Tom Hammick – wall, window, world || Julian Bell

Serendipity has brought this one out of the pile right after Picturing People and the two sit rather comfortably together.

In Tom Hammicks’s work, figures sit in front of landscapes that range from his native southern England to the maritime provinces of Canada. Once again, these are not conventional portraits and the “figures” can be both human and inanimate, sometimes dominating, sometimes elaborating the scene. Set beside Charlotte Mullins’ work, this emphasises the wide variety of figurative work (in the widest sense) that prevails at the present time. If you can afford both, you’d want to shelve them together.

I’ve quoted the subtitle because it presents an immediate challenge – not unlike the paintings in question. Julian Bell elaborates at the beginning of the introduction: Only Looking. “You look out. A wall stops your vision … there is glass. Beyond the glass, maybe another wall. But sooner or later your eyes reach the horizon … beyond which they cannot go. You know the world goes on … the world is always more than you can see.” This rather elegantly captures the essence of Tom Hammick’s work and certainly explains, for the new viewer, both how to look as well as how to see.

This is a perceptive account of the work of an intriguing and influential painter and teacher whose work asks many questions and often only hints at what may be the answers.

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The Magic of Watercolour Flowers || Paul Riley

There is a wonderfully fluid quality to Paul Riley’s work. His use of line and colour is deft, subtle and instinctive. It also looks simple but, like so many things that do, it’s the result of a great deal of background work. When a brushstroke goes down, it’s because it’s meant to be there. You get few happy accidents.

The result of thoughtful painting is usually excellent teaching and it’s the case here, because Paul knows the exact reason for every mark he makes. In the DVD which accompanies this book, and which you really should try to see, his commentary is much more “what I’m going to do” than “what I’ve done”. In print, this leads to a discussion of flower painting rather than a series of extended captions, although he can do those too, when required in the demonstration paintings.

I think it’s fair to say that you wouldn’t come to Paul for a guide to painting flowers per se. Although they are one of his main subjects, they’re almost always part, albeit the centrepiece, of a larger arrangement. Botanical illustration, or even the less formal flower portrait, this is not. For the most part, too, the details of individual blooms and flower types don’t bother him. It’s more about colour, shape and perspective and, as I’ve hinted above, he explains this really rather well.

I honestly think you should regard this book and its accompanying DVD as a combined purchase. I’ll also stick my head above the parapet and suggest that they’re both not so much about flower painting at all, but about colour, line and form. And, as that, the result is a masterpiece.

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The Kew Book of Botanical Illustration || Christabel King

This, as far as botanical illustration is concerned, is pretty much the tablets of stone, the Authorised Version. Kew do not hand out their imprimatur lightly and want to approve every stage of the production. If they sign off, it’s a guarantee that everything is absolutely right. Having a book like this, and having Kew in the title, is therefore quite a coup, especially for an independent publisher.

On top of that, Christabel King is one of a very select band of illustrators who works at Kew itself and can therefore be regarded as absolutely top flight. I really can’t emphasise too much how good this is getting. Botanical illustration at this level is respected and used by botanists around the world for identification purposes. The work produced is better than photography as, rather than show an individual example of a specimen, it can create a typical one, with all the likely characteristics included. As well as a section on using a microscope, there is also advice on preserving specimens and showing spots and markings. At this level, detail is everything and it gets very minute indeed.

For all this technicality, the book is surprisingly accessible. I don’t mean for a moment that the casual reader will become a fully-fledged professional as soon as they’ve read it but, if this kind of work interests you, you won’t feel swamped. There’s a nice sense of progression to the chapters and Christabel explains everything clearly and, above all, with worked examples. If you do get serious, the chapter on Curtis’s Botanical Magazine, with sample pages and a template for laying out a plate, will give you an idea of what to aim for.

Despite the weight of its authority, this is not a book solely for the expert, but is accessible to anyone who is reasonably serious about flower painting. You may never reach its dizzy heights, but you’ll enjoy the journey and the attempt.

