Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

May 4, 2015

It’s all the Viewer’s Fault

I watched a whole slew of YouTube videos on what art is recently. Well it was a dull evening on telly and I didn’t feel like painting! I’ll attempt to embed one below that I found interesting.

She talks entertainingly and tries to persuade us that heaps of rubbish, Mr Creed’s light bulb and Ms Emin’s bed are relevant to all of us and interesting. She essentially says that the viewers who could not see anything in the works are not taking the next step and thinking philosophically about where the works might lead. So it is the viewers that are lacking, not the work. Now this is not a total loss as an argument. A tribes people from the Amazon were unable to recognise photographs at first. However I would go on to say that they got the hang of it very quickly and that is not the case with the works mentioned above. Nonetheless this is one of the best explanations of the current art model I have seen or read.

She argues that Emin’s white bed when empty is essentially no different from a blank canvas and the accrued debris is no different from the paint another artist might apply. These items she says tell a story of an everyday existence in a similar way. The argument does however not work so well when extended. You might say that when a museum display case is empty then it is as a blank canvas and if you place anything within it then it is art. Many contemporary artists would be happy with that, the famous pickled shark is an example. Or an empty fridge becomes art when you put a pint of milk in it. Emin and our lecturer are saying we should look at these things in our lives and appreciate their aesthetic qualities and the deeper things they tell us about our lives.

This is all well and good and it sort of adds up. However even though all this is explained to me it still doesn’t cause me to be moved in the aesthetic sense. I might think the folds in the sheets beautiful or whatever, but that is not due to Emin’s intervention. There are beautiful and intriguing sights to be had in most everyday things if we take the trouble to notice. However we are judging Emin’s intervention here not the intrinsic qualities of the objects. The lecturer says the work might lead us to examine our own unnoticed fetish of tidiness, or a mother’s obsession with a teenager’s revolting bedroom which is fair enough, but I cannot help but think that an article in a magazine about it would do the job better. Indeed she says that most don’t manage to get into that territory when seeing the installation. Once explained anyone could make their bed into an art object it merely requires removing it into another context. An unmade bed is a remarkable object on a railway station concourse, but an unremarkable one in a bedroom. We do of course often take ubiquitous objects and separate them out. At the V&A museum they display everyday objects out of context so that we can appreciate and compare their design qualities. No one thinks they have become art through this process though. I could argue that Emin’s bed falls into the informative display category not the art one.

She says several times that people look and dismiss but do not take the next intellectual step. Then her explanation of the next step is so underwhelming that I struggle to find it remotely interesting. It certainly does not illuminate my mental landscape even when it is a light bulb. She says it is philosophy but if it is it is not very profound. She stresses the word “conversation” a great deal. She says that unless we attempt to answer the questions asked by such works then we are locked out from properly appreciating them. The problem with this is that the works are all questions and art in my opinion is about seeing possible answers or observing and defining qualities. It is very much not a quiz, exam question or a philosophical puzzle.

She effectively undermines her own arguments at the very beginning with a devastating statistic. On both Emin’s and Hirst’s shows the average time each work was considered and was calculated by examining the cctv footage of visitors to the shows. The result was less than 5sec per work… not much time for a conversation of any kind in that time frame, let alone a deep philosophical awakening. It shows that contemporary art is mostly very poor at contriving the initial connection that draws people in to look. Although not at all scientific I recently visited the Tate Modern and ended up watching the people rather than looking at the art. They watched the video installations longest, static artworks received only very cursory attention. Indeed the installation that seemed to provoke most intense consideration was the cake display in the cafe. People are drawn to looking at a painting by the possibility of an aesthetic reward, much in the way that a laden dinner table is offering the potential of sustenance and pleasurable or exciting tastes. If the painting does not offer the cues of potential reward or deliberately denies any such possibility then no one will stop to appreciate. Why would they?

The argument that you must reach into a work or “engage” as they are fond of saying is very poor. If you assume your audience has a similar social programming as the artist, then any work worth its salt should attract attention however blatantly or subtly. The better the work is at reaching those with differing or divergent social programming, either due to culture or time passing the better the work is. Will Emin’s work be pivotal in 5oo years? We don’t know but I suspect not, other than as a small footnote in social history.

I have been busy of late, but have still squeezed in a good deal of painting. With my new house liveable and my studio in operation it is easier to concentrate. I even managed a day out to the wonderful town of Wells… more on that below.


Oil painting, blandford forum, dorset, plein air

This is Blandford Forum one of the nearest towns to me. Unusual in that it mostly burnt down in 1731, due to this it was rebuilt in mostly Georgian style. I have drawn this view in pen but am planning a bigger painting so I went again to sketch from the same viewpoint. On the day I was there a market was happening on the left hand side but when I got home I didn’t like it so replaced it with stuff from the  pen drawing. 10in by 16in oils.

Child Okeford, Dorset, lane, plein air. oil painting

This painting of one of the ancient green lanes around Child Okeford was and still is a real struggle. It is too busy and I might have to add a figure but will need to get someone to pose. It has taken two plein air sessions to get this far and it is still not hanging together properly. In town I could just wait for a passerby but out here you could be waiting a fair while! 10in by 14in Oils.


Fontmell Magna, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

In between sessions on the green lane I went to Fontmell Magna and very quickly painted this. It went a bit swampy from getting too much paint on too quickly but catches the feel of the light adequately. Interesting view with strong silhouettes, I shall go back and see how it looks in other lights. 7in by 12in, Oils.


Sturminster Newton, oil painting, Dorset

This is the small town of Sturminster Newton. I actually started this months ago but only had time to sketch it out and lay in the main tones. I finished off using a phone snap but am rather pleased by the result. I think only the sky tone and the road survive from the original plein air. 10in by 12in oils.


