Archive for category Medium: Oil

DVD A Simple Approach in Oils || Roger Dellar

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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DVD Painting Arles || Peter Brown

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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Painting and Drawing the Head || Daniel Shadbolt

There’s no doubting the seriousness of this comprehensive study of portrait painting. As well as plenty of illustrations, there is a copious text that discusses just about every aspect of the subject in considerable detail – some four pages, for instance, are devoted to the process of priming canvases. This is, it should be said, a book about painting in oils and, although there is much general information that applies to any medium, it’s best studied with this in mind.

The book is constructed around the sequence of the painting process. We begin with the assembly and preparation of materials and, if you feel this goes into more detail than you perhaps need at this stage, do remember that few other books cover it quite so thoroughly and analytically, so you may not find this much information anywhere else. Lessons then move to the all-important observation and basic principles and on to composition, perspective, light and tone.

The second section is the main one and where Daniel considers the process of painting the head in detail. Style-wise, it is perhaps a shame that he tends to soften and obscure features, and this may explain the book’s title and its concentration on “the head” rather than “the portrait”. Daniel’s work also tends to be quite dark and of limited tonal range and this can make some of the illustrations hard to decipher in reproduction. You may feel, though, that the quality of the work, and the detailed discussion that surrounds it, more than make up for this and that you can add more detailed features yourself if you wish. There are, after all, other books that demonstrate this. In its own terms, though, this is something of a masterpiece.

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Drawing and Painting Animals with Expression || Marjolein Kruijt

There are two things that need to be said about this from the outset. First, it’s not a book for the beginner and second, most of the illustrations are in pastel or oil. Neither of these counts against it, of course, but they do define its market.

There is a lot more to what is in fact a comprehensive guide – just about every species and many breeds are here, from domestic to wild animals and even birds. As becomes clear, expression is as important with animals as with people and this is much more than anthropomorphism – there are no cute portraits here. It is perhaps as important as form, structure and perspective, aspects at which Marjolein Kruijt is equally adept.

Most of the illustration is by example and the few lessons are at the end of the book. The bulk of the text discusses the structure and form of both the subject and the resulting painting. Although there is a very useful introduction to materials and media, Marjolein tends to assume that you will know about methods of application. If you do, you’ll be thankful not to find 50% of the book taken up with things you don’t need to be told. If you don’t, well, to be honest, capturing character in such detail is probably not the skill you most need to learn. Think of it as a masterclass.

This is a serious book that takes its subject and its readership seriously and is all the better for that.

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Oil Painting Essentials || Gregg Kreutz

Although this is an American book, you’d be unlikely to guess just by looking through it. Gregg Kreutz’s style is firmly European and in what we might call the Old Master tradition – that’s to say, classical, quite detailed and often rather dark. If you want your oils bright and modern, you might have a problem, though that would be a pity because you’d miss out on the useful text. This, in the Watson Guptill tradition, is discursive rather than instructive and offers plenty of hints on the why as well as the how. The variety of subject matter is also comprehensive and the book lives up to its subtitle: “Mastering portraits, figures, still lifes, landscapes and interiors”.

If you’re looking for a good primer in oil painting, or even something that’ll take you beyond the first stages, this is a worthwhile purchase. The biographical information reveals that Gregg is an instructor at the Art Students League of New York, whose work I’ve praised before.

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Colour Mixing Guide: Oils || Julie Collins

On the heels of the watercolour and acrylics volumes comes this on oils. Previous comments apply.

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Lessons in Classical Painting || Juliette Aristides

Juliette begins her introduction to this fascinating and well thought-out book with an apparently massive digression about what seems like a random mail delivery system that involves complete trust in its own efficacy. She relates this to the creative process with the observation: “Painting cannot be called art while the uncomfortable element of faith is absent … artists need to believe in the value and outcome of their work”.

Let’s just stop and think for a moment about the enormity of that statement. My previous nostrum, printed on a card I bought at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, is Edgar Degas’ “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see”. Well, yes, completely, obviously, I’ll buy that. But faith? That’s a big thing. What Juliette is saying is that it’s not enough to be faithful to your subject, to convey a meaning to the viewer (which is what Degas tells us). It’s not even enough to have faith in your own ability. You have to have an unshakeable belief (that’s what faith is) that your work is worthwhile and, I think by extension, that it will stand the test of time.

And that, rather conveniently, brings me to the question I thought was going to be the big one at the head of this discussion: what is classical painting? Yes, I know, it’s the Old Masters, the Atelier method, the apprenticeship, all that stuff. Except that it isn’t. There are people today painting in what we might call a Classical style and they didn’t go through all that. Heck, they may not even have suffered for their art (or not much, anyway). A lot of their work is included here and it sits seamlessly alongside luminaries such as Winslow Homer, Antonio Mancini or Laura Teresa Alma-Tadema (me neither, but Juliette is rather good on the wives of bigger male names).

So, let’s have a go at a definition of classical painting. No, it’s not about studios, or style, or materials. Well, it is, but it’s not primarily about that. It’s about that utter sense of self-belief that previous ages found so easy, or at least found an easy mantle to assume, which isn’t quite the same thing. Van Gogh was a Great Artist, but not in his lifetime. He suffered almost certainly from mental illness, but never lost faith in himself as An Artist. His eventual suicide seems to have been more to spare his brother the cost of his upkeep (you really should read Bernadette Murphy’s Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story), rather than any kind of admission of artistic failure.

I’ve known Watson Guptill through several incarnations and I’m massively impressed by the current one as a purveyor of finely-produced, illustrated and authoritative monographs on the philosophy of the practice of painting (this one even has sewn binding, which is a rarity these days). I’d go so far as to say that, when you handle this, you know that it has as much faith in its ability to carry its message as the message itself is telling you to have in yourself as an artist.

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DVD Vibrant Oils || Haidee-Jo Summers

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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The Elements of Landscape Oil Painting || Suzanne Brooker

This thorough and comprehensive guide makes use of explanations, photographs, examples, exercises and demonstrations to teach ways to handle sky, terrain, trees and water.

As with a lot of Watson Guptill books, it’s something to sit down and read, rather than use as a workbook and the text involves quite a lot of discussion rather than simply prescriptive instruction. If you have little patience with that kind of thing, it’ll exasperate you. On the other hand, if you find a list of things to do limiting, you’ll be in your element here. It’s beautifully produced and a pleasure to handle.

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Sea & Sky in Oils || Roy Lang

This is not a new book and I’ve reviewed it before, but it remains pretty much the only work on the subject and has become something of a classic, so I think this re-origination and reissue is worth a mention. Search Press have been revisiting some of their backlist titles recently and have had the good sense to start from scratch with a complete redesign. In some cases, these make the original almost unrecognisable, though I’m not sure that’s the case here. The work, both in terms of design and the finished result, looks fresh though, and the layout and illustrations have a clarity that make this look new rather than something that’s been mucked about for the sake of it. To deconstruct something that was originally as good as it could be made and come up with something that not only looks good but also doesn’t look like a camel (which, you’ll recall, is a horse designed by a committee) is quite an achievement.

I don’t think this is one of those books I’d say is worth a look even if you have the original. However, if you’re new to painting, or to oils, and want something like this, you’d be glad to find it. It would certainly be worth springing for the new edition rather than buying an older one second-hand.

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