Archive for category Medium: Watercolour

The Easy Guide to Painting Skies in Watercolour || Stephen Coates

Books on skies are not too hard to find and this important element (arguably the most important) of any landscape has been well-covered. The danger, of course, is of producing a masterclass that only serves to muddy the waters with over-complication.

Regular readers will know how wary I am about “easy” guides. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it and it wouldn’t take a lifetime of study. Intelligently approached, however, they can be reassuring and progress in simple, straightforward steps that don’t tax the beginner or those struggling a bit to keep up.

On those counts, this is absolutely admirable. Stephen starts with an analysis and explanations of materials and equipment, moving quickly to basic techniques, of which the first is a large blended wash. The initial exercise uses one colour, then we move to two. It’s simple and progressive and we’re ready to start looking at white clouds. Nothing to frighten the horses, results that will satisfy and I think we’re ready to agree that, yes, it was pretty easy.

Moving on, you’ll find heavy clouds, sunsets, storms, shafts of sunlight and mists as well as a look at perspective and focal points. Throughout, you’re really only painting skies, with rudimentary foregrounds that add only balance, without becoming an exercise in themselves – actually, if you want lessons in simplicity, you have them right there, an unexpected Brucie bonus.

Easy? Well, maybe. Not too taxing? Absolutely.

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Take Three Colours (compendium)

The idea of this series is a brilliant way of simplifying the painting process, either for the beginner or as a palate-cleanser for someone with more experience who’s become a bit jaded.

With just three brushes and three colours, a team of Search Press’s most successful authors demonstrate projects that show just how much you can do with an absolute minimum of equipment. With little to mess around with, the emphasis is on creativity and making the most of what you have. There’s no chance to over-complicate or get bogged down with an unwieldy palette or too many mixes.

This bind-up is fantastically good value and covers landscapes, seascapes and flowers, with more concentrated subjects such as lakes, rivers, hills and mountains thrown in. Larger books such as this can be difficult to handle, but this falls and stays open nicely and is a pleasure to use.

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Still Life || Susie Johns

This is a pleasing guide to painting simple compositions using everyday objects you’ll find about you. As such, it’s a good way of developing skills without having to look far for subjects or stretch your abilities too much. These are exercises that can be completed relatively quickly and should provide a welcome afternoon or evening break.

The front cover provides a hint of what to expect – a colour drawing of oranges on a blue plate and some pencils and watercolour brushes; inset illustrations include a fish, a shell and a ball. As I said, we’re into things which are easy to find and a straightforward selection of materials. There’s also a nod to the basic shapes that comprise some of the technical exercises, providing solid groundwork in form, perspective and shading. This kind of thing can be ineffably dull and Susie quickly applies the basic principles to real life objects such as fruit and shells that, despite their outward simplicity, present plenty of their own challenges, particularly in regard to texture.

There’s nothing here that will set the world alight, but that’s not what you want or what the book intends. Rather, it’s an excellent grounding in drawing techniques that is neither too taxing nor too elementary to be worthwhile.

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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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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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Quick Start to Watercolor Landscapes || Kenneth Hesse

Self-publishing comes with two major pitfalls: the lack of an editor and the lack of a designer. It doesn’t have to lose out on missing a proof-reader, but often does.

An editor will restrain an author’s tendency to write either too much (going into obsessive detail about unimportant matters), or too little (those frustratingly short sentences that equate to the Bake-Off technical’s “make the batter”). A designer will bring a fresh eye to the layout, have more tools than a simple word processor and make sure that illustrations are both reasonably-sized and in the right place.

The first thing to say here is that it’s pretty obvious Ken has used a word processor. The text and, for the most part the illustrations, are fixed to a two-column page. Does this matter? Well, only if you’re a reviewer, probably, although a reader might think that the information provided had better be pretty good if the pages lack visual excitement.

And now the good news. None of the above matters here. Yes, you might observe that there are a few infelicities (let’s not call them any more than that) which a proof-reader would have picked up but even I, notoriously picky about details, passed over them with no more than a wry smile.

This is not a book for the advanced watercolourist, it’s fair to say, but neither does it pretend to be. What it mainly concentrates on is the practicality of painting – the matter of using brushes and colour to get an image down on paper. That’s really the first port of call and creativity and aesthetics can come later; if you can’t handle your materials with confidence, all the best ideas in the world will remain stuck firmly in your head.

I warmed to this on page 3, where Ken gives us a list of terms and their definitions. Sure, I’m pretty confident that I know what a ferrule is and that you do too; we could also both work out that fresh paint comes newly squeezed from the tube. I’m being unfair deliberately to make a point, because having all this in one place is good and you may well find that succinct summaries of Complementary, Convenience and Local colours are a thing to treasure. In fact, having things in one place is perhaps the book’s greatest virtue. The layout may not be exciting, but Ken’s mind is extremely well-organised and information is absolutely not scattered about and hard to find. In the step-by-step demonstrations, I particularly like the chart of steps that appears at the beginning. It makes back-reference easy and I haven’t seen it elsewhere – other publishers might want to take note.

The two-column layout maybe isn’t the friend of the demonstrations as the stage illustrations are quite small. I am, however, reviewing this from a PDF, which is not my normal practice, and I’ve zoomed the pages a few times. It’s pleasing to be able to report that image quality stands that.

As for content, there’s a lot of detail, especially about techniques of application, but no over-writing and (remember what I said about designers?) everything is in the right place. Those illustrations may be somewhat small, but they’re where you want them – next to the text and on the same page. It makes the book not just easy to follow, but a pleasure to read.

