Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

May 13, 2017

Brushwork

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 6:40 pm

Something painters occasionally compliment each other on or otherwise obsess about is brushwork. I have done it myself… it is a safe compliment if there are no other redeeming features in a painting you have to react to.

“I rather like the handling of the paint on that barn!”

“Barn? It’s portrait of my uncle.”

“Ah… is it… ? Jolly good brushwork though…”

I thought in any case it would be a good subject for a post… I have been blogging about painting for a while now and new subjects are getting harder to think of. As I have often found however as soon as I start to organise my thoughts niggling contradictions soon arise.

Good for what? Was my first thought. A brush stroke could be the dogs B’s in one context and its dinner in another. What makes it good? Is it confidence? When I asked the question of fellow painters that seemed a major factor. I can however think of lots of situations where a bold confident stroke would be inappropriate and an uncertain, indefinite and tentative one just the thing. Also as Degas says it only has to give the impression of confidence it does not require actual confidence to make that apparently confident mark. Singer Sargent used to repeatedly re-do brush stroke over and over wiping them off if they didn’t have the right “I just dashed this portrait off.” feel.

I do admire as others do when brushstrokes appear  to have just been let lie and not fiddled with… people say fresh and other nice things if you get that effect. Though as an experienced fiddler I know full well that the not fiddled with look often requires a great deal of covert fiddling in order to achieve that coveted not at all fiddled with appearance.

It occurs to me too that brushstrokes need not be visible at all as such, the word blending appeared to cause shudders to run through the more delicate and elevated artistic souls. Pointillism also failed the test, divisionists of all sorts that just use a repeated dab seemed to be in the non mustard cutting zone for brushwork. Any kind of flat filling in is no good unless it has “movement” whatever that might mean, just signs of the paint being applied I assume. Glazing would seem iffy too, but best not to bin the family Rembrandt just on my say so.

There seemed one factor that was to the fore. That was that artists want people to be able to believe they discern clues as to their emotional state during the act of creation from the manner in which the paint was applied. So leaving big drips showing through, quick patchy scumbling over ground layers and signs of rapidity and urgency in general. Signs of corrections made but not hidden get brownie points too. All in all it is starting to look as if all that “free” brushiness might be just as contrived in its own way as a smoothed off portrait by Bronzino!

All paintings are illusions even abstract ones and the clues that artists give us from which we are meant to derive extra meaning are illusion too in their own way. It also means that the way we as painters judge quality of work is just as tied to our era and received culture as it ever was. A Victorian painter might have given points for sentiment, smoothness of finish and classical allusions. A Flemish still life artist on the accuracy of the tulips and the perfection of the dew drops on the leaves in their still life. In looking for expression, brevity of means and truth to materials we are not really any different or indeed advanced.

Not to worry though painting was always driven by fantasy. From the juicy mammoth painted in a cave which is surrounded by lucky hunters, to the saint being swept up to a reward in heaven, the recording eye of the impressionists uncluttered by literature or history, the impending technological triumphs of the futurists and the sweeping reductions of the abstractionists, to the artist as media magician waving the wand of deconstruction and finally the all powerful curator using the art of others as their preferred medium; all are dreams for the epochs in which they are set, fulfilling yearnings to bring relevance and meaning to a bewildering and intractably opaque existence.

Well I didn’t expect to end up delving into such philosophical backwaters just from considering a humble dab of paint!

I am painting pictures faster than I can blog them at the moment, so a rag bag of leftovers in this post. You can amuse yourselves by trying to determine the state of my soul from my wishy washy brushwork…

Rawlsbury Camp, Iron Age fort, watercolour, plein air, painting

This is Rawlsbury Camp on the side of Bulbarrow Hill. One thing about having moved out to the sticks is that I get to paint the same subject in lots of different moods. It is all getting very green now which I always find harder than the russets and greys of the winter. 13in by 7in watercolour.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour, painting

Another old favourite. This view always fascinates me. I frequently pass by it on my way elsewhere and nearly always stop to see what mood is on offer that day. This is done from a very dodgy iPhone snap. 13in by 6in Watercolour.

 

Fontmell Down, Dorset, plein air, watercolour, painting

A slightly different take on Fontmell Down. Quite difficult indecisive light and I was sitting on a very slopey bit of ground.  I love the dry valleys that are a characteristic of the Dorset chalk lands but they are hard to make into a good composition. 10in by 6in Watercolour.

 

Fontmell Down, Dorset, plein air, watercolour

The clouds were gathering for my second one. This view is so distinctive I must think of some new variations. The painting looked dreadful until the last dark foreground wash went in and then seemed to suddenly make sense. 10in by 7in Watercolour.

