Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

August 22, 2013

Style Wars

I have sort of touched on this previously but a few conversations this week have sort of focussed me on the issue. People both painters and  people who enjoy looking at paintings tend to like some things and not others. Painfully obvious of course. The problem is that they also tend to go further and lean towards believing what they like is worthy and what they don’t enjoy as worthless. I myself have plotted an erratic course through the landscape of art and at different times have liked and loathed many different styles. Now however we are in an age where nearly everything in the history of painting is available at the click of a mouse.

I have a large collection of art books which now never leave the shelves as there is better and wider information online than most of them contain. Indeed I have seriously thought of getting rid of them as they are almost never looked at. The books do provide another service though. They plot the course of my interests of things visual over the years. There are books on anatomy, carpets, Irish castles and insects, to name but a few. I can still recall the excitement when I found a book that inspired. I remember the fascination of delving through George Bain’s book on the construction of celtic art, which sent me on an orgy of drawing key patterns and brain boggling interlacements. That indeed was the pattern, discovery followed by practice and then on to another focus of interest. My library is quite wide and eclectic, consider how much more grist there is available for my mill compared to that of Rubens, but is still a mere slither compared to what is available online.

Young artists today are faced with a blizzard of imagery from all of mankind’s long history of visual creation. Search engines place everything on an equal footing, they don’t care about quality or provenance only keywords. With this in mind I wonder if it is now almost impossible to do anything wholly new. We have as it were mapped out most of the terrain available to explore and only a few ever reducing (and not necessarily interesting) corners are still left uncolonised. This I cannot help but feel spells an end to the linear flow of art history much loved by academics and critics. The same thing has already happened to some extent in music. A teenager’s iPod can contain everything from Bach to Led Zeppelin to some very current offering. They have essentially treated all that was available as some kind of cultural buffet and filled their plates with whatever took their fancy. This in turn has had an effect on music production which might draw from a hugely diverse mix of influences. The same is becoming true with painting I suspect.

This I cannot but help feel spells the end to both the contemporary and the so called modern. When a categorical term becomes so inclusive that nothing is excluded then its usefulness has as far as I can see ended. The establishments at all ends of the art spectrum are bravely battling to hold back the tide, but like Canute they are likely doomed to fail. The hard thing from my point of view is to envisage what the landscape might look like once the dust has settled. I’ll make the attempt to work out the possible results though this will likely be risible once the reality is there to be considered!

Firstly, I think your idiom of painting will in the future be entirely a matter of choice. Much in the way you might choose a medium or a composition. Already you see many artists who do both abstracts and representational. This could well be the norm in the future.

Secondly differentiation of whole categories of subject matter, type of execution, styles or idioms into high and low art may end. All the flavours of painting available which are currently assigned a different degrees of worthiness or status may therefore be equalised. It always makes me chuckle when I see auction and exhibition catalogues use the word “important”. My immediate feeling is to whom, sez who and why?

Thirdly a more useful way of assigning merit might well occur. At present we have what the Art critics say is good, what the Collectors collect, and what the Curators select. Notice we don’t have what the public likes in there. Now however we have the potential to assess better than ever what the public likes. What is more we could narrow it down to what different sections of population appreciate. The tastes of visually naive and the sophisticated and their different likings can be separated out. This in turn could be used to supply rankings of relative merit in varying idioms. No method of course would be without flaws and unfairness, but it would not be hard to be better and indeed more fair than the current elitist regime.

I wonder as well what categories of painting might be useful, here is a wild stab at it:

Expressionistic, the painting of feeling and emotion.

Observationalistic, the recording and fixing of perceived reality.

Imaginistic, the painting of dreams and imagination.

Analystic, the painting of texture, pattern and structure.

