What is Art? || Leo Tolstoy

So, when he wasn’t busy writing War and Peace (other Russian blockbusters are available), Leo Tolstoy had opinions. His one on Shakespeare wasn’t entirely complimentary.

This comes as part of a series called Designer Classics from Roads, a small publisher I confess I wasn’t previously aware of. It turns out that our Leo was quite a thinker and wrestled with the question in the title for, it says here, 15 years. A lot of things come into it, not least religion, “All history shows that the progress of humanity is accomplished not otherwise than under the guidance of religion.” I rather feel a PhD thesis, a weighty tome and possibly a TV series in the offing there. He’s not afraid of the big stuff!

As well as this, which I’ve picked pretty much at random, Tolstoy deals with that nature of taste, value and, indeed, the nature of a cultured class. This latter does rather put him in the context of his place and time; I think today we’d be rather more dismissive. Doubtless there was a chattering class in nineteenth century Russia and, if there was, they’d have chattered in French, which probably tells you everything you need to know.

I’m not going to suggest that this is an entertaining read, not because it isn’t, but because it would be to do its author and its re-publication a disservice. It is, however, an intriguing and thought-provoking one and, to quote Laurence Sterne in a quite deliberately different context, one of the best of its kind.

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Watercolour Landscapes step-by-step || Geoff Kersey, Wendy Jelbert, Arnold Lowrey, Barry Herinman, Ray Campbell Smith and Joe Francis Dowden

This is another of Search Press’s bind-ups of previous material and I’m still not sure whether I’ve reviewed it before or not – or maybe in a slightly different guise. They’ve got very good at this latterly and, rather than obvious joins where one book ends and another begins, the whole thing is now seamless.

The material may not be new, but it’s still sound and the reproduction is as fresh as it ever was, so this isn’t resurrecting a corpse but bringing excellent material to a potential new audience at a very affordable price.

As well as some technical pieces on things like perspective and composition, demonstrations from popular authors cover trees, water, snow, buildings and so on (and on). If you have other books by these authors, you’d need to check for duplication but, equally, there’s so much here, you probably won’t be getting too much cross-over.

If you only have a small library and are on a budget into the bargain, you could do a great deal worse than invest in this.

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Urban Sketching – a complete guide || Thomas Thorspecken

Well this is fun! Townscapes can be a hard sell, but this busy book records the city at work, at play and in all its moods. The author is Thor of the blog Analog Artist Digital World and he records life as it reels past his eye.

The book mainly consists of pages from his sketchbooks, with a text that explains what he’s doing and what to look for, along with useful advice on colours, as well as perspective, viewpoints and so on. There’s a lot going on on every page and Thomas also draws on the styles of other artists, designers and illustrators in the Urban Sketchers movement.

If this appeals to you, it’s also probably something you’re already doing and you may even have discovered Thomas’s work already. If you thought the city was something to escape from, think again and have a look. Whatever it is you most like to paint, the city will provide it.

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The Self-Portrait –a cultural history || James Hall

With everyone apparently pointing their mobile phone cameras at themselves, this detailed and informative overview of the history of the self-portrait is nothing if not timely.

To preserve one’s own image can seem like the acme of self-obsession, but the desire for immortality is unbounded. From Bak, sculptor to the Pharaoh Akhenaten some 1300 years BC to Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Tracey Emin, artists have painted their own likeness and told us as much about their own age as they do about themselves.

The self is an infinitely patient and cost-free model who will also bend unquestioningly to the will of the artist without making the inevitable demands of a paying sitter. The result may be flattering or revealing, but it can also reflect the mores of the times and the development of what became art movements. Just as the discovery of perspective led to recession appearing everywhere, so the mediaeval “mirror craze” led to an outbreak of self-painting. A more analytical age produced what James Hall calls the confessional works of Titian and Michelangelo and the effectively narrative work of serial self-portraitists such as Courbet and Van Gogh (who certainly couldn’t afford models).

