Quick Start to Watercolor Landscapes || Kenneth Hesse

Self-publishing comes with two major pitfalls: the lack of an editor and the lack of a designer. It doesn’t have to lose out on missing a proof-reader, but often does.

An editor will restrain an author’s tendency to write either too much (going into obsessive detail about unimportant matters), or too little (those frustratingly short sentences that equate to the Bake-Off technical’s “make the batter”). A designer will bring a fresh eye to the layout, have more tools than a simple word processor and make sure that illustrations are both reasonably-sized and in the right place.

The first thing to say here is that it’s pretty obvious Ken has used a word processor. The text and, for the most part the illustrations, are fixed to a two-column page. Does this matter? Well, only if you’re a reviewer, probably, although a reader might think that the information provided had better be pretty good if the pages lack visual excitement.

And now the good news. None of the above matters here. Yes, you might observe that there are a few infelicities (let’s not call them any more than that) which a proof-reader would have picked up but even I, notoriously picky about details, passed over them with no more than a wry smile.

This is not a book for the advanced watercolourist, it’s fair to say, but neither does it pretend to be. What it mainly concentrates on is the practicality of painting – the matter of using brushes and colour to get an image down on paper. That’s really the first port of call and creativity and aesthetics can come later; if you can’t handle your materials with confidence, all the best ideas in the world will remain stuck firmly in your head.

I warmed to this on page 3, where Ken gives us a list of terms and their definitions. Sure, I’m pretty confident that I know what a ferrule is and that you do too; we could also both work out that fresh paint comes newly squeezed from the tube. I’m being unfair deliberately to make a point, because having all this in one place is good and you may well find that succinct summaries of Complementary, Convenience and Local colours are a thing to treasure. In fact, having things in one place is perhaps the book’s greatest virtue. The layout may not be exciting, but Ken’s mind is extremely well-organised and information is absolutely not scattered about and hard to find. In the step-by-step demonstrations, I particularly like the chart of steps that appears at the beginning. It makes back-reference easy and I haven’t seen it elsewhere – other publishers might want to take note.

The two-column layout maybe isn’t the friend of the demonstrations as the stage illustrations are quite small. I am, however, reviewing this from a PDF, which is not my normal practice, and I’ve zoomed the pages a few times. It’s pleasing to be able to report that image quality stands that.

As for content, there’s a lot of detail, especially about techniques of application, but no over-writing and (remember what I said about designers?) everything is in the right place. Those illustrations may be somewhat small, but they’re where you want them – next to the text and on the same page. It makes the book not just easy to follow, but a pleasure to read.

So, in summary, this is a book for the new watercolourist who needs something basic and easily understandable about technique. I would honestly recommend it as a beginner’s first book for that reason alone. Easily-followed demonstrations and subjects that aren’t over-complicated are just the icing on the cake really.

This is a US private publication, available from Barnes & Noble

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What Artists Wear || Charlie Porter

When this arrived, I felt completely unqualified to have an opinion about it. Fortunately, I have a friend who is a costume designer, so what follows are her words.

Artists leave behind traces of their existence through material created that is more permanent than themselves. The average person might be able to tell you the difference between a Van Gogh and a Monet painting, but could they tell you what each artist chose to wear to his studio?

An artist’s choice of clothing can become a further stem of their practice. A great example of this was in the section on Lynn Hershman Leeson. With ‘Roberta Breitmore’ the artist’s choice of clothing became integral to creating the artwork. Her costume, wig and make-up created the character she performed as for 5 years, her choices in clothes helped form a commentary on the treatment women within 1970’s culture.

Filled with an array of artists from sculptors to performance artists mainly during the 20th century, the book takes on an impressive amount of case studies. The text is sandwiched between images of artists in their studios, offering an often intimate window into their life.

Reading as a costume designer and performance artist, at points I wished the author, Charlie Porter, made a greater distinction between an artist wearing fashion or costume.

