Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

January 3, 2014

The Fear of Failure

We all I suspect familiar with that moment when we put off doing an unpleasant but unavoidable task until a later date. I used to do it on a regular basis when doing uninspiring illustration jobs, to such a degree that I frequently had to work through the night to hit deadlines. I can still remember the feeling, once I had actually got down to starting a job, of the awful realisation that I had under estimated the work involved and was at serious risk of not delivering on time. Over the years I got better at both starting early enough and also to more accurately predict the scale of the task. Oddly if the job was at the limits of what I felt myself capable of I would start almost immediately incase the unknown territory proved intractably boggy.

This brings me to my topic for this post. Now I am painting in a way that allows me to follow my own muse rather than fulfil the requirements of others, there are no deadlines. No one is telling me that I have to get a painting done but myself. This in turn brings a curse that most artists will recognise… procrastination. If I had actually painted in all the moments that were potentially available for the activity then a great deal more work would have been done! I actually don’t think this matters too much, I feel that all these little and often unimportant activities we fill our days with are valuable to our sense of self and our journey through the years.

There is however another sort of procrastination that is fuelled by the fear of failing and the avoidance of disappointment. Also in many of us is the fear of others seeing that failure. We like to avoid others seeing the moments when we stepped up to the plate, made a wild swing and missed the ball entirely. I do post here the paintings that I feel miss the mark, but I do not for the most part post the the ones that in my eyes at least are complete train wrecks. A part of me feels that I ought to, as people might find it encouraging that experienced painters do not always pull something if not necessarily a rabbit out of the hat. The other part feels that they should be swept well an truly under the carpet. There is a real danger as well in that people will always judge you on the worst work displayed rather than the best. This does not matter too much on a blog such as this, but if you are showing a portfolio to a client they will inevitably look at less good work and think that is what you might deliver if given a commission.

There is no getting away from the fact that it is an unpleasant feeling when you work away at a painting and at a certain point you realise that damn thing is not only bad, but also that there is nothing much you can think of that would put it right. Not only a car crash but a right off as well! When you sit down to watch the telly in the evening when earlier you scraped off a whole day’s or more work, you do not do so feeling fulfilled! I can talk until the cows come home about success being built on failure, this my be true, but none of us relish those moments when our noses are rubbed in the fact that our feet are truly made of clay.

It is this fear that often stops me and I am sure many others from starting a painting in the first place. I am especially prone to putting off beginning a painting that I have visualised in my minds eye but think carries a high probability of failure. Sometimes I find myself starting a different but easier subject in order to put off the evil day. I have over the years developed methods of grasping my own boot straps and giving a good old tug!
One is the ski jump method, just pushing yourself over the brink before you have had time to think it through. This has the disadvantage in that not taking the time to think a painting through increases the possibility of failure. My alternate method is to think about beginning and all the subsequent steps so much that I build up such a head of steam that I just have to start. Generally it would be a mixture of the two though.
I have been trying to find sage advice to write here that might help others faced with moments of prevarication and foot dragging but am struggling a bit do do so. I think the best thing I can offer is that you do recognise the problem and develop your own individual strategies for launching yourself into action. I sometimes wonder in myself if occasionally I do paintings in order to avoid doing other things in life that are necessary  but less fun!

I have as I usually do gone to visit friends in Ireland for the Christmas period. This explains the rather large gap in posting. I go to see and catch up with friends not to paint so there are only sketches rather than anything large. I always come back with a heap of half done rained off paintings too, which I will hopefully finish off once home. My new years resolution is to make a determined assault on the open exhibitions. Last year I didn’t plan well enough and had limited success, this year I will consider what to put in more carefully in the light of having seen most of the shows.


Blackheath, London, plein air, oils

This is The Hare and Billet on Blackheath. Steve Alexander joined me for a few days to paint around London. I must do more up on the heath

as there are some great views especially at this time of year when the light is so low. 10in by 16in. Oils.


Putney, plein air, Brass Monkeys, oil painting, London

The last day out with The Brass Monkeys before Christmas. This is the river front in Putney. The light was very hard and I struggled with this.

10in by 12in.


Putney, Thames, River, London, Plein air, oil painting

We were about to give up due to the rain but the light picked up a bit. This is by the Rowing Club. 10in by 14in oils.


polesden lacey, watercolour

Steve and I dropped in to Polesden Lacey on the way to Surrey. It was wet but we painted anyhow!

I always rather like the mood of wet days, but the paint was very slow to dry. 5in by 7in.


River Nore, Ireland, watercolour

This is a bridge over the River Nore in Ireland. I had just slept in the car so this is the half light just after dawn with the first of the traffic.

