DVD The Passionate Painter in Havana Part 2 || Alvaro Castagnet

In the second part of his Cuban adventure, Alvaro turns his attention to the people of its capital city and its vibrant street life.

Much has happened since the first instalment and the rapprochement with the US means that the island’s days of crumbling glory are surely numbered. If this is something that appeals, visit now, or maybe buy these films as a fitting memorial. If you’re a Cuban, however, you might think that much-repaired 1950’s automobiles and flaking stucco are a high price to pay for a romantic dream. Maybe you’d prefer a new car and some anonymous malls.

Alvaro is an enthusiastic demonstrator and a great talker. For some, his style of presentation might grate but, for me, he always manages to stay within the border of being irritating and he’s immensely quotable: “We need to get to know the people … absorb the atmosphere … then we paint”, “It’s a mess with order to it … we need to avoid complexity”. These nuggets of wisdom (and they are nuggets) relate not only to the technical details but to the general approach. There’s one place, in a particularly complex scene near the end of the film, where Alvaro works in silence for a minute or two and it comes as something of a shock. Normally, he’s talking about the scene, what he’s looking at and for and how he’s working with water, brushes and colour. He’s a confident painter and this often masks very considerable skill. His remark that he needs to envision the finished result before he starts is telling. It looks improvised but, like the music that pervades the film, it’s actually very carefully structured.

A word about that music. Alvaro often moves with it and he’s also, he says, painting with it. Certainly, there’s a rhythm to the way he works that the music both drives and points up. I think it’s also worth saying that the way the soundtrack is handled here is worthy of top-flight documentary–making. It’s not, as is usually the case, something that’s added later – and which will either enhance the viewing experience or annoy the hell out of you. In two of the demonstrations, there’s a live band playing and this, the commentary and the wild track (the background noises) are perfectly balanced. When Alvaro speaks, the music fades ever so slightly so that his voice is never muffled, but the sound is always a homogeneous whole. On that score, I’d class this as the best film I’ve seen from APV.

Street life is complex and real life doesn’t always appear in a neatly balanced composition. As he did with the first film, Alvaro assembles his images from their component elements. Figures are moved into a more balanced group, details are highlighted and focus shifted. His loose style means that fine detail is never there: “I’m not interested in making a portrait”. For me, this looseness makes this a slightly less satisfying film than the first part as some of the groups start to look a bit similar – I wish he perhaps wouldn’t strait-jacket them quite so much into a single personal style. Nevertheless, there’s no doubting the artistry, especially in the composition and the handling of complex and often difficult lighting, where Alvaro is pretty much pitch-perfect.

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DVD Essential Watercolour: Boats & Harbours || Paul Weaver

The first few minutes of any instructional film are important. It’s the time when you decide whether you like the style of presentation and, indeed, the presenter themselves. This one starts well, with some neat establishing shots that tell us we’re in Porlock Weir in Somerset and present it as the attractive location it is. You may think that making an art DVD is just a matter of pointing a camera at the demonstrator and recording what they say and do. It isn’t, it’s highly skilled, requiring not just technical expertise to make sure that the exposure is right (nothing’s worse than a painting you can’t see) and that the shots hold details long enough for the viewer to see what’s going on, but change with sufficient frequency to keep the rest of the brain interested. It’s not even enough just to turn the camera on when the painting starts and off when it finishes. Watching an artist from start to finish can be as exciting as watching paint dry and a good editor will know exactly what needs to stay in and what can safely end up on the cutting room floor.

The long-established houses such as APV and Townhouse have the process down pat. They’ve been doing it for years and even have backgrounds in the general industry. Lune Ltd, who make this, are new to me and, when I followed up the website, I was amazed to get to a photo retoucher. Whatever, this is a thoroughly professional production and the people behind it (I assume Paul Weaver is only part of a team) know their stuff. I’ve seen painting films produced by people whose background is more in commercial or wedding photography and they don’t quite get the requirements of art. This is absolutely top quality and even has some neat tricks up its sleeve that don’t grate – editing the superfluous details that Paul is going to leave out of the painting from the video image adds a dimension I haven’t seen before. It must be the retouching background.

