Urban Sketching Step by Step || Klaus Meier-Pauken

I can’t help thinking that the popularity of urban sketching is going to wane at some point. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with it – far from it – but simply that, having been extensively served with books covering every imaginable aspect (and some which, frankly, stretch the point), the world is eventually going to move on.

Many books on the subject mimic their subject by being busy, brash and complex. A vibrant city will be cacophonous and confusing. Capturing that requires a special way of working that uses quickly-drawn lines and bright colours. Results are impressionistic and suggest movement and crowds, even in what at least purport to be quiet corners. It can be quite an assault on the senses and many authors feel the need to reflect that.

So, what have we here? Well, a rather different take on the subject. Klaus, whose Quick & Lively Urban Sketching appeared a few years ago, has pared the instruction down. The format here is larger than is usual in this field and there’s more white space on the pages, which are generally less frenetic. The pace is much less “do this and this and this and this” and more a series of conventional exercises and short demonstrations that work at a slower pace and allow you to catch your breath. The subtitle is “Techniques for creating quick and lively urban scenes” and that word ‘techniques’ is important. Yes, the quick and lively – the soul of urban sketching – is here, but this is about how you do it and is something to practise with before you venture out into the field, sketchbook on your knee and pencil poised.

No one seems to have thought to do this before and it could breathe new life into the topic.

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The World Exists to be Put on a Postcard || Jeremy Cooper

We don’t send postcards any more. Social media and increasing costs have put paid to those snippets of holiday life that were at once intriguing, informative and frustrating. If you want to know that the weather is frightful, that the dog has a cough or Mavis a new top, you’ll have to turn to Past Postcard on Twitter (please do, it’s great fun). Those cardboard rectangles depicting sunny beaches, donkeys in hats, the shopping centre or new roundabout have been consigned to history. And maybe that’s a good thing.

But postcards have also been a part of the art world for several decades – this book and its accompanying exhibition at the British Museum covers the period from 1960 to the present day. The mood is always a bit left-field, revolutionary or subversive. This isn’t superfine art, but rather a semi-private world where the message is more personal. Mavis may not have a new top, but, in Art News Revisited (1976), Hannah Wilke has none at all – it’s part of a series where she uses her own body to make a feminist statement. A decade later, Michael Langenstein presents surreal images that include the Statue of Liberty in a yellow vest (how very now) and a parking meter on the moon.

The whole is basically art as non-art, but in an entirely artistic way. Yes, that is contradictory, but that’s the point of the form and, seeing what is largely a fragmented movement (if it was even that) together demonstrates that there was and is a theme and that art can, and probably should, be controversial and ask awkward questions.

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The Short Story of Modern Art || Susie Hodge

This is, in many ways, the companion to Susie’s earlier Why Your Five year Old Could Not Have Done That. Where that volume concentrated on explaining specific pieces to the general reader whose initial response would be likely to be “doesn’t look much like art to me”, this one is a more chronological narrative that traces historical developments, movements and important figures.

In this way, Bauhaus sits alongside Magic Realism and leads to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism. A look at The Treachery of Images is illustrated, perhaps inevitably, by Magritte’s Pipe (This is Not a Pipe) and we also get to meet Marcel Duchamp, Frida Kahlo and Jackson Pollock. Did I also say that Rodin’s Thinker is here too?

As the title implies, this is a potted history that is at once informative, entertaining and understandable. If modern art (and all art was, in its day, modern), leaves you confused, the estimable Susie Hodge cuts a swathe through mystery, jargon and the sometimes deliberate obscurantism that some critics seem to need to introduce.

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The Graphic Novelist’s Guide to Drawing Perspective || Dan Cooney

I was particularly keen to have a look at this, as coming at perspective from a different – and specific – angle could well provide new insights for the general artist.

Perspective in graphic art is often enhanced as figures leap or reach out of the frame, but it also requires realistic, accurate and proportional backgrounds for them to work within and against. There is considerable potential there for landscapes and figure work.

The first thing that strikes you on a quick flick-through is the amount of workspace. This is a book where you practise on the page, so working in pencil would be a good idea. Most of the grids are squared-up, but some come with vanishing points helpfully hard-coded into the guidelines and this is certainly going to make things easier.

The book is certainly thorough and varied, but I’d recommend starting from the beginning and working through it. Opening it at random, or even trying to find a particular topic, can be confusing as diagrams, practice pages and grid lines seem to come at you from all angles. Rather like trying to untangle a ball of string, it helps to find a free end and work from there.

Will it appeal to the general painter? Does it make their life any simpler? To be honest, I’m not sure. Graphic art tends towards the technical and this does too – at times, it feels more like technical drawing – and this might be a bar to clarity for many. However, if you’re struggling with perspective and haven’t found another book that really explains it to you, at least have a look at this. It’s nothing but thorough and may be the breakthrough you’re looking for.

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Spiral || Louise Bourgeois

This retrospective looks at the use of spiral forms in the work of Louise Bourgeois from 1947 to 2009. There is no commentary, but occasional quotes do help to amplify the theme and the opening, “The spiral is an attempt at controlling the chaos. It has two directions. Where do you place yourself, at the periphery or art the vortex?” helps to guide you into the illustrations that follow. There is also a handy chronology of Bourgeois’ life at the end.

There isn’t a great deal more to say about this. It is what it is and is a further insight into one of the major figures of Twentieth Century art. Casual readers may prefer something more general and regard it as one for the completists, though.

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Painting Nature’s Details || Meriel Thurstan and Rosie Martin

This was originally published in 2009 as Natural History Painting With The Eden Project and has now been reissued in paperback.

You can read my original review here.

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Paint Yourself Positive || Jean Haines

This is the successor to 2016’s Paint Yourself Calm and is ostensibly about mindfulness and working with your imagination rather than a visible subject.

Does that sound unbearably new-agey? You bet it does and in less skilled hands it could be a mess, both in terms of concept, presentation and results. However, Jean is a very capable painter who already works on the edge of abstraction and the illustrations here are very little different to her more conventional work, as seen in books such as Atmospheric Flowers in Watercolour. For her state-of-mind work, she uses imagination to control what appears on paper, but that doesn’t mean unintelligible blobs, but rather images that capture the essence of their subjects – flowers, fish, buildings and animals.

It would be perfectly possible to use this as an aid to mindfulness, but it’s also a very worthwhile guide to a rather different approach to painting. If you already love Jean’s work, this is another pearl of wisdom to treasure. If you’re new to it, it’s no bad place to start.

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