Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

April 10, 2017

Chairs

Chairs are interesting objects, they have been around for a very long time and have many variations. What I am interested in here though is the chair as an everyday object which is a more recent arrival. In earlier times and cultures chairs were really thrones as they indicated status. Ordinary folk sat on floors, benches, chests or stools. Even when chairs arrived into domestic use  it was only the master of the house who had one, hence the word “chairman” to indicate precedence.

A chair is a sort of seat, but by sitting on an object you do not make it a chair. So if you sit on a rock it briefly becomes a seat not a chair. A chair is a seat for one person and has a back, no back and it is a stool rather than a chair. A chair can have arms and be upholstered. It can rock, it can fold, you can have one in your garden or your kitchen, your dentist and your barber both possess them.

My interest here though is in the chair as an everyday object that combines both aesthetic and practical qualities.

If a man with little skill screws together a few offcuts of wood with no particular care, other than to conform to the basic chair shapes, the result might have perfectly good utility. It might even be comfortable. It is unlikely however to be beautiful or desirable as an object.

If a master craftsman makes a chair it will also conform to the general shape, it may or may not be comfortable. I think it  would almost certainly be more pleasing to the hand and eye and definitely more desirable as an indicator of the owner’s status and discernment. It might however be no better or even worse than the rough one as far as utility goes.

You can with a bit of thought quantify the different qualities that could be embodied in this common object.

  1. Utility. You must be able to sit on it. If a Dadaist adds spikes to the seat then it is no longer a chair.
  2. Quality of materials. A chair can be made of cheap stuff or of valuable stuff. Gold or withies.
  3. Individuality of making. It can be made in a factory, or even nowadays with almost no human hand at all in vast numbers. It can be made by the hand of one individual, or several, or many.
  4. Quality of making. A person with no skill might knock one up, or a skilled bodger might turn the parts to one. A CNC machine might dice up wood into chair parts or one of Thomas Chippendale’s craftsmen might hand carve the elements to an elegant plan.
  5. History. It might have been made, owned or sat upon by someone of note. It might be rare, only a few having been made.
  6. Design, decoration, elegance and other aesthetic considerations.
  7. Value. this might depend on all of the above. As well as rarity and state of repair.

Looking at the list above you can see any specific chair might have more or less of any of the above qualities. The summation of these attributes might all contribute to the desirability or otherwise of the chair. They are all, after no 1, add ons to the basic chairness, things that are not necessary for its basic usage.

I am of course considering chairs for the possible parallels to paintings. Chairs have the advantage of being shorn of most of the egotistical and mystical baggage that anything labeled “art” carries.

So I will go back through my list of attributes of chairs and consider how they might relate to the object called a painting.

  1. Utility. A painting’s purpose is to be decorative. Many artists will raise their hackles at the idea, but I cannot think of any painting that does not have decorative as a part of its makeup. Paintings are made to place in or on manmade structures. They take their place there with whatever else is present. Their function is to supply foci and visual interest, or to signal the wealth and status of the owner whether an individual or an institution. If your painting for example is painted in dry ice and will last only a moment then it fails the test of utility. Paintings of course have another utility that chairs may have a little of but paintings should have in greater degree. They are decorative as I have already stated, but they must also engage with the senses as window does, as openings to another place. They must take the mind from the space the painting is in and transport it elsewhere.
  2. Quality of materials. We accept paintings can be great whatever the quality of the materials. For example The Scream by Munch in painted on cardboard. Generally though I cannot see why paintings should not be marked up or down for quality of paint, substrate etc. Such factors have a direct bearing upon longevity and durability. There are many paintings whose worth has declined due to age and decay.
  3. Individuality of Making. This is plainly of more importance in a painting than in chair. Nonetheless many valuable and important paintings are the work of more than one hand. The increase in concern about this factor is perhaps quite recent, although many contemporary artists such as Bridgit Riley have for many years produced their work by using teams of people. Damian Hurst also commissions or employs others to make his work. Chippendale or Sheraton did not personally construct their famous chairs. Due to this I don’t see why we should care too much about who actually makes our paintings either. Indeed some painting equivalents such as photos are created by people pointing cameras and are displayed entirely through the use of machines.
  4. Quality of making. Many would say this has little or no bearing on a good or bad painting. I disagree, the degree of skill of the makers, whosoever they may be, impinges upon most of the other considerations we take to determine the worth of an object both commercially and aesthetically.
  5. History. Or as they say in the art world, provenance. With painting this is mostly concerned with being sure the object is as advertised and not a fake. Perhaps not as important as we believe. A painting being faked does not necessarily impinge on any other factor, especially if it is successful one that has not been spotted.
  6. Design, decorative and aesthetic quality. Well again the modern artist might quake at the idea of being decorative, but as per attribute 1. pretty much the whole reason for bringing the object into existence is its decorative usage. A painting that cannot be displayed in a space is a bit like a chair with spikes on the seat.
  7. Value. This is just about the same as for chairs, except of the role galleries play in bidding up or buying their own work in order to protect the value of those in stock or already sold to collectors.
  8. Imaginary, attributes. Here is perhaps where paintings can differ somewhat. A Russian icon for example has an extra attribute and use as an object of prayer and meditation. However these attributes are not embodied in the object itself but in the user (Value and History are much the same in this regard). Chairs could have this quality too children might use a chair in an imaginary game as a fort or a car. Although these qualities are imaginary the perception that the object might possess them nonetheless impinges on both Utility and Value.

