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Watercolour Landscapes For The Absolute Beginner || Matthew Palmer

This is a reissue of Matthew Palmer’s Step-by-Step Guide to Watercolour Painting, which first appeared in 2018. Actually, the copyright page says “includes material from”, but I’m unable to check whether there is anything new here, so let’s assume that it’s probably not much.

Whatever, it remains an excellent introduction and you can read my previous review via the link above.

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Watercolor Life || Emma Block

What’s not to like about “40 Joy-Filled Lessons to Spark Your Creativity”? The answer, I’m pleased to say, is absolutely nothing. Apologies for the double negative, I’ll give you a moment to unravel it.

This is, as you might have guessed, a project-based book aimed squarely at the raw beginner. While there’s not exactly a shortage of these at the moment, this certainly fits the mould of subtle colours, a funky typeface for the headings and plenty of white space to make the pages less intimidating. It offers a good variety of subjects and background information.

The book opens with a simple introduction to techniques that is concise without being over-simplified and actually manages to explain colour mixing, use and theory as well as I’ve seen. In this context, the skill lies in stating the obvious without, um, stating the obvious. Thus, we have the different types of brush, along with their uses and merits, explained in straightforward terms.

The projects themselves are broadly undemanding and follow a standard format which works from outline to colour mixing and application seamlessly and without fuss in half a dozen pages. It wouldn’t be unfair to say that you won’t be producing great works of art here, but if you want simple lessons in colour, form, perspective, tone and so on, you have to forego something.

Organisation is neat, too, with main headings concentrating on the techniques being covered – wet-in-wet, the use of masking fluid, brushstrokes, etc. Within these, Emma covers still lifes, plants, trees, buildings, landscapes, people and decorative work. It’s all very simple but, at this level, that’s what you want.

As I said, in this part of the market, you’re fairly spoiled for choice, but you won’t do much better than this as a solid introduction and foundation to watercolour.

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The Watercolour Sourcebook

This bind-up of the What To Paint series provides 60 transferrable outlines with basic instructions on completion. You get Landscapes from Terry Harrison, Flowers from Wendy Tait, Trees, Woodlands and Forests from Geoff Kersey and Hills and Mountains from Peter Woolley.

It’s a repeat of what’s gone before but, if you don’t have the original volumes, you get a lot of material for your £15. My only issue, as with all books with removable pages is that, when you’ve removed the outlines (which you’ll need to), you’re left with half an empty spine. You might think that inevitable sacrifice is worthwhile, though.

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The Real and the Romantic || Frances Spalding

As we move further into the Twenty-First Century, the ability to look back to the previous one and see perspective becomes more feasible. What were once organic developments that were happening around us are now seen as groupings and movements. This look at the period between the First and Second World Wars is therefore much more than a simple, or even simplistic or convenient, chronological slice of time.

The name-checks here are impressive: the Nashes, Eric Ravilious, Stanley Spencer to name just a few. At the same time, women artists came to be recognised as serious practitioners and Laura Knight, Evelyn Dunbar and Barbara Hepworth, along with others, put in more than a fleeting appearance.

The ends of wars tend to engender hope, but also a demand for improvements and new horizons. Although much of the groundwork had been done in the 1920s and 30s, the creation of the National Health Service in 1948 is a case in point, as was 1951’s Festival of Britain. Both of these are outside the scope of the book, but they demonstrate the appetite for renewal as a nation rebuilds.

Frances Spalding’s thesis is that the art world (the book is specifically about English art) was left directionless in 1918. Many of its best known names were either now fading or had simply been killed, but the idea of things being effectively thrown up in the air is a compelling one. Everything was in turmoil and everything was possible as the desire for a connection to the past met the possibilities made available by new directions and the avant-garde. Quite simply, the old world was revisited on the terms of the then present day, with artists, writers and sculptors also open to Continental ideas.

As the skies darkened during the 1930s, the mood became harder and Surrealism, for example, fed into the continuing tradition.

