Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

December 15, 2012

Last Expeditions of the Year

Filed under: Kent,London,Painting,Surrey,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 3:18 pm

The year always seems to come to an end in a rush. It’s a good moment to look back and take stock. I have painted 200 odd landscape pictures and another 200 life drawings which is not bad I suppose. The watercolours have dominated due to a health issue with solvents that has abated thank heaven. Once again plein air has rather dominated. I must get a better studio routine going where I have several pictures going at once and work on each as I feel. At the moment if I don’t finish a picture in a few days it never gets finished which is silly. The problem is paying jobs interrupting, that’s my excuse anyway. I have had mixed success with exhibitions, but I have sold enough pictures to just about put me in profit. Not enough however to feed and house me and pay for my car, I still rely on commercial work to keep me alive! I’m not altogether sure I much care whether it makes a great deal of money, that was not after all the intention. Also if I do want to sell more it means putting more time than I can spare into hawking my wares.

So this year I must find a gallery to do some of that work for me. That process will be quite painful in itself, but once done I can hopefully concentrate on painting pictures not marketing them. I well remember the effort it took to establish myself as an illustrator, then I did the whole thing again as a scenic artist, then once again as a theme park visualiser and designer. This will be my fourth or fifth career! In some ways it would have been sensible to have just stuck to one and painted pictures, indeed all through my varied career I painted landscapes for my own pleasure. However I learnt a huge amount from the varied commercial work that has improved my painting no end.

In illustration I learnt the very basics of drawing and composition. Also a certain amount of anatomy and how to research a picture. It was much harder then than now, I used to keep folders full of picture clippings and had books on everything from bears to stave churches. Now I can Google a subject and have an astonishing cornucopia of images to refer to. I keep the books out of sentiment but in truth I rarely open one now. There is just more and better information on the web. Working building scenery and painting for film and TV taught me the beginnings of how to leave out and simplify. For some reason over detailing looks dreadful on screen or stage. I got to watch some real masters painting immense backdrops in wild mixtures of roller marks, brush dabs and splashes that somehow when you retreated to the back of the studio all merged into a convincing scene. Later still working to produce concept illustrations for big projects I learnt how to make a drawing that would “sell”, by that I mean an image that would put over the essence of quite a complex scene in a way that could be taken in at a glance.

I don’t deny I have had real trouble in trying to integrate this disparate set of influences and skills together in my own personal work. I think I unconsciously kept these influences at bay in my spare time landscape watercolours. Now I feel I should try and weld the whole lot together, which I have started to do, but a long way to go yet I feel. So the aim in the coming year is to get my studio oil painting going properly. I managed a mere 5 out of seventy odd pictures this year which is just not enough to begin to establish a coherent way of working in the medium. I don’t want to be painting pictures that look as if they might be plein air in the studio, I want them to have the distinct flavour that time and a more considered execution can bring.

This blog gets far more hits than I could have ever expected, so a thank you to those that took a look and I hope you found something of worth. I will try and add more tutorial stuff over the next year as I have quite a fund of purely technical experience gleaned over the years. It is quite hard to put some of this in a form that is digestible and not too formulaic. Painting pictures is not like cooking, it is impossible to write a recipe for a better painting. All you can do perhaps is point out avenues that are worth exploring or aspects that might be useful to consider, whatever is learnt from any journey depends upon the individual.


whitstable, sea, oils, painting, plein air, brass monkeys, beach, kent

Another Brass monkeys expedition this time to Whitstable in Kent. I wish I had arrived a wee bit earlier as although the light was good I got the feeling it had been better an hour before. The light this time of year can be very luminous with warmth on the horizon for most of the day. Also due to the sun not rising as high the shadows remain descriptive and interesting allowing painting opportunities for longer in the day. 14in by 10in.


whitstable, kent, street, plein air, oil painting

A bit of a rush job this. The light was going very quickly so no time for analysis and careful drawing. Nonetheless I often quite like paintings done in a mad dash, somehow being put on the spot makes you fish out the really important stuff from the incidental detail. A good subject though with potential, I will do another of it next year hopefully. 10in by 8in.


windsor castle, eton, thames, plein air, oil painting

I was once again kindly invited to paint with Steve Alexander in Surrey. This is Windsor Castle. The weather was just clearing which often gives great painting opportunities. I tried to just put in enough detail suggest the castle without getting into arrow slits and battlements! This is an iconic scene that has been much painted, I have done it several times before but not for a decade or more. 12in by 10in.


Windsor, plein air, oil painting, town

I went up into the town to join the others, a distinctly chilly day. I had done a small watercolour sketch of this subject on my previous visit which had potential, so I was keen to get another painting of it. I will do a studio picture of this eventually when I have enough information. It is the sort of scene that is very dependent on the figures to give it an interesting mood. 10in by 8in.


