Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

July 26, 2013

Relative Importance

Filed under: Drawing,London,Painting,Thames,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 3:53 pm

I expected after a while to run out of things to post about but it doesn’t seem to be happening so far. Which perhaps shows what a wide subject painting is. This instalment  is about relative importance, a something I am just starting to get to grips with myself. This is prompted by a very good article by Stapleton Kearns which is here. The subject is sometimes called subordination, or as I put it in the heading “Relative importance”.

Like all technical theories it needs to be considered as a factor not a rule! You can always find examples that break any rule successfully, but it is something to consider when making a picture. It underlies the problem of detail and why too much of it can often ruin an otherwise good painting. Subordination is of particular interest to a plein air painter attempting to get an impression down of a fleeting moment because it allows you do to break down what is key to a picture and what is merely there in a supporting role. When I look back at pictures that failed very often a lack in the focus on the centre of interest was the culprit, especially in plein air work.

A beautiful scene is all well and good but it is only an empty stage awaiting actors. What can be considered as a subject is pretty broad, anything from a splash of light in a distant field to an upfront figure in a street scene. A very simple example of this in action is the vignette where the edges of the picture fade out, or Richard Schmidt who fades out many of his pictures into abstract scumbling. These are both rather obvious examples the method works best to my mind when it is subtle, done too crudely you might as well paint an arrow on your picture with, “Look here you fool!” written on it… As with drama the hero must be engaging but the supporting players believable too.

One of the mistakes that many painters, both professional and amateur make is the paint the whole picture with the same intensity of gaze. It is a crime I am very often guilty of myself! So in a cityscape the windows of the buildings might be all painted to the same level with window bars and all the surrounds. The result of this , I fear, is a stiff deadness to the picture. As to why this is so is harder to work out. The real world is after all in the same fractal detail where ever we look. The answer, I think, is in how we look. We see in detail with only a tiny bit of the eye, the fovea, everything surrounding this is peripheral, much not even in colour. So what happens is that the eye moves, focusses and as it does so subordinates everything around. Try it yourself look at an object and fix your gaze. Then shift you attention to another object but do not move your eyes. This is not easy as your eyes want to flick to the next centre of interest but it quite possible with practice and valuable for an artist. What you find is that the objects outside your main focus are rendered by the brain in a pretty cursory manner, the basics are there but not much more.

So when you focus in our cityscape upon a taxi coming towards you, you actually cannot see those window bars you just see a dark blur where the window might be. This is why a painting done of the same subject with the focus on the taxi can have very basic indications of windows in the buildings and still seem to the viewer to be all there with nothing missing. This does not mean however that the drawing can be slapdash, that blur needs to be in the right place with the right tone etc and roughly the right shape! In practice you can supply a few bits of detail, a hint of a window bar here and a reflection there are all that is needed for the viewer to fill in the rest.

There is of course a slight conflict here, many viewers of pictures enjoy exploratory looking and will exclaim in admiration over the detail. Whereas a painter might pay a compliment as to the way certain elements are just suggested not defined. This might seem to be an unbridgeable divide but in practice this is not so. I have quite often received the “wonderful details” accolade or worse the “Just like a photo…” when in actual fact the detail was mostly  just hinted at. A few paintings so you can see me not taking my own advice…


The Boltons, Chelsea, pintar rapido, plein air, oils, London, porsche

This was my effort for the Pintar Rapido. No I didn’t win, or indeed sell my picture. I was quite pleased with this nonetheless, it was blindingly hot and

quite difficult light. You had to register before going out so it was impossible to paint early when the light was good. This is the Boltons in Kensington

and Chelsea. One of the most exclusive roads in the capital… 14in by 10in oils.


Chelsea, St Lukes, church, watercolour

I had to hang about the next day as I needed to collect my picture. I did this wee watercolour of St Lukes in Chelsea, too hot to do more! 7in by 5in.


Putney, Thames, Plein air, Wapping Group, oil painting

I am trying to get to as many Wapping Group days as possible. This one was a visit to Putney. Once again the day was very hot so painting from the shade

was favourite. It was quite hazy with the sun coming and going but I enjoyed painting this. I am using glaze medium to lay in the basic tones which means

using a white board. It is almost like watercolouring with the white of the board shining through. I like the method for the most part though you do tend to

loose the unity gained by using a toned board. The advantages are that the whole thing can be laid in very fast and as the glaze dries quickly it is ready to paint

over in minutes. This really reduces the problems with “pick” up and keeps the painting very clean.


Putney, thames, watercolour, plein air

I did a quick watercolour of the same scene, I like the way the different media tend to pick out different aspects of the same scene. 7in by 5in.


Putney, Thames, river, summer, plein air

I then turned 180 degrees and did up river, my heart wasn’t really in this but all good practice… looks like Italy! A pint of cold beer in the pub was very

welcome I can tell you! 12in by 10in oils.


