Places of the Mind || ed Kim Sloan

Subtitled British watercolour landscapes 1850-1950, this accompanies a major (free) exhibition at the British Museum. The works included are from the Museum’s own collection and although they are not necessarily some of the artists’ major works, they are rarely seen and some are being reproduced for the first time.

In spite of this apparent limitation, the coverage is comprehensive and an extraordinarily wide range of artists is included, making this truly representative of the period covered. You’ll find Turner, Nash, Whistler, Rossetti, Russell Flint, Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland alongside less well-known names who nevertheless complete the canon.

The arrangement of the book is thematic rather than chronological, which leads to some nice juxtapositions; a simple A-Z arrangement always feels more like filing than curating. These themes are accompanied by essays by the book’s six contributors and include The search for a sense of place, A new ‘golden age’? – the ‘modern’ landscape watercolour and Some versions of pastoral. I’ve listed them to show the eclectic approach and the variety of interpretation that the book brings, rather than just being a catalogue.

There are many reasons to like this. The first is the quality and authority of the text, but you can add the excellent reproduction, the fact that these are unfamiliar works, the sheer extent and, finally, the price: at £20, they’re practically giving it away!

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Portraits of Babies & Children || Giovanni Civardi

The sheer variety of this ongoing series is breathtaking, as is the quality that actually seems to improve with time.

Children are difficult subjects, not least because they’re hardly ever still and Giovanni acknowledges this with a short section on the use of photography. As ever, the main part of the book is a series of worked examples that demonstrate techniques with children of all ages – as the title implies.

What is particularly impressive is the depth of character that Giovanni manages to get into his work. Children are very much a work in progress and features, expressions and poses are constantly fluid. Picking the right moment is very much an exercise in observation and Giovanni is also sound on this – it’s getting to know your subject, as you should, but in particular detail.

Although this is not an in-depth study of a what is certainly a complex subject, it is nevertheless an excellent primer that includes much more than its 64 pages implies.

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Terry Harrison’s Complete Brush with Watercolour

This is not a new book, except that it is, and it even feels like one. How so? Well, it’s another of those bind-ups that Search Press are becoming so adept at, comprising the original (and excellent) Brush With Watercolour and subsequent Watercolour Landscapes The Easy Way.

As we’ve come to expect, you can’t see the join and the new whole is, if not greater than the sum of its parts, then at least equal in terms of the usefulness of the book. The result, in fact, is one of the most coherent watercolour courses I’ve seen in quite some time. It’s slightly shorter than the combination of the originals, demonstrating that the preliminary material has been filleted for duplication. I also suspect that some running orders have been changed so that there’s no jumping about. You can’t, like Ernie Wise’s supposed wig, see the join.

The best way to sum the book up, I think, is simply to list the main chapter headings: Choosing your equipment, Using the brushes, Techniques, Demonstrations. You see, perfectly logical. As to those brushes, yes they are all from the Terry Harrison range. I’ve observed before that you may have suitable alternatives already, or you can get them – one fan brush is, let’s face it, pretty much like another. Except that it isn’t. Terry’s brushes have a very slightly ragged edge from new, so they don’t produce a sharp line. It’s a small detail, but worth pointing out as it shows the attention he’s given them and that they’re designed to help you, rather than just make money for him. Quite a lot of artists have tried a brush range over the years, but Terry’s has stood the test of time, which is an endorsement in itself.

Sorry to bang on at length there, but I think it’s important to stress that Terry is assiduous in his efforts to help you paint, rather than simply to show you how clever he is. It’s the main reason why, as well as the brushes, he himself is as popular as ever.

There’s plenty here to like, from the simple technical explanations at the beginning, the exercises in skies, foliage, water, flowers and buildings as well as wet-in-wet, drybrush and the use of masking fluid. To conclude, the ten demonstrations cover just about every aspect of landscape painting across differing conditions and seasons. It really is that comprehensive.

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Painting Urban and Cityscapes || Hashim Akib

Time was, you couldn’t shift books on townscapes for love nor money. Now, we seem to be drowning in them. I’m not sure what has caused the shift; there’s been no great move to cities, no evidence that we’ve suddenly fallen in love with them, no explosion of interest in art (that I’ve detected) among the urban population. The fact is, though, that drawing and sketching in towns has gained popularity quite suddenly and there have been some fascinating books as a result.

