Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

March 25, 2014

Getting Better

If you think I am going to tell you a sure fire way then disappointment awaits! There are a few things I do try and do however to make the trajectory up rather than flat or even worse down. Firstly just do it enough, if you don’t use it you don’t completely loose it but you really do loose some ground. Learning anything reinforces pathways in the brain. Research tells us that there are real physical changes with pathways that are frequently used gaining more connections and better blood supply. If you don’t keep those pathways busy the body for economy’s sake will reassign resources and doing what had become easy will become harder once more. This is hardly any different from any exercise so it should be no surprise.

One major area that can cause frustration is learning mistakes. Anyone who plays a musical instrument will tell you that practicing mistakes is all to easy. We can accidentally reinforce errors my making them frequently. I often see this with painters too, where a way of doing things has become set in their method and even though they intellectually know there is something wrong, when they come to paint they are forced by habit down the same less than ideal turnings. I have not only seen this in others alas, but also often in my own processes.

The only way to correct and get over such obstacles is to separate out the problem area and just practice that bit in isolation. So if you have difficulty with tone simplify the issue. Drop colour, give yourself only 4 tones to work with and paint until you have worked up some new pathways. A warning here, it takes a lot of effort to “unlearn” something. You will find that you can practice up a new way of working in the studio only to find that the old bad habits reassert themselves when painting out of doors under pressure. So it is a good idea to take your four tones out into the landscape and get the new habit well and truly programmed in!

The same can be done in any area. If you have problems with figures then get photos and draw thumbnails from them. You can even trace over them multiple times. I have myself traced over the standard London taxi until I can draw them from memory at any angle. It takes a surprisingly short time to get to a stage where you can just draw one without reference. The same is true with figures if you can draw believable silhouettes from memory then you can adapt those to catch the figures that are really there on the day.

Those are a few ways of dealing with identifiable weaknesses. Harder is to take what is already working adequately and push it up to the next level. For me the process is more or less the same. Take the thing apart and then reassemble. It helps to change media and method, also to introduce constraints which forces you to do more with less. An example of this is I often see people always painting with the same palette, if you always put out the same colours you are closing doors off that might have interesting rooms behind them. As a guide if you get too comfortable with a particular way of doing things it is probably time for a shake up!

One activity that will always highlight weak areas is life drawing. This is why I always advise people who want to improve to find a session and attend it regularly. I’m afraid I can almost guarantee it will be a slightly depressing experience. You will go dreaming of Michelangelos and return with childlike misshapen gargoyles! It is this cruel contrast that makes life drawing so valuable. You can see clearly that you are falling short and once you can see that you can move to make improvements. The aim of life work for me is not to produce anything of great artistic merit, but to stress the skills I have already attained to breaking point.

One note of caution there are always kind souls at life sessions who will say things like accuracy doesn’t matter and expressing yourself is the most important thing. I am not saying accuracy is the only thing but it is not inimportant. If your accuracy is a weak point then measure like mad until you have dealt with it. It is getting these technical hurdles somewhat tamed that allows expression to flow freely. Before you can be really be free and react to momentary inspiration you have to take the time and effort to strike off the chains that hold you back!

Note of caution no: 2. Fetishising technique is just as bad in my opinion as downplaying it. The Atelier and similar approaches tend to raise technical competence to a be all and end all. The lie to this is given by the uninspiring and dismal output of the students whose life drawings might well have linear and tonal accuracy but are in themselves lifeless. They take living flesh and turn it to perfectly rendered lifeless static stone. If you don’t get the feeling that the model fidgets and might get up and stretch at any moment you have failed just a surely as if you got the head the wrong size!

Now for some examples of how I haven’t managed to practiced what I preach!

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Fleet Street, St Pauls, London, oil painting

 

The first of a batch of new London pictures. This is based on the plein air from the last post. I wanted to roll back the day to the moment we arrived so used the photo ref to change the feel of the light. Still a little but to do, the distance is too busy and crisp so I will soften with a glaze or two once dry. 16in by 24in oils.

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The Strand, London, oil painting

 

This is the Strand looking West. Still a fair way to go on this but the basics are in and I am happy with the overall mood. The final adjustments have to be made very carefully so as not to overwork. 16in by 20in oils.

