Archive for category Media: DVD
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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The first few minutes of any instructional film are important. It’s the time when you decide whether you like the style of presentation and, indeed, the presenter themselves. This one starts well, with some neat establishing shots that tell us we’re in Porlock Weir in Somerset and present it as the attractive location it is. You may think that making an art DVD is just a matter of pointing a camera at the demonstrator and recording what they say and do. It isn’t, it’s highly skilled, requiring not just technical expertise to make sure that the exposure is right (nothing’s worse than a painting you can’t see) and that the shots hold details long enough for the viewer to see what’s going on, but change with sufficient frequency to keep the rest of the brain interested. It’s not even enough just to turn the camera on when the painting starts and off when it finishes. Watching an artist from start to finish can be as exciting as watching paint dry and a good editor will know exactly what needs to stay in and what can safely end up on the cutting room floor.
The long-established houses such as APV and Townhouse have the process down pat. They’ve been doing it for years and even have backgrounds in the general industry. Lune Ltd, who make this, are new to me and, when I followed up the website, I was amazed to get to a photo retoucher. Whatever, this is a thoroughly professional production and the people behind it (I assume Paul Weaver is only part of a team) know their stuff. I’ve seen painting films produced by people whose background is more in commercial or wedding photography and they don’t quite get the requirements of art. This is absolutely top quality and even has some neat tricks up its sleeve that don’t grate – editing the superfluous details that Paul is going to leave out of the painting from the video image adds a dimension I haven’t seen before. It must be the retouching background.
Well, here we are, nearly as long as some reviews and I haven’t even mentioned the paintings yet! There’s a reason for that, because I wanted to make the point that I felt well-disposed before we got properly started.
The film itself includes four demonstrations, three on location at Porlock Weir in differing lights and a final one in the studio which allows Paul to spend more time on a sketch he made earlier.
Paul’s main stock in trades are sketching and simplification. He makes the point that, by walking around the subject it and making sketches, you get to understand it – how it’s made up, the form, tone and perspective. Even in the studio, he prefers to work from a sketch rather than a photograph due to the personal element the former brings. Once you’re familiar with the area, the initial question of what to paint should make itself apparent and the next step is to decide what to include and what to leave out. Boats are rarely neatly arranged and the variety of shapes, angles and ancillaries, such as ropes, add a level of complication that make it difficult for the viewer to interpret the final painting. “Not copying the scene exactly … taking the essence of it.” At the same time, it’s important to keep the work balanced, so some elements may even have to be moved to avoid empty areas. Although Paul seems to have an instinctive ability to do this, he’s also very good at explaining what he’s doing and, above all, why he’s doing it.
I have a final list in my notes where I’ve summed up Paul’s painting process. It says:
Mood and atmosphere
I don’t think I can do better than reproduce it exactly as I wrote it, because it sums up the message, the presentation and the presenter. This is a thoroughly enjoyable film you’ll want to watch, by a skilled and entertaining presenter.
Available from www.paulweaverart.co.uk
Paul Riley’s work is all about brushwork and colour. No, hang on before you give me that pitying look that says, “yes, that’s painting for you”, because you haven’t seen this, his first DVD, and I have. I was trying to find a way into the book that accompanies it and it was seeing Paul in action that gave it to me.
To begin with the colour: the film starts, as they so often do, with an introduction to materials. Yes, I know, all artists do it and, yes, they all uses brushes and paints and paper or canvas, yadda yadda. But this is different, because Paul explains in just a few minutes how mixing works, why some colours sparkle when you put them together and some don’t (it’s all down to the hue). He has an instinctive understanding that he is also able to explain, though you may want to rewind and take notes next time.
Now, about this brushwork. The thing I noticed, time and again, was that Paul doesn’t paint what’s there, but what he sees, which isn’t quite the same thing. Although, in the final demonstration, he spends quite a lot of time on studies of the flowers of a camellia bush, exact, agonisingly precise detail is not important to him. The point is to capture the spirit of a group of flowers (he hardly ever paints individual specimens) and that’s where the “magic” of the title comes in. So, in spite of the studies, he doesn’t obsess over shape, shading and hue. The result is far more impressionistic. All this comes to the fore in the first of the outside demonstrations, white cherry blossom painted from under the tree, “a white picture on white paper”, as he puts it, going on to explain, “in order to paint light, you’ve got to paint where it’s not”. The whole thing thus becomes an exercise in shadows and negative shapes. Paul is too unassuming to call it a masterclass, but it is.
Overall, the film builds nicely. It starts with the introduction to materials, which also gives us a chance to make the acquaintance of Paul himself. He has, he says, been painting watercolours for fifty years and it’s amazing that this is his first DVD. He has been teaching and writing, though, and the experience of that shines through. The commentary is always thoughtful and engaging and I found it utterly compulsive. Apart from anything else, there are the pearls of wisdom and insight that pop out all the time, my favourite being, “Even Jackson Pollock was a Pointillist of a kind”, during a spell of spattering – and he’s right, isn’t he?
This has been made to accompany the book of the same title and I’d strongly recommend them as a combined purchase. The book gives you that stop-motion breakdown that you can take at your own pace, but you also need the DVD to get Paul’s personality and way of working, especially the fluid quality of his brushwork. “I enjoyed that”, he says at the end, clearly having done so, “and I hope you did.” Well, he’s got my vote.
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You can’t help but warm to this from the start. “Isn’t watercolour fun?” are Greg’s first words as the introductory scenes roll past. Well, yes, it can be, and it certainly is in the hands of this competent and entertaining demonstrator.