This volume is slightly different, in that it concentrates on painting, a slower and more considered process than a few minutes spent with a sketchbook and some pencils. It does, however, retain the same vibrancy that the sketching books labour to maintain. Hashim Akib’s style absolutely lends itself to the subject and his work is permeated by a sense of movement and colour that suits street scenes.

Hashim considers all the aspects of city working, from techniques to composition, perspective and weather. The presentation of the book is as a discussion rather than a series of demonstrations and it’s definitely something to read at leisure rather than work through. There are plenty of illustrations and explanations that will give you ideas as well as clarify the points being made. The medium is largely acrylic, used in impasto, and it is these blocks of colour that mainly give the results the life they exude.

The book sparkles with the confidence of an author who’s on comfortable home ground, making it one of the most worthwhile of these guides around.

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Learn to Paint People Quickly || Hazel Soan

This series from Batsford is shaping up nicely and any book on painting people, especially as furniture for a larger work, is welcome.

Not everyone by any means wants to paint people as a subject in themselves, but an unpopulated painting always has a neglected look to it. In common with the style of the series, this is very much illustration-led and the text is concise to the point of terseness and mainly confined to explanatory captions. It should also be said that this is very welcome – if you don’t want an exhaustive in-depth study, being shown what’s going on rather than lectured at length is the proverbial breath of fresh air.

This is not to say that Hazel doesn’t manage to make the coverage comprehensive. There’s information on shape, proportion, pose, lighting and clothing and the chapters are arranged so that you can locate one particular topic easily. If you want to venture into portraiture, Hazel offers good basic advice, although you will probably want to graduate to more dedicated books as well. Groups, action and settings all get a look-in as well, making this one of the best starting-points you’ll find.

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Vibrant Watercolours || Hazel Lale

Rather helpfully, Hazel explains in her introduction, some of what a “vibrant” watercolour is. To summarise, it’s about the use of colour, often unexpected colour and in unconventional ways. She recounts, as a child, wondering why some artists painted portraits with white or green faces and of coming to understand how painting was more than simple representation – an artistic maturity, as it were.

The subtitle also provides a clue: How to paint with drama and intensity. This is, in short, a book mainly about working with and revelling in colour. It’s about seeing, not the obvious, the superficial, but the true character of any subject, whether it’s a person, an animal or any inanimate object. On top of colour, there are also shape and form and these can be manipulated, along with the colours, to tell the viewer more about what you’re painting than simple representation. A photograph will record a subject and allow the onlooker to interpret it for themselves. The job of an artist is to shape the response and convey a personal view. At its extreme, this leads to abstraction, where the response is purely emotional but, here, it’s also about the object itself as much as the pure image. It’s a hard topic to explain in words because it’s so inherently visual, but think of it as poetry rather than prose.

This is an approach that’s been covered before, but Hazel’s sheer enthusiasm will carry you along and almost certainly open your eyes to, if not a new, then certainly an enhanced way of seeing.

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Painting Perspective, Depth & Distance in Watercolour || Geoff Kersey

This is a welcome reissue of a book I was surprised to discover was first published as long ago as 2004. As well as a thorough design revamp, two new projects and several example paintings have been added. The technical section has been expanded, improving coverage of this always-difficult area.

There’s almost no end of books on perspective and they all have their own particular slant and emphasis. It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to recommend any one simply because the subject presents problems to each of us individually. The scientific approach, with its welter of lines leading to different vanishing points, may appeal to some. For others, simplicity is the order of the day while, for yet more, that leaves too many questions unanswered. There is no sweet spot, no perfect balance of detail and simplicity: you just have to sample them all and find the one that works for you.

Geoff is an excellent explainer and has a good track record in the art instruction book field. This is a guide written for the painter rather than the technician or designer and it works almost exclusively by example. What was already a good book has been subtly but thoroughly improved. I’s have been dotted, T’s crossed and blanks filled in. The emphasis throughout is on painting and you’ll learn about single point, multipoint and aerial perspective by working with them.

This can be all very well but, just as with languages, you eventually have to get to grips with grammar, so, with perspective, you need to understand the theory. To use another analogy, it’s a bit like colour mixing. Once someone who’s really understood it explains it to you, you’ve got it. Until then, you’ll flounder. The theory section here is concise, but to the point – I said Geoff’s a good explainer – and only some half a dozen pages have the dreaded vanishing lines. Much of the rest involves painted examples as well as colour and brushwork. If it was a language, it would be Painting, not Science. It’s a bit of a masterpiece.

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