Chelsea, London, street, sun, oil painting

I’m not sure if this is finished, it is Chelsea again I went back as I saw several possible paintings. I only drew out and laid in with glaze then the heat drove

me away. It was 35C! I carried on working from snaps but I might go back and finish on site if I get the right day. I am pleased with the feeling of heat but there

is something that worries me. I always hate it when there is something not quite right that I can’t put my finger on… any suggestions very welcome!

The car is a bit too dominant perhaps but I rather liked the bad parking! 20in by 12in oils.


Erith, Thames, watercolour, plein air

Another Wapping day though I saw no one else and couldn’t make the pub due to vegetable watering duties! This is Erith in Kent I rather liked this untidied

section of the river… but the riverside flat plague is infesting the river here too, this industrial stuff will all be gone. I painted this from a scrap of shade but felt

it would be easier to catch in an oil… 7in by 5in


Erith, Kent, Thames, Oils, plein air, Wapping Group

I gritted my teeth and did this in the full sun. I was right in thinking it would be easier in oils. I painted all the jetty and conveyer in a flat dark and then

worked all the other stuff around it. This keeps the darks thin, with a subject like this it takes very few marks to fill in the feeling of detail on top. 10in by 7in.



Some nerdy stuff now, I wanted a super light set up as I don’t like carrying a full pack around the city. The pochade box weighs only 875gm and the

whole lot you see above weighs in at 1.3 kilos including Zipshot tripod. It takes 14in by 10 in boards and can carry 2 wet paintings slid in the back.



Here it is packed up. To test it I went out to Northumberland Avenue near Charing Cross.


Northumberland Avenue, London, oil painting, plein air

This is Northumberland Avenue, some super light, Graham Davies and I painted away trying to catch the mood. A great place to paint as the pavement is

wide and in the evening the light streams down it giving a great effect. A lot to get down in an hour but plenty here to inspire a bigger picture! The new

light set up worked a treat and will make popping up to town to catch the evening light so much easier. 14in by 10in.


Helium, pochade

Finally my vision of a truly light weight painting set up, “The Helium Pochade” I’m sure it will be a winner!


  1. Love the helium pochade Rob 🙂

    As far as I am concerned you never show a bad painting.


    Comment by Doug — July 26, 2013 @ 6:07 pm

  2. Thanks Doug, there are quite few that don’t make the blog and get binned halfway!

    Comment by admin — July 26, 2013 @ 6:36 pm

  3. Hello Rob,
    I really like your style and choice of subjects, is it possible to contact you in order to inquire about prices.
    many thanks
    Robin Clifton

    Comment by Robin Clifton — July 30, 2013 @ 10:46 am

  4. Thanks Robin, I’ve emailed you.

    Comment by admin — July 30, 2013 @ 6:22 pm

  5. Great pictures as always and a very interesting post. I’m going to risk making a total idiot of myself and I’m taking a very deep breath…. You asked for suggestions regarding the Chelsea picture. When I had it on the screen I placed my thumb over the two figures next to the badly parked car. When I did this the picture appeared to “relax” for want of a better term. Probably a feeling exclusive to me or my imagination and please don’t think I’m critisizing, the rag you use to clean your brushes has more artistic merit than all my efforts put together. I’m always trying to learn so if I’m miles off then please tell me, and my apologies for being so cheeky.

    Comment by Kevin — August 4, 2013 @ 5:20 pm

  6. Thanks Kevin, yes you would expect that as the figures are the focus and point of greatest “tension” but the same thing happens to a lesser degree when I cover the car so there is a clash that needs to be resolved, the car has to be quieter… and probably better parked! A pity as I was pleased with the car it is always annoying to have to paint out a bit you feel you have done well!

    Comment by admin — August 4, 2013 @ 6:44 pm

  7. Hi,
    I really enjoy the your painting,
    I just learn oil painting for six months.
    Your website is realy amazing.
    Best regards
    In Taiwan far away from your hometown.

    Comment by Arthur Wu — August 22, 2013 @ 6:30 am

  8. Looking through in a hurry I do notice that the ones which look the most realistic and full of depth and detail are invariably 20 inches across not 10. perhaps the bigger scale is necessary – there being a practical limit to the use of small brushes when painting fast- unless you are painting hundreds of figures in Battle on the Issus like Altdorfer did with a minute brush.

    I suspect a lot of people are put off by detail – they see people en masse – faces are not really necessary and can be a distraction just as they are walking down the street.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — August 30, 2013 @ 1:45 am

  9. Ernest, The difference I feel is merely that of a plein air, where an impression has to be got down quickly and a studio picture which has more focus and has had greater consideration of abstract qualities. I’m guessing you are the Ernest who comes to life drawing? I’m looking forward to the new sessions I miss my weekly draw!

    Comment by Rob Adams — August 30, 2013 @ 10:14 am

  10. ciao mi piacciono molto i tuoi quadri e la tua pochade, posso sapere dove l hai comprata?

    Comment by eleonora — January 21, 2014 @ 6:57 pm

  11. Hi Eleonora, Grazie! Ho fatto la pochade me.

    Comment by Rob Adams — January 21, 2014 @ 7:04 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress

error: Content is protected !!