Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

September 20, 2017

Seeing

Augmented reality, the media tells us, is the next big thing. They don’t seem to realise that the basic human being has it built in already. The light that bounces off and passes through our exterior world and the photons bouncing around inside our eyeballs have no idea what they might represent. There is no tree photon, or sky photon. They just have amplitudes and wavelengths which we call brightness and colour.

When we do what we call seeing everything obvious comes ready labelled by our image processing system. Houses are houses, trees trees and even things that are obscure are given tentative labels such as scrubland or hedge. We have all had the experience where our heads up display has got it wrong and we realise that there is a building in that clump of trees, or when walking home in the dark when the brain frantically relabels that dark blob as a parked car we are about to collide with rather than a hedge.

The image processing does not stop there. The shadows are lightened the brights are darkened so we can perceive details within those areas. You have all I expect noticed that your sky in a photograph will come out almost white and over exposed if you set the exposure to show detail in the shadows. 80% of the colour you see isn’t there, only a tiny part of the eye, the fovea, sees in colour. Our image processing software paints the rest in. If in tests a red light is put in the peripheral vision, with the subject fixing their attention straight ahead, when the light is changed to green the subject will continue to see it as red.

When looking at our fellow humans the process goes even further, our heads up is supplying age, sex and status information on the fly. It even supplies narrative guesses such as: that group is a family, or those two are a couple. We astonishingly can even work out the mood and emotional state of passers by from their general demeanour.

For the observational painter all this post processing this causes major problems. We see trees labelled as green when they are often a grey brown, we see the sky as blue when it is really a steely grey. As I have mentioned we see the darks as lighter and the brights as darker. The problem is that if you paint the post process version of your perception then when someone else looks at your picture they reprocess the whole thing again. So your darks which you painted too light appear even lighter and the light areas such as the sky duller and not as you had hoped luminous. Your brown trees, which you eyes have made you paint in phthalo green, get a further boost into luridness when viewed by another.

Paint manufacturers don’t help by selling us lots of very bright pigments which we put out on our palettes. Odd really as 95% of our picture is probably going to be brown or grey even if we are painting that day in a funfair. Digital camera manufacturers and before them film manufacturers did and do much the same thing. Most of our cameras process the images we snap so that the greens are a brighter green and the blues of our skies the expected pure bright blue. They also process contrast so that our images are punchy with dark darks and clean whites. What is called properly exposed… the real world is however often not properly exposed and it is that version we need to try to paint.

So if we are to observe the world for purpose of painting it we need to strip away the processing. We do not need to know that the tree is a tree or the house a house. They are just shapes that have a tone and a hue. This is not easy to learn how to do. Even harder is to strip out the tonal adjustments our perception systems make. The best way  I have found is to squint. If you progressively close your eyes down to the thinnest slit possible you will find that the image starts to break down into simple tonal areas. The shadows will coalesce into single areas without interior detail. If you make a small hole in a but of black card and squint through that it makes the process a little easier. Or you can take a snap on your phone with the image effect set to sepia or similar.

The other method I use is to make a small ring with my fingers to look through and flick it quickly between areas. This way you can quickly determine that the darkest colour in that threatening sky is still way brighter than the road that your eyes perceive as quite light. I advise going and getting bits of the world and plonking them on your palette next to the colour that you have mixed for it. This is especially disconcerting with greens. Go and get a leaf from that bright green tree you are painting, you may be surprised!

The aim of all this is to be able to paint the world so that the viewer of the painting does their usual post processing of the visual stimulus supplied by your picture without the overlay of the painter’s own visual system doubling everything up. This will produce a much more nuanced, lifelike and subtle perceptual experience when you picture is looked at.

Detail is another issue. We don’t actually see all that detail. The brain just puts in off the shelf wall paper to fill in the gaps. So that detailed city is not bespoke it is generic. Only if you concentrate on it as you do when painting do all the buildings take on individual character. Many people never actually see the world as it is only as they expect it to be. So when painting if you put in all that detail it looks unreal like a photograph rather than something seen by a living eye. What you need to do is find a generic language of marks that says buildings without being specific. You will be amazed when people compliment you on all that detail which isn’t actually there. So like in the real world their brains filled it in because that is what they expected from the clues you gave them.

The purpose of all this is to give your paintings the immediacy and mystery that looking at the real world through human eyes gives. Nobody after all stops in front of a real scene and says, “Ooh it’s just like a photograph!”

Wellington Clock, Swanage, Dorset, plein air, watercolour, painting

This is the Wellington Clocktower which once graced the end of London Bridge. It was found to be in the way of the traffic and got demolished and rebuilt by the shore in Swanage. We have had wonderful skies lately and this day was no exception. I took a fair few photos as it changed with the idea of doing a studio oil. 12in by 8in watercolour.

Swanage, wellington clocktower, Dorset, oil painting

Here it is. Watercolour is so good a luminosity, but oils are great for solidity and form. I tried to keep the touch light but not to ape a plein air work. One of those paintings that I felt “ho hum” about until it was in its frame where it sprang to life. I think it is paintings with very open edges such as this where a frame allows the feeling of more beyond. 20in by 12in Oils.