River Stour, Child Okeford, Dorset, watercolour, plein air

I have been wanting to do this view for ages. The problem of doing it is that you have to stand on a narrow concrete ledge on the bridge over the Stour with huge tractors pulling slurry tanks zipping by inches behind you. The light was very kind to me staying so constant that I could take my time. The wind was very chilly and was drying the washes a bit too quick, but I became so involved two hours were gone in a flash. 13in by 7in Watercolour.

 

River Stour, Dorset, watercolour, plein air, painting

Next day I went back to do the less interesting view from the other side of the bridge. The cloud shadows were regularly throwing either foreground or background into shade. I decided I would have the nearby river shaded which I now think was a bad call… with oils I could have jumped horses but not with watercolour alas! 10in by 7in Watercolour.

 

Mudeford, watercolour, painting, Dorset

This one of Mudeford was done from the oil that appears in the previous post. When I was painting the oil I felt I had chosen the wrong media so this was to find out. The result? Well better than the oil but still a little boring. 10in by 7in Watercolour.

Mudeford, crabbing, Dorset, watercolour

Slightly reluctant to post this one! Usually when I do a painting where a figure is front and centre I put it in first so if it goes awry you can start again without much time lost. But here I finished the rest of the picture then botched the figure! I post it as a warning to you all! 10in by 7in watercolour.

 

Melbury Hill, Dorset, plein air, watercolour

I got up very very early to do this one of Melbury Hill. I had seen the view a few days before and thought it might make a good painting but the actual day disappointed a little. Still on the way back I saw a different view that I will definitely be returning to do. I might have another look at this in the evening light. 10in by 6in watercolour.

 

 

April 15, 2017

Good Drawing

You have to be careful using terms like “good”. Because any one who hears a statement like “Good drawing is the key to good painting.” could jump to conclusions. My drawing is fairly straightforward, I draw what I see for the most part roughly where I see it and in the general proportions I see it. So when I make statements like the one above people assume I mean that good drawing is going to look like mine. They also assume I can only draw that way, not that I have chosen to work in that manner. In reality I have made my living from drawing and have been asked to draw in quite a few different styles for many different purposes. The one I use now is just the one I have settled on in my dotage.

The key to good drawing in my opinion is in my last sentence: Purpose. A drawing is good when it is fit for its purpose. That might be planning out a kitchen, or a study of hands for a pieta. Each will require a different approach. Each may require similar set of skills but in differing proportions.

Many people seem to approach drawing like writing a signature. They do it the way they do in their own manner and that is it. This can be fine but it is very limiting. When I was at college there was someone we knew who had what I now call a lovely line. His sense of how a line should move across the page was exquisite. I on the other hand had a rather clumsy and laboured line that struggled to flow. Even when I tried to make the shapes elegant they somehow didn’t really sing. I now realise that was perhaps just as well. My friend could only do that line, he would struggle to do an ugly one. I on the other hand had the ugly one well and truly nailed down and so had plenty of room to make the long journey to a certain degree of improvement!

I would like to report that I set to and systematically worked to improve my line but I didn’t. Like most people I struggled on with the one that came naturally and thought that I was stuck with it. It was not until years later that I noticed after years of drawing stuff for work occasionally an elegant line crept in here and there. Just the process of drawing all day every day had wrought a change.

It is hard to look back and work out how your own progress came about and for what reason. My first love with drawing at about 15 or so was architecture. I loved drawing churches, castles and cathedrals. Buildings are generally on grids so tracking where lines ran, their angle and where they met was something I became pretty good at. Unwittingly I had taught myself the beginnings of accuracy.

Accuracy. Now this is an unfashionable quality. If I was to poll my life drawing group they would mostly I suspect put accuracy very low down on their scale of important things to learn. When I mention it I get the reply, “Oh, I don’t do accuracy!” The majority would I suspect put “expression” at the top of their wish list of attainments. Yet I suspect the thing that is most standing in the way of their expressiveness is their weakness in the very area they dismiss so airily.

So what do I mean by accuracy? People tend to jump to the conclusion that it means getting things in precisely the “right” place. Like a sort of graph or the imitation of the tracing of a photo using direct measurement and observation. However that is not what I understand by accuracy. For a start the artist is a quivering mammal. Swivelling head, eyes and torso. Shuffling and bobbing about from here to there. They might be drawing another mammal who is also shifting about albeit unintentionally. The result of all this is that a line in a certain place one second is in a different place the next.

