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Painting With System 3 || Charles Evans

Daler Rowney’s System 3 is an integrated set of acrylic mediums that includes heavy and soft body paints, inks and fluid colours. The overall palette remains the same across the range and all the parts are designed to work harmoniously together.

Although this is in large part a promotional piece for System 3, sticking with a single range has allowed Charles to produce a complete guide to working with acrylics that covers just about every aspect. He is able to contrast and mix styles and ways of working that would be much more difficult if different brands and types were involved.

The nature of the book means it makes complete sense to start at the absolute beginning, by introducing paints, equipment and supports and then moving on to basic methods of application and demonstrations of subjects that include landscapes, water, animals and buildings.

If you’re starting to paint, this makes an excellent introductory guide and you’ll be working with a range of materials that will be reliable and should produce no nasty surprises. You’ll also be in the hands of an experienced and generous teacher who is not afraid to explain those sometimes elementary details you really need.

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Painting Abstract Landscapes || Gareth Edwards & Kate Reeves-Edwards

Over many years of selling and writing about art books, I have been asked whether it would be possible to grade books according to whether they are intended for the beginner, intermediate or advanced student. The true answer is: no. This is largely because all books contain something that will be of value to all those groups but also, it should be said, because one person’s beginner is another’s expert. I’ve spoken to people who’ve been painting for all of a few months and have nothing left to learn, but also to a professional portraitist who was buying what seemed to me a very elementary book. The explanation in that case (I had to ask) was, “If I get one idea from it, it’ll be worthwhile”.

All of which is a lengthy preamble to saying that this is very much a book for the advanced student. Yes, there are exercises and demonstrations here, but the bulk of the book is devoted to a discussion of approaches, analyses and working methods – the practice, in short, of abstract painting. It is, of course, all the better for that and anyone who has felt frustrated at the elementary approach of the books that have appeared so far will breathe a huge sigh of relief. Abstraction is as much a state of mind as a technical exercise and one that needs to be understood as much as taught. For something so deeply visual in terms of speaking to its audience, it’s also something that needs to be talked about in order to crystallise and understand the intellectual processes that go into it.

As well as those worked examples (let’s call them that), there are plenty of other illustrations and the aforesaid discussions of interpretation and working methods. The authors are father and daughter, the one a professional abstract landscapist, the other an experienced art writer. As well as the personal connection you also get the best of two worlds – top-quality writing as well as painting. This really is a stupendous book.

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On The Line: Conversations with Sean Scully || Kelly Grovier

Serendipity is a weird thing. Books go on my reviewing shelf in no particular order, often not even that of arrival. Size, weight and whether or not I’ve got them out for initial perusal all come into it. It is therefore very much by chance that two artists whose work involves lines and shapes should come together. This piece on Sean Scully comes immediately after one on Bridget Riley. And that, before we get too bogged down, is where the comparison ends.

Books such as this stand or fall on the quality of the writing. A subject can be as in demand and as intriguing as you like but, if the format of the interview, the reporting of what was said and the editing are not pitch perfect, the whole edifice falls. The interviewer has to understand the character of the subject, the questions to ask and how to ask them not least in order to gain the respect of the interviewee. More, perhaps, than anything else, they need to have an understanding of their subject’s work in order to get them to expound in ways that will interest the reader. Fail to get inside the mind and all you’ll get out of the exercise are platitudes and stock responses.

This book is the symbiosis this sort of thing should be. The word “conversations” in the title is important, because the format is not simply question and answer, but rather exchanges in which both parties give as much as they take. Grovier interpolates quite a lot of commentary between the exchanges that explain the background to what is being discussed, bringing light to what might otherwise seem a rather closed exchange and putting the author in the place of the reader, as well as vice versa. Quite simply, to read the book is to gain a feeling of being present. This is a difficult trick to pull off, but Grovier manages it with aplomb.

The conversations of the title range from Scully’s supremely humble background to his development as an artist, move to America and the development of his vision, influences and working methods.

If you enjoy good writing, this is a must. If you want to know what goes on inside an artist’s mind, and Sean Scully’s in particular, it’s an essential.

