Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

December 14, 2016

Art History

I have recently waded through two vast Pelican histories of art in Europe 1780 to 1880 by Novotny and 1880 to 1940 by George Heard Hamilton. They are both written in the sixties. They are fascinating for what they leave out: no Sargent who was very active in Europe, no Zorn, no Joaquín Sorolla. The Novotny book especially has an agenda that is to see past painting in the light of what was to come in the future. I notice they no longer publish it which is no surprise as to me it seemed very flawed. The other is well written and thoughtful and a pleasure to read even though I find the story told a little simplistic.

After finishing them I sat back and tried to take stock of why I felt uncomfortable with them while they were still fairly fresh in my mind. The story they purport to tell is of this great voyage of discovery, artists as explorers or scientific researchers making breakthroughs and discovering new lands for human expression to thrive in. The drive for this is assumed to be the vaunting ambition by the geniuses the era was fortunate to be blessed with and the rejection of the old. The word revolution is often used. Also the shock of the ancient regime when faced with these prodigies of modernity is given great weight. This I feel is overstated as for the most part societies seem to have taken up anything novel with considerable enthusiasm with the “Rock and Roll is the work of the Devil” voices in the minority.

In other walks of life the ideas of the sixties, central town and social planning have been reassessed. We no longer believe men with university degrees, pipes and glasses reorganising the world for the benefit of the lumpen and ignorant masses is a good or a proper idea. Much of the idealised view of science, medicine and advancement to a bright shiny future have also been reconsidered. Art history and art opinion though is much the same today as these books written in the sixties it is as if new thought has been frozen with anything fresh roughly warped to fit into the pattern already laid down.

It is with this overall pattern I take exception. I think the flaw in the whole thing is in the view of what topology art might inhabit. It is perhaps seen by the authors and indeed current artists and historians as a land with boundaries that can be pushed back with terrae incognitae waiting on the other side of a line to be explored by plucky creative souls. The other analogy could be with science, unknowns being researched with bold experiments, analytical thought and inspired perception. The assumption is that there is an endless ocean of artistic thought to be navigated and conquered. Unlike scientists or explorers though the past is discarded by art historians, beyond a certain point its relevance only in that it was a step towards this new and always contemporary fertile ground.

It is I agree a wonderfully romantic vision. It flatters the artists and casts them in a heroic light sailing against the winds of tradition to discover new and uncompromising truths. It gives art historians a context, a larger theme and a style of language to set their writings in. It offers endless opportunities for faux scientific and cod philosophical art speak. It is all in all the most comfortable of rebellions, a risky business with chance excluded, derring do with no actual danger. The problem I feel is that the whole premiss is untrue and misleading. It distorts our ideas as to what culture is, narrows our possible horizons and imprisons any of an up and coming generation to an ever turning, but ever stationary wheel.

For a start, human created content is not really like a land with undiscovered parts. Though if you must have the metaphor you might say that the land is always the same, and only the travellers and the journeys they make within it change. The science part is less easy to recast, there is knowledge theory and method to be learnt, but no breakthroughs only seeing old knowledge with fresh and ever renewed eyes. For each generation of artists there is much the same dressing up box of media, intent and style available, it is what they choose to do with them that counts.

This tiptoes into the realm of philosophy which is another field that contemporary art and art history tends to look at in an envious manner. It is a flattering thought that artists creating objects are deepening the well of human understanding in some manner. Words and ideas however are the tool for this purpose not paintings or sculptures however much they label themselves conceptual. This perhaps explains the increasing need of the visual arts for words to augment and explain or more often confuse.

Both books shuffle uncomfortably over the pivotal moments in the fragmented story of the period they cover.  Hardly any mention is made of the great exhibitions of tribal art and the trickle of cultural objects from far away that grew into a flood. Photography is passed over with hardly a mention, even though it was to destroy a large part of the reasons why many cultural objects were made in the first place. The industrial revolution that replaced objects we used to make with our hands and minds with cheap and flawless substitutes gets little attention. The social turmoil that changed a business dependent on a few hugely wealthy clients to one supported by many with more humble means would seem worth a mention too but doesn’t get one. Even the invention of private and later civic art collections in the form of galleries and museums seems not to have been really considered as a possible influence on the nature of what is created in that time period.

