Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

January 25, 2013

Painting in the cold, drawing in the warm

Snow has appeared in London, a fairly rare event so I try and get out to paint it. Only four survivors of the six I started, but I suppose that isn’t too bad considering the conditions, which verged on the comical at a couple of points. I have been trying as I mentioned in the previous post to be more cavalier in adjusting reality. It is not really improving the content but merely the arrangement and relative dominance of the subject matter. The subtle even dare I say murky tones on offer in the snowy weather gave plenty of opportunities to subdue or highlight areas. The art I suppose is not to paint what is actually before you but what you feel ought to be there. That’s a sentence I might come back to and reconsider mind you!

The other constraints of painting outside in such conditions are not inconsiderable. Aside from the painter getting cold, the paints get thicker and harder to brush, whites go a bit “stringy”. The snow was a real nuisance and I had to make two visits to two of the locations. On the plus side the light was amazingly constant allowing you to paint for far longer and so be more considered. One of them indeed I painted initially at about 2pm and then returned next day to finish up at about 9.30am and the light was barely any different!

In many ways painting snowscenes is relatively easy. The palette is restricted and the shapes simplified. I find sunlit snowscenes one of the easiest sort of pictures to do, the only real pitfall is overdoing the white on the snow. If you do add any full white it should be at the last moment and homeopathic in quantity. The pictures I have been battling with however are done when the snow is falling or in mist which simplifies areas even more but makes getting the balances of the tones extremely hard. When all the tones are quite close the subtle differences become more important and thus the colour mixing more difficult.

One of the main things that beginners hit with oil painting is the picture going “chalky” this is partly because it is very hard to overlay a dark over a wet light but also because only a very small amount of light is needed to lighten a dark hue. Conversely sometimes it takes a great deal of a strong hue to darken a light one. Due to this if you wish to strengthen a mix separate out a small bit of the colour to be adjusted and then add the strong hue to that. Otherwise you will end up with an excess of that mix by the time you are done. As a general rule I would advise mixing any hue too dark and then bringing it to the correct value by adding small touches of your white. This policy is less important when using flake white as it is less potent in mixing power than titanium is.

The snow scenes below have been painted with quite a restricted palette. Aside from Titanium White I used Cobalt Blue, Raw Sienna, Burnt Sienna, Cadmium Red, and Paynes Grey. Not quite the obvious palette, but I arrived at it by adding colours as I needed them. I find it a good policy to only add hues as they are required rather than putting the whole lot at first. If they are there you will dip into them which in turn can weaken the harmony in the picture.

Royal Hill, Greenwich, Plein Air


This is Royal Hill in Greenwich, where the posh folks shop. I got very cold after an hour on this so I went and had breakfast and then came back and did another hour. The light was amazingly constant. I was also taken aback by how warm all the tones were, the instinct for coldness is to go blue, but as you see here it still feels chilly even though the overall colour is very warm. 16in by 10in Oils.


Royal Naval Hospital Greenwich


I moved straight on and blocked this out, but got into trouble with the buildings. I returned next day to finish. I rather over did the road but all the variations were fascinating. I think the longest I have ever spent on a plein air, nearly 5 hrs. 20in by 10in Oils.




Next day and the snow was constant. I had started another on Blackheath but the snow was blowing in everywhere and the paint was turning to mayonnaise! I moved on and did the first laying in on this then gave up as it was about 3pm. I went back the following morning to find the light was barely any different which was very odd. I have been considering this scene for a while and was glad to be able to get it painted at such an interesting moment. It looks great on a sunny evening so I must do it again. 16in by 10in Oils.



Last snowy one. This was just blocked in on site the snow was just too much. I finished off in the nice cozy studio!  I did have a figure in this but it distracted so the poor fellow got painted out! 16in by 10in Oils.


St Bartholemews The Great

I was the only Brass Monkey on patrol I suspect. I don’t blame people it was a bitterly cold windy day. This is St Bartholomews The Great In Smithfields I was out of the wind but still freezing. I did quite a detailed pencil sketch before adding a few washes. 7in by 5in.


Old Bailey

This is the doorway of the Old Bailey. A very tricky bit of drawing but fun to do, again I did a lot of pencil before washes. I rather over did the pen. 5in by 7in.



A step back to New Year. I visited a life session in Galway which was a nice change after all that eating. Interesting model almost as wide as she was high, with a beautiful pale skin tone.


Life Drawer

Here is Keith one of the Galway life drawers. He was beautifully lit by the window and I couldn’t resist sketching him. 5in by 7in.


Life drawing

Life drawing started again in London. Despite it being one of my favourite models I just couldn’t seem to get going. This was the only one worth posting. 15in by 10 in.

