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David Bellamy’s Arctic Light

I first encountered David Bellamy almost by accident. The husband of a friend of my wife’s was a freelance designer and happened to remark that I ought to see the book he was working on, which was The Wild Places of Britain. It was amazing. I followed it up with the publisher, struck a deal and sold an awful lot of copies. I said of it then that David visits hidden and out-of-the-way places and brings back their atmosphere, people and stories.

Since then, there have been many more books, mostly instructional, and the work he does for exhibition has only occasionally been seen in print.

The Arctic is one of the world’s last great wildernesses and getting to it imposes a huge number of difficulties. Simply existing there is also a challenge and carries very real dangers. Imagine, then, trying to paint in freezing winds, snow and ice when your body and materials are as unwilling to co-operate as they can be. David has a reputation for painting on the edge and has been shown hanging off ropes on desolate crags before. This, however, is a whole different ballgame.

If this was just a tale of endurance, it would have little to recommend it. Sure, learning that gin is a great antifreeze (for your painting water) is all part of the fun that David manages to make this seem, but if the art wasn’t up to scratch, the book would be meaningless.

It’s therefore a pleasure to report that David is at the peak of his powers. The conditions that make the Arctic a challenge to visit also make photography difficult and painting captures the landscapes better than the camera ever can. Few of us will ever make it this far north, and that’s as it should be. Wildernesses like this can only be preserved by their remoteness and lack of visitors. The Antarctic is already being endangered by tourism.

The value of the book, therefore, is the tale it tells, in both words and pictures, of a beautiful region that is filled with mystery, unfamiliar creatures, and inhabitants who live on the edge and have strange legends. This is both a traveller’s tale and a love story and David is perhaps the only person alive who can tell it so effectively. His paintings, all exquisitely reproduced, are breath-taking and the words he weaves round them create the nearest impression of actually being there that most of us will, or should, ever achieve.

This is a major contribution to science as well as to art and a magnificent production of which all involved should be proud.

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DVD Winter Landscapes in Watercolour || David Bellamy

“In winter, there’s generally a bit more colour around and you get away from all those awful summer greens” – and I don’t think he’s talking about cabbage.

That’s quite a challenging statement, especially as David is standing in a landscape thickly covered with snow at the time. “Monochrome” is the word that more obviously springs to mind. However, this is a film as much about overcoming preconceptions as it is about the process of painting.

If you’ve been following David’s career, you’ll remember that his earliest films were “adventures” and featured him hanging off ropes or clinging onto vertical surfaces like a mountain goat. All that was a lot of fun to watch, but it had less to do with the practicalities of what the rest of us would call the real world. I’ve remarked before that it’s been noticeable that his recent work has been much more centred in valleys and that’s true here. Even the opening demonstration, where he makes the remark about colours, is filmed at the roadside and all the locations in the film are perfectly accessible.

So, this isn’t a film about investing in extreme-weather equipment and where best to source a distress beacon. Rather, it’s about wearing enough layers – actually, scrub that: it’s about painting, pure and simple. What David demonstrates is how to make quick sketches – one of the most successful, and also quickest, is done with a single Inktense block – either from the car or close to its refuge. Getting out in cold weather isn’t about endurance, but practicality. Take a minimum of equipment and work quickly, make colour notes, concentrate on the main meat of the scene rather than too many details. Oh, and yes, do wear plenty of layers.

Because everything’s done quickly, there’s a good number of different demonstrations here and David does indeed show you how subtle winter colours can be – skies are rich with reds and yellows and the buildings of a moorland farm stand out against a snowy background instead of blending into it as they would in summer.

Demonstrations done, David returns to the warmth and shelter of the studio. Here, there’s space to use stretched paper rather than a block, and not to have to worry about being able to keep hold all of your equipment while you work. There’s also time to consider composition and this becomes, for me, perhaps the most interesting section of the film. Remember that Inktense sketch? If you were watching closely, you’ll have noticed that David was already tightening up the relation of the two buildings in it. Now, he brings them together even more as a compositional unit, changes the way the foreground leads in and the background hills frame the whole thing. A previously non-existent piece of farm equipment also makes an appearance as a foil to the centre of interest and a useful splash of red to provide focus. This exercise isn’t so much about painting in winter (though that’s the subject) as about the authorial content of painting. If you wanted an essay that refutes Fox Talbot’s claim, relating to photography, that “from today painting is dead”, this would be it. You can’t do what David does in anything other than a painting. There’s no viewpoint that would give you want he presents, which isn’t a representation of the scene as it was, but of its element, its spirit. It’s a bit of a masterclass, actually, and I’d buy the film for this alone.

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Winter Landscapes in Watercolour || David Bellamy

Winter, David tells us, is an ideal time for painting. The cold weather brings crisp, clear light and views are unobscured by leaves and vegetation. Long plein air sessions are not necessary and modern clothing offers enough protection for quick sketching and photographic trips. It’s also a chance to practice with colours other than the inevitable green!

The subjects covered are largely those you’d expect from David: hills, mountains, waterfalls, trees and buildings as well as people and animals. His treatments are by turns both dramatic and pacific. I’ve observed before that a calmness has crept into his work in recent years and that’s well in evidence here, even when accompanied by his trademark dramatic skies.

