Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

May 27, 2015

Art and Science

The rise of science roughly mirrors the downfall of the arts in society’s estimation. Art had been very much in the camp of belief as to put it baldly: that was where the work was. Art and artists have always adapted to the needs of whoever was at the top of the heap. This new master of reason and experimentally tested knowledge had no real need of paintings. The futurists, Bauhaus and constuctivists all made hopeful offerings, but neither science, industry nor the general public were much interested. The artists let’s be honest didn’t find much inspiring in it either, there were a few portraits of worthy enquirers next to their instruments and Rembrandt’s autopsy, also that one of the dove dying in a glass sphere by Joseph Wright. Hook’s wonderful drawings of what he saw through the microscope deserve an honourable mention too.

Religion faced much the same problem. The religious establishment at first welcomed scientific enquiry, confident it would inevitably confirm their beliefs. However once the discoveries of science began to squeeze the Deity into a smaller and smaller corner they lost their enthusiasm and started to lock the scientists up and threaten to burn them if they didn’t deny their findings. Painting in a similar way as religion was a lens through which the world might be seen in a new perspective, but science had an ace… it was demonstrably true. Religion might say that miracles occurred and heavy objects might fly through the air, but they couldn’t come up with the goods to order like science could. A jumbo jet would have been given a miraculous cause if seen by our forbears. Indeed that is exactly what happened when isolated tribes saw American planes landing on strips cut into their jungles. Aha, they thought, if we cut a strip of our own then planes carrying treasure will be drawn to land. Poignantly they even carved the radio equipment out of wood. Cargo cults are a fascinating window into religious logic.

Now we might think how foolish those islanders were, but given the state of their inherited knowledge I think it was a pretty good call. What is more uncomfortable is that the current thinking underpinning the worth and purpose of Art is several degrees worse. How this occurs in the first place is worthy of consideration. Roger Scruton has talked interestingly on this and introduces the idea of the “liar” and the “fake”. The liar is aware of his or her own dishonesty, but the fake intentionally chooses for whatever reason to believe in or espouse something untrue. Or as I myself think, think they carefully don’t examine certain underlying concepts as that might bring the whole intellectual house down. Certainly art theorists and critics often seem to elevate weak suppositions into axioms to bolster their view of things.

Is it really possible that our whole current art thinking is just a fantasy? Well, looking back in history you would have to say yes. At some point in history some probably perfectly intelligent persons thought that killing children might improve the crops… or carving huge stone heads secure the future. The idea that an object becomes imbued with an extra iconic quality merely because an artist says so is just as silly. There must have been people who thought and even said that sacrificing children was not the way, but public and establishment opinion was plainly not on their side. So it is today, I might rant and rail, I can attempt to make sure my arguments are coherent and well founded, but almost certainly to no avail.

The art lie is a very profitable lie. It is the same with quackery. Once upon a time you merely said that this or that object was blessed by some saint or other and would heal you. Now they make up sciencey sounding nonsense about energies, realignments, detoxes and infinite dilutions. Art has stepped neatly in the footsteps of quackery, artists now explore, investigate, experiment and question. It grieves me I have to say that my chosen activity in life seems to require hawking the results in a somewhat dishonest manner. I know that my paintings have no special extra quality. There is no spiritual energy in them, they cannot really reach out but only offer the possibility of aesthetic reward if the viewer reaches in. They are what they are: board, paper and paint arranged in a pattern, there is no magic quality. That does not however mean that they cannot be interesting or gauged to attract attention and give pleasure.

Now that is an idea that is out of vogue… visual pleasure, a fair few contemporary painters would recoil in horror at the thought. However if there is one thing that I have found by painting out of doors is that people get pleasure from paintings. Perhaps one in fifty walking by will stop and exclaim that your painting is beautiful and there must be more that are intrigued but too shy to say. Now 2% is a lot of people, so all hope is not lost! The problem is that that 2% have very few places to see current painting, and even if they do we have an art establishment and media assuring them that they are backward looking and irrelevant in any case. As with the child sacrificers and the heretic burners most people will just accept it if the powers that be say it must be so.

The real magic, if it can be so called, is the astonishing luck of being embodied as a conscious thinking being who is capable of appreciating paintings and all the other wonderful things that surround us..

I have been enjoying the oils now that I have my new studio up and running. having a sky light is wonderful and makes it so much easier to judge tones. Clear days give a rather blue cast which has to be taken into consideration, but painting in there is a real pleasure. It is also lovely sitting with the doors wide open and the sound of the birds, bees, tractors, screaming children, lawn mowers and chainsaws drifting in.


Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset, oil painting

This is the famous “Hovis” view of Gold Hill in Shaftesbury in Dorset. It took a couple of goes as by the time I had finished drawing it out the light had moved on to the fronts of the houses which wasn’t the picture I wanted to paint. Next day the light was better though, softer with a delicious haze into the distance. Chocolate box I know, but it is not the sort of subject that lends itself to a painting with any street cred. Maybe I should add a skip and a burnt out car or two… 10in by 12in Oils.


