Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

April 16, 2018

Venice

Venice. Like all artists I went there knowing it already. I wondered what I would make of it and if I could add anything worthwhile to the morass of artwork that takes it as a subject. Would I find the “real” Venice? The answer of course is no. There is no real Venice, Venice is a fantasy. Venice is a theme park and all the life that goes on there is devoted to the commercial maintenance and operation of the dream.

Venice is a city wide tourist trap, a veritable sea girt Alcatraz for visitors to do their time in. A Venice street goes: mask shop, fake Murano glass shop, taverna, mask shop, restaurant, mask shop, fake Murano glass shop etc ad infinitum. After Napoleon conquered the city it slowly died until finally we are left crawling over it like flies admiring its beautiful corpse.

There are legions of immigrant workers slaving in its kitchens reheating dishes shipped in each day from the factory kitchens on the mainland. In China they labour to make the masks, glass, paintings and other tourist trash. There is an imaginary transport system that never takes anyone anywhere but on circular tours… no one brings their shopping home by gondola!

If I had been by myself I would have quickly done the rounds and been out of there pronto. Fortunately I was there with other artists and their company made all of the difference. The plethora of mask shops could be laughed at and the madness admired. I could rise early immerse myself in painting and join in with the fantasy.

So how is Venice as a subject for an artist to paint? Firstly there are subjects everywhere, if you came across any of them in a town in the UK you would set up your easel in a flash and set to. In Venice though every aspect and all directions are paintable. As Einstein said, everything is relative. You almost immediately start to rank the possible scenes and try vainly pick out the best of the best. Venice is also all very similar, endless repetitions and rearrangements of the same few ingredients.

Anyone who looks at my work will know my fondness for architecture and old buildings in general. In theory Venice is a cornucopia of perfect Rob Adams subjects, gothic palaces, mad baroque churches, cool classical facades and rustic mouldering buildings, roofs crowned snaggle toothed by random chimneys. Mostly though I painted legs. Visually the buildings reach down from the sky and are carried on the backs of the dark serried ranks of the innumerable visitors who obscure the join of buildings to street.

I am told that it was quite empty by Venice’s standards, I shudder at how in must be in high season. On the other hand I love watching people and enjoy seeing how they group, linger and go about their day. I enjoyed the contrast between drifting tourists and workers on missions trying to weave between them. Oddly I did not really notice the absence of cars. I did warm to the place after a while, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with it just being a playground. The place reminded me of a computer game where you wander a city built by a long dead civilisation looking for clues and prizes while avoiding the ghouls hidden in dark passages.

So to the paintings, I will try and do them in the order they were painted.

 

Venice, Rialto, market, oils, plein air

Up early on the first day and off to the Rialto fish market. I was sharing the apartment with Ian Layton who is an old Venice hand who knew all the best spots! Quite a tricky subject, the light burning in from the outside is what struck me so I tried to paint that. I can see now that the effect needed to be exaggerated more with the interior darker and the outside almost completely burnt out. 12in by 7.5 in oils.

Venice, Rialto, plein air, oil painting

On the way back from the Rialto we were taken by this scene where the sun was slowly coming across on to our side of the Grand Canal. I had primed my boards a sort of Venetian red which mostly just right, but I should have done a few a more ochre colour. Like so much of Venice the fringe of people ran in a strip all the way across. I quite liked the more determined folk leaving the vaporetto on the right contrasting with the moochers on the left. 15in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, plein air, oil painting

Here is a very trad early morning Venice view. We were all painting away in a line getting spots on our retinas! Once the key was decided and the tones established a straight forward subject to paint. The main pitfall people tumble into is getting everything initially too light. If the painting is too high a key is is impossible to describe the sparkle on the water unless you have neon paint! 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Gate to the Arsenal, Venice, pen and Ink

In the afternoon I went to the Arsenal, no not to watch the football, the Arsenal in Venice was the manufacturing powerhouse that maintained its naval dominance of the Mediterranean. In celebration of this they gave it grand gates flanked by comedy lions. Like so much of Venice it is hard to get exactly the vantage point you would like without falling into a canal and getting wet. I should have done more drawing, the only reason I might return to Venice is to concentrate on the wonderful architecture. Pen and Ink.