It is Frances Spalding’s contention that the inter-war years saw a fruitful conjunction of forward-looking realism with more backward-facing romanticism to create an art structure that was unique to, but also very much a product of its time.

The writing is thorough and the arguments convincing, with plenty of examples, analyses and histories. The book is also generously illustrated and Thames & Hudson again pull off their trick of getting good colour reproduction on book paper.

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The Painter’s Book of Magic || Bob Brandt

Privately published books are prone to two problems. The first is the lack of an editor, the second the lack of a designer. Editors have that degree of remove from the author, as well as the professional experience, that allows them to spot over-writing and glib assumptions. Designers work in the book world and are up to date with current trends. You may not think that look and feel matter that much and are really so much froth, but the way you navigate the book and absorb information off the pages is entirely down to them.

All of which preamble is to say that Bob navigates these hazards well. True, the book does have the feel of being laid out on a word processor, but the type is readable and the illustrations are generally in the right places. You get nul points for making the reader constantly jump about. With regard to editing, the book reads well, so I think we can tick that box too.

The magic referred to in the title is the creative process – looking, seeing, observing and recording, and this is very much an illustrated thesis. Bob examines in some detail what makes a painting interesting – how not just the subject but the composition and content engage a viewer. This isn’t a book about how to put paint on paper or canvas, but rather where and why to place it. What makes the book compelling is that Bob understands the issues involved, rather than simply sensing them instinctively, and has the ability to explain the solutions simply and elegantly. It’s a worthwhile read.

Available from https://clockhousestudio.co.uk/book

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Plein Air Painting with Oils || Haidee-Jo Summers

Time spent with Haidee-Jo is always time well spent and feels more like a relaxed conversation with an old friend than any kind of tutorial process. If you’ve watched any of her DVDs, you’ll know that she spends time discussing not just ways of applying paint, but of reacting to scenes and conditions, explaining the way the creative process works perhaps better than anyone else.

A book is a very different beast, of course, and needs to be more prescriptive than discursive. The written word doesn’t um and ah, doesn’t wave its arms about to make a point eloquently and doesn’t get distracted by a sudden gust of wind. At least, it shouldn’t, though we can all think of books that wander infuriatingly off the topic. No, I won’t be mentioning any names.

For all that, what we have here is an enjoyable ramble through the ways of oil painting. And that’s not a sentence I’ve ever written in forty years. Rambling is normally associated with watercolour; oils are a much more serious business. Aren’t they? You see, that’s the thing, Haidee-Jo is a painter who happens to work in oils, not a (serious voice) Painter In Oils. The medium is very much not the message, merely (is that the right word?) the messenger, a way of communicating form, colour, composition and emotion.

There, I’ve said it, I’ve used the E word, because that’s really what this book is about. The subtitle (they’re always instructive) is “a practical and inspirational guide to painting outdoors”. What you’ll get here is advice about the practicalities of working the field – equipment, preparation, adaptation – as well as how to recognise a subject and construct a scene, whether it’s landscapes, trees, flowers, buildings, water or even people. There’s consideration of light, weather, seeing, interpreting, remembering (because scenes change before your very eyes) and, of course, getting the all-important paint on the also-important canvas.

This is an enjoyable book that can’t but inspire you to get outside. You probably can’t take Haidee-Jo with you, so you’ll just have to imagine her.

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New Ideas in Botanical Painting || Carolyn Jenkins & Helen Birch

If you were to approach this expecting some revolutionary ideas, you would be either disappointed or relieved. To be honest, flower painting probably doesn’t really lend itself to a great deal of innovation, but there is nevertheless a freshness to the approach here that might well appeal.

Carolyn is a gardener as well as an artist, so there’s quite a lot about cultivation and working with plants in order to understand them as a prelude to painting them. She also talks a lot about structure, but from the artistic rather than scientific point of view and this is certainly useful.

