Vincent’s Books || Mariella Guzzoni

Heer Van Gogh didn’t just paint and write letters, he read widely as well, you know. “I have a more or less irresistible passion for books”.

The primary source for this new approach to the artist is Vincent’s letters, his own eloquent commentary on his personal life and creative processes. Sometimes, you wonder whether he wasn’t maybe just a little too self-analytical. Those to his brother alone mention some 200 authors and he devoured fiction as well as monographs, biographies and museum guides. You might wonder how he found time to paint!

Do we need yet another angle on the life of someone we should really approach through their own output? Van Gogh was, after all, a painter, not a literary critic. Yes, his letters certainly can inform our view of his paintings and, it could be argued, his interpretation of what he read fed into his own work. However, an account of his reading does appear to be maybe just a little of one for the completists.

Perhaps I’m being unfair. An artist’s influences are certainly important and having Van Gogh’s own accounts of what he saw and how he reacted to it, especially when he writes as eloquently as he does, is undoubtedly valuable, maybe even fascinating.

One problem I encountered was the three-digit numbers that appear in square brackets in the text. Much digging in the supplementary material suggests that these are a reference to the archive of Vincent’s letters, but this is not explicitly stated. A note at the beginning would have been helpful.

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Vincent Van Gogh: a life in letters || Nienke Bakker, Leo Jansen & Hans Luitjen

You can’t have too much Van Gogh, can you? Can you? Let’s leave that there and acknowledge that, for a man as complex as Vincent, his own words add considerably to our understanding of his work. As well as simply talking about his life, he was eloquent on the creative process itself. Artists, who mainly think visually, do not often write well – frequently either too much or too little, but our man was a deep thinker and a good analyst. Perhaps that was his trouble.

Even at over 400 pages, this is only a selection, but the editors (who are the team behind the full 6 volume edition of the letters for the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) have been careful to make it representative. They also include manuscript reproductions as well as sketches and paintings that make this relevant to any study of Van Gogh’s art which is, after all, what we should be most interested in. The result is immediately accessible for anyone with maybe only a passing interest – specialists will probably have sought out the full canon anyway.

Sensibly, the arrangement is chronological, but also related to location, so that a connection with the artist’s often complex living arrangements is possible. Any temptation to try to introduce themes is sensibly avoided. Each section is introduced with a summary of that stage of Van Gogh’s life, his relationships and where he was in his artistic development. Once again, the more general reader is catered for and no detailed background knowledge is assumed.

The result is an effective and readable autobiography raisonné which is just learned enough to be authoritative without being indigestible for the audience it’s aimed at.

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Paint Pad Poster Book – City Scenes

The first thing that’ll strike you on opening this is the sheer amount of detail in the source images. These are not simply blow-ups of the ones that appeared in the original books (I noted features of the series when I wrote about the first volume), they’ve been completely re-originated so that colours, marks and even granulation are immediately visible. It’s striking, as it should be.

The five scenes here cover bridges, statues, vegetation and street furniture as well as water, buildings and other structures. The instructions are simple and you should be able to produce results you can be proud to display for only a little over £3 a time.

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Learn Watercolour Landscapes Quickly || Hazel Soan

This excellent little series continues to impress. Inevitably, small potted guides can only tell you a limited amount, but all the authors who have so far been involved have managed to distil a wealth of knowledge and information into the space and word count available. These are not so much books to study in depth, but rather bullet points to use as inspiration and to jump off from. Even the most experienced artist should find the uncomplicated approach refreshing for the creative spirit.

Hazel Soan is, it hardly needs to be said, one of the most experienced and instructive authors there is. Unsurprisingly, therefore, this is quite simply one of the best guides to landscape painting you’ll find. No, it’s not a complete course and yes, you might want one of those as well. However, just when you’re feeling dispirited and bogged down, this will cheer you up immensely. Hazel has made a few films; her sheer enthusiasm shines throughout those and you can even feel it off the page. She loves what she does and wants you to love it too – and you will.

Shall I tell you what’s here? In detail, no. Trust me – it’s everything you want to know wrapped up in a few short paragraphs that’ll enhance your understanding in a way it’s perhaps never experienced before. Wonderful.

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Grayson Perry || Jacky Klein

I’m very partial to a bit of ceramics and I love innovation and experiment, but I’ve always found Grayson Perry a bit of a stretch. I don’t know whether it’s the Claire alter-ego thing, the artist-as-artwork, or the slightly knowing, sideways glance, but I’ve just had the feeling that he’s trying a little too hard. I know he’s good, in the way that I know Frank Sinatra is good, because people I respect have told me so and explained how.