Venice, mist, plein air, oil painting

Mist! We got up early and the sea mist had come in transforming the city. I was focused on the painting I imagined I would do after this one as the sun burnt through. A mistake as I abandoned this one early and it was better than the subject I was eagerly anticipating. Still I had more than enough down and only had to finesse the figures and drag pale blue over the distance to finish. Once again control of tone was the key. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, Plein air, oil painting

This is what appeared out of thew mist! I should have been in a different place about a mile away but I just had to set to and paint what I had in front of me. I never quite finished as the light moved on so rapidly. This one is no more as I painted a different one on top due to running out of boards! 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, pen and ink, drawing

I drew this as I waited for my expensive and badly cooked supper in a restaurant. As it turned out the passing mosquitos had a better meal than I did for no charge at all… Pen and Ink.

Venice, canal, plein air, oil painting

My first canal painting. There are endless versions of the narrow canal with the thin vertical strip of light and reflection, but this was more open and attractive as a subject. I placed the bright vertical strip of the canal edge first as I felt it was the key to the composition. In the bright light I found myself quite frequently putting in all the lights first allowing the prime colour to stand in initially for the buildings etc. I found myself using a lot of black in the mixes as it seemed just right for the character of the greys the city is steeped in. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

St Marks square, Venice, cathedral, plein air, oil painting

Later that day I painted in that famous stage set St Marks Square. The afternoon light was flat on the facades reducing them to cutouts. I was sitting on the arcade steps and painted hand held. I was lucky not to get moved on by the gestapo who strut about the square. I tried not to get too involved in the architecture as getting the tones right was the challenge. In the event I had to very slightly lighten the cathedral later in order for the whole thing to gel. 16in by 7.5in Oils.

Venice, pen and ink, drawing

I decided the next day was a wandering about drawing and watercolour day. This is the Campo San Rocco… how could I resist the light slanting across this mad baroque confection. The school to the left is just as barmy but only plays a supporting role here. These wonderful buildings seem to almost never appear in paintings done by recent visitors. I suspect people find them just too much to take on. In actuality they are just divided rectangles, the complexity is not structural but an overlay on a simple grid. The trick is to firmly establish the underlying grid within which the decorative elements sit. Once that is done the mad stone salad of detail can be suggested rather than over defined. Pen and Ink.

Venice, watercolour, plein air

My first watercolour of the trip. Though the stalls are full of the worst tourist tat they make good compositional punctuation marks. Watercolour easily captures the luminous quality of the light. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

Campo Formosa, Venice, plein air, oil painting

This is an early morning Campo Formosa, the light was a real challenge and I nearly abandoned it. As so often I found in Venice the people are the key to a satisfying composition. In each painting I found myself more and more considering the makeup and grouping of the figures. 12in by 10 in Oils.

Campo San Giovanni, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Next Campo! This is St Giovanni, one of the most interesting to paint. Odd how the old Venetians were not in the slightest bit embarrassed about putting up huge statues of themselves. Getting the horse in the right relationship to the rest and not over detailing were the biggest challenges here. Once again many of the greys were made using black. 12in by 10in oils.

Gondola repair, Venice canal, plein air, oil painting

Another day another canal. Here is where they service the gondolas. In my jaundiced opinion they look better upside down! The thrown together industrial sheds make an interesting contrast with the grand edifices behind. Not far from here the mask shops dry up and the grass grows between the stones. There are run down tenements and washing hung between the buildings. This is where some of the workers live, though it is only the briefest fringe before the industrial port. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Campo Santo Stephano, Venice, pen and ink, drawing

On the way back to the apartment I saw there two girls hanging out and doing phone stuff. They are students in the college on Campo Santo Stephano, a little glimpse of ordinary existence. Pen and Ink.

St marks Square, Venice, plein air, oil painting, nocturne

After supper it was nocturne time in St Marks. The wet paving made it a great subject. I rubbed violet blue over my board before leaving base which made a great ground, indeed most of the paving is just the resulting prime colour. Very quick hardly more than 20 min. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

Rialto Market, pen and ink, Venice, drawing

Another day where I just took my drawing stuff and travelled light. We all met at the Rialto fish market in the morning.  It is very nice to have other painters about to chat and laugh with. I found myself a little corner to sit and draw out of the way. The light was moving very fast so the first thing after setting out the drawing was to get in the paving, shadows and key figures. I also painted in the white first rather than at the end as I usually do. This was a real help in getting the darks the right value. Pen and Ink.

St Stae, Venice, pen and ink. drawing

Deep breath before I started this one of St Stae. I am sitting as far away from the building as possible without tumbling into the Grand Canal… but still too close for comfort. To get what I wanted in I used spherical perspective so that few of the perspective lines vertical or horizontal are straight. This sort of construction is very tricky to do en plein air especially as I don’t like it if the distortion is too obvious. I spent quite a lot of time getting the facade laid out, deciding what should be warped and what kept straight. A very satisfying puzzle though and I enjoyed trying to suggest the bonkers architecture. Pen and Ink.

