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Wilhelmina Barns-Graham || Virginia Button

Every artistic group, movement and style has its footnotes. These can be peripheral figures who appear, sometimes literally, as additions in page-footings, contributors who only produced a few works, outsiders who were mainly influenced by the main practitioners or simply those who have been forgotten, obscured by the shade of the big beasts.

Wilhelmina Barns-Graham is one of the latter. The art world of the 1940s through to the 60s was overtly and often aggressively masculine and the grouping that still flourished in St Ives well-supplied with very big names indeed. Barns-Graham was always going to struggle for recognition, both historically and, indeed in her own lifetime, although some did come latterly.

That this is the first book devoted to her work probably tells you all you need to know. Dr Virginia Button examines her subject’s personal vocabulary of the abstract and makes an excellent case for her position as an influential figure in the development of mid-Twentieth Century art. Her work is centred on an emotional response to landscape, shape and form and the generous number of well-reproduced works easily convince the reader.

The author is based in Cornwall and has previously written about Ben Nicholson and Christopher Wood as well as producing a wider study of the St Ives artists. She writes clearly and with the authority that comes from the most thorough understanding of her subject and material.

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Urban Drawing || Phil Dean

“Tate Sketch Club”, it says prominently and promisingly at the top of the cover of this rather excellent guide. The front flap also promotes a life drawing volume in the same series. But for recent events one suspects the series, which has much to recommend it, would be more widely populated. Still, at least future volumes are something to look forward to.

The information sheet tells me that Phil is theshoreditchsketcher.com and that’s very much of the moment. Inner city, hipster and online – I’m positively aching.

Arch comments aside, he’s also very good – it’s absolutely essential that, if you’re going to put the name of a prestigious institution to a series of guides (and it’s becoming increasingly common) that the authors are top-notch. Phil’s style is that of the urban sketcher – very freehand, movement in straight lines, buildings ancient and modern, people – where they appear – engrossed in their diurnal lives.

The author biography tells us that Phil is a graphic designer and runs his own creative agency and this shows up in the drawings – they have a feeling of an architectural impression – those imagined scenes of idealised life designed to get public and planners onside. That, however, is no bad thing as this is mainly about buildings and there’s a softer edge than I’ve implied. I said of people “when they appear” because Phil is not Adebanji Alade and his subject is mainly the built environment, on which he’s very sound. He works in pen and pencil, is good with half-tones and can do very good figure work when he wants to. He also manages to knock the tricky subject of perspective off in only a few paragraphs too. He can talk the talk as well as draw the draw.

Urban sketching is very much the business of the moment – I can remember when books on townscapes were the hardest sell in the business. Quite whether books on it will go down quite so well with everyone working from home remains to be seen. This, though, concentrating on structures rather than crowds, may be just what you were look for right now.

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The Whole Story || Christina Hart-Davies

Books from Two Rivers Press arrive with very little flourish and, it should be said, no loud thump onto the mat. Moderate in format and extent, they pack a lot more punch than you would expect and this is one of the most eloquent works on botanical illustration I’ve seen.

To be clear, this is not an instructional book as such, although “the inside story” sections do include concise step-by-step exercises. The bulk of the book is devoted to examples and explanations of the subjects illustrated. And what a range of subjects it is. The book is subtitled “Painting more than just the flowers” and Christina includes leaves, ferns, lichens, bark and fungi as well as the creatures that inhabit the natural world: butterflies, bees, birds (represented by a feather), even a cat.

Much of the charm of the book stems from the fact that the paintings are not just dry specimens for the botanical specialist but living tableaux that appear to have been plucked – or rather borrowed – from their natural habitat. There’s an immediacy that stems from some very careful brushwork and use of colour.

If you’re looking for a book that will teach you, this is probably not it. If you want one you can learn much from, though, it absolutely is.

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The Story of Scottish Art (updated review) || Lachlan Goudie

Scottish art has a long and noble history that is perhaps not recounted as often as it should be.

This rather delightful book is part of what looks like a new “story of” series that deals with wide vistas in a straightforward and eminently manageable way. Much of this relies on the quality of the authors – they need to be able to understand their subject intimately and select and condense their material to make it comprehensible in a relatively short narrative arc. They also need to avoid the factionalism that all too often infects art criticism (although there will undoubtedly be those queuing up to say that they’ve got the approach, the facts and the interpretations wrong). General readers will, however, just be thankful for something that doesn’t require prior specialist knowledge or become obsessed with minor detail.