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Strand on the Green, Thames, Plein air, brass monkeys, watercolour

 

A day out to the Strand on the Green near Chiswick and Kew. This was a Brass Monkeys day and the weather was a little chancy. I did this view twice the previous version was so awful I binned it! Quite difficult to paint with hail bouncing off your paper! 6in by 9in watercolour.

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Thames, London, Strand on the Green, watercolour, plein air

 

Last one of the day I got myself positioned behind one of the pylons of the railway bridge which held off the worst of the very chilly breeze. 9in by 14in watercolour.

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life drawing

I am watercolouring in the life sessions at present. It is very hard to get a study done in 30min but it is great for teaching you how to make important decisions on the fly!

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life drawing

Here is an example of ringing the changes I added reed pen and ink to my very limited palette of red ochre and ultramarine.

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Life drawing

Here we are pared down even more just line with the reed pen and a single wash. 7min.

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life drawing

Here I have added reed pen but stressed the colour a little more. It is all about getting the most from the available resources.

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life drawing

I made retaining the whites here my main intent. Very tricky as I am not drawing first. The reason for not drawing is to build confidence in putting brushstrokes down. Confident strokes add a lot to the liveliness of the end result. It is worth practicing taking a brush and practicing swelling and reducing the mark using varying pressure. This helps when you need to lay in a stroke that defined form as well as tone.

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life drawing

This was as they say “challenging” … getting the extreme perspective in and believable is always very hard.

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life drawing

This shows how much you can get down in 10min… you just have to accept with life sketches that 90% are fit only for the bin!

February 24, 2014

On Beauty

A risky topic I suspect and rather an unfashionable one too. Roger Scruton wrote a book on it recently which I must read. You cannot say what beauty is any more than you can define joy,  love or indeed art. Concepts that are intensely personal are prone to be abused by people in arguments because due to the flexibility and nebulousness of their definitions they can be used to make points that cannot be argued against. The argument will go for example that in a particular circumstance anything can be beautiful. The weakness in these arguments is I think that a cleanly defined beautiful/not-beautiful, art/not-art boundary is assumed. However such phantasms of the human spirit can be brought more into focus even if they are not subject to an outright definition. We can for example say that for the most part we find regular faces more pleasing than ones deformed from the norm. There is a lot of research in that area that shows we like the facial features to be symmetrical and averaged. The images of many faces overlaid and blended are disconcertingly beautiful and show that we are looking for differences from the norm as a way of deciding genetic worthiness/unworthiness.

This does not always follow with real encounters of course. Someone might have a face that is transformed by character and animation. Nonetheless perhaps our underlying assessments of beauty are slanted towards the reassuring. We might admire a verdant and peaceful landscape or a dramatic mountain scene, but we might assign them differing types of beauty. For an arable farmer the verdant land would be attractive as a home whereas the rugged mountain less so. Our farmer might find them both beautiful but in contrasting ways. It is quite plain to me that the early cave painters found beauty in the animals they hunted that went beyond the straight forward desire for a successful hunt.

Thus we are immediately mired in the boggy land of the aesthetic. Hurrying on the heels of aesthetics come those who would tell us what is fitting/fashionable and what is not. Currently beauty and decoration are very much off the menu. We are supposed to like the sparse. Our dream apartments have empty spaces, plain surfaces and white walls. I cannot help but wonder if this is perhaps a choice caused by hoovers rather than aesthetic concerns! When designing exhibitions of decorative items from historical times we place them in sparse minimal cases. To me they always look a little sad in such soulless arrays, like butterflies pinned in drawers. They seem like items in a shop rather than exhibits in a museum intended to fire our imaginations.

In architecture beauty has been completely outlawed it sometimes seems. There is little built that moves beyond the grim utilitarianism of financial objectives and cupidity. When decorative items are used they are plastic panel doors with cartoon graining, the result is depressing rather than uplifting. Architects generally seem to be comfortable with repetition but not rhythm. Being uplifting and enriching our daily lives is, we seem to have forgotten, the whole point of decoration. In furniture we are in the thrall of anally retentive Scandinavians or those who wish to emulate them. I am not totally in disagreement, bad decoration is indeed often worse than none. Alas because we don’t do much training in the area of decoration the few examples that do appear are for the most part weak pastiche cobbled together from found images using photoshop. The decorative arts were once a big thing and lauded, why this is no longer true is a puzzle.

