Archive for category Medium: Sketching

Sketching People || Lynne Chapman

Urban sketching is very much de nos jours and this vibrant and varied book is a worthy contribution to the literature. It also fits into what seems to be the accepted style of the genre, with quick, busy drawings that attempt to capture the look and the moment rather than create an idealised image or record every detail. As well as the illustrations themselves, the pages are also busy and reflect, I assume deliberately, the noise and bustle of a city street. If I were to suggest that the best place to read this would be a gluten-free organic porridge café, you’d detect my wry smile, wouldn’t you?

Although I’m the last person you’d find in such an establishment (give me a Maccy D’s every time!), I’ll admit to enjoying the books the style produces. I’m not a city boy, so I don’t get worn down by the noise, the rush and the crush on my occasional visits from my rural fastness. Rather, I find it all rather exciting and look on a book like this as the best of all worlds – quiet, relaxing atmosphere at home, but with a window onto a rather thrilling environment. Maybe you feel the same about books on landscape painting?

OK, so I’ve told you nothing about what’s in this book and I’m not going to. If you know the style, it won’t surprise you at all and, anyway, I want to sell you the sizzle, not the sausage.

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Sketch! || France Belleville-Van Stone

Subtitled “the non-artist’s guide to inspiration, techniques, and drawing daily life”, this is a rather delightful book packed with fun, inspiration and ideas. The text is somewhat anecdotal and is probably best dipped into, stopping when you see something that interests you, rather than reading through. It’s as much an observation of life (and, sometimes, a statement of the obvious) as anything else. Nevertheless, France is an engaging writer and you’ll find as much to divert you here as you will in the drawings, which are eclectic and varied. There are objects, shapes, still lifes, colours, hatching, people, buildings – well, everything you see as you make your way through daily life. If this was a website, it would be a life-log, and it’s none the worse for that.

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Reservoir: sketchbooks and selected works || Alice Maher

I’ve remarked previously that looking at an artist’s sketchbook is a view into their most intimate thoughts and not unlike rummaging through their underwear drawer. It’s not something you’d do uninvited and, even then, it can feel more than a little uncomfortable. As Alice herself says, “Sketchbooks are freewheeling workshops of the mind”. Sketches are not finished works, maybe not even fully-formed ideas but rather a stream-of-consciousness that reveals, often deliberately, the artist’s state of mind and innermost thoughts. Kept for private use, this is fine, desirable even, as it allows those same emotions to be picked up again when it comes to more formal work. When the viewer is allowed in, though, it becomes an unweeded garden.

Whitney Chadwick, an art historian specialising in surrealism, contemporary art and gender issues, says as much rather more succinctly in her introduction, while at the same time expanding on the themes of the book and drawing a parable between form – the graphic line – and function and content. Alice says that a sketchbook is “a process of letting ideas flow back and forth … a vortex out of which comes the beginning of an artwork.”

I suspect that this book is going to mean a lot more to you if you’re more familiar with Alice Maher’s work than I am. You may then be able to see the germs that became major works, and how themes have developed. As such, it would be a glossary on an oeuvre rather than a piece in its own right – which is rather as it should be. However, as a standalone, what it lacks more than anything else is a commentary. The introductions are useful, informative even, but they’re short and pretty much say the same things as you can say about any sketchbook without even looking at it. What you don’t get is any very clear idea of what the ideas and themes are that are being explored There are some handwritten philosophical musings, though these are not the easiest read, especially on a heavily-coloured background and don’t, so far as I can tell, relate to the drawings, being rather an occasional verbal- rather than visualisation.

I’m conscious of missing something here and if you want to tell me that’s the main body of Alice’s work, I wouldn’t disagree. It does, I feel, limit the appeal of the book. If you know the corpus and this illuminates it for you, then it would be one of the most valuable books you own. Equally, though, it could tell you nothing at all, other than that the artist works raw material up into finished pieces. I simply don’t know the answer to than one.

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Sketchbook Confidential 2 || ed Pamela Wissman and Kathryn Kipp

It’s almost exactly two years since I reviewed the first Sketchbook Confidential and I wasn’t exactly complimentary about it. My problem with it was that, despite having two editors, it had no editorial content and therefore no way of knowing what it was that I was looking at. However, it must have struck some kind of a chord, at least in its home country, for here we are with volume 2.

Once again, 38 artists (two fewer than last time) present pages from their sketchbooks and say what they mean to them. And, again, they all seem to mean the same thing: a way of recording things, places, events and ideas. Robin Poteet says that sketching probably helps lower her blood pressure, which is arguably better, and certainly cheaper, than medication. I also don’t feel I know any more than I already did by being told that, “The local office-supply retailer binds my blank books for a nominal fee”. I’m guessing she’s a good customer and it’s sort of nice to know that her books are made for her, rather than being one of the almost endless variety available off the shelf, but I haven’t got any further into the creative process.

