Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

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.

January 18, 2017

Christmas in Co Clare

Well that is the old year over with and the new one started. As always it is a moment to take stock. I started this quest to focus on my own work about 6 years ago now. The quest to improve has as far as I can tell born a certain amount of fruit, but it is always hard to tell for the artist as your expectations and hopes change too, so you always tend to feel you are falling short. I have hugely enjoyed learning new ways to do things and getting a more refined view of things I already thought I knew. You never of course completely learn anything you only add to or update your store of experience.

This blog has been a pleasure to do also, forcing me to think more clearly about various aspects, both practical and intellectual, in order to set down my thoughts. Reading back I don’t always agree with my earlier self, which is again a good thing as it shows I am perhaps not too set in my ways. I have been astonished at how many people have viewed my paintings and ponderings. People obviously have far too much time on their hands!

Painting as a business has been slower and harder to assess. The activity now pays for itself and supplies a tiny profit… I work, I estimated, for the hourly rate of 50p an hour, so I will have to take myself to court for breaching the minimum wage! In actuality I could have probably made enough to get by on. The problem is that I would have had to halve the painting time and devoted those hours to actively selling and promoting. This would increase income and lower the output of pictures. This would hardly matter as I suspect very few artists sell more than 20% of their output and many more far less.

It is very hard to assess your own progress. You are too close and it is almost impossible to view the facts dispassionately. The tendency is to veer between elation and despair, which is probably about right if I can keep the swings to a moderate amplitude! I find it a little hard to divide up my attention, I am always being tempted by new and interesting byways. Printing has been the only one I have allowed myself to take which had proved very worthwhile. Forcing me into new ways of thinking in order to exploit the process.

If I was to point to one worthwhile thing I have discovered so far it would be that limits are very important. We live in an age of almost unlimited possibilities and an almost complete lack of rules. We tend to scorn anything that we perceive as reducing our choices, after all barriers are there to be overcome, are they not? Well if they are real barriers yes, but todays barriers are tissue thin except for the one of unlimited choice which we tend to ignore.

Rules have another importance which is harder to get your head around. Without them it is impossible to track your progress at all. Without aims that can be defined how can you estimate degrees of success or failure? Is the picture I just painted good or bad or what mix of the two? At what point and by what criteria do decide if a painting is a triumph or an epic fail? What is the role of technique in success or failure? I increasingly get to the point where I can’t find anything technically wrong with a painting, but it still doesn’t quite fly. Just because you can do something does not mean that you should, technique is very beguiling in this respect.

Other painters often talk to me of their quest to simplify and reduce, which I understand and share, but can’t somehow think it quite that straightforward. A picture after all could be averaged to a single tone if the process was taken to extreme. What if the subject itself is most notable for its complexity? The idea is of course that we exclude detail that is not telling and distracts from the whole. The theory is that as in making whisky you distill and increase the potency of your image. Like all oversimplifications it is beguiling but doesn’t really bear up under close examination. There are after all many great works of art that are a blizzard of detail. If I imagine myself standing next to the 15C painter Van Eyck and saying to him,” It’s a good effort my dear chap, but rather overworked don’t you think? Have you tried being more expressive? Perhaps you should use bigger brushes.” it doesn’t quite work, I think you will agree.

So a quest for the new year is: what is the relationship between the quantity and quality of content? What is the relationship between a picture that makes a good first impression and one that will beguile and intrigue over time? Like all things to do with art I don’t expect to resolve anything, just go through the process of considering which will perhaps shed a little light.

So on to Christmas paintings. Watercolour was the order of the day and mostly just sketches in my Moleskin. I also didn’t manage much painting on the spot but just looked, sketched out and took photos and painted in the evening. Not an intentional methodology but rather a pleasurable one I found.

