Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 24, 2017

Art and Craft

Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Portraits,Portraits,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 1:56 pm

When I was at art college doing a degree in Fine Art Sculpture practical matters were of secondary importance and the purview of mere “technicians”. The painters didn’t even have that as practical issues were ignored, no technicians required. They did not even know the very basics such as how to stretch and prime a canvas decently. There was no colour theory, no teaching of proportion, or any of the basic painting and drawing skills. I dare say it is still largely the same today. So what were we being taught?

Well that is a tricky one. We had a certain amount of art history, aimed possibly at removing any hint of fuddy duddy traditionalism from our heads. Most of it was about how the modern art project swept to victory against the forces of traditionalism from the Impressionists onward. What was taught to us by the fine art tutors is hard to define. A lot of it was swathed in art speak so we were quizzed about our “realms of concern” or what our art was about. In old fashioned parlance “subject”. A fair bit of teaching was aimed at fitting you somewhere neatly into the current art genre of exploration and questioning. The questioning part was I have found useful, though I now realise that one set of unquestionable things had merely been replaced by another. The focus was I suppose almost completely on “what” and “why” but very little on “how”.

I have puzzled for years about my art college experience, trying to put it into some kind of rational context. At first I felt angry as it wasted the years when I could have learnt things that took an age to find out and learn for myself later. Accurate drawing, anatomy, colour theory, usage of art materials and compositional theory, all these would have been easier if an experienced knowledgable person could have taught me the basics. I feel if I had learnt all that at that age when we are like a sponge I would be further on in my craft than I now am. The thought that much the same thing is still happening to young people in fine art colleges today is a sad one. So where did it go wrong? Well from writing and thinking on this blog over the past few years I have come to have the inkling of an idea.

The art revolution occurred at a moment when painting was in a difficult place, indeed because it was in a difficult place. Photography had arrived threatening a large chunk of the bread and butter work of artists. Mechanical reproduction of images had reached new levels of cheapness and quality. Also examples of the art of other cultures were becoming commonplace and more importantly proving very popular. This followed on the blows delivered in the previous centuries where art had lost a great deal of its purpose as a tool for selling organised religion. A divide had opened up between artists serving the reproduction and design market and the pictures on the wall market for the wealthy which was largely served by “gentlemen” painters who were required to operate within the bounds of the polite society of the times. This is what we now call “Fine”. Similar artificial divides had been in evidence in the previous centuries such as the silly arguments about which of the arts had precedence over the others.

The idea that particular sorts of painting were of different worth took hold more firmly in that time. History Painting was top dog, followed by Portraiture, then Landscape and finally Still Life. The atelier system as we think of it today really came into being at this time too, with the society painters forming cliques of young followers to carry the master’s style far and wide. The Napoleonic amalgamation of the separate academies into one had brought a new stricter systematic method to the teaching of all the arts. Then the revolution occurred. At first it was basically a scientific take on how we see prompted by the novelty of cameras. The camera caught real moments and the painters naturally wanted to emulate this. Previously all paintings were imaginary staged composite concoctions made by posing models and arranging props to tell an idealised narrative.

So the first thing that went was explicit storytelling narrative, we still had figures and activity, but less moralistic and idealistic content. compositions became as the photographic ones – truncated and cropped. Subject broadened hugely encompassing everything from dreams to everyday moments. We all know the resulting progression through abstraction to the plethora of isms we now have. A few things though did not get thrown out with the baby, some things stuck to the tin bath. One thing was fashion. Painting and other art still served fashion. It might have become a wildly oscillating Alice Through the Looking Glass version of fashion, but nonetheless  what was required of us at college was that our work fitted and did not step outside of the established fashion which was generally then known as modern now just called “contemporary”. The other thing that was retained was a simplified version of the precedence of the arts. With art for display on walls, or plinths, in galleries or for investment set above work that served any another purpose.

The baby in the cold outside the door was craft or skill. Something hardly ever mentioned in my college years and after without the word “mere” inserted before it. Something to be avoided not sought. Craftsmen had skills and they were for our new snooty art elite very much tradesperson’s entrance. Suitable for illustrators and their commercially tainted ilk only. I worked in the commercial arena for 30 years after leaving college. In that time I didn’t paint a single picture to go in a frame. Partially I think because of my disaffection with the fine art world in general being compounded by being told by others that as I was an illustrator I couldn’t be a “real” artist.

