Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

February 24, 2014

On Beauty

A risky topic I suspect and rather an unfashionable one too. Roger Scruton wrote a book on it recently which I must read. You cannot say what beauty is any more than you can define joy,  love or indeed art. Concepts that are intensely personal are prone to be abused by people in arguments because due to the flexibility and nebulousness of their definitions they can be used to make points that cannot be argued against. The argument will go for example that in a particular circumstance anything can be beautiful. The weakness in these arguments is I think that a cleanly defined beautiful/not-beautiful, art/not-art boundary is assumed. However such phantasms of the human spirit can be brought more into focus even if they are not subject to an outright definition. We can for example say that for the most part we find regular faces more pleasing than ones deformed from the norm. There is a lot of research in that area that shows we like the facial features to be symmetrical and averaged. The images of many faces overlaid and blended are disconcertingly beautiful and show that we are looking for differences from the norm as a way of deciding genetic worthiness/unworthiness.

This does not always follow with real encounters of course. Someone might have a face that is transformed by character and animation. Nonetheless perhaps our underlying assessments of beauty are slanted towards the reassuring. We might admire a verdant and peaceful landscape or a dramatic mountain scene, but we might assign them differing types of beauty. For an arable farmer the verdant land would be attractive as a home whereas the rugged mountain less so. Our farmer might find them both beautiful but in contrasting ways. It is quite plain to me that the early cave painters found beauty in the animals they hunted that went beyond the straight forward desire for a successful hunt.

Thus we are immediately mired in the boggy land of the aesthetic. Hurrying on the heels of aesthetics come those who would tell us what is fitting/fashionable and what is not. Currently beauty and decoration are very much off the menu. We are supposed to like the sparse. Our dream apartments have empty spaces, plain surfaces and white walls. I cannot help but wonder if this is perhaps a choice caused by hoovers rather than aesthetic concerns! When designing exhibitions of decorative items from historical times we place them in sparse minimal cases. To me they always look a little sad in such soulless arrays, like butterflies pinned in drawers. They seem like items in a shop rather than exhibits in a museum intended to fire our imaginations.

In architecture beauty has been completely outlawed it sometimes seems. There is little built that moves beyond the grim utilitarianism of financial objectives and cupidity. When decorative items are used they are plastic panel doors with cartoon graining, the result is depressing rather than uplifting. Architects generally seem to be comfortable with repetition but not rhythm. Being uplifting and enriching our daily lives is, we seem to have forgotten, the whole point of decoration. In furniture we are in the thrall of anally retentive Scandinavians or those who wish to emulate them. I am not totally in disagreement, bad decoration is indeed often worse than none. Alas because we don’t do much training in the area of decoration the few examples that do appear are for the most part weak pastiche cobbled together from found images using photoshop. The decorative arts were once a big thing and lauded, why this is no longer true is a puzzle.

The only real thing I can think of is the advent of mechanical production. We have adjusted our aesthetic to suit the available means of production, maintenance and distribution rather than the other way round. We perhaps associate the hand made with the crudeness of DIY, some hand made objects seem to need to advertise their handmadeness by adding rusticity or similar.

We also tend to confuse beauty in a seen thing such as a mountain or an object made with no visual intent such as a worn wall with the beauty inherent in an object made by a human being who has laboured to gain a skill. If you splash paint randomly or even semi randomly on a canvas it will be nice to look at. If I wet some watercolour paper and pour colour on it I may well get a very attractive and interesting surface. This however is mostly the same sort of beauty as we get from admiring the patterns on a beach. The beauty in an art object is different because of the skill and the fact that a person has sacrificed part of their life in order to achieve the ability. Due to the arguments put forwards in the 20th century we tend to conflate these kinds of beauty. The weathered wall is not of any real cultural significance even if torn from its place and put in a gallery.

Music mostly does not suffer from this confusion. We might get an emotional surge when we listen to the wind in the trees, but we do not confuse that, except in moments of poetic hyperbole, with music. We do not confuse a person noodling on the piano in a random untrained manner with music either… the difference to a concert pianist is obvious and no one would say that the random noodling is art of the same order as the pianist’s bravura performance.