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Natural History Illustration in Pen and Ink || Sarah Morrish

Several books have appeared recently that take their subjects and readers entirely seriously. They avoid the trap of trying to be all things to all readers and simply assume that, if you don’t have the basic skills they demand, you can get them elsewhere. This is another such and offers a very thorough survey of a broad range of natural subjects depicted in a single medium.

With over 200 pages at her disposal, Sarah Morrish is able to expand and expound in considerable, though never exhausting detail. Her materials include traditional dip pens as well as Rotring Isographs, brush pens and felt and fibre tips. She also uses coloured as well as black inks, making the illustrations here far from sombre. Of particular interest is her use of hatching and line-placing to create very effective half-tones.

With plenty of space to manoeuvre, the choice of subjects is generous, ranging from trees and flowers to mammals, insects and invertebrates. The text studies not just working methods but the creatures and their environments as well; this is about finding your subjects as much as depicting them. Once you’re down to work, examples, case studies and demonstrations will give you plenty to get to grips with.

By concentrating on viewpoints and not being afraid to go into detail where it’s required, this is one of the most comprehensive books around on natural history drawing.

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Learn to Paint Portraits Quickly || Hazel Soan

This excellent series from Batsford continues to impress. Illustration-led and based around clearly executed examples and exercises, it packs a vast amount of information into a compact format and relatively few pages. If you find larger books sometimes intimidating, this is about as user-friendly as you can get.

The choice of authors has been critical to its success, as they are required to understand their subjects intimately and be able to condense the fundamentals into the format required. Lengthy explanations are out and eloquent illustrations de rigeur. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that Hazel Soan features so prominently in the list.

The idea that you can learn portrait painting quickly is a conceit, of course. It requires a lifetime of study to understand both people and ways of representing their appearance and character on paper or canvas. For all that, there are plenty of basics, such as putting your sitter at ease, getting the basic outline and then working with colour, skin tones, hair, eyes and so on. These are the basic mechanics and the foundations that you can spend the rest of your time working on. Although this is a book you can read through in probably an hour or so and whose message can be picked up in perhaps a week, it forms the basis for additional work that will occupy you for a very long time if you decide you want to continue.

And therein lies its chief value. Under Hazel’s expert tuition, you should find yourself understanding the basics quickly and producing results that work and will encourage you to progress further. If you find you are enjoying the process and have the necessary skills, this short book will take you a lot further than you might expect. If it’s still not working, you’ve lost very little in time and outlay.

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Drawing With Charcoal || Kate Boucher

There have never been many books about charcoal. It’s almost invariably lumped in with other drawing media, and not unreasonably. The basic techniques, after all, can be applied to pencils, pastels, pen & ink and so on and it makes sense not to repeat these for each one.

For all that, a thorough study will not come amiss and, given that this will probably be a one-off for quite some time, it is to be hoped that Kate Boucher steps up to the mark. It is pleasing to report that she certainly does. This is no mere “make some marks and have done with it” overview and the quality of the artwork will have you wondering why you never realised before that quite such subtlety was possible. Charcoal is a monochrome medium that is difficult to persuade into half-tones or, by its soft nature, to produce fine detail.

Just a quick look at the illustrations here will show you that such things are by no means impossible and your first thought might be that you are actually looking at a book about monoprinting. Although there is discussion at the beginning about materials and mark-making, Kate assumes a reasonable degree of experience – you can, after all, get that from one of the many introductory guides to drawing that are available. Instead, through a series of demonstrations that are fully described and analysed, she explains the use of erasers, tone, layers of texture and the use of other materials – the introduction of pastels in the final chapter is genuinely shocking, albeit in a good way.

This is everything you’d hope it would be and probably more. I said there’s unlikely to be another book for quite some time but, frankly, there’s no need for one. Kate has nailed it.

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Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs || Emily Willoughby

With new discoveries regularly in the news at the moment, this is nothing if not timely. We’ve all seen artists’ impressions of what these prehistoric creatures may have looked like, but I for one hadn’t realised the extent to which paleoart is a recognised discipline (there is, in fact, another book on the same subject coming from another publisher at about the same time).

There are not, therefore, flights of fancy, but rather serious pieces of science based on the surprising amount of detail we have about creatures no human has ever seen. Those working in the field do so in conjunction with specialists and their pieces are based on thoroughgoing research which, of course, develops all the time.

