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Lee Krasner: a biography || Gail Levin

I’m always a little (well, more than a little) doubtful when someone is described as “better known as the wife of”, but the fact is that Lee Krasner was married to Jackson Pollock. It’s a sad fact that married female artists tend to be overshadowed by their spouses but, if you’re the other half of a major figure, maybe that’s inevitable. Pollock would probably overshadow anyone.

Having got that off my chest, let’s have a look at Lee Krasner in her own right. This is, the blurb announces, the first full-length account of her colourful life, going on the mention her “extrordinary story”. Let’s now bring that and my first paragraph together: “I was in on the formation of what all the history books now write about the abstract expressionists. I was in the WPA, part of the New York School, I knew Gorky, Hoffmann, de Kooning, Clement Greenberg before Jackson did and in fact I introduced him to them. But there was never any mention of me in the history books, like I was never there”, Krasner remarked rather acidly in 1973. Like I said, men obscure women and the kick-starters behind big figures sometimes get punted into the touchline of history.

So, how does this resurrect a forgotten – ignored, even – figure? Gail Levin is careful to document Krasner’s life in full and also to provide a proper critical appreciation of her work. The fact is she could, and should, have been one of the big names of Abstract Expressionism. It’s not so much that she wasn’t written into history as that she was actively written out of it. No-one puts Pollock in a corner.

Lee Krasner has for a long time been poorly served. She deserved better and she has it here.

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Kurt Jackson’s Botanical Landscape

Kurt Jackson is that rare creature, a creator who is as at home with the written word as he is with the paintbrush. Eloquent in both media, this is his account of the natural world as he sees it. If this was a collaboration such as say, Robert Macfarlane’s The Lost Words, you’d describe it as an illustrated account, or perhaps a curated portrait. As it is, though, the two strands are inseparable and the paintings, drawings, poems and accounts of travels, excursions and experiences are a single piece.

I said that Jackson is a rare creature, and the truth is that this is a unique work and has to be taken as a whole. The words don’t explain the pictures and the pictures don’t illustrate the words; both account for the landscape as it is and as Jackson sees and experiences it. To open the book is to enter a world that is very personal, and yet at once recognisable. As individuals, we’ve all been caught in motorway jams and wondered at the variety of flora that populate the verges. (That’s from a chapter entitled Weeds that makes it clear that these neglected plants are anything but second-class citizens). We’ve also marvelled at the majesty of an oak tree and perhaps wandered through the undergrowth of a woodland, disturbing small creatures as we go.

So, what is the book like? Well, imagine looking out of an all-seeing window and listening to the words of an eloquent writer. Somehow, the two meld and sound becomes vision, vision sound. It’s no accident that Robert Macfarlane contributes a preface. He gets it.

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I Know An Artist || Susie Hodge

Once you get the hang of it, this is an intriguing ramble through the connections between artists, schools and movements. The structure is a series of short (one might even say potted) biographies of figures as diverse as Monet, Mondrian, Hepworth and Emin. The contents pages provide a guide through the maze and point out the various byways, as a look at (say) Bridget Riley stops off to consider Pollock, Cezanne and Matisse.

Art does not, of course, exist in a vacuum and completely fresh ideas are a rarity; rather, individuals and groups feed off each other and develop, or maybe react against, what has gone before. That this has been widely covered is scarcely news, and is the main meat of many art histories. Where this book differs is in concentrating on individuals and making specific links; indeed, majoring on that rather than a narrative thread of history.

The slightly idiosyncratic presentation, with amusing illustrations and what can only be described as kooky typography tends at first glance to cloud the message, but a read of the subtitle, the introduction and the contents list should provide a workable road map. I’m also not sure that without the look and feel, the book would be half so interesting. Precisely because this isn’t a linear history, it benefits from a non-linear way of working.

If you like unconventional ways of thinking that make you look at familiar material afresh, you’ll love this.

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David Bellamy’s Seas and Shorelines in Watercolour

This is David’s best book in a long time and his Arctic trip seems to have rekindled his love of all things rugged. It tells the story of the littoral – the point where land and sea meet. Astonishingly, although there have been books on painting the sea and on coastal scenes, this moment of transition has largely passed the instructional book market by. It’s possible that this is because margins are always hard to define – they’re small and tend to vanish when you look at them.

