DVD Greg Allen’s Watercolour Techniques

You can’t help but warm to this from the start. “Isn’t watercolour fun?” are Greg’s first words as the introductory scenes roll past. Well, yes, it can be, and it certainly is in the hands of this competent and entertaining demonstrator.

Greg has a clear understanding of the processes of watercolour painting and he also has a way of simplifying them and then explaining them coherently. He begins with his “three effects” theory. Well, it’s more than a theory, as he demonstrates how marks vary depending on how much water you have on wet, damp and dry paper. So far, so fairly conventional, but he goes further and shows how these (and just these) can be used to capture any shape. Lay a wet wash and let it run from heavy to light down the paper. It’s a sky. Turn it on its side, add defining lines and it’s a cylinder, which he rather magically turns into a tree. Back in the day, he’d have been hiding from the witchfinders!

Greg is also a versatile painter and the film includes no fewer than five demonstrations including a riverside scene, a complex boatbuilder’s shed and a portrait so lifelike you expect it to speak. His style is loose and he uses shading and colour (words that recur again and again throughout the film) to convey shape and substance. As so often happens, these aren’t always the colours you’d expect and it’s the juxtaposition and contrast rather than exact copying that convey the subject.

There’s another phrase that crops up: “If I can’t see it, I can’t paint it.” On the surface, that seems obvious, but what Greg means is that he needs to be able to see how a scene, or an element of one, translates into his three effects and how colours, and especially shadows, work.

At the end of the film, there’s a fascinating short section in which Greg explains how he has added finishing touches to each of the demonstration paintings back in the studio, changing lighting, adding or removing detail and muting or brightening colours. Even though the process isn’t shown, the explanations are so clear that you really don’t get left wanting more and I actually think making this longer could have been dull and mechanical.

This is a hugely entertaining and informative piece that perfectly captures Greg’s enthusiasm for a medium that certainly can be fun.

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Wendy Tait’s Watercolour Flowers || Wendy Tait

Well, can you guess what it is yet? If ever a book relied on your liking the author, this is it. Wendy does, of course, have an excellent reputation and track record in this area, so it’s probably a safe bet. At the very least, you’re going to open it and have a look.

So, what do you get? Well, a pretty thorough guide to flower painting, mainly at the impressionistic end of the scale – this isn’t botanical illustration, and you may heave a sigh of relief at that. Wendy’s flowers are not specimens, are usually in groups, sometimes mixed and often in context – if not a garden, then at least with some kind of setting. Section heads, picked at random from the demonstrations, include Developing The Foreground, Creating Supporting Areas and Balancing The Image and there’s barely anything on (say) details of petals. If this is your sort of flower painting, stop reading and buy the book now.

The subtitle is Fresh, effective and imaginative techniques and I wouldn’t disagree with that summary. It’s a comprehensive guide and full of ideas, techniques and inspiration.

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Watercolours Unleashed || Jane Betteridge

This is one of those unfortunate titles that tells you very little about the content of the book, yet is almost impossible to think of an alternative for. If you’re not familiar with Jane’s work, you’re going to be a little nonplussed. It’s tempting to class it as mixed-media, but it’s not exactly that, because what she works with are mainly water-based media, though with quite a lot of ink thrown (almost literally) in.

The results are, I think, a bit Marmite; you’re either going to love them or hate them, though you should find them intriguing. Personally, I admire her experimentation and, when it works, it’s superb and unmatched. Sometimes, I’m not so sure. I do like the book, though. I think it’s honest, and prepared to take risks. I also don’t get the sense of this being the more successful tip of an iceberg of failed attempts piling up round the artist’s feet. If you like the idea of the watercolour version of taking a line for a walk, give this a look. If it does nothing else, it’ll stimulate your own experimental juices and get you going off on a track of your own.

The Society For All Artists (www.saa.co.uk) has produced a DVD to accompany the book. This is worth seeking out as it gives you a chance to see Jane in action, mainly with inks, and adds a sense of the dynamism that the printed page doesn’t quite convey.

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The Painting Workbook || Alena Hennessy

The strapline for this is “How to get started and stay inspired”, which suggests that it might be a manual for the beginner. While there is a short materials and techniques section at the beginning, it’s shorter than many and couldn’t, even at a stretch, be described as any kind of primer for someone starting out. However, although it’s what it implies to me, it’s also possible that what’s meant is that the book aims to provide a way of getting over creative block, that “getting started” is about the tyranny of the blank page. To be honest, I’m not sure.

