Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

August 3, 2019


Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , — Rob Adams @ 11:25 pm

When writing this blog I occasionally revisit topics and then write something which disagrees with what I wrote before. I don’t find this remotely embarrassing as I have come to feel that any position on any subject should be up for rethinking and revising at any point. As I get older the cliche, “Set in stone” becomes less useful. I have previously commented on how the idea that the artist only paints or creates for themselves is a flawed one as any artwork presumes a second party appreciating it. I argue also that any artwork only becomes art in that moment of being viewed by another rather that when the artist creates it.

My discomfort with the idea of the artist creating an object of magical or iconic significance remains. However I now feel there is perhaps more to the personal satisfaction and reward element in an artworks creation than I had allowed. Much can be learnt from picking an idea apart but conversely sometimes the parts then don’t adequately express the whole anymore. If you give a disassembled phone to someone who had never seen one before then they would be unlikely to get much of an idea of its original purpose.

Many if not most serious artists will talk of being driven to paint, or be obsessed with painting, or be passionate about painting, or that they only live to paint… etc…etc. They quickly descend into expressing their inner selves and so forth. As a landscape painter I tend to think that my inner-self isn’t really very well described by a Dorset landscape! However my inner life is quite well described by the anticipation of doing a painting, the immersive process of painting it and the feeling of satisfaction or disappointment at the end of the process. As I have got better at it there is also the reward of others appreciating your efforts which feeds back into the urge to do more.

As well as painting I also play music and it is this that has prompted a partial rethink. I took up playing late in life but ever since it has been a constant factor in my life. Indeed I probably spend more time playing than painting. 95% or more of my playing is practicing or learning, only a small percentage is someone else hearing me do it. For many years no one at all heard me play, it is only recently that music has become a cooperative rather than an individual experience. Music if not recorded is an ephemeral thing, once the tune has ended and the last reverberation faded there is only a memory left, and that soon in its turn fades. The act of painting in contrast leaves physical evidence behind.

There are similarities. The learning, practicing and gaining of skill. The result of each is a stream of information enriching (we hope) the mind of another. The dissimilarities are that one is performed the other mostly not. A poem, to consider another art form, could be either read or listened to. In the first the poem travels through the eyes as a painting does. In the other it travels through the ears as a tune might. In the first all the freight of meaning is supplied by our own reactions to the words, in the other there is an overlay of the person delivering the words. A painting might be considered as a performance that leaves a trace behind from which some shadow of the actions and processes that made it can be inferred.

Which brings me to the title of this post. When other artists talk of only doing a painting for themselves without any interest or care about who might view it I find it sounds unhealthily self obsessed. There is a knock on from this that they often aver that only the opinion of the artist matters in relation to their own work. IE all criticism is null. You only have to make a critical observation to such self sufficient souls to find out that this is mostly not really the case! It seems self evident that we do care what others think of our efforts. If this is the case then to some small degree we must have made the thing in the hope of a positive reaction. We make a painting to fulfil our own hopes and ring our own bell, but also in turn hope that there is later positive proof that it in turn chimes with another. In a word affirmation.

So perhaps my selfish artists are not quite so selfish as I had thought, it should have been obvious to me that whatever the assertions of creative purity and self reliance are, affirmation from outside remains an important factor. It is partially a personal reaction of mine that I often disliked it when people said, “Oh I don’t care!” when caring is actually one of the most important things we do.

Salisbury, Wiltshire, watercolour, plein air, salisbury cathedral

A dose of watercolours. This blog is getting a little mixed up vis a vis timeline with paintings a little out of the order in which they were painted. Not that it matters I suppose. This is Salisbury cathedral looking down Castle St. There is really alas only one place you can stand and paint, I would prefer to be nearer and in the road! Still a lovely scene and I really enjoyed painting this. The light remained good for far longer than I expected so I got it all done. 15in by 6.5in watercolour.

salisbury cathedral, Wiltshire, plein air, watercolour

Later the same day… I ran out of time on this one and didn’t really nail the drawing well enough… resulting in a slightly floaty Salisbury cathedral. 12in by 6in Watercolour.

Swanage, Dorset, Watercolour, beach

A couple of Studio watercolours, this is Swanage. Actually a compilation of several visits. Very nice to paint without the pressure of getting it down on the spot where the conditions often undo your best efforts. 14in by 7in. Watercolour.