Santa Maria del Giglio, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Santa Maria del Giglio and rain at last! I had been dying to paint the wet streets. Also it sweeps many of the visitors away and those that are there are rushing to avoid the wet. I was in a discrete dead end corner so I could paint away at my leisure. A bit of a relief as most of the paintings so far had been a bit of a rush to catch the light. 12in by 7.5in Oils.

La Salute, St Marks, Venice, plein air, oil painting

Later I went to St Marks to look across to La Salute. I was hoping for more rain, when it came it was very brief so I got brollies but not the wet paving. I was forced to make the reflections up at the apartment after. Some of this was painted hand held as the gestapo made me fold up and put away my tripod. The highest leg count so far I think. 16in by 7.5in Oils

St Giovanni, Venice, watercolour, plein air

Last one of the trip! This is Campo Santo Giovanni again. I loved the angled shadow but it moved very rapidly. Had to be watercolour as my oil boards had run out! I then proceeded to do another that went completely pear shaped and had to be torn up… 5in by 5in Watercolour.

So there is my Venice. I might return to draw some of the buildings and I am glad I went and saw it all in the excellent company of my fellow daubers. Venice itself I found sad and defaced by the lazy, cynical, rapacious hand of greedy tourism. The mask and trinket vendors have done far more to besmirch this beautiful relic than any of the many graffiti artists have.

September 12, 2017

Pen and Wash

Later in the year I am to give a talk at a local art club. The previous year I had done Pen and Ink and as I left they asked me back and wondered if I could do one on Plein Air painting the same time next year. A few weeks ago at an exhibition of the group’s work I picked up a leaflet that listed the upcoming talks and found I was scheduled in to do a talk on Pen and Wash… A slight panic then set in after I went through my old, ancient and then antediluvian drawings. It seemed that bar about 6 illustrations pen and wash had not been a big feature of my 40 year career!

Now I have always admired pen and wash as a medium and 2 of the examples of my massive output in the media were recent where I had washed colour out of the ink in a pen sketch. However I could not help but conclude that I was about 20 slides shy of the full Powerpoint. No matter I thought with a sudden gush of over-confidence I’ll do some it will be fun! After all how hard could it be?

Very… perhaps another to get the point over…VERY!

Its beguiling simplicity might be the problem. You first think, “Oh I’ll just do a pen drawing and colour it in.” Then you think, ‘How much pen?”… “How much wash?… Pen first, wash second?… Wash first, pen second?… Waterproof ink?…Non-waterproof ink or a mix of the two?” The only way forward was to look at what others had done and then experiment.

The first technical problem I hit was paper. I tried hot pressed Arches Satin, in one of those glued pads. Not too bad but the surface is quite soft. Wash took well though, so a contender. Next a Moleskin sketch pad that bore the legend on the outside “for fountain pen”. Bah!  The ink went straight through it feathered like mad and was so soft the nib tore up the surface. It rejected watercolour, but sort of interestingly in a way you might exploit.

By now obsession was setting in. On my shelves sit many pads, sketch books, glued pads… and loose sheets. They go back to about 1910 with old sheets of paper my granny had. Indeed I could probably fill a medium sized “Paper Through the Ages.” museum. Cue a pseudo scientific face off!

Below are the scanned tests, I won’t go through them individually if you click there is a hi res image so you can form you own opinion. I scribbled with 3 inks one a waterproof and non waterproof mix which I tested with a wash of clean water. Of the other two inks one is a dilute 6:1 water to ink and the other a Red with the Zebra “G” nib which is sharper and more prone to catch but lovely to draw with.

paper test

The results are mixed. Some failed the G nib test so I excluded them. The worst by far was the Moleskin, worse even than bargain laser paper which is a technical feat. Surprisingly good was 100year old white wove writing paper. Bristol board old and new was very good with the pen but not so hot with the watercolour. Frisk CS10 from the 70’s is the best as far as feel with the pen but the very high china clay content means the waterproof inks don’t dry waterproof. Arches was poor with the pen catching very badly with the G nib, good with the watercolour though. Of the commercial papers the cheapo Fabriano 100 sheet drawing and watercolour pad 250gm was easily the best with the colour washing out very cleanly and hard enough to withstand the G nib. My favourite Ruscombe mill paper also passed with flying colours the paper is so hard sized that the G nib worked despite the texture of the surface. I used the blue but they make other colours. Below is the vile Moleskin…

Below is the back or verso of the sheet… as you might guess it also destroyed the page behind… the dark spots are where the pen went through entirely… not the sharp G nib by the way, a soft tipped fountain pen nib.