The statement that everyone is an artist is very much not true. To be an artist you must firstly be a fully formed craftsperson, only then should a small proportion of the resultant work be deemed “Art”.


henley on Thames, Thames, flood, river, plein air, oil painting


This is the recent floods at Henley. Some fascinating transformations of familiar scenes. We were lucky to get some brilliant light and a mostly dry day.


henley upon Thames, Thames, Plein air, oil painting


Another from the same day. The shadows were only momentarily thrown across the road. 8in by 10in oils.


Thames Henley, river flood, oil painting


Last one of the day, we found a flooded road that reflected the last light. I had to paint this very rapidly! 12in by 12in oils. The first use of my new 12in by 20 in pochade… I will add pictures of it at the end for the painting gear nerds!


interior, oil painting


The next day was very wet and windy so we went to and painted an interior in a friend of Steven Alexander’s wonderfully cluttered cottage. 10in by 12in oils.


Jermyn St, Mayfair, London, street, oil painting


This is Jermyn Street in Mayfair painted on an expedition with the Brass Monkeys. Not quite sure what to do with this one, it is a bit like an empty stage waiting for the actors to arrive! 10in by 16in oils.


Jermyn St, Mayfair, London, Brass Monkeys, oil painting


Another from Jermyn St. I had to add a figure to reduce the dominance of the car. 8in by 10in oils.


Kent, track, Aylesford, oil painting.


A day out painting with friends. This is a track above Aylesford in Kent… we went to paint the dramatic wide view of the Medway valley and ended up painting a muddy track! 10in by 10in oils.


East Farleigh, Kent, oil painting


This is East Farleigh, the river was in full flood but I found the light in this very attractive. I was nearly run over a few times but really enjoyed trying to make something of the split composition. Painting up a hill always produces challenges to as you have to make sure that the cues are there to explain your view point. 10in by 16in oils.


Trafalgar Square, London


I don’t often do this kind of sketch, but as it was a Brass Monkey day and I also had to attend the Wapping Group private view I needed to wear clothes ungarnished with oil paint! So pen and wash was the order of the day. pen and wash is a great combination and I really should do more of them.


St Martins Lane, London, watercolour

Last one before heading to the Mall Galleries. The day was very flat but St Martins Lane always supplies some contrast due to the height of the buildings and the narrowness of the street. 5in by 7in watercolour.



Here it is… a mighty 12in by 20in. It is still light, but would be a bit of a handful in the wind! Due to the size it has some storage so I should be able just carry this and the tripos which will make quite a light set up for its size. Next I need to work out something for 16in by 20in canvasses…



I also created some rain protection from the brolly that bit the dust in Dulwich a week or so ago.


  1. Lovely work as usual Rob. Ingenious rain protection.

    Comment by Doug — February 24, 2014 @ 4:35 pm

  2. I always enjoy your posts Rob, and here you have shared lots of really enjoyable paintings, I am, as usual, lost in admiration. The thoughts you share are also always interesting and worth more than one read through, this post is no exception. The last paragraph has left a particular impression on me. What, I wonder, is a “fully formed craftsperson” and, in the light of the content of some of your previous posts, who decides? The inference, it seems to me, could be that because my parents weren’t wealthy and were unable to fund a university education for me, nothing I ever do will be of any artistic worth. If further education and training are irrelevant then I ask again, who decides? The same could be said I’m sure of many thousands of honest amatuers. Not surprisingly, I’ve found this rather depressing but I’m big enough to take such things on the chin. There is nothing to do but to keep working hard in order to improve my painting in the hope that one day, a certain approval will be afforded me and a small proportion of what I produce may, with luck, be deemed “art”. If that’s not to be then at least I will have enjoyed the ride.

