Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

December 2, 2012

Judging the Competition

Filed under: Drawing,Kent,Life Drawing,London,Still Life,Uncategorized,Watercolour — Rob Adams @ 11:10 am

Here is a subject painters tend to steer clear of in casual conversation, very sensible of them too! How do you rate yourself against others, both those who are painting now and those who have gone before? Is it best not to even try? Probably, but whether it is best to or not we still do, it is impossible I suspect not to. We are by instinct designed to assess each other and derive pecking orders therefrom. Status is unfortunately bound up in it too. One thing I have found is that it is not good to categorise painting that you don’t like as not well done. I can think of many examples of brilliantly executed paintings that I hate. On the obverse I can also think of poorly executed ones that I like despite their shortcomings. An example would be Magritte, I like the pictures but the execution is distinctly pedestrian; another would be Dali who is quite high in quality of execution but the pictures don’t move me.

There is also the variety of quality in an artists output. Is one of my best paintings better than one of Monet’s worst? I would expect so, even at the risk of sounding vain though it is hard to test. I suspect if you told people which was which they would select the Monet as best, if you left the pictures unattributed then the response would be more balanced. There is always a problem that historically famous artist’s works get over hyped making them difficult to judge even for other painters. At the end of the day all painters are only human and paint  mixture of triumphs and stinkers. I have in any case always rather disliked the “Old Master” label, as if they had some magic that could not now be equalled. Actually I suspect the standard of painting is probably over all higher today than it was then. You only have to go round an Italian Palazzo or an English country house to see that the majority of the paintings done in any age were very unremarkable, even when they were being bought by rich and presumably fairly discerning buyers.

When comparing myself to others, I have the instinctive ego driven assessment, which I know with my realistic hat on is almost certainly over optimistic.There is also the tendency to like work that is more like your own than work in other styles. I sometimes get complimented on Wetcanvas by artists who normally ignore my offerings. When I do, as often as not, it turns out that I have painted a picture that conforms to how they themselves paint. So the colourists will be pleased when I paint a highly coloured picture and the extreme simplification merchants will like it when I do something that is broken down to its basics. Due to having worked in a large variety of styles in the course of my commercial work I have ended pretty wide in my tastes and enjoy works as disparate as comic books right through to abstracts in a variety of styles.

I remember being commissioned to paint some romance book covers when I was first working as an illustrator. I took it initially almost as a joke, I had unconsciously always dismissed as most would the many images of costume clad clinching couples. But trying to paint one soon taught me that it was pretty damn hard. My first attempt was a disaster. So I went to the local library and really looked at what others had done, unsurprisingly many were pretty grim, but others showed that even in this scorned niche there were masters at work. All their names are forgotten now, even by me alas, but they are not  needed anymore the current covers are photoshopped monstrosities from a picture library that supplies photos of clinching couples and separate backgrounds to be spliced together to suit any story.

A new factor I am meeting in the picture painting world that I did not meet as much in the commercial art world is reputation. A painter in the gallery world can be not of stellar quality, but have a reputation built up over many years, which apparently means as much or more than the overall quality of the works. In the commercial art world you are only as good as your last job full stop. Reputation might get you hired once but not twice. Mind you, if you look back into the history of painting, you can find many examples of painters who had great reputation in their own times but are now deservedly forgotten and more who were ignored in their own time only to be appreciated a hundred years after they have turned up their toes. This points out I suppose that fashionable taste is a dreadful judge of lasting quality.

At the end of the day I do think quite important  to attempt to rate yourself against your peers even if you acknowledge  that you may well be getting that judgement largely wrong. It will hopefully at least bolster your confidence in how you see yourself, which will in turn make you paint with a little more surety, but it’s perhaps wise to keep that estimation to yourself! It is worth bearing in mind though, that because you think you are better than X, Y might have the opposite opinion and X will almost certainly not agree! The amusing upshot of this is that, as with other walks of life, two painters will happily rate their colleagues against one another, but will wisely leave their own relative merits undefined!

A couple of posts ago I showed pictures of my new lightweight pochade. I have been using it a bit and am pleased with its ease of use. I loaded the palette first but couldn’t resist putting some tubes in my bag too. Completely unnecessary in practice I found. So I will spare myself the weight and leave them behind next time.

I have also started thinking about painting some more introspective studio pictures the first of which is in this post. Some images can be clicked for a larger view.


oil painting, hands

This started of life as a simple exercise but ended up as a painting that is also about time. I wanted to paint something I saw in front of me a lot, something that was so familiar that I would never usually consider it as a painted image. So here it is, what a painting looks like to the artist when in progress. I really wasn’t initially intended to come out as it has. My first idea was for there to be a landscape in progress on the panel. I blocked such a picture out on a 10in by 8in panel. Then the thought came that the picture should be the one that appeared on the final board so I left the 10 by 8 in place and drew out again on a larger panel on my easel to one side. The only problem with this was that it created an infinite regression of finished paintings, which didn’t like. This in turn prompted me to consider making each board  a step back in time, which resulted in the above.

Quite a lot of it was painted using my left hand for obvious practical reasons. People think this must be very hard but it is just a bit slower. I first learned to do this when I fell and broke my right wrist but still had to complete work I was commissioned for. To my surprise it wasn’t that hard, just the first few hours were annoying. Thereafter when scenic painting I started having difficulties with my shoulder it seemed natural to paint with each hand in turn allowing the other to rest.

plein air, oil painting, greenwich, london

My first expedition with the new pochade. This is Greenwich in late afternoon sun. This is what the small format is so good for. I would have struggled to get a good impression of this  as the light was very fleeting. But at 7in by 5in the whole thing was done in 20 min. It doesn’t produce anything anyone would want to buy but as a sketch for a later studio painting is is perfect. This time I am using MDF board but I think I prefer canvas so I might glue scraps of left over linen to a few boards and try that.

little venice, london, brass monkeys, canal, barge, plein air.