Windsor, thames, river, castle, plein air, oil painting

Back to the same scene of the castle. Amazing what a difference a few hours makes to the mood. I had to do this very rapidly in less than half an hour. I had to darken the grass back in the studio, but I was pleased to have got the rest down pretty much as it was in one go. 12in by 10in.


english longhorns, windsor great park, plein air, oil painting, cattle

Next day we returned to Windsor. I had another go at the scene with the pillars but it wasn’t an improvement on the first one so I wiped it. Having had enough of architecture we went over to Windsor Great Park where we found these English Longhorns. I had to put them in afterwards as they scarpered as soon as we set up! A bit too clumsy this one, I couldn’t quite get it to all meld together into a picture. The actual scene was so beguiling I was sorry not to have really done it justice.


farnham, town, park, plein air, oil painting

This is looking down on Farnham in Surrey. I want a figure in this somewhere but I just cant decide where. It is always a problem with figures that they are such a strong draw to the eye. Here I would quite like to use them to reduce the dominance of the fallen tree and take the eye more easily beyond it into the distance.

16in by 10in.]


Windsor, eton, thames, bridge, river, watercolour

Looking from the Windsor side of the Thames to Eton. I must do more line and wash. I used to do a lot but somehow got out of the habit. 7in by 5in.


Another quick sketch of Windsor Park just after painting the Cattle.


Farnham, watercolour, plein air

This is Castle St in Farnham. My camera had run out of battery alas so when the sun came out and made this view truly stunning I couldn’t record it. That’s it, I’m off to Ireland for Christmas so I’m hoping to get plenty of painting done. It will have to take a back seat to friends and socialising but that is no bad thing!

December 2, 2012

Judging the Competition

Filed under: Drawing,Kent,Life Drawing,London,Still Life,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 11:10 am

Here is a subject painters tend to steer clear of in casual conversation, very sensible of them too! How do you rate yourself against others, both those who are painting now and those who have gone before? Is it best not to even try? Probably, but whether it is best to or not we still do, it is impossible I suspect not to. We are by instinct designed to assess each other and derive pecking orders therefrom. Status is unfortunately bound up in it too. One thing I have found is that it is not good to categorise painting that you don’t like as not well done. I can think of many examples of brilliantly executed paintings that I hate. On the obverse I can also think of poorly executed ones that I like despite their shortcomings. An example would be Magritte, I like the pictures but the execution is distinctly pedestrian; another would be Dali who is quite high in quality of execution but the pictures don’t move me.

There is also the variety of quality in an artists output. Is one of my best paintings better than one of Monet’s worst? I would expect so, even at the risk of sounding vain though it is hard to test. I suspect if you told people which was which they would select the Monet as best, if you left the pictures unattributed then the response would be more balanced. There is always a problem that historically famous artist’s works get over hyped making them difficult to judge even for other painters. At the end of the day all painters are only human and paint  mixture of triumphs and stinkers. I have in any case always rather disliked the “Old Master” label, as if they had some magic that could not now be equalled. Actually I suspect the standard of painting is probably over all higher today than it was then. You only have to go round an Italian Palazzo or an English country house to see that the majority of the paintings done in any age were very unremarkable, even when they were being bought by rich and presumably fairly discerning buyers.

When comparing myself to others, I have the instinctive ego driven assessment, which I know with my realistic hat on is almost certainly over optimistic.There is also the tendency to like work that is more like your own than work in other styles. I sometimes get complimented on Wetcanvas by artists who normally ignore my offerings. When I do, as often as not, it turns out that I have painted a picture that conforms to how they themselves paint. So the colourists will be pleased when I paint a highly coloured picture and the extreme simplification merchants will like it when I do something that is broken down to its basics. Due to having worked in a large variety of styles in the course of my commercial work I have ended pretty wide in my tastes and enjoy works as disparate as comic books right through to abstracts in a variety of styles.

I remember being commissioned to paint some romance book covers when I was first working as an illustrator. I took it initially almost as a joke, I had unconsciously always dismissed as most would the many images of costume clad clinching couples. But trying to paint one soon taught me that it was pretty damn hard. My first attempt was a disaster. So I went to the local library and really looked at what others had done, unsurprisingly many were pretty grim, but others showed that even in this scorned niche there were masters at work. All their names are forgotten now, even by me alas, but they are not  needed anymore the current covers are photoshopped monstrosities from a picture library that supplies photos of clinching couples and separate backgrounds to be spliced together to suit any story.

A new factor I am meeting in the picture painting world that I did not meet as much in the commercial art world is reputation. A painter in the gallery world can be not of stellar quality, but have a reputation built up over many years, which apparently means as much or more than the overall quality of the works. In the commercial art world you are only as good as your last job full stop. Reputation might get you hired once but not twice. Mind you, if you look back into the history of painting, you can find many examples of painters who had great reputation in their own times but are now deservedly forgotten and more who were ignored in their own time only to be appreciated a hundred years after they have turned up their toes. This points out I suppose that fashionable taste is a dreadful judge of lasting quality.