My personal preferences meant I was most enticed mostly by Porter’s sections referring to what artists wear during a performance. However, I feel a greater separation could have been made between an artist such as Basquiat, who wore designer clothing in the process of creating his art and artists like Louise Bourgeois who wore costumes as her art. Their intentions were entirely different, and I begin to wonder if this investigation could therefore have been split into two editions: artist’s clothes / distinctive clothes worn by artists?

This subject opened up a bees-nest of artists who would fit into this surprisingly intimate investigation. Grayson Perry and Rebecca Horn immediately come to mind and could have perhaps replaced some of the dryer sections discussing Nicole Eisenman, who is a wonderful artist but perhaps wasn’t the best choice for this book. That said, provoking the desire to add artists into this investigation suggests how rich the subject is.

The focus on what artists decide to wear daily and in performance art proves to be a window into the wider culture their art is born into. It situates where they fit or more commonly, resist pressure to comply with their contemporaries.

JD

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Women in Abstraction || edited by Christine Macel and Karolina Lewandowska

You could, I suspect, be forgiven for expressing surprise at the extent of this very thorough look at abstract art as created purely by women. You might also assume that being selective in this way would restrict the coverage. Are there not styles and movements that are overlooked? Well, no, just about everything you’d expect is included as well as a full range of painting, sculpture, installations and performance pieces. As a survey and history of abstract art the book stands as something as complete as you could wish.

Unless you are a specialist, many of the names will probably be unfamiliar, but one stands out and tells the usual tale. Yes, Elaine de Kooning was married to Willem, of whom you have undoubtedly heard. She was taught by Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller and her subjects included Ornette Coleman, Pelé and John F Kennedy, of whom she was commissioned to produce an official portrait. If her reputation has been eclipsed by that of her husband (as so often happens, even if not deliberately), she had an extensive career in her own right. I particularly like her remark, quoted here: “To me, all art is self-portraits”. That’s one I shall reflect on for some time to come.

As well as examples from and short essays about 112 artists (yes, that many) there are further pieces that analyse wider aspects of the subject. Of particular interest is the piece about the roles of Hilda Rebay and Peggy Guggenheim, founders of major collections in what was then an absolutely male-dominated world.

One has to be wary of describing books as ground-breaking, because the truth is they are usually built on work that has gone before and ride a rising tide. This is, however, a major contribution to art history in general and a neglected corner (if that’s the right word) in particular.

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The Joy of Modern Calligraphy || Joyce Lee

This is nothing if not elaborately presented. A hard case with an elastic closure opens to reveal a beautifully produced paperback book and an envelope of practice sheets that contain outlines for basic letterforms. The same script is used throughout and is not, I think, one of the classic ones, but is still a pleasant sloping variant of Copperplate.

Calligraphy being about appearance, at least today, this elaborateness has a place, but you may also feel that there is a slight tendency for form to overtake substance. This is not, it should be said, a book about calligraphy as a complete subject. Rather, it is a guide, perhaps better, a list of suggestions for projects such as the inevitable – and obvious – invitations. What you may find useful are the extended guides to forming letters and the practice sheets for these. These exercises occupy a large portion of the book and are among the most thorough I have seen. If this is what you want (and I suspect a lot of people will), then they would justify the price of the book by themselves.

However, if you were looking for a guide to other calligraphic hands, or more extended projects, this is perhaps not the book for you. It’s very well done, beautifully presented and well laid out, but does have its limitations.

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The Book of The Raven || Angus Hyland & Caroline Roberts

Ever since this arrived, it has been sitting on my desk, as opposed to being consigned to the “must get round to that” pile. It has several page markers in it, including the delivery note for an obscure book about the fishing industry (my reading is nothing if not eclectic), a reminder to complete my tax return and details of how to pay my electricity bill. So much of it captures the imagination that you’ll mark the pages with anything that comes to hand. Probably best not to be eating a bacon sandwich.

