Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

March 25, 2014

Getting Better

If you think I am going to tell you a sure fire way then disappointment awaits! There are a few things I do try and do however to make the trajectory up rather than flat or even worse down. Firstly just do it enough, if you don’t use it you don’t completely loose it but you really do loose some ground. Learning anything reinforces pathways in the brain. Research tells us that there are real physical changes with pathways that are frequently used gaining more connections and better blood supply. If you don’t keep those pathways busy the body for economy’s sake will reassign resources and doing what had become easy will become harder once more. This is hardly any different from any exercise so it should be no surprise.

One major area that can cause frustration is learning mistakes. Anyone who plays a musical instrument will tell you that practicing mistakes is all to easy. We can accidentally reinforce errors my making them frequently. I often see this with painters too, where a way of doing things has become set in their method and even though they intellectually know there is something wrong, when they come to paint they are forced by habit down the same less than ideal turnings. I have not only seen this in others alas, but also often in my own processes.

The only way to correct and get over such obstacles is to separate out the problem area and just practice that bit in isolation. So if you have difficulty with tone simplify the issue. Drop colour, give yourself only 4 tones to work with and paint until you have worked up some new pathways. A warning here, it takes a lot of effort to “unlearn” something. You will find that you can practice up a new way of working in the studio only to find that the old bad habits reassert themselves when painting out of doors under pressure. So it is a good idea to take your four tones out into the landscape and get the new habit well and truly programmed in!

The same can be done in any area. If you have problems with figures then get photos and draw thumbnails from them. You can even trace over them multiple times. I have myself traced over the standard London taxi until I can draw them from memory at any angle. It takes a surprisingly short time to get to a stage where you can just draw one without reference. The same is true with figures if you can draw believable silhouettes from memory then you can adapt those to catch the figures that are really there on the day.

Those are a few ways of dealing with identifiable weaknesses. Harder is to take what is already working adequately and push it up to the next level. For me the process is more or less the same. Take the thing apart and then reassemble. It helps to change media and method, also to introduce constraints which forces you to do more with less. An example of this is I often see people always painting with the same palette, if you always put out the same colours you are closing doors off that might have interesting rooms behind them. As a guide if you get too comfortable with a particular way of doing things it is probably time for a shake up!

One activity that will always highlight weak areas is life drawing. This is why I always advise people who want to improve to find a session and attend it regularly. I’m afraid I can almost guarantee it will be a slightly depressing experience. You will go dreaming of Michelangelos and return with childlike misshapen gargoyles! It is this cruel contrast that makes life drawing so valuable. You can see clearly that you are falling short and once you can see that you can move to make improvements. The aim of life work for me is not to produce anything of great artistic merit, but to stress the skills I have already attained to breaking point.

One note of caution there are always kind souls at life sessions who will say things like accuracy doesn’t matter and expressing yourself is the most important thing. I am not saying accuracy is the only thing but it is not inimportant. If your accuracy is a weak point then measure like mad until you have dealt with it. It is getting these technical hurdles somewhat tamed that allows expression to flow freely. Before you can be really be free and react to momentary inspiration you have to take the time and effort to strike off the chains that hold you back!

Note of caution no: 2. Fetishising technique is just as bad in my opinion as downplaying it. The Atelier and similar approaches tend to raise technical competence to a be all and end all. The lie to this is given by the uninspiring and dismal output of the students whose life drawings might well have linear and tonal accuracy but are in themselves lifeless. They take living flesh and turn it to perfectly rendered lifeless static stone. If you don’t get the feeling that the model fidgets and might get up and stretch at any moment you have failed just a surely as if you got the head the wrong size!

Now for some examples of how I haven’t managed to practiced what I preach!


Fleet Street, St Pauls, London, oil painting


The first of a batch of new London pictures. This is based on the plein air from the last post. I wanted to roll back the day to the moment we arrived so used the photo ref to change the feel of the light. Still a little but to do, the distance is too busy and crisp so I will soften with a glaze or two once dry. 16in by 24in oils.