Structurally, the book begins in autumn and finishes in spring, so that winter itself is nicely bookended and David is able to demonstrate the subtle way that the landscape changes through the seasons, with colours muting progressively before they subdue completely and then re-emerge.

This is a timely and worthwhile book that will delight both general painters and David’s (many) fans alike. There’s a good variety of material and plenty of examples and step-by-step demonstrations.

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Skies, Light & Atmosphere in Watercolour || David Bellamy

After some forays into more general books, it’s nice to see David getting back to the subjects he’s best known for and, let’s be honest, he’s most comfortable with. The book follows David’s fairly discursive style, with explanations, examples and demonstrations for each section – the three elements of the title are taken separately.

There’s an excellent variety of material here, from mountains to landscapes and settings both in the UK and abroad, which makes for a good choice of approaches.

There’s really not a lot more I can say. This is classic Bellamy and well up to the standard we’ve come to expect of him.

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David Bellamy’s Mountains and Moorlands in Watercolour

Well, here’s a thing. Somehow, when I first heard about it, I assumed this was going to be a much larger book than it is but, if it had been, it would have been too much of a re-hash of many of David’s previous books.

So, having got over the slight shock of how he’s managed to concertina the subjects he’s best known for into a mere 80 pages, has David managed to do himself justice? A quick flick through gives a strong sense of a return to form and style. David’s previous book, the Complete Guide to Watercolour Painting, maybe suffered a little from being spread too thinly and perhaps going into a few areas he wasn’t completely comfortable with. Can I say he’s maybe not the greatest figure painter that’s ever lived? What he’s done here, however, is to create a guide to painting mountains that manages to be entirely about its subject and, in spite of the above-the-title billing, not just David Bellamy’s mountains.

Books about upland painting are not entirely thin on the ground, but this is David’s speciality and, in this amazingly compact and comprehensive guide, he’s reclaimed the subject and stamped his authority firmly on it. If you ever had any doubts, when it comes to rugged subjects, David Bellamy is the man.

The book consists of a basic introduction to materials and techniques, moving into subject matter: trees, water, rocks and buildings. After that, there are four demonstration paintings, each with a good, but not excessive number of steps, which give you ample opportunity to try out the ideas and techniques previously learnt.

As an introduction to landscape painting, this is, perhaps inevitably, hard to beat. At the same time, it’s also going to satisfy David’s many fans and leave them relieved that, even after all these years (sorry, David!), he hasn’t lost his touch or started to repeat himself.

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David Bellamy’s Complete Guide to Watercolour Painting

There are some artists who get above the title billing and it’s traditional by now that David Bellamy’s books are not just by him, they are his own, no-one else’s. I’m being unfairly flippant, because David is one of the most popular writers and teachers of painting around, a status he has deservedly held for many years.

In the past, a lot of David’s work has been on the athletic side and he’s painted hanging off ropes from mountains and in the teeth of snow, ice and gales. This, of course, was all good knockabout stuff, but there was some excellent work underpinning it and a lot of the entertainment disguised solid and sound instruction; a lot of teachers forget that an entertained audience learns more readily. In recent times, however, a greater sense of tranquillity has entered David’s work and he’s as likely to paint the valley floors as he is the tops of the hills. It also means that there are more buildings and people and even, let if be said: flowers.

So, what does this offer that we haven’t already seen in David’s previous books? Well, a change of publisher often brings a change of pace and the move from a landscape to an upright format gives a more logical flow to the step-by-steps. There’s also, as I hinted before, a much wider variety of subject matter and overall a slightly greater emphasis on the how-to-do-it than the how-I-did-it: more step-by-step and less analysis. Just flicking through the pages gives a sense of a cornucopia and makes you want to get down to the contents in more detail. This may sound like a superficial way of judging a book, but it’s remarkably effective. If it doesn’t grab your attention as the pages flick past, the chances are it doesn’t have much to say. This one grabs hard and holds on.

Overall, I come down to the view that this is a great deal more than just another one for the fans. David’s many followers will buy it, of course, but this could (should) bring new converts, or maybe just provide a really rather quietly excellent introduction to watercolour for readers are aren’t bothered by personality.

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Learn To Paint Watercolour Landscapes || David Bellamy

Given the popularity of the Learn to Paint series and of David Bellamy as an author, it was inevitable that Collins would put the two together eventually.

Shoehorning David’s broad and enthusiastic approach into 64 pages was always going to be a struggle and there was also a risk that his rather individual approach might overwhelm a series that’s supposed to provide basic introductions rather than more extensive studies. For all that, both author and publisher have made a good fist of it and David, ever the professional, has clearly understood the brief and not tried to go beyond it.

The book has a feeling of being well filled and probably works best as a Bellamy primer, and is no bad thing for that either.

Collins 1999, reissued 2008
£8.99

http://rcm-uk.amazon.co.uk/e/cm?t=artbookreview-21&o=2&p=8&l=as1&asins=0007271794&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

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Developing Your Watercolours || David Bellamy

This was the sequel to David’s immensely successful Watercolour Landscape Course and, unlike too many follow-ups, it shows that he still had plenty to say.

