The Drawing Lesson || Mark Crilley

“A graphic novel that teaches you how to draw”. That got your attention, didn’t it? Well, it got mine, which is why you’re reading this review.

I’m not going to tell you the plot … oh heck, yes I am. Spoiler alert: he gets quite good at it by the end. Disheartened by an encounter with an unsympathetic bookseller in a park – well, if I only had a bench-full of books to sell, I’d be hard-nosed too – The Boy, as we’ll call him, meets A Girl. This being fantasy-land, she doesn’t tell him not to stare at her, call the cops or cover up the drawing she’s doing. Well, of course she’s drawing, that’s the point. No, she’s sympathetic and, having assured him she’s not a teacher, proceeds to help The Boy to draw. In fact, they have a load of adventures together because, hey, that’s what people do in books.

Right, I’ve had a lot of fun with this because, you know what, it is a lot of fun. The narrative is pretty straightforward; there are no unexpected plot twists. The drawing is simple, too, which keeps the message easy to follow. This isn’t a graphic novel in the sense of one that rewards detailed study, though Gene Ha, who’s worked with Alan Moore, seems to like it. He says “I can’t wait to get this for every kid on my gift buying list”, and also “Whatever your age [it’s] an essential primer on how to draw what you see”. That’s a slightly mixed message, but he’s right. I can’t decide what age group it’s intended for either. I’m going to say it’s aimed at people who like it, and I don’t think that’s age-dependent.

This sets out to be different and it succeeds. Most importantly, it doesn’t just succeed in being different.

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Take Three Colours: Watercolour Landscapes || Geoff Kersey

This is a brilliantly simple idea brilliantly presented. Working with a limited palette isn’t new, of course, but working with an absolute minimum of colours removes a major element of complication that can be a stumbling block for beginners: colour mixing. What’s impressive is just how much you can do with ultramarine, cadmium yellow pale and light red. A few mixes, some washes and even a bit of drybrush gives you an impressive array of options that can produce subtle and varied results. The rule of three even extends to the brushes – less, as ever, is more.

The book itself is nicely structured and the early demonstrations are only four pages long. Sure, a cloudy sky and an evening lake are basically a foreground, a background and some middle distance, but it’s amazing what you can achieve with this. Results are the important thing and what encourage any beginner to keep going and progress. By the end, you’re ready for the simple, but complete, landscape that’s on the front cover.

If you’re new to watercolour – a complete beginner just getting started, or have maybe had a go and got lost along the way, this simple and clearly laid-out book will get you on track.

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The Prado Masterpieces

I’ll admit that I’m struggling to work out who would be the market for this, but I have a feeling it wouldn’t be the serious art student. I mean, it might, but £75 is a lot to shell out, even for something as magnificent and comprehensive as it is. At over 600 large format pages, it’s massively heavy and really quite impractical to use. If you were to put it on a coffee table, it would probably stay there – though I’m not sure where you’d put the coffee. It feels like a book to be seen to own, rather than one to have for use.

When you handle it, the pages turn and lie flat pleasantly, but that also counts against it. The binding isn’t tight, so the spine suffers quite quickly and the soft boards bump easily too. My copy is looking quite second-hand already. The paper is quite thick, but also soft, and doesn’t really make the reproduction shine; there’s a slightly dull quality that’s not aided by the less than pin-sharp screen that’s been used. For the money asked, I’d have expected more and I can’t help feeling it’s been bumped up by the perception of prestige and, it should be said, the quantity of the illustrations.

The obvious plus factor is that you get a virtual tour of the Prado without needing to go there, though you could probably get a budget flight and a stay in a hostel for not much more. OK, you’d have to come home after a day or two, but there are cheaper books that may well have better reproductions of the things you’re really interested in.

I’d love to be able to say that this is a sumptuous book that you’d want to have whatever the price, but the truth is I’m underwhelmed.

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Down An English Lane || Richard Thorn

Billed as “a celebration of rural England”, this utterly charming collection achieves exactly what it sets out to do.

Richard’s watercolour style is very loose and makes extensive use of washes and spattering to create an impression of a scene rather than record it in detail. With only a few exceptions, that impression is of bright sunlight and quiet calm. Figures do not appear and this is more about an idealised than a working landscape. It’s none the worse for that.