The only real thing I can think of is the advent of mechanical production. We have adjusted our aesthetic to suit the available means of production, maintenance and distribution rather than the other way round. We perhaps associate the hand made with the crudeness of DIY, some hand made objects seem to need to advertise their handmadeness by adding rusticity or similar.

We also tend to confuse beauty in a seen thing such as a mountain or an object made with no visual intent such as a worn wall with the beauty inherent in an object made by a human being who has laboured to gain a skill. If you splash paint randomly or even semi randomly on a canvas it will be nice to look at. If I wet some watercolour paper and pour colour on it I may well get a very attractive and interesting surface. This however is mostly the same sort of beauty as we get from admiring the patterns on a beach. The beauty in an art object is different because of the skill and the fact that a person has sacrificed part of their life in order to achieve the ability. Due to the arguments put forwards in the 20th century we tend to conflate these kinds of beauty. The weathered wall is not of any real cultural significance even if torn from its place and put in a gallery.

Music mostly does not suffer from this confusion. We might get an emotional surge when we listen to the wind in the trees, but we do not confuse that, except in moments of poetic hyperbole, with music. We do not confuse a person noodling on the piano in a random untrained manner with music either… the difference to a concert pianist is obvious and no one would say that the random noodling is art of the same order as the pianist’s bravura performance.

The statement that everyone is an artist is very much not true. To be an artist you must firstly be a fully formed craftsperson, only then should a small proportion of the resultant work be deemed “Art”.

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henley on Thames, Thames, flood, river, plein air, oil painting

 

This is the recent floods at Henley. Some fascinating transformations of familiar scenes. We were lucky to get some brilliant light and a mostly dry day.

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henley upon Thames, Thames, Plein air, oil painting

 

Another from the same day. The shadows were only momentarily thrown across the road. 8in by 10in oils.

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Thames Henley, river flood, oil painting

 

Last one of the day, we found a flooded road that reflected the last light. I had to paint this very rapidly! 12in by 12in oils. The first use of my new 12in by 20 in pochade… I will add pictures of it at the end for the painting gear nerds!

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interior, oil painting

 

The next day was very wet and windy so we went to and painted an interior in a friend of Steven Alexander’s wonderfully cluttered cottage. 10in by 12in oils.

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Jermyn St, Mayfair, London, street, oil painting

 

This is Jermyn Street in Mayfair painted on an expedition with the Brass Monkeys. Not quite sure what to do with this one, it is a bit like an empty stage waiting for the actors to arrive! 10in by 16in oils.

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Jermyn St, Mayfair, London, Brass Monkeys, oil painting

 

Another from Jermyn St. I had to add a figure to reduce the dominance of the car. 8in by 10in oils.

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Kent, track, Aylesford, oil painting.

 

A day out painting with friends. This is a track above Aylesford in Kent… we went to paint the dramatic wide view of the Medway valley and ended up painting a muddy track! 10in by 10in oils.

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East Farleigh, Kent, oil painting

 

This is East Farleigh, the river was in full flood but I found the light in this very attractive. I was nearly run over a few times but really enjoyed trying to make something of the split composition. Painting up a hill always produces challenges to as you have to make sure that the cues are there to explain your view point. 10in by 16in oils.

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Trafalgar Square, London

 

I don’t often do this kind of sketch, but as it was a Brass Monkey day and I also had to attend the Wapping Group private view I needed to wear clothes ungarnished with oil paint! So pen and wash was the order of the day. pen and wash is a great combination and I really should do more of them.

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St Martins Lane, London, watercolour

Last one before heading to the Mall Galleries. The day was very flat but St Martins Lane always supplies some contrast due to the height of the buildings and the narrowness of the street. 5in by 7in watercolour.

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pochade

Here it is… a mighty 12in by 20in. It is still light, but would be a bit of a handful in the wind! Due to the size it has some storage so I should be able just carry this and the tripos which will make quite a light set up for its size. Next I need to work out something for 16in by 20in canvasses…

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pochade

I also created some rain protection from the brolly that bit the dust in Dulwich a week or so ago.

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