Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

May 22, 2013


Why am I always so up beat about the probable end result when I start a painting? I seem to start every picture with a full tank of misplaced optimism. Experience should tell me that the chances are about 1 in 50 for a cracker, 4 in 50 for a corker, 10 in 50 for a passable job, 20 in 50 for a so so and 15 in 50 for a complete minger! Looking at it that way there seems to be some similarity in being a painter to being a compulsive gambler. I doesn’t take many wins to make hope spring eternal and the nags that failed to finish soon fade from memory. The odd thing is that painting a good picture doesn’t give you a high that lasts for long, the feeling is soon overwhelmed by the anticipation of the next one. As I get older this process becomes more and more compressed, if I do a picture I am pleased with then I am delighted of course, but next morning last nights triumph is consigned to the drawer, both literally and metaphorically.

I think this process is necessary for the making of a painting. The risk of failure is part of the attraction. Overcoming the odds would hardly be attractive if the probability of bringing home the dry cured bacon was pretty much a certainty. Which brings on the thought that before setting out on a painting I must unconsciously assess the risks of failure or success. It is always very difficult to observe your own inner workings, but thinking back this is probably true for me. Before starting a picture I run through in my head how I will tackle each stage. Some times a subject will present no new challenges. This does not mean the picture is not worth painting, only that I have dealt previously with similar problems and am pretty sure how to solve them. If I fail on such a painting, mind you, it throws me into a deep pit of despondent gloom garnished with self pity!

Sometimes however the picture you are contemplating is far from certain to succeed. There are some hurdles either technically or conceptually that are hard to assess until the process of painting the picture is well underway. Also when you start a picture then all that gung ho confidence drains away as the first few marks you have made stare back at you from the paper. There is an immediate mismatch between the glowing vision of your imagined masterpiece and the reality these very prosaic initial marks. At this point your careful plan for scaling the north face of Mt Parnassus becomes more like a wobbly tightrope walk over a vertiginous chasm.

Managing these expectations is I feel a large part of being an artist especially in the commercial arena. You need the optimism and confidence to get started. You need the risk and possibility of failure to progress. If you cannot manage the disparity between how you imagine a work will be and how it seems to be turning out then you will shortly have a cupboard full of half finished paintings! It is not a problem if you can’t summon up the optimism as you would likely never start a picture in the first place… We all suffer is some degree from this it can be quite hard to set to and start.

My method of dealing with this initial stage is what I call the “Head in the sand” method. For the initial stages I don’t assess progress I just try to carry out the actions without forming an opinion of their success. At the end of a key stage such as drawing out or blocking in. I re-engage the critical faculties and re-plan the rest of the work as necessary. It is hard to describe but what I think I do is mentally let go my glowing imaginings that prompted me to start in the first place and using what I have on the paper before me re-imagine the final result. I then use this as a guide to the next stages. As a picture progresses I might do this several times, each time the imagining of the final finished work becomes easier as it is based on more and more concrete evidence of progress so far. It is often in these last stages the magic happens, you once again have a mis-match between the imagination and reality but this time the reality is an improvement!

My this is hard to explain! I will try metaphor. I am at the foot of a mountain, I see before me the peak in the distance and imagine the wonderful view from it. From where I am standing in the valley I can see the first part of the path that will carry me to the summit. However once I have climbed some way my vantage point has changed. The summit looks different and further away, also the path towards it takes me along a ridge that I could not see from the valley. Still I can see my way forward and set out on my new path. As I reach the top of the ridge it all looks quite different. What had I thought was the peak was merely obscuring the actual top. Once again I must redraw my plans in order to climb the next stage. You could imagine all sorts of hardships and set backs here that might delay your progress, the way forward obscured by clouds etc. Eventually you reach the peak and look around. The view is very different from the one you imagined while still far below. To extend the metaphor (already creaking under the strain) even more, sometimes you find your progress blocked by an unexpected crevasse and must retrace your steps! Or you get to the top only to find the view is rotten…

There are a few steps you can take to make falling off a cliff less likely. Firstly take the time to break the painting down mentally into stages, a sort of route map. You might abandon this later but you need one to make a start. Next, draw the damn thing out properly! If you have a photo ref there is no excuse for not to getting the drawing right. Use a grid, print it out and trace, project, whatever it really does not matter. Better still draw it out in a preparatory sketch and rearrange it until you are happy. Then grid and transfer that. You may see artists, I am occasionally one of them, who just leap in with the paint, but that is the result of decades of doing it the long way. After a while with much practice you develop a sort of mental grid so that part of the job is not really skipped over. Don’t jump to conclusions part way. Just because your original aim is not possible anymore do not give up. Reassess, re-plan, build a new dream from the ruins of the old. Many, many times I have painted quite a different painting than the one I initially intended, many times probably a better one. The last and hardest one is to stop when it is finished, if something does not add to the whole don’t put it in, however much fun it might be to paint.