Gore Vidal said, “Craft is always the same, but art must always be different.” A sentiment most contemporary artists and my past self would have agreed with. I now lean towards the belief that craft is inextricably interlinked with art and there is little chance of art without skill, not because the skill is necessarily evident in the work, but due to what the learning of a skill does to a person. In music a skilled musician might play a simple piece that a beginner might manage, but  the rendition will still likely be more nuanced and deeper when played by the experienced player. For paintings if they do not, when examined, cut through the wall upon which they reside and transport you then they are not doing their job. You would not read novel that did not take you elsewhere and neither perhaps should you bother to value or attend very much to a painting that does not manage the same feat.

After all that you are probably feeling a little faint, so here are some soothing watercolours.

 

Regents Street, London, plein air, watercolour, painting

A visit to London to set up the Wapping Group show at the Mall. Also a chance to snatch a few brief moments to paint the city. This is Regents St. I have made small boards to clip to my smaller watercolour palette so I can paint standing up holding the painting in one hand. This worked fine but I should have taken single sheets of paper rather than my Moleskin. Although the book is small and light it starts to feel like it weighs a ton after 30min of painting. This is a backwards watercolour so I did all the dark accents first and then added washes over the top. 7in by 5in watercolour.

Princes St, city of London, watercolour, plein air, painting

This is looking down Princes St towards the Exchange. I have thought about doing this scene several times but this is the first time the light was really good. Another reverse watercolour, some accents are under the washes others to strengthen over. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

 

Friendly St, Deptford, London, Watercolour, plein air, painting

It was nice to visit my old stamping grounds. This is Friendly St in Deptford. The light was fantastic I could have painted all day. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

 

St Martins Lane, London, watercolour, plein air, painting

Last one from London, this is St Martins Lane. A bit of a rush job but I only had 30min or so before I had to do my stint watching over the exhibition. 7in by 5in Watercolour.

Dancing Ledge, Dorset, sea, Cliffs, watercolour, plein air, painting

This is the view you get as you walk down to Dancing Ledge on the Purbeck coast. More of this next time as I have been trying to get some coastal pictures done. The trouble is that the sunrises and sunsets are getting further apart with a painting wilderness in-between. I only got the drawing, sea and sky done before I had to move as it was a Sunday and it was busier than London had been! 9in by 6in Watercolour.

Satans Square, Dorset, Sutton Waldron, watercolour, plein air, painting

I posted a previous watercolour of this which is here for comparison. The spring is well underway and all those glorious purples and russets are being overwhelmed by a tide of green. I know it is odd, but as painter I am always a little sad to see the winter go as it is better for painting really. The light is low all day and the colours are more varied. There’s no getting around it that green paintings don’t sell for some reason. Most painters avoid the issue by painting the shrubbery in any colour but the one they see… but I feel I should give it a go despite the certainty the result will be in my attic until I pop my clogs!

