Archive for category Media: DVD
In my review of Herman’s previous film with APV, I described him as a magician. To that, I think I’ll add alchemist. Although this is filmed in China, the city street and beach scenes could be almost anywhere, although a session around (newly built) traditional architecture does give more sense of place. All the sessions are dogged by heat, humidity and a dense haze (which might be smog). It’s clear that working in these conditions is hard labour and Herman does well to keep going and produce what can really only be described as pure gold from base metal.
What makes the film watchable, indeed compelling, is Herman himself. His commentary is continuous – few other artists can manage to work and talk at the same time as well as he does – and includes nuggets of wisdom you’ll want to write down. In the city, where buildings, street furniture and signs abound, he remarks, “The more complex a subject is, the more I tend to use just drybrush”. This combines with advice to “Let the water, pigment and paper do the work for you” to demonstrate ways of simplifying not just the subject, but your technique. He adds later, “You must have a vision, you must see the painting finished before you start.”
The scenes Herman chooses are unpromising and the haze makes things more difficult as details are obscured and distances barely visible. His ability to focus on a small area and to manipulate it into an effective composition is the alchemy I referred to earlier. He also has sound advice, especially in the conditions, to do 90% of the work on location, but to leave the remainder for later (on this occasion in the comfort of an air-conditioned hotel room) when you have had a chance to rethink. Here, outlines are tightened up and further details added that pull everything together.
I’m not sure how much of a flavour of China this presents, apart from the heat and the crowds, and it would be unreasonable to suggest that it was something to look at from that point of view. However, as a lesson on painting in unpromising conditions, and on working on location with watercolour, it’s utterly gripping.
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Simplicity is a complicated thing. It takes a lot of skill and experience to learn how to extract the essence of a scene without fiddling, over-working and getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. In the five paintings demonstrated here, Roger works from a basic blocking-out of shapes, a carefully selected palette that reflects the dominant colours and an economy of brushstrokes. His remark, “I’m lazy; I only use a few brushes” is disingenuous – there’s nothing lazy about it and, although he’s not one of those painters who thinks hard before making every mark, each one is deliberately placed. There’s no random working, placing and re-placing. It’s fascinating to see how he works from the general to the specific, with details at first scratched into shapes and blocks before being delineated with colour some time later.
Of the five scenes, three involve water – the other two are in the centres of Chichester and Midhurst. The common factor is that there’s a lot going on – different craft on the water, details, people coming and going or a jumble of buildings. A literal approach, where everything is recorded, would be indigestible, but Roger’s way of building up manages to leave nothing out while at the same time omitting all extraneous matter. That’s what I meant by the complication of simplicity: it’s not just about developing an eye for a picture, but about the means of putting it down on canvas.
It’s also worth noting the palette exposition that starts the film. These are usually a matter of “this is my palette, I put these colours on it”. Roger’s is much more, because he works with such a limited range and he explains here and throughout the film how these are chosen to reflect the scene in front of him. His idea of having two sections of white, one for warm and one for cool colours is a neat one, too. Palette explanations are rarely of more than passing interest, but this is riveting.
After I watched this film, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it. I left it overnight. “It has to mature”, I said, and it has. Roger doesn’t instruct, he just explains what he’s doing, so extracting the information is like brewing coffee – it can’t be hurried. I find I have a surprisingly clear memory of almost the whole film and that’s a measure of good explanation – simplicity always leads to comprehension.
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Pete “the street” Brown is an engaging presenter who has a nice line in self-analysis. At the same time, he is not a chatty painter. Most of his aperçus appear in voiceover, the nicely-judged wild track filling the gaps and providing a welcome sense of place and atmosphere.
His casual approach to painting (“I’m an old git who does what he wants”) is belied by a throwaway line, “I’ve been here a week and painted [this scene] a couple of times” – he clearly does a fair bit of research and immerses himself in a place before embarking on full-scale work. This makes one of the demonstrations, a quiet alley in evening light, all the more interesting. Working in unfamiliar surroundings where he has to interpret the location against fading and constantly changing light, we can see Pete thinking on his feet, and it’s a nimble performance.
The Arles that Peter paints is not that of Van Gogh or the tourist trail. That research and immersion leads him to places that are, while not completely off the beaten track, more domestic than grand. He begins with the Roman amphitheatre, but chooses to paint just three high arches, working from the basic shape to tone and shading, all in the almost monotone warm limestone of its construction. As an exercise in control and observation, this simple-seeming work is a masterclass in its own right and the magician’s reveal is the addition of the bright blue sky right at the end that brings the whole thing suddenly to life, “Like putting in a red letterbox at the end”.