There are also things to help you advance. Don’t just paint “safe” pictures, take risks both measured and the occasional “long shot”. The list of artists who sank into repeating safe formulas for success is long and to my mind terribly sad. If you are painting a landscape don’t paint a stock tree in a manner you have done a hundred times before but paint that particular tree in that moment. If you always paint in a the same methodical way, experiment, throw the dice, you never know it might come up a six. Be aware though it will probably bounce off the table and end up under the side board!

Hey ho, I only intended to write a few words on the subject, but I find I have gone on at length once more, here are some pictures where you can spot me not taking my own advice!


Mousehole, cornwall, watercolour, painting, boats, harbour

I am trying to get some studio paintings done based on my recent visit to Cornwall. This is Mousehole. I assembled the view out of a few photos which

required a fair few adjustments. It is very rare that a photographic image is directly suitable for painting either in colour or composition. Taking advantage

of todays technology I roughly put the bits I want in place and then sketch over the top in photoshop. This way I can try different arrangements until I am happy.

Cameras especially on a wide angle setting distort badly at the edges of the field of view so I usually take a series of snaps with a 50mm setting. This gives a more

natural feel in my opinion, though it is quite a lot more trouble. Tonally I had to rearrange things so that the eye ran around the foreshore to the focus, also I wanted

a diagonal band of interest with quiet areas top left and bottom right. As you can imagine this means a slight redesign of Mousehole but I hope each adjustment is

subtle enough to keep the scene completely plausible! 1/2 Sheet Arches Rough.


Sennen Cove, Cornwall, fishing boats, sea, fishermen, watercolour

This is Sennen Cove on a beautiful evening. The light was cross the beach in this way for only about 2 min, so no chance of a sketch! I am still exploring

the balance I want between loosely painted areas and detail. It is interesting how the different finishes can be made to sit together. Small ares of detailed

interest trick the eye into believing the whole thing must be detailed. The intention in doing this is not to save work but to avoid the stiffness that too much

overall specific detail causes. It is very much the fashion to paint everything in a frenzy of wet into wet and though I often like this style it is quite limiting

in the moods and qualities it can express. Bold bravura brushstrokes etc are superficially exciting but have difficulty in expressing quiet subtle moments unless

they are completely amorphous. Also I ask myself does the world require yet another Zbukvic, Wesson or Castagnet? I add this aside because I get weary of

people telling me I must be more loose, be more free etc. I am perfectly capable of painting in that style, I did so in my twenties for a while, but don’t choose to

nowadays unless the subject is appropriate. This one put me through the mill rather. I drew the whole thing out only to have the sky wash reveal a sizing flaw

that made a bit of paper very absorbent… after a certain amount of cursing I had to redraw on a new sheet! 1/2 sheet Arches Rough


Cattle, cornwall, watercolour

An old one, it is always interesting how your style changes, there is much I would do differently if I repainted this. I may indeed revisit old paintings to

see what I make of them now. It’s Cornwall from a previous visit, I was painting the church when ambushed by bullocks! 1/2 sheet, Saunders rough.


Nude, life painting, figure, woman, watercolour

A few life paintings from the last session. I was experimenting with pre-toned paper here using acrylic white along with watercolour.

Interesting but a little gloomy, so after half an hour I tried the same thing in pure watercolour.


nude, figure, life painting, woman, watercolour

Here is the result of another half hour on the same subject, much better though it is a struggle to get enough described in that time

due to drying. Wonderful fun to do though.


Nude, figure, life painting, woman, watercolour

A sucker for punishment I tried the toned paper again but this time was more liberal with the acrylic white. Once mixed with watercolour it is very similar

to gouache but easier to overlay. I took about 45 minutes to get this far, but much better.


Nude, figure, life painting, watercolour, woman

Last one of the session. A lovely pose so I reverted to pure watercolour again. I used a few bits of white to clarify. I find it is important

not to try and conceal this sort of edit it works much better if done obviously as it integrates with the drawing. Life drawings are a sort of

history of observation and the signs of that exploring add to the qualities of the end result I feel. Off to France next so there may be a delay

before next posting!

May 18, 2013

A Trip to Cornwall

At last the painting season has truly  begun! I have a few painting expeditions in my calendar this year, holidays with friends are lovely, but the painting opportunities are limited. On this trip however I was kindly invited along with members of the Wapping Group to join the East Anglian Group of Marine Artists for a weeks painting in Sennen Cove in Cornwall. The great thing about this sort of visit is that the whole thing is arranged around painting. So many thanks for the invite!