I shall have to post again soon as my painting is getting so far ahead of my blogging that I shall never catch up…

January 18, 2017

Christmas in Co Clare

Well that is the old year over with and the new one started. As always it is a moment to take stock. I started this quest to focus on my own work about 6 years ago now. The quest to improve has as far as I can tell born a certain amount of fruit, but it is always hard to tell for the artist as your expectations and hopes change too, so you always tend to feel you are falling short. I have hugely enjoyed learning new ways to do things and getting a more refined view of things I already thought I knew. You never of course completely learn anything you only add to or update your store of experience.

This blog has been a pleasure to do also, forcing me to think more clearly about various aspects, both practical and intellectual, in order to set down my thoughts. Reading back I don’t always agree with my earlier self, which is again a good thing as it shows I am perhaps not too set in my ways. I have been astonished at how many people have viewed my paintings and ponderings. People obviously have far too much time on their hands!

Painting as a business has been slower and harder to assess. The activity now pays for itself and supplies a tiny profit… I work, I estimated, for the hourly rate of 50p an hour, so I will have to take myself to court for breaching the minimum wage! In actuality I could have probably made enough to get by on. The problem is that I would have had to halve the painting time and devoted those hours to actively selling and promoting. This would increase income and lower the output of pictures. This would hardly matter as I suspect very few artists sell more than 20% of their output and many more far less.

It is very hard to assess your own progress. You are too close and it is almost impossible to view the facts dispassionately. The tendency is to veer between elation and despair, which is probably about right if I can keep the swings to a moderate amplitude! I find it a little hard to divide up my attention, I am always being tempted by new and interesting byways. Printing has been the only one I have allowed myself to take which had proved very worthwhile. Forcing me into new ways of thinking in order to exploit the process.

If I was to point to one worthwhile thing I have discovered so far it would be that limits are very important. We live in an age of almost unlimited possibilities and an almost complete lack of rules. We tend to scorn anything that we perceive as reducing our choices, after all barriers are there to be overcome, are they not? Well if they are real barriers yes, but todays barriers are tissue thin except for the one of unlimited choice which we tend to ignore.

Rules have another importance which is harder to get your head around. Without them it is impossible to track your progress at all. Without aims that can be defined how can you estimate degrees of success or failure? Is the picture I just painted good or bad or what mix of the two? At what point and by what criteria do decide if a painting is a triumph or an epic fail? What is the role of technique in success or failure? I increasingly get to the point where I can’t find anything technically wrong with a painting, but it still doesn’t quite fly. Just because you can do something does not mean that you should, technique is very beguiling in this respect.

Other painters often talk to me of their quest to simplify and reduce, which I understand and share, but can’t somehow think it quite that straightforward. A picture after all could be averaged to a single tone if the process was taken to extreme. What if the subject itself is most notable for its complexity? The idea is of course that we exclude detail that is not telling and distracts from the whole. The theory is that as in making whisky you distill and increase the potency of your image. Like all oversimplifications it is beguiling but doesn’t really bear up under close examination. There are after all many great works of art that are a blizzard of detail. If I imagine myself standing next to the 15C painter Van Eyck and saying to him,” It’s a good effort my dear chap, but rather overworked don’t you think? Have you tried being more expressive? Perhaps you should use bigger brushes.” it doesn’t quite work, I think you will agree.

So a quest for the new year is: what is the relationship between the quantity and quality of content? What is the relationship between a picture that makes a good first impression and one that will beguile and intrigue over time? Like all things to do with art I don’t expect to resolve anything, just go through the process of considering which will perhaps shed a little light.

So on to Christmas paintings. Watercolour was the order of the day and mostly just sketches in my Moleskin. I also didn’t manage much painting on the spot but just looked, sketched out and took photos and painted in the evening. Not an intentional methodology but rather a pleasurable one I found.

