off the wall in contrast. An odd effect in a room full of shouty creations each desperately crying out “Look at me!”.

Previously I had commented, after trawling through the Saatchi Online site, that everyone had been original in much the same way. All this has led me to wonder why is it that the ambition to be different and stand out from the crowd should result in apparent uniformity. Artists have of course always wanted to stand out and be noticed by being better than their competition at portraiture, or altarpieces, or whatever. Now how ever the chosen method of drawing attention is to try to be different or as we say “original”.

Looking back in time you might choose someone like Hieronymus Bosch as an early example, but really he was just doing that medieval, scare the pants off the faithful, thing better than his contemporaries. Giuseppe Arcimboldo who did hybrid still lives and portraits was maybe the first obvious novelty artist. He worked as a court artist so presumably the novelty side of his work was just that and the bulk of his output is even today unnoticed. After his own time he was unremembered until the Surrealists discovered him and claimed him as a forerunner of their style. I think however that as Bosch he is just the expression of the love of grotesques that was common in the period.

It is very hard to spot when being “original” became a common ambition. Having searched back in time I think it is much more recent than you might think. There was always novelty of course but it is the ambition and deliberate intention to be novel to establish your own personal artistic individuality that I am interested in. The Surrealists were looking for a new interior subject matter for painting, the Impressionists a new way of seeing. Abstract painters sought a form of painting divorced from subject. Expressionists sought to paint pure emotion. The real driver for people to wish to overtly seek newness as a foundation of a separate and distinct identity seems to me to be the arrival of the mass media.

Only with the availability of mass produced and widely distributed imagery was the artist faced with the huge spread of what other artists both contemporary and historical had been up to. You want to paint a portrait? Well you are up against Van Dyke, Rembrandt and Singer Sargent. In every area someone better than you has been there and done that. However good your portrait offering is likely to look a little weak next to Rembrandt’s effort. The reaction to this conundrum was to look for a new “area” or as my tutors of college were keen on saying, “Your realm of concern”. You had to find your own little patch of originality and cultivate it exclusively.

It is easy to pick out the artists produced by this trend. Richard Long who trots about arranging rocks and photographing his activities. Damien Hurst who moves the advertising campaign from the page and screen to the gallery. Rachel Whiteread who displays interior spaces as solid forms. Anthony Gormley who presents his own body in different ways. Each has gone looking for their own row and once found proceeded to hoe it ad nauseam.

If we take Gormley (who’s work by the way I quite like). He constantly seeks to find a new ways of expressing and or placing the volume his body takes up. He doesn’t you must note seem to seek to improve the quality of making, only to produce endless variations on the riff he is already playing. He does I know do other work but this is the defining thread in his output. He casts and scans his own form interminably but does not seem to have the ambition to improve his own abilities in the actual making of forms. The same with many others they seek new ways or variations of rowing their particular row, but they don’t seem to seek or want to improve their hoeing technique!

There I think is the nub of it. We no longer value in the same way the ambition of an individual to fly as high as they possibly can. Rembrandt and others real achievement was in refining their own abilities to the point where they could create apparent miracles. Rembrandt’s real art as it were was to refine himself as a creator of images, the paintings themselves were merely the results of the long struggle to improve. Whenever I am assessing an artist I always seek the drawings as they are always revealing. Gormley’s show an interest in the different ways of drawing, but not in developing his own ability to make them. IE if it was piano playing there are only attempts at whole sonatas, there is no evidence of endless hours of the playing of scales. He is seeking to make drawings that might be art  rather than get better at the process of drawing.

I feel it is not, as we currently seem to believe, the intention of an artist to make art that results in art. It is the striving of the artist to improve their own abilities and perceptiveness that produces what we call art. Art is the physical evidence left behind of their struggle to progress. In the same way that a pearl is the evidence of an oyster’s struggle to survive in this dangerous world, not its intended ambition in life. So we should value the results of an individuals quest to get good at an impossibly difficult activity, because as with natural pearls the objects produced are rare and often very beautiful.

As a wee experiment I did a bit of real “Art” I decided on a deconstructionist moment.

real art, London, oil painting, surreal

Very simple I just broke the frame and imagined it pushed out by the imagery within. A frame is no longer a frame if it doesn’t confine. So it loses it purpose and in this case becomes part of the art object. This is just the sort of quirk or “originality” that infests the art world. Is it fun? Well yes it makes a surreal object on the wall. It certainly draws attention nobody commented on any other painting when it was hung on the wall.  It is very easy to think of endless variations on this theme, I could fill gallery with them. Only then could it sit comfortably on a wall with other pictures in the same vein. In other words it is “shouty” in that it does not only reach out to grab attention by being discordant but it suppresses other imagery hung near it. No one really looked at it as a picture, even though I went to some pains to paint it decently. It was no longer a gateway to elsewhere but a one line cartoon, a quick ho ho look at that and move on.

