Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

October 29, 2012

Emotions and Painting in the Strand

Filed under: Drawing,Life Drawing,London,Painting,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 10:33 am

I do wonder if I will ever run out of painting topics to gab about, no sign so far but I will start repeating myself sooner or later.

I post quite a lot on Wet Canvas and occasionally with trepidation make (I hope gentle) critical comments. To sweeten the pill I always start with the good points and phrase it as an opinion only, I do this knowing full well that this diplomacy is probably pointless. The recipient will skim over the positives and home in on the negative like a guided missile! I’m not surprised because that is exactly what I do myself. In some ways this sensitivity holds your development back but on the other hand you need to really care about your work which means an emotional investment.

When I was young I was terribly sensitive to any criticism of my work. If my mother made any negative comment I would instantly tear up my painting in a fury. Which must have been difficult for her to put up with. Later when I was at college I was just as bad, I would lift a lip and sneer dismissing any comment as worthless. This got hard to maintain once working as an illustrator, any negatives had to be swallowed and corrected or no more work would be forthcoming. I would return home incandescent with fury at being made to change this or that. Looking back at some of that work I would have just turned it down as so much is wrong.

So why could I not see these very obvious flaws at the time? It has to do I think with the very odd way the brain works. We are all the time rewriting the past, to our own credit if an optimist or to our own deficit if a depressive. So if painting a portrait we start to see it right even if it is actually wrong. We do this because we so want it to be right that our brain helpfully alters what we see so that it appears to us as we hope it to be not as it actually is. This is not all bad, it means as our loved ones age and fade we still see them mostly as they were in fond memory. When you look in the mirror it is mostly a rose tinted version of ourselves that we see. For an artist though it is a disaster!

This causes a painter to have to resort to all kinds of tricks to circumvent the over optimistic eye. Painters often use a mirror to suddenly see their work afresh, which makes the flaws jump out. This works I suppose because the eye/brain has got an optimistic version polished up for the direct view, but doesn’t have one ready for the mirrored version. Too much use of the mirror brings ever decreasing benefits however as an appropriate rosy view is quite quickly put in place. Just turning the picture to the wall has the same effect. When you look afresh a few weeks later the optimistic view is mostly forgotten and only in vague memory. The disconnect between this and the live view can be quite startling, I have frequently stomped round the studio muttering, “How on earth could I have not seen that!”.

The same thing can of course happen in the inverse. In some moods whatever you do looks bad, the negatives rise up and choke the positives. You may have started painting full of excitement at the potential of your subject, you have I suppose a vision in your minds eye as to how it will be. This is soon swept away alas by the actuality of paint on paper. Then the only thing to do is press on until a new vision of completeness is imagined upon the marks you have made. This can then act as a beacon and guide to draw you on to its completion.

So a part of learning to paint and draw well is to somehow manage these expectations both positive and negative. When I laboured building sets for films and adverts I had to carry out the work under the gaze of the clients. I soon learnt that stomping around the studio muttering that it had all gone wrong and how much I hated it did not inspire confidence. Unfortunately I used to let off steam by fulminating under my breath to my assistants which must have been tedious for them and undermined their confidence in getting the job done in turn. I was in short a right pain in the neck! Slowly though I learned to control these swings of mood and as if by magic the overall quality of work I produced improved as a result.

This is one of the reasons I find all the exhortations to “express yourself” that litter comments on painting deeply tedious and simple minded. In my experience expression come as a matter of course, as emotional beings we can do naught else. It is learning to set your sail to reap benefits from these conflicting and involuntary gales that brings the ship home. Not being blown hither and thither about the ocean by your feelings like a rudderless scow. With that metaphor well and truly extended a few paintings and drawings!



London, plein air, oils, brass monkeys, painting, Mary le strand

This is St Mary le Strand on a Brass Monkeys expedition. The light was as beautiful as the wind was painfully chilly! My hands were frozen by the time I was done. I had to retreat to the pub to warm up and take in calories. Oil 12in by 10in.


Church, Strand, London, brass monkeys, oils, painting, plein air

After eating and warming I went out into a quite different day, the clouds had swept in and were threatening rain . I knew I would only have a short while at this so I just went straight in with the paint, blocking in the shapes with no initial drawing. The dash of light across the scene which lifted it was only there for a few moments when I started and stubbornly refused to return. I almost gave up a few times as the rain came and went. Almost at the last minute when I was considering packing up the sun came back and it took no more than a minute to drop the splashes of warm light in. Odd how so few strokes of colour can lift an otherwise grey and dreary scene. 14in by 10in oils.


Strand, London, church, painting, watercolour, plein air

After retreating yet again for coffee in the pub we went back to do Mary le Strand again. This is a great subject, I must do a bigger studio painting as I have only ever done it en plein air. I did this using waterbrushes charged with various colours. Next I am going to try using my tiny pan set with just a brush charged with water.