At the end of the day I do think quite important  to attempt to rate yourself against your peers even if you acknowledge  that you may well be getting that judgement largely wrong. It will hopefully at least bolster your confidence in how you see yourself, which will in turn make you paint with a little more surety, but it’s perhaps wise to keep that estimation to yourself! It is worth bearing in mind though, that because you think you are better than X, Y might have the opposite opinion and X will almost certainly not agree! The amusing upshot of this is that, as with other walks of life, two painters will happily rate their colleagues against one another, but will wisely leave their own relative merits undefined!

A couple of posts ago I showed pictures of my new lightweight pochade. I have been using it a bit and am pleased with its ease of use. I loaded the palette first but couldn’t resist putting some tubes in my bag too. Completely unnecessary in practice I found. So I will spare myself the weight and leave them behind next time.

I have also started thinking about painting some more introspective studio pictures the first of which is in this post. Some images can be clicked for a larger view.


oil painting, hands

This started of life as a simple exercise but ended up as a painting that is also about time. I wanted to paint something I saw in front of me a lot, something that was so familiar that I would never usually consider it as a painted image. So here it is, what a painting looks like to the artist when in progress. I really wasn’t initially intended to come out as it has. My first idea was for there to be a landscape in progress on the panel. I blocked such a picture out on a 10in by 8in panel. Then the thought came that the picture should be the one that appeared on the final board so I left the 10 by 8 in place and drew out again on a larger panel on my easel to one side. The only problem with this was that it created an infinite regression of finished paintings, which didn’t like. This in turn prompted me to consider making each board  a step back in time, which resulted in the above.

Quite a lot of it was painted using my left hand for obvious practical reasons. People think this must be very hard but it is just a bit slower. I first learned to do this when I fell and broke my right wrist but still had to complete work I was commissioned for. To my surprise it wasn’t that hard, just the first few hours were annoying. Thereafter when scenic painting I started having difficulties with my shoulder it seemed natural to paint with each hand in turn allowing the other to rest.

plein air, oil painting, greenwich, london

My first expedition with the new pochade. This is Greenwich in late afternoon sun. This is what the small format is so good for. I would have struggled to get a good impression of this  as the light was very fleeting. But at 7in by 5in the whole thing was done in 20 min. It doesn’t produce anything anyone would want to buy but as a sketch for a later studio painting is is perfect. This time I am using MDF board but I think I prefer canvas so I might glue scraps of left over linen to a few boards and try that.

little venice, london, brass monkeys, canal, barge, plein air.

A Brass Monkey day visiting Little Venice, where a confluence of canals occurs. Bright glittery light. On these expeditions the first painting is always the worst. Often just because in the middle of the day the light is less compelling. I seem to be using Cobalt blue more than ultramarine nowadays, it is a weak tinter for mixing purposes but has a softness I am coming to like. I have brought Naples Yellow back as well after quite a long absence. It is important to vary your palette I feel, some painters get set with a fixed array of colours which can give their work a rather predictable quality.

Brass Monkeys, plein air, oil painting, London, canal, barge, bridge

The day then turned grey but as I painted the light suddenly lifted as the sun broke through. I had to race to dash in the effect. Sometimes I underlay a painting with a scrubbed in tonal precis of the scene usually in only 3 tones. This then sets the key, then all the intermediate tones and hues flesh out the scene. This is a very nice way of working as the picture develops as a whole, the one of Greenwich a few above is an example. Another approach is to “patch” in areas of tone and colour like making a jigsaw. When working in this way the picture is harder to judge in progress as the picture looks pretty bad until the last pieces are in place. It does however suit scenes like this where the distinctions of tone are less important than the distinctions of hue.

Little venice, London, Canal, nocturne, plein air, oil painting

Last one of the day. There is a magical moment as the light fades and the city lights start to glow. This was done in twenty minutes and is a good example as to why sketching en plein air is so valuable. The photo of the scene is very different in quality and mood. It’s rather grainy but I’ve put it below as it makes an interesting contrast.

Little venice, london

It is towards the end of when I was working but even so the colours and the tonal balance is very different. There is no way you would paint this image with the real scene before you. Neither are specifically right or wrong, I could make a satisfactory studio painting from either one.

figure, dance

We had our lovely flamenco girl back this Monday. I really enjoy the challenge of the dark dress and dramatic tense posture. Last week of watercolour for a bit though I need to revisit the pastels to see what I have learnt if anything from the foray into watercolour!

dance, figure, watercolour

These were both 30 min I can never resist the surroundings too. These dance poses seem to need it more than the nude poses. I like the way it “places” the figure in space.

nude, figure, life drawing, watercolour

The second part of the session was nude, I took on a little too much here and didn’t quite get to where I wanted, but better than the next one which I tore up in frustration! That is the trouble with watercolour, however long you do it sometimes you will just, as my young friends amusingly put it, do an “epic fail”

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