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The World According to Colour || James Fox

“Colour might be one of those subjects that simply couldn’t be written about. But I can’t resist trying”. It’s a bold statement but also a challenge, to the reader as well as the author and this is a book that confronts as well as explains our relationship with the world around us.

For once, such a journey is not scientific – geological or biological – but rather cultural. Colour is entirely subjective and we have no idea whether what we see is what anyone else sees. Experiences are also cultural and what can seem garish in one will be scintillating and natural to another. Look, for example, at a piece of fine eighteenth century furniture. Marvel at the subtlety of the marquetry, but then remember that, in its day, those patterns would have been picked out in bright colours that have faded through time. Modern reconstructions come as a real shock.

Each chapter in this absorbing book is devoted to a single colour – seven of them, beginning with black, the primeval darkness out of which enlightenment emerged and still the place to look for ignorance, fear and evil. This is a history of culture and understanding that examines not just how we see the world, but how we have seen it at various stages of history, our view coloured by the prevailing attitudes of their times.

Cultural histories abound and new ways of interpreting the past are hard to find, but this is an original and thoroughly worthwhile journey from a genuinely original perspective.

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The Easy Guide to Painting Skies in Watercolour || Stephen Coates

Books on skies are not too hard to find and this important element (arguably the most important) of any landscape has been well-covered. The danger, of course, is of producing a masterclass that only serves to muddy the waters with over-complication.

Regular readers will know how wary I am about “easy” guides. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it and it wouldn’t take a lifetime of study. Intelligently approached, however, they can be reassuring and progress in simple, straightforward steps that don’t tax the beginner or those struggling a bit to keep up.

On those counts, this is absolutely admirable. Stephen starts with an analysis and explanations of materials and equipment, moving quickly to basic techniques, of which the first is a large blended wash. The initial exercise uses one colour, then we move to two. It’s simple and progressive and we’re ready to start looking at white clouds. Nothing to frighten the horses, results that will satisfy and I think we’re ready to agree that, yes, it was pretty easy.

Moving on, you’ll find heavy clouds, sunsets, storms, shafts of sunlight and mists as well as a look at perspective and focal points. Throughout, you’re really only painting skies, with rudimentary foregrounds that add only balance, without becoming an exercise in themselves – actually, if you want lessons in simplicity, you have them right there, an unexpected Brucie bonus.

Easy? Well, maybe. Not too taxing? Absolutely.

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The Book of Emotions || ed Edgar Gerrard Hughes

Sometimes, things arrive on my mat that I’m not expecting and I certainly didn’t expect this one. I wasn’t even quite sure who’d sent it to me, but then I noticed the name of a PR agent who knows me well. Kate, I feel seen – you knew I’d have a go at this, didn’t you?

On the face of it (pun laboriously intended), this isn’t at all a fit for a site that reviews art books, but expressions are, after all, an important part of painting people. There’s a lot here about how emotions develop and are expressed. Some of it is so much self-indulgent guff, but there’s much to enjoy – 30 questions to ask yourself about falling in love, for instance, balanced by another 19 about falling out of love. For all that I dismissed a chunk of the book just now, I think it makes a serious point by not taking itself too seriously. If you want to compile something on How To Be Self-Aware, you might choose this as a starting point. I’m beginning to like Edgar rather a lot, if nothing else because his PhD is in the politics of grief in nineteenth-century Britain, which is definitely a thing.

The reason I have it, and why I’m writing about it is the illustrations. There are artworks, graphic illustrations (the comic book one in the Love section is to die for, and she damn near is), diagrams and photographs. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the way emotions develop and are expressed, studying the faces of his children in microscopic detail (what a dad!). He includes many photographic illustrations in The Expression of The Emotions in Man And Animals and a selection of these, along with some by Duchenne de Boulogne (Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine, 1862) are included for our enlightenment and delectation. As well as the author’s own animadversions, there are also pieces by other writers and I particularly enjoyed After the Party by Natalie Hume, along with its full-page colour plate of the blue lobster that forms the centrepiece of the story (actually a generic blue lobster – we don’t need to be that literal).