Gold Hill, Shaftesbury, Dorset, Nocturne, Oil Painting

A week later I washed up in Shaftesbury again, but late in the evening to attend a friend’s private view. After eating a curry, I had a mad urge to paint a nocturne… this is not it really as I don’t think any of the first session is left! The atmosphere and general tones survive though. 12in by 16in Oils.


Battersea, Thames, London, plein air, oil painting, barge

A quick trip up to town to paint with the Brass Monkeys. This is Battersea, I don’t paint many barges but this one took my fancy due to the angle at which it was moored. 8in by 10in Oils.


Blandford Forum, Wet day, street, Dorset, oil painting

This was an experiment in that I did a grisaille to establish the tones. I was working in part from a pen drawing done on the spot and also from a rather blurry phone snap. Here it is in its first stages about half an hour in.


Blandford Forum, Dorset, Oil Painting

The subject is Blandford Forum in Dorset again. As rebuilt in early Georgian times by the Bastard Brothers after the old town was destroyed by a great fire. Doing the monochrome layer underneath gives a great unity of tone which is important in a picture like this where many of the tones are quite close. Dull days are especially interesting to paint for this reason. 12in by 16in Oils.


Wells, St Cuthberts, oil painting, Somerset

This is Wells in Somerset. Not the cathedral but St Cuthberts. It was a fantastic day with tremendous light but I didn’t have my oils with me so this is a studio picture. Lots to paint in Wells and it is only 40 min away. I really am spoilt for choice where I am now. 12in by 16in Oils.


Baker Arms, Child Okeford, Dorset, watercolour

I quick dash with the watercolours. this is Child Okeford and my local pub The Baker Arms. Would love to paint this angle en plein air, but a 4 by 4 would run you over, so this is studio. Watercolour. 7in by 12in


Thames, London, Tower Bridge, pen and ink, drawing

To town again to meet with the Wapping Group. I travelled light so stuck to the pen and ink.


Southwark, London, pen and ink, Drawing

This busy corner took my eye and I crouched under my brolly to do this.


Southwark, London, Pen and Ink, cathedral

Last one of the day. This is Southwark Cathedral.


Child Okeford, St Nicholas, Dorset, pen and Ink

This is St Nicholas in Child Okeford, I was very taken with the splashes of afternoon light across the road. I sometimes get chastised for putting in vans and such… but who could leave out a magnificent example of a 2014 Mercedes Sprinter? I shall ignore them, philistines all…

May 4, 2015

It’s all the Viewer’s Fault

I watched a whole slew of YouTube videos on what art is recently. Well it was a dull evening on telly and I didn’t feel like painting! I’ll attempt to embed one below that I found interesting.

She talks entertainingly and tries to persuade us that heaps of rubbish, Mr Creed’s light bulb and Ms Emin’s bed are relevant to all of us and interesting. She essentially says that the viewers who could not see anything in the works are not taking the next step and thinking philosophically about where the works might lead. So it is the viewers that are lacking, not the work. Now this is not a total loss as an argument. A tribes people from the Amazon were unable to recognise photographs at first. However I would go on to say that they got the hang of it very quickly and that is not the case with the works mentioned above. Nonetheless this is one of the best explanations of the current art model I have seen or read.

She argues that Emin’s white bed when empty is essentially no different from a blank canvas and the accrued debris is no different from the paint another artist might apply. These items she says tell a story of an everyday existence in a similar way. The argument does however not work so well when extended. You might say that when a museum display case is empty then it is as a blank canvas and if you place anything within it then it is art. Many contemporary artists would be happy with that, the famous pickled shark is an example. Or an empty fridge becomes art when you put a pint of milk in it. Emin and our lecturer are saying we should look at these things in our lives and appreciate their aesthetic qualities and the deeper things they tell us about our lives.

This is all well and good and it sort of adds up. However even though all this is explained to me it still doesn’t cause me to be moved in the aesthetic sense. I might think the folds in the sheets beautiful or whatever, but that is not due to Emin’s intervention. There are beautiful and intriguing sights to be had in most everyday things if we take the trouble to notice. However we are judging Emin’s intervention here not the intrinsic qualities of the objects. The lecturer says the work might lead us to examine our own unnoticed fetish of tidiness, or a mother’s obsession with a teenager’s revolting bedroom which is fair enough, but I cannot help but think that an article in a magazine about it would do the job better. Indeed she says that most don’t manage to get into that territory when seeing the installation. Once explained anyone could make their bed into an art object it merely requires removing it into another context. An unmade bed is a remarkable object on a railway station concourse, but an unremarkable one in a bedroom. We do of course often take ubiquitous objects and separate them out. At the V&A museum they display everyday objects out of context so that we can appreciate and compare their design qualities. No one thinks they have become art through this process though. I could argue that Emin’s bed falls into the informative display category not the art one.

