DVD Watercolor In The Wild || James Gurney

I really can’t praise this enough. Let me enumerate:

For a start, James has what, as far as I know, is a unique viewpoint. Using an ingenious rig, he provides an artist’s-eye viewpoint as he works. Rather than getting oblique angles where the light isn’t quite right, or over-the-shoulder shots that don’t reveal quite enough detail, what you see is what he sees, and it’s as if you’re completing the demonstration yourself. The sense of immediacy is stunning and so is the clarity.

Then there’s the material and equipment section. I know, yada yada, these are my paints, here are some brushes and I have these pencils. But James has reduced things down to a watercolour kit that can be carried in a belt bag and go literally anywhere – even a theatre, he claims. He’s clearly a bit of an inventor because, as well as the camera rig, he’s also made up a magnetic water jar that attaches to his paintbox. Now you never have to wonder where exactly to put it. For longer trips where a car is available, there’s a larger backpack that includes a camera tripod that doubles as an easel, and a folding stool.

I’m mentioning all this because I sat, utterly absorbed, through the whole section without ever touching the fast forward button. Never done that before. The added fact is that James is one of the most engaging presenters you ever came across. His approach isn’t didactic or prescriptive. There’s no “you have to do it this way” or “my way’s best”. He simply describes what he’s doing – it’s always in the present tense and always what you’re looking at – and allows you to make up your own mind whether you like it or not. He’s warm and inclusive. Apart from watching this film, I’ve exchanged half a dozen emails with him and he’s my new best friend.

OK, so James can make a film, put some kit together and talk the talk, but can he paint? Oh yes, and his approach is very interesting. For a start, he allows himself about an hour for a painting. Each demonstration here – there are six, covering buildings, animals, people and landscapes – is edited down to about fifteen minutes and covers all the important bits without leaving you thinking, “hang on, what did he do just then?”. He begins, conventionally enough, with a pencil drawing, but then spends the next thirty to forty minutes putting in tones, values and shading. With a quarter of an hour or less to go, he gets to the detail. That’s not enough, surely? No, not for fine detail, but the point is he’s working on very solid foundations: the subject has structure and substance and he doesn’t paint the detail at all, just suggests what the viewer should be seeing so that they create the finer stuff for themselves. It’s very subtle and, although not unique in itself, certainly unusual in combination with so much preparatory work.

The exception to the one hour approach is a painting of a sleeping foal. Young animals are rarely still and only for short periods and this one is no exception. A large chunk of this section is taken up with watching the creature running round, interacting with its mother and eating. Finally, it needs a nap and we get to work. The point of this demonstration is to show how you can capture the essence of a subject if you’ve already understood it before you lift a brush. I like the fact that, once again, James doesn’t tell you this, but shows you.

This is an exceptional piece of work and amazingly good value. I’ll leave you with one quote. Paraphrasing Goethe, James says, “The dangers of watercolour are infinite and safety is one of the dangers.” Hell of an aphorism that, and the more you think about it, the more it means.

Available as a digital download from:
https://gumroad.com/l/watercolor – $15, credit card payment
https://sellfy.com/p/Pvxb/ – $14.99, PayPal only
There is also a shrink-wrapped DVD, but it’s NTSC format and possibly also Region 1. I could get it to play, but without sound.

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Tessa Newcomb’s Paris

This is an intriguing little book. Let me expand on that. Firstly, it is a little book and has the feeling of a slim volume of poetry (more on that later). Also, it turns out that Tessa Newcomb lives in Suffolk and is an occasional visitor to Paris, not a native. That’s interesting because this isn’t a collection of the grand vistas and famous landmarks that you’d expect from an outsider, but rather the intimate corners that you’d think had come from an insider. The form is also a reflection of the function – the small size follows the nature of the images – market stalls, street corners, quiet cafés. Figures, when they appear, often have their backs to the viewer and are going about their daily business.

I referred to poetry at the beginning and, in his introduction, the critic Philip Vann quotes Hope Mirrlees’ 1919 poem, Paris: “Little funny things ceaselessly happening.” The book also includes prose observations from Tessa Newcomb herself that complement and illuminate the illustrations – these short pieces have a poetic quality in themselves. In what is a gift to students of English literature, the poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti described the sonnet as, “a moment’s monument” and that’s pretty much what we have here.

This is a charming book. It has the objectivity of the outsider, but combined with the amused affection of the habitué, and forms a lively commentary on life not just in Paris but in cities in general.

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South West Academy – Art – People – Place || Michael Carter

When you see that something was founded “at the turn of the century”, the immediate reaction is to think, “wow, that’s quite old”. In this case, it’s the turn of the 21st century, though even that’s quite a while ago now.

The blurb tells us that the members of the South West Academy “follow in the footsteps of those celebrated groups who, while lacking formal structure, joined together for the purposes of mutual support and fellowship.” It then goes on to attempt a coupling with the Newlyn and St Ives Schools which, I would venture to suggest, had rather more of an artistic cohesion than is evident here.

I’m being more than a little unfair, as this is a nicely-produced survey of a group of more or less disparate artists who are, however, united by a geographical location.

