DVD Vibrant Oils || Haidee-Jo Summers

Some painting films are a polished performance, both in the presentation and on the paper or canvas. Others are more of an engaging couple of hours spent in the company of an artist as they explore their surroundings. Haidee-Jo falls into the latter camp and my notes add that some of her most eloquent passages are when she’s completely silent, allowing the brushes to speak for themselves.

The title “Vibrant Oils” tells you little and it’s possible to see how difficult it is to characterise the work of an artist who is constantly fascinated by shapes and colours, and also by working out of doors – “the nice thing is that you get to choose the best bits … there’s a little bit of sparkle in the sea over there; I’ll try to remember”. There’s also a dichotomy of subject matter. The first three demonstrations – the DVD is filmed on the Roseland peninsula in Cornwall – are of harbour scenes, so boats play a large part. The second slightly-less-than-half, when the sun is bright, involves flowers and buildings. In the last of those, Haidee-Jo only half-jokingly laments having to put in the flowers in front of a nondescript tin barn she’s fallen in love with. The thing is, though, that so have we. The film shows something about as unpromising as it can get, yet Haidee-Jo finds beauty, colours and shapes that have been keeping themselves well-hidden and, more importantly, communicates them to the viewer.

All-in-all, I’d class this as a film about observation as much as anything else. If you want to paint plein air it is, to a large extent, something you simply have to do. There are certain practicalities, mainly involving equipment, sun hats and protective clothing, but in the matter of painting, looking, seeing and selecting subjects are the most important thing. “It’s amazing how little information the viewer needs … what simple marks I can make”, perhaps summing that particular message up most succinctly. There’s also sound advice about planning your painting, working from dark to light and defining the image: “Details are a treat to do at the end”.

Some films are relatively easy to pin down. The artist has a message they want to get across and the demonstrations are a neatly-structured way of doing it. Here, much happens (almost) by accident and because something caught the eye, the first flower demonstration being one such. The whole is much more of a slippery customer when it comes to attempting a definition. Haidee-Jo works as she goes along and has what we might call an “Oooh, look” personality. If you want an enjoyable couple of hours where you can learn far more than you’ll perhaps ever realise, this is it.

It’s also worth adding that the wildtrack perfectly captures the atmosphere of the scenes, from the proliferation of birdsong to tiny details such as the snick of a tripod being closed. It’s attention to detail like this that make APV films such complete works.

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Trees (Drawing Masterclass) || Denis John-Naylor

If you want a comprehensive guide to drawing almost any variety of tree using pencils or pens (including ballpoints), you need look no further than this.

As befits a masterclass, this begins with materials and surfaces and moves to methods, including the use of photographs and measured drawing as well as the all-important line and tone that are the mainstay of the work included. There is then a discussion of the shape of individual trees, both in full leaf and as bare branches in winter. This is a valuable section that explains the way trees vary as much as people in terms of individuality and stresses the importance of observation. The bulk of the book is then taken up by a series of exercises that work through the ideas and techniques previously discussed and introduce further detail and with the depiction of trees in a landscape, which is probably how most people are going to draw them.

The structure and artwork are superb, but there is a strong reservation regarding the reproduction, which I’ve noticed in other titles in this series. The contrast seems too sharp and tends to reduce the illustrations to blacks and whites without the subtle grey scales that are essential, especially in the pencil work. It obscures detail and negates much of the good work done by the author.

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The Diaries of Randolph Schwabe: British Art 1930-48 || Gill Clarke

I think it’s fair to say that you need to have an abiding interest in the minutiae of someone’s life to read their almost daily diary in detail. At nearly 600 pages, this is a weighty tome and consists almost entirely of its source material, with relatively little in the way of editorial content or illustrations – what there are of the latter, which are not all by Schwabe, might make you wish for more.

Quite what prompted Schwabe to start a diary at the age of 45 is not clear, and he is silent himself on his motivations. Their period, though, does start shortly before his appointment as Principal of the Slade School of Art and continues up to his death. Having worked as an art critic, writing came easily to him, so there is not the awkwardness that sometimes afflicts those who primarily think visually. His sometimes rather mundane entries are punctuated by observations on people, contemporary events and, perhaps most importantly, his own artistic practice. “[He] might be regarded as the Pepys of the art world”, the cover blurb helpfully and perceptively adds.

If you want a commentary on the art world in the period running up to the Second World War and continuing to its aftermath, you’ll find it here. Schwabe is a perceptive and sometimes acerbic commentator who is aware not only of his own milieu but also what surrounds it and acts on it. He certainly does not live in a bubble, as befits the Principal of a major institution whose job is as much administrative and political as it is artistic. Gill Clarke has kept a light editorial hand and her brief appearances are always relevant and avoid the schoolboy error of overwhelming her subject.

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The Arborealists: the art of the tree

Who doesn’t like trees? Put your hand down, Figgins Minor, it’s not funny and it’s not clever. Trees are under threat as never before, or so we’re led to believe, so this is, if nothing else, timely.

When it comes to instructional books (which this is not), those on trees are thin on the ground; the paper used to print them certainly wouldn’t threaten a forest. They are, however, ubiquitous in landscapes, but few people bother to paint them as subjects in themselves. This is a shame as, apart from the representational challenges, they present an infinite variety of shapes, colours, textures and forms and change with every season.