It helps, of course, to be a bit of a birdwatcher and a particular fan of Corvids (the book includes the whole family, despite the headline title) and of inking. Although colour is anything but absent from these pages, crows, ravens and rooks are black as ink and therefore a challenge to the artist.

The approach is the same as The Book of The Tree, in which Angus Hyland was also involved and I sense a theme, possibly a series here. There are well chosen illustrations in a variety of styles from a variety of artists, as well as history, natural history, legend and lore. Of course the Mad Hatter’s riddle is included: Why is a raven like a writing desk? Carroll’s own explanation makes no sense which, knowing Carroll, I suspect is deliberate. But why not “Because they both have quills as black as ink”?

What can I say? I absolutely love this. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but the choice of material, production and format are pitch-perfect if it’s yours.

The back cover quotes Edgar Allen Poe: “Darkness there and nothing more”. Oh, there’s a lot more, mate.

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Sketching Perspective || Ilga Leimanis

This not unattractive guide is either a visual feast or an assault on the senses, depending on your point of view. You might even say it’s both, and like it all the more for that.

Books on perspective usually fall into one of two camps: technical drawing manuals, or attempts to teach the subject without any technicality at all. The former can be daunting, especially for the general artist and the latter as frustrating as a language course that pretends that grammar doesn’t exist.

Perspective is part of the grammar of art, as much as colour and colour mixing or the techniques for application of materials. It’s a thing you have to get to grips with, but also something a lot of people are afraid of, but as necessary as declension of nouns or conjugation of verbs.

Ilga is an urban sketcher, so perspective is central to her craft. She also, as is common with the genre, works quickly and loosely, so you won’t find architectural or measured drawings here, and hooray for that. It does mean that you get what I referred to at the beginning – the visual feast or assault on the senses. However, it also means that, where there are lines and diagrams (you know you need them really), they’re organic and mostly freehand, which makes them a lot more friendly and approachable. There’s also quite a lot of text, but it’s largely there to explain the images rather than a lot of theory to read, so hooray for that too.

What mainly sets this apart from other books on perspective is the way Ilga uses the technique in very fluid drawings that capture character as much as appearance. Only you can decide whether this works for you but, if it does, it should be rather successful.

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Painting The Mountain Landscape || Eileen Clark

Books on oil painting are relatively thin on the ground and many of them are a lot more general than this. You are therefore likely to approach it with high expectations and it is a pleasure to be able to report that it should certainly meet, perhaps even exceed them.

Eileen demonstrates a wide variety of work in many lighting and weather conditions. She also looks at details such as trees, waterfalls and wildlife on top of skies, mists and larger expanses of water. It is worth saying that she is based in the Lake District, so has all this on her doorstep to work with.

As is Crowood’s normal approach, there is quite a lot of discussion and analysis, but large and intimidating blocks of text have been avoided and at no point does the book give the appearance of being unmanageable. This may seem like a detail, but I’ve always felt it’s important in a visual medium – you want to see what’s going on, not be told. For all that, an explanation of the hows and whys can be extremely valuable and something you’d certainly expect in a painting film.

The reproduction is superb, even the full-page images, and details, brushwork and canvas textures are easily visible. The way Eileen works, you will want to look closely and this is possible in every image.

This really is the most thorough guide to painting mountains in oils and very well done indeed on all counts.

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Painting Like The Impressionists || Bruce Yardley

Back in the days of the atelier method, students (apprentices) worked in the studio of a master, initially grinding and mixing colours and preparing canvases before being allowed to work on backgrounds and eventually completing works to which the great man perhaps only added a couple of brushstrokes. The point is that you can learn a lot about the craft of painting by studying what has gone before and immersing yourself in the background business.

The Impressionists were a breath of fresh air in the world of art, though it was seen as more of a cold blast at the time and their influence is felt to the present day. Almost any tutor will tell you to work loosely, almost as if there’s no other way.

