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Joseph Wright of Derby – painter of darkness || Matthew Craske

Joseph Wright effectively chronicles the Age of Reason and the rise of the scientific method. His most famous works show experiments and create the sense of wonder that miust have accompanied them. He was much more than that, though, and this magnificently thorough biography and analysis includes a wide range of other figurative and landscape works. Craske also examines contemporary engravings and prints that reveal details that are now lost. In addition, he turns the received view of Wright as a scientific insider on its head and reveals him to be more of a sceptical outsider, something which the whole chapter on An Experiment on the Bird in an Air Pump demonstrates. It’s a token of the book’s attention to detail that several pages are devoted to the history of the (vacuum) air pump itself and that, far from feeling like more information that we really need, is deeply fascinating.

It’s worth drilling down into this. The composition of the picture is chiefly a pyramid, but with a side-bar that adds a sense of Wright’s own sceptical view. At the head of the pyramid is the experimenter, a more than slightly sinister and Messianic figure who is clearly driven by the desire for experiment itself. He does not appear to share the inquiring mind of the male viewers, who are fascinated by the demise of the bird when the air is removed from its glass chamber – its death is all too visible. To one side are a couple who seem less interested in the proceedings than each other – for some, such things were more of a social event. And then there are the children. This is not, please note, A bird, it is The bird, a fact emphasised by the title, which has An air pump, not The air pump. This is their pet and their distress at its loss is clear to see. The adults may lack which we would now call humanity, but the children don’t. Again, there is emphasis: a male figure (their father?) points to the bird in a kindly way, expecting education and Reason to trump Emotion. All of this sounds like a sledgehammer, but Wright’s skill is to conceal the message in what is simply a damn good painting. The details have to be teased out.

And then there’s the side-bar. A servant looks quizzically at the viewer and is engaged in something, possibly closing the curtains, although the rod he is using neatly points out the bird’s empty cage. Any doubt that this poor creature was part of the household is dispelled. Through the window, a full moon peeps through clouds, a hint, perhaps at Reason and Enlightenment, or maybe that light can also be obscured – are those clouds breaking or closing?

The sub-title of the book is also worth a mention: Painter of Darkness. It hints at the sense of Enlightenment not always as a clear view, but also at Wright’s skill in using limited light – he is probably the best there is at that.

I’ve always liked Joseph Wright, but now I’m a confirmed admirer. It take a pretty good book to do that.

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John Nash – the landscape of love and solace || Andy Friend

Paul Nash, the older of the two brothers, is the name most people remember. John, however, was perhaps the more influential, despite having had no formal art training. Impressively versatile, he worked in oil and watercolour as well as drawing and produced many wood engravings. Andy Friend also argues that he was one of the finest botanical draughtsmen of his age. He was held in high regard by his contemporaries, including Walter Sickert, Mark Gertler and Dora Carrington. In turn, he influenced Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden.

This is a thorough biography that is enhanced by its generous number of illustrations which, despite being hampered by the use of book rather than glossy paper, manage to leap off the page – someone has gone to a lot of trouble with the production in this respect.

To put an artist in context, especially one who was so pivotal to their age, requires a wider view and such we find here. In particular, Andy examines Nash’s relationship, both personal and professional, with his wife Christine Kühlenthal. An important figure in her own right, her voice is revealed through her letters and journals, seen here for the first time.

This is a substantial and thorough book with much original research that tells the story not just of its subject, but also much of the development of art in the Twentieth Century.

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How To Draw All The Things For Kids || Alli Koch

I don’t normally review books that have no words because there’s very little you can say about them. Yes, they have stage-by-stage illustrations, usually, but without written instructions, the working process is entirely down to the user and completely subjective. Rather than review the book, I’d really need to be writing about you, the gentle reader. And I don’t think either of us want that.

This, though, is such a brilliant idea that it merits a mention. Yes, it’s all the foregoing, but books aimed at children need to catch their imagination immediately. Instruction is work and work is school and, well, down with skool, as Nigel Molesworth reminded us.

The pages here are friendly – the outlines are large and the images rounded in a way that makes them inviting (don’t argue with me, this is subjective, I told you that). They also include, as well as animals, insects and figures, a cupcake, a camera and even a unicorn (yes, of course they exist if you have a vivid enough imagination).

I have an ongoing project to send anything like this down to my grandchildren and, at some point, I may be able to report on how they get on with them.

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Get Started With Gouache || Emma Block

This is, let’s be clear, a very basic book. If you’ve never picked up a brush before, it will absolutely help you get some simple images down on paper, introducing you to basic techniques of application and working with colour. For someone looking for something as elementary as this, gouache is a good choice of medium. It requires little equipment and, being opaque, is very forgiving. You can move on to watercolour, oils or acrylic if you decide painting is for you and as your skills and confidence develop.

There’s really not a lot more to say. The instructions are simple, the projects short, the subjects excellently varied and the colour palettes not over-taxing. The results are bright and attractive and come quickly. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, you could do one heck of a lot worse than this.

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Drawing Trees & Flowers || Margaret Eggleton and Denis-John Naylor

This is a bind up of two volumes that have previously appeared. You can read Trees here and Flowers here.

