Winifred Knights || Sacha Llewellyn

The second world war has a lot to answer for. As well as the obvious upheaval, it marks a turning point in so much of the life of the twentieth century and marks a lacuna that effectively delineates a “before” and an “after”. The urgent sense of a need to change and progress in its aftermath took the form of a sort of desperate optimism that drove the building of the Common Market (later to become the European Union), the development of the United Nations and the construction in Britain of the welfare state. It has taken over seventy years of peace for it to seem logical to start dismantling all that.

The counterpart to such forward vision was a refusal to look back and a rejection of what was past, out of date and, in terms of the build-up to war, destructive. A whole art movement had been developing in the early years of the twentieth century. Some of it was eschewing naturalism, but there was also much that celebrated everyday life and saw historical or mythical events in terms of what we might call “ordinary people”. Stanley Spencer’s Entry of Christ into Liverpool is one such, and Winifred Knights’ The Marriage at Cana is another. Both are mundane and mondaine and strip the scene of its mysticism. The Cana marriage guests are sitting down to melon and dressed in what are, while not suits and ties, certainly not overtly Biblical clothes.

The point of this rather roundabout introduction is to attempt an explanation of why Winifred Knights (1899–1947) is one of the great ignored talents of British art. Her short life didn’t help, but then Eric Ravilious didn’t suffer from longevity either. The fact that she was a woman may have contributed, but women were not completely invisible at the time. Maybe she just didn’t have anyone to champion her at the right time and everything just got put onto a high shelf.

Whatever the reason, this substantial volume sets the record straight. Comprehensive in its coverage and number of illustrations, it exhibits the sweep of Knights’ work. Along with complete paintings, there are several portraits of Knights by other artists – she was quite striking – as well as drawings, sketches and studies. Maybe it is the proliferation of these that are the clue to her obscurity and there isn’t quite the body of work to give her the momentum to have been studied before. Quantity doesn’t equate to quality, and of the latter, there is plenty.

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Why is Art Full of Naked People? || Susie Hodge

This is, in many ways, the young person’s companion to Susie’s earlier Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That. I say “many ways”, because, if you’re honest, it addresses a lot of the questions you hope someone else will ask. Only a child has the licence to comment on the emperor’s new clothes; as adults, we’re supposed to know.

Susie is an excellent explainer and can write at length when the context demands or allows it. She’s also, however, capable – and not afraid – of being direct and succinct, and nothing here takes more than a couple of pages, and often less. As well as the question in the title, topics addressed include abstraction (What is it exactly?), Cubism (Is it upside down?) and the existential: Do you have to be clever to look at art?

The text is simple and to the point and designed to be unintimidating. The effect of this, though, is rather reduced by a ragbag of fonts and point sizes, as well as random words in bold that make reading difficult almost to the point of impossibility. It looks more like an amateur let loose in a Letraset shop than a piece of professional work (sorry). There was a vogue for this in advertising a few years ago and it was quickly dropped for obvious reasons. Nevertheless, I’d urge you to persist, because this is actually one of the best primers in art appreciation you’re ever likely to find.

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Travelogue – round the world in watercolour || Bee Morrison

Bee Morrison is quite a traveller. Forty years as a practising artist has taken her to five continents, eighteen countries and twenty-eight ports, a journey she calculates would take some four months to complete as one trip. This journal is her imaginary tour, culled from her numerous sketchbooks.

Altogether, there are fifty illustrations which the cover tells us are “to colour”. That seems a shame, as Bee’s simple and sensitive line drawings stand well on their own and could, I think, be studied as a lesson in the art of less-is-more. However, if you want to go ahead, there’s a handy colour reference guide that gives you an idea of what that added dimension brings to the scene. Actually, I’m not sure that the paper the book is printed on would take watercolour terribly well, so you might well want to copy or trace the outlines – the upside is that they’re nicely crisp for that purpose.

This has been produced in a limited edition of 200 copies and each will be signed. If you’re a fan of Bee’s work, this is a nice personal souvenir. If she’s new to you, check out her website and have a look at some of her other books while you’re there.

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Postscript: Bee tells me that the paper in the book is in fact remarkably suitable for both watercolour and coloured pencils, so give it a try if you want to.   She says, “It is quite bizarre …you would think that it would reject pencil and paint but quite the opposite.  My sample book has had a lot of layers of a very cheap pencil and keeps on taking the colour.”   She also says, helpgully, “please quote me and tell everyone that when they buy the Travelogue they also get the right to print any page for their own personal use.”

