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The Kew Book of Painting Orchids in Watercolour || Vivienne Cawson

This book signals the beginning of a relationship between Kew Gardens and Search Press that can surely only lead to some pretty wonderful productions. Previous attempts with other publishers have tended to concentrate on botanical accuracy and an insistence on getting every detail absolutely right. For botanical illustration manuals, this is perfectly fine – essential even – but the new regime seems to come with a lighter touch, allowing a degree of interpretation more appropriate to the general art market. Put simply, this is a book for people who want to paint orchids, not study them, and that’s a good thing.

So, why orchids, which seems like a rather specialised subject for a first foray? Well, they’re one of the most varied species, offering a wide variety of different shapes and colours and not all of them are the exotic specimens of Victorian plant-collecting adventure stories (yes, I do remember one called The Boy Orchid Hunters by J G Rowe).

In simple terms, if you want to start flower painting, orchids are an excellent place to begin because of the opportunities they offer. Rather than being tied to a limited range of shapes and colours, you’ll be confronted by variety from the outset, developing ways of looking and working that’ll stand you in good stead later.

So, think of this as a flower painting primer. While it is not, perhaps a book for the complete beginner, as long as you have the basic watercolour skills, you should find it relatively easy to follow. The basic technical sections at the beginning are all flower-related, but still cover shapes, colours and mark-making. This means you’ll be working with petal and leaf shapes from the start, rather than abstract shapes, so it feels real immediately. Most of the work is with single specimens and props are limited to pots and vases – this is a book about orchids, after all, not flower arrangements – and this keeps the approach both simple and on track. Examples and exercises lead up to three full projects that demonstrate the range of possibilities available.

Don’t think of this as a book about a single plant type that’s only for the specialist. Look at it as one of the best flower painting manuals around.

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The Colors of Nature || Lindsay Hopkins

It’s my policy to review as much as possible of what I’m sent, and always to do so if it’s something I’ve requested. This isn’t something I’d normally cover, being a book to colour in, but I asked for it, not quire realising what it was, and I’m not going to make an exception to my own rules.

There isn’t a lot you can say critically about this kind of thing. It is what it is, which is to say: outlines, with a few words, that you can colour in. The text consists of quotations and some basic lore: “Did you know that dahlias represent elegance and dignity?” There are also some very basic drawing hints, which do actually break each of the subjects down to four simple steps if you want to attempt outlines of your own. Colouring hints are also promised although, as this is predominantly an adult colouring book, I think the idea is that you should allow free rein to your imagination.

To be honest, there isn’t a lot for the serious artist here, even though the drawing hints are actually quite good. However, if you think they’d be helpful, you may also like having pre-drawing outlines to practice your colour work on.

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The Addictive Sketcher || Adebanji Alade

Sketching is the artist’s secret weapon. Often less intrusive than a camera, it also allows a degree of interpretation and note-taking that isn’t available to the photographer. Sometimes a quick image can be an end in itself, at others it’s the basis for a more considered work completed in the studio. The trick is to learn to see and to look, to be completely at home with your materials and to know exactly which details are important. All that comes with practice, so practise you must.

Adebanji Alade is, as the title suggests, a compulsive sketcher. In the introduction, he tells us how he learnt sketching from a battered copy of Alwyn Crawshaw’s Learn to Sketch, a slim volume that, while an excellent introduction, was hardly a full course in drawing. To learn this way requires not a little inherent skill, but Adebanji is too modest to say that. What he does tell us, though, is that, having discovered sketching, he fell in love with it. He also tells us that he loves God. This isn’t an essential part of the narrative, and he doesn’t pursue it, but what is important about it is that it tells us about him. He loves sketching and he loves God, so should we be surprised that he clearly loves his audience too? This isn’t a book that preaches, but rather one that explains. What leaps from every page is the sense of joy Adebanji feels when he out with paper and pencils. It’s infectious and I defy anyone not to want to get out there with him (probably in person, too).

This wouldn’t be an instructional book without instruction and that’s here in plenty, but it all comes from example. There are people, buildings, interiors and open spaces as well as seasons, light and weather. A huge variety of techniques are covered, but always in context and always leading to a worthwhile result – never a series of marks made for their own sake. There’s also handy advice on the etiquette of sketching – ask permission if necessary, thank people who comment on your work, be polite and, above all, stop if asked. If this is a book filled with love, it’s also one lacking in any kind of disrespect.

Adebanji immerses himself in sketching and this is a book that’s itself immersive. It’s also a joy, both tho read and to look at. “Once you catch the vision, you will never remain the same; you will spread the gospel of addictive sketching wherever you go, for the rest of your creative journey.” Couldn’t have put it better myself.

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Studio Lives || Louise Campbell

It is, I think, permissible to wonder whether so much has been written about art and artists that new approaches have to be manufactured to keep the supply going. The basic thesis here is that artists have studios in which they work and sometimes live, and that these reflect their lives and the ways in which they are seen and interpreted.

It does, however, make for a good read and, if a project is well handled, coming at a subject from an oblique angle can lead to new insights that materially contribute to the aforesaid well-documented field.

