Most how-to-paint or art-course books are pretty much anything but what they profess to be. Hot on technique, they tell you how to put paint on paper or canvas, but not how to paint a picture and almost all suffer from being over-designed, which means that they’re OK for dipping into, but never really offer the progression of thought, approach and development that could lead their to be regarded as any sort of substitute for a teacher-led course.
The main problem with book learning is that there isn’t someone at hand to guide the student, offer advice and comment and to answer questions and, as often as not, it’s the attempt to address this, to give the feel of a true course, that produces a book that looks anything but.
This present offering is in fact a bind-up of four different volumes that Cassell have previously published. Bind-ups rarely work. Shoehorning several entirely different books into one cover can be a bit like putting a single meal, from soup to nuts, on one plate. It’s convenient, saves on the waiter’s time and the washing up, the sales people like it because they can wax lyrical about the variety and extent that you can see it all at once (don’t shout at me, I know I’m mixing metaphors here), but it just proves that more is nearly always less. Several small, carefully presented portions are so much better than one big pile that just looks like, well, what big piles generally look like. If I’d had a hot dinner for every well-intentioned bind-up of a series of introductory guides to painting media I’ve seen, well, I wouldn’t be reduced to mixing my own metaphors.
So, that’s the bad news, but stick around because this is where it all gets better. In fact it gets very much better because this is quite the best painting course I’ve yet seen. It’s clearly presented, there are lots of illustrations, including guides, diagrams, sketches, finished paintings and step-by-step demonstrations. There are colour charts, mixing guides, palette tips for the demonstrations and break-out details, all just about where you need them, not just where they look good. The design doesn’t intrude in the way I’ve been implying it usually does, but the people who worked on the series haven’t been afraid to eschew a tight grid that makes every page look the same. Although there’s a consistent flow, there’s a feeling of variety which removes any chance that this is going to get boring at any point. It’s also worth noting that, although each section has its own contents list (there isn’t one main one at the front), this doesn’t feel like four books sheltering under one cover.
Book designers get far too little credit. If they do their work well, it becomes invisible; it’s only bad design that anyone ever notices. There should be an award and it should be an empty plinth with a label saying, “The invisible award for unobtrusive page design”.
The fact is that this is an art course you could actually work through from cover to cover. It’s problem is that it’s going to have limited appeal to people who already paint because they’ve already settled on a medium. Maybe you work in watercolour and do a bit of drawing. Well, you won’t be wanting the oils and acrylics sections, will you? Well, this isn’t really aimed at you. It’s aimed at people who are just starting and who haven’t fixed on anything yet, apart from the general idea of doing a bit drawing and painting. It’s a bookshop book, one you pick up and browse, not one you go on websites looking for, though maybe you should. The really nice thing about it is that it stands a fighting chance of giving someone like that enough confidence and ability that they might want to go on and then there’s a whole load more books they can buy.
If you’ve made it to this website, you’ve probably got an interest in art already, so do someone else a favour. Buy them this book for Christmas, or a birthday, or just because you like them, I don’t mind. Just do it. It’s wonderful value at a mere twenty pounds and it’s a hardback, whatever it may say anywhere else. With discounting going on all around us, very few books are worth the price printed on their cover. This is.
Cassell Illustrated 2006