Lachlan Goudie is such an author. An artist himself, the blurb describes this as “a deeply personal account”, perhaps aiming to head off perceived avenues of criticism. However, as long as you know who you’re dealing with, a less that fully objective approach can itself be interesting, and Goudie is an author who commands respect.

The book is only 384 pages. I say “only” because it covers 5000 years, which means it moves form Neolithic symbols to Glasgow’s position as a centre for contemporary art. That’s a lot of ground to cover and it’s pulling off a neat trick to do so at pace, but without becoming breathless.

There are some 180 illustrations, but as my copy is a black & white pre-press proof, I can’t comment on the quality of the reproduction.

Update, Autumn 2020. Originally announced for Spring, publication of this was delayed due to Coronavirus and a finished copy has now arrived. It’s a delight to be able to report that the quality of reproduction is excellent and the colours vibrant despite regular book paper being used, which can often mute them. The book feels as substantial physically as its contents undoubtedly are and is a genuine pleasure to handle.

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The Short Story of Women Artists || Susie Hodge

The National Gallery’s current Artemesia Gentileschi exhibition has made the title of this, Susie Hodge’s latest volume, all the more cogent. “Why”, asked Linda Nochlin in 1971, “have there been no great women artists?” And then along comes a film, Beyond the Visible by Halina Dryschka, that examines the almost unknown Hilma af Klint, who, the thesis goes, may have invented abstract art. Af Klint’s problem was two-fold: firstly, she was a woman and secondly, she was a medium who believed that her work was instructed by spirits. So, a witch, not an artist.

So, here we have two candidates, one of whom is a slam-dunk and the other at least a good contender. Susie adds a good selection of others. The title, by the way, fits with previous books, which have told the Short Stories of art, photography and architecture. It’s a series rather than a challenge, but challenging for all that.

Sensibly and honourably, Susie treats her subject like any other – that’s to say, as a piece of history. This isn’t a rant, or even a political statement, simply a well-told history of women in art, presented factually, chronologically and thematically. That women can be great artists is never in question. Put simply, here they are, admire their works.

The structure is simple and, as the title implies, concise. Single works are illustrated and summarised, usually in a single spread. All the major movements are here, as you would – or should – expect, from the Renaissance through Cubism and Dada to Performance and Conceptual Art. And, yes, Feminist Art. Susie also looks at the major breakthroughs: Equality, Independence, the Salon and so on, as well as themes which appear just as they would in any self-respecting art history.

This is an excellent guide to art history seen through a particular filter. It doesn’t attempt to be any more or less than that and is all the better for it. Simple arguments made coherently are always the most convincing.

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The Art of Richard Eurich || Andrew Lambirth

Richard Eurich (1903-1992) lived through virtually the whole of the Twentieth Century and was touched by almost all of its schools and movements and influenced many of its more well-known practitioners.

That his work is hard to categorise is a function of that and he moves readily and smoothly between conventional landscapes to sometimes fantastic scenes with altered and observational perspectives and to figurative work where detailed study of faces, expressions and interactions reaps considerable rewards.

Analytical biographies of all of the century’s best known names have now appeared and we are, indeed, moving into the “important reappraisal” phase of those. To find original material and break new ground, writers are therefore progressing to more peripheral figures and, while it would be unfair to describe these as “minor”, they are certainly less well-known outside specialist circles. The reverse of that coin, of course, is that what deserve to be major figures are being rescued from at least relative obscurity, while blanks in the wider narrative are filled in.

So it is with Richard Eurich, as it says here, “a private man, not given much to self-promotion”. Eurich was many things (as were his contemporaries, of course) – an excellent draughtsman, teacher, painter of marine subjects and, inevitably for that generation, war artist.

Being the first full study, this was always going to be ground-breaking, but Andrew Lambirth’s typically thorough and sympathetic approach ensures a work that does its subject full justice and produces a nice balance between Eurich’s personal and professional lives.

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Take 3 Colours – Watercolour Snow Scenes || Grahame Booth

Search Press have become adept at producing series that include books that stand on their own merits rather than simply fitting into pre-defined slots. Much of that is down to having as simple an idea as possible. As a result authors don’t need to go into contortions to get the correct shape and are free to express themselves as they normally do. This makes the whole idea easy to explain to those same authors so that everyone has a clear idea of what’s required. That, of course, is the key to any successful book, but it’s surprising (and rather alarming) how often it gets missed. If everyone’s pulling in different directions, the dog’s sure not to miss out on its dinner.