So, in summary, this is a book for the new watercolourist who needs something basic and easily understandable about technique. I would honestly recommend it as a beginner’s first book for that reason alone. Easily-followed demonstrations and subjects that aren’t over-complicated are just the icing on the cake really.

This is a US private publication, available from Barnes & Noble

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En Plein Air Light & Color || Iain Stewart

This accessible and enjoyable guide is as good as you’re going to get on working from nature. The subject matter is varied and includes landscapes, buildings, boats, flowers and people, the work being conducted in a loose style that relies heavily on washes. Despite being American, the tonal values are generally insular rather than continental – that’s to say, colours are as subtle and muted as we’d expect on this side of the Atlantic, rather than the sometimes over-bright tones that characterise the light in a larger land mass.

The approach is via discussions and demonstrations and there’s more text than is sometimes the case in books of this kind. The stages work from palette selection to outline drawing and through to the finished painting and are well-described and illustrated.

There is, however, a major drawback. The paper chosen tends to swallow the colours and the images are simply too coarse, meaning that detail, particularly in some of the pencil work, can be hard to see and interpret. This is a shame, as it detracts from what would otherwise be an excellent book. If you can overlook it, however, this won’t disappoint.

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Contemporary Figures in Watercolour || Leo Crane

This is not conventional figure painting, but the subtitle – speed, gesture and story – provides a clue to what it is really about.

The images that Leo Crane, working with model Roy Joseph Butler, produces are not likenesses in the portraiture sense, but rather accounts of the dynamic nature of the human form. It’s an interesting and logical approach, but also quite shocking at first glance. Indeed, pick this up and look through it quickly and there’s a fair likelihood that you’ll put it straight back on the shelf. The illustrations are by no means immediately attractive, either by their shape or the bright and often clashing colours Roy uses.

Stay a bit longer and delve a bit deeper, though, and it all starts to make sense. We’re back with the subtitle. These are figures in movement – if they were photographs, a slow shutter speed would have been used. They have a depth that goes behind the eyes, there’s character and, yes, a story. These people have personality, not just appearance. Some of the images are almost completely abstract and represent glimpses of movement, rather like a Zoescope or a flick book taken at half speed. Particularly interesting is the use of contrasting colours and tones to achieve this and the ways in which, although initially shocking, the results are also completely natural.

When I first opened this, I didn’t know what to make of it, but I’ve had to get into it in order to write about it. It’s taken a while, but I totally get it and now I love it. It’s a very different approach that, even if you don’t follow to the letter, will inform your figure painting probably for ever.

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Colours of Nature || Sandrine Maugy

This is not a new book, having first appeared in 2013, but its reissue is timely and it’s something that really shouldn’t be out of print.

There are all kinds of guides to colour, from the mixing swatch-books to highly technical volumes that are really of more interest to the scientist than the artist. This one is firmly practical and written for those working with pigment to create end results, which are the main, indeed only, focus.

What colours do, especially in relation to each other, is of prime importance and a basic understanding of their properties is essential if predictable and reliable results are to be achieved. This doesn’t necessarily mean a crash course in chemistry, although that’s behind a lot of what happens on the palette and the paper. An author who can understand that and translate it into the language and requirements of the artist is someone to be treasured.

Sandrine works through each of a wide range of colours individually as well as explaining some basic techniques for botanical painting. She also names specific brands, but recommends alternatives as well. You don’t have to throw away the contents of your paintbox in order to work with her prescribed choices, which is very welcome – this is about you, not her.

Each colour choice is accompanied by a detailed floral demonstration that pays particular attention to the colours used – how and why – for each part of the subject. It’s particularly useful to be able to see and understand why a particular mix is appropriate at any particular stage and where they all fit into the overall result.

This is a very thorough guide to a complex subject, but one which is told clearly and concisely and, above all, in language the artist will readily understand.

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Colour Demystified || Julie Collins

Julie has previously been the author of fairly conventional colour mixing guides, but this is something else altogether.

There’s a hint of what’s to come in the list of acknowledgements, which includes several artists and art writers, the Tate Gallery and many art brands which will be familiar to the reader. Julie has not just done her research, but done it in depth.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, if this were alchemy, it would be the philosopher’s stone, the catalyst that turns the base metal of simple pigments into the gold of a successful painting. It’s not magic or witchcraft and has nothing to do with the creative side of painting (you’re on your own there). What it is, though, is a completely reliable guide to how your materials behave on paper (we’re working with watercolours here).

Watercolour has many properties and they’re all based in chemistry. Guides to this have appeared before, most notably Ralph Meyer’s Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, an exhaustive and exhausting tome that has its roots firmly in research chemistry. For the faint-hearted it is not.

This is shorter, illustrated and altogether more manageable. Or, let’s just say, manageable. Colours can be transparent or opaque. Some are staining, some will granulate. Some are perfect for glazing, others decidedly not. You need to know all these things, you need to know which pigments play nicely together and which should never be invited to each other’s birthday parties. It’s all in the chemistry, but you’re not a chemist, you’re an artist. You want the magic (OK, it is magic really) to happen on the palette, not in the library.

This is what Julie gives you – a practical artist’s guide to how colours work for the artist. It’s full of colour swatches, examples and demonstrations and you can see what’s happening at every stage, even try it out for yourself. It’s a book you’ll want to keep handy for reference, although there’s also a very good chance that you find you’ve remembered most of it. It’s convincing, comprehensive and joyously concise. Above all, it’s a key that opens just about every door.

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