This is my explained-how moment. I said I’d approach this with an open mind and be prepared to be a convert. It is, after all, a sumptuous publication that covers just about every aspect of Perry’s work (this third edition brings it up to date with A House For Essex and other new works that have appeared since the previous edition of 2013). There are as many top-quality illustrations as you could wish for and the generous page size means you can examine everything in detail.

Most artists would be glad to get a monograph at all and regard a second edition as true recognition. To have three, covering eleven years, and a cover price that’s frankly a steal suggests popularity of mammoth extent. It’s easy to see why the publisher is that confident. Perry has something for everyone and there’s an initial accessibility to his work that belies the considerable depth behind it. His pieces may attract crowds, but they are lot more than just crowd-pleasers; observation, detail and wry humour play an important part.

So, if I won the lottery would my first indulgence be a Grayson Perry piece? I’m not sure, but this gorgeous volume has taught me to appreciate him even more than I hoped it would.

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Acrylic Paint Pouring || Tanja Jung

I’ll admit that paint pouring, which is allegedly “the latest technique to take the art world by storm” leaves me cold. This time next year, will we be looking back and wondering what it was all about? I think we will.

However, if you want to be taken by storm and are thinking of dipping your toe in the water, you won’t find a better introduction than this. Quite rightly, no previous knowledge is assumed and there are clear explanations of materials, working methods and – crucially – what happens and why. To achieve control, you really do need to understand your materials and preparation counts for a lot, saving countless messy and potentially costly mistakes.

The core of the book is a series of sixteen straightforward projects, each disposed of in four pages. These get you practising techniques as well as discovering creativity; the lack of complication and over-thinking mean you’re never going to feel lost. There’s no point in simply learning to follow paint-by-numbers instructions – you’re always going to be wanting to branch out on your own, which you’ll be ready to when you’ve finished here.

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DVD Tonal Watercolours || Amanda Hyatt

“Tone does all the work, colour gets all the glory”, Amanda rather helpfully sums up at the start of this varied film. It is, she goes on to explain, about light rather than colour, using highlights, shade and contrast to give shape to a two dimensional representation of a three dimensional scene.

It is both helpful and unhelpful that the weather is somewhat stormy. Helpful in the sense that there’s plenty of variety and drama, less so in that bright highlights are hard to come by. Then again, it gives Amanda a chance to demonstrate how to create something almost out of nothing and to work with what you have. In the overview discussion at the end of the film, there’s a genuine sense of “I really don’t remember it being like that at all”, as what looked flat at the time springs off the paper in a really rather dramatic way.

There are four demonstrations. The first, a simple Kentish landscape, provides a chance to work with skies and for Amanda to remark “don’t be tempted to go back into it, let it do its own thing”. Here, the wash provides the anchor that holds the rest of the work together, balanced by fore- and middle grounds. The main feature is a patch of light that runs through the centre of the scene and provides a path for the eye as well as a balance for the left and right sides.

Two paintings at Ramsgate harbour are exercises in planning and simplification. “Everything’s difficult, that’s what I like about art”, Amanda says as she works with a complex subject, changing light and blustery wind. Her main theme here is about identifying points of interest and leaving the eye to fill in details that are only suggested – “I haven’t tried to paint all the boats”.

A dramatic sky at Reculver comes with many challenges and, ignoring her previous advice to leave things alone, Amanda re-works this one several times to get the right contrast between dark and light clouds, the foreground and the bright stone of the Roman towers themselves. Again, careful consideration of light and dark produces an exciting result.

The final demonstration, at Whitstable, introduces figures as well as buildings and boats. As befits Amanda’s impressionistic style, these are suggested, but add an extra dimension not present in the previous work. Her approach can be summed up in the remark, “it’s an impression of a building, it doesn’t have to be correct”, the point being that the viewer’s eye will see both what it wants and what the art guides it towards.

This is an intriguing film, both in terms of what’s painted and how to overcome difficult and changing conditions. “You can achieve a lot with a few colours”.

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DVD Acrylic Painting || Chris Rose

My initial notes on this were rather frustrated – “talking head, too much detail, do I need to know this?” By the end, however, I was converted and I’m prepared to say that this is one of the best introductions to acrylic painting you could wish for. At nearly two-and-a-half hours, it’s longer than many films and, yes, it does go into a lot of detail. Do you need a full explanation and demonstration of stretching paper, for instance? Well, if you’re a beginner and you’ve never done it before, yes you do, and this is one of the few films that will show you the whole process in real time. I stopped banging my head on the desk long enough to give this a big tick. One-nil to Chris.