Well, here we are, nearly as long as some reviews and I haven’t even mentioned the paintings yet! There’s a reason for that, because I wanted to make the point that I felt well-disposed before we got properly started.

The film itself includes four demonstrations, three on location at Porlock Weir in differing lights and a final one in the studio which allows Paul to spend more time on a sketch he made earlier.

Paul’s main stock in trades are sketching and simplification. He makes the point that, by walking around the subject it and making sketches, you get to understand it – how it’s made up, the form, tone and perspective. Even in the studio, he prefers to work from a sketch rather than a photograph due to the personal element the former brings. Once you’re familiar with the area, the initial question of what to paint should make itself apparent and the next step is to decide what to include and what to leave out. Boats are rarely neatly arranged and the variety of shapes, angles and ancillaries, such as ropes, add a level of complication that make it difficult for the viewer to interpret the final painting. “Not copying the scene exactly … taking the essence of it.” At the same time, it’s important to keep the work balanced, so some elements may even have to be moved to avoid empty areas. Although Paul seems to have an instinctive ability to do this, he’s also very good at explaining what he’s doing and, above all, why he’s doing it.

I have a final list in my notes where I’ve summed up Paul’s painting process. It says:

Mood and atmosphere

I don’t think I can do better than reproduce it exactly as I wrote it, because it sums up the message, the presentation and the presenter. This is a thoroughly enjoyable film you’ll want to watch, by a skilled and entertaining presenter.

Available from www.paulweaverart.co.uk

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Tom Hammick – wall, window, world || Julian Bell

Serendipity has brought this one out of the pile right after Picturing People and the two sit rather comfortably together.

In Tom Hammicks’s work, figures sit in front of landscapes that range from his native southern England to the maritime provinces of Canada. Once again, these are not conventional portraits and the “figures” can be both human and inanimate, sometimes dominating, sometimes elaborating the scene. Set beside Charlotte Mullins’ work, this emphasises the wide variety of figurative work (in the widest sense) that prevails at the present time. If you can afford both, you’d want to shelve them together.

I’ve quoted the subtitle because it presents an immediate challenge – not unlike the paintings in question. Julian Bell elaborates at the beginning of the introduction: Only Looking. “You look out. A wall stops your vision … there is glass. Beyond the glass, maybe another wall. But sooner or later your eyes reach the horizon … beyond which they cannot go. You know the world goes on … the world is always more than you can see.” This rather elegantly captures the essence of Tom Hammick’s work and certainly explains, for the new viewer, both how to look as well as how to see.

This is a perceptive account of the work of an intriguing and influential painter and teacher whose work asks many questions and often only hints at what may be the answers.

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The Magic of Watercolour Flowers || Paul Riley

There is a wonderfully fluid quality to Paul Riley’s work. His use of line and colour is deft, subtle and instinctive. It also looks simple but, like so many things that do, it’s the result of a great deal of background work. When a brushstroke goes down, it’s because it’s meant to be there. You get few happy accidents.

The result of thoughtful painting is usually excellent teaching and it’s the case here, because Paul knows the exact reason for every mark he makes. In the DVD which accompanies this book, and which you really should try to see, his commentary is much more “what I’m going to do” than “what I’ve done”. In print, this leads to a discussion of flower painting rather than a series of extended captions, although he can do those too, when required in the demonstration paintings.

I think it’s fair to say that you wouldn’t come to Paul for a guide to painting flowers per se. Although they are one of his main subjects, they’re almost always part, albeit the centrepiece, of a larger arrangement. Botanical illustration, or even the less formal flower portrait, this is not. For the most part, too, the details of individual blooms and flower types don’t bother him. It’s more about colour, shape and perspective and, as I’ve hinted above, he explains this really rather well.