This is a serious and scholarly work that nevertheless retains the reader’s interest and attention and is generously and thoughtfully illustrated so that, just as you’re absorbing a new point, an example pops neatly into view.

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The Power Of The Sea – Making waves in British art 1790-2014 || Janette Kerr & Christiana Payne

This is the catalogue of an exhibition at the Royal West of England Academy. However, it also stands alone and contains much useful background material that covers the history of maritime painting as well as the practical aspects of painting such subjects, what the sea means to those who commit themselves to it and even a discourse on the structure of waves.

The main meat of it is the catalogue, though, which is an excellent and representative selection of paintings that include works by Constable and Turner as well as Francis Danby, Walter Langley and John Piper from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and Kurt Jackson and Terry Setch from the contemporary section. The division into those two sections is unusual, and does rather place the emphasis on the last fourteen years, but I don’t think this detracts from the book. The exhibition, of course, flows as it does.

All of the entries are chronological, so it is possible to see styles and movements develop in front of you and there are handy label descriptions of each painting that introduce both the piece and its artist.

This is not, nor does it attempt to be, an exhaustive survey, but the entries are well-chosen and representative of the times and places they stand for. As an overview of the history of British maritime painting, it’s hard to beat.

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The Modern Flower Painter || Anna Mason

This really rather attractive book is pitched somewhere between the basic guides to flower painting and the more technical botanical illustration works. Anna Mason’s technique involves a six-stage process that starts with the highlights, which are normally in the centre of the flower, and works outwards, adding details, tints and contrasts so that shapes and depth are built up progressively while preserving the main form. There is also plenty of information on painting methods and the use of colour, but these assume a reasonable amount of basic knowledge, so that you don’t spend half the book wading through stuff you should know already.

The overall approach is busy and varied and the concentration is on the painting rather than the flowers – that’s to say, it’s about creating a work of art rather than recording a specific species. There is, however, plenty of variety (more than varieties) and examples of different flower types, shapes and colours. If you’re looking for a book that takes you on from the basics but isn’t obsessed with botanical details, this would be perfect. The demonstrations, while working within the aforementioned six-stage process, have a reasonable number of steps so that while you’re not shown every brushstroke, neither are you pitched from one completed section to another and wondering how you got there.

My only reservation is that the reproduction appears a little coarse and sometimes seems to obscure detail.

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The Duchamp Dictionary || Thomas Girst

This innovative book breaks though the academic barriers and impenetrable vocabulary of most of the writing on Duchamp and makes the artist as accessible as he deserves to be, it says here. It also adds that the book is illustrated by Luke Frost and Therese Vandling (the Heretic of the title page). Not Duchamp then, which would seem to be a major stumbling block.

It is also printed on off-white paper using blue and red ink and highlights all the (numerous) quotes from the artist himself. It’s not easy on the eye and doesn’t invite lengthy reading. However, that’s not really the point of a dictionary, which is to be used either for reference or to be dipped into. I’ve said before that I’m a great fan of serendipity and I certainly enjoy something that can be opened at random and where an initial paragraph provokes thoughts that lead to further entries and discoveries that become an end in themselves rather than a deliberate search for knowledge or elucidation.

Duchamp is, of course, most famous for the ready-made Fountain, the form and purpose of which can be argued over until the bar stops serving. Art, criticism and satire all at once, it was (and remains) a masterpiece of both direction and misdirection and evinces both seriousness and playfulness at the same time, qualities which the present work, I think, reflects rather neatly.

The idea of a dictionary, especially a Duchamp dictionary is absurd and absurdist. But it is also intriguing and you want to know what the author is up to and how he achieves whatever it is he does achieve. Entries are Quixotic and gnomic and range from the Stettenheimer sisters to food (his tastes were really quite surreal), Warhol and, inevitably, Fountain.

It’s a lot of fun and I do find myself warming to it, but I’m also sure I’d do so more if I was more of a Duchamp fan.

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