Louise Campbell tells a good story, or rather series of stories, that follows the development of the purpose-built studio which was also accommodation from G F Watts through the Arts & Crafts movement, where art and architecture definitely went hand-in-hand, to Modernist collaborations with the Nicholsons and Barbara Hepworth.

The question to be asked is whether this is a book about art or about architecture? I am not sure just how much artists are influenced by where they work, although there is no doubt that a studio built to their own specifications would be comfortable and conducive to the sort of contemplation that can lead to successful work. Some would disagree and suggest that it is actually discomfort that spurs creation and originality, that the mind needs to be shocked rather than caressed into innovation. Back in the day, I ran an architectural bookshop and I can see this as something that would have fitted very well on its shelves.

In less than skilful hands, a project such as this could be a mess. There are too many artists, too many buildings and, perhaps, too many architects to make sense of what is perhaps a rather thin thread. Louise Campbell, however, marshals her material by telling the stories of the artists themselves within a collection of broad outlines that include The Studio As Home and Building For Art. The result is a clear narrative that, aided by the constraints of period and location (it’s entirely British-based), tells a fascinating and coherent story.

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Refuge and Renewal: migration and British art || Peter Wakelin

Incomers provide a new perspective on their adoptive territory and also contribute to the development of its art through the integration of styles and techniques. This is not the same as internationalism, where artists from one country observe those in others and adopt and adapt their ways of working. Integration provides a fuller amount of exchange and symbiosis that works both ways. Something as simple as differing light can affect the way scenes are depicted, just as social mores and patterns of dress influence figurative work.

This book is based on a British perspective – to treat the subject from a completely international viewpoint would be enormous and far beyond the scope of this book and the exhibition, at the Royal West of England Academy, it accompanies.

For all that, it goes far enough back into history to look at the Sixteenth Century portraits of Hans Holbein and other artists who learnt their trade abroad. Peter Wakelin also considers the work of fleeing Huguenots such as Marcellus Laroon, whose Cryes of London has given identity to some of the forgotten masses – foreshadowing, in a way, Henry Mayhew’s Nineteenth Century narrative London Labour and the London Poor.

The main focus though, perhaps unsurprisingly, is on the Twentieth Century when wars and upheaval caused many, often large, population shifts. Helmut Herzfeld (who Anglicised his name to John Heartfield) portrayed those sought by the Gestapo in 1930s Germany, while Dobrivoje Beljkašic recorded his native Sarajevo in the 1990s.

Despite the potentially gloomy nature of the subject matter, this is an optimistic book, as reflected in the “renewal” of the title. The narrative is a complex one and Peter Wakelin is aware that he is dealing not with historical shifts but with individuals, each with their own stories and concerns. Ultimately, this is a book about art, not national and social history, and Wakelin marshals his material well, sparking interest at all points.

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Pushing Paper || Isabel Seligman

This rather gorgeous book accompanied an exhibition at the British Museum exploring and celebrating the medium of drawing in contemporary art. All this is in the past tense as I seem to have managed to overlook it at the time (it was published in September 2019). Although it’s probably too late to see the original works, this record remains.

The death of different media, or even art itself has been declared or predicted since virtually the dawn of time. There was probably an old curmudgeon sitting at the back of the cave, watching the flickering firelight on the wall images and muttering darkly. Fox Talbot announced that, with the invention of photography, “from today, painting is dead”. How did that go, Bill?

Isabel Seligman feels it necessary to explain why drawing has endured as long as it has and I won’t insult any of us by summarising or simplifying; suffice it to say that it has a remarkable persistence and that every generation finds new ways of using it and making it relevant and contemporary. The important thing is that pretty much everything here feels innovative and presents a new way of looking at the world. The images are by turn informative and challenging. There are only so many ways you can put marks on paper, but the how, why and where are what make the difference and make art.

The period covered is 1970 to the present day. That’s not “contemporary” to everyone, of course, covering as it does the best part of fifty years, but it does provide a useful backdrop to the present and a history of a sort that doesn’t get all historical and academic.

Drawing is a medium that excites wherever it appears. It’s simple, or at least starts in simplicity and that, I think, is the basis of why it endures.

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Paint Pouring Workshop || Marcy Ferro

Paint pouring is The Latest Thing. How long it will continue to be popular, I wouldn’t like to say, but the results are striking if, perhaps, somewhat similar once you’ve got the basic principle. The effect is a cross between marbling and super-abstraction – I was reminded of the abstract books that were popular a few years ago.

Any new technique is about experimentation and there can be a lot of fun – and a lot to learn – in finding out about it. Familiarity is left far behind and new avenues and possibilities open up as rules and certainties vanish. Yes, it most precisely is a voyage of discovery.

In some ways, you might think that this is something you can more or less pick up for yourself and there’s a degree of truth in that. However, as with most things, a few hints and guidelines will save a degree of wasted time and materials – and maybe even a degree of mess!

There’s a good amount of information here, and plenty that’ll be of use to the beginner, which is pretty much everyone. There are also projects, although whether this is a field where you want to re-create someone else’s images only you can decide.

If this is something you think might be for you, this is not a bad way in.

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