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The Drawings of Barbara Hepworth || Alan Wilkinson

I had to remind myself several times as I went through this that Barbara Hepworth is a sculptor. And, yes, I also found myself using the present tense about her. There’s such a freshness here that this work simply doesn’t feel historical.

Of course sculptors draw, if only to sketch out the basic shape of a piece. What’s remarkable about Barbara Hepworth, though, is that she was able to capture shapes, and especially figures, as well in two dimensions as she was in three. I was also struck by the way her fluidity of line in sculpture is reflected on paper or canvas. You might rightly say that this is obvious but, where she works with recognisable subjects, you can see how she gets to the pure abstract. In very many ways, this book becomes the missing link and explains better than any appreciative piece how she gets from one to the other. If you wanted a primer in understanding Twentieth Century abstract sculpture, this would fit the bill very nicely.

Alongside the many, beautifully reproduced illustrations, Alan Wilkinson provides a commentary that supplies both context and chronology and underlines – if that were necessary – the importance of Hepworth’s work.

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The Art of Sumi-E || Naomi Okamoto

Sumi-E is what we generally regard as the classic Japanese art of ink painting that uses a simple medium, the white of the paper, and carefully crafted and placed brushstrokes to create an image. The essence of it is just that, the essence of the subject, which is usually a natural form.

This is a complete guide that includes advice on materials – particularly the specialised brushes and papers – as well as instruction in the basics of painting with ink, both black and colour. From here, a series of exercises gets you practising with shapes – a fish with a single stroke for instance. Naomi also includes the philosophical aspects of Japanese painting, which is as much a state of mind as a technical exercise. In the foregoing example, for instance, it is she, not the imagined fish, that feels the touch of the water. It’s a hard concept to convey, but she does it rather well.

As your skills and confidence (and you need to be confident to achieve the single-stroke structure) develop, you’ll move on to flowers, animals, landscapes and even figures. These last are perhaps the most rewarding as they turn the whole idea of figurative work on its head, with less becoming more and detail only barely hinted at.

This is as comprehensive a guide as you could wish to a fascinating and absorbing art form. My only reservation is that it seems to be printed on a paper that knocks some of the colour back and has a slight tooth, meaning that the illustrations look very slightly unsharp.

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Tales of The Brothers Grimm with drawings by Natalie Frank

I’m not a great fan of fairy tales. They belong (to me) to a slightly alien world and, in spite of claims that they’re part of folk art, collections made from the oral tradition, I get a strong sense of authorship – that the “compilers” in fact altered things to fit their own morality and world view. Presenting them, as they so often are, as something for children is also misleading. It’s an infantilising of now-forgotten origins, just as with nursery rhymes, that does no service either to the stories or the children whose nights are traumatised by the frankly horrific.

All that said, if you disagree with me, then I think you’ll love this new edition. The thirty-six stories that are included here are unsanitized (as the blurb has it) and therefore appear as their authors/compilers intended. The seventy five gouache and pastel illustrations are properly scary, Gothic and Surrealist and the marginalia maintain a sense of mystery and menace throughout.

Just, please, don’t buy this for your children!

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Sunlight & Shadows in Watercolour || Lucy Willis

Lucy Willis’s work has always been about light, and even more, the interplay between it and shade. Most books of this type will include the word in the title, but Lucy already has one of those. If that was a consideration here, it has produced a more apt one as both aspects are equally important.

In this generously-illustrated work, Lucy examines, discusses and demonstrates all aspects of capturing light, from full sunlight to deep shade. She’ll show you how to use the white of the paper against carefully-selected colours to impart brilliance as well as how to use muted shades to capture shadows. She’s also very sound on working against the light.

Subject matter includes interiors, exteriors, landscapes, buildings, people and still lifes and the attention to detail throughout is remarkable.

As well as being a showcase for some exquisite work, this is also a thorough analysis of and guide to working with one of the most important elements of any painting.

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