What a book such as this does, for me above all, is to throw together a wonderfully varied collection of artists, styles and media that otherwise would probably never be found within a single collection. My antennae quickly said “exhibition” and this indeed did grow out of Under The Greenwood: Picturing The British Tree, which was held at the St Barbe Museum & Art Gallery in 2013. I warm to that “grew out of”, because this isn’t (just) a catalogue, but rather a determination to give a temporary collection greater permanence. The Arborealists isn’t just a handy title for the book, it’s a conscious grouping of the artists involved, a loose association borne out of a sense of camaraderie and which exhibits across the south of England.

No fewer than thirty-seven artists have contributed to the book, each given a double-page spread and, for the most part, two illustrations. It’s inevitably a sampler, but the format also emphasises the variety of the work on show from oils to watercolour to ink and printmaking. Each artist has a short introduction, either biographical or in their own words, but these never take over from the illustrations, which are given generous space, as they should be.

There are also some useful background essays which deal with trees and their position in culture, as well as a handy history of trees in art, which has some particularly nicely-chosen illustrations.

Overall, if you love trees, or painting, or even just happily miscellaneous collections, this is a book not to miss.

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Pop Art || Thomas Böhler

If you want to tick the retro box and are into what seems to be a minor vogue for imitation, you’ll love this. And I’m sorry if that sounds like faint praise, because it isn’t meant to be. This is going to have a very definite audience and I can’t help feeling it’s something you’re either going to want the moment you see it, or never want to see again.

But let’s concentrate on the positives. Pop art is about bright colours, usually counted in single figures in one image. The Coke bottle (cautiously labelled “cola”) in blue on an orange background instantly references Andy Warhol’s soup can, and the author openly acknowledges this. There are other striking images, most of whose influences you’ll recognise even if you can’t immediately place them.

This is a slim, inexpensive volume that won’t tax either your wallet or your time. The author has had the good sense to accept that most people will approach this subject as a piece of fun, neither needing nor wanting and in-depth study. Pop art was about the throw-away society and didn’t expect you to spend time on it, so the book is entirely consistent in reflecting that. It’s striking, easy to follow and exactly as much fun as it needs and is intended to be.

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Paint Yourself Calm || Jean Haines

It’s hard to convey just how much I hate all that new-agey stuff. Most of it’s just an excuse for a load of self-obsessed navel gazing. And it’s never cheap, either. Do please feel free to disagree with me, but please read the rest of this before you write in!

It would be a shame to dismiss this on the basis I’ve outlined, or even to regard it as having nothing to do with practical art. It has everything to do with the practice of painting and, above all, of getting yourself into the state of mind where you can put down on paper what you feel in your head and see with your mind’s eye. If you want a book that explains the creative process in a way that’s completely relevant and comprehensible, this is it. It may or may not be Jean’s prime purpose, but, for the artist at least, it’s the result she’s produced.

The thing about painting is that it’s so much more than a mechanical process. Sure, there are things you have to do, such as prepare grounds, mix colours and lay washes, but these can take on Zen-like properties if you let them. A lot of people say that routine helps set them in the right frame of mind for what comes next, which is pretty much the same thing.

A lot of the content of this genuinely intriguing book is what might be called pure watercolour. This isn’t a step-by-step how-to manual at all, not one that tells you how to paint specific subjects. Rather, it’s about the use and application of colour to create a state of mind. Jean’s intention, I think, is that this should be within yourself, but the thing is that paintings have an audience: other people will see them and that state can be induced in them as well. Art, as Edgar Degas said, is not what you see but what you make others see. It’s not exactly abstraction – most of the illustrations are entirely recognisable – but the form is definitely more important than the function.

If you know how to paint, but want to understand why, and why that why is important, read this book. It’s beautiful, rewarding and full of insights.

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London A-Z || John Metcalfe

First up, let’s deal with why this is appearing in an art review blog. Well, it’s “decorated” (their word) by no less a figure than Edward Bawden. Oh, the days when you could commission a major artist to produce simple black and white outlines! It’s a stretch, but it’s my blog and I say what goes in.

It all looks a bit retro, especially the price, 2/6, half a crown, twelve-and-a-half pee in new money (I can still do the maths). Not such good news on the back cover, though: £6.95. That’s inflation for you!

What this is is a 1953 guide to London, at least in part for overseas visitors coming over for the coronation of the woman who’s still our Queen. Timely, I think, is the word you’re looking for. Opening it at random, I see that you could get into Hampton Court for 1/- Monday to Friday, Saturday 6d, Sundays and Bank Holidays free. It’s £21 for a full ticket now, any day, which makes the book look like super value. You could get there by Green Line bus or by Underground and trolley bus. The Underground is still running.

On the opposite page, it says: “Hospitals, see Doctors and Dentists”, so I did. We still have the NHS (just), so treatment there is still free. “The most you have to pay a dentist (except for dentures) is £1.” I had a new crown fitted a couple of years ago and it was the wrong side of £200, so Hampton Court is looking better value.

The book is not without its humour, indeed it’s part of its charm. A couple of pages back from Doctors is Debutantes. “…the debutante of today quite often works for a living, and can usually be recognised at the Berkeley or Quag’s or the Four Hundred by the loudness of her voice and the pinkness of her escort.”

I could go on, but then you wouldn’t need to go out and buy the book. Most of the physical London it describes is still there, even if you will need deeper pockets to pay for entry (though they invented credit cards to cover that). The cover blurb for this edition describes it as “essential reading for every metropolitan explorer” and I wouldn’t disagree with that.

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