I don’t see any of these as exclusive, each might in some circumstances be a subset of one of the others. So a work might have any combination of each in any order. Each might be further broken down so that “Imaginistic” could contain Surrealism, Illustrative and perhaps Metaphysical content. It is very hard to visualise, I gave considerable thought as to whether there were any other possible categories. If anybody can think of a manner of painting that would fall outside of all these categories then I would be delighted and intrigued. At first I wondered if Symbolic was a category but on the whole I think it can be contained within Imaginistic and Analystic. We could maybe sink to the depths of a diagram at this point, I can only apologise for this new low, but it shows the possible interactions better than words can…



As we are painters I have chosen a colour chart approach! You can see by the way the colours mix we can have any shade or mixture of my four elements. You might I hope place any painting you know approximately in this space. Plein air for example would be leaning towards the Observation corner, with a good dollop of Expression a certain amount of analysis and only a small dose of imagination. Surrealism would have a large proportion of Imagination with maybe less of the other three. This is not I am at pains to point out a diagram of all Art, where for example would you put photography? Perhaps in Observation, I did consider Perception and Experience as that heading but felt them a little too broad. The observation is done mechanically, but the decision to observe was made as in a painting. If anybody can think of a painting that falls outside these bounds let me know what it is and why, don’t mind my wild theorising being shot down in the least. One other thing I pondered was how I should arrange the influences around the square. Unfortunately none are ideal. A truer arrangement would be in 3D with each influence placed at the corner of a tetrahedron! Enough mad theorising some paintings!


Faversham, Kent, plein air oil painting

I have been going out of a Sunday with friends Tony Lawman and Graham Davies to paint which is very much fun. This is Faversham creek. 8in by 10in.


Faversham, Kent, oil painting

Don’t quite know what to think of this one, needs softening and merging somehow. The tonal contrasts are too brash. 10in by 14in oils.


Faversham, Kent, oil painting

Last one of the day and the best too. Faversham Creek again, the day steadily improved. 10in by 12in oils.


Faversham, kent, oil painting

Faversham again but painted last winter I would guess… I was sorting all my plein air stuff into locations when I came across this, the foreground wasn’t

finished, so a plein air I would guess, but I have no memory of painting it at all! I obviously didn’t like it at the time! 10in by 20in.


Tower Bridge, London, Thames, HMS Belfast, oil painting, Wapping Group

A day out with the Wappers, there were two more oils but I scraped them off, the light went horrible and flat. 16in by 10in oils.


Pool of London, Thames, watercolour

I should have stuck to watercolour sketches for the rest of the day. There’s a lesson for me, don’t paint unless the subject grabs you!


Queensborough, Sheppey, Kent, plein air

Another day out with the boys. This is Queensborough on the Isle of Sheppey. Lots of great subjects this is 10in by 16in. I did an earlier one but it is in

surgery I might post it if it survives!


Queensborough, Sheppey, Kent, watercolour

Last one from Queensborough, I liked it there lots to paint the town is paintable too.

August 16, 2013

The terror of white walls

Here is an area where I make mistakes repeatedly, and with the cost of mouldings expensive ones too. So I have been eyeing up other people’s choices with much interest in the past year or so. Here is the problem: Most gallery and household walls including my own are white. White is unfortunately just about the most unflattering hue to present a picture against in my opinion. Imagine the National gallery old masters hung against bleak white walls, even worse imagine them all “gallery wrapped”!

My instinctive tastes are inherited from my parents and I suppose reflect the 40’s and a bit of their parents taste from the 1890’s thrown in. So I tend to frame for an imaginary room with green William Morris wallpaper and possibly gas light. The results when placed on a white wall I have to admit to myself have not been pretty. I have used up most of my poorly chosen moulding and am trying to not make the same mistakes again, but am not exactly confident as to how I should go about it.

Another factor that makes matters worse is that a large 6ft wide abstract in primary tones will look great as just a bare canvas. It is beefy enough to hold its own against that wilderness of white. A 14in by 10 in plein air however does not stand a chance! It needs therefore some protection against the wall surface dominating and this means a frame. Also I need a standard frame I can’t go framing each oil painting separately, especially if they are ever shown together, there is nothing worse than a motley collection of varied frames.

The first thing that occurred to me is that looking at what others do the moulding needs to be quite substantial, around 100mm. Also it needs to be quite simple, no vine leaves! It does however need some depth to it so that it springs from the wall. I have seen quite a few framing jobs that essentially put a 6in white plank around the picture which I don’t like. Another factor is cost I am going to paint the frame so there is no point in buying an expensive moulding. To find a moulding that fulfils all these requirements is not easy!