Selective quotes are unfair and I should say that the artists do their best to help us, but the problem, the same problem I had with the first volume, is that they all say the same thing and I have no editorial guidance to know what I should be looking for, or what these people are telling me about the creative process. Looking at an artist’s sketchbook can be illuminating. It can reveal what went on behind their public works, but it can also be like rummaging through their underwear drawer – just a little too intimate, too personal and, ultimately, unenlightening. Without a useful commentary, it can also be like looking though a pile of their family photographs albums – an endless parade of fading anonymity.

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Barry Herniman’s Travelling Sketchbook

Barry Herniman is perhaps best known to practising artists for some relatively elementary manuals from Search Press, so it’s nice to have this substantial look at his “real” work.

Artists’ sketchbooks can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand you catch them unawares, as if they’ve just got up and are taking in the milk. On the other, you can get half-finished work that means a lot to them but isn’t unlike discovering someone else’s shopping list in your supermarket trolley. This book, I’m pleased to say, provides a nice balance between finished work and reproduced sketchbook pages and the latter, into the bargain, have been selected so that they do actually have meaning for the non-involved reader. These pages often have handwritten notes, but unfortunately these are quite difficult to read (they appear to have been photographed rather than scanned), although there are also printed captions where Barry explains what he was doing or what he liked about the scene reproduced.

This kind of book is always illustration-led and you wouldn’t necessarily expect (and you don’t get) any explanation of how or, for the most part, why the painting was done. Most of the work was done in Britain and Ireland, but there’s also a final section of Europe and Beyond that records wider travels, including some rather excellent Vermont maples. Introductory material includes an entertaining autobiographical section and some short notes on Barry’s working methods on location.

Given Barry’s popularity as a writer about painting, this should please fans who want to look at his work in more detail as well as collectors and armchair travellers.

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Sketchbook Confidential || Pamela Wissman & Stefanie Laufersweiler

This is subtitled “secrets from the private sketches of over 40 master artists”, but it’s worth noting that this is an American book and these are not, on the whole, names you’re likely to have come across before in the UK.

That doesn’t however, need to be an impediment because an artist’s sketchbook can reveal more about them than a whole volume of their own writing. What are the details they concentrate on, what subjects grab their attention out in the field, how do they select the quick ideas and work them up into a finished painting? If you learn about the creative process, it doesn’t really matter who’s telling you.

The problem here is that, although the book has no fewer than two editors, it has virtually no editorial content. Each artist gets 4 pages to present their sketches and say what sketching means to them and, guess what?, it means the same to all of them and the same it would to you and me – it’s a notebook, the basis for a painting. I’d never have guessed. Without some more context: some notes on the images, points to watch, colours and then examples, or at least a description of how they were used later, I just feel as though I’m looking at the raw ingredients for a banquet. The result could be a thing of beauty as well as interest, but I have no way of telling how.

This has the feel of a good idea hastily cobbled together and leaves me wanting so much more, which is a shame.

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30 Minute Sketching || Alwyn Crawshaw

This series is shaping up to be an excellent way of looking at a variety of media (and it’s to be hoped that it will move on to subject-based titles in the fullness of time) from a fresh viewpoint.

The idea of the timed painting is not a new one and, handled without thought, it can be little more than a gimmick. However, what it does do is make you concentrate on the subject rather than the mechanics of recording it; you can’t fuss over details or the oven timer rings and you’ve got to stop. If this was just an excuse to produce yet another series of basic media introductions, I’d greet it with a hearty yawn. There’s an awful of that kind of thing out there and, trust me, a lot of them really are awful. However, as well as encouraging the reader to look at things in a new light, the same process seems to have transferred itself to the authors (and Collins have been rather smart in their choice of artists for the series) and what you get is a catalogue of neat, quick and fresh ideas that should appeal as much to the more experienced artist as to the beginner. This is a neat trick, because this kind of thing is usually aimed at those starting out.

Collins 2008

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You Can Paint Series

This series of basic introductions to a variety of painting media and subjects has been reissued in paperback and is certainly worth another look. As they’re all here in one pile, it makes sense to review them all of a piece as there is a very strong series identity and they all follow a quite tightly-defined format.

Each book begins with a short introduction on “How to use this book” in which the author tells you that this is a book for the beginner, and to work through it without worrying too much about mistakes as you go – the whole idea is to learn. It’s nice that these sections are individually written rather than being copied wholesale from one volume to another. You could argue that it’s a couple of pages devoted to something that probably has more value in focussing the author’s mind than in helping the reader, but it can also be seen as an example of the care that has gone into what, superficially, seem to be very simple books. Now, as we clever people all know, simplicity is an art in itself and frequently conceals a great deal of work, and such is the case here. With only 96 medium format pages, each of the authors has to introduce materials and techniques, teach basic principles and then demonstrate as many different subjects as possible. There’s no room for waffle and so a lot of pictures and not too many words combine with a nice clear layout that gives a feeling of space to the pages to make these books easy to follow and unintimidating. They are perfect for the absolute beginner, the very person they’re aimed at.

Linda Birch
First published 2001, reissued 2006

Alwyn Crawshaw
First published 200, reissued 2006

Jackie Simmonds
First published 2001, reissued 2006

Melanie Cambridge
First published 2003, reissued 2006

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