Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours || P Syme

A band on the jacket helpfully advises that this is “the book Charles Darwin used to describe colours on his voyage on HMS Beagle”. So much, you might say, for that.

This is a facsimile (if you hadn’t guessed) of a book first published in 1814. It was invaluable then and, although mainly of historical interest now, contains information that can still be of use to the artist. This version took a previously existing colour naming system and adapted it for practical use by botanists, zoologists, mineralogists and artists.

Why, you might ask, was it necessary? Two hundred years ago, colour printing didn’t exist in any useful form. Those full-colour guides we’re so used to now are surprisingly recent. Only 30 or so years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for painting books to be illustrated with only some dozen colour plates and those would be concentrated together, not run throughout the text. The quality of the colour reproduction in the present volume suggests that the swatches were hand-tinted, so this would have been a small edition, and by no means cheap.

But still, why place so much importance on how colours are described? Well, if you can’t reproduce it in print, you need a reliable way of writing about it so that the reader can mix it for themselves, and that requires a standard approach. Enter Mr Werner, ably assisted by Mr Syme.

To see how this works in practice, let’s look at Bluish Green. It “is composed of Berlin blue, and a little lemon yellow and greyish white”. The accompanying table tells us that it’s suitable for a thrush egg, the under disc of wild rose leaves or the mineral beryl. And that’s how you get the colours right, even if you haven’t got a reliable chart.

Yes, this is mainly of historical interest, but it’s a fascinating read and a reminder of how the world got on when everything really was black and white.

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The Watercolour Enigma || Stephen Coates

The science of watercolour is intriguing but, if the very idea makes your eyes glaze over, prepare to be intrigued. This bills itself as “a complete course revealing the secrets and science of watercolour” and, while I wouldn’t quite classify it as nose-to-tail eating, it oozes practicality on every page.

Stephen quite rightly understands that a watercolourist’s only interest in the physical properties of their medium relates to what it can do for them and how they can exploit and control its behaviour. To this end, he explains the properties of water, how and why washes blend and the ways in which different pigments mix. The whole process is constructed as a series of exercises and demonstrations that show you what’s happening rather than simply telling you, although there are also panels that explain the technicalities in simple terms.

If you want to get the most out of your medium, this is a fascinating and absorbing look under the hood.

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The Lives Of The Surrealists || Desmond Morris

Well, I thought, this’ll be interesting. Who better to have an anthropological study of than the Surrealists? But, yes, it is that Desmond Morris, he of The Naked Ape.

The success of that book, his extensive television career and the fact that, at the age of 90, he is less prominent in public view, has drawn something of a veil over his life as a Surrealist painter himself. The last survivor of the original movement, this is the inside story of Magritte, Miró and May Ray as well as names not always associated: Picasso, Moore or Bacon.

The book itself does pretty much what it says. It is a collection of biographies, all of them relatively short and, as Morris says in his foreword, focussing on lives rather than work. Valuable as it is, this is something of a shame, as a view of interactions, philosophies and working methods would have been welcome from the insider point of view. Yes, this ground has been trodden so heavily that it’s practically tarmacked, but Morris has what is now a unique perspective, both from where he was (a Surrealist) and where he is now (a viewer from the historical perspective) and an account of that must surely have had considerable value.

Nevertheless, this is what it is and it’s very good at that. Concise, factual, witty and entertaining, it’s a thumping good read and still presents a viewpoint you won’t get anywhere else.

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Realistic Painting

I’ll be honest, I’m not absolutely sure what this is. The blurb tells me that it “will provide both the amateur and the seasoned creator with helpful knowledge in order to successfully execute the Realism style”. That, however, is not Magic Realism – highly detailed work that emulates photography – and looks suspiciously like conventional art that gets things like form and perspective right. There are occasional slight echoes of Edward Hopper, but I’m not convinced that’s deliberate. There is also an associated app that claims to be augmented reality but is, as far as I can tell, just a portal via on-page codes to video tutorials. I think it’s more added content than augmented reality.

So, having pretty much trashed the intent of the book, is there any point in going any further? Well, yes, because once you get past the ache to be new and high-tech, this is a very sound introduction to painting a good variety of subjects in watercolour, oil and acrylic. Yes, that old cross-media chestnut rears its head and, yes the subject you want may not be covered in the medium you use but, as long as you can follow the basic principles, the actual style of instruction, particularly working with problem areas and enlarged details is perfectly sound.

The lack of a named author is slightly odd, but there are plenty of different contributing artists and the text is concise and to the point. My initial thought was that it has the feel of a Parramon original and so, on further investigation, it turns out to be. That pedigree is generally a recommendation in itself and I’d say it is here. It’s hard to know who to recommend the book to – it’s a little too advanced for the complete beginner and sometimes a little too basic for the experienced artist. However, it’s something that may grab your attention and, as long as you feel you can get enough out of it to justify the price, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed and may well feel it has more to offer than you first thought.

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Ready to Paint in 30 Minutes – Landscapes|| Dave Woollass/Trees & Woodlands || Geoff Kersey

For a general appreciation, please look at the series tag above. I like the new iteration of the old Ready to Paint series a lot and these latest volumes diminish that not a jot.

Dave Woollass is a new author and one I hope we’ll see more of. He has a pleasantly loose style that’s readily achievable and explains his working methods well. He’s also comfortable with the variety of subject matter that the series demands and this would be a book worth seeking out even if the series in general isn’t your regular cup of tea.

Geoff Kersey is a familiar figure who’s well-practised in art instruction. Working with this will be familiar territory to many and a comfortable amble through the byways of watercolour. While there’s nothing excessively taxing (here or in the series in general), you won’t feel constrained or short-changed, your creative skills rather being gently stretched; a work-up rather than a work-out, perhaps.

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Painting Rivers || Rob Dudley

The subtitle of this fascinating and enjoyable book is “from source to sea” and it encapsulates Rob Dudley’s original approach to painting water. There have been a lot of books about that subject, but this is the first I can recall that eschews lakes and the sea in favour of the variety that can be found in what flows between them.

Water is a living thing. It has form and substance, but its shape is defined by what contains it and its outward manifestation – colour and appearance – and by the light that falls and the forces that are exerted on it. It’s a truism that you can never step into the same river twice and, on the same basis, you can never paint it twice either. Indeed, as a painting is effectively a moment frozen in time, you can’t really paint a river at all – but let’s keep well away from metaphysics!

This is as thorough and comprehensive a book as you could wish. Rob explains approaches and techniques in his chosen medium of watercolour as well as how to capture light, movement and reflection. He considers not just the river itself, but its surroundings and the people, objects and creatures that occupy it.

There are plenty of demonstrations and projects to get to work on, as well as discussions of the life of the river as it progresses downstream. This is an original idea that’s well thought-out and executed.

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Painting Landscapes || Kevin Scully

This is slightly spooky. No sooner have I written about one book on landscape painting from Crowood than another one turns up. This one is much more aimed at practical aspects and sticks to the opaque media: oils, acrylics and alkyd.

As is the style with this publisher’s approach, the text is much more discursive and, along with the sort of instructions you expect in a demonstration, there is a lot more explanation of what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. If you are really more interested in the general than the specific, this will appeal: you learn how to paint anything, rather than just what the author happens to put in front of you. As the old adage has it: give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach him how to fish and you feed him for life.

Why aren’t all books like this, you might ask? Well, not everyone wants what we might call the deeper philosophies or to get bogged down in what they see as detail. At the start, clear, simple instructions are best. It’s only as you progress that you begin to want, or even need, the details of what’s happening under the hood. These are books for the more experienced artist and the style, authors and level of work reflect that.

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