Swanage, Dorset, Plein air, oil painting, beach

I’m starting to get a taste for beach paintings, this is Swanage again. The mood has changed now that Autumn is looming and the schools have swept the children and families from the shore. I stretched the view a little left and right perspective wise as a camera would to accentuate the sense of space. I spent about 20min on the town and mid-ground and then battled for 40min doing the beach! Areas that have very little going on can be some of the hardest things to paint. 14in by 10in Oils.

Melbury Hill, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

This was a real quickie as the light faded. It is Melbury Hill from Shaftesbury. Dusk when the sun is below the horizon and there is a cloud cover as well is a very tricky mood to catch. I didn’t really manage it this time but it made me want to go back for another stab at it! 12in by 8in Oils.

Richmond, Thames, oil painting

This was started a couple of years ago when painting with the Wapping Group by the Thames in Richmond. I dug it out of a box and thought it had potential. I remember getting the young lady in and feeling pleased she worked so well even though her legs belonged to another! I then added a couple with a dog going the other way and it all fell apart. Luck has a big part in painting and the couple was obviously pushing mine too far. As soon as I saw it afresh I had the idea to simply remove the doggy couple and just have empty paving. A bit of tidying up and I was quite pleased with the result. 10in by 10in oils.

Weymouth, Dorset, esplanade, plein air, oil painting

To the seaside again! This is Weymouth on a wonderfully dramatic and showery day. A real struggle with the elements so the picture is a bit rough around the edges. On getting home I considered tidying it but decided best not. 10in by 12in Oils.

Weymouth bay, sea, storm, oil painting

Another one from the unfinished pile I am working through. The storm was painted looking across Weymouth Bay about a year ago, but I had tried to paint beach in the foreground and had given up halfway. However on this last visit I had taken a snap of the sea and a not too dissimilar sky which I whacked in across the bottom. Much better with this sea as it adds a touch of colour, the painted out one was rather grey . 14in by 8in Oils.

 

August 27, 2016

Method and Madness

Filed under: Dorset,London,Painting,Thames,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 4:13 pm

We all like it when we are sure of our ground. Carrying out a familiar routine. With painting and drawing however I have overall found certainty is best treated with caution. Once you know how to successfully do a particular type of painting or subject the temptation is to reprise it and of course espouse it. Now we all need to develop a system to carry out a difficult and complex task such as painting a picture, we cannot hope to reinvent the process from scratch each time. There is a fine line however between being systematic and stuck in a rut. This is something I feel is worth watching out for more for as I get older.

There are many artists who end their careers repainting their greatest hits with small variations again and again. There are others who admire some artist alive or dead so much that their work becomes what they call “fan art” which tends to never be quite as good as the original inspiration. Another pitfall is some “method” or academic system. If you research so called ateliers the work of the students has a distressing uniformity. Often also a strange dead quality. Endless patiently rendered classical life poses that contain every single detail but no life at all. The odd thing is how when you look into these works often the overall accuracy is far from good.

Ateliers really need their own paragraph, you would be right in thinking I find them worrying. They try to give the impression that they are carrying on the “traditions of the old masters” but a little research shows that seems to be a fair way from the actual case. What they replicate is the 19C system which sought to revitalise art by restoring classical techniques. Mostly it seems to me these methods such as Charles Bargue’s are the result of imagination, as the resulting works do not have the vivacity of Michelangelo or Rubens or indeed any renaissance or baroque artist. The proof is in the pudding in my opinion. If you look at the students of these institutions on line you see endless dutch style still lives, but somehow dead in their perfection and lacking in the exuberance of the genuine articles. Acres of droopy classical style draped maidens and risible attempts at allegory.

I don’t in anyway disapprove of learning these skills, but I very much disapprove of teaching anyone that these are the correct and only way. Sight size is a good example. Yes it helps to draw this way at first as it removes the difficulty of rescaling on the fly and makes direct comparisons easier. However any well trained artist will be perfectly able to draw something whatever the relative scales. Singer Sargent, (who is mysteriously approved of even though he rejected much of the academic dogma) for example used to place his canvas in a position so he could stand back and compare the two at the same scale. He did not however according to reports work all the time that way.

Essentially the academic systems are todays naive painting. Before photography naive painting had a cartoonish feel, but after that they have a photographic feel, think of those endless minutely finished pencil drawing of film and pop stars you see on line. To my eye they have more than a little similarity to the highly finished drawings produced from carefully lit plaster casts. You rarely see drawings with the fluent line of Tiepolo or Rubens because the training does not seem teach that ability. However if you want to gain basic drawing experience and skill then the ateliers are almost the only place you can go. Sadly I fear traditional contemporary art colleges do not have the staff or inclination to teach the relevant skills as they are alas almost completely hidebound, a surreal state of affairs for institutions who supposedly espouse continual revolution!