5in by 7in


Templemore, Ireland, watercolour

Partway across Ireland, this is Templemor, a few bits of sun around but almost the last!

5in by 7in. Watercolour.


Ballyportry, clare, ireland, castle, watercolour

This is Ballyportry in Co Clare, a subject I have done a fair few times. I had to move the puddle so that it reflected the bit I wanted! 7in by 5in.


Burren, Co clare, ireland, watercolour

Another subject I am very familiar with. The Burren in Co Clare has a strange often mournful air. I painted this in the very last of the light.


Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolor

Returning back from a walk. I only got to sketch this and put in a few key tones before the heavens opened. If I only have a very short moment

then I try to get the most distinctive thing down. Here it was the tone of the sky and the distant lit trees. The rest had to be put in later but for me

that contrast was the key element. 10in by 4in. Watercolour


Burren, co clare, watercolour, ireland, cooloorty

A very rapid sketch where I was just experimenting with ways to do the wild hedgerows of the Burren. 5in by 7in.


Flaggy Shore, Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolour

This is the evening light on the “Flaggy Shore” near Lough Murree. The stormy weather gave some amazing sights in the evenings when it often

seemed to clear for a short while.4in by 10in watercolour.


Burren, co clare, ireland, watercolour

Mostly imagination, from the memory of a moment on a walk at the end of the day. 5in by 7in. Watercolour

February 1, 2013

The Doldrums

It happens to us all I’m afraid. Somehow it starts to feel that your painting is going nowhere and you can’t see the way forwards. I have been there so many times over my career that it is like an old acquaintance. I have not been helped this year so far by almost a full set of rejections from the open exhibitions. The New English, ROI, RBA, Threadneedle all passed over my work. I did get into the RSMA and the RWS so not a complete washout! I know all artists must feel the same, but when I go to the exhibitions it is hard to look at what has been deemed worthy and think, “Am I really worse than this?” I would love to see the choosing process, by my lights much of the content in these exhibitions is of quite a low to moderate technical standard. Only a very few would be considered good enough for commercial work.

One thing that does strike me is that what is chosen it for “poke my eye out” qualities. Most the chosen work  leans towards the brash, only a few that are at all subtle gets through. This makes me suspect the paintings are “paraded” past the judges and most don’t get more than glanced at from a distance. I must be careful here lest I tread into “sour grapes” territory! I will in future selections choose more contrasty colourful  pictures as I suspect that is what in being picked up on. This is a bit of a pity as my current interest is leaning towards more subtle close tones. I shall persist with the open exhibitions, learning what gets attention and what is likely to get passed over is very difficult, I’m told by long standing exhibitors that they can never see any rhyme or reason as to whether they get in or not, so I may just have to accept  that it is a lottery. The lack of progress is disheartening though as until I have exhibited several times I am unlikely to be able to join any of these societies. If you are in the club you get your pictures in the open and other exhibitions  with a degree of certainty. I can see I have started the process a little too late in life.

Back to the doldrums. I don’t seem to be able to complete studio pictures at present. I have six or seven looking at me with what I sometimes imagine to be resentment. None of them are at a stage where they could be written off as disastrous , but I don’t seem to have the will to get down to finishing them. The plein air work is mostly fine, but needs a certain extra something, to many of the paintings are pedestrian and fit only for the cupboard and eventual overpainting. I need to focus on painting fewer but choose the subjects more carefully. I tell myself again and again not to do a painting just because I am somewhere with the intention of painting, but only when the subject has really taken my imagination and I can see how it can be made into a good picture. It is very, very rare I find for a mediocre subject to make a good final painting, in fact I can’t recall ever having achieved it in all my years of painting! To get good pictures you must contrive to get yourself in front of good subject matter, but that alas is much easier said than done.

In order to get myself up and running again I intend to do another series of 10 or so London studio watercolours my eventual aim being to have enough of them for an eventual exhibition. To raise the stakes I also intend to complete another 10 oils in the same vein. Seeing as I’ve announced my intentions I hope to have painted myself into a corner and will have to set to!

This post is a sort of retrospective, I wish to sort of look back and take stock. This can be a depressing activity when you look back and find that there has been little or no improvement in 30 years! This is somewhat of an illusion though as a success can occur at any stage in a painting life. When I look back the number of successes compared to failures seems to fairly consistently improve and that is all I suspect anyone can hope for. My review will consist of a painting or two from each decade from the 70’s onwards. Starting in the 1970’s.