I honestly think you should regard this book and its accompanying DVD as a combined purchase. I’ll also stick my head above the parapet and suggest that they’re both not so much about flower painting at all, but about colour, line and form. And, as that, the result is a masterpiece.

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The Kew Book of Botanical Illustration || Christabel King

This, as far as botanical illustration is concerned, is pretty much the tablets of stone, the Authorised Version. Kew do not hand out their imprimatur lightly and want to approve every stage of the production. If they sign off, it’s a guarantee that everything is absolutely right. Having a book like this, and having Kew in the title, is therefore quite a coup, especially for an independent publisher.

On top of that, Christabel King is one of a very select band of illustrators who works at Kew itself and can therefore be regarded as absolutely top flight. I really can’t emphasise too much how good this is getting. Botanical illustration at this level is respected and used by botanists around the world for identification purposes. The work produced is better than photography as, rather than show an individual example of a specimen, it can create a typical one, with all the likely characteristics included. As well as a section on using a microscope, there is also advice on preserving specimens and showing spots and markings. At this level, detail is everything and it gets very minute indeed.

For all this technicality, the book is surprisingly accessible. I don’t mean for a moment that the casual reader will become a fully-fledged professional as soon as they’ve read it but, if this kind of work interests you, you won’t feel swamped. There’s a nice sense of progression to the chapters and Christabel explains everything clearly and, above all, with worked examples. If you do get serious, the chapter on Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, with sample pages and a template for laying out a plate, will give you an idea of what to aim for.

Despite the weight of its authority, this is not a book solely for the expert, but is accessible to anyone who is reasonably serious about flower painting. You may never reach its dizzy heights, but you’ll enjoy the journey and the attempt.

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The Drawings of Barbara Hepworth || Alan Wilkinson

I had to remind myself several times as I went through this that Barbara Hepworth is a sculptor. And, yes, I also found myself using the present tense about her. There’s such a freshness here that this work simply doesn’t feel historical.

Of course sculptors draw, if only to sketch out the basic shape of a piece. What’s remarkable about Barbara Hepworth, though, is that she was able to capture shapes, and especially figures, as well in two dimensions as she was in three. I was also struck by the way her fluidity of line in sculpture is reflected on paper or canvas. You might rightly say that this is obvious but, where she works with recognisable subjects, you can see how she gets to the pure abstract. In very many ways, this book becomes the missing link and explains better than any appreciative piece how she gets from one to the other. If you wanted a primer in understanding Twentieth Century abstract sculpture, this would fit the bill very nicely.

Alongside the many, beautifully reproduced illustrations, Alan Wilkinson provides a commentary that supplies both context and chronology and underlines – if that were necessary – the importance of Hepworth’s work.

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The Art of Sumi-E || Naomi Okamoto

Sumi-E is what we generally regard as the classic Japanese art of ink painting that uses a simple medium, the white of the paper, and carefully crafted and placed brushstrokes to create an image. The essence of it is just that, the essence of the subject, which is usually a natural form.

This is a complete guide that includes advice on materials – particularly the specialised brushes and papers – as well as instruction in the basics of painting with ink, both black and colour. From here, a series of exercises gets you practising with shapes – a fish with a single stroke for instance. Naomi also includes the philosophical aspects of Japanese painting, which is as much a state of mind as a technical exercise. In the foregoing example, for instance, it is she, not the imagined fish, that feels the touch of the water. It’s a hard concept to convey, but she does it rather well.

As your skills and confidence (and you need to be confident to achieve the single-stroke structure) develop, you’ll move on to flowers, animals, landscapes and even figures. These last are perhaps the most rewarding as they turn the whole idea of figurative work on its head, with less becoming more and detail only barely hinted at.

This is as comprehensive a guide as you could wish to a fascinating and absorbing art form. My only reservation is that it seems to be printed on a paper that knocks some of the colour back and has a slight tooth, meaning that the illustrations look very slightly unsharp.

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