Swanage, Dorset, Watercolour, painting

A companion piece to the previous painting. I love Swanage and all the activity. I shall do an oil of this eventually for my one man show in October in The Gallery on the Square in Poundbury. Both this and the other sold very quickly in Gallery 41 in Corfe. 14in by 7in Watercolour.

Stour, Flood, plein air, watercolour

This is the River Stour in flood. More of a war zone than a work of art! Once I was set up and had the first washes in the wind blew my easel into the flood paper and all. I was very lucky in that my paints fell off or they would have been lost. I nearly went in myself as I just grabbed one of the legs in time. Now that is what I call wet into wet! Then it rained furiously on me, finally the fates were kind and the sun came out and a stiff breeze dried out the swamp allowing me to finish. 12in by 8in Watercolour.

Peveril  Point, Swanage, Dorset, plein air, watercolour, sea, waves

Peveril Point in Swanage. More weather! It was blowing a gale and the only place I could find to paint was halfway down the cliff wedged in a crack! I had no choice but to paint the only thing I could see. Still it didn’t rain on me and the flat light allowed me to take as much time as I needed to plot the ebb and flow of the waves. 12in by 7in Watercolour.

Piddle valley, pathway, watercolour

Last one. This is the Piddle Valley. Not much to say really, just a bit of path and a hedge. If I was playing to the audience I would put a Lion in but I am above that sort of cheap crowd pleasing trick… 14in by 7in watercolour.


April 6, 2019


Filed under: Dorset,Painting,Surrey,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 10:15 am

Narrative content used to be a de-facto part of a painting. From biblical scenes to Ukiyo-e in Japan, even back to mammoth hunts on cave walls. Stanley Spencer, moments of moral tension in Victorian art, glimpses of sensual frivolity in France and everyday life in Holland. All these to some degree have narrative content at their core. Narrative content has fallen from fashion though.  Even from the time of Claude Lorraine and later Turner you can see the narrative content withering. With the Impressionists it is there with the cafe scenes, but gone in many of the landscapes.

It has had a longer life in the niche of surrealism, naive and mystical painting. Illustration of course nearly always narrative in intent. The modern fad for formalism has mostly washed away desire to tell a story from the admissible ambitions of today’s painters. It is the the painting itself rather than any story it might tell that is the important factor to artists. This is of course not true of the viewers of paintings, who still love a story. It is just that artists feel that they are above such menial tasks and serve a higher and more elevated muse.

The result of this conundrum is a little perplexing, the fine art world is awash with artists who want to address important, serious and relevant issues, but are alas denied by fashion most of the tools by which they might do so. To have any chance of smuggling narrative work into the fine art arena you must have a quirk such as painting your cartoons on walls as Banksy does, being an international man of mystery helps too. Hogarth could comment on social issues in a direct manner in his work, but today’s painters do not have that option if they want to be accepted into the gated community of the contemporary art establishment. Some, like Paula Rego, sneak in under the cover of magical realism, but mostly the doors are firmly barred.

This subject was partly brought top mind by the reviews of Sorolla at the National Gallery. The reviewers only seemed to be able to comment on the content. They did not seem to see the abstract qualities of the paintings, they could not get past the narrative. Which shows I suppose how powerful an element it is.

So what is narrative and how do we exploit it? Like all the ingredients that can make up a picture we can add more or less to taste, or indeed none at all.

The smallest doses of narrative are signs of past activity or impending activity, either natural or human. So the hay bales in a field tell us of activity even though the farmer is not in view. A war painting might show destruction but no soldiers, merely the aftermath. The purple threatening clouds might hint at an oncoming storm. The unifying ingredient here is the passage of time, we are alluding to time before and after the moment in the painting.

To the other extreme we might have a comic strip where the whole image is narrative driven with the flow of time and even words and thoughts are included. The Sistine ceiling is another example of dominant narrative. All the other elements of painting are there, but their purpose is to serve the narrative.