Firstly some paintings, the usual mix of OK, so so and dire! I really must stop just painting whatever is around on days out. If nothing presents itself then just keep on looking until something does, don’t just paint because that is what you are there to do. Every time I sit down and paint something that doesn’t really grab me the results are poor, it is just time and materials wasted. It is I suppose unreasonable to expect to find a worthwhile subject every time you go out, especially if the light is no good. Better to come back having done a lot of looking and no painting than with dross that wasn’t worth the doing! So I will if I can stick to doing quick watercolour or small oil sketches if I am at all uncertain of the worth of the subject and only set to with the oils on a bigger panel if there is a good chance of a worthwhile painting. I have been pressing on with some larger pictures, they get easier the more I do. I don’t know why I find a 24inch wide canvas forbidding, it seems absurd since I have spent a large chunk of my life painting things 40ft across, but there it is.


Northumberland Avenue, London, Oil painting, city, urban

This is Northumberland Avenue 22in by 16in. Based on my plein air sketch last week and associated photos. I am getting better at transferring the

plein air colour and feel to a subject after the event. First I adjust the photo to look as much like the sketch in tone and colour as I can. This makes the whole

process a lot smoother.


Charing Cross Road, Rain, London, oil painting, urban, City

Another biggy, this is 24 by 18in. I did a plein air of this a year or so ago it was only 7in by 5in done hand held. I was very pleased with it and knew it

would make a good picture. Great fun to paint as I was pretty sure the result would be worthwhile. I’ll put the small sketch below for comparison.


Charing Cross Road, London, Plein air, oils

I really tried hard to keep the feel but not be too slavish in my reinterpreting it.


Sunbury, plein air, oils, Thames, river

Here is a prime example of a painting that I should not have bothered painting! There is nothing particularly wrong, it is just boring and not worth a

painting. A small watercolour in my sketchbook would have done the job. It is Sunbury on Thames 14in by 10in oils.


Sunbury on Thames, knot garden, plein air, watercolour

Here I did the right thing, the quick sketch serves the subject perfectly, which makes the 20mins well spent!


Richmond Hill, Thames, plein air, oils

Driving back from Sunbury I took a wrong turn and ended up going over Richmond Hill. Seeing this who could resist? It was such a relief to be sitting in

front of a fantastic subject. I’m not sure that this does it justice, but the photos I took do it even less! 15in by 7.5in Oils.


Now back to those pesky frames, non frame nerds can back away!



As you see from the dimensions it is quite substantial and stands out from the wall 53mm. It also has a rebate that will take a canvas, many mouldings have a small rebate so the canvas

bulges out the back which makes fixing annoying. My next move is to try and work out what the finish should be. This is far from easy and not something I am confident about, so I

decided to treat it the same way as any commercial job. To this end I built myself a simple gallery space in 3D and hung my virtual pictures on the wall! With today’s technology I can

test different arrangements and see which will do the job best. This should mean less messing around when I come to actually paint them. Fortunately 20 years in the scenic art world has

given me the technical skill to apply finishes professionally. Due to this experience I also can make up the frames, which is just as well as the moulding is too big for any Morso! I’ll put a

series of images to show the development.


Here is my virtual gallery. I have made the computer model of the frames in scale. In olden days when we had deep red wall paper these gold frames were

just the thing… But on white gallery walls they look pretty grim.


Here I have simply painted white leaving the gold as an accent. Better already I hope you will agree. A little dead looking though.


I next tried grey and white as I have seen others do. Quite nice but very utilitarian and the white does not suit pictures with quite dark tones.


The same grey with gold accents. This works better and I will go with this. I can vary the grey depending on the tonality of the picture.


I added a slightly more realistic lighting to my model and tweaked the grey. Next I have to refine in the real world!


Here it is, a terrible photo but you get the idea. This frame has about 10 coats of paint as I experimented! I will I think do a lighter weight version for the

10in by 16in and below but this should look better than my previous attempts in an exhibition environment.

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