Given the subject matter and that Halsgrove is a West Country publisher, I initially assumed that these were the lanes of Devon and Cornwall. Although it’s not explicit anywhere, there are hints in the introductory material that I’m right. Some of the titles give hints to location (“Down Surrey Way” is perhaps further afield), but most don’t and that’s right. Although Richard is painting in specific places, they stand for anywhere and this is as much the creation of an idealised countryside as it is the record of a real one (though it performs the neat trick of being that too).

You’ve probably gathered that I like this a lot. It’s a joyous book that makes you smile and feel that all things are not completely wrong, even if the politics currently are. If you love the English countryside, I think – I hope – you’ll agree. If you want to paint it, there’s plenty of inspiration in Richard’s excellent work.

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Christopher Wood || Katy Norris

I’ll admit that, until now, I hadn’t been particularly familiar with the work of Christopher Wood. Opening the book therefore surprised me, as I immediately felt completely at home, and that I knew all these paintings intimately. How is this? The only answer I can find is that Wood crystallises the English style of painting at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

There are elements to Wood’s work that also pre-figure some of the movements that came later and, from the sheer variety of his style, to see evidence of what was effectively a melting pot before Symbolism, Surrealism and Modernism fully coalesced. It is also fascinating to see how he sometimes looks back to what went before, perhaps as a way of defining and rooting his own voice. It’s also worth noting the impressive volume of work that he produced in his 29 short years, meaning that this selection of 130 paintings, set designs and drawings drips quality throughout.

Katy Norris, Curator of the always impressive Pallant House Gallery, has produced the definitive account of an artist previous ignored by published literature.

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Figure Drawing – a complete guide || Giovanni Civardi

I’m not normally a fan of smaller-format bind-ups. The original books were the way they were for a reason and smaller pages and thick spines can make for difficult reading. All too often, they look like the sort of bumper value nonsense someone else would buy for you and which just sits on the shelf taking up space.

So, it’s a pleasure to be able to welcome this one. The Giovanni Civardi drawing books are a valuable resource, and there are a lot of them. This compilation includes seven, which would cost you the wrong side of sixty quid to buy individually. £12.99 for a bulk deal is a real bargain, especially as the result is actually usable. I’d like to say that Search Press have taken my previous criticisms of this kind of thing on board, but it’s probably more to do with the happenstance of production. What seems to have happened is that thinner paper and cover card have been used, meaning that the book falls open easily and isn’t too heavy to hold. It’ll even, more or less, lay flat by itself without breaking the spine. The smaller format also adds to the manageability: 440 A4 pages would make for a coffee table book, which this emphatically isn’t.

So, what do you get? Well, not Giovanni’s complete output, for sure. However, the selection is nicely thought-out and makes for a book that lives up to its own billing of being the complete guide. Drawing Techniques is a useful introduction. Being from 2002, some of the repro is showing its age compared to later titles, but not so much that it’s an issue, though the half-tones aren’t as good as they are later. Further chapters are Understanding Human Form & Structure, The Nude, Sketching People, Heads & Faces, Drawing Hands & Feet and Clothing on Figures. It’s worth a complete list to show just how nicely this progresses.

The page-size reduction necessarily reduces the size of the type too, so you may find yourself needing your glasses more that you otherwise would, but this isn’t too much of an issue due to the fact that so much of Giovanni’s instruction is done via the drawings rather than the words. The illustrations themselves are still perfectly adequate.

If you haven’t already got an extensive collection of the separate volumes, and you’re looking for a good primer on figure drawing, buy this. It’s very reasonably priced and so practical as to be ridiculously good value.

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Pat Douthwaite || Guy Peploe

The art of Pat Douthwaite is at once intriguing, disturbing and thought-provoking, making you ask as many questions of yourself as you do of the artist and her work – what the blurb calls “a dangerous dialogue”. It also tells us that she was “impossible to please and made enemies of her supporters with a impunity that was at once vicious and pathetic” – and this is from the sales material!

If you thought, “I can’t be bothered”, you could be forgiven, but you should also be encouraged to make the effort and at least have a look at the work. It’s strangely compelling. Dubbed by herself as “the high priestess of the grotesque”, her figures are disturbingly distorted, yet at the same time have a grounding in reality. This is not abstraction for its own sake, but the genuine vision of what may well have been a trouble mind. Her work also seems firmly rooted in tradition and it may well be these echoes that make us come back with a sense of familiarity and understanding. I’m transfixed by Cattle Kate, with its echoes of Gustav Klimt (of all people).

This is a superb collection of some remarkable art that deserves the widest audience it can get.

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