Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

November 16, 2013

The Devil in the Detail

Detail. Many artists make it their life’s work to eliminate it. Simplify, combine and other words to reduce and edit litter “how to paint” books. To be detailed is for many painters a crime against art. I have more than a little sympathy with that view. I try to refine and simplify in my own work. The general public however disagrees. They love detail, the more of it the better. This creates a dilemma, to impress your peers you need to show a sophisticated reduction of content, for the general viewer they want to revel in the small touches.

Artists dismiss the overly photographic. I generally agree here too. What I ask is the point of copying a photograph into a handmade version in paint? The public however disagrees here too, with artists cringing at that innocently given accolade, “Oh it’s just like a photo!” Even people given to trawling the web looking at paintings disagree. Looking at Facebook pages that collect art the more photographic in quality the more “likes”. From my perspective as a painter the public has bad taste and does not know good painting when it sees it.

Oh how arrogant that sounds! It is a thread that runs through all the arts to some degree. In music composers don’t want to compose nice Mozarty tunes they want their compositions to be difficult and demanding of the listener. Literary critics want serious incisive writing, the public want page turners. In TV the public has won, with anything intelligent ghettoised to Beeb 4 and watched by about 3 people. I could do a rant here on reality TV, soaps and food porn but that would be too easy. Instead I have to ask, “Am I wrong?”

Becoming an expert at something or indeed an aficionado changes how you see the subject you are involved in. Painters see a different picture from the casual viewer. Where I see elegant simplification the uneducated might just see crude and childlike! At a certain point in elevated sophistication the viewer takes on more and more of the responsibility until we reach Malevitch’s black square or Cage’s silence where everything comes from the audience and nothing from the artist. Art critics and art fans, work hard to see what they see. They imagine of course that these aesthetic feelings come from the art and not from themselves though logic would say otherwise.

So what is a painter to do. If I paint something the man or woman in the street might like, then the art establishment will dismiss me. If I paint to please the establishment and other painters, the general public will mostly turn aside. It is popular to think that the public’s taste “lags behind” and will in due course catch up. Well it’s been a hundred years and there is no sign of it catching up so far! The uncomfortable truth is that such a view is arrogant and almost certainly untrue.

The public’s taste is as it is because they are not painters, they are lookers. They judge a painting upon what they see around them and by photographs of reality. All your colour harmonies and compositional tricks for the most part are unnoticed. For a portrait they will just say, “It don’t look like her much!” they wont admire your deft scumbling of the background or the subtle passage of brushwork that defines the cheek.

The choice for the painter is a little bleak. Paint to please yourself and hopefully a small group of connoisseurs or “sell out” and do crowd pleasing potboilers. You can of course widen your market by painting those pictures that the amateur would like to paint but can’t quite pull off, but even this might attract scorn from your fellow artists.

This disconnect is quite recent. The high Victorian 19th Century paintings with their syrupy sentiment and moral certainty appealed both the the public and the connoisseurs and critics of the time as well. We cringe now at the paintings of puppies looking up adoringly at sweet children but I suspect that they would still be very much to current unsophisticated taste. In music they try to “educate” the public by doing a Mozart symphony and then tacking a bit of Shostakovich for them to sit through as well. A policy I have always found irritating and rather patronising.

The ideal of course would be to please everybody, but that is not going to happen. I have my own cringeometer which determines a step to far. I can only show this by example…


Solomon J Solomon

Here is an unlikely scene. A painting by Solomon J Solomon a painter of over heated romantic scenes and

one of the inventors of camouflage netting. Daft though this painting is there is a lot I like. The Saint’s head

is very well modelled and executed. It makes me chuckle however that St George finishes off the dragon with

one hand whilst hoisting the maiden with the other! Who said men can’t multitask?


Frank Dicksee

More maiden rescuing, a growth industry in the middle ages it would seem. This is Frank Dicksee, I find it hard to like anything here.

Why? It is hard to say, the maidens expression is vapid the colouring is generally a bit over rich. The lighting is inconsistent with the lady

being lit by a different day. The drawing isn’t too bad, but at the end of the day I look and don’t like. Frank got knighted but Solomon didn’t!


Arthur Rackham

Here is Arthur Rackham. I like almost everything here. Beautiful muted tones. Exquisite drawing, sweet but

the girl’s gaze holds ours which changes the mood.


