Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

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.


April 17, 2015


Representation has had a bad century or so. First of all photography turned up and seemed to offer something better at the press of a button. Then abstraction and conceptualism said it was irrelevant anyhow. Enough time has passed now to see that none of the new kids on the block are doing a very good job of reaching people other than the cognoscenti . The art market loves the idea that it is they and they alone who assign worth and the afficianados revel in the obscureness of it all. The average person if such exists however seems unmoved. There is plenty of visual fodder for the everyday viewer, film tv etc supply an endless stream of content. Very little aesthetic stimulation is supplied by paint on canvas however.

The interest is there. If I paint in the street a plenty of interested people watch you and come and chat to you. That is in itself odd as it takes quite a lot for most people to engage a total stranger in conversation. When a while ago I painted outside the Bankside Gallery, a more or less constant stream of people stopped and chatted. I know some of the interest is to some degree similar to watching a magician pull things out of hats, but most comment on the image as well as the act of making it. How to harness all this interest is a conundrum though.

So why do painted images of our world still hold such fascination? You would think there would be little interest, it is not that you are making a copy of the scene, cameras do that all the time. No one ever hovers near to an iPad snapper to see how the picture came out. Photos have perhaps become so ubiquitous that we tend to dismiss them and those who take them. We are after all of us casual photographers now, the process has no mystery for us, the revolution that the Box Brownie started has run it’s course. In some ways I wonder if the small renaissance in representational painting is being helped along by the over abundance of the mechanicaly produced image. There is also as I said before the fascination of seeing something that is very hard to do done well, just as we like to watch high achieving sports persons, the same seems to apply to painters.

Painters however are not street performers they produce an end product. Unfortunately the market for such items could be kindly described as “niche”. Though companies like to sponsor sport, opera and theatre, individual or groups artists are unlikely to become recipients of such munificence. I suppose I could try product placement with Coca Cola cans prominently featuring in the picture!

We make images designed to be “hung on the wall” which alas look increasingly out of place in a modern pared down interior. Framing has become a nightmare as you have to imagine what will look good when teamed with an Ikea  coffee table called Schnurdle! The annoying thing is that I suspect many people would gain pleasure from having a landscape on their wall but somehow the picture selling business cannot reach them. Galleries don’t help, often by seeming unwelcoming to the casual browser. I quite like galleries with cafes, in the same way as bookshops have found, people will pop in for a coffee and then hopefully look at the paintings too.

I have now completed my exodus to the country so hopefully I will be getting a more regular flow of posts going. I have already got a list of scenes I would like to paint. Here are a few to start with!


Fontmell Down, dorset, landscape, oil painting, sheep

At last I have my studio up and running so to celebrate I painted this. I realised I had hardly touched the oils recently once I started as I felt distinctly rusty. This is the wonderful Fontmell Down in Dorset. 20in by 20in oils.


Gold Hill Farm, tractor, Oil painting, farm

Full of the joys of spring I set out on another only to get a little stuck. I find pictures that almost work harder to come to terms with than outright failures. They tend to sit around waiting for their moment to be scrapped or fixed. This one of a local Dorset farm was meant to be about the milky light… but somehow became about a tractor. I have decided to crop it cruelly so it will have to wait to be a little dryer before I re-stretch it to a new format. Below is how I feel it should be cut down.


Dorset, farm, oil painting

Much more to be done but I think this has more potential.


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

This is a bridleway a few hundred yards from my new house in Child Okeford. So great to see that the light is good and be able to pop out and paint. 7in by 10in Oils.


Mudeford, oil painting, beach huts, plein air, dorset

Another I am not happy with, the balance between sky and foreground is wrong. I will have to glaze back the foreground so the sky feels more luminous. These beach huts are at Mudeford. 7in by 14in


Springhead, Dorset, oil painting, plein air

This is Springhead near Fontmell Magna, lovely gardens almost too pretty to paint. Some lovely subtle colours and it was fun trying to show the transparency of the spring foliage. 10in by 14in oils.


Hambledon Hill, Dorset, Oil painting, plein air, ploughed field

Last of the oils, I love this view of Hambledon Hill as it changes so much with the light. I did this slightly larger than I usually paint outside at 10in by 26in with the result that it would not go in my panel carrier… I duly dropped it butter side down as I carried everything back to the car! A little grit adds character I suppose.


Blandford Forum, Dorset, pen and ink, drawing

This took a couple of visits as I got rained off. I can handle just rain but as soon as the wind gets up a bit you just have to stop. I returned almost a week later to finish. Dry alas so I had to imagine some of the reflections.


Wappers, drawing

Lastly a sketch of Steve Alexander and John Bryce painting away on the foreshore at Isleworth before the Wapping Group AGM.

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