Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

October 30, 2013

Spirituality and Art

No not a post about religion, you can relax! A post prompted by two things, one Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures on the art world and discussions on an on line forum about drawing. They both caused me to think about how artists think about themselves. There is I have come to think a disconnect between what artists would like to believe they are and what they actually seem to be.
On the forum discussion (about drawing) I suggested that drawing was a craft, like making shoes or chairs. This drew howls of protest from the public gallery. No it seems drawing was a way of channelling your soul on to paper, a meditation on the possibilities of the infinite, anything, anything but craft! I tried logical argument (or so I thought) but to no avail, I was asked why I was demeaning drawing.
It occurred to me that drawing had been promoted while I wasn’t paying attention to the purest form of prayer, the Lords prayer of artistic spiritual communing. People who know me will not be surprised that the appearance of a sacred cow will always prompt me to ask awkward questions.
In the spirit (if I may use the term) of research I looked at a selection of well known artists CV’s Emin etc. A high proportion stressed how drawing was very important to their process. I did consider posting some of their efforts and I really did try and find evidence of skill, but truly there was none. If any of them had shown up at Rubens’ door seeking a job they would have been out of luck. Below is the prospectus for a life drawing class at St Martins.

“Over the course of a week you will be encouraged to lose your inhibitions though a wide variety of practices and materials. You will be asked to confront your own ambitions within your artistic practice and to consider how to make your work relevant to yourself and to contemporary artistic practices in the wider sense.

During each session you will be introduced to a new approach to thinking and making. We will look at the work of living artists and explore relevant themes and practices. Some workshops will make use of sound or involve a live performer such as an actor or dancer. You will be encouraged to engage with new concepts and practices and to try a wide variety of differing materials – some traditional, others less so.

You will be encouraged to work with the skills that you already possess. We will not teach you ‘how to draw’ but rather aim to enable you to fully engage with and realise your own creative potential, build up confidence in your own artistic identity and think like an artist.”

I particularly like the encouragement to work with “the skills you already possess.” and the “we will not teach you, how to draw” heavens no that would be terrible. The results of the sessions are here so you can judge for yourself. St Martins Drawings there are some efforts that look like the student has potential, but knowing current art teaching they would have been told to loosen up and draw worse! One cannot help but notice that the model is lit by a single light plonked behind her. Which to my mind speaks of a monumental insensitivity to the visual world. You would not catch a photographer trying to capture the human form in that uncaring way.

I digress, but only to show that skill is very much not part of drawing to the contemporary mind. Nor is representation of the external. So what are we left with. The last line of the prospectus gives a clue. “realise your own creative potential” but leaves us puzzled as we are being allowed no tools whereby that might occur. You would not tell a music student “We won’t tell you how to play a musical instrument, here’s a room full of stuff with a few musical instruments thrown in, just give them a go and seek your own personal music.”

How does this connect with the “spiritual” I am not using it in the religious way, but in the way that people refer to things having indefinable qualities. We use (or misuse) the word “energy” in a similar way. Great artists are meant to imbued with an unparalleled access to this force, after all it couldn’t just be practice and hard work could it? I hinted online that maybe Michelangelo had his off days too… I was completely unprepared by the reaction. I was told that such a thought was absurd and only a jealous no hoper would demean the greatest of drawers. In reality I admire Michelangelo hugely, so it felt odd that they thought I disliked him. The problem of course was that I had said that an official beatified saint of drawing was a mortal and like us all occasionally had feet of clay.

Once again I refer to the excellent St Martins prospectus. “you will be encouraged to loose your inhibitions.” and later “build up confidence” now here I agree confidence is key. You do not however gain confidence by loosing your inhibitions. You increase confidence by becoming increased in your capabilities and you gain capabilities through study, practice and hard work. Many of the “inhibitions” can be due to lack of skill!

Later they refer to the “artistic potential” here at last we are getting to the heart of the matter. What is this thing that is assumed to be there, this “potential” ? Does it lie within us like a curled up flower within a bud just waiting for the clouds of inhibition to be swept away in order to unfurl in its glory? Why that is astounding! How wonderful, it means that somewhere  in my head must be a great novel, a stirring symphony fully formed just waiting to be released.

Of course this is absurd, but we very much like the idea. We so much want to be more than this fleshly robe. We want soul, we want an animating spirit, we don’t want biology and physics. We want art to flow from us like a river, we want to mine our inner selves for buried treasures. We do not want to dig foundations and build up brick by tedious brick until we have a house that has beauty but also all the signs of our own frailty.

I’d better give you some pictures after that lot… a few life paintings will be tagged on at the end in order to fully demonstrate that my own feet are well weighted with clay!


Greenwich, watercolour, plein air, painting

A well known view. I did it in three sessions, the first a plein air drawing with a couple of washes. I had to stop as I was a little too late in getting there

and I am taking a little more time to draw of late as well. Once home I established the basic tonality from reference but returned next evening to finish.

1/4 sheet Watercolour.