Jesse Willcox Smith

Another girl in the woods… this time by Jesse Wilcox Smith. It is perfectly well drawn and painted. The palette is restricted.

The girl’s gaze meets ours… but I hate it!


We reserve especial scorn for those who churn out the same old painting just because it sells. We call the artists hacks and their works potboilers, though I dare say their children were better fed than the more sternly aesthetic. I’ve done potboilers too, romance covers etc, I have also done plenty of paintings that would fail my own cringe test. Still I have this unfashionable urge to paint pictures that people might like. This has lead me to tread the boundary between detailed and simplified, in truth both have their uses, I don’t want to disappoint a viewer that likes a close look nor do I want to lose the person who appreciates in a more general fashion.  I am myself a person who appreciates and enjoys both qualities in a picture.

The problem I face is getting the two aspects to compliment each other. I am nearer to this in watercolour. I get people saying they love the detail, but in truth it is mostly absent and just suggested. Watercolour rather lends itself to this with the textures and abstract qualities of the washes standing in for observed detail. In oils I have to work a little harder, I end up blurring bits of detail to stop them catching the eye, but it would be better to paint them with the right degree of focus from the outset. Only a few pictures this post…


Ashburnham Arms, Greenwich, oils

A commission, I don’t do many of these but this was quite fun. A hard subject to make a picture of as the views were very restricted. I went down a few

to try and get the light right. It is in Greenwich. 10in by 14in Oils.


Richmond, Thames, Plein air, oil painting

The Brass Monkeys had a wonderful day in Richmond. This is the view of the Thames that greeted me. Almost too perfect and changing so rapidly that

the result is a little rushed. I have a few references that combined with this sketch will make a great watercolour I hope. 10in by 16in. Oils.


Richmond, Thames, plein air, oil painting

I moved on to this. As soon as I started they folded up the blue tarpaulin so I had to mostly make it up! I am trying to take a few different proportioned

boards out with me, it is easy to get stuck with standard shapes. 10in by 10in oils.


Richmond, Thames, The White Cross, plein air, oil painting

After a very good lunch in the White Cross I thought I had better immortalise it. The light was fantastic and the colours in the trees lovely. I only got this

drawn and glazed in, but with the tones and colours more or less there, finishing took only half an hour at home. 10in by 14in. Oils.


Pen drawing, Richmond, Thames

I thought the previous painting would make a good pen drawing to I dusted off my Gillott dip pen and set to. I don’t know why I don’t do more pen drawing

it is a great medium. I shall try and do more. A4 on Bristol board.


  1. Another superb, thought provoking post Rob, with some wonderful pictures. I love the Thames views. The way you have rendered the water takes my breath away, and the pen drawing, a medium close to my heart, is fabulous. I could never tire of looking at this! Your previous post is a great read too, it’s so interesting to see what has influenced an artist. I too loved comic art in the 70’s. A marvel comic called “Dracula Lives” became available then and I was spellbound by the art in those. I was no expert then, nothing has changed, but the names Mike Ploog and Val Mayerick stick in my memory. I wanted to make a career in art back then but the opportunity was denied. If I’m honest, I would have to admit that the resentment smoulders still in some quiet corner within. Would I be any happier than I am now? Probably not. As you suggest, huge ambition-driven milestones are often not what they promise. To capture simple moments and enjoy. Maybe that’s the essence of success after all.

    Comment by Kevin — November 17, 2013 @ 10:49 am

  2. Thanks Kevin, yes I must do a separate post on pen drawing. I must do more, I think I don’t because it is a medium I associate with commercial work. A bit of smouldering resentment does you good, I reserve mine for the idiots who wasted my time and taught me sod all at art college!

    Comment by Rob Adams — November 17, 2013 @ 3:06 pm

  3. I think the Dicksee painting is actually a bit more edgy than most post – pre-Raphaelite art. The hint of horrible violence just witnessed can be seen on her face. He is sheathing his sword in a way that hints at rape rather than rescue and altogether it has a slightly nightmarish colour scheme that marks it out from the usual damsel in distress romp. His more famous one is LA BELLE DAME SANS MERCI which is an even better study of late Gothic armour. One of the problems about DICKSEE is the way he spells his name – one had trouble once showing this painting to a woman one liked… I should have spelled it DIXIE as in the heart of and she would never have noticed or thought I had done it on purpose..