To be fair (which we should be, if we’re also going to be honest), this is an original idea and the main meat of the book is the 52 Project Prompts that the front cover also promises. These are not, except for a small number of instances, worked exercises, merely ideas such as Wash & Drip, Masking Technique or Earth & Sky. Each has a short introductory paragraph and selection of illustrations that you can build on or riff off. No, it’s not earth-shattering, but it’s different (fewer words and more pictures) and it really does make you think.

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Sonia Lawson: passions and alarms || Nicholas Usherwood

Sonia Lawson is a largely figurative artist whose work defiantly refuses to be categorised. Just when you think you’ve got a bead on a theme or a thread, it veers off in a completely new direction and escapes being pinned down. Single figures and small groups – some of them almost conventional portraits – can being going about their allotted tasks seemingly unaware of the viewer’s attention, while something like Grieving Women may demand a response or even intervention.

This is a largely chronological survey of Lawson’s work from the 1950’s to the present day and presents a comprehensible and readable account of her life, both artistic and quotidian. It follows her early semi-abstract work through what may be called works-as-witness, a darker period which records injustices – the works that demand a response from the viewer – and on to her current “compressions”. These are a return to abstractionism where layers of paint become like “vegetation becoming coal, a tough, simple parcel packed with pent-up energy.”

Sonia Lawson’s work is never easy and frequently disturbing, seeking to challenge the viewer and posing more questions than answers. Nicholas Usherwood does not attempt to provide these, rather he guides the reader through what can be a maze so that they may be able to provide some of their own.

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Reservoir: sketchbooks and selected works || Alice Maher

I’ve remarked previously that looking at an artist’s sketchbook is a view into their most intimate thoughts and not unlike rummaging through their underwear drawer. It’s not something you’d do uninvited and, even then, it can feel more than a little uncomfortable. As Alice herself says, “Sketchbooks are freewheeling workshops of the mind”. Sketches are not finished works, maybe not even fully-formed ideas but rather a stream-of-consciousness that reveals, often deliberately, the artist’s state of mind and innermost thoughts. Kept for private use, this is fine, desirable even, as it allows those same emotions to be picked up again when it comes to more formal work. When the viewer is allowed in, though, it becomes an unweeded garden.

Whitney Chadwick, an art historian specialising in surrealism, contemporary art and gender issues, says as much rather more succinctly in her introduction, while at the same time expanding on the themes of the book and drawing a parable between form – the graphic line – and function and content. Alice says that a sketchbook is “a process of letting ideas flow back and forth … a vortex out of which comes the beginning of an artwork.”

I suspect that this book is going to mean a lot more to you if you’re more familiar with Alice Maher’s work than I am. You may then be able to see the germs that became major works, and how themes have developed. As such, it would be a glossary on an oeuvre rather than a piece in its own right – which is rather as it should be. However, as a standalone, what it lacks more than anything else is a commentary. The introductions are useful, informative even, but they’re short and pretty much say the same things as you can say about any sketchbook without even looking at it. What you don’t get is any very clear idea of what the ideas and themes are that are being explored There are some handwritten philosophical musings, though these are not the easiest read, especially on a heavily-coloured background and don’t, so far as I can tell, relate to the drawings, being rather an occasional verbal- rather than visualisation.

I’m conscious of missing something here and if you want to tell me that’s the main body of Alice’s work, I wouldn’t disagree. It does, I feel, limit the appeal of the book. If you know the corpus and this illuminates it for you, then it would be one of the most valuable books you own. Equally, though, it could tell you nothing at all, other than that the artist works raw material up into finished pieces. I simply don’t know the answer to than one.

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Plant Portraits by Post || Julia Trickey

This rather beautiful little book tells the story of the creation of a series of botanical illustrations that were used on Royal Mail’s self-service Post and Go stamps.

Although it stands alone as a guide to the development of clear botanical images, and can be read as a useful guide to that in itself, the fact that the results were to be reproduced at relatively low resolution and small size adds an extra dimension. What you see here as full-page images would be seen by the public at postage-stamp size. Detail therefore needs to be clear and kept to a minimum without compromising the quality of the picture or obscuring the nature of the subject.

The results are beautiful and subtle and the accompanying narrative, which describes both the plants and the painting process, is both instructive and absorbing. On the basis of this, I hope someone will sign Julia up for a larger book.

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