Croom's Hill, Greenwich, watercolour

This is Croom’s Hill leading down to Greenwich. At last the autumn colours are showing. I have found this wonderful colour in the Daniel Smiths range

called Zoicite that is a murky green with wonderful granulating properties. Quite tricky to use but adds interest and texture to greens.


Self portrait, Rob Adams, oil painting

Here is a rare beast, a self portrait! I was preparing to lop my hair off one evening when I was taken by my rather wild appearance

in the mirror. So barbering had to be delayed while I painted. I managed after a fair amount of buggering about and cursing to get a half decent

photo to finish it from. Always good to assess the damage that life is doing to your face. 12in by 10in Oils


Greenwich, London, plein air, oil painting

I did a drawing buildings tutorial with two friends, and managed to fit this sketch in as they wrestled with the horrors of architecture. this is part of the

Maritime Museum in Greenwich. 8in by 10in oils.


Greenwich, Thames, plein air, river, oil painting

On my way back to the car a storm was coming in, I just couldn’t resist trying to catch the drama. I had to lash my tripod to the railings! It is so easy

to just walk by these opportunities. Thames at Greenwich. 6in by 12in oils.


Life drawing, nude, watercolour


Life drawing, nude, figure, watercolour



Life drawing

two 7min


Life Drawing, nude, watercolour

7min, was pleased with this one, every now and again you catch something in the quick sketches.

I nearly always prefer them to the longer paintings.


Nude, Life drawing, watercolour

7min. Esther is a fantastic model who takes up some very challenging poses!


nude, live drawing

Another wonderful model Alice. Here’s one where the feet of clay are very much in evidence, lovely pose, great lighting but the drawing was too far out.



life drawing, nude

Alice again. A bit better here despite not doing an initial drawing but just diving in with the paint. 30min.


Life drawing, nude, watercolour

Another one with no initial drawing. Flat on poses are the some of the hardest. I was painting here on hot pressed

Arches with flat sables. In fact the whole painting was done with a half inch brush!



Life drawing, nude, watercolour

The best one of the session with Esther I had a little longer at 45 min.


  1. Hi Rob,

    Just a line to say how much I’ve enjoyed your last few blogs and show that they are read by me, which originally came about, as I remember, because one of my teachers was Chris Alexander from Margate, where I live. I particularly like the first painting on this blog today and I like the way you seem to echo some of my thoughts about the pretentiousness that pervades modern art. I agree with you where you say that the harder you work, the better you will get at the craft of drawing. What else can it be? Either you can do it or you can’t, it’s not going to be released like a genie from a bottle suddenly just by a lot of ‘blue sky thinking’.

    Comment by Tony Lampert — October 30, 2013 @ 5:58 pm

  2. Thanks Tony, I am always glad to have evidence that someone reads my waffle. I realise it is tilting at windmills but when Turner prize winners echo my reasoning I can’t help but think that things are slowly a changing. Hopefully to recognise the lasting value of skill and craftsmanship.

    Comment by Rob Adams — October 30, 2013 @ 6:42 pm

  3. That prospectus would be hilarious if it wasn’t so sad. It could convince someone that all they needed to do was simply turn up – after paying of course – “be themselves”, and low and behold, success is guaranteed. As baffling as the “Artist’s Statements” you analysed in a previous post, it is so low on specifics, I would recoil immediately due to overwhelming confusion. It seems sadly typical of our times, very few it seems have the honesty or guts to say, “If you want this, it’s gonna be bloody hard work but, put that work in and you stand a chance”. Your comparison with music is a good one. If you want to play rock guitar, you have to learn chords. No one enjoys it, it’s hard, but staring at your navel all day will get you nowhere. Drawing is fundamental, essential, the bedrock of the ability to render 3D images onto a 2D plane. It’s a craft. Keep telling them Rob. Your watercolours in this post are wonderful and I was immediately struck by the granulation in Crooms Hill as it’s not typical of your work, you certainly know how to handle it though!! I also really admire the life drawings. Such fresh spontaneous work. I can only aspire to it and keep working.

    Comment by Kevin — October 31, 2013 @ 9:24 pm

  4. Interesting rambles as always, Rob. I agree with you, generally-speaking, on the value of craft, but can see why some think otherwise and can even appreciate the charm, or… whatever… of the unrefined… sometimes. I didn’t know “that lot” were so spittle-flecked and voracious. I’d be curious to read the thread you mentioned.

    I haven’t heard Grayson Perry’s Reith lectures but look forward to listening to them. Thanks for the heads up.

    Maybe I’ve been watching too much Downton Abbey lately, but am I seeing a hint of Brendan Coyle in that self-portrait?

    Comment by Nick — November 1, 2013 @ 8:14 am

  5. The thread was in Linked in Art professionals, I would have posted a link but it’s a sign up job. Not very educational, I flounder a bit when people only reply in emotional generalisations presented as incontrovertible fact! Most of humanity seems to find every topic as a matter of black and white whereas I see only greys. No not a Downton watcher, someone did mention Rasputin!