The great work on the subject, from the practical point of view, is Bernard Dunstan’s Painting Methods of The Impressionists, but that appeared some forty years ago and is mostly illustrated in black and white. We’re due another look. It’s pleasing, therefore, to be able to report that this is excellent and a worthy successor to Dunstan’s oeuvre. Bruce Yardley examines in considerable detail not just the way the Impressionists worked, but how they looked, saw and interpreted, which is after all the heart of their vision. We accept, indeed now expect, that the viewer will do a lot of the work and that the artist is a guide rather than an instructor. To an extent, it’s a reaction to the realism of photography and a way that art can re-invent itself to exist alongside that.

There’s a great deal to get into here, both visually and verbally, and this is a book to read rather than keep open beside the easel, even though there are exercises and demonstrations; you can work on these later.

If you want to have a go at being an Impressionist yourself, Bruce provides plenty of information about original brushes, paints and canvases and explains where they can still be obtained. I’m not sure that looking backward like this is either necessary or desirable, but it might be a fun exercise, for all that.

If you love and want to understand the Impressionists, this is a very thorough guide.

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Painting Buildings in Oils || James Willis

Books on single subjects in oils are rare, but here are two at once, with Crowood also publishing Eileen Clark’s on mountains.

The approach here is broadly similar, with plenty of discussion and examples accompanied by some short demonstrations. There is a good variety of both subject matter and painting styles. James’s own work is relatively loose so, if you don’t want to be carefully working on every brick, heave a sigh of relief right here. Building types range from domestic to grand structures, both at home and around the world and there are useful chapters on sketching, perspective, colour and light.

This is a book that takes its readers as well as its subject seriously and, although there is the obligatory chapter on materials and equipment, it is by no means over-long and you’re quickly into the meat of painting, which is what you want. There’s nothing wrong in assuming that your readers have a level of competence gained from classes, experience or other books and then simply concentrating on the subject in hand, which James does with admirable thoroughness.

There are plenty of illustrations and the reproduction throughout is generally good, although a few of the images are softer that I would ideally like. Fortunately, James’s style is such that this does not render them unusable and you should feel that you have been well-served overall on this front.

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Napoleon’s Plunder and the theft of Veronese’s Feast || Cynthia Saltzman

At the heart of this story, and this book, is the Louvre. It also raises the vexed question of art appropriation and of collections generally.

Napoleon, the Emperor, was widely admired but also feared. His armies swept through Europe and his defeated enemies were required to hand over their most valuable works of art. This was not indiscriminate and, as Cynthia Saltzman explains, the process was done with taste – the commissioners, as we might call them, knew what they wanted and what they were going to do with it. France, with the great man at its head, would become the artistic as well as political capital of Europe and the envy of the world (although that, at the time, mostly meant Europe).

Great taste there may have been, and the artworks may have been valued and cared for, but there was also vandalism. The piece at the centre of this comprehensive account is Paolo Veronese’s Wedding Feast At Cana, literally torn from the walls of the monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore. Now unframed, the massive work was rolled up for transport. Elaborate art packing cases were unheard of in those days.

Stealing – there’s really no other word for it – a nation’s artistic treasures is to steal its creative heart and demoralise its people. Conquerors throughout history have known this and the elephant in the room is the Third Reich’s Twentieth Century appropriation campaign. That this only gets a mention in the epilogue here is not inappropriate because it’s a whole different piece of history and a tale in its own right. What is worth mentioning is that there was already a fear that Napoleon’s plunder would be eyed up for repatriation by its original owners – you steal my paintings, I’ll steal them back and have some of yours as well.

This is an engaging but thorough account that reads like a whodunit, as good history for the general reader should. It is a wider tale than the subtitle implies, but Saltzman rightly puts a painting that Ruskin said “always makes me feel as if an archangel had come down into the room, and were working before my very eyes” at its heart. Sometimes, the wider perspective is best seen from a central position.

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