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — November 19, 2013 @ 2:17 pm

  4. On the other hand I find the Solomon St George particularly ludicrous as the lance seems to have a grip at both ends – so the dragon could push back? I also looked at the Goodbrush stuff you were talking about. Mixed feelings . Basically he often seems to leave his head out of the equation- there are 3 picture of the Pirates of the Caribbean series where the figure is standing under a DIAGONAL grating. In thirty years of looking at ship draughts I never saw a diagonal grating – they are always square which is the logical easy way to cut half laps by hand in the frame and the holes are small enough for there to be no risk of a foot getting stuck in the hole. There is a painting of a pirate with a heavy cutlass that is sharpened on both edges – Cutlasses are single edged and have flat sided blades they may have sharpened the tip both sides to some extent but not the forte near the guard. Then the western series – he never seems to draw any gun that can be identified which is pretty inadequate considering what Icons they are No Spencers no Henrys no Colt Peacemakers no Dragoons and not even a Le Mat. the gun totting robots are all BIPEDAL when a moments thought would tell one that six or eight legs are more suitable and certainly more possible. The trouble is the director asnd producer and writer probably were not thinking either so general ignorance reigns. However some of his female nudes are amazingly good and rather erotic and the interiors are amazing impressions of vast space.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — November 19, 2013 @ 2:46 pm

  5. Actually penetrating the murk I see that the GRIP on the lance is the dragon’s front paw so that solves that quibble – the lance would have split if bent this much – they were hollow and built of 6 segments – designed to shatter on impact in the joust war lances are different but in both cases they are one time use weapons – if it goes in you were supposed to let go as the horses pasas…just as soldiers were taught not to stick the bayonet in more than 2 inches and as Vergitius says in De Re Militari – of the Gladius – a wound only two inches deep is usually sufficient.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — November 19, 2013 @ 3:03 pm

  6. Hi Ernest, actually bipedal robots when the balance problems are sorted out (which going by the latest ones will be soon) will be more efficient. There is a reason ostriches and such are very fast and energy efficient. Craig Mullins is not really a detail man, you have to look at the mood he creates!

    Comment by Rob Adams — November 19, 2013 @ 4:55 pm

  7. Ostriches are efficient runners and so are Kangeroos the bouncing motion is extremely efficient. Neither of them operate in minefields wear armour plate climb mountain gradients carry thousands of rounds and a Vulcan canon. During WWII most of our armoured cars were small fast and had four wheels they only worked on roads. The german ones were six eight and ten wheelers and could operate in the desert. Oddly enough there is a wonderful Anime film Ghost from the Machine where the enemy is a six legged tank – it looks like a land crab or a gigantic mite. I do have a bit of a thing about this idea – HG Wells should have thought about it before making the Martian Fighting Machines three legged – it is the best design for a camera support but the worst for locomotion. Insects do it by using their legs as two tripods on a common centre so three are always standing while the other three move forward back or sideways. Arachnids apparently have several different gaits rather as horses and camels do but I don’t remember the exact details as to how the legs move in sequence.

    I remember watching a clip of Speilberg discussing how he makes his story boards – it involved telling the artist what to draw – “I want this bit blue and that in red” that way they were still HIS storyboards at least in his mind and the HIGH CONCEPT maintains its integrity.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — November 20, 2013 @ 10:38 am

  8. I very much like your pen drawing of the pub – it looks like one drawn about 1910- presumably from your comment you learned this skill from work of that era – all the wiggly vertical shading giving the effect of shimmering light for example- not from any tutors at Art School?

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — November 20, 2013 @ 10:43 am

  9. Yes, I had Arthur L Guptill’s book “Rendering in Pen and Ink” first published in 1930. Which is still the best book on the subject.

    Comment by Rob Adams — November 20, 2013 @ 5:51 pm

  10. I had never heard of this book but will see if I can find one online as even if I never manage to use it myself it looks worth having.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — November 20, 2013 @ 11:54 pm

  11. Rob, I love how you bring up these very relevant questions. This one is something I think about a lot. I see the same thing you do, the general public relates to a painted photo. And this encourages people to paint from photos and to teach beginners to paint that way. Such a shame.

