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Writings On Art || Robert Storr (ed Francesca Pietropaolo)

“One evening, early in our acquaintance, my great-aunt took me downtown to the loft of William Rubin, the then newly named chief curator of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at MoMA … In the whirlwind of that evening, for the first time I “met” Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude, Frank Stella, Patty and Claes Oldenburg, George Segal, Jasper Johns, and Lee Krasner.”

WOW, now there’s an introduction to the New York art scene of the 1960’s. The tale comes from Robert Storr’s introduction that tells how he fell into art criticism pretty much by accident. It sure helps to have had a relative who was friends with Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas.

Storr’s pedigree is, I think we can therefore agree, impeccable. But what about his ability to write? Francesca Pietropaolo, the editor of this generous and eclectic compilation, describes him as “terse, elegant, inquisitive, witty, poetic, contrarian and at times animated by a vernacular verve all its own”, writing in a way that speaks to both the specialist and the general public. This is a gift that can’t be manufactured (she adds, by way of emphasis, a quote from William Carlos Williams: “I think all writing is a disease. You can’t stop it” – and amen, I say, to that).

I could go on with the quotes, because Storr has almost infinite self-awareness and uses the writing process not just to convey what he knows, but to learn about what he doesn’t and it’s a journey he is careful to include his readers in. To read him is to go on a voyage of discovery with an enthusiastic and inquisitive but also well-informed guide.

Such is the quality of the prose that it would be easy to read this from cover to cover, but it is probably best taken slower, absorbed, considered and its lessons permitted to mature. His pieces will make you think and you should take time to do that. It’s a mark of good writing.

Part of the joy is finding that, while you probably wanted to know more about Louise Bourgeois, Jean-Michel Basquiat or Jackson Pollock, there are other – many other – names which will not be so familiar and which you might be tempted to skip, except that you want more of Storr’s work and you’ll devour anything he gives you. And that, gentle reader, is the mark of great writing.

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Watercolour Landscapes || Richard Taylor

This is not a new book or, rather, it is not new material, having appeared as a subject-based series some twenty years ago. It is all the more remarkable then, that both the style and the presentation remain fresh. If it was all new, I’d be praising the style, layout and presentation as highly as I could. So I will – clearly it was ahead of its time.

It’s not a little impressive that, being a bind-up with, as far as I can see, little if any re-editing, this fits together seamlessly. It’s possible that the individual volumes each had materials and techniques sections – if so, these have sensibly been moved to the start and agglomerated. This part alone is so good that I could easily recommend the whole book just for this introduction to watercolour basics. Richard is not only a good painter, but an excellent presenter of his material who knows exactly what to leave out as much as what needs to be included.

This skill is characteristic of the rest of the book. What are now chapters cover hills & mountains, skies & clouds, forests & woodlands and lakes & rivers – all the main landscape elements – presented in exactly the way you’d expect from any general guide. Shapes, texture, colour and perspective are all covered, but mostly within wider demonstrations rather than a separate topics. Even when there are individual lessons, such as the use of cool neutrals, the examples are little works of art in their own right – this simply never feels like dry schoolwork.

This is a thick book with no fewer than 368 pages. That would normally be a matter for comment, with things harder to see and pages difficult to handle, but it actually makes the weight manageable and using a softer binding means that the book falls open easily without being forced. Counter-intuitively, it becomes a pleasure to handle. Well done all round.

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Watercolour Flower Portraits || Billy Showell

This worthwhile guide, which was originally published in 2006, has been reissued as a paperback. You can read the original review here.

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Urban Sketching || Isabel Carmona Andreu

I’ve remarked before that there’s no shortage of, and seemingly no lack of appetite for books on urban sketching. Whether that can survive lockdown and working from home remains to be seen, but if you feel a nostalgia for the crowded streets, such volumes may provide some relief.

This subtitles itself “an artist’s guide”, which you might think is a statement of the obvious. However, it presages an approach (and goodness knows, we need a bit of variety in this field) that is more interpretive and painterly than some. Isabel’s medium is mainly watercolour and she uses its properties to considerable effect, with loose washes standing for a lot of architectural detail and providing the opportunity to block in quite large areas quickly. Most urban sketching books rely on pencils, which are easy to carry and quick to get out and put away. Watercolour requires a little more baggage and preparation, but Isabel’s work amply demonstrates that the extra labour is worthwhile.

There are plenty of exercises, projects, lessons, demonstrations and examples as well as case studies of work by other artists that introduce a pleasant additional perspective. The whole is packed with ideas and inspiration backed up with the technical information you’d want.

