Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 7, 2013

The Uncertainty of Being Definite

Filed under: Art History,Drawing,Painting,Philosophy,Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Rob Adams @ 3:34 pm

Why is is that as soon as we seek the definite we end up mired in the indefinite? I have been discussing “What is Art” recently with others, and having had to think about it I now know less than when I started. Before I asked the question at least I had a vague idea of what I was up to but rather less so now! Why on earth am I bothering to do this activity called painting?

Having given it a great deal of thought, I have the beginnings of an idea. It is popular for artists to say, “I have to paint it is a need deep within me.” Is it? Well wanting my dinner and having regular bowel movements are needs deep within me that I cannot deny, so is the next breath I take. Painting however is not in that league. If I had a choice of giving up speaking or painting the painting would have to go, so it is plainly not the most important means of communication to me. It is good for my ego to be good at something is perhaps the best that can be said. If I destroyed all my years of work and took up some other trade, would I pine and be miserable. Almost certainly not. If a thug threatened to harm a friend if I did not burn all my work I would torch the lot without a second thought.

So I have to conclude that all the saying of how important “art” is to them done by artists is merely posturing to add a rose tint to how they and others see themselves. If I am to pare things down as much as I can I would I think say that I paint because it brings me pleasure to do, and pleasure when others enjoy the results. I am a little addicted to it, but not so much that I could not go off and pursue other interests with at least as much pleasure.

Does this devalue what I do? I am not what you might call a dilettante, I work hard and quite devotedly to the highest standards I am able. I enjoy it for the most part and get a “kick” out of the small successes it brings. If the work was torn from my breast in a fervent of anguish and torment, would it be better and more worthy? Current opinion would tend to say yes. Is it a crime so say I do it merely because it is a pleasant and engaging way of spending a brief life? Oh how fortunate I think I am to spend this one existence in this relatively pleasant manner! (especially when looking at some of the alternatives!)

How did all this come about? As John Byrne of the Talking Heads asks, “How did I get here?” Did I have a plan? Well, from about 20, sort of. I was going to be an illustrator, because I liked looking at the artwork done by others. I think I am here doing what I do partly because of 1970’s science fiction book covers and comic books , and partly because of the passing thought, “I would like to be able to do this.” Maybe the thought had an element of, “How hard can it be?” After some practical investigation the answer was, “Very hard indeed.” It did not matter in the least to me that such work was scorned as “pulp” it did something to me when I looked at it that I liked. I have been digging up some of the images that spurred me on. Alas no Rembrandts, no Monets, I had seen these and enjoyed them but they didn’t bring the feeling, “I might be able to do that.” I do in an odd way wish my early inspirations had more gravitas, but there you go. I’ll start with the earliest that took my eye in such a way that I attempted to emulate. All images are the copyright of their individual owners.


Jack Kirby, Galactacus, marvel comic, silver surfer

The first sort of artwork I tried to emulate was derived from Marvel comics. This is Galactus the Silver Surfer’s nemesis.

It is drawn by Jack Kirby. I didn’t copy I was never a direct copier but I tried to do my own versions. I think it was this that

hooked me as it showed how damned difficult it was. My attempts were pathetic and even at that age (13 or so) I couldn’t

fool myself that they were remotely as good. I didn’t give up though I covered reams of paper with badly drawn muscle bound

figures in uncomfortable clothing that would be bound to chafe.


Sydney R Jones, dreawing

Another and disparate thread was pen drawing, which was the bulk of my initial output. This is Sydney R Jones. I don’t know

where I got the book from but I had it from early on. One of my Father’s maybe. This was another thing I attempted to emulate.

I had more success here, I didn’t reach Mr Jones’ quality but after a lot of work I could draw a building in reasonable style though not

with the delicate touch of the above.


Chris Foss, book cover

Here is a book jacket  by Chris Foss. I spent hours pouring over similar images but it was Chris Foss that inspired me. I didn’t immediately try to copy

the style, I was 15 and had no idea of how to begin such a task. It was not until 6 years later I had an airbrush and could attempt such a thing. I still

remember the moment my Father gave me the compressor and Badger airbrush for Christmas. I can also remember the sinking feeling when I tried it

out and found how very difficult it was to use well. I never was a giver upper though, soon I was deep into Frisk film and Dr Martin’s dyes. Despite all

this effort and hours and hours of getting the skill with the tools I just could not produce anything as fine as the painting above. The attempt had however

introduced me to Gouache and there were other artists who’s work I admired.