The other major demonstration is a backstreet with a variety of buildings, trees and more Roman remains. Again, Peter works from shapes to tones and then brings in detail. Of interest here is the way he works with figures. As we watch the painting develop, people pass, but rarely in great numbers. They barely get a mention and don’t appear until near the end, when it turns out that Peter has been observing them all the time and they come both from immediate memory and a personal library based on constant drawing – “I do a lot of drawing”. It’s the same in a quiet square where the day starts overcast and then brightens. “Do I follow the light?” leads to a discussion of the practicalities of plein air painting: “It’s a confidence thing, painting … the more you nail it in one, the better”.
If you want a guide to painting Arles, this is perhaps not it. However, if you want a masterclass in observation and working alla prima, as well as a pleasant hour and a half spent in the company of an engaging and informative demonstrator, step right up.
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This is not your typical APV film. This much is apparent from the very beginning, where we’re in a studio setting for some 25 minutes, learning some fairly basic techniques such as the use of salt, sgraffito, drybrush and lifting out. If you’re used to the more inspirational style of work – the artist painting and explaining as they go, this will come as something of a shock. You might also be tempted to hit the fast forward button on the grounds that this isn’t what you came for and you know it already. That would be both a shame and a mistake, as Georgia’s explanations are particularly clear and the section forms the groundwork for the demonstrations that follow. These are not ideas that have been pulled out of a hat to fill a space in the programming, but the absolute basis of how Georgia works – she very much practises what she preaches. I was also intrigued by her use of a mobile phone app to reduce photographs to monochrome in order to establish lights and darks. I haven’t seen this before and Georgia uses the result to make a tonal diagram with a black felt-tip of each scene she paints, something which is invaluable in building up colours and values.
The four demonstrations are filmed in and around the Cotswolds: the garden of the rather beautiful studio we start in, an autumn field and the ruins of Minster Lovell hall. The fourth piece is a studio-based floral that’s entirely reliant on tones to capture both positive and negative shapes as well as form and recession.
Although this is not a typical APV piece, it’s a valuable film that offers a great deal of technical advice. It will undoubtedly have appeal to the less advanced painter who is not so familiar with some of the tricks of the trade. The more experienced, though, may well admire the way Georgia puts some neat effects into practice seemingly without effort.
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Some painting films are a polished performance, both in the presentation and on the paper or canvas. Others are more of an engaging couple of hours spent in the company of an artist as they explore their surroundings. Haidee-Jo falls into the latter camp and my notes add that some of her most eloquent passages are when she’s completely silent, allowing the brushes to speak for themselves.
The title “Vibrant Oils” tells you little and it’s possible to see how difficult it is to characterise the work of an artist who is constantly fascinated by shapes and colours, and also by working out of doors – “the nice thing is that you get to choose the best bits … there’s a little bit of sparkle in the sea over there; I’ll try to remember”. There’s also a dichotomy of subject matter. The first three demonstrations – the DVD is filmed on the Roseland peninsula in Cornwall – are of harbour scenes, so boats play a large part. The second slightly-less-than-half, when the sun is bright, involves flowers and buildings. In the last of those, Haidee-Jo only half-jokingly laments having to put in the flowers in front of a nondescript tin barn she’s fallen in love with. The thing is, though, that so have we. The film shows something about as unpromising as it can get, yet Haidee-Jo finds beauty, colours and shapes that have been keeping themselves well-hidden and, more importantly, communicates them to the viewer.
All-in-all, I’d class this as a film about observation as much as anything else. If you want to paint plein air it is, to a large extent, something you simply have to do. There are certain practicalities, mainly involving equipment, sun hats and protective clothing, but in the matter of painting, looking, seeing and selecting subjects are the most important thing. “It’s amazing how little information the viewer needs … what simple marks I can make”, perhaps summing that particular message up most succinctly. There’s also sound advice about planning your painting, working from dark to light and defining the image: “Details are a treat to do at the end”.
Some films are relatively easy to pin down. The artist has a message they want to get across and the demonstrations are a neatly-structured way of doing it. Here, much happens (almost) by accident and because something caught the eye, the first flower demonstration being one such. The whole is much more of a slippery customer when it comes to attempting a definition. Haidee-Jo works as she goes along and has what we might call an “Oooh, look” personality. If you want an enjoyable couple of hours where you can learn far more than you’ll perhaps ever realise, this is it.
It’s also worth adding that the wildtrack perfectly captures the atmosphere of the scenes, from the proliferation of birdsong to tiny details such as the snick of a tripod being closed. It’s attention to detail like this that make APV films such complete works.
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Charles Sluga is a new name to me, but a look at his website reveals that he both travels and demonstrates extensively. The experience shows in this polished performance which kept me engaged from start to finish.
Stylistically, I want to say that Charles is very much like most of the contemporary Australian artists whose work I’ve seen. Is this unfair? Is there an Australian style or are there just painters who happen to hail from the other side of the world? There does, though, tend to be a spirit of the time, as well as locational influences.