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The Whole Picture – the colonial story of the art in our museums || Alice Procter

This is about as timely as it gets and is certainly woke. Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tours around museums in London were born out of a sense of frustration at a lack of acknowledgment of colonial history in art galleries.

This is only partly true, as any historian worth their salt knows about the role of colonialism in mainly the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries. I would like to think that an image such as The East Offering Its Riches to Britannia, painted for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, could not fail to make any viewer feel at least a little uncomfortable. Images of kangaroos, however, perhaps more simply educate a willing public about the fauna of distant lands – even if they were invaded and their indigenous populations subjugated. Dürer, of course, famously drew a rhinoceros probably only from a description. It would not be unfair, I think, to say that George Stubbs was not quite so well-informed. And then we have the famous Tipu’s Tiger, an automaton that mauls an unfortunate British soldier. The point that Procter makes rather eloquently here is that while the original is in London, only a rather poor plastic copy exists in the original location.

This, of course, raises the perennial question of whether all art should remain where it was created, or whether it can be moved about the world. It is inevitable that such moves will involve a degree of plunder and this is not limited to a single place or civilisation. Sometimes, the very movement becomes the story itself and history can lend an awful lot of perspective – we can marvel at a Roman statue of a legionary dominating a subjugated Celt without feeling the need to ask for the whole of modern Italy to be cancelled.

To be fair to this book, and its author in particular, this is neither preaching nor a rant, but rather an examination of a subject that is very much to the fore. Should we pull down statues of slave traders or let them stand and tell the story of how they came to be there? Which one illuminates history and which consigns it even further to the dark recesses of memory than it already is? If you want information that will help you think, it’s here.

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The Beginner’s Guide to Drawing Portraits || Carole Massey

If publishers ask (and they do periodically), my advice with older books is to leave them as they were. The idea of re-editing something into a new product never really works. It’s a bit like trying to turn a shirt into a pair of trousers. Even if you have enough material, the pieces will never be quite the right shape and the old seams will never lie quite flat. There’ll be compromises, gaps and false joins that’ll always be unsatisfactory. That applies to the trousers as well.

This started life in the Drawing Masterclass series, but has been completely restructured and what you now have is effectively a new book. The last time Search Press did this, I raised a quizzical eyebrow because all they’d really done was change the title. This is a complete re-working and a great deal of credit must go to Carole Massey who has done the heavy lifting here. She has not only added new material, but re-written and simplified to an amazing extent. Concentrating on the head and shoulders simplifies things immeasurably – you can forget about hands, feet, clothes and posture, for instance. It also allows her to concentrate on the form, features and expressions of the face, which is mainly what the book is about.

This is not so much a course as an examination of the way portraits are built up. Although the way through it is progressive – you’re always building on and reinforcing what you learnt before, there aren’t the same number of examples, exercises and demonstrations. They’re there, and you’ll find them, but in a less structured way. It’s very subtle how the material you need is to hand just when you want it, rather than when you’ve come to expect it.

There’s an excellent variety of gender, ethnicity, shape, form and age here. Carole is particularly good with babies and children and you could justify the relatively modest cover price for that alone.

This is probably one of the best introductions to portrait drawing around and the fact that it uses recycled material is probably only of interest to reviewers like me. You won’t see the joins.

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Spirit of Place: writers and the British landscape || Susan Owens

It’s hard to know where to file this. Is it art or literary criticism? (A British Library cataloguing in publication record is available for all you perplexed librarians out there.) I write about art, but my background is in English literature and I only narrowly escaped librarianship, so I suppose I ought to be qualified to have an opinion.

It’s an intriguing concept. The idea of British (for which, read mainly English) landscape painting has been described as an Eighteenth Century invention, which is also conveniently about the same time that modern literature came into being. No, you shut up, I’ve read Beowulf, Chaucer, Malory, Defoe and even Thomas Nash – I’m perfectly well aware of how we got to the modern novel.

The principal idea in this genuinely intriguing book is that the British Landscape is a construct, a quasi-romantic ideal that exists chiefly in the mid of its creators. Susan Owens looks as far back as Bede and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. In the latter, the concept of redemption through a green world progression is one that finds echoes later in Shakespearean comedies, as eloquently exemplified by the critic Northrop Frye. Into this, she weaves Gainsborough and Austen – the former’s landscapes certainly informing our mental images of the latter’s settings.

The narrative continues as the whole concept is refashioned by succeeding generations to reflect their own concerns, obsessions and preconceptions as much as representations of reality itself. I shall close here, merely pausing to say “Mervyn Peake” and leave you to think.