London, watercolour

This was actually done a few days before. I must replace the yellow in the waterbrushes with a less muscular version, though it is sort of OK for autumn. The chimney is the Tate Modern.


deptford, watercolour, sketch

A very quick scribble done in my tiny pocket sketchbook. It is near my home in St Johns Vale Deptford. Such quick notes are very useful when used in conjunction with a photo. Just doing the drawing sets the scene in your memory and makes catching the mood in a studio painting so much easier.


figure watercolour

Life drawing had a Spanish flavour! She looked fabulous in her dark dress taking up dramatic flamenco inspired poses.


flamenco, watercolour

So hard to catch this sort of thing in a mere 7 min. You just have to take a leap of faith and dive in.



The best of the session, it is amazing how little is needed to explain the posture and form.



The model was very close to me here so I resorted to drawing the drawers!


watercolour, life drawing, nude

Longer 30 min pose there is only just time to get all the tones in. I find the waterbrushes a great help as they do not wet the paper as much. I used them in conjunction with flat sable brushes here. Only three colours Ultramarine and Venetian red with black in a brush pen.


Nude, figure, girl, watercolour, life drawing

I was so involved doing this that when time was called after 30 min it made me jump! This underlines what I said earlier about expressiveness. I personally find I just don’t have the headspace available for such emotional gymnastics when my whole self is focussed on the task before me.

October 23, 2012

Sunshine and Showers in Surrey and Berks

Filed under: Drawing,Painting,Surrey,Thames — Rob Adams @ 11:22 am

Plein air is an odd occupation. You go out loaded down with equipment and weather gear, then you try and paint whatever happens to be about. When you set off the world is, in your imagination, full of fantastic pictures just waiting to be painted. Arriving at your venue however can bring about a rather abrupt and vertiginous descent to earth. The picturesque church you had in mind is a flat grey wall bracketed by almost black ewe trees. The whole lot is roofed with a completely featureless dull grey sky. It is just after dawn and the only sounds are the drips of the rain and the squirrels sniggering at you from their nice warm drays. You circle your victim, trying not to stamp over too many of the deceased, searching for a distinctive view, or any view for that matter. The light is so flat that every side of every object is lit exactly the same. After several futile circuits, punctuated by listlessly framing possible compositions with your fingers, you slowly set up your tripod and pochade in the furthest possible corner of the churchyard and fix a blank primed board in place.

Next is drawing the salient details out. The light is not a problem here so you get the thing sketched out with everything placed more or less as it appears before you. While you do this the sky grows a little greyer and the rain fall a little faster. Your subject looks not a bit better, but after a short spell of ritual squinting you start to mix up the tones and lay them in. Thinking about whether the thing will be worth the effort can be put off a little longer as you block in the approximate tones. While you work you try not to notice that your palette is completely covered in funereal greys.

With the last of the prime covered you can step back and consider the crime. At this point I usually get a strong urge to wipe the damn thing off and go for a “full English” in the nearest greasy spoon. The day chooses this moment to give you a glimmer of watery sunshine, and your subject lifts from the suicidal to the merely depressing. Time for a deep breath and fixing the moment of illumination in your mind’s eye you  put in a few optimistic lighter tones. While you wait for the light to come back you get the next layer of greys in defining the few shapes you can discern in the gloom.

With most of the work done you retreat again and with an act of will attempt to look optimistically at the masterpiece you have wrought. This is perhaps the hardest part of the process of painting. Putting your imagination into gear you try and imagine what would make the picture work as an image away from where you painted it. Does it need a figure? A relative visiting a loved ones grave might add pathos and suit the gloomy day… a hanglider caught on the church tower would add drama. There is no getting round, it desperation is setting in. To make things worse an early morning dog walker appears and asks politely if they may look at what you have done. You hope they will see something in it that you don’t, but they look for a long silent moment plainly wracking their brains for a comment that doesn’t include the word “depressing”. “That’s nice…” they manage at last and hastily move on after a brief complaint about the prevailing meteorological conditions.

Then the light suddenly returns. Ignoring the hosannas that the circling cherubim are singing you leap into panicked action and start whacking in the effect before it goes. Madly dipping into colours that have so far been unneeded as they were not grey. After a few brief minutes the glimmer is gone, the cherubim silenced and the drama over. You couldn’t care a brass penny for that though, your turgid study in abysmal greys is transformed. With fewer brushstrokes than could be numbered on both hands and the contents of a couple of boots your picture has gained an identity, distinctive atmosphere and a sense of place. All those greys you hated so much have become a subtle foil that set off your touches of restrained colour. There is no need for solitary mourners or indeed dangling gliders. Your painting isn’t the triumph you were optimistically dreaming of as you drove through London in the dark, but neither is it a cause to chop off your ear and TNT it to a female friend.