The style of the work veers strongly towards botanical illustration, being detailed and precise but, again, tends more towards the artistic than the scientific. The overall impression is colourful and inviting – this is a book that’s heavier on interpretation than it is on representation. It should also be noted that there are no lessons or demonstrations as such, the book being more a discussion of approaches and working methods. That said, the chapter on photography and the use of Photoshop to create the “perfect” specimen is something new and certainly useful.

This is an inviting book that you can’t help delving into.

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Line & Wash Painting || Liz Chaderton

Crowood have carved out a rather neat niche in collaboration with Liz. Her books are quite small format and relatively short, but absolutely packed with information and illustrations.

Line & wash is a subject that’s been crying out for a book for absolutely ages and this one will not disappoint. Liz covers a huge variety of subjects, styles, materials and techniques with a thoroughness which doesn’t seem possible in the limited space she allows. What makes the book particularly interesting is how she isn’t afraid to sublimate the line element, which usually dominates, instead sometimes relegating it almost to just highlights in what is otherwise largely a watercolour wash.

You’ll find landscapes, buildings, portraits and animals and styles that range from the traditional to results that are more akin to printmaking and sometimes even veer towards abstraction.

Traditionally, the line element defines the outline, with the wash being an infill. Here, Liz does not allow herself to be bound by these constraints, either technically or creatively and this is a powerhouse of a book hiding in a small space.

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Kyffin Williams || Qing Chao Ma

I can’t really do any better as a review than to quote David Wynn Meredith, Chairman of the Sir Kyffin Williams Trust: “No other artist and author has collated so many diverse examples of Sir Kyffin’s art in one publication with such coherence. This is a book put together with great care and purpose and written from the heart”. If it’s good enough for the Trust, it would be hard to quibble and you’d better have some good arguments.

David also contributes a foreword in which he recounts Qing Ma’s discovery of and research into Kyffin Williams’ work. Intriguingly, it turns out that there is a previous book, written in Mandarin and published in China – the great man’s work has nothing if not reach.

From the point of view of a review, all that’s really necessary to say is that the written material is thorough, beginning with a brief account of Williams’ life. It would be fair to say that “concise” might be a better word because all the information you need is here, but without extraneous detail. There may be another book to be written that adds colour and anecdote, but this is not it and Qing does well to stick to the broad outlines.

The rest of the book is roughly ordered: that’s to say there are sections on portraits and figures, landscapes, concept of art and, finally, quotations that amplify Williams’ view on topics from traditional art to abstraction. Separating widely different subjects makes a lot of sense, but trying to categorise beyond that can lead to curators tying themseleves in all kinds of knots. Qing is far too canny to fall into that trap.

The bulk of the book consists of the illustrations – a more than generous 270 of them in all. These are excellently reproduced and the book’s square format allows for variations of layout as well as accommodating different shapes and dimensions of the original without a sense of anything being condensed to fit the space. If you want to see the originals, captions include date (where known), dimensions and location – handily, those outside private collections are mostly either in the National Library of Wales or the Oriel Môn Gallery.

An artist of the stature of Kyffin Williams deserves a serious but also accessible study and this steps firmly up to that plate. To quote again from David Wynn Meredith, “This is a book to be treasured”.

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From Coast & Cove || Anna Koska

There is a charm to this book that draws you in and has you gripped within only a few pages. Entirely impressionistic, Anna captures the essence of the coast, from wild landscapes to playful seaside, in words and pictures.

It isn’t, on the face of it, an art book, although the illustrations, frequently peeking from the edge or corner of a page, are part of the appeal and will serve as an example to other aspiring journal writers. For them, the main lesson to be taken is how to see, observe, select and retain. A scene can be almost anything you want it to be, from the wide vista to the intimate details and the tiny creatures that cling to rocks or crawl among the grasses. What any given moment means to you will depend on an infinite variety of factors. Anna is first class at telling these stories, from how the day began to concerns about the weather, who else was there, what you grandfather told you, or how a particular colour caught your eye.

There are no lessons here, in the sense of sitting down, paying attention, practising and revising. Rather, this is a piece to enjoy and absorb. You’ll come away refreshed, informed and a whole lot wiser.

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