Taming Wildlife with pastel pencils || Lucy Swinburne

This stunning guide to wildlife drawing manages to be both a thoroughly serious study and completely accessible at the same time. Only someone who is fully confident and at home with their subject matter and working methods can achieve that.

The choice of pastel pencils is an interesting one. The use of pencil allows for both fine detail and a degree of blending, but Lucy is silent on why pastels specifically, which is perhaps a shame. This is a very minor niggle, given the quality of the work, content and reproduction here, but still one where perhaps a couple of sentences would have helped. Gosh, I’m hard to please.

After a general introduction to materials and reference sources (Lucy uses photographs here), you move into a series of exercises and demonstrations that usefully deal with both details such as ears, noses and paws and larger demonstrations that deal with the whole animal. These include a wolf, a chimpanzee, a panda and a prowling jaguar. The culmination is a black leopard, where Lucy shows you how to get an almost unbelievable amount of detail into an apparently monochrome subject. While there is menace in the jaguar, here the creature is at rest and has an almost soulful expression – there’s a lot more to Lucy’s work and this book than just technical wizardry.

The demonstrations are thoughtfully presented, with the sections you’re not working on greyed (or rather, blued) out. I haven’t seen this done before, but it very effectively allows you to keep the background in mind without it distracting from the details you’re currently working on. Lucy also manages to achieve a near-perfect balance between saying enough in the explanation and saying too much. This is a book which assumes a certain level of ability – let’s be honest – but not that you also know everything it’s trying to teach you. Once again, this requires a degree of confidence.

It’s also worth saying a word about the production. Self-published books often suffer from, as well as a lack of an editor, a tendency to skimp on the quality of reproduction for fear of driving up costs. This is a mistake Lucy does not make. Work with this level of detail requires the reader to be able to see every mark, and you can. The generous page size also helps. Yes, it comes at a cost (commercially produced, this would probably be ten pounds or so cheaper), but it’s not an expense you should quail at – you absolutely get what you pay for.

There are also accompanying videos on Lucy’s website, which just adds to the depth of instruction available.

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Also available from http://www.tamingwildflife.com

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Watercolour Mixing Techniques For Botanical Artists || Jackie Isard

Books on flower painting abound, as do colour mixing guides, but this is the first time I have seen something as specific as this. It is, it should be said, very thorough, but without being exhausting and the detail (which is considerable) is entirely practical. Jackie is clearly fully on top of her subject.

A lot of mixing guides consist of little more than colour swatches and these, while useful, can leave you gasping for air. Here, there are remarkably few and they’re surprisingly small. You can, though, see what you need to and the whole point is that they do not dominate. The purpose of the book isn’t to present you with an exhaustive – or exhausting – list of what you can produce, but rather a selected set of examples of what you will need. What you will see are images of flowers, leaves, stems and berries, each clearly annotated with information about the colours used. Enlarged details are included where they are needed.

Despite its relatively limited extent, this is a comprehensive guide that includes not just mixing information, but the use of colour for tone, shading and to highlight detail. Everything is in just the right place and the book wears its considerable level of technical information very lightly indeed.

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Watercolor Basics || Charles Reid

This, sadly, is going to be Charles’ last book; he died in 2019. If, however, you wanted a lasting legacy, this would be it. Although his style is, arguably, not one for the beginner, there is so much sound information here that you could view the result as something to aspire to, while still learning a great deal on the way. If you’re a more experienced worker, then some simple revision would certainly not go amiss and you might welcome the chance to catch up alongside an acknowledged master of the medium.

Topics are very much as you’d expect – composition, light and shade, values and simplification. There are plenty of exercises and demonstrations to get your teeth into. This is a book you’re going to want to spend a lot of time with and much of it bears returning to more than once, such is the depth of knowledge and information evident.

It’s probably worth saying that quite a lot of the book is devoted to figures so, if this is something you want to work on, you’ll be in your element. If not, then it’s worth some thought before diving into a purchase.

The illustrations reveal Charles at the height of his powers, exploiting colour and working as loosely as possible with simplified images that capture the essence of a subject in amazingly few brushstrokes.

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The Joy of Sketch || Jen Russell-Smith

Books of ideas are not exactly thin on the ground and what they cover is broadly similar. Where they stand or fall, therefore , is mainly on the quality of the illustrations and even that may come down to a matter of personal choice.

This pitches itself at the beginner and suggests a range of subjects from the contents of your pockets to hands and feet, trees and flowers, wildlife and even domestic fittings. This could be summed up as: if you see it, draw it, which is no bad idea if you’re feeling stuck for inspiration. Just get your pens and pencils out and have a go.

