The Pursuit of Art || Martin Gayford

There’s a delicious archness to the title of this entertaining book that isn’t apparent from merely knowing what it is – in fact, it could be self-defeating, as it suggests a rather worthy tome dedicated to the labour of Being An Artist.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, of course this is about the creative mind and its processes and, yes, you’d want to read it on that basis because … well … Martin Gayford. It is also, however, the story of his travels in search of art and artists. These, it turns out (should we be surprised?) do not simply involved rocking up at the studio door and being welcomed with open arms. Not all artists live conveniently close to a bus stop, train station or car park and some pieces, such as Brancusi’s Endless Column necessitate a hair-raising journey through a mountain pass and on roads that have partly washed away. The job of the critic doesn’t just involve sitting behind a typewriter and trashing reputations (that’s the reviewer’s job – ed).

So, this is a personal account of tracking down artist and artworks, of planned meetings and chance encounters. Sometimes, it’s a bit like climbing a mountain to seek out a shaman in search of wisdom and then discovering that there was no great revelation and that the effort itself was the enlightenment.

Writing about art is a serious business and can all too easily disappear up its own fundament. This, then, is a breath of fresh air and an indication that even the greatest writers don’t always take themselves entirely seriously. It would be so simple, writing about difficult journeys, to chronicle every twist, turn and impediment, but Gayford is too smart and too good a writer for that. The sense of distance and effort is there, but the passage of time is often only hinted at – a passing reference to a meal, for instance, can indicate that we are several hours on. As Gayford himself concludes, “The pursuit of art is a journey that never stops; the more you see, the more you want to see”.

After I’d sampled this for the purposes of a review, I kept going back to it and it eventually made it to my bedside table. It really is a thumping good read.

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The Paint Pad Artist: Coastal Landscapes || Charles Evans

I dealt with the mechanics of this new series in the introductory review, so this is a look just at one particular volume.

Charles Evans is an experienced and popular demonstrator who is ideally suited to this introduction to painting coastal scenes. Each of the six demonstrations introduces a new topic or technique, such as drawing out colour to create clouds, capturing reflections, using a rigger to create trees and working with stormy skies and seas.

There’s plenty of variety, but nothing is too taxing and the beginner will feel at home quickly, producing worthwhile results that can only encourage further work.

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The Golden Age of Dutch and Flemish Painting || Norbert Wolf

A very long time ago, a remainder dealer managed to convince me that a book he was flogging called Florentine Art Treasures would be a perfect fit for my market. It was a hasty paste-up job, not very well reproduced, but it was large format and did contain a lot of illustrations for the relatively modest sum he was charging. In my defence I was young, rather naïve and a bit of a sitting duck. No, we didn’t manage to sell more than a small handful.

Some years later, reminiscing with another bookseller, we started talking about that dealer and my friend asked, “Did he try to sell you Florentine Art Treasures?” I admitted the truth. The story was, apparently, that the dealer used to drive around London with a box of the cursed things in the boot of his Rolls Royce (yes, it’s possible to make money out of bookselling, but you have to be sharp as a razor) on the off-chance that someone would run into him and he could offload a couple of dozen onto the insurance.

All of which preamble is a way of saying that large books of art treasures and I have a chequered history and that my view of them may be just a touch jaundiced.

This is a big book – I mean, really big. If you want your own private art gallery on your coffee table (it’s not something to sit with in your lap for long), this will give you one of the best collections of Lowlands art it’s possible to have. No more peering into tight spines or at really-too-small reproductions, the illustrations here are as near to being in a gallery as you’re going to get. There is also a good narrative of the history of the times and critical analysis of schools and artists. Rather handily, several of the major works are set alongside comparison pieces by other artists that treat the same subject or use similar compositions.

Excellent though this is, the reproduction does seem a trifle soft in places and you might find yourself struggling to see some of the detail. This doesn’t impose, though, and may be something you only really notice when you start looking really closely. It’s a shame, but sometimes publishers are restricted by the quality of the photographs they can get (high-resolution scanning is not generally available for priceless paintings in public collections). For all that, if I was going to part with a whisker under £100 for a book, I might expect it to be the acme of perfection.