I could go on, because this is the most enormous fun. To be serious though (I can do serious), if you draw or paint people, this has plenty of reference material that you’ll find useful. A pile of enjoyment is just a completely free bonus.

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Take Three Colours (compendium)

The idea of this series is a brilliant way of simplifying the painting process, either for the beginner or as a palate-cleanser for someone with more experience who’s become a bit jaded.

With just three brushes and three colours, a team of Search Press’s most successful authors demonstrate projects that show just how much you can do with an absolute minimum of equipment. With little to mess around with, the emphasis is on creativity and making the most of what you have. There’s no chance to over-complicate or get bogged down with an unwieldy palette or too many mixes.

This bind-up is fantastically good value and covers landscapes, seascapes and flowers, with more concentrated subjects such as lakes, rivers, hills and mountains thrown in. Larger books such as this can be difficult to handle, but this falls and stays open nicely and is a pleasure to use.

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Still Life || Susie Johns

This is a pleasing guide to painting simple compositions using everyday objects you’ll find about you. As such, it’s a good way of developing skills without having to look far for subjects or stretch your abilities too much. These are exercises that can be completed relatively quickly and should provide a welcome afternoon or evening break.

The front cover provides a hint of what to expect – a colour drawing of oranges on a blue plate and some pencils and watercolour brushes; inset illustrations include a fish, a shell and a ball. As I said, we’re into things which are easy to find and a straightforward selection of materials. There’s also a nod to the basic shapes that comprise some of the technical exercises, providing solid groundwork in form, perspective and shading. This kind of thing can be ineffably dull and Susie quickly applies the basic principles to real life objects such as fruit and shells that, despite their outward simplicity, present plenty of their own challenges, particularly in regard to texture.

There’s nothing here that will set the world alight, but that’s not what you want or what the book intends. Rather, it’s an excellent grounding in drawing techniques that is neither too taxing nor too elementary to be worthwhile.

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Sketching For The Absolute Beginner || Peter Cronin

Peter Cronin tells us that he found drawing in “special” classes at school, having been diagnosed as “slow”, but in reality dyslexic. For him, it was a release from the tyranny of the worded page and an introduction to a world that was all his. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this book is, as much as anything else, a paean to the joy and freedom that Peter finds in working with drawing materials.

Yes, it’s a book of instruction and, yes, it covers all the basic principles, but Peter also manages to convey throughout the joy he feels when working, and he’ll share it with you the reader. So, yes again, it’s a course, but it’s also a journey of discovery.

Peter’s drawings are subtle and sensitive and he works mostly with pencil but also pen & wash. With plenty of examples and short exercises, he introduces line, composition, perspective, form and hatching as well as ways to control the weight of the mark to create values, tone and shading.

There’s a huge amount to get to grips with here and this is a book that you can easy work through or just dip into for advice and inspiration.

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Painting With System 3 || Charles Evans

Daler Rowney’s System 3 is an integrated set of acrylic mediums that includes heavy and soft body paints, inks and fluid colours. The overall palette remains the same across the range and all the parts are designed to work harmoniously together.

Although this is in large part a promotional piece for System 3, sticking with a single range has allowed Charles to produce a complete guide to working with acrylics that covers just about every aspect. He is able to contrast and mix styles and ways of working that would be much more difficult if different brands and types were involved.

The nature of the book means it makes complete sense to start at the absolute beginning, by introducing paints, equipment and supports and then moving on to basic methods of application and demonstrations of subjects that include landscapes, water, animals and buildings.

If you’re starting to paint, this makes an excellent introductory guide and you’ll be working with a range of materials that will be reliable and should produce no nasty surprises. You’ll also be in the hands of an experienced and generous teacher who is not afraid to explain those sometimes elementary details you really need.