There’s a charm about this particular implementation that gets under your skin. The illustrations are simple enough, loose enough and recognisable enough to make you feel pretty sure that yes, actually, you could manage something like that. It doesn’t look too difficult and, with a little help (the text is admirably concise) and a few examples along the way, you almost certainly can.

Add in a pleasant and none-too-taxing technical introduction and some basic exercises that get you practising simple shapes without just drawing circles and ellipses and you have one of the best books in this well-served field.

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The Book of the Tree || Angus Hyland & Kendra Wilson

Trees, you love them, don’t you? Majestic beings that are at the centre of the countryside or indeed any landscape. Books have been published celebrating them ever since people started chopping them down to make paper. Oh.

I’m being unfair. This is an absolute delight and includes paintings and photographs from mostly Twentieth Century artists with nicely-judged explanations of how arboreal subjects fit into their work and life. Some, such as Claude Monet, get several pages and in these cases, the specific focus provides a fresh perspective on their work. You also get, of course, a variety of different styles and once again the single-subject approach allows for comparisons to be made that a wider view tends to obscure.

The result is a fascinating and enjoyable book that works whether you take an extended tour, concentrate on a specific theme or just dip into it at random. The authors never lose sight of the fact that the images are the most important thing and keep the words to the minimum required to complement them, but without leaving you wishing they’d said a bit more.

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The Art of Angela Gaughan

There’s a variety of material in this utterly enthralling book, but by far the majority of it is of wildlife, and that’s what you’d buy it for. I’ve always been surprised by the success in the practical art market of books which deal with such sharp focus and fine detail. I don’t mean to denigrate the skills of amateur artists, but this kind of thing is almost certainly beyond the capabilities of more than a few. The truth is, I suspect, that it’s aspirational and you’d certainly be pleased if you could come up with something even half as good.

Although there are demonstrations here, they aren’t really the focus of the book, which is much more of a masterclass aimed at those who already have quite a lot more than the basic skills. If you can already paint animals, you’ll be glad at the lack of rehearsal of the basics you already know. As far as materials are concerned, Angela works mostly in acrylics.

The results are stunning. Angela absolutely understands form, colouring, posture and behaviour and here it’s not only her creatures that are believable, but their settings and their place in them. It’s true that she works a lot from photographs, but those don’t always give quite the right composition or feature the perfect specimen. The art is to provide what nature intended, rather in the way of the identification guide, which shows a typical rather than exact example.

The majority of the subjects are large wildlife – apes, elephants, big cats – but there are some domestic ones as well as some figurative work that demonstrates similar skills. There’s not enough of this to make it a reason for purchase, but it adds variety and a further dimension.

And now we must turn to the production, which is the jewel in the book’s crown. This is a slightly oversize volume and excellent use has been made of the space, both to showcase finished paintings and to feature details and stages at a good size. The quality of the reproduction is stunning. Angela’s work concentrates on fine detail and every hair and brushstroke are clearly visible. Going through, I started to wonder whether some of the images weren’t quite up to snuff and were perhaps not quite as sharp as they might be. Further inspection showed that this is absolutely not the case and that what I was actually seeing was the texture of the painting surface. Yes, it’s that good.

Only a hundred years ago, colour reproduction was so coarse that you could see the individual dots of ink with the naked eye. Photo litho improved that and then mechanical tolerances in the printing presses themselves allowed much finer register and smaller dots, which you now need a powerful magnifier to see.

For all that, there’s much that can go wrong and choice of paper is a major stumbling block. Search Press’s production department has been at the top of its game for some time, but this surpasses anything I’ve seen, even from more august publishing houses dealing with fine art. That they have achieved this with a cover price of just under £20 is barely credible and you have to suspect witchcraft may be involved! If you’re involved with book production, you should have a copy of this, just to remind yourself of what’s possible. You have nowhere to hide and there are no excuses for anything less.

So, to sum up: an amazing book in every respect.

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The Art Museum in Modern Times || Charles Saumarez Smith

At a time when just about every institution is being questioned as to its role, need and relevance, it is fitting that those devoted to art should come under the eye of someone as august as Charles Saumarez Smith. Having held senior posts at the National and National Portrait Galleries as well as the Royal Academy, Charles is well-placed to offer not just an opinion on these matters, but one which demands to be taken seriously.

The book takes the form of a series of case studies that examine individual institutions, starting with the Museum of Modern Art in New York and stretching to the West Bund Museum in Shanghai by way of the National Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing, the Hepworth Gallery and several incarnations of the Louvre. In each, Charles examines the intent, layout, content and realities, offering several views of how institutions develop both organically and through steering. After this, he presents his overall conclusions, which involve the roles of what we might call the stakeholders – clients, architects, private collections and the morality of wealth and, of course, the audiences.

