Rob Adams a Painter's Blog

December 22, 2014

What is a picture?

I occasionally try to reassess where I am, having just had a very unsuccessful exhibition with no sales or indeed visitors to it. It is easy to be despondent, but I am a veteran of pulling myself up by my bootstraps so I tend not to go into a emotional spin as I would have done a decade or so earlier. I have sold enough paintings to know people will buy them and with no visitors going to the show, I am plainly in the wrong place at the wrong time. The problem for me is that I don’t really want another career, I have had three or four already. I am forced to the obvious conclusion that successfully selling pictures will take more of my time than painting them. At my stage of life I just do not have that time to spare. I am hugely fortunate that I don’t need as yet to sell them to put food on the table! So what I want to consider is what a painting should and should not be from my own selfish point of view.

I do a particular sort of painting which is intended to be processed in a certain way. I don’t paint something that has any surprises hidden away. So no incongruities, my early work was rife with them and I still do them occasionally as in this year’s Christmas card. They are fun but a cheap trick really. I could make my images out of a lot of smaller things, buttons insects you name it. This is quite popular direction at the moment but another cheap trick that soon palls. I could make my paintings very big or very small, or paint them on an unexpected surface like an elephant. Again fun, but only for a moment. So what am I up to?

Well, I don’t want any stylistic, methodistic or conceptual quirk. No easy fashionable trait that appeals to some ephemeral interest. I want to trim away any connection to conceptualism, I am not a purveyor of ideas in paint. I do not want to foist my emotion upon you, or the sweaty recesses of my subconscious. I don’t want to shock, educate, challenge or disgust you. I do not want to explore new possibilities or break new ground, I want no box to think outside of, no edge to bleed. I do not want to have originality and novelty as my guiding light. I don’t want to re-appraise the past or anticipate some imaginary future.

I paint on flat surfaces that are rectangular not because they are interesting, but because they are mundane. They are the average the unremarkable, I don’t want what I do to gain any especial significance from its form. I don’t wish to record for any posterity or comment on any contemporary shared experience. I want neither the poetic , the gritty reality nor the romantic. Of course I inevitably do many of the things listed above, but perhaps I should count it as a failure when I do. It is easier indeed to list the things I do not wish my work to contain than to dissect out the things that I do.

So, what is this picture I wish to paint? Firstly it is a picture. This means it is to be looked at and processed with the every day equipment we use on the actuality that surrounds us. So it is an illusion, but a knowing one, there is no expectation of fooling anyone or deluding them. It is easy to be lured down the path of abstraction, to believe that by simplifying you are distilling and increasing the potency of your work. Simplicity and complexity are however just tools in the box to be used at will, not ambitions to be striven for.

I suppose I get nearest to my aim very occasionally with a simple life drawing. Perhaps something that took 5 minutes. You have no time to consider or plan, no chance to fear failure. There is merely the surface, the paint, the eye, the hand with the brush and the subject. There is one other thing though. There are the myriad tangled paths laid down over many years in the few pints of porridge in my head, without these nothing can occur, but with them maybe something approaching a small miracles can be achieved, humble ones it is true, but miracles none the less. Lazarus is raised from his bed, but not perfectly, a bit of a squint and a bad limp, but I hope breathing not dead!

On a few watercolours recently I really tried to track my thinking, emotion and get at how that related to the actual process and progress of the making. Which bit of me is being satisfied and what is it that provokes me to continue. Firstly just the exercise of a skill that has been built up over a lifetime is rewarding. Not in any deep sense, but in the simple sense of solving a difficult crossword. All paintings start with the hope of what they might be, like a skier you are at the top of the mountain with the steep route down laid out before you. Like our skier I anticipate the run ahead. Also like the skier once you have pushed off gravity and dealing with events on the ground to be covered form the actual experience. So there is that excitement of thrills and potential spills about the activity. The analogy breaks down though due to the fact that a painting is a thing that accrues from many small actions many of which are evident in the final work.

