Rob Adams a Painter's Blog painter's progress

June 15, 2015

The curse of the category

Filed under: Drawing,London,Painting,Surrey,Thames,Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , , , — Rob Adams @ 10:18 am

I am of course going to consider the penchant we have of pigeonholing. We love to sort things into groups and give them names. Then we can ascribe other qualities with a broad and uncaring brush. With life forms we call this taxonomy. With paintings we use  categories based on style, content, historical period, use, intent etc. So if we have a painting it might be an illustration or a decoration or fine art and so forth. With taxonomy the rules are clear a life form cannot be a member of more than one genus. With paintings however a work might be comfortably placed in several. So one of Raphael’s frescos in the Vatican might be a) a work of art, b) illustrating a theme, c) decorating a room. d) an example of renaissance painting. Not so easy here to differentiate and put into discrete categories.

In conversation with other artists they all seem to agree with the current wisdom that contemporary illustration cannot be considered fine art. However if I ask, “Is Rembrandt’s “Feast of Balthazar” fine art?” they say yes it is. I then say but it is an illustration of a biblical event. I might get the reply that it was a personal response to a story by the artist. I add that actually it was a commission. Then the conversation usually goes down hill from there. Despite it being true in earlier times artists today generally seem unwilling to allow illustration up on the pedestal of fine art, but do wish to share the pedestal with great works of previous eras that I think fall comfortably into the illustration category. I have had this conversation many times now always with the same result, people believe that illustration is somehow inferior in the aesthetic stakes, but cannot come up with any cogent argument as to why that should be true now but not in the past.

So what is going on? This post is as much to pick the arguments apart for my own benefit as to promote any views on the matter. I have been both sides of the divide, so maybe that gives me a perspective on the conundrum that gives some small insight. Another area where this effect is seen is literature. A book can be a work of literature, or a genre. If it is genre, say a detective story, then the Booker people are not going to be interested whatever the literary merits. All genres are not equal of course, “historical” is above “mystery” which is in turn above “science fiction” which is above “romance”. These categories are to do with marketing not the end product not with the quality of the wordsmithing in-between the covers. However critics and most readers appear to use the marketing category to assign aesthetic worth. I have lost count of the number of times  have recommended a book only to have someone say, “I don’t like science fiction.” I ask have you read any? They say “No” I say have you read “Brave new world” They say, “Yes.” I say “Aha! That’s science fiction!” and once more the conversation goes downhill from there. One thing is always the same, no one will reconsider their opinion and when they have the basis of that opinion questioned and find they cannot justify it they seem to hold that opinion even more firmly that before.

If you think I am going to give the impression I am above this trait then you would be wrong. If you read Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking, Fast and Slow” you might reluctantly have to admit as I did that many of our opinions and most of our intuitively held views are very poorly founded and often wrong entirely. What Kahneman shows is that even when this is pointed out to us we still cleave to our previous opinion because it is programmed in at a lower level. This part of our minds delivers snap judgements on anything and everything without the need for cogitation. In everyday life this is wonderful as it gives us a way of dealing with a hugely complex world that would overwhelm us otherwise. We could not possibly take the time to reason through everything in life.

This process works with pictures too. People often say that they don’t like this or that sort of painting. Choose your genre, say Pre Raphaelites. This is one that has caused me a deal of difficulty. One of my first experiences with paintings in galleries was at the Birmingham Art Gallery. Is a boy of twelve or so I was entranced by the glowing colours and did not know to dislike the sickly sweet emotions portrayed. Later when doing a degree in fine art I learnt to dislike them as was de-rigueur in a college of that period. So I had two opposing instinctive responses to that kind of work. If I was a computer I would crash and need to be rebooted, but humans are made of sterner stuff and can believe both opposing views at the same time! If I stand back and am analytic then I would have to say most of the Pre-raph output is average to poor, but I can find some gold amongst the spoil as well. IE exactly the same as any other genre or period of work. Nonetheless despite knowing that when I first glance at one of their paintings it is the unconscious assessments all be it conflicting that are first through the gate.

This also works with positives. We might be educated that this or that artist is “important” this in turn makes us see the works in a different way that has less to do with the actual visual stimulus being received than we might imagine. This was brought into focus for me a few years back when I saw a huge Van Gogh exhibition in Basel. I arrived with the learnt and unquestioned opinion that he was one of the all time greats and a pivotal figure in painting. I believe there were 14 rooms in total in strict chronological order. I was entranced by room 13 where his works take on a visionary glow, then less impressed by room 14 where derangement sets in. Puzzled I went back and did the first rooms again. When I really thought and looked as dispassionately as I was able the early rooms were almost entirely between dreadful through to dull but worthy with the odd bright spark of things to come. Looking at the time line it would seem that Gaugin’s influence was the key to Van Gogh’s brief transcendent moment. Van Gogh’s paintings from that period are lovely and decorative, but did they inspire later painters to paint in that manner..? Well like most idiosyncratic artists such as Blake, not really as the manner is so personal.