There is a wealth of material here, but Charles manages it well. The book comes in at under 300 pages, which is something to welcome – a lesser author could easily have doubled that, not so much by over-writing, but simply by not being so completely on top of their material. “Impressive” in this context is a word that would normally be applied to something much larger, but here it is appropriate to something so manageable, both physically and intellectually.

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Spring Cannot Be Cancelled || David Hockney & Martin Gayford

“Hockney is not a believer in healthy living so much as in good living”. This almost throwaway remark could be a mantra for our times. Do you want just to exist, or to live life as fully as you can, even if that comes with a host of risks? Hockney, famously contrarian, is firmly in the latter camp and this book might be seen as his vituperative response to the situation we find ourselves in.

I say “might”, because this is not all that it has been billed, or reviewed, as. It’s probably simpler to start at the beginning: it’s a continuation of the ongoing conversation that Hockney and Gayford have been having for a good many years. This saga has centred around the role, meaning and position of art within the wider world, but has achieved a focus in the present as an escape from and antidote to many of the restrictions that currently face us. The claim of the blurb that it is “an uplifting manifesto that confirms art’s capacity to divert and inspire” is by no means untrue, but does also need to be seen in the wider context of these ongoing exchanges.

You may have seen reviews that describe the book as “lavishly illustrated” and I take issue with that too. It’s hard to damn Hockney with faint praise, but to me, “lavish” means not just “generous”, but “of outstanding quality”. The format of the book is upright octavo and the illustrations are mostly landscape, which constricts their size and obscures detail. It is also printed entirely on book rather than art paper, which dulls colours and obscures detail. Several press features have included some of the paintings, which are Hockney’s iPad works featuring the arrival of Spring in Normandy where he now resides, and which mirror the 2012 RA show, The Arrival of Spring in Woldgate Woods. The problem is that the reproduction there was immeasurably better than it is in the book. Quite simply, if you buy this as a preview of the upcoming RA show The Arrival of Spring, Normandy, 2020 you will, I think, be disappointed.

There is, though, no doubt that Hockney has mastered digital art. Whether you use a pen, a brush or your finger is merely a method of application – what matters is the result and, when seen at their best, these images are amazing. The 2012 exhibition showed a few, but here they are at the forefront and they are absolutely stunning and absolutely Hockney. Try to get to the new show, or at least buy the catalogue.

I don’t mean to say that this is in any way a bad book. Of course it isn’t. Anything which gives us the words and sentiment of the master, especially on the subject of creativity, is to be treasured. It is, however, what it is and not something else.

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Show Your Art || Gita Joshi

This book is absolute gold dust. It’s not the first about the business side of art and I’m going to take on trust the legal side of things – Gita is an independent curator and art dealer and she runs the website thecuratorssalon.com. I think we can probably safely say that she has the experience to have these things covered.

What makes it unique is that it’s written from the point of view of experience. The writing style is approachable and advice includes such things as telling your story – put simply, who you are, what you do and why you do it. This is what gets people interested and gives you a personality. Corporate-speak won’t cut it here and Gita will show you how to get people interested in you as a person. Watch any reality TV show such as The Great British Bake Off – it’s the people you invest in, not the cakes.

There is also a wealth of practical advice, right down to the art fair checklist. I’ve exhibited at trade fairs and this is spot on. It’s not just the obvious things, like work, easels, a price list and so on, but details such as a notebook for contacts, a cash float and what might be the most important thing of all – something to sit on. I also liked the do’s and don’ts – do talk to everyone, don’t drink too much on the opening night!

This is a privately published book and there are areas where it could maybe do with a bit of a polish, but you won’t mind that because the information comes from an insider whose experience you’ll share and whose wisdom you’ll want to learn from. If you’re in any way serious about promoting your art professionally, it’s the book you need. I know, I have the word for it: sympathetic.

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Rosa Branson: a portrait || Lynn Mitchell

Rosa Branson’s story mirrors and is heavily influenced by events of the latter part of the Twentieth Century. Growing up with Communist parents in wartime Battersea saw hardships as well as a life lived against the grain, something which continued when she began her art career. Expressionism was the favoured style during her time at Camberwell and the Slade art schools, but she preferred to learn Old Master techniques at a time when they were largely out of favour. What we might call Reactionism is perhaps ironic, given her background, or perhaps it isn’t – if we reject the nostrums of our parents, what are we to do if those are of the left? Answers on a postcard, please.

What does become clear, though, is that Rosa has inspired a generation of traditionalists. It is clear from the really rather good reproduction, of her work that are included here that she is completely at ease with – and committed to – the style she has chosen.

This is a very thorough and also thoroughly affectionate account of what I think we might call a life well-lived and a person one feels instinctively one would be at home with.

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