It was only later when I was building and painting film and theatre sets and having to employ people that I found that ex “fine art” degree students were easily the best people to have on your side. I have thought about this more in recent years and realised that although like myself they were missing many skills they had inventive strengths and would come up with new ways of doing things. A vital quality when many of the jobs were novel, such one where we had to build a model city entirely out of biscuits! They also very quickly learnt new skills and ways of doing things. Specialist commercial artists were less flexible and more likely to say something was impossible to do.

My views were again challenged when I gave up commercial work to paint landscapes. The people in this world had skill in plenty, but their view on contemporary art were of a simplistic “a child could do it” and “emperor’s new clothes” nature. Then I came across the Art Renewal movement and the reconstituted atelier system. These people wished appallingly to return to the artistically constipated time of 19th century France with its vapid underdressed sirens and bogus historical painting. For me, despite my earlier disaffection, this was just throwing out a different baby to freeze in the snow. There is always the desire to return to some previous elysian past, some golden age populated with people who would of course agree with us. On examination though these visions of the past never hold up and you might well find that they in turn hankered for a return to the values of a yet earlier era.

So too hell with fashion and daft snobbish divisions. I want to keep the freedom of subject, thought and method that the modern movement brought. I don’t mind silly and badly thought out conceptual art or indeed any of the fun of the fair Turner prize fodder. However I also feel we should make a place and recognise the worth of people who spend life time fully mastering an artistic skill. What they produce enhances the present and the result of their labours will likely in the future be among the objects our age is remembered by. That you cannot go to art college and expect to find anyone there with a fully developed skill in drawing capable of teaching you, only pretentious drivel about “mark making” etc, is appalling.

So what can be done? If you look at the Crafts Council site it is at first hard to work out what they want. The dread words “experimental” and “contemporary” are much in evidence. Quite a bit of the featured content could be invisibly dropped into a Fine Art council site. Painting and drawing are noticeably absent… illustrators oddly don’t get to be craft at all. I get the distinct feeling they would prefer craft to move towards proper art rather than that pesky skill stuff. On the fine art side there is nothing. Well NAFAE the grandly titled National Association For Fine Art Education… which appears to do nothing whatsoever at public expense. Their meeting reports are a miracle of purposelessness. So who decided on the curriculum, quality of teaching and general standards in fine art colleges? Well no one. There are no checks at all as far as I can see as to whether these publicly funded institutions are doing their job. Indeed there would be no point in checks or assessments as no standards or aims are in place to be measured.

Now these things are decided by someone, but who, and what criteria? Looking at it critically the purpose of Fine Art colleges seems to me to teach students to become teachers of fine art in Fine Art colleges. Only a tiny, tiny minority actually end up make their living from selling or exhibiting. So gainful employment is mostly only possible in an art college and indeed most fine artists, even the well known ones, are dependent on lecturing work. How these jobs are handed out is another mystery. I searched for adverts… they are thin on the ground, virtually non existent! Here is the what the job entails blurb from the one application I could find:

“With a background in emergent/experimental forms of Art practice and/or related areas of creative cultural practice and research, you will lead on the innovation of integrated approaches to studio art teaching and the critical and historical context of practice. The successful candidate will have extensive knowledge of recent practices,theories and frameworks in contemporary art, and be able to teach both Fine Art and Fine Art & Illustration students through innovative approaches to teaching and learning.  The post-holder should have a developing research profile in scholarly or practice-based research with ambition to contribute to the School’s growing research agenda and must have a proven track record of exploring new and emerging modes of practice and scholarship.”

So what exactly is to be taught? “Practice” is a word used 5 times, I Googled “Fine art practice”  and a blizzard of art colleges came up, but no one seemed too keen on defining it in any way… even the links to the colleges only led to vague assertions about “methodology” if skill is mentioned it is mostly linked with the business skills required for making your way in the gallery and institutional world. The message re the art itself is that you will be tutored, but not taught.

So how are these jolly nice, well paid and I suspect cushy art tutor jobs being handed out? I cannot answer this as there is a deafening silence on the subject. I suspect they are handed out through personal patronage, no doubt dressed up in the appropriate “open to all” clothing by being briefly advertised on individual college sites. There seems no attempt to reach far and wide. All this must in my view result in an incestuous clique and all my experiences lead me to believe this is mostly the case. Only people who back the current methodology and status quo can gain entry. So the system is self maintaining for the main purpose of continuing the institutions unchanged existence, not primarily for educating anybody. Students are merely the fodder that bring in the cash from the state which keeps the show on the road, teaching them anything of practical worth is by the by.