The Strand, London, oil painting


This is the Strand looking West. Still a fair way to go on this but the basics are in and I am happy with the overall mood. The final adjustments have to be made very carefully so as not to overwork. 16in by 20in oils.


Strand on the Green, Thames, Plein air, brass monkeys, watercolour


A day out to the Strand on the Green near Chiswick and Kew. This was a Brass Monkeys day and the weather was a little chancy. I did this view twice the previous version was so awful I binned it! Quite difficult to paint with hail bouncing off your paper! 6in by 9in watercolour.


Thames, London, Strand on the Green, watercolour, plein air


Last one of the day I got myself positioned behind one of the pylons of the railway bridge which held off the worst of the very chilly breeze. 9in by 14in watercolour.


life drawing

I am watercolouring in the life sessions at present. It is very hard to get a study done in 30min but it is great for teaching you how to make important decisions on the fly!


life drawing

Here is an example of ringing the changes I added reed pen and ink to my very limited palette of red ochre and ultramarine.


Life drawing

Here we are pared down even more just line with the reed pen and a single wash. 7min.


life drawing

Here I have added reed pen but stressed the colour a little more. It is all about getting the most from the available resources.


life drawing

I made retaining the whites here my main intent. Very tricky as I am not drawing first. The reason for not drawing is to build confidence in putting brushstrokes down. Confident strokes add a lot to the liveliness of the end result. It is worth practicing taking a brush and practicing swelling and reducing the mark using varying pressure. This helps when you need to lay in a stroke that defined form as well as tone.


life drawing

This was as they say “challenging” … getting the extreme perspective in and believable is always very hard.


life drawing

This shows how much you can get down in 10min… you just have to accept with life sketches that 90% are fit only for the bin!


  1. Another helpful and constructive posting. I have just dug out my watercolours, blown the dust of my brushes and set too with trying some washes, very rusty at the moment so this piece comes at a very opportune time.

    Comment by Terry Preen — March 25, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

  2. Rob, Thanks for the tuition. Your life studies tels me that I`m not doing too bad, ten minute ones i mean.

    Comment by Vic — March 25, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

  3. “Last one of the day” Rob is very pleasing to my eye. Love the old houses on the left and the cracker of a sky.

    Your Getting Better blog came through at a very opportune time. Painting with the same palette is something I need to break free from. As you say, a case of the old comfort zone knowing that it probably will not turn out too bad ….but probably predictable. Have just been viewing a lovely Fletcher-Watson landscape and wondering what blues and greens he used …….I need to experiment more. Thanks for the prompt!


    Comment by Michael Trask — March 25, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

  4. Rob, What four colours would you suggest for a limited palette.

    Comment by Vic — March 25, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

  5. Hi Vic
    You can go less than four say cobalt blue and red ochre and white. Zorn often painted with just Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Red Medium, Ivory Black and White. The fact that you actually cannot mix certain hues at all means you need to substitute which is a good lesson to learn in itself. Often you get a harbour scene with lots of ultramarine touches of colour amongst the boats and maybe a couple of turquoise based ones. If you limit the blues and make them consistent then you picture will likely harmonise better. Just as in music certain notes can produce an unwanted discord so colours can play off each other to produce a jarring effect. So mixing blue greens and red greens can be just too much, to avoid this you could mix warm greens with grey greens instead. The warmth of the warm greens can actually make the grey greens feel blue! I occasionally just add a “guest colour” to find out how to use it. Recently I have been using Mars Violet which I have never put out before, which has proved very interesting and useful.

    Comment by Rob Adams — March 25, 2014 @ 6:49 pm

  6. thank you very much Rob.

    Comment by Vic — March 25, 2014 @ 8:25 pm

  7. thanks… very inspiring and encouraging…

    Comment by vanay palmer — March 26, 2014 @ 3:02 am

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