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The 15-Minute Artist || Catherine V Holmes

Can you? Really? Should you? I’m no fan of the art-if-you-have-no-time school of book, which this proclaims itself to be. On the other hand, something that teaches you to get an image down quickly, without fiddling, while the idea is fresh in your mind and before it gets up and goes off for its lunch, I don’t have a problem with that.

So, let’s pretend, for all its protestation, that this is one of the latter. The idea of reducing the steps of drawing a wide range of subjects to a few simple stages can be liberating and enlightening, although it can also frustrate if the step reduction is achieved simply by leaving a lot out. Although there’s a tendency to do that here, the steps that are included do actually progress nicely and I don’t think you’d be too bothered by having to make giant leaps completely on your own.

The subjects chosen are, frankly, a bit weird. There’s a lightbulb, a paintbrush, a serpent and an ant. Yeah, me too, though there are also some animals and birds and what you get taught does handle what are often complex shapes rather well. The author’s style is a bit flat and unadventurous, but that also makes the book easy to follow and is, I think, one of the reasons the truncated demonstrations are easy to follow – neither of you is trying to do too much at once.

I can’t honestly say this is a must-have book but, if you want an introduction that doesn’t ask you to spend hours on a single drawing and doesn’t tax your skills too much too early, it could be quite useful.

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Take 3 Colours – Watercolour Lakes & Rivers || Stephen Coates

Take 3 Colours is a brilliantly simple idea that’s been brilliantly presented. All of the authors so far have understood the brief impeccably and Stephen Coates is no exception.

The strapline is “3 colours, 3 brushes, 9 easy projects” and it’s not just a superb way to get started with painting, but also an approach that strips your technique back to essentials if you’re feeling it’s got just too complicated and that you may be over-working.

Don’t expect great works, but do prepare to be surprised at just how much variety you can get and how many subjects you can work with in this way. My only reservation in this particular volume is the overall impression of ochre. With base colours of Light Red, Raw Sienna and Ultramarine, this might perhaps be expected, but other volumes have managed to provide a somehow brighter appearance and the lack of a good green from the mix shows. It’s a shame as the results and explanations are excellent.

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Rosie Sanders’ Roses

Let’s be clear what this is not. It is not a book about painting roses. However, if you love flowers in general – and roses in particular – it’s likely to be high on your shopping list. If you’re here, it’s because you’re interested in art and it ticks those boxes too. These are stunning paintings and a joy to look at. The large format and excellent reproduction make this easily possible and, even though this is not instructional, it’s likely you could learn a lot simply from its example.

It’s a big book, but not an unmanageable one and the sheer scale of the illustrations hits you squarely in the eye. If you like images that dominate and leap out at you, this will be a delight. It’s a bit like the contrast between seeing a film at the cinema and on television – one is just there, the other has to be peered at.

As well as the images, there’s a nice introduction that looks at the rose in history, religion, medicine and myth. As much as the main matter of the book isn’t about how to paint, neither is this for the horticultural specialist – the whole thing is aimed squarely at the interested general reader. While I had this in the office awaiting review, I lent it to a friend who’s a keen gardener and she absolutely covets it. That’s the effect it has.

Where I do have an issue is with the handwritten captions. The writing hand isn’t the easiest thing to read and the fact that the publisher has chosen to reproduce it halftone (ie in the four process colours of printing, broken down into dots) rather than line (solid black) does nothing to improve this. Yes, it’s a small quibble, but there are quite a lot of these captions and it adds a degree of difficulty to what is otherwise an effortless book.

For all that, it’s a stunning piece of work and one well worth more than a passing glance.

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Ready to Paint in 30 Minutes – Boats & Harbours in Watercolour || Charles Evans

The re-imagining of the Ready to Paint series continues apace and continues to impress.

Charles Evans offers a good variety of subject matter and stylistic approaches through 33 step-by-step projects along with useful exercises, hints and tips. The book has a clear progression and feels busy without being confusing and there is an overall sense that you’re getting a lot for your money.

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