Packing for such trips is always perplexing. What media should I take and how much paper, boards and canvas? Will it rain, blow or be hot as an oven? With these eventualities in mind I usually start a week before, assembling stuff to take on a sofa. By the time the trip is a day away the sofa is creaking with the weight of painting sundries and I am considering hiring a small truck! Severe editing then has to take place… three easels, two must go. Pastels, acrylics and sundry media are discarded. Four pochade boxes of various dimensions, again one is enough! Will I really cover 30 boards and ten canvasses with oil paintings in six days? The canvasses go and half the boards too. Do I need six kinds of watercolour paper? I shall not go on, you get the idea. I was sharing the trip with Steve Alexander of the Wapping Group so two painter’s sundries had to be accommodated in a single vehicle… fortunately Steve paints smaller than I do!

We took a leisurely journey down looking to paint a bit on the way down. The weather looked like it was not going to play fair. Severe storms were forecast and when we got as far as Somerset and arrived at Berrington Hall, where we thought we might paint a bit, we found all National Trust properties were shut in case trees landed on people! Out of sheer stubbornness I did a quick watercolour anyway to cock a snook at the uncooperative elements. Real painters laugh in the face of hurricanes. As is often the case with dramatic weather the light effects were beautiful with sudden breaks in the hurrying clouds allowing the sun to light up swathes of countryside and making fantastic contrasts. All of which is, due to the conditions and the brevity of the effects, hard if not impossible to paint. All you can do is take a few snaps and hope you can remember how it really was. I’ll just start with the paintings this isn’t a travelogue after all.


Berrington Hall, Somerset, watercolour

This is the quick sketch I snatched from our abortive visit to Berrington Hall. The sun was flickering in and out like a strobe light so I had to fix the shadow

patterns in my memory. You can’t really consider composition in such quick paintings so I just try and catch the basics of the scene as directly as possible.

Nonetheless I don’t shortcut the process and do a quick pencil layout to get everything placed correctly. The one thing I do differently to a more leisurely painting

is that I often lay in the darks first and overlay the mid tones and finally do the light tones, the reverse of my usual watercolour process. This is very fast as the

darks establish the structure immediately. The downside is that you have to lay the next two layers very carefully in single strokes so as not to stir up the work

already done. I finally restate the darkest darks, the whole process takes only about 20min at this 7in by 5in size.


Sennen, Cornwall, dawn, plein air, oil painting

The first morning. Having looked at the forecast the best light of the day looked to be early. So full of the joys of spring and fuelled by misplaced confidence

I set out at dawn. This time of day is very often the most beautiful but also the light is changing at its fastest. The only hope is to just set to and paint as fast

as possible, ignoring details and trying to get the basic tones true to what you are seeing. To make the whole thing harder the light on your painting and palette

is far from ideal and the final work if you are not careful can look wrong when seen in good light. To this end it is important to mix your colours using experience

as well as eyesight! If you are mixing Cadmium Red or some other beast of a colour into your tones then caution is advised. This is Sennen looking over to Sunny

Corner Lane. 14in by 10in oils.


Sennen, Cornwall, sea, plein air, oil painting

After that I went down to the shore and painted this. The light as dawn progresses moves faster and faster so I had only 15 min to splash this in. It is very

rough and ready but combined with a photo it will be invaluable for a watercolour I have planned. 12in by 10in Oils.


St Just, tin mine, Levant Mine, cornwall, chimney, watercolour.

Steve and I then set out after breakfast to see what might be painted on what was becoming a grey and rather breezy day. We ended up at the Levant tin

mine which clings to the cliffs near St Just. This is the second painting I did as an oil of the main mine and engine house went horribly wrong! I am much

more likely to miss the target with oils alas as I just don’t have the command over the medium that I have in watercolours. It is something that frustrates me

but the only way to get better is to work at it and accept the catastrophes that inevitably occur. That doesn’t stop me from cussing and moaning though!  I did

this to cheer myself up, it only too 15 min or so and is probably the best painting of the trip. Watercolour 1/4 sheet arches Not.


Sennen, watercolour, plein air

The end of the day looked like this… and the forecast for the next day looked a bit mixed to say the least. This is looking down to Sennen from the window

of Atlantic Lodge where we were staying. 7in by 5in watercolour. I have been using a Liquitex acrylic white marker which is rather useful. It seems to sit better

in the picture that chinese white or gouache and can be washed over to tint it. Here I have used it to put in the buildings and washed over with a soft grey blue.


St Ives, Cornwall, plein air, oil painting

We headed to St Ives in the hope that should the weather turn bad we could paint from shelter. I had terrible trouble with this. It is not a very “me” subject

too much like the millions of standard seaside boaty views that infest the many galleries in the town. It is quite changed from the original plein air as it was

reworked on a following wet day. As I was with other very experienced painters all tinkering with their minor masterpieces much advice was given! The result

is even less me I’m afraid, though I learnt a fair bit from the process that will help with further efforts. Oil 14in by 10in.