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David Bellamy’s Landscapes Through The Seasons in Watercolour

This is an expanded version of David’s Winter Landscapes which appeared in 2014. It’s therefore no surprise that this is the season that gets the greatest coverage. Overall, on a back-of-the-envelope calculation, about two-thirds is new material. For a ten quid paperback, that’s not exactly daylight robbery if you have the previous book (which, as one of David’s super-fans, you will).

If this is all new to you, be assured that the integration is good and you won’t be able to see the joins. Search Press are very good at this kind of thing and the progress is seamless. What may appear slightly odd is that it begins with Summer, especially as it comes out in Autumn. This is all down the Beastly Virus – it was one of the many titles that got delayed, having been slated for the middle of the year. Most books on the seasons begin with Spring because – well – because any start point than that is always going to be idiosyncratic. Move on, it’s not a biggie.

The whole thing is sound and well executed, with the demonstrations and overall quality of work fully up to the standard you’d expect but (whispers), sometimes don’t get from David. One or two of his more recent books have felt – to me, at least – a little rushed and almost as though his heart wasn’t in it. If you wondered whether he was losing his creative mojo, though, just look at Arctic Light. That’s a tour de force.

So, anyway, this is as thorough a guide to painting outdoors at all times of the year and in all weathers as you could wish. At 96 pages, it’s practically concise, but there’s no wasted space and it feels a lot larger. David isn’t just a great painter, he’s a great distiller of information and the way it’s presented. Do you get the impression I’m telling you to buy this? Good.

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Botanical Art Techniques || The American Society of Botanical Artists

This is a hefty tome that also carries with it a considerable weight of authority. At £30, it’s priced above most books in this field, but the quality of instruction and reproduction and the sheer breadth of coverage actually make it look a bit of a steal. Shout-out to the UK distributor for converting that from $40 as well (most would just have converted the currency symbol).

So, what do you get for your weighted-down walk home? For a start, as the cover proclaims, most of the painting and drawing mediums and surfaces “and more”. Subjects include flowers, leaves and fruit as well as one of the most thorough groundings in techniques I’ve seen. As the authorship implies, each lesson is tutored by a different artist. No, you won’t have heard of most of them, but there’s a remarkable consistency to the style and the editors have been careful to make the book a homogenous whole rather than, as it could easily be, a collection of only vaguely related articles.

Although there are plenty of step-by-step guides, this is probably best approached if you’re serious about botanical work and already have a reasonable set of skills. I’m hesitant about calling it a masterclass, because it’s more than that, but I do think it’ll leave you feeling well-provided however advanced you were to start with.

Can I say it’s the only book you might need? Not exactly. This is a field that’s widely served and there are plenty of introductory guides and subject-specific offerings. Despite that, and however many other books you have, I think it’s fair to say you need this one.

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Arts & Crafts Churches || Alec Hamilton

If Le Corbusier was right that a house is a machine for living, it certainly doesn’t follow that a church is a machine for worship. Even if you’re not of a religious turn of mind, his own Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp has a remarkable sense of spirituality that transcends mere structure. Good architecture should enrich the lives of those who use it, whether in a domestic, utilitarian or religious context and church architecture, in particular, reflects the values of its time.

This utterly gorgeous book arrived unannounced and unrequested. Church architecture is really beyond even the margins of a remit I sometimes stretch. However, I do have an interest in the subject and the Arts & Crafts Movement in general, so its delivery is a serendipitous personal delight.

It takes the form of a gazetteer so, wherever you are, you can find examples throughout the UK. Arrangement is, as it should be, by county and there are also handy biographies of the main practitioners. Introductory material discusses the Arts & Crafts Movement itself, architecture as art and the place of religion in society.

If this is a subject that interests you, the mere existence of the book will guarantee its purchase. The good news is that it’s everything you’d hope, want and expect it to be.

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200 Words to Help You Talk About Art || Ben Street

File this under Fun and please don’t take it too seriously.   Yes, of course you need to be able to drop Mimesis, Primitivism, Anamorphosis or Neue Sachlichkeit into any post-dinner party conversation and it’s helpful to know what they mean if anyone decides they do and wants to challenge you.   Too much Pinot Grigio can make even the most reclusive guest argumentative.   It’s handily small, too, so you can slip it in your pocket as a quick crib-sheet should things get ugly.

Even better, it’s arranged by theme: Media, Techniques, Movements, etc so that you can browse easily and there’s a contents list to make finding (say) Maquette a matter of moments.

A dictionary would be sorted alphabetically and be much more inclusive than this – think 2000 words at the very least.   This, though, gives you a basic grounding and, if you were inclined to be a bit less flippant than I’ve been, you’d find it an excellent grounding in art terms, movements and styles.

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7 Deaths of Maria Callas || Marina Abramović

This is a full photographic record of Marina Abramović’s performance piece, in which she re-enacts seven death scenes as performed by the late opera diva.   “Like so many of the characters she created on stage, she died for love”, Marina says in her short introduction, adding, “Most operas end with the woman dying and, more often than not, it is because of love”.

Marina is a performance artist and these are pieces without words, so this record is as close as you can get to the action without actually being there.   The reproduction quality is superb and it has to be concluded that the book was planned all along; these are not happily available images cobbled together as an afterthought.    The unbilled eighth death, Callas’s own, is performed with Willem Dafoe and has a voiceover script, which is reproduced in full.

There’s not a lot more to be said, expect that this is beautifully conceived and produced.   It’s a must for any fan of Marina Abramović and, I suspect, Callas as well.

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