So if your landscape painting has a dog walker it is quite different in mood to one where the scene is empty. The viewer’s eye will home in on the figure. If it is a figure on a wild moor we will ascribe loneliness, isolation or some other poetic notion. If we have two figures apart we might ascribe emotional separation too. If close then companionship, if arm in arm perhaps love. A group of three might indicate family. When we see isolated figures we cannot help but to attempt to decode social clues.

Interestingly if we have a crowd or a group of five or so then that reduces the narrative draw. If in a painting in a city square you have groups of inhabitants then the eye will be drawn to any single figures. Any people in groups are assessed as composite beings not necessarily individuals. If we bring our group forward and make the painting about them the a whole other set of narrative considerations come in to play. We immediately set too and try and assess the relationships between them.

If we have a single figure and slowly enlarge or refine it the composition, then at a certain point we attempt to determine the emotional state. There used to be manuals for artists about how to paint different emotions, which to our eyes look comically theatrical. If the figure has no clear emotion then it can attract more consideration than if overtly weeping or laughing. This is simply because the viewer has to work harder and is therefore more deeply engaged.

So narrative elements are powerful tools and not easy to use. They also are very prone to the whims of fashion. We find Victorian morality paintings heavy handed and crass, but at the time they were thought to be the bee’s knees. Care must be taken when adding incidental figures, you quite often see urban scenes where all the figures are individual, each a separate observation. Oddly this nearly always detracts from the unity of the overall scene, or gives the the feeling of a montage. I have seen crowd paintings where all the figures look like the moment just before the zombies in Thriller begin to dance!

Time to catch up with the watercolours…

Arundel, plein air, watercolour, surrey

I am so behind with blogging that this was last year! This was a whistle stop visit to Arundel. I was very rushed so didn’t do the place justice. I will return as it has some fascinating things to paint. 12in by 6in Watercolour.

Arundel, Surrey, watercolour, plein air

I took a bit longer over this but still only about 30min before I had to leave Arundel behind. 12in by 7.5in Watercolour.

Pulpit rock, Portland, Dorset, watercolour

This is Pulpit Rock on Portland Bill, a studio painting which I did entirely with a 1in sable flat. More of an experiment than a finished work but fun to do. I notice by the date I have ignored the watercolours for nearly 8 months. 12in by 12in Watercolour.

Bedchester, Hambledon Hill, plein air, watercolour

This is a great view of Hambledon Hill from Bedchester. I really must do it in better light but have been unlucky so far. the scene is good in any light but that just means it would be better still on another day. 12in by 6in Watercolour.

Hambledon Hill, Dorset, plein air, watercolour

This is another scene that has been frustrating me, but this time I was there at just the right moment. Slightly tricky as to make a decent composition you have to move Hambledon Hill about 300m West. No one complained as I put it back once I was done. Here the challenge was to get the brilliant winter light. To this end everything had to be made subservient to the reflected light in the road. 10in by 7in Watercolour.

Shaftesbury, Dorset, plein air, watercolour

A quick impression of Shaftesbury, didn’t want to get into too much detail as the shadow was the main event. Painted all with a flat brush again. No time to preserve all the lights so a few touches of opaque paint to annoy the purists! 8in by 6in Watercolour.

Stour, Blandford, watercolour, Dorset

This is the River Stour from the bridge at Blandford. The willow has wonderful colour this time of year. Not perfect light as I was a bit late, I must manage to catch it in perfect light. Unfortunately the bridge is too narrow for plein air, I am happy to suffer for my art, but dying is going to far! 14in by 7in watercolour.

Snowscape, watercolour, Dorset

Snow! On the day I stuck to the oils but I had so many atmospheric snaps taken as we drove around I could not resist a couple of studio efforts. The studio is great for this sort of painting as you can leave the washes to dry and preserve all your lights. This is near Bulbarrow. 14in by 7in.

Bulbarrow, Dorset, snowscape, watercolour

Last one this is the road as it drops off Bulbarrow. The snow bounces the light around and makes some wonderful contrasts. I thought this was a good image to show what adding a narrative element does. 12in by 6in Watercolour.

Bullbarrow, watercolour

So if you hung these two versions side by side which would get commented on? Does the fact that the Rhino would draw attention make this a better painting? Or does the Rhino get in the way of appreciating the mood of the scene? Not questions I have answers to, but they are questions a painter needs to consider and it shows just how powerful narrative elements are.

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