London, soho, walkers court, plein air, oil painting

This is Meard St in Soho. The first time in a while I had taken my oils on a trip to London. I rather like the square format and will be doing more. 10in by 10in oils.


walkers court, soho, london, plein air, oil painting

This is the insalubrious alley called Walkers Court that leads through to Berwick St. I was very attracted by the light pushing through the alley. I had to paint very quickly as the wet pavement was drying rapidly as I painted. 10in by 10in Oils.


Wells, Cathedral, pen and ink, drawing

My first day out just for painting was to Wells. Almost too much to draw here and the day was gorgeous. I set out on this wondering how the hell I was going to get all that detail in without spending all day. I was very careful to set the level of simplification quite high. I essentially combined all the shadow areas into a simple broken vertical hatch, then indicated the architectural breaks with as few lines as possible. I stopped once there were enough hints to convey the rhythm the ornament produced. I love the way this blue paper takes a white highlight. Pen and Ink.


Somerset Levels, watercolour

This is a drainage ditch on the Somerset Levels, a bit rushed but I was painting in a very uncomfortable position! Watercolour.


Glastonbury Tor, somerset, watercolour

Last from my trip to Somerset, I drove miles trying to get a view I liked of Glastonbury Tor. I ended up miles away but loved the levels and will return to paint there again. watercolour.



Greenwich, Ballast quay, London, Thames, drawing, pen and ink

Another trip to London for the start of the season with the Wapping Group. This is Ballast Quay in Greenwich. Pen and Ink.


March 20, 2015

Of Luck and Calculation

All of life depends on predicting the future. Even the humblest single celled creature does something to skew the probabilities in its favour. When you evolve an eye you can predict when something big is intending to eat you. If you are a plant you can grow towards where the light will most likely be. It is in fact this ability to look forwards in time even the tiniest bit that makes living stuff different to other matter. Once you can make this prediction the possible course of future events you can then act to increase the possibility of a good outcome for your own continuance. If you guess right you get to live and reproduce, so evolution has been honing our future gazing abilities over billions of years.

If you are a tree then you need to be able to look ahead and predict the turning seasons. If a bird also, if you wish to migrate or breed successfully. This sort of prediction means remembering the way cycles reoccur, if it happened once this way then the probabilities have to be high of it happening the same way again. So memory is a big advantage. Being able to pass this predictive information down from generation to generation via inheritance or nurture is another big weight tipping the scales of survival your way. If you can encode past occurrences, calculate their underlying cycles and then make predictions you are top of the heap.

The downside to this is if any of the underlying cycles, such as length of seasons or climate change then you need to adapt fast. The fossil record underlines this fact. If a change occurs such as temperature or another species learning a new trick then you may not be able to update your predictive database in time to survive. So if your predictive capacity is encoded in DNA then you are vulnerable, but if it is in memory then you have a better chance. You can take risks and pass the ones that paid off to the next generation. How could Einstein be so wrong? It seems God is indeed very fond of playing dice.

You may be wondering how this all fits into a painting blog? Well strange though it may seem such factors are one of the things that make producing artworks rewarding and frustrating in equal measure. As an artist you try things you have seen others do and by your successes and failures you increase the probability of your work turning out satisfactorily. If you are lucky you get someone who has already developed a method to pass on information, thus shortcutting your own learning process. Nowadays you can access a vast compendium of information and the artworks produced by many generations. All of this helps but as with all life there are no guarantees.

So what we need to do is increase the probabilities of succeeding. Gain skill in drawing, become familiar with how mediums react. Practice to hone your manual dexterity until it is automatic. In other words do everything you possibly can to load those dice in your favour. With a medium such as watercolour this is especially true. Quite a lot of the process is inevitably effected by chance, so luck is a big factor. The humidity of the day, its temperature, whether the wind is blowing or not, all can make a big difference. So you need to paint differently on a wet day to a summer scorcher. Even the kind of water makes a contribution to the way the paint lies and reacts to the paper, which is in turn another key variable.

There can never be complete certainty and if you do stick to what is safe then you will end up in the doldrums reprising old paintings ad nauseam. Each time we paint we should gamble, but like any gambler we should shorten the odds in our favour as much as possible.

I am still in the process of moving so paintings are a bit thin on the ground.

West Bay, Bridport, Dorset, watercolour, painting, art

This is West Bay near Bridport in Dorset. A difficult composition which doesn’t quite work. Need to be there very early or very late I’m thinking for it to be at it’s best.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, Watercolour, painting, art

A parked Open Reach truck allowed me to get most of this down without being run over. I always look out for roadworks and similar as they sometimes give a chance at a view that would be impossible otherwise!


Dorset, watercolour, painting, art

This was very hard going. Just after dawn with a lovely mist but the paint wouldn’t dry. By the time I had finished the sun was out and the mist completely gone. So partly plein air and partly memory. In actual fact once a subject has changed that much it becomes almost a distraction rather than that much of a help.


Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset, Watercolour, art

This is Gold Hill in Shaftesbury, I’ve done it from the top in pen and now here it is again from the bottom in watercolour. This is from reference but I must do it again on a wet and murky day.


National Gallery, St Martins in the Fields, pen and ink drawing

A visit to London to meet up with the Brass Monkeys. I ended up missing them due to the train being diverted via Tasmania, but got some drawing done anyway. This will be posted again as I have added washes.


William Pitt, bust, sculpture, pen and ink, drawing

This is William Pitt the elder in the National Portrait Gallery. I drew this in pencil and then did the pen on the train as it went back to Dorset via Tasmania.


Old Compton St, London, pen and ink, drawing

This is looking up Old Compton St. I loved the Bentley surrounded by bin bags! I did the darks with a brush first and then added hatching. I shall do more of this as I rather like the effect.

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