Everything in the books is driven by the need to create some narrative. A story line to hang the work of artists of each period on, like washing pegged out in a neat easily comprehendable row. However to my eye the history and nature of created objects is actually arranged in a wildly non linear manner and has the possibility to be categorised in a plethora of different ways. There have been cups made from the dawn of time and drawings too. In each particular era the human souls who created them came to the act of making afresh. They saw some results of what those who came before had done, but each time for them the learning, the doing and the achievement was entirely new.

For example you cannot sensibly put the describing of the human form which has gone on for 30,0000 or so years into a neat progression. At different times the purpose of such objects could swing from the individual to the universal, or from the observational to the symbolic, so there is no progression. We had stick men then and they are still with us today, we had carefully observed recordings of animals and they are also with us still. We have had abstract patterns and arrangements in our lives since the very dawn of culture. They have not got any better or advanced in any meaningful way, the idea of steady advancement is irrelevant to that category of created thing. You can more sensibly place Picasso’s portraits with tribal works done in similar manner many times over the eons. All you can say is that both the 19thC Spaniard and some 10thC African took that particular hat out of the dressing up box and gave it a very pleasing whirl.

The function of art is really I have come to believe very simple. It is simply a thing crafted to engage and enrich our perceptions. The world as it stands does this, art objects are merely those that are made by conscious intent. One occurs the other is made to occur. The rest is merely a matter of where the creation might stand as far as effectiveness and universality goes.

A mixed bag of work this time I am hopping here and there and cannot seem to settle to one thing.

Ramsgate, plein air, oil painting, Kent

A visit to Kent, this is Ramsgate. Wasn’t really on form and several paintings hit the scrap pile! This one worked better though. 10in by 7.5in oils.

 

ramsgate, Kent, oil painting

This was done on my return and is Ramsgate again, very interesting town with lots of varied subjects. I spent quite a lot of time just wandering and looking, which in its way is just as rewarding as painting. 16in by 10in Oils.

 

Ramsgate, oil painting, Kent

Yet another Ramsgate one, not sure this is quite done, it is up on the wall at the moment to consider. Some pictures get to a point where they are on the very edge of working well, but some niggling feeling tells you there is more to be done. The hard thing is to establish exactly what that “something” is of course. The green awning is crime suspect no 1 at present! 14in by 10in oils.

 

Ramsgate, The belgian Bar, interior, pen and ink, drawing

Last one from Kent. We went to the Belgian Bar to eat in Ramsgate and I could not resist a quick sketch. Pen and Ink.

 

Dorset, road, watercolour, painting

Back to Dorset and the light has just been amazing, one of the best Autumn seasons I can recall. Especially as due to building works I missed last years season entirely. I have done this road a few times and it always rewards. Here I did two watercolours at the same time, this one only got to pencil stage but it is a good thing to do as there is always waiting around for the damn stuff to dry so having another picture on the go keeps you occupied. Watercolour.

 

Dorset, landscape, watercolour, painting

Here is the other in the pair. This one got a bit further on I got it drawn out and the shadows blocked in. Here the washes went over the shadows rather than working from light to dark. I like they way the overlaying washes slightly dissolve the previous layer. You do have to be vary careful and lay the washes in one pass as stirring it around at all makes mud very quickly. Watercolour

 

Dorset, landscape, watercolour, painting

I decided I might make a linocut of the same scene and this is the first stage in reducing it in complexity. I prefer to do this in stages, the next stage I will do on the computer as I can preview the different plates easily. Hopefully with more experience I will be able to leave out that stage eventually. Watercolour.

 

Milton Abbas, watercolour, Capability Brown, painting, landscape

Another one that has linocut potential. This is Milton Abbas where the lord of the manor moved a whole town so that Capability Brown could improve the view. This is a section of Mr Browns efforts! 9in by 6.5in watercolour.

 

Trees, watercolour, dorset, painting

One that didn’t quite fly, I had done an oil of this which is below and wondered if it would make a print, so this watercolour was just to see if it would. The answer is probably no! 9in by 6.5in watercolour.

 

Dorset, trees, oil painting, road

Here is the oil, I made a fair few changes to the road and sky after this scan but this is when it was mostly done. 14in by 10in oils.

Thats it for this batch, have a fair bit more to post but the Christmas season is approaching like an express train and I am unprepared!

Here is this year’s Christmas card… a good one to all if any who peruse this daubing and waffling!

Christmas card, drawing

March 20, 2015

Of Luck and Calculation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, Watercolour, painting, art

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

 

Dorset, watercolour, painting, art

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

 

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset, Watercolour, art

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

Old Compton St, London, pen and ink, drawing

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

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