Father Sleeping
I was in my early years much more of a drawer than a painter, this must be 1970 as it is marked by my A level art teacher. She was called “Glam” as she was very tweedy in dress and not keen on fashion. She encouraged me to work in pen and ink. I remember her being furious with the examiners that I didn’t get a better grade at A level. I’m not sure I had studied other artists much at that stage. I do however remember cutting the pen and ink illustrations from the radio times, which as I recall were of a very high standard.


An early watercolour I guess from around 1979. Very little of my work was from life in this period. As is often the case looking back I like this much more now than I would have then.


A very rare item, an oil painting from the 1970’s. I had thought it later but the back says 1976. I would not have thought much of this at the time, but I quite like it now. It is an odd thing but you judge the past with the knowledge of the present. The 20 year old that painted this is a stranger to me now. Indeed I can’t really claim that it is one of my works, I vaguely recall I painted it in the company of my mother using her paints. Which makes sense as I didn’t own oil paints until I inherited my mother’s. The style is one that she would have approved of, she rather despaired of my love of science fiction illustrations and comics!


Into the 80’s. I don’t recall painting it, but it is Spain. Again with my mother’s oil paint. It is very thinly painted. I probably considered this just the beginning and would have made it much more finished. I have quite a few paintings from this period that are best forgotten as I didn’t know when to leave well alone! This is a period when I was studying perspective and trying to get my illustration work up to professional standards.


A watercolour from the very end of the 80’s. I remember the holiday, one of the last I took with my parents. I am sometimes amazed at the confidence I had then. Not entirely justified as the piles of failed efforts will attest. I seemed to set out on each painting with no fear at all. I am far less certain of success now, just something the years do to you I suppose. I start keeping watercolour sketch books from about this period.


As an aside this is where illustration was taking me. My whole focus was on improving enough to get comissions. I was going two nights a week to life drawing and learning how to use Gouache and an airbrush with dyes. This was one of my first jobs for a Puffin book. To my great disappointment they didn’t use it and commissioned another artist to do it again. During this period the only paintings other than illustrations were done during infrequent holidays.


Tardebigge Church

In the 1990’s there was a brief foray into acrylics. I remember painting this with my mother’s easel weighed down with rocks due to the wind. I started with acrylics because drum scanning was coming into use and the artworks had to be flexible. Gouache if layered would crack when wrapped round the drum of the scanner. I can see the beginnings of my current style here.



This is an example from my sketch books of the period. The only watercolour painting I did was in these 7in by 5in sketchbooks. Nonetheless some of my favourite paintings are from this period. All the work on illustration was starting to make improvements in my off duty work.


Another from my small sketch books around 2003 I think. I had by now moved away from illustration and was doing scenic painting for film, advertising and television. I was quite rapidly making a name for myself in that area as I had the sculptural and construction skills that made me quite useful. It was far more fun and more pleasant than the illustration world where snobbish put downs and subtle humiliations were frequent… something that the picture painting/gallery world has unfortunately got elements of as well alas. In the Commercial world “what” you were more than “who” you were was the defining factor. I had rather forgotten that in the rest of the arts this is often not the case. Also in fairness it is a little odd coming from the commercial arena where I am somebody trusted with projects running into millions, into the picture painting world where I am a nobody makes a slightly uncomfortable contrast. Not that I can really expect any different.



I remember this day well. I went out with friends who painted scenery for the theatre. I painted this at a furious rate no more than 40 minutes. When I finished I was out of breath! It was in hindsight a turning point. I knew after painting this that sooner or later I would be leaving the very well paid  and fun entertainments world and risking my arm as a “proper” painter. 2003 I would guess.


Later in 2008, I am beginning to paint more seriously now. Still in acrylics but I am considering oils and plotting how to give up most of my paying work but still retain enough to pay the bills. Just as well I was a little circumspect as the crash proceeded to erase a considerable chunk of my savings. This painting showed me I needed to start learning to paint in oils. With acrylics the edges are far harder to control. Bravura painting in acrylics has to be just that as the stuff becomes unworkable so quickly.


Here we are up to date. One of the rejects. Nonetheless a painting I am pleased with. The problem I now face is that for whatever reason my definition of a successful painting is not what either the traditionalists or the moderns would choose. Which doesn’t bode for an easy ride!


Hammersmith Bridge, thames , London
Last weeks effort. A lovely day in Chiswick looking towards Hammersmith Bridge. I always find this sort of very crisp sparkly day hard to paint. The tide was rapidly approaching and it was blowing a gale, to make matters harder still. This looks average when the board is just bare, but once it has a frame it looks fine. Some pictures need that supporting edge that a frame supplies. 16in by 10in


Chiswick, Thames
A very quick daub. Looking straight into the sun I was chased up the shore by the tide ending up 10ft away from where I started. Only a colour note really. 10in by 8in.

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