The things I hope, but sometimes fail  to avoid are dogma, and purism. They each can produce enervation and stunt flexibility of approach. This happens in all areas from classicism to modernism when one particular style or intent is elevated to an ideal to be sought after and emulated. That kind of thinking is becoming the past I hope. I doubt if there will ever be another revolution in painting. Everything that can be thought of has been done. All that can be done if you pursue originality is tinker around the edges where absurdity and stupidity lurk. What we do have that no other age has ever had though is all the possibilities laid out before you like a huge buffet table of styles and techniques. We are free to go to that table and pick whatever we wish or just as importantly leave whichever dishes we choose untasted. We can feast luxuriously or pick and choose with parsimonious reserve.

Each and every style and manner of painting has perhaps something to teach another. Field paintings certainly bring new ideas to landscapes and their underlying divisions. How a biblical scene is set out can inform the painter of a busy cityscape as to how to arrange the transient details to best effect. I could go on but I am sure you get the gist. What helps no one is saying this sort of painting is the best and all others are outmoded. I don’t think styles and manners of painting can never become outmoded any more than types of carpentry. A carpenter doesn’t chuck out his chisel because he has bought a snazzy CNC cutter, why would he?

I am preparing a one man show to go on at the Gallery on the Square in Poundbury starting on September the 10th and running on to October the 9th. Due to this I have been framing and agonising over which pictures should go in which includes the fretting that I might have included a stinker that I had an illogical fondness for.

London, plein air, wapping Group, Millbank, oil painting

I managed to get up to London on a glorious sunny day to paint with the Wapping Group. The brief was Victoria Embankment but I had spotted this view on Millbank on a previous visit and thought the conditions might be just right. I was standing on the zebra crossing reserve but as it was a generously sized one I was quite comfortable, a bit of a breeze was taking the fumes away too. I spent quite a lot of time organising the tones as the glare was washing darker tones out and I wanted to get that feeling in the painting. I had to be very quick as the light was moving very rapidly. The motor bike was one of those flukes, I put in a bike shaped blob intending to refine it later, added 2 highlights and it pretty much did the job! In contrast I repainted the perfectly simple van on the left 3 times, the first time I made it red for some unknown reason. 10in by 12in oils.

 

Thames, River, boats, London, plein air, wapping Group, oil painting

I met another member of the group painting this on the Embankment. These bright sunny day river scenes are not really me especially as the light was flat at my back. Almost for this reason I decided to have a go. I didn’t enjoy it at first as I sort of lost my way with it, but in the last half hour it somewhat came together. The colour of the water was outrageous and I had to redo it 3 times before it was something like. 7in by 10in oils.

 

Clement Danes, London, plein air, wapping group, oil painting

Just before pub time I decided to do this as it looked wonderful. This is only 40min worth so it is very bashed in, but with the photos I took I think I have a possible studio picture here. I am just by Clement Danes which is the building on the right. 10in by 14in oils.

 

Golden Cap, jurassic coast, plein air, oil painting, Dorset, sea, charmouth

A dramatic change of location! I went for a day down to the coast at Charmouth with a friend so we were walking with no chance for me to paint, the day was showery and blustery but looked wonderful. As I had a mission to Dorchester next day I returned with my paints. It was even more windy an wet but very beautiful. The beach was actually quite busy with people chipping away at rocks looking for fossils, but once the rain set in people soon vanished. These two girls were the last to retreat and I felt they were just perfect, I cheekily asked them to go back and walk slowly for me which they did despite the rain setting in. I was going to repaint the sky but once back I decided to leave it alone. The headland in the distance is Golden Cap. 10in by 14in.

Rawlsbury Camp, Bulbarrow hill, hill fort, Dorset, oil painting, plein air

As I was so wet the car was steaming up from my clothes drying out I had not intended to paint any more that day. But this was too good to resist. This is Rawlsbury Camp, an iron age hill fort. Not as well known as others but in my opinion one of the best. Despite more rain I loved painting this. It breaks into 4 tonal layers like a stage set. First the sky, then the distance, thirdly the fort itself and lastly the path in. Each area had its own section on the palette so I kept the distinctions clear. Only at the very last did I put a little of each into the next layer to bring them together. I went home very damp but pleased, I don’t often get 2 decent pictures out of a day. 10in by 14in oils.

 

Golden Cap, jurassic coast, dorset, sea, oil painting

A bigger studio picture of Golden Cap again and one that has really put me through the mill. What you see here is version 3, at one stage there were nearly 60 people on the beach and it looked like a disaster movie with the population of Dorset escaping some dystopian calamity! The sky and the headland all went swimmingly… then I hit the beach. Almost the whole reason of the painting was this damn beach and now I had depopulated it it became increasingly clear that the damn thing was too big. As it was on canvas I had to restretch it down to a more svelte 12in by 36in. I had already made the frame so that had to be done again too.

 

Charmouth, Dorset, sea, oil painting

Here it is almost done, a few more inhabitants appeared and disappeared but aside from tidying up the damage I am done. 12in by 36in oils.

 

Golden Cap, oil painting, dorset, sea

I can only apologise for the Golden Cap density in this post! Here it is again, I did this from a watercolour I did ages ago. 10in by 16in oils.

 

tofko press, printing, lino cut

The studio has a new arrival a Tofko press so now I can get those lino cuts printed, but more on that next time!

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