Greg has a clear understanding of the processes of watercolour painting and he also has a way of simplifying them and then explaining them coherently. He begins with his “three effects” theory. Well, it’s more than a theory, as he demonstrates how marks vary depending on how much water you have on wet, damp and dry paper. So far, so fairly conventional, but he goes further and shows how these (and just these) can be used to capture any shape. Lay a wet wash and let it run from heavy to light down the paper. It’s a sky. Turn it on its side, add defining lines and it’s a cylinder, which he rather magically turns into a tree. Back in the day, he’d have been hiding from the witchfinders!
Greg is also a versatile painter and the film includes no fewer than five demonstrations including a riverside scene, a complex boatbuilder’s shed and a portrait so lifelike you expect it to speak. His style is loose and he uses shading and colour (words that recur again and again throughout the film) to convey shape and substance. As so often happens, these aren’t always the colours you’d expect and it’s the juxtaposition and contrast rather than exact copying that convey the subject.
There’s another phrase that crops up: “If I can’t see it, I can’t paint it.” On the surface, that seems obvious, but what Greg means is that he needs to be able to see how a scene, or an element of one, translates into his three effects and how colours, and especially shadows, work.
At the end of the film, there’s a fascinating short section in which Greg explains how he has added finishing touches to each of the demonstration paintings back in the studio, changing lighting, adding or removing detail and muting or brightening colours. Even though the process isn’t shown, the explanations are so clear that you really don’t get left wanting more and I actually think making this longer could have been dull and mechanical.
This is a hugely entertaining and informative piece that perfectly captures Greg’s enthusiasm for a medium that certainly can be fun.
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First Impressions is about recording for yourself, so that you can convey to others, a sense of place and atmosphere. In the first demonstration, a foliage-filled courtyard garden, this amounts to the surround-sound of painting. As John explains, quite a lot of editing (“artistic licence” is a phrase that gets used quite a lot) is necessary to make the scene comprehensible.
John’s painting method is interesting. Beginning with a single-colour block-out of the shapes and general shading, he starts to build up the highlights, often moving about the scene – just, he remarks, as your eye does. “Never think of any mark as the final one and you won’t make a mistake”, he adds – a piece of profound advice that’s typical of the whole film.
As a demonstrator, John is engaging and absorbing and he keeps up a constant narrative – in fact, I think he may be the most talkative I’ve watched. Most artists stop for a moment to think, or to concentrate on a detail, but John just keeps throwing out nuggets of wisdom that you have to absorb rather than remember. I usually manage to fill these reviews with quotes, but I’m struggling to find soundbites here. He’s very sound on the value of confidence that stems from experience and one of his first pieces of advice is to find a basic palette you can work with as standard and stick with it so that you know instinctively what mix you’re going to need in any situation. Another is never to thin your acrylic paint with water because it’ll always dry dull. Use the same manufacturer’s own medium instead. Certainly, John’s paintings have a characteristic brilliance that would seem to confirm the truth of this.
Overall, there are four complete demonstrations in the film. After the garden scene, it’s a trip to Stratford on Avon to sketch a riverside view that will be worked up later in the studio, where the light and the drying times are different and require a different approach. There is also a view of the church where the changing light on water proves a challenge. A field landscape involves a journey that leads the viewer through the painting with the composition guiding the eye.
I think the whole film is best summed up as being about understanding – your materials, your subject, and yourself. Understand what you’re painting, John says, and you could almost do it from memory. Be confident with your materials and bold with your marks (remember that advice not to think of anything as final?). “If the whole thing becomes too resolved, it’ll be like a painting of a photograph rather than my experience of being there the first time.” There, we’ve even got a quote to end on.
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A lot of demonstrators adopt a persona and Alvaro Castagnet is The Passionate Painter. It’s an apt soubriquet as he is an enthusiastic and emotive practitioner and presenter. The bustling streets of Cuba’s capital are ideally suited to his working method and he captures their vibrancy with great eloquence: “Everywhere there’s a painting to be done .. there’s a painting in every corner.”
Alvaro’s painting style is quite quick and is built up in layers using broad brushstrokes, which gives depth in both tone and perspective. His commentary is less technical than some (“How about that for a brushstroke!”), but it’s easy to see what he’s doing and there is little fine detail that needs careful attention from the viewer – at one point, the “very thin brush” he introduces is about a size 8! It has to be said, I think, that the style of the commentary is something you could grow tired of. On the other hand, you’ll almost certainly forgive Alvaro’s flamboyance because of the virtuosity of his painting and his amazing handling of light, both full sun and shade, which the streets of Havana provide plentifully.
There are five demonstrations and Alvaro shows you how to create an image out of elements that have come from elsewhere rather than simply copying what you see in front of you. As he says, “I always have a vision of what I want to say in the finished painting.”
Alvaro is confident, both as a person and a painter and, as a result, he’s eminently quotable. Here are two more: “Once I’ve got the shape [of a drawing], I know how to fill it in with washes” and “Once you set up the family of hues, you stick to them for homogeneity.” Those are pearls of wisdom I haven’t heard expressed so succinctly anywhere else and they’re worth the price of the film on their own. So, now I’ve told you about them you can save your money, yes? Oh no, because you haven’t seen Alvaro at work, or heard the rest of what he has to say. Believe me, he’s charismatic and inspiring and a great exponent and demonstrator of the art of creating an image. I suspect that, in real life, he wouldn’t be my type at all, but I was captivated in these 95 minutes.
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