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Portraits for NHS Heroes || initiated by Tom Croft

This was published towards the end of 2020 and coming late to this review has had a number of effects. The first is to add perspective, and question whether it was a thing of its moment and whether that moment has passed. The second is to wonder whether what amounts to a retrospective hasn’t enhanced that very viewpoint. This is particularly so as we are in the middle of an even greater wave with almost unbearable pressure on health services and frequent accounts of burnout. Thirdly, I’ve had a chance to mull this over and decide my reaction in what I hope is more than just the emotion of the moment.

You can hardly have missed this. The publisher’s PR department went into overdrive and virtually every major publication contained an extract. It’s a worthy cause and it wears its heart very prominently on its sleeve. There’s nothing wrong with that in essence, but we’re reviewing this as a book in general, not a cause, and a book of paintings in particular.

There’s a degree of self-awareness relating to that in the choice of writers for the forewords – Michael Rosen (writer par excellence, national treasure and Covid survivor himself), Adebanji Alade (everyone’s favourite character sketcher, mine included) and Dr Jim Down (ICU medic and therefore messenger from the front line). You’d want some boxes ticked and they all are. Tom Croft is a self-employed portrait painter who started the online “free portrait for NHS workers” campaign that took off to such an extent that he’d matched 500 artists and subjects in two weeks. This is a collection of some of those.

The first thing that strikes you is the sheer variety of subjects, styles, approaches and treatments. There are small amounts of text, either from the subject or artist (sometimes both) that add just enough depth to make this more than a random snapshot album. It will in future, I think, stand as a record of what will amount to a moment in world and human history. There will be retrospective analyses of this pandemic in coming years and it’s hard not to see this book featuring in them.

From the artistic point of view, it’s up to you to decide what you can (and for what matter want) to learn from a collection of other people’s work. However, if you think this amount of variety is what you need, this book is probably unique on that front.

My only slight criticism, and I feel like a terrible curmudgeon for having it, is that the majority of subjects are doctors, nurses and paramedics – there’s only one administrator. Where are the support staff – porters, cleaners, caterers, without whose background – often unseen – labours none of those on the frontline would be able to function? They were at least as vulnerable, often more so as protective equipment was diverted away from them. Maybe someone feels like filling that void?

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Painting Portraits in Oils || Robert Wareing

Painting portraits in oils is generally regarded as one of the highest art forms, something refined, complex and generally best left to the specialist. That’s hardly surprising as oils do require a fair amount of equipment. Finding suitable sitters, as well as the little matter of getting a worthwhile likeness, are considerable obstacles for the amateur.

So how do you set about getting started? Until now, that’s been the conundrum. There have been few books and those that exist have been, well, rather so-so.

This is different. Rob is a portrait artist with considerable experience, but he also has a YouTube channel where he posts demonstrations, and this experience shows. This is a book aimed at the needs of the learner rather than at the subject of portraiture itself. It’s a subtle but important difference. Open the pages at random and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a complete project. Look further and you’ll struggle to find the smaller lessons and exercises you’d be expecting. This is, in part at least, an extension of his online method. However, the idea of not having to wade through pages of eyes, ears, mouths and hands has an appeal, as long as it works. Portraiture is a language and has a grammar – there are technicalities you need to know as part of the foundations and to short-circuit those can be dangerous.

Rob, however, is a patient and thorough explainer and all these foundations are here, but he manages to make them interesting. All those details come up both in the projects and also discussions of various approaches – mixing colours, preparing canvases, getting to know your subject. There are examples on every page that precisely illustrate each point that’s being made.

The whole process is intensely practical and Rob manages to make what is genuinely a complex subject seem, if not easy (that would be sleight of hand), at least manageable. Knowing the limits of what you can teach is perhaps Rob’s greatest skill and this is a truly remarkable piece of work.

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Painting Animals in Watercolour || Liz Chaderton

This is a small and slim volume and you would be forgiven for thinking it can’t have much to say. Look inside, though, and there’s a remarkable amount of variety, both in subject matter as well as approaches and techniques. The secret is some really rather nifty design work that allows the maximum number of illustrations with a text that’s mainly there to point you in the right direction. If you wanted proof of the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words, this is it.

So, you’ll find birds and animals – both wild and domestic – and an imaginative use of colour that perfectly suits Liz’s loose, painterly style. There’s not a lot about anatomy and structure beyond some basic information, but this is a book about interpretation rather than necessarily strict detailed representation. If the subjects were flowers, this would not be botanical illustration.

Basically, it’s not so much a book about animals as a book about how to paint animals that have presence and character. It’s not a complete course, although it’s a lot more thorough than you’d think and a genuinely worthwhile addition to the bookshelf.

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