So, is this a book about nothing at all? Well, no, of course it isn’t. What David has done is to combine the two conventional approaches – sea and land – and show you how they inextricably interact. So, you get waves both crashing and lapping on cliffs and beaches, harbour villages clinging to rocky slopes that teeter down to the water’s edge, as well as boats, buildings, birds and people.

There’s also a nicely complete narrative to the book’s construction. You don’t just get a series of unconnected exercises and demonstrations, but rather the story of how the coastline connects land to water and the margin to itself, creating a string of scenes and opportunities. It’s as thrilling as it is informative and the results are stunning.

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Chromatopia || David Coles

This is a visual feast. Its presentation is very much in the mould of cookery porn (if we can call it that) – sumptuous illustrations that make you want to rub your face in the plate and absorb the delicious goodness before you. Information is there, but presented in a narrative form rather than simple step-by-step instructions (in the case of cookery) or bald scientific facts (in the case of colour).

Most artists would benefit from at least a little information about what’s happening on their palette, but the chemistry of it all is probably beyond them and certainly more than they need. If you do want that, Ralph Meyer’s authoritative Handbook of Art Materials and Techniques is there for you.

If the mere thought of that makes your eyes glaze over, help is at hand in the form of this book. You are, as I’ve already hinted, going to love looking at it, but there’s also a potted account of history, properties and uses that won’t leave you wanting less. Is Cochineal really made of blood? Did you know that Cobalt was named after a malicious goblin? Did you ever feel the need to? Probably not, but it all adds to the rich pageant presented here and the sense of fun, of finding out about things just for the sheer pleasure of it.

Am I going to list all the things the book could tell you? Hell no, of course I’m not. A mere list of useful information would be boring and this is emphatically not that. Sit down, tuck in your napkin and fill your boots (yes, I am mixing metaphors, what of it?). I said this was a feast, didn’t I?

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DVD Watercolour Plein Air || Andy Evansen

There’s so much to like in this engaging and informative film that it’s hard to know where to start.

Let’s begin with an introduction: Andy Evansen is an American artist who paints in the classic English watercolour style, with muted colours and plenty of wet-in-wet. Although that mostly demands larger brushes, his is not the broad-shapes, evolving-composition method, but rather the more holistic approach we’re used to, where the starting point is a general outline that builds on overall composition and colour. He frequently starts with a value sketch which is used establish both the shape of the final work and the way the elements of the picture relate to each other. One of his particularly interesting tropes is unification of shape, where the main elements of the picture effectively merge into each other, creating the line that leads the viewer through the painting.

He is also interesting on the role of the viewer, talking at one point about “the illusion of detail”, where a few clues – in figures and animals, for instance – prompt the eye to fill in the rest of the structure. Overall, too, his way of working is to suggest rather than tell and he is very good on ways of simplifying complex shapes.

This is a film about painting on location and Andy explains why this is important. He shows how colours and composition can be adjusted to reflect the developing scene, how the value sketch can be used as a record when lighting changes and why a photograph can’t capture the subtleties of colour and hues. He also has a trick of leaving the work about 90% complete so that the final touches can be added in the calm of the studio. A quick closing section shows how subtle these can be – small marks that highlight form and structure or clarify some of the smaller details. This is not about fiddling, just tidying up when the overall vision is clearer.

Theses reviews are often peppered with quotes, but Andy isn’t that sort of demonstrator. There aren’t forehead-slapping, “Oh gosh” moments, but rather a growing sense of being informed and of watching what I can really only call the magic taking place before your eyes. It’s hugely entertaining, but strongly and subtly instructive as well. I hope we can see more of Andy.

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The Watercolour Flower Painter’s A-Z || Adelene Fletcher

This was originally published sufficiently long ago that I haven’t reviewed it here before. It was always a good book and has stood the test of time well. The idea of a series of demonstrations, each occupying a single spread and running from Agapanthus to Zantedeschia, means that a wide variety of types, species, shapes and colours are included. Even though the demonstrations are necessarily concise, the instructions are thorough and will certainly be enough for anyone with a reasonable amount of experience (I’m leaving you to define “reasonable” for yourself as everyone wants something different).

Re-publication has brought this under the umbrella of Search Press’s relationship with Kew, and this is no bad thing. Kew are a world authority and don’t issue their imprimatur lightly, so there’s considerable added authority here. The crispness of the illustrations also suggests re-origination, so there’s really rather a lot to like here.

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