I hope this encourages some readers to try getting out there and try painting “en plein air”. All painting is a bit of an emotional roller coaster and painting out of doors is especially fraught with the possibility of disappointment. In my opinion though the lows only serve to make the moments of achievement feel the sweeter. It is at the very least a harmless brand of masochism that leaves you mostly undamaged and cheerfully scoffing your breakfast as quickly as you can, so as to get out there again as quickly as possible!

This (I hope you realise tongue in cheek) account was prompted by a kind invitation by Steven Alexander to spend a few days painting in Surrey with a few of the Wapping Group. The weather teased us with sunny spells and showers garnished with steady drizzle, but nonetheless at the end of the day the table was filled with paintings all pulled kicking and screaming from the surrounding area. A special thank you goes to his partner Anne who had to put up with soggy plein air painters, who at a distance are hard to distinguish from itinerants,  cluttering up her house. Here’s the results, perhaps not any call for hosannahs but a few winners amongst the also rans.



Bray, Surrey, Plein air, oils painting, church, graveyard

This is St Michaels Church at Bray which is in Berkshire. I had to be very careful not to overstate the lights. There are still a few that I will probably

knock back once it is dry. A few areas of sky will need a spring clean as well. 16in by 10in.


Bray, plein air, oils, painting

These are some alms houses again in Bray. I need to sort out the traffic but this was interesting against the light. 14in by 10in oil.


Bray, lock, barge, thames, plein air, oils, painting

This is painted from Bray lock. Nothing took my fancy at first but this old canal barge passed through the lock and I though it made a picture. I painted

the basic scene and did the barge later. 16in 10in oil.


Windsor, castle, plein air, landscape, painting, oils

I joined Derek Daniells, Michael Richardson and Steven Alexander as the day was ending and we all stood in a row and painted Windsor castle in the

distance. I don’t often do the “telephoto” thing, but here there was no choice. Only about 35min with a big brush but great fun to do. 16in by 10in oils.


Mapledurham, berkshire, stately home, plein air, painting, oils

This was a trial to paint. The weather had delivered a fine persistent  drizzle that the lightest breeze would blow on to your palette. I got this all blocked

with the beginnings of some detail but my paint was turning to mayonnaise and wouldn’t take on the board so I had to stop. Great subject though, it is

Mapledurham in West Berkshire, I hope to return on a better day! 16in by 10 in oils.


Mapledurham, berkshire, rain, field, plein air

Painted crouched under a brolley near the previous scene. I could only manage about 20min before it started to rain so much the trees vanished entirely

leaving only a couple of furrows to paint! The others were getting soggy in a nearby wood. 12in by 10in.


Yateley, Surrey, Field, plein air, oils, painting

This was a lovely scene and should have made a good sketch, but somehow I the rabbit stayed well and truly in the hat. I feel it only fair to post the misses

as well as the near hits here, as it is I hope educational in showing how to mess up a perfectly good subject. My error here was getting fixated on the field

which was a fascinating mixture of dew reflecting the sky and tracks made by animals and dog walkers. But in focussing on a detail I missed the whole.

Adding walkers was an act of desperation at the very end! It is near Pirbright in Surrey. 14in by 10in oils.


Mike Richardson, fence, plein air, surrey

I despondently went to share my disappointment with Mike Richardson who was painting nearby, but no sympathy was forthcoming so I

painted him as a form of revenge! Only a very quick sketch but miles better than the previous effort. 10in by 14in oils.


Here we are in a soggy field! Photo Steve Alexander.


Yateley, Surrey, Autumn, plein air, trees, fall, oils, painting

I came across this little scene after an abortive start on another. I had been intending to try and paint some autumn colour and this fitted the bill.

It is Pirbright in Surrey again. 14in by 10in oils.


Windsor, guildhall, town, street, plein air, oils, painting

This is Windsor guildhall Another monumentally grey day and I started this without much hope. I got all the architecture in before the rain started. I

was painting in a very exposed spot where I became entertainment for damp tourists! Once I had put in people and cars however it took on a life of its

own and in its way it is more interesting than the same view on a sunny day might be. Some of the hall itself needs softening I feel. 16in by 10in oils.


Sketch, watercolour

Finally a few sketches done with waterpens in my wee sketchbook. This is a rather damp Mike Richardson painting in a wood!


Another from Pirbright. I am starting to really like the waterpens as a sketch medium this took no longer than 10 minutes.


Windsor, guildhall, sketch, watercolour, drawing

Last one, this is the Guildhall in Windsor again. Altogether a great few days painting, a big thankyou to Steven Alexander for organising it and asking

me along.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress

error: Content is protected !!