The final moments of a picture are the ones that have the greatest emotional weight. The idea of when something is finished is a difficult one that I am I think going to struggle to define. I actually don’t like the word finished, complete is a better term I feel. In the event a painting could be considered complete at quite a few stages in its development. We all know the sinking feeling that your picture probably looked better half an hour ago! The real reward though is when it all comes together and the result is greater than the sum of the actions that made it. That is what I mean by complete, when it needs nothing added or taken away.  Only the artist feels this feeling, whether it adds up to a painting that others might enjoy I don’t know. I do know that a day that includes a painting that I am pleased with is a very good day perhaps indeed that is all that matters!!

This post is quite heavy on the life drawings, as I have said these are some of the things that please me most but are least liked by others I suspect. Certainly I can’t imagine them ever selling. I have been very busy building a new studio but have managed to sally forth and paint a few times.

 

Blackheath, sunset, London, oil painting

This one of Blackheath in London was very fast and furious, the sun was setting fast so it all had to be done in 30 min. Great fun to do, the colours are especially hard to judge as the light fades on your palette and painting until you can’t really see what you are doing. I try to remember where I mixed each area of colour so that once home I am not unpleasantly surprised! 10in by 16in Oils.

 

Child Okeford, Dorset, High St, Oil painting

There could hardly be more contrast! From glorious sunset at the end of a lovely day to the grey beginnings of a very wet one. This is Child Okeford where I now live, so you will see more from here. I have a few unfinished ones of this scene as it looks good in different lights. Unfortunately the best views are from standing in the road so they will have to be done from reference. 10in by 14in. Oils.

 

Dungeon Hill, Dorset, watercolour, painting

This is the view from the interestingly name Dungeon Hill just south of where I am now in Dorset. There is a forgotten hill fort on top of the hill where I will paint again in the future. 8in by 10in watercolour.

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, watercolour, Painting.

This is the wonderful Hambledon Hill on a very chilly morning. I had to really struggle to get the soft feeling that the light had and to keep the areas of contrast balanced. 6in by 11in Watercolour.

 

Sketch, figure painting

Rather a swathe of figure work now I fear! I have joined a local group of life drawers. The session takes place in a village hall where on wall is glass. I absolutely love the light which streams in from one side. This is 10 min.

 

life drawing

Even less time for this, 5min or so, just enough time to get the silhouette and the stance roughly in.

 

Life drawing

Another very quick one, these quick studies are very good for honing your observational skills, there is no time to be fussy.

 

life drawing

Another 5 min. Watercolour is wonderful for these rapid studies.

 

figure drawing

A slightly longer pose this was 15 min I think.

 

life drawing

I loved doing this one, I only just had time to pick out the figure from the initial broad washes.

 

life drawing

At last a 30 min one, I love foreshortening it is so hard to get it convincing and not just looking misshapen!

 

life drawing

This session I tried to really reduce my media to just two elements, wash and line in two colours. I start with the wash and then add just enough line to explain the form.

 

life drawing

I very much enjoyed painting this against the light. You have to try to avoid over stating any area. Here I overworked the hand on the knee, whereas the hand on the chin is just the right level of tone and line.

 

life drawing

More foreshortening I was almost sitting on that foot!

 

life drawing

I actually stopped before the pose finished here, there seemed nothing more to add.

 

life drawing

On the next session I added toned paper to the mix.

 

Life drawing

Very quick again about 5min.

 

I added touches of chalk here, maybe paint would have been better.

 

I will do more of these line and wash ones they are great for stating the basics, the line and the wash each compliment and don’t do each others work.

 

life drawing

Longer poses I think paint rather than chalk in future. The line gets a little lost here I must be less heavy handed with the tones on the longer poses.

 

life drawing

Last one I got all the elements working decently here. Sorry for the swathe of life drawing now for something completely different…

 

Christmas Card

Many thanks and a Happy Christmas to all the people who read my waffle or look at the pictures and the odd poor soul who peruses both!

