Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

May 11, 2012

Details, Details

Filed under: London,Painting,Thames,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 10:55 am

It is something I hear and read a great deal. Simplify, work with a broad brush, be expressive, be free, be loose. All of which mostly I agree with. However none of the books or the DVDs describe how you journey towards that freedom of expression. The idea seems to be that you just “go for it” and all this looseness and will inevitably occur and if it doesn’t it was just lack of confidence to “jump right in” that held you back. I somehow doubt this works for many people.

In reality the journey to a less literal rendering of a subject is a long road that starts with detail and ends with allowing the imagination and visual system of the viewer to do more and more of the “filing in”. You can’t, in my opinion, really understand detail, its pitfalls and uses without having used it and overused it in the first place. Also there are many cases where detail is just the thing. You can if you wish reduce a wildly decorative baroque facade to a couple of washes, but that would seem to miss the spirit of the subject. On the other hand to copy every pinnacle and carving will take forever and the result will most likely be lifeless.

Once again there is no other way that I know of to learn how to get the most effective balance other than having overdone it and learnt from the experience. Looking at great artists from the past we often see much the same story, a beginning of exquisite detail ending in a more emotionally engaging lost and found style. Rembrandt would be a good example, his early works are very fine and every transition is resolved, his later paintings are  blurred and encrusted with texture. In order to reach this latter stage with its unrivalled weight of emotion he needed to have mastered all the stages in between.

rembrandt, self portrait

Here he is young.


self, portrait

Here, worn down by time.

Not that there aren’t many very talented people who work their way through this transition in double quick time… depressingly there are. However most mortals do need to pass through this phase in order to grow better. Which is why I find the exhortation to “just go for it” a little unfair, the person may not be ready for that stage. Watercolour books for beginners are full of such advice. To work with what is called freedom requires a high degree of acquired skill and experience. In essence you have to have to got it wrong a lot of times before you can get it right.

I myself was (and still am in some ways) an inveterate lover of detail. Even after having gained the experience to let things go I often choose not to. What finally turned the tables was doing scenic painting for the theatre, where a gloriously detailed backcloth when seen from the auditorium, is just a mass of impressionistic marks done with a 6in brush, when seen close to. I also hit the conundrum that when I did a detailed “photographic” backgrounds for film or TV they looked less realistic on screen than more loosely painted backings. The reason of course that the impressionistic method works is that the eye fills in the required detail if it is given the right hints. That is the problem though… knowing the right hints that will get the job done with the least actual delineation. In actual fact the very detailed where every small part is resolved is technically quite easy, though time consuming. This is why you see endless copies of photos done in moronic detail by amateur pencil artists. It also explains the popularity of stipple technique in pen drawing. They are methods that have high time requirements but are low in risk of complete failure. Though it is always best not to be too dismissive as there will always be someone who rises above the limitations imposed by such methods.

The ultimate detail machine is of course the camera, which does no thinking at all, just mechanically recording. The artist using a camera is therefore only selecting or rearranging from the real world. Much of my work in past decades was involved in altering reality to look good when recorded on film, or in later years taking the recorded and flawed image and refining/adapting it to purpose. Such work has taught me a great deal about “telling” detail and reducing the visual descriptive means to their most pared down and elegant. It is the probably vain search for this visual elegance that mostly interests me now. But to aspiring artists who are caught in the detail phase, don’t worry, just getting the hang of that finicky stuff is helping to take you to a place where it will be easier to get things down more economically. The breakthrough usually happens when you are getting things down in a rush, and the result just seems to capture the essence. A subject I will no doubt return to as I am in the midst of trying to balance that particular equation myself.

A few pictures, I have been a bit under the weather, so I have not got as much done as usual.


gower, UCL, london, urban, rob adams

Something a little different from usual. A commission. This is Gower St and the entrance to University College London done for two alumni of that institution. Underpainted with acrylic with touches of oil to finish. Two paintings in one really, the curved perspective was entertaining. 24in by 10in.


inns of court, temple, gatehouse, plein air, oils, painting, robadams

Quite a bit of back and forth to complete this. It is of the magnificent gatehouse to Middle Temple Lane. I spotted the subject on a day out with the Brass Monkeys, but there was no time. I went back and started work, but the light failed on me so all I could do was layout the drawing. Then I got side tracked and the sketch just sat on the board. After an endless series of wet days we finally had the sun I needed so I went back. It just seemed to take forever, I had underestimated the sheer complexity of the subject and after an hour and a half the light had moved so much I was just guessing. I was resigned to finishing off a lot from photos, but astonishingly the next afternoon was bright and sunny so I headed back. I actually didn’t take long to complete I had been quite close to that point when the whole thing comes together and you can first “see” the whole thing. Architecture is very demanding as a subject. If it is too tight it looks dead, if it is inaccurate it looks dreadful, so it has to be painted loosely but with quite rigorous underlying drawing. I drew out more detail than found its way into the final rendering.


London, aldwych, city, oil, plein air, Rob adams

I was so full of the joys of spring having finished my Gatehouse that I did this in half an hour or so. When you have just finished something you are sometimes very much “in gear” and it all flows more smoothly. I put in the figure first here as the people crossing the pavement to enter the grand portico on the left was what took my eye in the first place.


London, admiralty arch, watercolour, Rob Adams

A much painted scene but one that looks great in this light. It is cobbled together from several photos taken over a period of about 10 years! I had intended to have more figures but a ended up rather liking the open areas in the middle so I left it. I’m not altogether sure this is the right decision, but I’ll leave it as is for now.


St Martins, trafalgar square, London, watercolour, rob adams

I have been meaning to paint this one for quite a while. I did a sketch a few years ago on a very wet day which I was quite pleased with. As the day outside my studio was as wet as could be it reminded me and I dug the drawing out. This started out very wet into wet and I got most of the tonality done in one wash. It is a tricky business though dropping repeated layers of colour into a drying wash. To get the soft trees the degree of wetness must be just right. To dry and an overly strong tone and hard edges result. Too wet and the tone will be weak and the edges too diffuse. I’ll add the original sketch below.


Trafalgar Square, pastel, sketch, rob adams

This was done very quickly between showers. I love toned paper and pastel pencil, you can get such a complete impression with very few marks. I had some other photos from nearly the same position but in very different light.


warship, thames, greenwich, london, river, plein air, watercolour, rob adams

This is HMS Ocean, tasked with keeping the terrorists at bay during the Olympics. I went down to Greenwich without much hope as it was very grey. I set about sketching sitting on the foreshore as the tide was very low and by the time I had drawn out the weird shapes of a modern “stealthed” warship the light had improved hugely. Once the initial wash had dried, which seemed to take forever, the rest was quick and easy to get done. The tide had been creeping in but I was finished before it got too close, then a launch zipped by as I was packing up and I got wet feet anyway… this is on Arches not again I rather like the surface and I must get some whole sheets to try it for a few larger things.


thames, swan, watercolour, rob adams

I can only apologise for this one, corny as hell… but the back light was gorgeous. I could see just how to paint it so I couldn’t resist. Ah well, I bet I have no trouble selling it though! Arches Not once more just three colours, Ultramarine, quinacridone gold and quinacridone red.

I’m considering Norfolk next, but not sure if I’m recovered enough.

1 Comment

  1. Certainly agree with you re. detail. Feel as if I’m slowly leaving that stage behind.

    Love the composition in the UCL commission; it almost feels like a video, there’s so much movement in it.

    Comment by Thomas Haskett — May 12, 2012 @ 9:46 am

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