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Painting Masterclass || Susie Hodge

At first sight, this has the appearance of another of Susie Hodge’s excellent analyses of the painting methods of historical masters. The format and binding are even the same as her Art in Detail series.

This is not entirely surprising, as that’s exactly what it is. However, the book is more specifically geared to the practical reader and uses what we’ll call great works to analyse a wide variety of topics. Call it learning by example, the descriptive rather than the prescriptive method.

The word Masterclass is bandied about rather indiscriminately in the book world and is frequently applied to anything the publisher thinks isn’t obviously introductory or for the beginner. Sometimes, my inner cynic mutters that they just want a title that appeals to the more experienced artist, who perhaps hasn’t been buying enough of their books lately. Well hush my mouth – a bit.

Here, though the word is entirely justified (and you might want to add that, if anyone isn’t going to misuse it, that person would be Susie Hodge). This is most precisely a masterclass. The teachers are masters and the class is absolutely for the experienced worker. There are no instructions – you won’t be following any exercises or demonstrations here. What you will be doing is learning how Georges Seurat used form and colour, how shapes work in Manet’s Déjuner sur l’Herbe (actually, Anglicised titles are used throughout) or light breathes atmosphere into a Fantin-Latour still life.

Susie is, as ever, concise and cogent in her analyses and the book works almost as well as an introduction to art appreciation, meaning you could say you’re getting twice the value which, given the quality and quantity of the illustrations, would make it an absolute steal.

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Look Again – how to experience the old masters || Ossian Ward

There’s no shortage of books on art history and appreciation or of assessments, frequently offering new insights, of Old Master paintings. The sheer weight and distribution of source material ensures a steady process of well-qualified authors. Ossian Ward is Head of Content at the Lisson Gallery and was previously chief art critic at London’s Time Out magazine.

There is much in favour of this new volume. For a start, it’s compact. If you’re trying to get to grips with art appreciation, the last thing you want is to be overwhelmed by material, and this is very much a primer. While relatively elementary, what it is not is superficial. There are plenty of well-reproduced illustrations that are, within the confines of a book that would fit in a jacket pocket, generously sized. Its binding also allows it to fall open easily, meaning that the reader is not forced to peer into the spine to inspect a detail the text has fixed on. These things matter.

The text is written as a narrative and the “again” of the title refers to the viewer taking an extended look at the artwork, rather than the book being a radical departure from received wisdom. This doesn’t mean that it is a re-hash of all that has gone before, but rather a distillation for a particular audience – one that will value the concise over the exhaustive. The chapter headings are “Art as…” and topics include honesty, drama, horror and folly. These are eye-catching as much as anything else, but allow an examination of many different works from many different viewpoints. The method is not to dissect individual paintings, but rather to demonstrate a variety of ways of approaching art as a whole and to show the newcomer what to look for in terms of composition, symbols and the overall treatment of the subject.

Add all this to an enjoyable read – even a bit of a page-turner – and you have a solid winner.

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Lee Krasner: Living Colour || ed Eleanor Nairne

Lee Krasner is this year’s rediscovery. Alongside a major European retrospective exhibition and Gail Levin’s biography is this new monograph that provides an account and chronology of Krasner’s working life as well as illustrating a thoroughly representative selection of her work.

That Krasner’s reputation has been largely obscured by the superstar nature of her husband, Jackson Pollock, is now a matter of record. As an aside to this, in On Chapel Sands, her memoir of her mother, Betty, Laura Cumming recounts her saying, of her marriage to another artist, that there is only room for one painter in a family. It seems that Betty willingly turned her creative endeavour to weaving. We can also look at Rose Hilton as an example of another partner whose work was, in this case, deliberately suppressed by a husband. Yes, it’s usually the men who prevail. Maybe Elizabeth (Betty) Cumming was right and artistic differences and jealousies do inevitably affect both creativity and a relationship.

If Lee Krasner didn’t get the appreciation she deserved during her lifetime, her reputation is being salvaged by posterity, which can examine her work through the lens of history. Maybe that isn’t a bad thing. Rather than being the Wunderkind that Pollock was lauded as during his life, Krasner can be seen as an artist both of her own time and that of the decades that have followed. It may be unfair, but it provides a different and, maybe, ultimately more subtle analysis: one with perspective.

If you want a one-volume guide to Lee Krasner’s work, this is it. True, such things may not be thick on the ground but, if you had to sketch out what you wanted from such a book, the format you have here would pretty much match it. The quality of the illustrations is generally excellent and, if the odd rather elderly colour transparency creeps in, that’s probably inevitable – better to have the picture than lose it because it’s not the sharpest slide in the tray.

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Learn Flower Painting Quickly || Trevor Waugh

This excellent series continues apace, bringing with it a welcome return by Trevor Waugh, whose loose, evocative style is admirably suited to a book where fine-detail work is not the main criterion.

Loose washes and broad brushwork create flowers that are about shape, colour and impression rather than botanical illustration. If this is what you want to do, you’ll feel right at home. Similarly, if for you flowers are more of an adjunct to a larger painting, you’ll be glad of the lack of intricate work with small brushes and of botanical information that’s irrelevant to you.

As is the series style, instruction is by example, with the text being mainly confined to guiding you through what you’re seeing. Exercises and demonstrations are short, but there’s plenty of information on shape, colour and composition, as well as foliage and backgrounds.

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In 50 Works – Van Gogh/Matisse || John Cauman

There’s no shortage of books on the Old Masters, from scholarly interpretations to coffee-table collections of works.

Think of these, therefore, as manageable and affordable primers that contain enough biographical and analytical information to satisfy without overwhelming and which ultimately stand or fall on the curatorial ability of the author – to put it simply, how good is he at making a truly representative selection of the artist’s work?

There’s no definite answer to that question, as long as styles and chronology are respected (it’s worth noting that the illustrations appear in date order and, indeed, are dated). Your own favourites may be omitted, potentially leaving you shouting at the page. On the other hand, sometimes someone else’s view can lend perspective to your own – or maybe you just want the heavy lifting done for you.

However, it does work and, while not quite at pocket-money prices, these are genuinely good value and sit nicely in what is – let’s not be shy about this – a crowded market.

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How to Draw Dogs & Cats from Simple Templates || Christopher Hart

Christopher Hart is always good value and his many figure drawing books have proved deservedly popular. Turning his attention to the animal world, his straightforward approach will get you quickly on the road to success with what can be a tricky subject.

The book does what it says on the tin. The simple shapes really are simple, being mainly circles and ovals with variations on that theme. Put a few of those together and, before you know where you are, you have a recognisable outline. A little detail, some manipulation and a modicum of shading later, and there’s an entirely realistic dog or cat. You can accommodate smooth or rough fur, long or short ears and even a wide variety of facial expressions.

Whether you’re just starting out or part of the way along and starting to feel lost, this is a simple guide that will give you confidence from page one.

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Everyday Watercolor Flowers || Jenna Rainey

This very simple guide is an ideal introduction to flower painting. The format is a standard series of steps covering a wide variety of flower types and there are good instructions that go into plenty of detail about the processes involved.

Following the same working method means that, once you’ve got the hang of how the book works, you can concentrate on the results, rather than having to learn the ropes every time and this promotes both confidence and positive results.

The quality of the illustrations isn’t as good as it might be, though. Detail is often obscured and the colours seem rather washed out. Although this is a drawback, the approach throughout is sound and it’s still a very worthwhile book.

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