Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

October 29, 2012

Emotions and Painting in the Strand

Filed under: Drawing,Life Drawing,London,Painting,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 10:33 am

I do wonder if I will ever run out of painting topics to gab about, no sign so far but I will start repeating myself sooner or later.

I post quite a lot on Wet Canvas and occasionally with trepidation make (I hope gentle) critical comments. To sweeten the pill I always start with the good points and phrase it as an opinion only, I do this knowing full well that this diplomacy is probably pointless. The recipient will skim over the positives and home in on the negative like a guided missile! I’m not surprised because that is exactly what I do myself. In some ways this sensitivity holds your development back but on the other hand you need to really care about your work which means an emotional investment.

When I was young I was terribly sensitive to any criticism of my work. If my mother made any negative comment I would instantly tear up my painting in a fury. Which must have been difficult for her to put up with. Later when I was at college I was just as bad, I would lift a lip and sneer dismissing any comment as worthless. This got hard to maintain once working as an illustrator, any negatives had to be swallowed and corrected or no more work would be forthcoming. I would return home incandescent with fury at being made to change this or that. Looking back at some of that work I would have just turned it down as so much is wrong.

So why could I not see these very obvious flaws at the time? It has to do I think with the very odd way the brain works. We are all the time rewriting the past, to our own credit if an optimist or to our own deficit if a depressive. So if painting a portrait we start to see it right even if it is actually wrong. We do this because we so want it to be right that our brain helpfully alters what we see so that it appears to us as we hope it to be not as it actually is. This is not all bad, it means as our loved ones age and fade we still see them mostly as they were in fond memory. When you look in the mirror it is mostly a rose tinted version of ourselves that we see. For an artist though it is a disaster!

This causes a painter to have to resort to all kinds of tricks to circumvent the over optimistic eye. Painters often use a mirror to suddenly see their work afresh, which makes the flaws jump out. This works I suppose because the eye/brain has got an optimistic version polished up for the direct view, but doesn’t have one ready for the mirrored version. Too much use of the mirror brings ever decreasing benefits however as an appropriate rosy view is quite quickly put in place. Just turning the picture to the wall has the same effect. When you look afresh a few weeks later the optimistic view is mostly forgotten and only in vague memory. The disconnect between this and the live view can be quite startling, I have frequently stomped round the studio muttering, “How on earth could I have not seen that!”.

The same thing can of course happen in the inverse. In some moods whatever you do looks bad, the negatives rise up and choke the positives. You may have started painting full of excitement at the potential of your subject, you have I suppose a vision in your minds eye as to how it will be. This is soon swept away alas by the actuality of paint on paper. Then the only thing to do is press on until a new vision of completeness is imagined upon the marks you have made. This can then act as a beacon and guide to draw you on to its completion.

So a part of learning to paint and draw well is to somehow manage these expectations both positive and negative. When I laboured building sets for films and adverts I had to carry out the work under the gaze of the clients. I soon learnt that stomping around the studio muttering that it had all gone wrong and how much I hated it did not inspire confidence. Unfortunately I used to let off steam by fulminating under my breath to my assistants which must have been tedious for them and undermined their confidence in getting the job done in turn. I was in short a right pain in the neck! Slowly though I learned to control these swings of mood and as if by magic the overall quality of work I produced improved as a result.

This is one of the reasons I find all the exhortations to “express yourself” that litter comments on painting deeply tedious and simple minded. In my experience expression come as a matter of course, as emotional beings we can do naught else. It is learning to set your sail to reap benefits from these conflicting and involuntary gales that brings the ship home. Not being blown hither and thither about the ocean by your feelings like a rudderless scow. With that metaphor well and truly extended a few paintings and drawings!



London, plein air, oils, brass monkeys, painting, Mary le strand

This is St Mary le Strand on a Brass Monkeys expedition. The light was as beautiful as the wind was painfully chilly! My hands were frozen by the time I was done. I had to retreat to the pub to warm up and take in calories. Oil 12in by 10in.


Church, Strand, London, brass monkeys, oils, painting, plein air

After eating and warming I went out into a quite different day, the clouds had swept in and were threatening rain . I knew I would only have a short while at this so I just went straight in with the paint, blocking in the shapes with no initial drawing. The dash of light across the scene which lifted it was only there for a few moments when I started and stubbornly refused to return. I almost gave up a few times as the rain came and went. Almost at the last minute when I was considering packing up the sun came back and it took no more than a minute to drop the splashes of warm light in. Odd how so few strokes of colour can lift an otherwise grey and dreary scene. 14in by 10in oils.


Strand, London, church, painting, watercolour, plein air

After retreating yet again for coffee in the pub we went back to do Mary le Strand again. This is a great subject, I must do a bigger studio painting as I have only ever done it en plein air. I did this using waterbrushes charged with various colours. Next I am going to try using my tiny pan set with just a brush charged with water.


London, watercolour

This was actually done a few days before. I must replace the yellow in the waterbrushes with a less muscular version, though it is sort of OK for autumn. The chimney is the Tate Modern.


deptford, watercolour, sketch

A very quick scribble done in my tiny pocket sketchbook. It is near my home in St Johns Vale Deptford. Such quick notes are very useful when used in conjunction with a photo. Just doing the drawing sets the scene in your memory and makes catching the mood in a studio painting so much easier.


figure watercolour

Life drawing had a Spanish flavour! She looked fabulous in her dark dress taking up dramatic flamenco inspired poses.


flamenco, watercolour

So hard to catch this sort of thing in a mere 7 min. You just have to take a leap of faith and dive in.



The best of the session, it is amazing how little is needed to explain the posture and form.



The model was very close to me here so I resorted to drawing the drawers!


watercolour, life drawing, nude

Longer 30 min pose there is only just time to get all the tones in. I find the waterbrushes a great help as they do not wet the paper as much. I used them in conjunction with flat sable brushes here. Only three colours Ultramarine and Venetian red with black in a brush pen.


Nude, figure, girl, watercolour, life drawing

I was so involved doing this that when time was called after 30 min it made me jump! This underlines what I said earlier about expressiveness. I personally find I just don’t have the headspace available for such emotional gymnastics when my whole self is focussed on the task before me.


  1. Much truth here Rob. I look back on earlier work of which I was so proud (and which will probably happen with my current work) and see only glaring errors – I hope this means my eye is improving. I use the mirror often – but this is a trick that has been unknown by those I figure draw with. Sometimes I take a photo with my phone – seeing a compact version also helps with what needs correcting. Our brains cannot be trusted. I never make a definitive judgement on my drawings until I get them home and can look anew.

    Enjoying seeing your work – especially the life drawing. Sometimes the shorter sessions are more successful than when we have more time to think!

    Comment by Ruth — October 29, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

  2. Hi Ruth, yes sometimes when I scan things and see them on screen I spot things that are awry. I also use it a virtual mirror flipping the image to surprise myself.

    Comment by admin — October 29, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

  3. It’s very rare that I can find anything to criticise Rob, your work is to a consistent high standard.

    Comment by Yorky — October 29, 2012 @ 1:02 pm

  4. Thanks Doug! Seeing your own work is the hardest thing, knowing that others occasionally like it is one of best confidence boosters.

    Comment by admin — October 29, 2012 @ 1:18 pm

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