A Brass Monkey day visiting Little Venice, where a confluence of canals occurs. Bright glittery light. On these expeditions the first painting is always the worst. Often just because in the middle of the day the light is less compelling. I seem to be using Cobalt blue more than ultramarine nowadays, it is a weak tinter for mixing purposes but has a softness I am coming to like. I have brought Naples Yellow back as well after quite a long absence. It is important to vary your palette I feel, some painters get set with a fixed array of colours which can give their work a rather predictable quality.

Brass Monkeys, plein air, oil painting, London, canal, barge, bridge

The day then turned grey but as I painted the light suddenly lifted as the sun broke through. I had to race to dash in the effect. Sometimes I underlay a painting with a scrubbed in tonal precis of the scene usually in only 3 tones. This then sets the key, then all the intermediate tones and hues flesh out the scene. This is a very nice way of working as the picture develops as a whole, the one of Greenwich a few above is an example. Another approach is to “patch” in areas of tone and colour like making a jigsaw. When working in this way the picture is harder to judge in progress as the picture looks pretty bad until the last pieces are in place. It does however suit scenes like this where the distinctions of tone are less important than the distinctions of hue.

Little venice, London, Canal, nocturne, plein air, oil painting

Last one of the day. There is a magical moment as the light fades and the city lights start to glow. This was done in twenty minutes and is a good example as to why sketching en plein air is so valuable. The photo of the scene is very different in quality and mood. It’s rather grainy but I’ve put it below as it makes an interesting contrast.

Little venice, london

It is towards the end of when I was working but even so the colours and the tonal balance is very different. There is no way you would paint this image with the real scene before you. Neither are specifically right or wrong, I could make a satisfactory studio painting from either one.

figure, dance

We had our lovely flamenco girl back this Monday. I really enjoy the challenge of the dark dress and dramatic tense posture. Last week of watercolour for a bit though I need to revisit the pastels to see what I have learnt if anything from the foray into watercolour!

dance, figure, watercolour

These were both 30 min I can never resist the surroundings too. These dance poses seem to need it more than the nude poses. I like the way it “places” the figure in space.

nude, figure, life drawing, watercolour

The second part of the session was nude, I took on a little too much here and didn’t quite get to where I wanted, but better than the next one which I tore up in frustration! That is the trouble with watercolour, however long you do it sometimes you will just, as my young friends amusingly put it, do an “epic fail”


  1. I think the true judge is do people buy your work.


    Comment by Yorky — December 2, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

  2. Yes that is sometimes true in a wider sense Doug, but I was thinking more of your own internal assessment, the sort of “Where do I stand in comparison to others in the same trade.” You sometimes hear painters referring to another artist as “A painters painter” which would I think be a different assessment to “who sells the most”. Selling pictures I feel is an art in itself, an average painter with good salesmanship will sell more I suspect than a brilliant one with advanced hiding under bushel skills!

    Comment by admin — December 2, 2012 @ 1:20 pm

  3. I want to paint pictures that I like and enjoy painting – not ones that I think will sell. I agree that it is very easy to be critical of paintings and styles one doesn’t like but I am trying to avoid making this mistake and appreciate “good” art – even if it is not to my taste. What really irritates me is when I see something quite ghastly that has clearly been painted without any skill (and apparently without much thought) on the wall of an exhibition with a hefty price tag on it. Whether it be a landscape, a portrait or an abstract, I do want to see the skill, craftsmanship and personality of the painter demonstrated in his/her work. I have come to watercolour painting late in life – I think I appreciate its beauty but it has taken me seven years to get where I am now – much toil, experiment, many disasters and a few triumphs. I love to see paintings that please my eye but, equally, I also get great enjoyment from seeing real skill in any painting – work that demonstrates ability, endeavour and a clear love of the art. I would never judge a painting by whether it sells or not – “one man’s meat is another man’s poison”. Oh,and by the way,I like to rate my pictures against others – but I keep my opinions to myself! At the end of the day, I am painting for pleasure, not for profit. It’s the fun of doing it and a never ending hope of achieving that “masterpiece” that keeps me going.


    Comment by Michael Trask — December 2, 2012 @ 6:10 pm

  4. I think we all tend to have that instinctive ego-driven assessment of our own work and also like paintings by others in our own style. But I try to see the good in styles I don’t like and my main criteria is that it is well painted and shows some skill. What really irritates me is when I see some ghastly painting in an exhibition with a hefty price tag on it that is crudely drawn/painted with no care, flair or apparent expertise at all. Painting watercolours is something I love and it has taken me much toil and experiment over the last 7 years until now I occasionally produce something that , to my eye, is half decent. I am always learning and I appreciate the wonderful mastery some painters show in their work – and the years of effort that have got them there.
    I would never judge a painting by the number of people queuing to buy it. Popular demand does not convince me of quality. My own eyes will tell me if I think a painting is “good” (a rather subjective matter anyway)and shows evidence of skill in its execution. I may not like it but I hope I can recognise what is really well done and what is not.

    Michael Trask

    Comment by Michael Trask — December 4, 2012 @ 6:49 pm

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