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The Life of Mark Akenside || Barbara C Morden

Throughout history, there have been figures that, while now largely forgotten, were instrumental in oiling the wheels of events and influencing the cultural and political life of their time.

In the Seventeenth Century, John Ogiliby was at the heart of royal events up to the deposition of Charles I and then effectively ran communications, at considerable risk, for those who were planning the return of the monarchy. His chief visible legacy is Britannia, the first road atlas, whose style can be seen to influence most others, right down to the last Ordnance Survey One Inch series. It was in fact a guide for an anticipated Catholic invasion after the installation of Charles II as absolute monarch.

A hundred years later, Mark Akenside, who trained as a barber-surgeon, was one of the formative figures of the Romantic movement. Born in Newcastle, he is commemorated in Akenside Hill, formerly Butchers Bank, where a literary group gathered in 1821 to celebrate the centenary of his birth.

Akenside was a poet as well as a man of medicine and his volume The Pleasures of the Imagination (1744) was one of the founding works of the Romantic movement which celebrated nature with a spiritual and emotional, rather than a utilitarian, response. Politically a Whig, he opposed and satirised Robert Walpole, along with Alexander Pope (in The Dunciad). Later, his life would be written by Samuel Johnson who, although he disliked blank verse and Whig politics, came to admire the quality of Akenside’s work in spite of those preferences.

Having moved to London, he became part of the circle of Keats and Lamb, both of whom recognised his rejection of classical forms and were influenced in their own writings. He was later himself satirised in Tobias Smollett’s Peregrine Pickle – a mark, if it were needed, of his prominence and influence.

This thoroughly readable account of Akenside’s life, work and place in the artistic canon includes much detail without getting lost or bogged down. Barbara Morden goes on to demonstrate Akenside’s influence on Wordsworth and Coleridge, in particular the Lyrical Ballads. The chapters are short, but well organised, and I particularly like the summary at the head of each one, something which would have graced books of Akenside’s time and is useful even today.

Those who operate behind the scenes are frequently just footnotes in histories of their time, but Barbara has rescued a man who deserves to be more widely known and has done him ample justice. The subtitle, Breakthrough to Modernity provides a strong clue to Akenside’s relevance today.

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Watercolour: the natural world || Tim Pond

An artist’s second book can be a challenge. Quite often, they’ve said as much as they can already and, if the subject is predominantly the same, finding a different approach that doesn’t simply repeat what’s gone before can be tricky. In his previous book, Tim pretty much wrote the definitive guide to animal drawing. True, we have a change of medium here, but the style is the broadly the same and The Field Guide to Drawing and Sketching Animals certainly didn’t lack colour.

So, Tim had a hard act to follow and quite a mountain to climb. It’s therefore a pleasure to say that, in terms of absolute triumph, Tim has scored again. A change of publisher has certainly helped, because of the shift of editorial and design priorities that brings. There is a further change of emphasis in the arrangement of the book, which is now both by season and habitat. The way books are ordered is sometimes a conceit, just a way of putting one thing after another, but this makes complete sense as you get those creatures you’re likely to find together all in the same place and also relates fur, plumage and behaviour to the time of year. It’s also noticeable that there’s a lot less anatomy in this book than there was in the previous one. It’s not lacking completely, and there when you need it but, if you want lessons on structure, see previous.

This is also, as the title implies, not just a book about animals and, when ordering by habitat, Tim also includes lessons on related matters such as deciduous trees, rainforests and savannahs. He even takes time out to explain why leaves turn brown in Autumn; it’s not essential, but piques the interest and improves your overall understanding and immersion in the subject.

The studies, lessons, exercises and demonstrations mostly occupy no more than a couple of pages, thoughtfully arranged as a spread so that you can see everything at once. Tim’s style is at once precise and yet also slightly impressionistic – he doesn’t get every detail of hair or feather with a quadruple-nought brush. The result is creatures and their surroundings that have a sense of life and potential movement that should appeal to the artist rather than the zoologist.

This is a remarkably thorough and enjoyable book that will have instant appeal to any wildlife artist, but also instruct those for whom the subject is perhaps more peripheral. To do this twice in two books is no small achievement.

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The Watercolour Companion || Matthew Palmer

There’s something about this little book that you instinctively want to like. It just feels right the moment you pick it up and this is not accidental, but rather a perfect meeting of author, editor, design and production.

Content-wise, it falls into the basic hints and tips category, but covers a very broad range of watercolour techniques and subjects, arranged as a reference that you can call on for help or inspiration, or just dip into in quiet moments to spark your own thoughts and ideas. It would have been easy to make the result a lot bigger, with more examples and variations, but this is a vade mecum, something to be carried with you out in the field. It’s small enough to fit into a pocket, slim enough not to make an inconvenient bulge or weigh you down on one side and even has an elastic closure so that it doesn’t flap about awkwardly. All of these things could be tropes or gimmicks, but they serve an obvious purpose and add to the general appeal. The binding is also sewn – something of a luxury these days, which means that the pages fall open without having to be coerced, making one-handed use perfectly feasible. There’s even a handy viewfinder in a pocket at the back. I’m not even sure that all this adds significantly to the price, which is just under a tenner. That’s not bad these days.

Matthew is an excellent explainer and he covers an awful lot of ground in a very small space – which, of course, also leaves no room for over-working, either of examples or writing. Coverage includes colour, brushwork, choice of subject, skies, light, flowers, trees, buildings, water, people and special effects. Although there’s no index, each section is concise and the contents page allows you to navigate quickly.

Will you really drop what you’re doing and look a technique up in the middle of furious creativity? Only you can decide. I think you’re more likely to dip into it as I suggested, possibly just before turning the light out at bedtime. Who knows, you may wake up with the perfect image in your head and know instinctively how to achieve it.

