Robert Lee Neal benefited greatly from his relationship with Hale Woodruff, the revered artist-educator who oversaw the art department at Atlanta University (now Clark Atlanta University). A native of Atlanta, Neal started studying under Woodruff as a teenager, presumably when he was enrolled at Atlanta University’s Laboratory School, an experimental preparatory school also attended by Martin Luther King Jr. According to his widow, Neal “began his studies when he was fifteen, and his lessons cost fifty cents a day. When he was about eighteen, Mr. Woodruff wanted him to enter a big show, but Bob didn’t have the right clothes and couldn’t afford to attend the opening.” Recognizing the talents of his student, Woodruff stepped up, and rented him a tuxedo and limousine. The young artist took the first-place prize in the exhibition. It’s unclear if Neal pursued or received a degree from the university; in a 1977 oral interview, Neal stated that he spent six years on the Atlanta University campus and worked as a student-teacher under Woodruff as part of a scholarship package.

Neal became Woodruff’s chief assistant on a major project, the Amistad Murals at Talladega College in Alabama. Three of these large-scale colorful canvases, painted in 1938, commemorate the uprising aboard the Spanish slave ship. The other panels depict the founding of Talladega College, the construction of Savery Library on that campus, and the Underground Railroad. Neal recounted that “Mr. Woodruff did all of the figures. I did all of the background.” Woodruff would later praise Neal’s integral role in the project: “He kept my sketches and equipment in order. He transferred the cartoons to the actual canvas. He posed for all of the hands and figure gestures that appear in the mural. (His hands were expressive, by nature, artistically structural and adaptive to what I was trying to do.) I don't know what I would have done without him.” When Woodruff became ill shortly before the murals’ debut at Talledega, he deputized Neal to oversee the installation of the panels in his stead.

Neal’s painting style resembles the hard-edge realism and deep chiaroscuro of his mentor’s work at the time of the murals. Several works were included in landmark exhibitions centered on the achievements of African American artists, including Contemporary Negro Art, held at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939, and the Exhibition of the Art of the American Negro, presented in Chicago in 1940. In his seminal volume Modern Negro Art (1943), James Porter referenced Neal as one of the “interesting personalities” of the Atlanta School who “distinctly bears the mark of Woodruff’s style and methods.”

During this same period, Neal was employed by the Works Progress Administration. In the early 1940s, he moved to Dayton, Ohio, where he executed at least one mural for a local eatery. Little is known about his subsequent life.