    Comment by Rob Adams — November 1, 2013 @ 9:07 am

  6. Thanks Kevin, yes I peg away at it, trouble is I don’t fall either into the “all modern art is rubbish camp or the “traditional art is irrelevant” one so both tend to treat me with suspicion!
    Yes the granulation is caused by a rather interesting Daniel Smith colour called Zoisite Genuine from Jacksons. It’s a sort of grungy green but granulates like billy o.

    Comment by Rob Adams — November 1, 2013 @ 9:14 am

  7. Feet of clay, Rob? May be occasionally but common sense from you…..always! It’s taken me 8 years to get (very occasionally) half decent and a lot of hard grind was involved. Fun too, but it didn’t happen by accident or a sudden release of my artistic soul.


    Comment by Michael Trask — November 3, 2013 @ 8:25 am

  8. Yes….
    like your work…a lot..

    now some comments………………
    I can see that drawing is a craft….
    And every single thing …is many things …different and differentiated at different levels of usage…
    Almost all acts…can be a channelling of ones soul… …into a medium of material communication…
    So….therefore drawing is this too of course….
    But so is going to the toilet….. Depends on your mind state about it….

    the course the students were on at st martins sounds great…. the problem it seems to me is …that it is called ‘drawing’ …
    it is vital that we…that people .. learn to ‘let go’ …but of course…if u have learned no pallet of real skills in how to move something from what it is inside …to what one defines from that outside …then it seems extremely sad…and unlikely to be useful to self or soul or spirit or humanity either…

    people need saints…heros…untouchables….
    people are terrified…deep inside…knowing their own frailties… (this dawns in puberty)
    so…u have to be so careful when u attempt to suggest that the saint…or whomever …maybe had to use a toilet sometimes…hahahah
    i could say more…but usually i have irritated everyone enough by now…
    hahahhaah….have a nice day…

    Comment by enaa — November 3, 2013 @ 10:16 am

  9. Hi Rob,
    Great new painting always good to see.
    Thanks for including me in your circulation list.
    I understand your concern about art school.
    50 years ago when I first did well at art and technical drawing I declined art school in favor of building college and a career in architecture. Earned a decent living from drawing buildings, and still painted what I liked in spare time.
    Now retired I paint for peanuts for people who like my work and could not be happier with that situation!
    I agree that painting is in fact hard work, I rekon approx. 5% inspiration. Even 50 years ago I was horrified at the attitude and results emerging from the local art colleges of the day.
    Modern/conceptual art leaves me cold, puzzled, angry, annoyed,….. and then told that it has achieved its objective!
    For the last 2 years I have kept a sketchbook and fill this in in spare moments
    wish I had done this decades ago do they instruct this at art school?
    Rasputin …. yes Rob but don’t worry about it!
    Regards Doug

    Comment by Doug Myers — November 5, 2013 @ 9:41 pm

  10. Thanks Doug, Nice sketch books! I never quite manage sketches I end up with books of little paintings rather than sketches, I don’t know quite why as I love other peoples books full of notes and such.

    Comment by Rob Adams — November 6, 2013 @ 12:06 pm

  11. Hi Rob!… I very much enjoyed my first visit to your site “chocked full o’ knowledge bits and visual bytes! I heartily agree with the tenets of creating one’s art that you have mentioned. As a long time (retired teacher and visual arts educator with my school board, I continually came up against attitudes of insecurity and resistance to the real fact that drawing is but one part of a myriad of tools needed to create.

    The very need to create arrives out of an intrinsic need within the individual to express themselves. In early childhood… drawing and painting were our first and preferred modes of expression. By the end of elementary/grammar school (excuse the dinosaur terminology)… drawing became the expected currency of visual literacy and expression. Sadly… this sitation was the “getting off the bus” point for most people… and “Art” was abandoned… handed over to the “gifted”… draughtsmen. Enough said on this subject.

    I loved your inclusion of “spiritualism” in the creative tool box. If the desire and the expression doesn’t come from the inner spirit and address those things that interest one deeply… then the exercise… its outcome and rewards will be shallow at best.

    I love your sketches and paintings. They exhibit your spiritaul connection to the subject and environment that you are obviously in tune with. Very expressive in terms of mood, colour and good design! A pleasure to the eye… food for the Soul!

    Keep up the great work! I’ll be back!

    Good Painting!
    Warmest regards,

    Comment by Bruce Sherman — December 4, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

  12. Thanks Bruce, though I think you misinterpreted my take on spirituality to mean the opposite of what I intended!

    Comment by Rob Adams — December 5, 2013 @ 9:52 am

  13. Hi Rob.
    Just found your blog on Keith Tilley`s Blog, great. Wonderful paintings. Where it says below, Notify me of new posts by email, I hope that I shale be receiving your latest postings in my inbox.
    All the best Rob.

    Comment by Vic — December 12, 2013 @ 1:26 pm

  14. Thanks Vic, yes if you subscribe you will get updates… though there may be an Xmas hiatus!

    Comment by Rob Adams — December 12, 2013 @ 4:11 pm

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