Let me expand: the creative process tends to feed off itself and there have always been schools and styles that can be located both chronologically and in terms of place. It’s not just art, but design, making, music and so on. One person comes up with an idea, another embellishes it and, before you know it, it’s a theme. There’s also the fact that different locations produce different light. Britain has a varied, but often damp and cloudy climate which gives it styles like the Norwich school. Continental America can produce brilliant colours and strong lighting, although the painters of New England (maybe not so inappropriately named) give us work that we, across the Atlantic, can feel more at home with. Australia is, physically, more like America but is mostly populated round the coast. As a result, you tend to get the bright colours, but also more subtle hues. Their artists – or at least those that APV work with – also tend to work in a loose and impressionistic way.
So, back to Charles. At one point, he draws a line that goes from abstraction to hyper-realism: “You can paint anywhere on that”, he tells us although, for this film at least, he’s somewhere between representation and abstraction – recognisable subject, not much detail. His narrative can be summed up in a few quotes: “A painting is a beautiful lie” … “I approach plein air painting as just a study to fool myself and relax” … “It should look like a bit of a mess at the start”… “You don’t want to have to count legs.” What this means is that the subject in front of you is merely the basis for a design and he demonstrates this in the first session, a riverside scene where he rearranges the boats to make the subject stronger. He also indulges in a bit of theatre, showing how to handle a small brush: “break it … throw it away!”
The film is based in London and features five demonstrations starting from the riverside scene in Isleworth, and going via a study of St Pancras station, where massive detail is simplified right down. We then move to Piccadilly Circus, and finish at Greenwich in the east, where he paints the Cutty Sark contre jour as a tonal exercise in darks using Phthalo Blue. The final piece, the gates of the Naval College in flat lighting, is about colour and deliberately ignores both tones and hues. “If you can get the major shapes down without getting caught up in the detail, you’ve got the essence of the painting.”
This is, as I said hugely enjoyable, and also an informative film. Charles is knowledgeable both about his subjects – I didn’t know that the statue in Piccadilly Circus is Anteros, Eros’s brother – and painting and painters in general. He also has the ability to analyse and understand his own working methods, as well as keep up a commentary and paint at the same time. These are rare skills, especially when done this well.
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In the second part of his Cuban adventure, Alvaro turns his attention to the people of its capital city and its vibrant street life.
Much has happened since the first instalment and the rapprochement with the US means that the island’s days of crumbling glory are surely numbered. If this is something that appeals, visit now, or maybe buy these films as a fitting memorial. If you’re a Cuban, however, you might think that much-repaired 1950’s automobiles and flaking stucco are a high price to pay for a romantic dream. Maybe you’d prefer a new car and some anonymous malls.
Alvaro is an enthusiastic demonstrator and a great talker. For some, his style of presentation might grate but, for me, he always manages to stay within the border of being irritating and he’s immensely quotable: “We need to get to know the people … absorb the atmosphere … then we paint”, “It’s a mess with order to it … we need to avoid complexity”. These nuggets of wisdom (and they are nuggets) relate not only to the technical details but to the general approach. There’s one place, in a particularly complex scene near the end of the film, where Alvaro works in silence for a minute or two and it comes as something of a shock. Normally, he’s talking about the scene, what he’s looking at and for and how he’s working with water, brushes and colour. He’s a confident painter and this often masks very considerable skill. His remark that he needs to envision the finished result before he starts is telling. It looks improvised but, like the music that pervades the film, it’s actually very carefully structured.
A word about that music. Alvaro often moves with it and he’s also, he says, painting with it. Certainly, there’s a rhythm to the way he works that the music both drives and points up. I think it’s also worth saying that the way the soundtrack is handled here is worthy of top-flight documentary–making. It’s not, as is usually the case, something that’s added later – and which will either enhance the viewing experience or annoy the hell out of you. In two of the demonstrations, there’s a live band playing and this, the commentary and the wild track (the background noises) are perfectly balanced. When Alvaro speaks, the music fades ever so slightly so that his voice is never muffled, but the sound is always a homogeneous whole. On that score, I’d class this as the best film I’ve seen from APV.
Street life is complex and real life doesn’t always appear in a neatly balanced composition. As he did with the first film, Alvaro assembles his images from their component elements. Figures are moved into a more balanced group, details are highlighted and focus shifted. His loose style means that fine detail is never there: “I’m not interested in making a portrait”. For me, this looseness makes this a slightly less satisfying film than the first part as some of the groups start to look a bit similar – I wish he perhaps wouldn’t strait-jacket them quite so much into a single personal style. Nevertheless, there’s no doubting the artistry, especially in the composition and the handling of complex and often difficult lighting, where Alvaro is pretty much pitch-perfect.
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