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The Kew Book of Botanical Illustration || Christabel King

This thoroughly worthwhile guide has been reissued in paperback. You can read my original review here.

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Textured Art || Melissa McKinnon

In over four decades of writing about art books, this is only the second book I can remember that’s been entirely devoted to the technique of painting with a knife. The first was entirely devoted to oils and very serious indeed, as was the way with such books at the time.

It would not be unfair to say that David & Charles in their current incarnation produce books that are quite elementary and aimed at the more general craft-oriented reader than the committed, more advanced worker. This, therefore, is a project-based book aimed at producing attractive results reasonably quickly. What it is not, however, is superficial and the variety of images and ways of working will be of use to pretty much anyone who works with plastic media and wants to explore methods of impasto in more detail. Although Melissa works here in acrylics, the techniques can easily be applied to oils with no adaptation other than the use of different mediums, and maybe a little more ventilation

Melissa’s subjects are predominantly skies, flowers and trees, but also with some broader landscapes and her images are a great deal more than simple technical exercises that leave you feeling you want more. As well as knives and heavy impasto, she also adds brushwork that softens edges and details and creates recession. The exercises and demonstrations have been photographed in a raking light that reproduces the textures well and there’s never any doubt what’s going on or, for that matter, why. Melissa uses quite a bright palette but, if this isn’t to your taste, any competent artist would be able to adapt quickly.

This is more than a primer and worth waiting those few decades for.

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Sketchbook Challenge || Susan Yeates

This is a further addition to the increasing line of project-based books aimed at what I think we can fairly describe as the occasional user. People who, perhaps, like the idea of art without being absolutely devoted to it.

For them, I’m pretty sure this is absolutely perfect. Subtitled 100 prompts for daily drawing, it’s exactly that. Simple ideas along the lines of “why not do this?”, with a text that tells you little more than that it might be a good idea and an example or two that, to be perfectly honest, look a bit rushed. If the idea is that you don’t have to produce great works of art, Susan has hit the spot perfectly, and I mean that positively, not as a veiled insult. No-one benefits from the “not for the likes of you” approach.

The ideas cover pretty much everything, from shapes to everyday objects, animals, flowers and even just the things you find in your pocket. Would you, the committed artist, benefit from it? Well, this isn’t the first book to suggest ideas for drawing based on what’s in front of you, either as a way of learning or to break through creative block. A professional artist once said to me, “if I get one idea from a book, it’s been worth it”, so you might think that this offers a fresh approach that stimulates your creativity. You might, of course, also find it just plain annoying and vow to do better, which has just achieved the same result. Chicken dinners all round, I think.

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Simply Paint Flowers || Becky Amelia

This is one to file under Decorative Arts, projects for the beginner or part-time painter. That’s not to belittle it, but it’s not a guide to flower painting for the more serious watercolourist and, to be completely fair to it, neither does it aspire to be.

Having got that out of the way, what it does give is a simple and simplified set of ideas for floral designs in both watercolour and gouache. The emphasis is on shape and colour and it comes as absolutely no surprise that Becky is an illustrator. Although the author biography doesn’t mention graphic design, this is very much her approach. The book revolves around a series of projects that use a simple set of colours (selected for each project) and designs. The images are compact and could easily be reproduced and set to repeat for wallpaper or other coverings.

No, this isn’t flower painting as depiction of flowers, it’s flower painting as floral design and it’s well done and simply presented. Even the more serious flower painter could probably get a few ideas.

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Ready to Paint with Terry Harrison

Terry Harrison was one of the best teachers and writers about art and his death in 2017 was a great loss.

This omnibus brings together 15 of his demonstrations from the excellent and ever-popular Ready to Paint series. If you’re a fan, you probably have them already. If not, this modestly priced volume will give you an excellent introduction to fields, woodlands, wider landscapes, buildings and seascapes. Full-size outlines are provided for you to trace down onto your own paper and they can be re-used as often as you want.

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Passport to Painting || Susie West

This seems to be a year for never-before books. Although there have been previous books on gouache painting, and with coverage of the poster style of work, this is the first I’ve seen that attempts to create classic travel posters.

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a gouache book, as Susie West uses acrylics, but the style is very much that of poster paint (well, it would be), being the use of an opaque medium.

The examples are attractive and fun and there are detailed step-by-step demonstrations if you want to re-create what Susie has done. It shouldn’t take much practice to be able to branch out on your own, though, and I suspect there is more satisfaction to be had from creating retro-style posters of your own favourite places. There’s enough information on landscapes, buildings, water and so on to give you all the groundwork you need.

Is this something to build a portfolio from? Well, it’s attractive and has quite a commercial air, so I suspect that you could have quite a nice business working from other people’s holiday photos. And, with potential Prime Ministers suggesting we all need a side-hustle, why not?

I’ll just leave that, and this, with you.

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Painting Stones || Marion Kaiser

There’s nothing new about painting on stones, and we’ll all have seen faces, animals and geometric designs in many different places. For all that, this is only the second book I’ve seen on the subject, the previous one also coming from Search Press, about thirty years ago.

This is full of ideas and really rather well-executed and I can’t help thinking anyone would be inspired to have a go. The required materials (acrylic paints and brushes) are simple and the surfaces, of course, free.

What is particularly attractive about the approach here is the way Marion adapts the design to the stone in hand. It’s not quite as high-flown as Michelangelo’s advice to find the sculpture in the block, but the principle is not dissimilar.

The book is project-based and each one has simple instructions that, accompanied by clear photographs, are easy to follow. The whole thing is really rather delightful.

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