    Comment by Kevin — February 24, 2014 @ 8:22 pm

  3. Thanks Kevin, I certainly would not think of an educational background being a factor, certainly my art education background although I went to college is minimal. I am 99% self taught because the sort of training I wanted wasn’t and mostly still isn’t available at all. As to who decides well we seem to have no problem deciding which musicians are the finest, public acclaim does the job mostly. Or novelists book sales in the various areas decide success or failure though fame in another area and publishers advertising is a factor too. In the fine art world however we have I feel a rather too small clique of self appointed gate keepers to the state’s and other collector’s patronage and largess.
    As to who eventually decides, well as always history will give a verdict eventually as it always has. I have never much believed in the amateur professional divide. By most measures the Impressionists were all amateurs as they were rich bar a couple and did not need to sell pictures for a living. Vermeer for example was an amateur and dealt in the pictures of others as his day job.
    We have in our age been brought up to believe that everyone can be an artist, which to some degree I would agree with. Where I would disagree is with the opinion that you can hope to be a fully formed top flight artist/artisan without a huge amount of focussed time and effort. Large amounts of people can play musical instruments to a very high amateur standard, but I haven’t often heard one claim equality of achievement to a professional performer or indeed feel demeaned by not making that level of attainment. Nor is their pleasure in the activity and their own progress diminished as far as I can see… from personal experience as I am an amateur musician myself. I don’t find the fact that I will never scale the heights at music in the least off putting or the activity made less rewarding!
    I would “deem” all serious attempts at painting worthy of the epithet “art”, but like all humans I would grade them in differing levels of achievement as far as I can by drawing on my experience and a lifetime’s activity in the area. I would also feel from personal experience that the opinion (good or bad) of other painters I admire weighs a fair bit higher with me than the opinion of others, this does not however mean I don’t I appreciate, consider and value the opinions of all.
    For me why artistic endeavour is so rewarding is that it is at the very edge of human possibility, and that you can paint on most days for a life time as I have and still go out and paint a complete car crash failure! Truly painting a really good picture requires all the winds to be in your favour, and not the least of these is luck.
    PS Re reading my post I should have ended with “deemed art of the highest order.” I won’t edit it now I’ll leave it as a lesson to avoid being overly dogmatic! R

    Comment by Rob Adams — February 25, 2014 @ 10:19 am

  4. Hi Rob. I had an illness over Christmas, and I have not been able to paint. You have inspired me to Have a go, thank you.

    Comment by Vic errington — February 25, 2014 @ 11:17 am

  5. Many thanks for taking the trouble to provide such a concise response to my comment Rob. Your knowledge of art, as well as your ability/talent are beyond question. It’s important not to lose focus on the main element of your post which is, of course, the artwork itself. Although, as I’ve said, I admire them all, it’s always a real pleasure to see some pen and wash. The example here is an absolute pearl. Pen and wash, done well like this, always seems to buzz with life and intimacy, I don’t know why. Could I ask whether you usually apply pen first or do you apply washes first and then pull it together with pen? I’ve seen experienced artists do it both ways to good effect. I’ve concluded that applying wash first would maybe help towards a certain loseness if desired. Any chance of a “Car Crash” post? 🙂

    Comment by Kevin — February 26, 2014 @ 2:10 am

  6. Hi Kevin, RE pen and wash I do a bit of both. I find the wash always dulls the penwork a bit, but this can be good in some cases as it makes a contrast you can exploit if more pen is applied after. I will do a tutorial on pen and wash fairly soon as I want to reinstate it as a more frequent sketch medium. Generally I would be in favour of a pencil sketch, then wash and finally pen as it is easy to overdo the pen work when it doesn’t have the wash in place to back it up.
    As to car crash posts, it has been on my mind to do a post on failures, it is after all an important part of life and how we react to it as artists very important… but posting really bad paintings is a bit like dropping your trousers in public!

    Comment by Rob Adams — February 26, 2014 @ 9:39 am

  7. Hi Rob

    Enjoyed reading your post again and your paintings as usual. If you are in contact with Steven Alexander who you’ve mentioned, please let him know that I recently purchased his book on his father Chris and just finished looking through it. I would like to let him know how much I appreciate the effort in publishing his father’s legacy as I was one of the lucky one’s fortunate enough to be taught by him at the evening classes in Hawley Square, Margate around 1970. For all the dozens of books I’ve read about great artists and their techniques, it’s Chris Alexander and his personal attention to me in those evening classes that has been the enduring inspiration for all of the painting that I’ve done since. The recent discovery of his book and the paintings in it is something I never thought I would ever see after so long.

    Comment by Tony Lampert — February 26, 2014 @ 11:11 pm

  8. Hi Tony, I will pass on to Steve, he will appreciate I’m sure!

    Comment by Rob Adams — February 27, 2014 @ 10:19 am

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