So accuracy is about getting something in a plausible and possible place, or more often recording several of them in the same area. You then have the option of strengthening or suppressing various lines to best express the changing form. However in order to collect these varied lines you need to be able to measure proportion, distance and angle in order to get your mark within the zone of beleivability. With figure drawing you do not just have placing individual marks, you have to relate each to the whole. Your first mark will always be right, it is the second and following marks and the relation ship between them that is critical. So it is possible to make an acceptable mark and then undermine it with another less well chosen one.

Quality. As well as where a line is there is also “how” it is. This can be how hard or soft it is. How assertive or tentative it is. How it changes along its length. How wide it is, what texture… there are an infinite number of combinations of all of these. Quality of line or mark is an area where I see great deal of confusion and once you think of all the variables then some sympathy is due! This is not helped by muddled teaching. I hear a great deal of, “Draw with a long stick dipped in ink.” or a badger dipped in tomato sauce… As if changing the medium or difficulty of application could somehow magically lead you to an expressive transcendence. The result is often an ugly mess, sometimes a quite nice looking mess, but only rarely has a great deal to do with the subject. This approach is so ingrained and hallowed I no longer really try to argue with it. Different media and means of application are a very powerful set of tools to express information or emotion on paper, but there must be intent, accident is not good enough. It maybe that an accident is the result of attempting to carry out an intention, it may be a happy one or otherwise, but the original intent needs to be there, not random activity hoping to get lucky. Which brings me to:

Intent. Why are you doing the drawing? Will you use the information collected to paint a picture? Use it as an accurate guide to build a kitchen? Is it a practice piece to hone your ability? Is it an experimental thing to find out what might be possible by some different approach? Is it finished work to hang on the wall? I think you can see that each of these might require a different type of drawing. The important thing is that you actually have an intention and are not just setting out randomly as you might on a doodle on the corner of an agenda during a particularly dull meeting. A drawing is as far as I can see always of, or for, or about something. You might well start out with one intention and discover as you work something else to focus on, but that still requires the original intent to be there.

Uncertainty. When we see things we take in a quick general assessment and then scan over in detail with a part of our eye called the fovea. This means we cannot see the whole figure all at once in detail. So if you resolve and make definite every part of the figure then the result will be stiff and lifeless like those laboured drawings from ateliers. In navigating the world we are unsure about quite a bit of what we see and one of the hardest things to learn in drawing is to reflect that uncertainty and its different degrees. If you have difficulty in estimating an edge that say runs around and out of sight then you can leave it vague. It will look better and even more realistic because when looking at the world our eyes and brain are dealing with this sort of thing constantly. This is why we are quite happy with sketches with bits unfinished or just hinted at. As Braque said, “If there is no mystery there is no poetry.”

When drawing you have an important factor on your side. The viewer wants to see something in your scribbles and will do their very best to fish some sense out of the morass of possibly ill considered marks. They will even pat themselves (and you) on the back for extricating some sort of vision from your effort. Don’t be fooled though they are really patting themselves on the back for being perceptive, not you for being a genius. When people look at a really good drawing it zips through their eyes and into their brains and evokes a response before they can do any analysis. If anyone looks at your drawing and then they are plainly taking a moment or two to formulate a response then it probably means your expressive marks have possibly not quite made the grade! Of course drawing is so hard that most of everyone’s effort will fall Ito this category. Every now and again though one will take flight and if you master the skills behind the art then that will happen more frequently.

I should follow that up with some examples of my life drawing OKish and not so OKish so you can see by the duff ones how hard it is to put all the above into practice!

 

Life drawing, figure

Here is a very unresolved one. I doubt if there is a single thing in the right place. It was done in 1min so I’m not too upset about that. What it does show is that your eye is very very good at picking the human form out of a set of approximate blobs.

life drawing, watercolour, figure

Here is a more resolved one done in 30min. You can see here that I leave each mark to stand. I don’t try to erase the ones that have gone astray. Nonetheless I can see I have over explained the closest arm and under explained the turn of the shoulders compared to the hips.

life drawing, figure, watercolour

Another 30min done directly after. Here there is less resolving and more uncertainty about edges but somehow the whole thing works better. The previous one was sketched out in pencil but this one was just painted. A painting done very quickly like this is a collection of different observations each observation varies in accuracy and certainty. The success or failure hangs on how these parts relate. You might get two parts that are really well described but not in the right position relative to each other. A worse painted bit in the right place might work better!