January 9, 2013

Seeing the picture

Filed under: Drawing,Ireland,Painting,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 11:02 pm

A happy new year to you all! I have been away in the Isle of Erin this I hope excuses the slightly longer gap from my last post. For those that prefer pictures without waffle I have added two Gallery Pages top right. I have yet to rewrite the captions but the pictures are there anyhow!

I’m not quite sure what it is I do when I decide a scene is “paintable”. I can say a few vague things like looking for distinctive contrast or some overall mood. The most concrete thing I can say off the top of my head is that I look for completeness, or maybe everything being satisfyingly related to everything else. I’m not sure I would subscribe to the view that I have heard expressed that there is a good picture every where you look it just takes imagination to be able to see it. I quite like the idea but for me at least it doesn’t seem to be true. It is certainly mostly true that beginners and even some experienced artists don’t really bother with composition. I am however coming to increasingly think that it is more key than I had previously thought.

I learnt the basics of composition fairly early on. If you want a guide then you should read Andrew Loomis’ book on Creative Illustration where he lays out the possibilities for you to consider. There are various ingredients to composition. Structure IE where things are in the frame relative to each other and the containing edge of the picture. Tonal balance which means simply how the darks and lights relate. Then there is colour which has many variables of hue, saturation, and all the various complementary factors. Finally I would include content, “what” is in a composition has a huge effect on drawing in or deflecting the eye.

When I am choosing an image to paint either from life or from reference I am looking for one of these factors as a dominant force. So for example if you paint a locomotive front and centre  coming down the tracks, then the content is dominant and everything else could be arranged to refine that focus. The same scene in the fog might have a different compositional drive, perhaps with the arrangement of tones subtly hinting at but not completely defining the forms. I am sure you can come up with other variations of emphasis for yourselves.

Another aspect of composition is using these same factors to supply an underlying “glue” which holds the picture together. An example of this might be a painting of a city square seen contre-jour for which the contrasts are the dominant theme but where the crowds of people, none of them defined as individuals can be used to tie various areas of the composition together. The same thing could be true of trees in a landscape, there could maybe a main compositional “draw” but the setting for that element could be held together by carefully placed trees that may not remain in the memory of the viewer but nonetheless do a job in setting the scene. It is an art in itself to keep these elements in their place and not over assertive.

Beginners and naive artists tend to detail every part equally and try make every area a “show stopper”. So all the trees are distinctive and defined, every figure an individual. I often like this sort of painting if done with sufficient skill. Pieter Bruegel would be an example, every part of the picture is a little gem and rewards close examination, sometimes there is no strong focus in the picture at all. All too often this approach in the hands of the less sophisticated or skilled results in a dead quality with everything competing for attention. That being said the less sophisticated viewer is entranced by detail and thinks the ultimate accolade for an artist is “just like a photo”! Sometimes people compliment me in that way which I find rather depressing, though for no good reason I can think of.

In my own work I have decided to take more liberties with my subject matter. Looking back through my past efforts I can see many pictures where moving or leaving out something would have improved the whole. I am now even considering the unthinkable which is putting in things that weren’t there in the first place! I do this to some degree already, occasionally adding cars and people that might even come from a different street on a different day. Other liberties might be adding a “way through” where I have a wall or hedge completely cutting off the viewer from the distance. I have always stopped short of more drastic intervention though. My reasoning was that I wanted the picture to be an honest record, but that now seems to me to be a flawed argument. Paintings are made to pleasurably deceive Degas after all  likened the process to that of committing of a crime! My intention is in simple terms is to not necessarily paint what was there, but what I feel ought to have been there. I don’t mean to take this to surreal extremes and start adding piano playing hippos to my pictures, but only to rearrange and add supporting scenery where such additions might add to the whole.

This of course adds a whole new load upon me when I paint plein air. It is hard enough to get the whole lot down as I see it before me without rearranging it all on the fly. Still it will make an interesting experiment even if it fails. None of the pictures below have been messed with to any degree, just a tree shifted here and there, or a chimney added to improve a skyline.

First pictures are left over from 2012 the rest are from Ireland. I owe a huge debt to my friends Colin and Aine who for many years have allowed me to spend Christmas and New Year with them. Colin and I were in college together so as the say, we go back an uncomfortably large number of years. They live in a version of an iron age roundhouse in the Burren Co Clare and have a bronze foundry in the middle of the wilderness. So having a mad painter sleeping in their chimney must seem almost normal.


Whitstable, Thames, oil, plein air, brass monkeysThis is the steps to the Half Tide bridge in St Margarets near Richmond. A complicated scene that I had to rather rush with. The cars kept moving about which was annoying. This was an expedition with the Brass Monkeys, the last of the year. 16in by 10in oil.