Bruce Pennington, book cover

I much admired Bruce Pennington’s work. Later artists like Roger Dean would use the same mushroom shapes and organic textures but Bruce was the first.

The paintings are very simply constructed in layers. You could build a theatre set from them easily. I set too once more but Mr Pennington was no more in my reach

than any of the others! I don’t seem to have been very cast down by this state of affairs. I was always confident that one day I would be able to do as well.


alan Lee

This is by Alan Lee. In 1978 Fairies was published. Alan Lee and Brian Froud were the illustrators. Brian Froud was OK

but it was Alan Lee that blew me away. I think it was that moment I realised what true draughtsmanship was and how

very far I had to go before I could do anything comparable. I was 24.


Edmund Dulac

It was not long after I met David Larkin who had edited the book and he after showing me Alan’s originals had pointed me to

some of Alan’s inspirations. So it was I sought out books with illustrations by Edmund Dulac. I was swept away by the subtle

atmosphere of paintings such as the above. Arthur Rackham was another who astonished me.


Frank Frazetta

At the same time I was admiring Frank Frazetta. I tried in this period to produce similar work. It was still not

in the same league, but with each attempt I got a little nearer. This gives me a small clue as to why I expended

all this effort. Not aspirations of high art, not upwellings of inner expression. It was the lure of a challenge.


Fred Schrier

This is Fred Schrier. I was still mad about comics but had moved on to the underground variety.

I produced a fair few pages in this idiom but none as good as Fred’s. It is a strange thing learning a skill.

It changes you, you have to look at images like the above and pick them apart. How does the hatching work,

the different weights of line. You may well think the above is a bit of daft ephemera, but believe you me

just trying to produce a similar object will convince you differently.


So there they are some of the lights that guided me to my present location. There are others and later more respectable ones like Tom Girtin and Titian. Slowly all these disparate elements congealed into a middle aged bloke who paints bits of London. There is a connection however, and that is the skills involved. The skills of physical dexterity and also the skills of composition. The ability to focus and stand back from your own work. Learning each of these things leaves you changed, gives you a purpose. As a bi-product it makes you valuable to others. To my great fortune the world is not awash with people who have learnt what I have. I have achieved various ambitions, only to find they were better as hopes than they were as actualities. I became a comicstrip drawer, a book illustrator, 3d designer in turn and found Shangri-La in none of them. I have no reason to think that landscape painting will either, but there is a difference, I don’t expect this final phase to satisfy any ambition. I got a picture in the ROI which was nice but the feeling in no way matched painting a watercolour that pleased me last week, or indeed someone contacting me to buy a picture because it reminded them of a happy childhood in a place far from where they are now. I am I feel getting quite close to the place I have been heading all along. A place where a moment of sun or the passing of a person engrossed in their day lifts the heart. So simple, it doesn’t need defining, or explaining. There is no agenda for change or disquiet with the status quo. It doesn’t need certainty indeed uncertainty is vital. In a word… “joy”.

November 5, 2013

Getting out there!

One of the bonuses of going out painting plein air that is often not mentioned is the increased chance of seeing a decent subject. When painting plein air you are in a place for a considerable while as the day changes around you. Often the most magical of subjects are there only moment. A jogger passes from shadow to light, somehow completing a scene, a street is lit by the sun breaking through leaving the distance dark. It can be any number of things. One thing is certain however if you don’t spend the time out and about keeping an eye out for the possibilities then good subjects will be few and far between.

If I go out for the day and bring back a decent plein air I am very happy with the day, but often the main haul of treasure is in my camera carrying potential for studio paintings. I know many say it is too easy, but you have to take I estimate about a hundred photos before one has a possible painting. I put them all in a folder called “possible paints” usually it is not just one photo but a group with a scene and then further shots of people traffic etc. I don’t think I have ever taken a photo that was “ready to go” if I did it would probably be better just to leave it as a photograph.

Another valuable aspect of a days plein air is that you are in “painting mode” you are constantly assessing and testing things you see in your mind’s eye for picture possibilities. Thsi also happens when you are out and about generally, I always carry a camera even when popping down to the shops for a pint of milk! This often results in 500 or 600 photos a week! I have learnt from experience that the photos need to be looked at very soon after you take them. So on getting home I put them on the computer and pick out anything that has possibilities. I then immediately adjust and scribble over the top my ideas for how it would translate. I drop in potential figures and play with the colours to look for harmonies. The reason for doing this straight away is that the quality of the real day is still in your memory. When I am making the adjustments I am trying to make the photo conform with the memory of the actual day. Often in you mind’s eye the scene was memorable, but the photo when you look at it on screen is a disappointment. I have learnt that you can adjust the image to nearer fit your recollection.