pen drawing, life drawing, figure

Here is a 30min drawing done with a specific intent. I was describing tone only and leaving the interpreting of volume and edge to the viewer. I intentionally reduced my options to a vertical hatch with only a few erratic fills to prevent it from being too mechanical. I allowed myself a very few lines under forms which were put in only at the last minute. The white adds a further step up in tone that allows the paper itself to play a major role. I notice I did in this case pencil out, as this sort of drawing is not “free” but analytical.

pen drawing, life drawing, figure

Here is a 3min one using the same mix of media. Here though line is of greater importance and the initial pencil plays more of a part. The white is really there just to push the paper back and the hatch to indicate shadowed areas. There is no attempt to show accurate tone values.

pen and ink drawing, life drawing, figure

Here is a sort of halfway house done in 15min. The difference to the previous two is that I am using the hatch to describe form and pick out direction and indicating the angle of planes. You cannot show everything in a drawing so you have to apply limits at least initially. When I fail to do this or cannot find anything in a pose that I can see how to explain, then a poor result is more or less certain.

life drawing

Another day another medium. For me it is important to chop and change my medium. Conte stick is very adaptable allowing you to use both line and flat tonal marks. This only a couple of minutes and you can see where I am testing out lines in different places. Once you have one line down it is easier to see where it should have been and add another.

life drawing

This was 2min but actually 1min, I spent the first minute wondering how to start! When you draw a line try to make is do as much as possible in a single stroke. Actually think about varying the pressure to make it change over its length. In this sort of time frame there is no possibility of accuracy so this drawing is made up of about 50 marks attempting to represent 50 rapid observations.

Life drawing, conte

20min This was done in tone with only a few lines here and there put in at the end. Many people start with the delineation then “fill in” or shudder… “do shading”. It is so much easier to do the lines last as you have all the tonal shapes already there to guide you. People feel I suppose that you need the lines to plot the form, but there is no reason you cannot place tonal blocks and shapes in roughly the right places.

life drawing

10mins. Here the tonal blocks are quite clear and the line less insistent. When I am looking for blocks of fairly consistent tone I often, at least for the first key shapes, softly mark out the boundary and placement and then try an fill that area with a single stroke. I see many people going in with marks that are to strong too soon. The feeling is I suppose that pressing hard expresses confidence. That however means you are possibly trying to say something about you and how you would like to be seen to draw, rather than your actual purpose which should surely be to say something about what you have seen in the model!

life drawing

Here is one where I rather lost the plot! There is at the same time too much and too little information. You can tell I am struggling by the addition of directional lines to existing toning. I was I think distracted by the foreshortening whereas the real story is perhaps about the tone values.

pen and ink drawing, figure drawing, life drawing

Back to the pen and ink. Note I have been careful to break my lines if I am delineating an edge. If they are too certain as the one on top of the nearest shin is then they undermine the whole. The little touches of white here are very important for such tiny areas of tone they make a great deal of difference to the whole. Always remember any added marks makes a difference to every other mark already there.

life drawing, watercolour

This was one from a whole days life drawing which is a real luxury. My plan here was to retain the whites at all cost to describe the light flooding in over the figure. It is always fun when something really strikes you about a pose. The hard bit is sticking to it and not getting distracted and putting too much in. About 20min I would guess.

life drawing, watercolour

Here I remember trying to keep it all to single brush strokes. Of course what you sacrifice by this approach is flow the result is more like a mosaic in feel. I had decided from the outset to describe angularity as that was what struck me about that particular pose. To that end I didn’t allow myself curved strokes only lines and blocks. As to whether those decisions were the best ones, who can say?

life drawing, watercolour, figure

Another from the same day. It is amazing that as I post these and see the image I immediately remember how I felt when doing them on the day. With this one I thought, “What the hell do I do with this?” Being very unsure I just stopped and looked. Eventually what took my eye was the fact that the bum and hips made an almost perfect circle! A very thin twig to hang a painting on but once I had that imaginary circle placed the rest sort of followed along. It is very hard to do a painting of a pose that looks weird from the outset. Even in a photo this pose would have looked quite abstract. So I was quite pleased to have got something down that made sense.

life painting, drawing, figure

Here is one where I really struggled. Almost in desperation at the end I added some body colour which unusually staved off complete disaster. Sometimes drawings get to that stage where nothing is particularly wrong but nothing really right either. Still, more like a battlefield than a work of art!

That’s it for life drawing for a while, these life drawing posts are always the least popular which is a little sad as I would always encourage any painter to regularly challenge themselves with attempting the seemingly impossible. As you can see from the images above only very rarely will you get a result that could be chalked up as a success, but the striving will teach you a tremendous amount that will help in any other painting you attempt whether observational or abstract.

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