It is very hard for anyone including myself to separate out the received wisdom on Van Gogh as our subconscious has been so well primed. This is not really a problem for a gallery visitor, as they will enjoy the works and not be concerned as to the genesis of their reactions. For an artist it is a different matter, we need to be able to pick out concrete factors that might lift our own work a step up. I am afraid that the knee jerk assessments of our subconscious really do not help in this regard. My intellect tells me that all types of painting from illustration to portraiture to abstraction will throw up up high peaks on the graph of excellence, however personal and intangible the factors that make such judgements are. For myself I try to look out for these highs wherever they might be found. As we all do I will inevitably miss many that might hold useful inspiration merely because my lazy conscious mind is on autopilot and being steered by the unthinking and largely unfounded judgements delivered up by my unconscious. I feel sure this trope will have neither  convinced nor unconvinced anybody, but any contrary argument not founded on opinion would be welcome, especially if it confounds me!

Only a few paintings since last post, I am gearing up to go to France, so the next post will have a continental flavour!

Fulham Palace, London, Plein air, Brass Monkeys

This is the gate to the walled garden at Fulham Palace. It was drizzling and very quiet so I was happy painting away. I loved the soft tones that the rain gave. 8in by 10in oils.


Fulham Palace, oil painting, London, plein air

The rain really set in after we had had a leisurely sandwich and coffee. I was lucky, sheltered under a substantial tree, others of The Brass monkeys were out in the full downpour… This is the main entrance to the palace, it is a lovely place that the tourists don’t seem to find. 10in by 8in oils.


Hampshire, Fordingbridge, plein air, oil painting

It is hard to believe that this is the same day! After leaving Fulham I drove back to Dorset via the New Forest. This is Fordingbridge, this scene looked so lovely I decided to stop and paint. Hard to get a good viewpoint, in the end I parked my car conveniently for me and inconveniently for everyone else and painted from in front of it. I was forced to be very quick so this is about 30 minutes worth. 10in by 7.5in Oils.


Richmond, surrey, oil painting, plein air

This is Richmond Green on a day out with The Wappers, I have painted this corner a few times before. This time I really struggled, the first one from a different angle I wiped off. Then I started this but just could not get it to gel, I had bollards across the foreground and some near figures. I had it up on my kitchen dresser for a few days and decided in the end the story was about the line of activity running across the lower third. I took out everything that conflicted with that and suddenly I had a picture. It is always gratifying to rescue a painting that goes astray! 10in by 14in Oils.


Richmond Hill, Pen and Ink, Wapping Group

Before I did the last painting I did a couple of pen drawings. This is Richmond Hill, I love the simplicity of the medium. I have a lot of these drawings now and wonder what to do with them. People don’t buy drawings really nowadays, I might get some printed up into cards.


Richmond Bridge, Pen and ink, drawing

Last one. This is Richmond Bridge. It is quite hard to find new views on the River front. This one had taken my eye a few years ago so I decided to have a go at it. Though it looks simple it was avery difficult subject with lots of elements that needed to be right. I did a much more careful pencil layout than normal. I shall do a painting of this at some stage.


  1. Very good article, beautiful ink drawings. Thank you.

    Comment by adolfo mcque — June 15, 2015 @ 10:43 am

  2. Hello again – here we go: anything but paint!

    I agree with your initial statements – yes, categories can be a way of reducing something to a sufficiently compact form to go into one’s head. I quite agree too with your conclusion: ‘that all types of painting from illustration to portraiture to abstraction will throw up up high peaks on the graph of excellence, however personal and intangible the factors that make such judgements are.’

    I would probably name Blake as my favourite artist, but then there’s Samuel Palmer, some of whose work I adore and revere, and which jumped off the Tate Gallery wall and grabbed me when I first encountered them, and no one needed to educate me (although later Geoffrey Grigson’s ‘Samuel Palmer The Visionary Years’ was a strong back-up).

    Nowadays I do admire the graphics in some bande dessinée in France. The standard is highly variable, but some, like the recent editions of Proust in comic strip form, are exquisite, and display extraordinary skill in the way scenes are presented on the page withtext, and the way the draftsmen’s empathic genius is also a form of acting. My own earliest influences were book and comic strip illustrations. Dan Dare (Frank Hampson) was one, and Edwardian renderings of King Arthur’s knights – in armour. And, unlike your response to the Pre-Raphaelites, my childish intuition found Edwardian and Victorian biblical illustrations distinctly unwholesome.

    The distinction I would make between fine art and illustration is not the subject matter, but the context. Illustration belongs in books, along with text. Fine art paintings are objects on walls. Oddly enough, that’s something that also distinguishes painting from photography. Photographs never quite attain the status of precious objects on walls, because their primary mode is already a reproduction.

    Illustrators of my acquaintance have, in these difficult times, attempted to move between the ‘genres’ of illustration’ and ‘fine art’ and found that that the major issue is indeed the difference between the impact of an image on a page and the experience of a painting hanging on a wall.