January 13, 2014

Of Convention and the Abstract Nirvana

Filed under: Essex,Ireland,Painting,Thames,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 12:33 pm

Oh what high reasons we must have to put paint brush to paper nowadays. Looking at a bit of blurb on the Royal Institute of Watercolour Painters one person was reassessing the landscape, they don’t appear to have been referring to any previous assessment which seemed odd. Another presented what looked like a bit of old wall which was really a worried bit of overworked painted paper. He was concerned about almost invisible scuffs and scrapes, pleasant enough in a polite Ben Nicholson, don’t scare the sheep sort of way, but hardly plumbing the intellectual depths. One was keen to be challenging convention, seemingly unaware that the conventions she was challenging had died the death 50 years ago and that almost every artist since has been self-righteously kicking the long cold corpse ever since. Also she seemed to be challenging convention by sticking firmly to the current set of conventions, which as I keep on saying are getting quite long in the tooth.

Yes artists revolted against the stultifying grip of academicism and the history painters and rightly so, but that was a hundred years ago as I have mentioned before. That battle has been fought and won. To present yourself as still fighting the forces of “traditionalism” today in the 21st century is absurd one would think. It all comes I think from the lovely feeling of kicking against the traces. The Bauhaus the Blau Richter and a plethora of others were kicking against real traces not ones long broken by the efforts of others! How easy it is to revolt against something that is long gone and a mere ghost. You can be revolting but still gathered into the bosom of the establishment which thinks that revolution (of the right sort) is the bees knees.

The triumph of contemporary art as we term it is an odd thing at first glance. Most of the practitioners do the most dreary of day to day actions. In fact the drearier the better, so arranging a few thousand tyres into a big submarine or painting a thousand individual dots is just the thing. Personally I would rather spend all day putting the walnuts on a never-ending line of walnut whips as they would give the public more potential joy, but each to their own. Much of it is so little fun it can be safely farmed out to assistants and art facilitators of various kinds. While you as the artist are left to do the meeting and greeting, marketing and partying that are I suspect the mainstay of the artistic life. It is only when you look at it this way you realise what a strong hand modern and post-modern art has.

You don’t have to spend years and years getting skilful at something and then realise you still have an endless amount still to learn. You stand very little chance of being sneered at for your lack of talent. It  brings job opportunities where doing bugger all but appearing mysteriously superior is the mainstay of your day. You have a secure but slightly racy position in the social hierarchy. You have a simple answer to the “What do you do?” question at parties that prompts interest and conversation. You are freed from lots of tiresome social requirements such as consideration of others, modesty and any dress code. All of this and you are also a cool subversive revolutionary storming the barricades of tradition and convention! As the troops that once defended these barricades are long dead you don’t even need take any risk. All in all, what’s not to like?

Well there is a downside. You cannot assess your own progress, as that is decided by others. Nobody really wants what you do except as maybe a counter in a financial game or a notch on a collectors bedpost. You have really not helped anyone much except yourself, which makes for the emptiest of lives. In John Carrel’s “Smallcreeps Day” the protagonist seeks to find out what the part he has been assembling his whole life was actually for. He traces it through the huge factory and eventually discovers that the other half of the factory is devoted to disassembling what has been already made. Returning the parts to bins to be taken for reassembly once more in a futile endless circle. That is why artists talk of reassessing and exploring, they want somehow to feel they are doing work of some social import. Well an artist might cheer an individual life here and there, but to change, reassess or reform society itself is aiming perhaps a little too high. Though taking up the stance that you might be spreading some important message must be good for the ego I suppose.

Another underlying trend is the jealousness towards science. Ever since science has been such a success everybody tries to steal its clothes. The snake oil and cosmetic firms, the nutritionalists and quacks all seek to talk up their work with sciencey words. Even religion wants a piece of the action despite the self evident risks. Art suffers in much the same way. Scientific terms such as investigation, experimental and so forth litter artists statements. As if they are undertaking some portentous and important work of discovery or exploration which will further the wisdom of mankind for the benefit of all. Well I am pretty sure that is not the case. I feel however to make something humble that brings a little light or joy momentarily into somebody’s life is a worthwhile act. But science it ain’t.