A few things are needed to make that easier. Firstly shoot in RAW format. With jpg most of the information has been thrown away for the sake of the file size. With memory cards so cheap this is daft. A .jpg file is only 8bits per channel whereas a RAW file is 14bits this means that you can adjust the exposure afterwards without the image degrading. A .jpg given the same treatment will decay into a contrasty nightmare and loose all subtlety of tone. I seek also to make the image feel “painterly” hard to describe, but it means that I can see in my minds eye which areas can be combined and simplified and which will carry the story and need more definition. I often quickly paint over areas in photoshop to unify and make them less defined. I do this on a layer so I can always refer to the original should I want to.

The end result is often a world away from the original camera image, but is nicer to paint from. I always paint from a screen image as a printed image has all the tone decisions made for you. Because you cannot paint the actual tones from the screen you are forced to make compromises which gives the painting I feel more immediacy. Painting from a printed image feels lifeless compared. In the same way if I bring a plein air back that needs attention, I first adjust the photo to look as much like the plein air as possible. This makes it far easier to just do the changes needed and no more, which retains the feeling of the original sketch and conditions on the day.

I am increasingly interested in various mixtures of studio and plein air. In several pictures recently I have done a plein air painting, then worked on it in the studio and finally taken it back on site to refine from life. I have this week also done a picture from a photoref and then taken the resulting picture back to the location. It was very interesting to work directly on top of the almost finished image adding direct observation where it improved and leaving where it was fine. The result was a definite improvement. The main changes were to the shadow areas, it is hard to see the light “bounced” into the darker areas in a photo ref. The eye sees more variety of tone.


Blackheath, London, Plein air, Painting

This is Blackheath. I am always interested in spots where you can get that “in the road feeling” here the pavement kicks in so you can get a view straight up

the hill. I don’t quite know why, but this gives a very active view, as if you feel that in real life you would need to move or get run over! Sadly I got most of the Taxi

done on the spot… I have more or less memorised that familiar shape. The family group are from the same place on a different day. Pleased with this one

though it has a joinedupness that has been slightly eluding me recently. 8in by 10in.


Greenwich, London, Naval Hospital, plein air, painting

Having lectured two fellow painters on drawing this out I fancied having a go myself. Here is a case of a plein air that could do with a bit of tinkering in

the studio. In order to get the whole lot done in reasonable time I had to lay in the buildings in a flat tone and add a couple of detail layers on top. This

has resulted in rather a dead feel. The left hand range could do with less definition and some “hero” nearby figures are needed to stop the picture running

off on the left hand side. If I can get it right I quite fancy doing an all singing and dancing studio painting of this. 10in by 14in.


Greenwich, Millenium Dome, Thames, plein air.

A very quick sketch as the rain was coming, with plenty of wind! I couldn’t resist the outrageous tones of the river and the sky. Only 15min.


Greenwich, London, plein air, oils, painting

Here is one of the mongrels I mentioned. I arrived with this as an almost finished work done from reference. I ended up re working the road and pavement.

I also lightened the sky and took out a fair bit of colour. The main improvement came in the overall unity. I should have scanned the first state but I’m afraid

I didn’t think to. On the other hand people would have probably only told me the early version was better! 8in by 10in.


St Martins, London, watercolour

This is St Martins on Trafalgar Square. Done from a photo taken last year. Very pleased with the feel of this one, a possibility for the open exhibitions.

Watercolour, 8.5in by 11in.


Thames, London, plein air, river

A day in Chelsea with the Brass Monkeys. A wonderful crisp and breezy November day. I love the low light at this time of year, it is OK to paint most of

the day unlike the summer months. I tried to keep this very simple just putting in the vital things to set the scene. 8in by 10in.


Thames, london, river, battersea bridge, plein air, painting

Second one I loved this little bit of the embankment and the way the shadow divided the composition. I took some square boards with me it is easy to stick

to a few standard formats so I am going to vary board proportions more I think. 10in by 10in oils.


Rob Adams

Here I am painting the last one, I look like I am having fun! Photo by Terry Preen. In the background Tony Lawman and Graham Davies.

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