    I can only speculate as to why that is – perhaps the illustration already inhabits a timeless imaginative space along with its text, whereas a painting confronts the viewer in the same real space he or she is occupying, and has to assert itself, and its own imagina
    tive space, in relation to that of the viewer. This is far more challenging for the viewer, who is far more daunted by entering an art gallery than by opening a book, and in that context both an illustration-like style, or some other ready category, can offer the faltering would-be art critic a reassuring handrail.

    Comment by john n pearce — June 15, 2015 @ 12:03 pm

  3. Yes I agree completely, Illustration should properly be some combination of text and image. Though I think a fine art painting can be illustrative in nature, some would disagree though. I feel that “Fine Art” is such a clumsy term, I wish we had something better. Samuel Palmer is interesting, his visionary phase was quite short, once his mental problems abated somewhat he painted pretty standard topographical watercolours. Like you my first influences were Dan Dare, Hampson and later Frank Bellamy, also we had books illustrated by Edmund Dulac and Rackham that completely entranced me. I must do a post on them as they are a big part of the stew of influences that cause me to paint as I do. I have found as you say moving from illustration to painting framed pictures challenging, but in a good way.

    Comment by Rob Adams — June 15, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

  4. Fantastic post as usual. I decided at some point to do away with categories in art related matters as much as possible. I remember seeing some ‘illustrations’ by Dean Cornwell and Norman Rockwell in the collection of a certain Hollywood mogul (think dinosaurs). This mogul had them displayed along some beautiful dinosaur sculptures and other artifacts and maquettes. If anybody had gone in with a neat box of labels “maquette”, “illustration”, “fine art”,”sculpture”… that someone would have wept and throw the box out the window. Roughly speaking an illustration is a commissioned piece of art meant to be reproduced and mass distributed but the definition allows for just about anything to enter through that door. And then there are those two most ominous of labels: CRAFTS and DESIGN. A craft seems to imply, you can grab your plumber and , with some training, get him to make your toilet’s porcelain with gorgeous motiffs of birds and bees. DESIGN seems to imply art with a practical function and within budget. I consider most contemporary art in galleries as design, its function to fleece millionaires. It seems that what all we have to go to describe fine art is : expensive in terms of hours or money for the artist or the collector, useless beyond redemption and beautiful, very beautiful.

    Comment by Jose — June 15, 2015 @ 6:05 pm

  5. Thanks Jose, I suppose we are just bad at things that are continuous spectrum in nature rather an on or off. What really irritates me is when people use “illustrative” or “craft” or “amateur” as denigration. We all know the feeling when we see some made thing that resonates and we get our fix of aesthetic pleasure, it might be a chair or a wall or a painting. Art is important because it is personal.

    Comment by Rob Adams — June 17, 2015 @ 9:34 am

  6. I had no idea your recent drawings were available for sale. Are they listed on a internet shop somewhere? They may be beyond my budget, but I’d be interested to find out….

    Comment by Geoff — June 19, 2015 @ 11:06 am

  7. Hi Geoff, they are not for sale as yet, I’m thinking of doing some prints from them and I like the idea of exhibiting them separately so people know that the exhibition is just of drawings. Dan Wrightson has done this successfully I believe so it is worth a go! It will be advertised here if I do that, I have no idea of how to price them…

    Comment by Rob Adams — June 19, 2015 @ 4:40 pm

  8. I liked reading this article. It resonates with how I feel. There seems to be a need for us to fit things neatly into pigeon holes/ categories, subjects etc. Not just with art, but with everything.
    It makes for “intellectual” conversation to use jargon and phrases and to immediately put some piece of art into a category.
    I don’t know if any artist would truly care so much about this issue. It helps to know how to categorize when it is time to sell 🙂

    I stumbled upon your work on Facebook, as I am part of the Urban Sketchers group and I absolutely love every one of your paintings.
    p.s- fine art is useless beyond redemption? – that stings a bit 🙂
    Reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s lines I read years ago saying “all art is useless”.

    Comment by Jayashree — June 21, 2015 @ 8:58 pm

  9. I did not care for the sunflowers when I visited the National Gallery and I always felt like there was something terribly wrong with me… It was the first time I visited a gallery of prestige and I knew nothing of painting or art. There was a crowd in front of that painting and all I could see was thick impasto that I didn’t care for. The next room was empty… Turner was my favorite painter at the time and I loved that room so much. When I saw Friedrich and the French Impressionists for the first time in my life I experienced genuine emotion when looking at paintings. Soon afterwards I started painting. I still have no idea what art means. I like Beksinski, Moebius and Sorolla. I think the point of art is close to what Stephen King says of writing: it’s practical telepathy. One person’s thoughts delivered to another… If there is no content, then nothing is delivered… that would explain my lack of response to the Miròs and Picassos. When I talk about these painters I get this feeling that people are afraid to agree.

    Comment by P.C. — July 14, 2015 @ 1:54 am

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