Just for fun I then Photoshopped it into staid conformity!

art

Composition is left a bit on the dodgy side as I designed it for the weird frame, but now you can imagine how it might have been in London on that day!

Now a few misshapen pearls of my own… in the spirit of the oyster, a seaside theme this time…

Dancing Ledge, Purbecks, Dorset, Plein air, oil painting

I have not been doing enough of the coast so I have bitten the bullet and crawled out of my comfy bed before dawn a few times. Just as well as the middle of the day isn’t great with the South facing shore line here in Dorset. This is Dancing Ledge in the Purbecks. It was all Happening so quickly I was very rushed. The tones are wonderfully subtle in the rocks, a real challenge to get even a rough approximation down. 12in by 10in Oils.

Dancing ledge, purbeck, plein air, oil painting

I did this straight after. Slightly less rushed since after the sun is up the light changes a little more slowly. When I arrived I had the place to myself, but by the time I finished this it was like rush hour at Oxford Circus!

Dancing Ledge, Purbeck, Dorset, oil painting

With all that buzzing around my head I set about a studio one as soon as possible. I had thought to do a dawn one but when I looked at my snaps how it looked as I took my leave rather appealed to me. I liked the balance between sea and rock and the way they fitted together in a jagged jigsaw line. 14in by 10in Oils.

Dancing Ledge, purbecks, Dorset, oil painting, plein air, sea, cliffs

Yes up before sparrow fart again. The tourists never see the place at its very best. It is hard to define what is so beguiling about dawns. I suppose because it is a “reveal” at first there is just murk and then it develops slowly. For the painter this causes difficulties because your subject transforms so quickly. With a sunset it becomes more and more mysterious as you paint, with a dawn the mystery evaporates before you can get it down on the board.

Dancing Ledge, Purbecks, cliffs, sea, plein air, oil painting

This dawn was amazingly like the previous one even with an identikit sky. I got so carried away with the sky and sea that I ran out of time and left with the land portion just blocked in rough tones. Next day that looked sort of Ok so I just added the minimum of descriptive marks on top of the base tones to finish. 12in by 10in Oils.

Weymouth, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

On this day I went to Corfe… and ended up painting Weymouth! The light was all wrong at the castle so after a quick sketch I upped stumps and headed to Weymouth which I had never visited before. So many subjects there I will be returning. I only settled to do this after walking miles to take it all in. Plein air painting takes more time looking for what to paint than it does to actually do the daub! Weymouth old harbour has a great feel with a ton of possible viewpoints so I think it would be paintable at a lot of different times of day as you could move round with the light. 14in by 6in oils.

Mudeford, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

This was a very difficult day, flat light and very still. I should have just sketched and drawn but was lured into painting. I might cut off the top and bottom of this to make it very “letter box”. One of those things, I painted it well enough but it was all just a bit too dull! 16in by 8in oils.

Mudeford, plein air, Dorset, oil painting

Being a sucker for punishment I set out to do another dreary painting of Mudeford. Again I painted it sort of alright, but just shouldn’t have bothered in the first place. The gulls knew because I could tell they were laughing at me… I did a pen drawing after which was the best thing of the the day other than the cake. 14in by 9in oils.

Portland, Cheyne Weares, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

Another dull day but more to get yer teeth into here. This is the view from Cheyne Weares on Portland. The distant shore and Weymouth were completely invisible. Great fun trying to keep the tones subtle enough. It is very hard mixing when the tiniest addition of colour to a mix can easily send it the wrong way. When faced with this dilemma I mix one obviously bit too dark and one plainly a bit to light side by side and then smear  the two roughly together. Then you can pick out close but subtly different tones quite easily. 10in by 10in oils.

Portland Bill, lighthouse, sea, oil painting, Dorset

Here’s a studio painting of Portland Bill to finish off this determinedly coastal post. It is done on top of a plein air I started looking 180 degrees round from this that never went anywhere. It is frustrating when the day completely changes halfway through a painting but also something that makes painting outside such a rewarding challenge. You just know however much you do it you will always be on the verge of falling flat on your face!

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

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