Next my efforts old and new…

This drawing has appeared before a few years ago. It is Honfleur, I did a few pen and washes on this trip, I can see I kept the penwork quite open so it would accept the wash. Also some pen is under the wash and some on top which adds variation.

 

Leadenhall Market, London, Pen and wash

This was done after I got back. It is Leadenhall Market in London. Again I am dividing up the work between the wash and the line. I think I resorted to wash here because of the complex subject and lack of time.

 

normandy, france, pen and wash

France again, Normandy this time. I well remember doing this I penciled carefully then started with the watercolour and it slowly lost definition and structure. So I added pen to accent the main beams and trusses. I remember being quite chuffed at the result.

 

Portobello, pen and wash

I am starting to see a trend here… I resort to pen and wash when in dire need! This is Portobello and another watercolour that went off the tracks. It was wet and I remember having to finish in a rush as the downpour started. The result I have to say is probably better than if I had carried on with just the paint.

 

Honfleur, france, pen and wash

Honfleur again. Not a rescue job this time thank heaven. This pen and wash at its simplest with the colour being washed out of the line. As it is on the blue Ruscombe paper the added highlight gives a relatively full toned image. Here the pen is definitely to the fore.

Well that is the past efforts in the medium. Having looked at these I decided to do more to explore the variations possible. The first thing was wash first or pen?

 

Hanford house, pen and wash

This is Hanford house, here the drawing is done in pencil then most of the wash work laid in. The pen was then added. The advantage of this is that the pen work is only added where it is needed so I stuck to line with little or no hatching. A few bits of final watercolour darkening caused the red in the ink to run which I quite like.

 

Wells, somerset, pen and wash

Another one, this time of Wells, where the wash went in first. Less successful here I feel. I have overdone the pen work and the line is too heavy on the cathedral itself. I am unconvinced by the wash first method now. I think some pen at least has to go in before.

 

Kimmeridge, Dorset, pen and wash

This recent drawing of Kimmeridge is much more like what I am aiming for. This is pen then wash with most of the colour coming from the line itself. A few areas of pen were restated but I like the balance of hatching and washes. I left far wider gaps between lines than I would normally do so as to leave paper for the wash to show. A very quick way of working about 40min whereas a pen drawing could take double that.

 

Milton Abbey, pen and wash, Dorset

This is Milton Abbas in Dorset. I wanted to try using waterproof ink and go for a subtler atmospheric feel. I used hatching much in the way I would when producing a tonal pen drawing with no outlines but just dropped the line density to accept the wash.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, pen and wash, drawing

This is from an afternoon expedition to sketch on Hambledon Hill. I am frustrated that these fantastic vistas I have on my doorstep are so difficult to make into paintings. You get the same with photos, when you take a picture of an amazing panorama from one of those official viewpoints. Somehow the results always disappoint, even though the scene itself when you were there was amazing. On this one I did the watercolouring first. I laid in all the shadows in a blue which decided the structure and lighting. Next I defined and toned with a pen loaded with grey ink. That was then overlaid with some more watercolour to unify the masses, finally I strengthened with a black pen.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, pen and wash, plein air, drawing

I set about this one with a bit more urgency as the weather was looking threatening. Hambledon Hill has lots of intimate subjects as well as the huge vistas. Once again I did the watercolour part first then, as it looked as if I was in for a soaking, I set about it with a reed pen dipping directly into the ink bottle. The rain shower conveniently deluged Shroton in the valley to my left rather than me so I then added black fountain pen to define the masses and lighting better. A4 Pen and Wash.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, pen and wash, drawing

I then headed home only to spot another squall approaching from the other side. As I was definitely not going to make it home or even off the hill before it broke I set about trying to bash in an impression of the rain arriving. I used the reed pen again but with my red brown ink this time . I drew very broadly the basic forms and started to lay in tone with watercolour before the ink was dry so as to wash lots of colour out of the ink. I then skipped back and forth between wash and pen until it felt done. To my astonishment it once again rained in the valley rather than the hill so I even got home dry! A4 pen and wash.

I have enjoyed my foray into pen and wash so far and I think it has done me good. I was getting a little too comfortable with the pen and white highlight on the blue paper so it is good to ring the changes.

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