    As to your paintings in this post, the Thames scenes are wonderful. And the drawing of the White Cross is superb, absolutely top notch. I’ve just ordered the Guptill book mentioned in the comment above. Thank you for giving us these delightful pictures and such interesting things to think about.

    Comment by Bobbi Heath — November 26, 2013 @ 1:47 pm

  12. Thanks Bobbi, you won’t be disappointed in the book, aside from pen technique it is one of the best you can get on composition, drawing and tone.

    Comment by Rob Adams — November 26, 2013 @ 4:01 pm

  13. Another thoughtful and entertaining post. Always appreciate the paintings, but the pen drawing at the end was a nice surprise!

    I do suspect that many of the elements you appreciate and strive for as an artist contribute to the “je ne sais quoi” that compels even the less-trained eye.

    Comment by a chris — November 27, 2013 @ 4:05 am

  14. I have just received my Guptill book. It is worth having just for the huge variety of illustrations by architects and artists in such a wide spectrum of subject and style. The ‘how to’ parts I have only glanced through at the moment but it seems full of good advice such as the How to prevent your ink bottle falling over page which is all very easy once you see it but has bothered me in life drawing class for years so much so I only recently tried using Reed pen for 2 minute sketches rather than fountain pens…

    I got my copy for £9.99 from The Book depository – new paperback ed . The old hardback copies were more expensive though since it is a largish book it might have been better to buy a more durable copy. thanks for mentioning this bookIt may be rather late in the day for me to learn these techniques but I am sure some of it will stick.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — November 28, 2013 @ 12:19 pm

  15. There is of course the usual economic reason for the pen drawing falling out of use. Up until the 1950’s photographic reproduction in full tone was expensive gravure work. Now even business cards are in full colour dirt cheap and of amazing accuracy from photo litho plates. The ink drawing which was once a cheap alternative or the only possible way to illustrate a book has become a luxury item which is either charmingly antique or minging old crap according to ones view.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — November 28, 2013 @ 12:33 pm

  16. Pen illustration had a bit of a rebirth in the 1960’s 70’s as they reproduced well on cheap pulp paper. So you get Ardizzone, Pauline Baynes and Pat Marriott doing illustrations in pen for Puffin books and others. The other large user was the Radio Times all alas picture library stuff now. The absurd thing is that an illustrator would charge less than the picture library fee, it is just that the picture editors are lazy and or ignorant.

    Comment by Rob Adams — November 28, 2013 @ 12:47 pm

  17. yes I remember the illustrations in Radio times – particularly the Shakespeare Marlowe and Jacobean Play characters I remember one for Webster’s The White Devil that I found fascinating – all by the same artist who worked in a style that looked like woodengravings though I was never sure if they were actual engravings or cunning pen drawings or scraperboard because they were always small about 2inches square- the radio times column size. would it have been Eric or Norman something – if you don’t remember I shall have to google it.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — November 28, 2013 @ 1:08 pm

  18. ERIC FRASER – I did Google it only to rewalise I had missed a big show of his work in London this year… I do not keep up with the Scene as I should.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — November 28, 2013 @ 1:18 pm

  19. I expect you mean Bill Sanderson a scraperboard whiz.

    Comment by Rob Adams — November 28, 2013 @ 3:36 pm

  20. No it was Eric Fraser – Bill sanderso’s work is so detailed I don’t think it would come across well that small.

    Comment by ERNEST BARTON — November 28, 2013 @ 5:50 pm

  21. I think there is a convergence between simplification and detail where you express what you need to with exactly as many elements (brush strokes, colors, shapes) as you need to, but no more. That doesn’t mean you can’t use lots of them, but that every one must matter (even if it is in a “don’t look at me I’m here for contrast” way). I think this kind of technical excellence is one that fellow craftsmen can appreciate, but those who don’t know the craft really don’t care except as much as it has an effect on them when they see it. It’s interesting coming from photography to art: I see many common elements between them, and one of those is that the public tends to care more about the emotional effect than the picture. I don’t think they are necessarily wrong; if you lose the story, the reason for a picture, it becomes meaningless.

    Comment by Joshua — November 29, 2013 @ 10:09 pm

  22. Wow really nice work. Were is you latest work? and do you ever paint oil?

    Comment by Jon Premo — December 2, 2013 @ 4:58 pm

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