I’m honestly not sure who this book is aimed at. Well, that’s slightly unfair, but there are, as well as some superb and informative illustrations, exercises and demonstrations. These will show you how to paint a variety of species from basic outline shapes to a realistic outline as well as, if you want, scales, colours and feathers. Quite how many amateur artists want to study this field I’m really not sure and I assume that those who are serious will already be working in universities. Children, you will say. Yes, they are fascinated by dinosaurs, always have been, but this is far too advanced (mostly) for them, unless they have considerable artistic ability and are old enough to have maintained their interest into their teens.

For anyone old enough to at least retain curiosity, this is a fascinating study of where we are now in the field. It contains plenty of information about the dinosaurs themselves as well as images that show them in likely habitats and performing likely behaviours. For that alone, it’s worthwhile. The stand-out? For me, it’s a small ink drawing of a Velociraptor. We know that birds are the survivors of what was a mass extinction, and that’s a Magpie if ever I saw one.

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Creative Drawing Techniques || David Brammeld

Subtitled From first mark to full expression, this is a comprehensive, but not exhausting, study of drawing using everything from pencils and pen & ink to watercolour washes, graphite, charcoal, acrylic inks and mixed media.

You could forgive yourself for asking how all this could be not creative – the title does sort of hint at that possibility. The truth is, it’s one of those rather vague words that publishers use when they’re not quite sure how to categorise the work of an author they’ve felt attracted to and want to do a book with. There’s an immediate attractiveness to David’s work that eloquently explains this without the need for any words. There’s huge variety here and he is one of those artists whose work somehow transcends their medium. In a way, this isn’t a book about drawing at all, but about creating and where the fact that tools are used is merely incidental.

That’s all very well, but you the reader are sat there with a pad on your knees, pens and pencils in hand and a bottle of ink perched precariously on a stool or tree stump beside you. You want to know how to proceed and you won’t be disappointed by how David guides you. That subtitle makes it clear that this is about the whole process of drawing and that there’s advice on mark-making before you get to the process of transcending your media. The more elementary aspects don’t dominate, however, and there’s plenty of variety and exercises to get stuck into. Subject matter includes trees, buildings, still lifes and a few portraits. David tends to go for the closer, more intimate view than the wider perspective, which is why I haven’t mentioned landscapes, even though some of his work does fall broadly into this category.

All-in-all, this is an enjoyable, instructive and thought-provoking book.

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Colour for Botanical Artists and Illustrators || Leigh Ann Gale

This really rather excellent guide to botanical painting comes at its subject from the angle of colour. That much you could glean from the title, but the approach is interesting because Leigh Ann breaks a complex topic down into not just manageable, but also fundamental, parts that allow discussion to broaden into real-life observation and the use of colour theory.

That latter is always a difficult subject to address because it seems so esoteric, yet is also absolutely central to all artistic endeavours. The irony is that its foundations are relatively simple – colours are filters for white light and reduce the amount that is reflected. More is always less. By tackling the matter head on, Leigh Ann simply shows you how correctly-observed colour choices will produce vibrant and, above all, botanically accurate results.

All aspects of colour are covered, including flowers, fruit and foliage, with examples and demonstrations provided for each of the main colour groups. Instructions and analyses are thorough throughout and this is a worthwhile as well as original addition to the canon of botanical literature.

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Bridget Riley: Working Drawings

Bridget Riley is perhaps the only British Op Artist the general public would recognise, maybe even name. Best known for her often eye-popping geometric works, she has had a long and varied career that has gone through several stages including figurative, Impressionist and Pointillist.

Rather amazingly, this is the first book to collect and illustrate her preparatory work and, therefore, to offer an insight into the way her pieces develop. It includes sketches, outlines and preparatory pieces – as she puts it herself: “Studies are my chief method of exploration and way into my paintings”. Most of the illustrations are uncommented, but the book includes texts from various points in her career that explain Riley’s background and development as well as interviews from 2005, 2011 and a new one, specially commissioned for the book.

There is plenty of material here and the overall sense is of a job well done – that this is a complete survey rather than a first footing. Some of the reproduction does seem a little coarse, although that may be down to what material was available. The colour also seems sometimes a little flat and Thames and Hudson are normally good at getting as effective a result as possible on matt paper. £45 is not a trivial sum, but it is excellent value considering what is included and one should perhaps not quibble.

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