Richmond, thames, plein air, oil painting

I have painted this scene before in the summer. I made the foreground rather too high in key which doesn’t help with the evening feel. It is an error I make again and again and nothing seems to cure me of it. The eye is so very good at adjusting for shadow and light that it is hard to see the true relationships. I often take a photo to check the true balance but in my haste I forgot. I don’t take the balance entirely from that but usually a halfway house, squinting helps to, but here I apparently did neither! 10in by 8in.


Ireland, co clare, oils, plein air

Gleninagh castle is perched upon a lonely shore not far from Ballyvaughan in Co Clare Ireland. The rather dead light suited the subject and I painted until it rained on me! This was rather the story for my visit and there are several more oils in various states of incompleteness waiting to be dealt with. 14in by 10in oils.


Killaloe, clare, ireland, watercolour

This is Killaloe in East Clare. I have been meaning to do some painting here for years but never been lucky with the light. This is done in my Moleskin and is 7in by 5in. I like the paper they use it is good for quick sketches and architecture but has enough grain to give character.


Killaloe, ireland, graveyard

This is the graveyard and oratory at Killaloe cathedral. The clouds had come over giving a very moody feel. I only had time to draw this out and lay in an initial wash before it rained. High humidity is a real problem with watercolour so I didn’t get to complete very much on site. Nonetheless just doing the drawing makes you look and fixes the whole thing in your memory. This means that when you complete it later from photo ref you have much more of a feel for how it really was. 7in by 5in.



Last one of Killaloe I did a line sketch with a waterpen in dark blue grey. Then added washes after. 7in by 5in.


Road to Ruan

A very typical Clare view. This is the road to Ruan. 7in by 5in. All done from a photo to pass a wet afternoon!


Hippie VanThis is my friend Colin’s Hippie van, also from a wet afternoon. The Burren textures and colours are hard but fun to try and catch. 7in by 5in.


Skaghard, boston, burren, castleSkaghard Castle near Cooloorty. I’m not exaggerating the blues here… almost the reverse. I have a rather nice sable rigger which does random thornbush type marks. Many people don’t realise how to use a rigger. You do not usually use the point, you lay the whole length of the brush on the paper. When you drag the hairs “follow” the wet paint, which is why in sign writing they are called “followers”. 7in by 5in.


Kilmacduagh, round towerThis is Kilmacduagh, with it’s famous leaning tower, not leaning from this angle but never mind. There is always the danger when doing a thing that is off vertical that people will believe you just got it wrong. If however you do get something crooked by mistake you can always title your painting the leaning tower of whatever. 7in by 5in.


KilmacduaghNot really leaning here either but I got in vertical by mistake… well it leans a bit I suppose. A lovely spot, quite hard to get the feel of the place in a painting. I did an oil that went horribly wrong and had to be expunged for my reputation’s sake. 7in by 5in.


Ballyporty, castleBallyporty Castle another tower house near Corrafin. I have painted this many times so it is like getting re-aquainted with an old friend. Another wet afternoon job. Not many morning paintings in this trip alas as my hosts insisted on keeping me up until 3am by plying me with drink and Scrabble. 7in by 5in.


Ballyporty CastleBallyporty again I risked my ankles in scrambling round to get this view. I’m not altogether sure it was worth it. I should have added water in the foreground but didn’t as it was behind me. An example of how I should have painted it as it ought to have been. A real artist would have swum across the freezing turlough with his paints held in his teeth and painted it from the far shore but I’m just not tough enough I fear. 7in by 5in.


KilmacreehyKilmacreehy church near Liscannor. A fine wild windswept spot with a very old church and this beautiful graveyard. I love graveyards but alas most don’t, I have never sold a picture of either a graveyard or a church, but still paint them nonetheless. 7in by 5in.


Road to CarronThis is a road that goes to Carron a very simple scene that is very typical of the area. The rigger is in use here. The blue of the road is a little too much I might wash it back a little with a red. 7in by 5in.


Yeats' HouseThis is Yeats’ Tower near Gort in Co Galway. I have an oil started which this study will help to finish I hope. 7in by 5in.


The Flaggy shoreThis is the Flaggy Shore near Finvarra. A studio picture another one of those wet afternoon jobs. You could never have painted as it was blowing a gale that made it hard to stand up yet alone make forward progress. I got some very dramatic photos but somehow this one captured the mood with its simplicity. 10in by 8in.


EnnistimonThis is the waterfall at Ennistimon. You would never think that these cascades were here when you went down the main street. But walk a few yards through an arch and there they are. I have never seen them so dramatic, one plus for all the rain I suppose. 10in by 8in.

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