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…


  1. I like this very much that you say:’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 admire the fact that you can paint or draw with obvious skill and speed in the open air & the street. I am less sympathetic to painting from photographic information, but that is my particular personal dislike of doing so. It seems to me that anyone’s attention is a fine and precious thing, the artist’s has a particular value, and it should be given directly to the present moment- as you say, the astonishing luck of being embodied as a conscious being. Also, it seems to me that, compared to reality, the amount of information in a photograph is relatively impoverished.
    Still, I don’t mean to get into a polemic about it, but, as a teacher, I would say there’s no substitute for your own vision. If a photo can alert you to something you’ve missed, well, maybe, but go and have another look.

    Comment by john n pearce — May 27, 2015 @ 8:02 pm

  2. Another fine collection Rob. Love the nocturne at Gold Hill. I sat and did a pen and wash one day alongside an ol painter. When I saw him later in the cafe he said he had scraped his off.

    Love the pen and ink sketches.

    Comment by Doug Elliot — May 27, 2015 @ 8:09 pm

  3. Thanks John, a thoughtful comment indeed. I am ambivalent about photography. I dislike the way it schools the way we see images. Whether we like it or not most people’s highest compliment is that it looks like a photo. The problem of painting directly from the motif and also from photos is not too little information but too much. What the artist does with both sorts of material is to winnow that information to tell a specific succinct story. That involves accentuating some things and suppressing others. So using either source material is not copying but transforming. My job is to lie convincingly in paint as it were, as Degas once commented. I have only in recent years painted pictures from photos, before that I only painted plein air. I used photos as reference in illustration of course but never constructed a picture just from one image. It took me a while to realise that painting what was before me photo or direct uncritically didn’t really work for me. a painting has a host of other things in it, from composition to key. That said it is vital to learn to draw from life, without that skill you will always struggle to make a worth while painting from any other source material.

    Comment by Rob Adams — May 27, 2015 @ 9:21 pm

  4. Yes, painting is a selective, interpretative process, and the real world with its constant changes is a far richer source to select from than the split second recorded by a camera. I have nothing against photography in itself, just the supine acceptance of its veracity.
    The idea that some of us have a knack of accurate representation isn’t right either: everything is provisional and hypothetical. The fact that peoples’ highest praise is ‘just like a photograph’ is testimony to the sorry state of visual literacy. An indication of the present aesthetic, notwithstanding the subtle obscurities of ‘artspeak’, is the trend towards High definition, double HD, and 3D.
    The irony of my own painting is that,despite the fact that my canvases have taken months of observational work on location, and the passage of time is subtly evident in the inclusion of seasonal change, I frequently get the ‘just like a photograph’ accolade.
    I think it is incumbent on at least some of us, in this era dominated by technological imagery, to explore the way we are seeing with nothing but a box of paints, brushes and a pair of eyes.
    I hate the twee realism of computer graphics, however technically brilliant.
    In your work I could already see that you both work directly from the subject, and from photos – which is why we’re having this conversation.
    Illustration is a different matter.

    Comment by john n pearce — May 27, 2015 @ 10:25 pm

  5. There is something very attractive and satisfying, Rob, about your watercolour of Child Okeford. Partly the wide format I think but particularly the light with the buildings in darkish tones against the light and that light sky and background tree. Am always amazed at your ability to draw/paint cars. I can see the need for the central one approaching us – the painting would have had a rather empty centre without it – but I would have probably stopped at one, simply because of the struggle to paint any more without running into August! This conscious thinking being has derived much pleasure from gazing at this one – thank you! BTW, I hope that couple crossing the road get a move on or else they may be mown down in their prime before they ever get the chance of that drink in the pub.

    Comment by Michael Trask — May 28, 2015 @ 12:06 am

  6. Yes the assumption that what the camera sees is “true” in that it represents the way we actually see is irritating, but you just have to accept it. Earlier generations would not understand many of the visual effects we absorb without thought. Focus blur from depth of field, the compression of perspective by long lenses. Your paintings are a painstaking accruing of many small observations over time which I like. My intent is slightly different in that I want to catch the ordinary in an extraordinary and often fleeting moment, to share my own pleasure in such sights and why they move me. For this photography is a valuable tool. The problem occurs when people cannot leave the photo behind and it overwhelms the painting. When I work with photos I correct the distortions and redraw things to get the composition right. I also don’t work with the reference always before me so that the painting can become an object in itself and gain its own identity. I try to only care about the impression a work makes upon me not how, why, when or where it was done, though this is difficult when painting is your business and you assess other’s work from that viewpoint. I have almost given up trying to judge my own work, it is impossible to achieve the required distance. The emotional investment needed to paint decently in the first place cannot it seems be turned on and off at will!

    Comment by Rob Adams — May 28, 2015 @ 9:17 am

  7. You do capture beautiful moments and I entirely agree with Michael Task’s comments on ‘Child Okeford’. And, you’re right, it’s irrelevant how such a magical work was achieved.
    Personally I do want people to know about the process, as it is part of the artwork.

    Comment by john n pearce — May 28, 2015 @ 1:01 pm

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