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The St Ives Artists – a biography of place and time || Michael Bird

You might be forgiven for thinking that not a lot can have happened in the life of an well-established artistic colony in the eight years since the first edition of this account was published. As Michael Bird points out in his introduction, the town itself has changed, much has been written and interpretations have changed. There has also been a series of exhibitions, including at the Tate Gallery outpost. It isn’t the art that has changed so much as the view of it.

This is a narrative account of a colony that did not establish itself entirely by chance and was, for the most part, populated by incomers rather than growing out of local work. That centred more around the fishing industry and it is the demise of this, as much as anything else, that has contributed to the changes in the town itself.

The story begins with the arrival of Terry and Kathleen Frost in 1946 and recounts the difficulties of a journey by train in the aftermath of the second world war, which provides a setting for what is an enthralling story as much as an art history. Such detail helps to emphasise the fact that artists are people who lead quotidian lives as well as producers of great works and figures in an elevated history.

The paper on which this is printed is designed to take type rather than illustrations, but there are plenty of these latter and they are reproduced surprisingly well. They are also carefully chosen to represent both the variety of personalities and styles that characterise a vibrant community that contributed a great deal to the art of the latter part of the last century.

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The Encyclopedia of Coloured Pencil Techniques || Judy Martin

This was originally published sufficiently long ago that I’ve never reviewed it here, so let’s have a go at it as a Search Press Classic. The first thing that should be said is that there’s no clue to its age on the copyright page or in the information sheet I get in advance. I would take points off for that, but I think the “classic” billing probably has it just about covered.

The Encyclopedia series, originated by the packager Quarto, was ground-breaking in its day. Innovation often looks stale after a few years, but this still has a vitality that won’t leave you feeling you’ve been left with cast-offs, and the information is still sound. Quarto productions are always design-led and usually work on a spread-by-spread basis, so you can open this more or less at random and find a topic covered as completely as it’s going to be – which is with surprising thoroughness, given the space allocated. Quarto are always good at conveying information efficiently.

Information contained covers media, styles, subjects and techniques and there are plenty of illustrations to guide and inspire you. At £12.99, this is about the same price as it was when it was new, which is a reduction if you allow for inflation, but not a fantastic bargain. However, it’s not an unreasonable addition to the canon of Classics and emphatically one that’s worth keeping in print.

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The Acrylic Painter || James van Patten

A lot of books on acrylic painting tend to concentrate on its appeal to the beginner. It’s easy to see why – something opaque and quick-drying is relatively easy to handle. At the same time, it is often dismissed as suitable for fine art for the same reasons, as well as its poster paint associations. Great Art demands oils, although professional painters have long realised that something which doesn’t take six months to dry can (at least in theory) be painted one day and sold the next.

When acrylics first appeared, the range of colours was somewhat limited and drying times were ultra-quick, leading to a whole new range of problems. All that, however, has been addressed: artist’s quality paints are available in a full range of colours and there are plenty of retarder mediums that allow full control over drying. It has, in a word, come of age.

This comprehensive survey provides a through overview of techniques and practice with acrylics. It doesn’t attempt to be an in-depth study of everything – that would result in multiple heavy volumes, but James does cover an excellent range of topics, both practical and aesthetic. If you paint in acrylics and want something that takes the medium, and you, seriously, this is it.

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Terry Harrison’s Watercolour Secrets

If there was ever a book you’d been eagerly awaiting, this is it. Subtitled “a lifetime of painting techniques”, this absolutely lives up to expectations and won’t disappoint.

Over 170 secrets are promised, and this means that some of them are crammed 4 to a page, but you’re never sold short and, to pick one at random, you get everything you need to know about painting a winter tree in one picture and four lines of text. When more space is required in, for instance, Creating a Sunset Using Glazing, a whole spread is given over to it. Some of the tips involve Terry’s own range of brushes, but let’s give him a break on that. Quite a few artists have their own ranges, but Terry’s have been around longer than most and you don’t get that degree of longevity without repeat sales and you don’t get those if the product isn’t any good. Like everything else with Terry: take notice.

Terry is a generous teacher and doesn’t have those little tricks he keeps all to himself and somehow manages to gloss over even in the most complete demonstrations – this is one of the chief keys to his popularity. He is also one of the best explainers around and this is also the key to so much being crammed into these 128 pages. He doesn’t just understand what he’s doing, he also understands the exact bits you’ll have trouble understanding and how to make them clear.

All this would be a mess, of course, without careful organisation and the book is nicely grouped by subject so that you can use the contents list to find what you need quickly. I’d also bet that you want to read the whole thing, though. It invites immersion.

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