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Painting Abstract Landscapes || Gareth Edwards & Kate Reeves-Edwards

Over many years of selling and writing about art books, I have been asked whether it would be possible to grade books according to whether they are intended for the beginner, intermediate or advanced student. The true answer is: no. This is largely because all books contain something that will be of value to all those groups but also, it should be said, because one person’s beginner is another’s expert. I’ve spoken to people who’ve been painting for all of a few months and have nothing left to learn, but also to a professional portraitist who was buying what seemed to me a very elementary book. The explanation in that case (I had to ask) was, “If I get one idea from it, it’ll be worthwhile”.

All of which is a lengthy preamble to saying that this is very much a book for the advanced student. Yes, there are exercises and demonstrations here, but the bulk of the book is devoted to a discussion of approaches, analyses and working methods – the practice, in short, of abstract painting. It is, of course, all the better for that and anyone who has felt frustrated at the elementary approach of the books that have appeared so far will breathe a huge sigh of relief. Abstraction is as much a state of mind as a technical exercise and one that needs to be understood as much as taught. For something so deeply visual in terms of speaking to its audience, it’s also something that needs to be talked about in order to crystallise and understand the intellectual processes that go into it.

As well as those worked examples (let’s call them that), there are plenty of other illustrations and the aforesaid discussions of interpretation and working methods. The authors are father and daughter, the one a professional abstract landscapist, the other an experienced art writer. As well as the personal connection you also get the best of two worlds – top-quality writing as well as painting. This really is a stupendous book.

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On The Line: Conversations with Sean Scully || Kelly Grovier

Serendipity is a weird thing. Books go on my reviewing shelf in no particular order, often not even that of arrival. Size, weight and whether or not I’ve got them out for initial perusal all come into it. It is therefore very much by chance that two artists whose work involves lines and shapes should come together. This piece on Sean Scully comes immediately after one on Bridget Riley. And that, before we get too bogged down, is where the comparison ends.

Books such as this stand or fall on the quality of the writing. A subject can be as in demand and as intriguing as you like but, if the format of the interview, the reporting of what was said and the editing are not pitch perfect, the whole edifice falls. The interviewer has to understand the character of the subject, the questions to ask and how to ask them not least in order to gain the respect of the interviewee. More, perhaps, than anything else, they need to have an understanding of their subject’s work in order to get them to expound in ways that will interest the reader. Fail to get inside the mind and all you’ll get out of the exercise are platitudes and stock responses.

This book is the symbiosis this sort of thing should be. The word “conversations” in the title is important, because the format is not simply question and answer, but rather exchanges in which both parties give as much as they take. Grovier interpolates quite a lot of commentary between the exchanges that explain the background to what is being discussed, bringing light to what might otherwise seem a rather closed exchange and putting the author in the place of the reader, as well as vice versa. Quite simply, to read the book is to gain a feeling of being present. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but Grovier manages it with aplomb.

The conversations of the title range from Scully’s supremely humble background to his development as an artist, move to America and the development of his vision, influences and working methods.

If you enjoy good writing, this is a must. If you want to know what goes on inside an artist’s mind, and Sean Scully’s in particular, it’s an essential.

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Natural History Illustration in Pen and Ink || Sarah Morrish

Several books have appeared recently that take their subjects and readers entirely seriously. They avoid the trap of trying to be all things to all readers and simply assume that, if you don’t have the basic skills they demand, you can get them elsewhere. This is another such and offers a very thorough survey of a broad range of natural subjects depicted in a single medium.

With over 200 pages at her disposal, Sarah Morrish is able to expand and expound in considerable, though never exhausting detail. Her materials include traditional dip pens as well as Rotring Isographs, brush pens and felt and fibre tips. She also uses coloured as well as black inks, making the illustrations here far from sombre. Of particular interest is her use of hatching and line-placing to create very effective half-tones.

With plenty of space to manoeuvre, the choice of subjects is generous, ranging from trees and flowers to mammals, insects and invertebrates. The text studies not just working methods but the creatures and their environments as well; this is about finding your subjects as much as depicting them. Once you’re down to work, examples, case studies and demonstrations will give you plenty to get to grips with.

By concentrating on viewpoints and not being afraid to go into detail where it’s required, this is one of the most comprehensive books around on natural history drawing.

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