Painting Clouds and Skies in Oils || Mo Teeuw

This is easily the best book on its subject, probably ever. If you were to combine the spirits of John Constable and JMW Turner, perhaps with a dash of Edward Seago thrown in, I’m not sure you could better it.

The extent of the coverage is breath-taking. It’s a given that skies are infinitely variable. East Anglian based Mo Teeuw has, however, managed to cover just about every type you can imagine, from clear to clouded, cirrus to cumulus, in clear and overcast weather and in all seasons. And she manages this without repeating herself once or leaving the reader overwhelmed. If you care about skies and, as a landscape painter you must, this book is an essential guide. Even if you think you know the subject inside out, there will be something new for you here.

Although this looks a slim volume, it has a surprising weight when you pick it up and this is down to the 160 pages. Although the paper is quite thin it’s of excellent quality and the images are all superbly reproduced – to have not one dud among this many is an achievement worth celebrating.

The book has examples and demonstrations as well as practical information and extensive discussions of how and why skies appear the way they do. This is about more than just applying paint, it’s an in-depth study of its subject. I think you could even get quite a lot out of it if you aren’t a painter but just a lover of landscape. You should certainly also look at it even if you’re not an oil painter. As well as Mo’s own work, the book features a number of guest artists who add a welcome additional perspective.

I said that this is easily the best book on its subject. Skies in oils is, of course, a small field, but I really don’t see how this will be bettered in a very long time, if ever. It’s a true classic.

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DVD My Chinese Vision || Herman Pekel

In my review of Herman’s previous film with APV, I described him as a magician. To that, I think I’ll add alchemist. Although this is filmed in China, the city street and beach scenes could be almost anywhere, although a session around (newly built) traditional architecture does give more sense of place. All the sessions are dogged by heat, humidity and a dense haze (which might be smog). It’s clear that working in these conditions is hard labour and Herman does well to keep going and produce what can really only be described as pure gold from base metal.

What makes the film watchable, indeed compelling, is Herman himself. His commentary is continuous – few other artists can manage to work and talk at the same time as well as he does – and includes nuggets of wisdom you’ll want to write down. In the city, where buildings, street furniture and signs abound, he remarks, “The more complex a subject is, the more I tend to use just drybrush”. This combines with advice to “Let the water, pigment and paper do the work for you” to demonstrate ways of simplifying not just the subject, but your technique. He adds later, “You must have a vision, you must see the painting finished before you start.”

The scenes Herman chooses are unpromising and the haze makes things more difficult as details are obscured and distances barely visible. His ability to focus on a small area and to manipulate it into an effective composition is the alchemy I referred to earlier. He also has sound advice, especially in the conditions, to do 90% of the work on location, but to leave the remainder for later (on this occasion in the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel room) when you have had a chance to rethink. Here, outlines are tightened up and further details added that pull everything together.

I’m not sure how much of a flavour of China this presents, apart from the heat and the crowds, and it would be unreasonable to suggest that it was something to look at from that point of view. However, as a lesson on painting in unpromising conditions, and on working on location with watercolour, it’s utterly gripping.

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What is Painting? || Julian Bell

This timely reissue, in a revised edition, addresses some fundamental issues relating to what we might call reproductive art. What, for example, asks Bell, makes one painting more “real” than another?, addressing the whole issue of the nature of reality itself and whether we can, in fact, trust artistic expression. A painting is, after all, merely a version of what the artist was looking at. Indeed, I think one could argue that “merely” is the wrong word there and that an interpretation, maybe even an explanation, is what we should expect from an artist. If we want absolute reality, then a trip to the location or a good photograph are more appropriate and accurate reporters.

Interestingly, some of the issues that Bell addresses are also raised in Andrew Marr’s recent A Short Book About Painting, not least the question of what is “bad” art, why does it have an appeal and what, anyway, is the nature and definition of beauty?

The information sheet that came with my copy tells me that “much has changed in the world of art” since this was originally published in 1999 and that the text has been substantially rewritten while retaining the six-chapter structure. I turned to the preface for further information – what’s changed, how has it been addressed and, indeed, why was this necessary? Sadly, Bell is silent on this and the short preface appears to be the original. I would have liked more, and particularly from the author himself. It doesn’t alter the incisive examination of the nature of painting, but some pointers would have been useful, perhaps even essential, especially if some of the basic premises have changed. And, if they haven’t, is revision really necessary at all?

This is, however, a worthwhile analysis of the creative process and is well-argued and thoroughly illustrated. As is common with books where the text is the main event, the paper doesn’t do justice to the reproductions, although having them as aides-mémoire is handy.

