DVD Capturing Coastal Moods || Ray Balkwill

The title of this give you an implicit hint as to what it isn’t. It’s not a guide to painting maritime subjects. How so? Well, as Ray tells us at the beginning, “I’m a great advocate of working on location. A sense of place is important, not just to capture what I see, but what I feel.” And that’s the essence of what he’s demonstrating here: it’s not the coast, it’s the mood. He continues, “I’ve painted here a few times. It’s that connection with the place that’s important”. It’s a theme that pervades the entire film and, since we’re quoting, here’s another: “I’m not looking to make an accurate representation, I’m looking to make a picture … as long as it looks like a boat, I’m happy.” (I’ve conflated two things, there, but you get the …er… picture).

Ray is known as a mixed media artist, but I’m going to burst another bubble while I’m on a roll. He’s not. What I mean is that he doesn’t paint mixed media because that’s how he’s pigeon-holed himself. He’s not really a media man at all. Yes, he uses pencil, felt-tip, Conté, pastel and gouache, almost always in that order, but only because they’re what he needs for a particular effect. It’s more like a conductor bringing in the various parts of the orchestra to provide tone, shade and colour – highlighting the violins here, backing them up with woodwinds and cellos, adding colour with the brass and then using tympani to bring the whole thing to a crescendo. I should also say that Ray not only makes this look the most natural thing in the world (you may even conclude that using only one medium is to restrict yourself quite unnecessarily), but also easy. It isn’t, of course, and it’s his supreme confidence and virtuosity that allow him to achieve what he does.

You’ll notice that I haven’t once mentioned the subjects that Ray paints here. That’s deliberate as I think that to describe this film factually would be to miss the point entirely. This isn’t about what Ray paints, but how he does it and there’s a degree of alchemy to that. There are, though, five full demonstrations, all filmed in Cornwall, as well as a studio-based postscript which includes a look at a painting worked up from a sketch done in unpromising conditions in Gweek boatyard.

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DVD Winter Landscapes in Watercolour || David Bellamy

“In winter, there’s generally a bit more colour around and you get away from all those awful summer greens” – and I don’t think he’s talking about cabbage.

That’s quite a challenging statement, especially as David is standing in a landscape thickly covered with snow at the time. “Monochrome” is the word that more obviously springs to mind. However, this is a film as much about overcoming preconceptions as it is about the process of painting.

If you’ve been following David’s career, you’ll remember that his earliest films were “adventures” and featured him hanging off ropes or clinging onto vertical surfaces like a mountain goat. All that was a lot of fun to watch, but it had less to do with the practicalities of what the rest of us would call the real world. I’ve remarked before that it’s been noticeable that his recent work has been much more centred in valleys and that’s true here. Even the opening demonstration, where he makes the remark about colours, is filmed at the roadside and all the locations in the film are perfectly accessible.

So, this isn’t a film about investing in extreme-weather equipment and where best to source a distress beacon. Rather, it’s about wearing enough layers – actually, scrub that: it’s about painting, pure and simple. What David demonstrates is how to make quick sketches – one of the most successful, and also quickest, is done with a single Inktense block – either from the car or close to its refuge. Getting out in cold weather isn’t about endurance, but practicality. Take a minimum of equipment and work quickly, make colour notes, concentrate on the main meat of the scene rather than too many details. Oh, and yes, do wear plenty of layers.

Because everything’s done quickly, there’s a good number of different demonstrations here and David does indeed show you how subtle winter colours can be – skies are rich with reds and yellows and the buildings of a moorland farm stand out against a snowy background instead of blending into it as they would in summer.