It is traditional to blame someone for public institutions gone awry, but really if a cushy number turns up people will always try to keep it going. They have no incentive to try to institute or reach definable standards, just the reverse. People in the system mostly did not learn any transferrable practical skill so they are hardly likely to welcome that becoming a job requirement. For government it is attractive too. If there are no definite standards or assessments then no failures can occur. They can tick the “supporting the arts” button and relax.

I have gone on enough maybe, but I find it infuriating that a young person with ability and interest in art cannot get a decent unpretentious education to further their hopes and ambitions. So what might a solution to breaking the cycle look like? Well I don’t think the current fine art colleges will or can change. So replacement rather than revolution might be easier. However private colleges are only open to a wealthy few and suffer from wishing to return to some imaginary age equally as hide bound as the current fine art establishment. What I think might do the trick is to undo the divisions between commercial craft and fine art. If we taught the “how” to people and left the “why” and “what” to the individual then the students could gravitate towards the theoretical/experimental or the practical/skill side or indeed anywhere in-between. Delivering such a change would be a life’s work as only setting such an establishment up and then hopefully pointing to its success and benefits would allow incremental change to spread.

Every area of art and craft has its outer limits and exploring these is important, but so are the less glamorous areas of skill and craft which in my view supply the firm terra cognita from which exciting leaps into the unknown can be more effectively made.

No exciting leaps here… only a few hopefully entertaining bits of shuffling along…

self portrait, oil painting, rob adams

It’s my ugly bonce again! I found myself at loose end unable to make a start on anything and with a pile of rapidly congealing expensive oil paint on my palette. Not the best reason to do a painting maybe. I am working very hard on tone at the moment. How to navigate areas of subtle close tone convincingly. The eye always wants to give every part of an image to much contrast and it can actually be very hard to determine the true relative tone of any area. I couldn’t be faffed with drawing so I gridded up my mirror with a felt tip pen. This isn’t so accurate as to cause stiffness, but will allow you to get everything in proportion without too much trouble. It is very important to look at your painting in the mirror at regular intervals as it is surprising how far an eye can migrate with several wiping outs and re-paintings. 10in by 16in Oils

 

East Hill, Corfe, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

I went to Corfe to deliver pictures to the Gallery at 41 who have kindly taken me on their books. It was a glorious day so I walked up to Ballard Down and then to East Hill to look down on the town. If ever there was a subject where close tones were to the fore then this was it. A real battle not to see too much and to get the tonal layers properly separated but still related. I ended up with 3 distinct areas on my palette which I tried to keep separate as much as possible. 10in by 8in Oils.

 

Corfe, Dorset, plein air, oils, painting

I was on my way down as was the sun when I came across this scene and just had to paint it. Very awkward as I was on a killer slope and my ankles were not amused! Fortunately the colours were already pretty much mixed and just needed warming to reflect the sun having dropped. I laid in the whole thing in 4 simple areas, sky, distance, the town and the bushes. I tried to get a mix of warm and cool in each area whilst keeping the tone more or less flat. The only thing to do after that was to indicate and hint at the detail within each zone. 12in by 12in Oils.

Badbury Rings, Beeches, avenue, Kingston Lacey, plein air, oil painting, Dorset

Such a great time of year to paint! This is the wonderful avenue of beech trees near Badbury rings. No chance of doing anything other than indicate the mesh of branches with general tones. Here I laid in all the sky shapes first and then the green bits as that more or less defined all the drawing. The base tone of the board was a mottle red brown so I could see the painting as a whole from quite early on. Quite pleased with this as I have made a mess of this subject a couple of times before. It is still not quite what I want, but I can see maybe now how to get a decent painting out of this wonderful subject some time in the future. 16in by 10in Oils.

Kingston Lacey, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

Later the same day… this is around the back of Kingston Lacey near the church. Oaks rather than beeches. Trying to catch the feel of the late autumn was my aim, some might not paint the van but I needed something to build a rough composition around. 12in by 8in Oils.

Beeches, Badbury Rings, oil painting, plein air

Last one of the day and the best I feel. Not a spectacular composition but just the thing to showcase the wonderful light. Again I did the sky areas first so that it defined the drawing. Also it was the main event so that also helps to get the picture headed in the right direction. 12in by 8in Oils.

I have been busy with things other than painting so not a many paintings have got done. The prospects aren’t good for the next month either with the threat of a serious bout of framing hoving into view. I have let the Lino cut printing slide… where does all that time go!

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…

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