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Watercolour Techniques and Tutorials For The Complete Beginner || Paul Clark

There’s a lot to like about this straightforward, patient and thorough guide. I might take slight issue with the idea of it being for “the complete beginner”. In truth, I think a little facility with the medium would probably help, although the explanations are simple and concise and certainly won’t blind you with terminology.

Paul explains materials, the basics of colour theory and technical matters such as brushstrokes and washes in short paragraphs and simple illustrations that are completely to the point. He even manages to cover perspective pretty adequately in just two pages. No, this isn’t exhaustive but, if you’ve been put off by some of the whole books dedicated to the subject, this one might be worth the cover price for that topic alone.

The rest of the book is devoted to a series of demonstrations, many of which I think the complete tyro might struggle with. Inevitably, the results are complex and the use of washes and wet-in-wet could well seem daunting. Paul has a facility with the medium that makes for excellent results and his clear explanations will probably make you think that following him is worth the effort, though.

The range of subjects covered is impressive and this is entirely teaching by example. There are buildings, landscapes, birds, still lifes, trees and clouds as well as handy hints on figures, skies, flowers and much more. If you’re serious about learning watercolour, this is a guide that should keep you satisfied for quite a long time and one which, in spite of the somewhat virtuoso illustrations, you won’t lose patience with.

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Victorian Watercolours from the Art Galley of New South Wales

Victorian watercolours are often dismissed as being sentimental works of no great artistic or societal value. While it is true that a great deal of idealisation goes on, this is not something unique to that particular period; brutal naturalism is something that has perhaps really only gained traction relatively recently.

There is not a great deal to be said about this book. The title leaves you in no doubt as to what it is and it’s something you’ll either pick up with enthusiasm or retreat quickly away from.

However, if you’re still listening, you’ll want to know that the selection is varied and representative and the works, if you’re UK-based, not easy to see in person. The quality of the reproduction is very high indeed and the generous sizing and concise analyses thoroughly welcome.

Quite simply, if Victorian watercolours are your thing, you’ll want and love this.

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Venice: a watercolour journey || P L Hobbs

Venice is one of the most visited, photographed and painted places in the world. This, however, is a bit more than just another tourist souvenir.

Phil Hobbs has been visiting the city for over twenty years and paints not just the grand vistas, but also the forgotten corners and the people who live there, as well as those who come to stand and stare. The result is a vibrant portrait of a living entity that captures the sense of place to perfection. Anecdotes and historical snippets add to the life and vibrancy that leap off the pages.

Phil’s style is fairly conventional loose(ish) watercolour, but he also varies it subtly so that there are more washes when atmosphere is key and it becomes a little tighter when detail is important. People are identifiable as individuals rather than simple place-holding blobs.

If you’re a lover of watercolour and of Venice, this is a book you’ll really want. It’s almost a visit in itself.

Available from http://www.plhobbs.co.uk/

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Silent Witnesses: Trees in British Art 1760-1870 || Christiana Payne

One of the first things you notice from a cursory glance at this is that the painting of trees has gained a lot more life in recent years. Maybe it’s the speed of travel and the reduction in afforestation, but a modern painting will show the tree as much more heroic than many historical examples. Today, we travel at 70 miles an hour on open roads, with trees as part of a distant view or flashing by. This is a far cry from the days when the fastest thing around was a galloping horse and many thoroughfares were little more than tracks, with trees often towering over them. Then, trees obscured the light, harboured footpads and wild animals, as well as impeding the way. They were things to fear rather than love.

It’s quickly apparent that, in the period covered by this really rather magnificent book, tree drawings and paintings fall broadly into three camps: the detailed, almost botanical study, gloomy clearings, or incidental growths whose precise species is not always apparent. Trees were so commonplace that an artist would assume that all their viewers knew what they were looking at without being told in any detail.

This doesn’t mean that trees were unremarked – as the illustrations here make amply clear – or unrevered. Writing in 1792, William Gilpin observed that a tree was “the grandest, and most beautiful of all the productions of the earth” and John Ruskin asserted that “if you can paint one leaf, you can paint the world”. And, of course, trees have been seats of learning, points of devotion, meeting places and waymarkers since the dawn of time.

This book accompanies the exhibition A Walk In The Woods at the Higgins Bedford and the launch of the Woodland Trust’s Charter For Trees which celebrates the 800th anniversary of the Forest Charter (effectively, the commoners’ Magna Carta). Christiana Payne includes history, folklore and art as well as looking at the role of trees in the country-house culture of the time and issues relating the felling of trees to provide timber for navy ships. It all makes for a fascinating and complete study.

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