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Nicholas Hilliard || Elizabeth Goldring

Nicholas Hilliard is arguably one of the greatest portrait artists this country has ever produced. That his name is not a household word is largely down to the fact that he was primarily a miniaturist. His works don’t hang in all their glory on gallery walls, but rather are tucked away in glass cases, requiring close examination to appreciate properly.

What is surprising when you do get close is that, apart from the costume of the sitters, Hilliard could easily be working two or even three hundred years later than he was. These are not the formal portraits of the Sixteenth Century court, often severe and forbidding, but something altogether more relaxed and intimate. Well, of course they are, because, just as exhibition is difficult, these were not for public show; they were for family, friends and lovers and for remembrance while the subject was away, or had died. They carry the essence of personality intentionally in a way that had never really been done before.

To achieve not just a physical likeness but also character and personality takes skill at any level, but to do so in something only an inch or two high is truly remarkable. There are some enlargements in this magnificent book that are up to ten times the original size and show the beautiful detail and frankly unbelievable skill Hilliard brought to his work. Few paintings will stand this level of magnification, but it takes a moment to realise that these are not simply full-size.

This is set to be the definitive study of Nicholas Hilliard. It includes a full biography and includes a wealth of illustrations, many of the images appearing in colour for the first time. New archival research adds to the authoritative nature of the text and the quality of production is everything you could wish for – a book like this can easily be let down in that department, but this shines.

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Memory Banks || Karin Mamma Andersson

The afterword to this catalogue of an exhibition is more helpful than the introductory essay. Here, we learn that Andersson’s paintings are loosely based on her photographic archive and are a link between the central focus of the 2018 FotoFocus biennial and the thinking behind painted art. As the rest of the book is simply a collection of images, this is helpful, especially for those not familiar with the context or the artist’s work.

The introductory essay attempts to achieve in words what the paintings do visually. In this, it is only partly successful. Broadly elegiac, it draws comparison with the crumbling Vasa galleon that was raised from Stockholm harbour in 1961 without modern conservation techniques. Kevin Moore uses this comparison to examine how the imperfections of human memory can be traced through a painting created from a sharp photographic original. Actually, having written that, I’m starting to get an idea of where we’re at, but the original is hard work (ironically almost a reversal of the process involved with the images). It’s fair to point out that the essay isn’t a direct attempt to explain the corpus but, if it tends to confuse, it is perhaps less than helpful.

For all that, this is a collection of intriguing images that, while it tends to prompt the initial reaction, “meh”, draws you inextricably in. Maybe that’s the best indicator of success.

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Light and Shade in Watercolour || Hazel Soan

Hazel Soan’s work is all about light and shade and this is the book she was always destined to write. If it seems like a long time coming, think of her previous output as the rehearsal that makes sure this is absolutely right. And absolutely right it is, a genuine tour de force that takes in light and dark, the white of the paper, contrasting and complementary colours and the use of simple shapes that say far more about a subject than any amount of fine detail. Look at any of the images here in depth and it becomes apparent just how much Hazel leaves out, relying instead on the viewer’s eye to fill the blanks and create the emotional response that defines a successful painting.

The book covers animals, figures, flowers, landscapes, buildings and townscapes, all in a variety of lighting effects that Hazel will show you how to capture. There are no step-by-step demonstrations, but neither is this a dry read; most of the text is confined to short paragraphs. Like the images themselves, these are stripped back to the bare essentials while, at the same time conveying all the information you need. Where necessary, extended captions explain what you’re looking at and for and there’s an extraordinary sense of working alongside a consummate artist, rather than simply being set homework to present later.

Hazel is a rightly popular author and demonstrator and this is easily her best book yet.

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Jean Haines’ Atmospheric Flowers in Watercolour

Jean Haines’ work is approaching a form of abstraction. Extreme looseness and the extensive use of washes has led to images that are more about shapes and colour than they are about form. In the wrong hands, this leads all too easily to confusion, and not just in the mind of the viewer – the artist themselves can lose sight of their vision and thus the ability to communicate.

This has not happened with Jean and the paintings here are always recognisable even if they are about as far from botanical illustration as it is possible to get. At the same time, the essence of not just flower, but species is retained and you get the sense of a plant growing in the wild, dancing in the breeze and seen with the lack of distinction brought on by distance. When Jean is painting figures, it’s natural to say that she captures character and soul. While that’s not such an obvious factor with flowers, it’s hard not to make the comparison. This is what flowers are about more than what they are.

But this is also a practical book and we must therefore ask the questions: can you re-create this and would you want to emulate the highly individual style of another artist? The answer to the first is simple: Jean is very good at explaining her working methods, so the lessons and demonstrations are admirably clear. Technically, it can certainly be done. As to the more creative question, well, if you follow the book, you’ll end up with a copy, but you’ll also learn how to see, think and interpret, so you can develop your own approaches. I think that’s an entirely reasonable aim and falls well within the scope of what the book is about.

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Five-Minute Watercolour || Samantha Nielsen

This is not – praise be – a book about painting for those who are too busy to paint. I’ve ranted about that elsewhere: art is something that takes time and deserves to have time taken.

No, this is far better. It’s about working quickly and grabbing the idea before it fades and then not over-working it so that the soul of the subject and the painting are lost. It’s not a particularly new idea and you could call it sketching, except that it’s more than that because it’s more than a notebook. This is about seeing, interpreting and distilling.

There’s a wealth of ideas, subjects and techniques here and plenty to pick up and run with. The illustrations are attractive (essential given what’s being presented) and, although Samantha analyses them, they’re not demonstrations and you’re not intended to copy them. You should instead go out and find your own ideas, but what’s here will give you plenty of inspiration and jumping-off points.

There are plenty of books like this and they usually end up with a qualification – yes, but … it only goes so far. Not so here. It’s a rather joyful book and provides a wealth of encouragement.

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Botanical Artistry || Julia Trickey

This really rather beautiful collection of images from an award-winning botanical artist isn’t just about flowers, but looks at dying and damaged leaves as well as fruit and fading blooms. All these are an important part of botanical illustration as few specimens are perfect in real life. In the right hands, they can, as we see here, be things of considerable beauty.

This isn’t an instructional book, but Julia includes handy observations on what she was looking for and why many of the particular subjects were chosen. If you’re a student of botanical art, these insights will be both fascinating and a valuable way of learning how to develop you own skills in the company of an accomplished professional.

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Bath || Peter Brown

Peter Brown first moved to Bath in 1986 when he became an art student and he credits the city with re-igniting his passion for painting when he returned in 1993.

This large-format, sumptuously illustrated volume is nothing less than a love letter to his adopted home. Pete’s Bath is not the tourist attraction, although the casual visitor will find plenty of scenes they recognise. Rather, he seeks – as is his normal method of working –quieter corners, commercial thoroughfares and forgotten backstreets. These are the places the tourist never sees and which locals, through daily familiarity, often overlook. In every kind of weather and lighting conditions, they take on a new life and vibrancy that can only really be discovered by the true aficionado and intimate.

This is a substantial book that should appeal to any lover of Bath itself, of urban landscapes, or just of painting. It’s a tour de force that comes not just of love, but of observation and persistence.

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