All of which is a preamble to saying that I like this a lot. Snow is as tricky a subject as water: it’s one of those things that isn’t really there. Water relies on reflection, but snow can be even more difficult. No, it’s not just matter of a large tube of titanium white or areas of paper left intentionally blank. Snow doesn’t reflect exactly, and it has an identifiable form in a way that water doesn’t, but it takes its appearance from the light and shade that fall on it. Cue plenty of opportunities for over-complication and far too many colours in the mix.

And, as if by magic – 3 colours and 3 brushes. Less is more, simplification is always going to be your friend. As the nights draw in and who knows what precipitation the weather will bring, here’s a guide that will tell you all you need to know. No, not everything – that would be a tall order in just 9 projects – but enough for you to understand what’s happening on your palette, brushes and paper and you didn’t really need more than that, did you?

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Shaping The World || Antony Gormley & Martin Gayford

Artists are not always the best people to talk about art. The creative process is intensely personal and can be driven by forces that even the practitioner does not fully understand. Equally, those who talk and write about it, are not themselves creators in visual media and have to tease the artist’s inner workings out of their own perceptions of the finished article.

However. There are times when these two worlds align, and Martin Gayford is usually one of the parties. He is one of the most cogent writers about art and the creative process there is and understands it in a way that few non-practitioners are able to. Even on his own, he is able to provide the reader with the sense of being an insider rather than simply a viewer – and this while that reader is looking at the page rather than the artwork.

Gayford is also a very effective collaborator and his conversations with David Hockney have illuminated works, the artist and the creative process all at the same time. This book takes the same approach: it is a discussion between Gormley and Gayford that covers three-dimensional work in stone, clay and metal from prehistoric times to the present day. Yes, it is substantial and it’s worth adding that the quality of production does full justice to the superb content.

If you asked a random member of the public to name a sculptor, the chances are that Antony Gormley would be the one they’d come up with. Not only will they know his name, but they’ll also be at least broadly familiar with his spare and idiosyncratic figures – the large public works such as The Angel Of The North that are impossible to ignore. We already know from other publications that Gormley can be eloquent on the creative method and he and Gayford here spark ideas off each other that are more illuminating than either of them writing alone.

A book such as this requires careful editing. All discussions include diversions and side-tracks that obscure the central point, but heavy-handed attempts to keep them at least appearing to be contiguous can easily leave the language stilted. Not so here and there’s a strong sense of a continuous narrative driven by shared enthusiasm and common, though not always parallel, ground.

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This lands on you like a major work. It knows it is important, but it wears its learning lightly and, even though we probably expect it, it’s a pleasure to find that this is so.

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Ready to Paint in 30 Minutes – Landscapes in Acrylics || Barry Herniman

There’s something for everyone in this welcome addition to an excellent series. Barry covers trees, rocks, buildings, water, skies and even seas. Demonstrations use the watercolour technique, so you’ll be working on paper without impasto. I’ve yet to see traceable outlines that work on canvas, though I can’t see why it would be impossible.

This isn’t just a good book within the series, though, it’s a very thorough grounding in landscape elements and techniques in its own right and something to consider even if you don’t want pre-drawn outlines.

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Painting & Drawing – techniques and tutorial for the complete beginner

When you’ve produced a series of excellent media-based guides, it makes sense (and will always be irresistible to marketing departments) to put them together in a doorstep volume.

Such is this. I’ve always doubted whether “real” artists buy this sort of thing, as they usually have a favourite medium or two and regard others as interlopers. Friends, however, or those considering having a go, are prime targets.

At twenty quid, this is at the top end of the price range for this kind of book, but the material is recent and, it should be said, first-rate. The ten pound variety is usually recycled from books published long ago and frequently anonymous.

Well, OK, the chapters here are anonymous too, except for acknowledgements at the back, but that’s perhaps inevitable if you’re going to present a coherent whole rather than a blindingly obvious bind-up. The approach works, not least because this isn’t a book to read from cover to cover, so changes of style, presentation and working won’t be immediately obvious. Yes, I am labouring this point, but a compilation is a compilation and should at least be consistent within itself, and this is.

If you want to know about the individual sections, click the publisher link below and look for media-specific titles. The gang’s all there.

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