St Ives, watercolour, Cornwall, plein air.

After doing the previous one twice and leaving it unfinished I took advantage of a brief spell of sun to do this sketch. Much happier with this, the

composition has much more going for it. St Ives 7in by 5in watercolour.


St Ives, watercolour, plein air

Last St Ives one. The weather was deteriorating severely with showers coming in quick succession. As one of these was clearing I did this. The conditions were

very difficult with the wind trying to blow away anything that wasn’t nailed down and flurries of rain interfering with the washes. My palette ended up

completely covered with sand. Still despite the obstacles probably the best of the day. 7in by 5in watercolour.


sennen cove, cornwall, oil painting, plein air

Last one of the day the clouds cleared for a decent sunset and the light was fabulous for a brief while. This is from Sunny Corner lane looking across

to Sennen Cove. It was terribly windy and I had to grip my pochade with one hand while painting. Oils. 12in by 10in.


Lamorna Cove, watercolour

The next day was pretty grim. A completely flat grey light. At least the rain had abated so Steve and I set out to Lamorna Cove a popular subject of the

Newlyn School of painters one of whom changed his name to Lamorna Birch… I shall be leaving my moniker alone though as Deptford Rob sounds like

a bank robber not a painter. These outrageous plants whose name I forget were growing by the stream so I painted them as an exercise. Such sketches are

never going to be art, but fun to do nonetheless and technically quite difficult. 7in by 5in watercolour.


Lamorna cove, cornwall, sea

It wasn’t worth doing an oil or large watercolour so I contented myself with another sketch. Then the rain started and we headed off a little down cast by

the conditions. 7in by 5in Watercolour.


Levant Mine, St Just cormwall, tin mine, watercolour

We headed back via the Levant tin mine where the light had perked up a bit. Not to last alas. 10in by 8in watercolour.


Levant, st Just, Cornwall, watercolour

We had a look along the coast as we headed back looking for spots to paint on the following days. This is not far from St Just, the rain was coming in, so done

sitting in the car with the wipers on! Very tricky. 7in by 5in watercolour.


Atlantic Lodge, sennen, cornwall, interior, watercolour

The next day was a washout. 70 mile an hour winds and driving rain. So we all titivated out previous paintings and to fill

in time painted this interior. Great fun to try and paint the subtle flow of light from the window. I must do more interiors

they are rather fun and hard to do. 1/4 sheet watercolour.


Cape Cornwall, the Brisons, watercolour.

There was a lull in the rain so I went out shopping in St Just and went down to Cape Cornwall to see what was there. The sun had come out and lured me

off down the coast path looking for potential subjects. It was still and sunny but I could see a huge squall approaching across the sea. These are the Brisons

which stand out to sea near the cape. On my way back to the car the squall hit and I was nearly blown over by the wind. There is no doubt wild weather is

very trying but it also makes for wonderful moments of light. 7in by 5in watercolour


Cape Cornwall, sea, watercolour

I told Steve of the delights of Cape Cornwall, so as he was desperate to get out we headed back to catch the last of the light. Far to windy to paint outside

so we worked from the car. As we worked the subject slowly became invisible until Steve muttered, “I can’t see the subject or the painting, or the palette, but

still I paint!” After a fit of the giggles we retreated to the warm and dry. 7in by 5in watercolour.


Mousehole, cornwall, oil painting, plein air, harbour, boats, fishing

This is Mousehole, an eye-wateringly pretty fishing village. I am kicking myself now for just painting one of the standard views. I’m afraid I hate the

result. I got it far too busy initially so I simplified it a fair bit once home, I might try and make it work better once dry. I think some coloured glazes both

warm and cool cold unify and make it hang together better. It’s not bad exactly but just boring. I was a bit cast down by this, so the only one of the day.

oils 20in by 12in.


Cape Cornwall, boats, plein air, oil painting

For our last day we went to back to Cape Cornwall. A lovely sunny day. The light was very dramatic and eminently paintable. I got the distance in without

mishap but lost my way slightly with the boats. Once I got it back I could immediately see that the contrasts on the boats was not strong enough so I darkened

 the shadows and suddenly the whole thing worked. I don’t think it took more than 5min. It is so easy to miss the obvious when painting plein air due to the

intensity of the involvement required to get the whole thing composed and painted before the light moves on. 14in by 10in oils.


The Brisons, Cape Cornwall, oil painting, plein air

Last one. We moved down the coast a bit and did the Brisons. The light was gorgeous and the sea changing from moment to moment. Steve and I

painted two pictures that could have been from different days, but they were both there briefly! 10in by 8in oils. That’s it I have put in both good efforts

and bad as that is the truth of painting. No matter how long you practice and whatever level of skill you achieve failure is only a breath away!

I wasn’t going to do a travelogue but seem to have done so, ah well never mind…

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