Art Historians seem to have suffered from the science bug from early on. Art history became presented as a series of discoveries and advancements to ape the progress of science. So we have the “discovery” of perspective, and the imposition of the progress towards abstraction via the Impressionists. Almost as if abstraction had not existed before, ignoring the fact that patterning and the arranging of shapes was likely the first sort of art mankind made. There is not even the slightest reason indeed why abstraction should be considered an advance. Still artists and  art writers like to plot progress towards abstraction as if by casting off of shallow representational concerns the artist is  reaching towards nirvana and a true purity of expression.

I suppose at some time in the past an artist was a seer. I dare say religion, art and even power shared the same bed in prehistoric times. Even in the Renaissance artists held a special position responsible for encouraging the troops. The power had long since been stripped from the profession of course, but they had a real place in the hierarchy. Oh how we are fallen now. We purvey decorative items for the home and investment items for the rich and gullible. This is not altogether a sneer. I feel making something beautiful that has a place in someone’s home that they may glance at now and again in a pleasurable manner is a very worthwhile activity. Even if the feeling of the owner is partly made up of pride of possession. I have items like that of my own. I have an 18th century watercolour that hangs in my bedroom. I may not notice it for months at a time, but every now and again it catches my eye and brings a little pleasure. What more could an artist ask?

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Leigh on Sea, Thames, Essex, Brass Monkeys, Plein air, oil painting

Somewhat short on paintings this post, I have been rather busy with commercial work. I have at some stage to stop doing paid work but at least

I have reduced it to a quite small number of days that I like to get out of the way early in the year! The picture above is from the first outing for

the Brass Monkeys this year. It is the glorious mud of Leigh on Sea in Essex. I have put a photo below which shows how easy it is to be over-

whelmed by the scene before you! When presented by such a vista it is very easy to become paralysed by the sheer immensity of it. Also while you

paint it is hard to see your own effort as anything other than a very dim reflection of the real thing. here I tried to get down the feel of the light

first and foremost. The arrangement of boats etc was very secondary.  10in by 16in oils.

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Leigh on Sea

As you can see my poor wee painting is swamped by the glorious scene! Interesting how the camera sees the whole thing in more cool tones

than my eye. People often say how much better the eye is but I have to say I often like what both see. I often peer at the little screen of my camera

to see what the technological seer makes of the view I am about to paint. Indeed it often gives a very good idea of the main tonal divisions. This is

because the eye had a built in constantly updating tonal adjustment that varies over the whole scene before us. It is like a multiple exposure but can

have a flattening effect because we very often get the mid to dark areas too light. Here we tend to see the mud as bright as the sky, but in reality it is not.

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Leigh on Sea, Essex, plein air, Brass Monkeys, oil painting

I narrowed the focus for this one. I reality the blues ranged from Turquoise to Ultramarine, but I made them all Cobalt based to give harmony.

I have painted this view before and made a bit of a mess of it so was glad to make a better fist of it this time. I shall do a studio picture from

this day but it probably won’t have the charm and immediacy of these 45min sketches. 8in by 10in oils.

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Leigh on sea, Essex, Brass Monkeys, oil painting

Last one from Leigh on Sea. The sky had been fantastic all day, I could easily have just done repeated sky studies. The wide horizons make Leigh

a perfect venue for the activity. 8in by 10in oils.

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Gleninagh, Castle, Burren, Ireland, Plein air, oils

Some of the backlog from Ireland. I didn’t get the chance to do many oils. This is Gleninagh Castle on the wild Atlantic shore of the Burren.

I have painted the distinctive rock formations of the Burren a lot of times now and am beginning to get the hang of the stuff. The blues of

the sky went muddy on site so had to be freshened later. 8in by 10in oils.

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Camus Bridge, Tipperary, Ireland, plein air, oil painting

This is an un-named castle at Camus Bridge on the Suir. I had only a very brief go at this only half an hour. Though it looks a peaceful scene

I was standing with my pochade on a wall with traffic whizzing past my backside! After a lorry nearly took me out I decided to retreat…

8in by 10in oils.

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