Demonstrations done, David returns to the warmth and shelter of the studio. Here, there’s space to use stretched paper rather than a block, and not to have to worry about being able to keep hold all of your equipment while you work. There’s also time to consider composition and this becomes, for me, perhaps the most interesting section of the film. Remember that Inktense sketch? If you were watching closely, you’ll have noticed that David was already tightening up the relation of the two buildings in it. Now, he brings them together even more as a compositional unit, changes the way the foreground leads in and the background hills frame the whole thing. A previously non-existent piece of farm equipment also makes an appearance as a foil to the centre of interest and a useful splash of red to provide focus. This exercise isn’t so much about painting in winter (though that’s the subject) as about the authorial content of painting. If you wanted an essay that refutes Fox Talbot’s claim, relating to photography, that “from today painting is dead”, this would be it. You can’t do what David does in anything other than a painting. There’s no viewpoint that would give you want he presents, which isn’t a representation of the scene as it was, but of its element, its spirit. It’s a bit of a masterclass, actually, and I’d buy the film for this alone.

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How To Write About Contemporary Art || Gilda Williams

Well yes I had to, didn’t I? I mean, you can only wing it for so long and I don’t think you can call yourself a true hipster critic unless you can come up with the right phraseology. It’s all about the juxtaposition of mores in a socio-cultural ethos these days, innit? Oh, ah. First lesson: avoid jargon and poor structure.

A book such as this absolutely stands or falls on its author and, without simply typing out the back-flap bio, I can say that Gilda Williams has an impressive pedigree, having written for a variety of publications and been Commissioning Editor at Phaidon.

Here are some tips:

Avoid lists, unless for dramatic effect to emphasise variety and excess. Well, regular readers will know that lists are a staple of a lot of my reviews, but strictly for that purpose and usually limited to three items. I mentioned it, but I think I got away with it.

Organise your thoughts into complete paragraphs. Yes, good one, but isn’t that the heart of all good, clear writing? I’d say you need to tell a story and, if at all possible, have a beginning, a middle and an end.

Frankly, I could go on. The fact is that this is a thoroughly sensible and accessible guide to writing that could almost be applied to any subject. Above all, it’s well-written (phew!) and there’s a narrative thread that takes you through basic stylistic tics and tropes and on to how to approach different styles of art and writing – from the essay to op-ed journalism and the artist statement.

Every publication will, somewhere, have a style guide for contributors. This book is the nearest thing to a universal one and makes for an invaluable vade mecum that should sit in a prominent place on your bookshelf.*

* Can a vade mecum do that? Shouldn’t it be in your pocket?

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Training Days – The Subway Artists Then & Now || Henry Chalfant and Sacha Jenkins

Serendipity and the happy (or not-so-happy) accident can have remarkable and often unintended consequences that can spark major changes and movements in history.

In 1977, a power blackout in New York triggered widespread looting and fires. The spoils from the looting included large amounts of spray paint and electronic equipment. And so began street art and the rise of hip-hop. If you want to trace different origins for the growth of these two styles, this was also the year that Henry Chalfant started to photograph the subway art that had started appearing, becoming a first-hand witness to what was happening.

In 1980, a subway strike provided an opportunity for the graffiti artists to work undisturbed on stationary canvases (let’s call them) and thus the movement burgeoned. Like I said, serendipity and happy accidents.

You’re entitled to ask, “What took you so long?” This book is, after all, appearing more than thirty years after the event. That, I think, is explained by a general rediscovery of the period around the early 1980’s, reassessments of bands such as Blondie and The Ramones – what was once current affairs that come and go are just far enough off to start being history.

But let’s not cavil (he said, having cavilled). Let’s evaluate the book. Well, the first thing is that, although it includes a lot of Chalfant’s photographs, it’s not a showcase of them (see 1984’s Subway Art for that). Rather, it’s an account of the work of some dozen artists working in the medium of spray paint on, um, unofficial surfaces. This is a dynamic form and the book attempts to capture some of that, with first-hand descriptions by the artists of their backgrounds and how they work. It’s not exclusively street slang, but they are lively stories excitingly told and they span subway art from its inception to the present day.