David is an enthusiastic teacher who clearly wants to bring out the best in his students – rather than just show them how clever he is – and also a well-organised one. There is nothing haphazard about the presentation here or in what went before, no sense that the author painted a series of more or less random demonstrations and then let the editor shoehorn them into a series of rather generalistic chapter headings.

The basic layout follows that of the Watercolour Landscape Course and the presentation, with its highlights, breakouts and checklists, means that the central message, the narrative, remains clear and uncluttered. David starts by saying that he’s assuming a basic level of ability; he’s not repeating himself here. The book deals with subjects such as painting on location, using photographs, composition, lighting and colour and David also includes tips on exhibiting, with the clear implication that, if you work with him, you should be able to finish up with something worth showing. Throughout, there are projects and demonstrations which allow David to give free rein to his own abilities and specialisations and show what he does best and is most known for. If you’re an enthusiast for David’s work, you stand a good chance of picking up something of how he achieves it here.

As with its predecessor, this is a book which has withstood the test of time and retains a freshness which is born of its clarity of approach and David’s enthusiasm and skill.

Collins reissued 2004
£18.99

http://rcm-uk.amazon.co.uk/e/cm?t=artbookreview-21&o=2&p=8&l=as1&asins=0007163886&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

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Watercolour Landscape Course || David Bellamy

Somewhat surprisingly, this wasn’t David Bellamy’s first instructional book. Following on the unprecedented success of The Wild Places Of Britain, he wrote Painting In The Wild for the many readers who were clamouring to know just how he did it.

The Watercolour Landscape Course was, in fact, David’s fourth book and by this time he had built up a following as a painter and a writer and also, crucially, as a teacher. His personally-led courses were heavily over-subscribed, even if going on one did mean lengthy cross-country treks and, as like as not, dangling off the end of a rope. From all those that couldn’t make it, or didn’t have David’s stamina, came demand for a book version and it was one of the fastest-selling practical art titles there has been.

When he came to write the Course, David had a lot of experience to fall back on, both as a painter and as a teacher and as a writer, too. It was also his first book for a new publisher, Collins, who were able to bring to the party their own experience of putting together practical art books at the forefront of design and production. In many ways, it was a marriage made in heaven: the levels of knowledge and the freshness of a new relationship sparked a book that has stood the test of time remarkably well and which stands up as well today as it did back in 1993.

The book has a subtitle: From First Steps to Finished Painting and David did just that; he presents a structured course in painting landscapes that works as well whether you’re out there in the field or back home working from a photograph and it has a clear beginning, middle and end. In many ways, this straightforward approach became the template for other course-style books that followed, albeit many of them lacking David’s levels of creative imagination. The book also has, it should be said, excellent colour reproduction and you can see details of brushstrokes, granulation and paper texture that more recent books sometimes fail to pick up.

The progress of the book is a series of short descriptions or lectures mixed with demonstrations and exercises that work through a variety of subjects and painting methods. This was one of the first art instruction books to feature break-out boxes, panels that sit beside the main text and contain helpful hints and checklists that you can refer to without breaking up the main flow. Think of it as a teacher talking, painting and encouraging as well as handing out factsheets and you start to see how this really is a live course translated to the printed page. This was the book that cemented David’s reputation as one of the major figures in art teaching of the present day and gained him many fans who have also bought his six subsequent books.

Collins reissued 2004
£18.99

http://rcm-uk.amazon.co.uk/e/cm?t=artbookreview-21&o=2&p=8&l=as1&asins=0007163894&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&lc1=0000FF&bc1=000000&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

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Painting Wild Landscapes In Watercolour || David Bellamy

David Bellamy is best known for teaching and painting in some of the most inaccessible places and there are many people who do not have either the stamina or, perhaps, the will to keep up with him. This book provides an insight into David’s working methods for them as well as a further “fix” for his many fans.

This book covers ground that David has already visited in Painting in the Wild, but brings the story a bit more up to date and includes more recent paintings. It is interesting to note that many of these include oases of calm which used not to be there and indicate a slightly less frantic approach which some readers may welcome. A double-page spread of the Matterhorn is a case in point, where the jagged peak rises against a dramatic sky (one of David’s trademarks) from a verdant meadow complete with a still lake and even a couple of grazing deer.

David’s travels here take him around the British Isles as well as to other parts of the world and he explains his working methods and techniques for painting many different types of subjects as he goes so that the book is entertaining as well as instructional.

The book is packed with David’s paintings, both the large-scale and dramatic and also smaller details which concentrate on specific areas of technique as well as by-the-way observations and sketches. Although they are generally well reproduced, a few have the hallmarks of having been taken from perhaps less than adequate transparencies and one wonders whether the art editor shouldn’t perhaps have rejected them. But that’s a minor quibble.

Year published: 2005
List price: £17.99

http://rcm-uk.amazon.co.uk/e/cm?t=artbookreview-21&o=2&p=8&l=as1&asins=0007175531&fc1=000000&IS2=1&lt1=_blank&lc1=0000ff&bc1=000000&bg1=ffffff&f=ifr

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