Ireland, County Clare, watercolour, Burren

Here I am in the Burren in County Clare in Eire. The area is very distinctive with its limestone pavements, grikes and erratic boulders. I always paint at least one picture of this subject when I visit. A large amount of imagination here as my reference was a black silhouette. I rather enjoyed trying to paint my memory of it a few hours before. The result gets nearer than the photo to the mood, the rays of light which were not in the reference I later realised were the result of dirty spectacles!

Kilthurla, Galway, Kinvarra, plein air, watercolour, painting

A road near Kilthurla close to Kinvarra. A sketch done on the spot very very fast as the light was going rapidly.

Kilthurla, Kinvarra, ireland, watercolour, painting

The same scene from reference that evening, would you have known which was plein air? I’m not sure I would. All plein air painters reading this will now feel sure that they could spot the one done from reference instantly. But what if I was fibbing and it is the other way round?

The new line, Clare, Ireland, watercolour, painting

Now if you tried to do this en plein air you would be dead! This is called the “New Line” it is a famine road built by a program to give work and thus payment to the impoverished during that great and bitter catastrophe where for the most part the wealthy stood by and allowed the poor to starve. Some of these roads were never finished and remain as roads to nowhere. The labour must have been immense with it all being done by hand in the harshest of landscapes. They must have slept and lived on site. As a result these roads are arrow straight and nowadays a race track for cars.

Finvarra, watercolour, painting, ireland

Rather over cooked this one, got the balance between foreground and background wrong. This is on Finvarra which is almost an island.

Ballyportry, castle, co clare, watercolour, painting

This is Ballyportry castle near Corofin. A subject I have painted many times. We had wonderful skies throughout my visit. Watercolour is so good at describing luminosity. Far harder in oils.

Ennis, ireland, watercolour, painting, street

This is County Clare’s county town Ennis in a pre Christmas frenzy. To complete the scene you should imagine distorted and very mawkish country and western seasonal songs being played through tinny tannoy speakers scattered liberally around the town. I had to stand in this spot for nearly 20min until I got a few moments when it wasn’t solid stationary traffic. Its hard being a painter sometimes.

weir village, co clare, ireland, watercolour, painting

This is near Weir Village in Co Galway. I hadn’t explored this part of the coast and will return as it has an interesting flavour with low-lying land divided by long inlets from the sea.

Dunguaire Castle, Kinvarra, Galway, watercolour, painting

This is Dunguaire castle near Kinvarra. I sketched this out pretty much completely and then “coloured it in” in the evening. The underlying wash went awry so I added body colour which in the end worked better than the wash would have… serendipity in action!

Dysert O'Dea Castle, Co Clare, ireland, watercolour, painting

This is Dysert O’Dea castle the local clan chieftains’ hangout. This is a very quick scribble as I was plodding around soggy fields looking for good viewpoints. I saw several but all impossible to get to without swimming.

East Clare, watercolour, painting

Don’t know why I did this random road in East Clare… anything to distract from the first hangover of the New Year maybe…

Kilmacduagh Abbey, Galway, watercolour, painting

Actually got most of this done on site. Sitting in my nice warm car mind you… It is Kilmacduagh Abbey which I have done many times. Pleased with this one though so might do an oil from it.

Kilmacduagh Abbey, drawing, pen and ink

To that end I did a drawing from the watercolour. Think I prefer the wider format though.

Dunguaire Castle, drawing, pen and ink

Dunguaire Castle again. It is in a great position I must do an oil next time I go over.

Dunguaire Castle, sheep, drawing, pen and ink

Dunguaire again but with added sheep. I will do an oil of this as I haven’t done a sheep painting in a while…

Motte, drawing, ireland, pen and ink

I forget the name of this place not far from Durrow, it is an old Motte on which a stone castle would have stood. A bleak spot and I got very cold.

Aughinish, Kinvarra, pen drawing

This is the causeway to Aughinish near Kinvarra. I had just sat and watched a truly spectacular sunset and not bothered to paint it! I have learnt to just appreciate sunsets and only paint the more tasteful ones.

Well that is it, as always I am surprised at how much I got done at the same time as feeling I should have spent less time spacing about and more time painting.

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