The members of the group are certainly a varied lot – representational and abstract painters, illustrators, sculptors and photographers. Michael Carter, who has compiled the book, is one of these latter and provides the biographies and rather excellent photographic portraits.

This is a pleasant book to handle and includes a rather delightfully eclectic mix of styles and subjects. If I was a little hard on it at the beginning, that was perhaps because it (or its publisher) tries a tad too hard to present it as more of a unity than it is. To do otherwise would be a hard sell, but I’m happy just to let it run and to enjoy it for itself.

South West Academy: Art-People-Place

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Painting Nature in Watercolour || Cathy Johnson

I’ll be honest, I’m not sure whether this is a completely new book or a re-working of material from some of the author’s previous works. However, it has a fresh look and feel to it, so I’m going to review it on the basis that it’s all new.

It’s a rather wonderful portmanteau of just about everything the natural world can throw at us, from vegetation to animals and even people by way of skies and clouds and land- and waterscapes. As well as subject matter, it also takes in techniques, both in pure watercolour and in mixed media with watercolour pencils.

Cathy’s style is loose and relaxed and very much to the painterly taste. Although this is an American book and you therefore get species which are specific to another continent, the differences are not intrusive and many (in fact, most) of the paintings are sufficiently generic that they have no specific place.

I could say that the modelling, particularly of some of the creatures, isn’t always completely perfect, but it always does its job and simply turning the pages of this really rather enjoyable book is going to make you feel good and want to get down to work.

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Painting Boats & Harbours in Watercolour || Terry Harrison

This straightforward guide is full of Terry’s trademark no-nonsense instruction that’s made him the popular teacher and demonstrator that he is. It also sticks nicely to its brief and contains almost nothing except the subject matter of the title – extraneous details that only serve to complicate the scene and how to paint it are ignored. Even the section on “boatyard clutter” is arranged so that, while the boatyard may be cluttered, the painting isn’t. As a result, apart from a course in maritime subjects, you also get a bit of a masterclass in simplification.

After an introduction to materials, using colour and working from photographs, you’re straight into a simple exercise in getting boat shapes right. This is important as craft sit on the water and mistakes here can make them look all-to-ready to capsize. From there, it’s a simple scene with a small cutter resting in calm waters. This is followed by some reflections and then a few ripples. It all builds up progressively and it’s not long before you’re ready to start tackling rigging.

The bulk of the book is a series of demonstrations – some of simple subjects like jetties and some more complex, but always building on the skills you have and adding more as you go along. Boats and water don’t need to be difficult, as Terry shows, and he blows away a great deal of the mystique that surrounds the subject and he makes it readily accessible in the process.

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Mary Fedden – enigmas and variations || Christopher Andreae

I can’t do better than echo what the RA magazine said about this: “this book is a delight.” I would also say that a serious look at the work of Mary Fedden, who died in 2012, is timely, but the fact is that this is a paperback reissue, the book having first appeared in 2007. It’s appropriate that it should be available again, though.

Fedden was, of course, mostly known as a painter of still lifes, but she also experimented widely in a variety of media, and fantasy and imagination played a strong role, particularly in her small gouaches. She also exhibited a surreal streak and, sometimes, a sharp sense of humour. All of this is apparent not only in the over 200 colour plates, but also in the text, which recounts her life and her progression as an artist as well as analysing the nature and structure of her work. Christopher Andreae has worked closely not only with Mary Fedden, but also with her friends and colleagues – an impressive number are acknowledged, to make this a fully-rounded portrait of a much-loved artist.

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Lynn Chadwick || Michael Bird

Lynn Chadwick’s reputation took off after he won the International Prize for Sculpture at the 1956 Venice Biennale. Initially working with hand-forged iron, his favoured material turned, during the course of 1953, to sheaves of mild steel rods. Of his working process, he said, “a single weld may take an hour or more on a big thing, and you’re wringing wet at the end.”

Sculpture is always an intensely physical activity and brings the artist into greater contact with their material than many others, but this generation of workers was perhaps the most constructional there has been. This being the era of the Cold War, there was maybe a sense of both a plane of existence to preserve as well as a way of being to fight against and their pieces are never comfortable. The phrase, “forged in the white heat” is perhaps apposite.

This is a book which might well not have pleased Chadwick. Hostile to attempts to intellectualise art in general and his own work in particular, he maintained that “you improvise as you go along”, claiming to have no preconceived idea when a work started, how it was going to finish. Such statements can often be disingenuous. An artist may well not have a fixed idea of where a piece is going to finish, but they know their own working methods and which paths, when there is a branch in the road, they are likely to take. Even if they don’t have determined finishing point, they will generally have a starting one, even if it is only a state of mind. Disallowing the analysis of others is as often a way of preserving their own intellectual processes as it is of not wishing to see them diverted by others and having to argue with an outside assessment.

This substantial and well-written book is a thorough account of Chadwick’s working life and is comprehensively illustrated, his pieces being shown in studio as well as landscape settings. There are also personal photographs showing the artist both at work and relaxing.

Finally, did you want a justification of abstract sculpture? Try: “If you’re trying to make a thing like something else, it’s limiting.”

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