After a fair quantity of patient introduction, it’s time to get down to painting and the main body of the film is a single demonstration of a lakeside scene that includes a distant hillside, water and trees. The hillside allows Chris to show recession, the water brings in reflections and there are two lots of trees – middle and further distance, so detailed and not-detailed. It’s a rather brilliant choice and means that the work can be demonstrated in almost real time rather than having different topics introduced in separate demonstrations that are necessarily curtailed. If you’ve ever sat in front of a film muttering “but that’s the bit I wanted to see”, well, you’ll see it. Two-nil to Chris.

Oh, and finally, I like the man. He’s a warm and generous demonstrator who gets under your skin. He’s interesting even when he’s reminding you to clean your brushes before the paint hardens and they become useless. Three-nil and a clean sweep.

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London’s New Scene – art and culture in the 1960s || Lisa Tickner

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the Sixties was a decade that was achingly hip and one of the most innovative in the history of popular culture. You could also make the case that its “anything goes” morality extended into the arts and that, just because something is new, it doesn’t have to be good.

All this is true, as is the fact that somewhere, as Philip Larkin assured us, something happened between the end of the Lady Chatterley trial and the Beatles’ first LP. It’s not entirely an exaggeration to say that the monochrome world of Post War austerity exploded into colour or that the Teenager was invented, albeit the groundwork was visible some years previously.

If you wanted an image that sums up the spirit of the time, the opening scene of Michelangelo Antonioni’s film Blow Up would be it. The scene is London and through largely deserted streets comes a motley crew of Harlequinesque characters who wouldn’t look out of place in that other seminal piece, the TV series The Prisoner. As a coup de théȃtre this is masterful, as it never leaves the viewer’s mind and sets the mood for the rest of the film, which adds a mystery that gives depth to what would otherwise be a superficial confection. It is however, one skilfully woven around the work of a photographer avowedly based on David Bailey, the wunderkind and chronicler of the time. Unsurprisingly, the film gets a whole chapter to itself in this thorough but eminently readable account of a remarkable decade.

The received view of the Sixties is that, if you can remember it, you weren’t there. The atmosphere was heady with the new and – er –substances. If this was you, the book will be a revelation; for the rest of us, a brilliant aide-mémoire.

For me, the Sixties was the time when I became aware of the wider world, which is why I love this so much and am writing about it in such depth. Some of you will agree with me, others will regard later decades as “theirs” and the earlier period as desperately out of date and old hat. To you, I’d say: read this. I’m not asking you to be converted, but at least you’ll understand. The “scene” of the title conveys the idea that the period was remarkably coherent and a lot more than simply a jumble of ideas that poured out, although it was that too.

The structure is chronological and begins with a look at Ken Russell’s 1962 documentary, Pop Goes The Easel, which blew away many cobwebs in the still staid (and still black & white) BBC. 1963 sees the opening of the Kasmin gallery that celebrated many newly-emerging talents, as well as the idea of the gallery as a white cube. The whole thing is a chronicle of the movement that wasn’t a movement – rather, simply an expression of a mood – and tells the stories of the people who didn’t so much drive it as surf the wave that it sometimes seems to have created for itself.

The final chapter is The Art School Revolution and tells the story of Hornsey College of Art and the artists who emerged from the earlier groundwork and carried what we might call the flame forward. A rather useful epilogue, When Attitudes Became Form, hints at the legacy, but doesn’t omit the fact that some things were just mannered. As John Lennon put it, “Nothing happened except that we all got dressed up”.

Were the Sixties really nothing more than the Emperor’s new clothes? You decide. It was a heck of a suit, though, and one of many colours.

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Women Artists: the Linda Nochlin Reader || ed Maura Reilly

Linda Nochlin was the doyenne of art historians and also a champion of women in art. Her seminal article, “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?”, which appeared in ARTnews in 1971, quite properly leads this collection of thirty of her most essential essays. If the original piece didn’t effectively answer its own question, such a substantial volume (there are nearly 500 pages) slams the contradiction firmly down in front of you.

It helps that this is, while not extensively so, thoughtfully illustrated and the publisher is to be congratulated on getting some very good colour reproduction on what is basically book paper – they’ve managed to choose a stock that doesn’t leach the life out of anything that touches it, and that’s by no means easy.

Maura Reilly, the editor, provides a handy introduction that sets Linda’s writing in context and there is also an interview in which she looks back on her life and work. Two of the pieces included were specially written for the collection.

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