She says several times that people look and dismiss but do not take the next intellectual step. Then her explanation of the next step is so underwhelming that I struggle to find it remotely interesting. It certainly does not illuminate my mental landscape even when it is a light bulb. She says it is philosophy but if it is it is not very profound. She stresses the word “conversation” a great deal. She says that unless we attempt to answer the questions asked by such works then we are locked out from properly appreciating them. The problem with this is that the works are all questions and art in my opinion is about seeing possible answers or observing and defining qualities. It is very much not a quiz, exam question or a philosophical puzzle.

She effectively undermines her own arguments at the very beginning with a devastating statistic. On both Emin’s and Hirst’s shows the average time each work was considered and was calculated by examining the cctv footage of visitors to the shows. The result was less than 5sec per work… not much time for a conversation of any kind in that time frame, let alone a deep philosophical awakening. It shows that contemporary art is mostly very poor at contriving the initial connection that draws people in to look. Although not at all scientific I recently visited the Tate Modern and ended up watching the people rather than looking at the art. They watched the video installations longest, static artworks received only very cursory attention. Indeed the installation that seemed to provoke most intense consideration was the cake display in the cafe. People are drawn to looking at a painting by the possibility of an aesthetic reward, much in the way that a laden dinner table is offering the potential of sustenance and pleasurable or exciting tastes. If the painting does not offer the cues of potential reward or deliberately denies any such possibility then no one will stop to appreciate. Why would they?

The argument that you must reach into a work or “engage” as they are fond of saying is very poor. If you assume your audience has a similar social programming as the artist, then any work worth its salt should attract attention however blatantly or subtly. The better the work is at reaching those with differing or divergent social programming, either due to culture or time passing the better the work is. Will Emin’s work be pivotal in 5oo years? We don’t know but I suspect not, other than as a small footnote in social history.

I have been busy of late, but have still squeezed in a good deal of painting. With my new house liveable and my studio in operation it is easier to concentrate. I even managed a day out to the wonderful town of Wells… more on that below.


Oil painting, blandford forum, dorset, plein air

This is Blandford Forum one of the nearest towns to me. Unusual in that it mostly burnt down in 1731, due to this it was rebuilt in mostly Georgian style. I have drawn this view in pen but am planning a bigger painting so I went again to sketch from the same viewpoint. On the day I was there a market was happening on the left hand side but when I got home I didn’t like it so replaced it with stuff from the  pen drawing. 10in by 16in oils.

Child Okeford, Dorset, lane, plein air. oil painting

This painting of one of the ancient green lanes around Child Okeford was and still is a real struggle. It is too busy and I might have to add a figure but will need to get someone to pose. It has taken two plein air sessions to get this far and it is still not hanging together properly. In town I could just wait for a passerby but out here you could be waiting a fair while! 10in by 14in Oils.


Fontmell Magna, Dorset, plein air, oil painting

In between sessions on the green lane I went to Fontmell Magna and very quickly painted this. It went a bit swampy from getting too much paint on too quickly but catches the feel of the light adequately. Interesting view with strong silhouettes, I shall go back and see how it looks in other lights. 7in by 12in, Oils.


Sturminster Newton, oil painting, Dorset

This is the small town of Sturminster Newton. I actually started this months ago but only had time to sketch it out and lay in the main tones. I finished off using a phone snap but am rather pleased by the result. I think only the sky tone and the road survive from the original plein air. 10in by 12in oils.


London, soho, walkers court, plein air, oil painting

This is Meard St in Soho. The first time in a while I had taken my oils on a trip to London. I rather like the square format and will be doing more. 10in by 10in oils.


walkers court, soho, london, plein air, oil painting

This is the insalubrious alley called Walkers Court that leads through to Berwick St. I was very attracted by the light pushing through the alley. I had to paint very quickly as the wet pavement was drying rapidly as I painted. 10in by 10in Oils.


Wells, Cathedral, pen and ink, drawing

My first day out just for painting was to Wells. Almost too much to draw here and the day was gorgeous. I set out on this wondering how the hell I was going to get all that detail in without spending all day. I was very careful to set the level of simplification quite high. I essentially combined all the shadow areas into a simple broken vertical hatch, then indicated the architectural breaks with as few lines as possible. I stopped once there were enough hints to convey the rhythm the ornament produced. I love the way this blue paper takes a white highlight. Pen and Ink.


Somerset Levels, watercolour

This is a drainage ditch on the Somerset Levels, a bit rushed but I was painting in a very uncomfortable position! Watercolour.


Glastonbury Tor, somerset, watercolour

Last from my trip to Somerset, I drove miles trying to get a view I liked of Glastonbury Tor. I ended up miles away but loved the levels and will return to paint there again. watercolour.



Greenwich, Ballast quay, London, Thames, drawing, pen and ink

Another trip to London for the start of the season with the Wapping Group. This is Ballast Quay in Greenwich. Pen and Ink.


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