Ireland, County Clare, watercolour, Burren

Here I am in the Burren in County Clare in Eire. The area is very distinctive with its limestone pavements, grikes and erratic boulders. I always paint at least one picture of this subject when I visit. A large amount of imagination here as my reference was a black silhouette. I rather enjoyed trying to paint my memory of it a few hours before. The result gets nearer than the photo to the mood, the rays of light which were not in the reference I later realised were the result of dirty spectacles!

Kilthurla, Galway, Kinvarra, plein air, watercolour, painting

A road near Kilthurla close to Kinvarra. A sketch done on the spot very very fast as the light was going rapidly.

Kilthurla, Kinvarra, ireland, watercolour, painting

The same scene from reference that evening, would you have known which was plein air? I’m not sure I would. All plein air painters reading this will now feel sure that they could spot the one done from reference instantly. But what if I was fibbing and it is the other way round?

The new line, Clare, Ireland, watercolour, painting

Now if you tried to do this en plein air you would be dead! This is called the “New Line” it is a famine road built by a program to give work and thus payment to the impoverished during that great and bitter catastrophe where for the most part the wealthy stood by and allowed the poor to starve. Some of these roads were never finished and remain as roads to nowhere. The labour must have been immense with it all being done by hand in the harshest of landscapes. They must have slept and lived on site. As a result these roads are arrow straight and nowadays a race track for cars.

Finvarra, watercolour, painting, ireland

Rather over cooked this one, got the balance between foreground and background wrong. This is on Finvarra which is almost an island.

Ballyportry, castle, co clare, watercolour, painting

This is Ballyportry castle near Corofin. A subject I have painted many times. We had wonderful skies throughout my visit. Watercolour is so good at describing luminosity. Far harder in oils.

Ennis, ireland, watercolour, painting, street

This is County Clare’s county town Ennis in a pre Christmas frenzy. To complete the scene you should imagine distorted and very mawkish country and western seasonal songs being played through tinny tannoy speakers scattered liberally around the town. I had to stand in this spot for nearly 20min until I got a few moments when it wasn’t solid stationary traffic. Its hard being a painter sometimes.

weir village, co clare, ireland, watercolour, painting

This is near Weir Village in Co Galway. I hadn’t explored this part of the coast and will return as it has an interesting flavour with low-lying land divided by long inlets from the sea.

Dunguaire Castle, Kinvarra, Galway, watercolour, painting

This is Dunguaire castle near Kinvarra. I sketched this out pretty much completely and then “coloured it in” in the evening. The underlying wash went awry so I added body colour which in the end worked better than the wash would have… serendipity in action!

Dysert O'Dea Castle, Co Clare, ireland, watercolour, painting

This is Dysert O’Dea castle the local clan chieftains’ hangout. This is a very quick scribble as I was plodding around soggy fields looking for good viewpoints. I saw several but all impossible to get to without swimming.

East Clare, watercolour, painting

Don’t know why I did this random road in East Clare… anything to distract from the first hangover of the New Year maybe…

Kilmacduagh Abbey, Galway, watercolour, painting

Actually got most of this done on site. Sitting in my nice warm car mind you… It is Kilmacduagh Abbey which I have done many times. Pleased with this one though so might do an oil from it.

Kilmacduagh Abbey, drawing, pen and ink

To that end I did a drawing from the watercolour. Think I prefer the wider format though.

Dunguaire Castle, drawing, pen and ink

Dunguaire Castle again. It is in a great position I must do an oil next time I go over.

Dunguaire Castle, sheep, drawing, pen and ink

Dunguaire again but with added sheep. I will do an oil of this as I haven’t done a sheep painting in a while…

Motte, drawing, ireland, pen and ink

I forget the name of this place not far from Durrow, it is an old Motte on which a stone castle would have stood. A bleak spot and I got very cold.

Aughinish, Kinvarra, pen drawing

This is the causeway to Aughinish near Kinvarra. I had just sat and watched a truly spectacular sunset and not bothered to paint it! I have learnt to just appreciate sunsets and only paint the more tasteful ones.

Well that is it, as always I am surprised at how much I got done at the same time as feeling I should have spent less time spacing about and more time painting.

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