The blurb says that the book “captures all the raw, explosive creativity of the late 70’s and early 80’s … a captivating and inspiring book for all”. And it is all that, though I suspect that, like a lot of grassroots movements, you had to be there to appreciate it fully. Nevertheless, it’s something that’s worth documenting while the voices can be recorded live and this is a thorough account that avoids the trap of being over-academic about it all.

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Winter Landscapes in Watercolour || David Bellamy

Winter, David tells us, is an ideal time for painting. The cold weather brings crisp, clear light and views are unobscured by leaves and vegetation. Long plein air sessions are not necessary and modern clothing offers enough protection for quick sketching and photographic trips. It’s also a chance to practice with colours other than the inevitable green!

The subjects covered are largely those you’d expect from David: hills, mountains, waterfalls, trees and buildings as well as people and animals. His treatments are by turns both dramatic and pacific. I’ve observed before that a calmness has crept into his work in recent years and that’s well in evidence here, even when accompanied by his trademark dramatic skies.

Structurally, the book begins in autumn and finishes in spring, so that winter itself is nicely bookended and David is able to demonstrate the subtle way that the landscape changes through the seasons, with colours muting progressively before they subdue completely and then re-emerge.

This is a timely and worthwhile book that will delight both general painters and David’s (many) fans alike. There’s a good variety of material and plenty of examples and step-by-step demonstrations.

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The Essential Cy Twombly || ed Nicola del Roscio

I’ll admit that I approached this with some trepidation. I just about get Jack the Dripper and I can appreciate Piet Mondrian, though he does make me think of those slide-the-tile puzzles, or Windows 8 (curse you, Microsoft!). Twombly though, well, it’s a big ask.

Cy Twombly ploughed his own furrow, ignored contemporary artistic trends and went un-noticed for much of his life, though he was recognised, by the time of his death in 2011 at the age of eight-three, as one of the Twentieth Century greats.

Twombly’s art is all his own and contains its own language and internal references. It is, maybe, a form of Zen, in which the viewer is invited to create their own images and responses to visual and sensual stimuli, rather than simply relying on what the artist provides. What the brain sees here is more akin to its response to music than to conventional visual art. The more you look at it, the more sense it begins to make: a bit, perhaps, like being able to discern individual words in a foreign language. To speak it fluently, though, would be the study of a lifetime. In short: I’m beginning to get it, but it hasn’t moved me yet. Cue my usual allusion to free jazz, which I totally get but which, to the general listener, usually only sounds like a fatal accident in a piano factory.

But this is The Essential Cy Twombly, so does it mean that we absolutely have to understand the man? You could argue that, if he’s as widely regarded as he is, yes, we should. Or you could say that the Emperor’s new clothes are the Emperor’s new clothes however you display them. Dismiss modern art, though, at your peril: it may be classical to you, but it’s all Greek to me, etc etc. No, this is the essence, the beating heart, of a man who produced a great number of works during a long life and whose style defies classification, maybe even description. Start to look at his work and you realise that, although it’s about as abstract as it gets and often consists of scribbles (and is mostly untitled, which doesn’t help either), every piece is more than subtly different while retaining that common and central language I referred to earlier.

Am I a convert? No. Do I want to see Twombly’s work in the flesh? Er, yes, I think I do.

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The New Colored Pencil || Kristy Ann Hutch

I’ll admit that I double-checked the publication date (it’s 2014) as most of the materials covered here have been around for a while and have been the subject of a good number of earlier books.

This doesn’t mean that this one isn’t any good, or is late to the party. In fact, having had time to consider its subject and the earlier treatments, it’s perhaps more of a considered opinion. The approach is highly practical and is based on a series of how-to’s such as Grating Pigment Over A Wet Surface, Creating a Muted Foliage Background or How to Use The Grid Method. All of these are subsections to general chapters on wax-based coloured pencils, water-soluble pencils and wax pastels as well as working with different media in combination.

I can’t say that the book offers any great new insights, but it does have a novel and accessible approach that, combined with a catholic selection of subject matter, gives it a wide appeal that may well make you think that, out of all that’s available, this is the one to buy.

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