Archive for category Publisher: APV Films

DVD The Passionate Painter in Havana Part 2 || Alvaro Castagnet

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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DVD The Magic of Watercolour Flowers || Paul Riley

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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DVD Greg Allen’s Watercolour Techniques

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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DVD First Impressions in Acrylic || John Hammond

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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DVD The Passionate Painter in Havana part 1 || Alvaro Castagnet

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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DVD Capturing Coastal Moods || Ray Balkwill

The title of this give you an implicit hint as to what it isn’t. It’s not a guide to painting maritime subjects. How so? Well, as Ray tells us at the beginning, “I’m a great advocate of working on location. A sense of place is important, not just to capture what I see, but what I feel.” And that’s the essence of what he’s demonstrating here: it’s not the coast, it’s the mood. He continues, “I’ve painted here a few times. It’s that connection with the place that’s important”. It’s a theme that pervades the entire film and, since we’re quoting, here’s another: “I’m not looking to make an accurate representation, I’m looking to make a picture … as long as it looks like a boat, I’m happy.” (I’ve conflated two things, there, but you get the …er… picture).

Ray is known as a mixed media artist, but I’m going to burst another bubble while I’m on a roll. He’s not. What I mean is that he doesn’t paint mixed media because that’s how he’s pigeon-holed himself. He’s not really a media man at all. Yes, he uses pencil, felt-tip, Conté, pastel and gouache, almost always in that order, but only because they’re what he needs for a particular effect. It’s more like a conductor bringing in the various parts of the orchestra to provide tone, shade and colour – highlighting the violins here, backing them up with woodwinds and cellos, adding colour with the brass and then using tympani to bring the whole thing to a crescendo. I should also say that Ray not only makes this look the most natural thing in the world (you may even conclude that using only one medium is to restrict yourself quite unnecessarily), but also easy. It isn’t, of course, and it’s his supreme confidence and virtuosity that allow him to achieve what he does.

You’ll notice that I haven’t once mentioned the subjects that Ray paints here. That’s deliberate as I think that to describe this film factually would be to miss the point entirely. This isn’t about what Ray paints, but how he does it and there’s a degree of alchemy to that. There are, though, five full demonstrations, all filmed in Cornwall, as well as a studio-based postscript which includes a look at a painting worked up from a sketch done in unpromising conditions in Gweek boatyard.

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DVD Winter Landscapes in Watercolour || David Bellamy

“In winter, there’s generally a bit more colour around and you get away from all those awful summer greens” – and I don’t think he’s talking about cabbage.

That’s quite a challenging statement, especially as David is standing in a landscape thickly covered with snow at the time. “Monochrome” is the word that more obviously springs to mind. However, this is a film as much about overcoming preconceptions as it is about the process of painting.

If you’ve been following David’s career, you’ll remember that his earliest films were “adventures” and featured him hanging off ropes or clinging onto vertical surfaces like a mountain goat. All that was a lot of fun to watch, but it had less to do with the practicalities of what the rest of us would call the real world. I’ve remarked before that it’s been noticeable that his recent work has been much more centred in valleys and that’s true here. Even the opening demonstration, where he makes the remark about colours, is filmed at the roadside and all the locations in the film are perfectly accessible.

So, this isn’t a film about investing in extreme-weather equipment and where best to source a distress beacon. Rather, it’s about wearing enough layers – actually, scrub that: it’s about painting, pure and simple. What David demonstrates is how to make quick sketches – one of the most successful, and also quickest, is done with a single Inktense block – either from the car or close to its refuge. Getting out in cold weather isn’t about endurance, but practicality. Take a minimum of equipment and work quickly, make colour notes, concentrate on the main meat of the scene rather than too many details. Oh, and yes, do wear plenty of layers.

Because everything’s done quickly, there’s a good number of different demonstrations here and David does indeed show you how subtle winter colours can be – skies are rich with reds and yellows and the buildings of a moorland farm stand out against a snowy background instead of blending into it as they would in summer.

Demonstrations done, David returns to the warmth and shelter of the studio. Here, there’s space to use stretched paper rather than a block, and not to have to worry about being able to keep hold all of your equipment while you work. There’s also time to consider composition and this becomes, for me, perhaps the most interesting section of the film. Remember that Inktense sketch? If you were watching closely, you’ll have noticed that David was already tightening up the relation of the two buildings in it. Now, he brings them together even more as a compositional unit, changes the way the foreground leads in and the background hills frame the whole thing. A previously non-existent piece of farm equipment also makes an appearance as a foil to the centre of interest and a useful splash of red to provide focus. This exercise isn’t so much about painting in winter (though that’s the subject) as about the authorial content of painting. If you wanted an essay that refutes Fox Talbot’s claim, relating to photography, that “from today painting is dead”, this would be it. You can’t do what David does in anything other than a painting. There’s no viewpoint that would give you want he presents, which isn’t a representation of the scene as it was, but of its element, its spirit. It’s a bit of a masterclass, actually, and I’d buy the film for this alone.

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DVD Wade’s Watercolour Wisdom || Robert Wade

Aged 21, Robert Wade approached one of his painting heroes for advice. That was to paint six postcard-size watercolours a week for six months so as to become familiar with the properties of the medium. “I didn’t take it”, he adds candidly. Older and wiser, however, he says he has come to understand the value of what seems to me the equivalent of a musician practising scales and recommends it to all his students.

Just as listening to scales isn’t the most exciting thing you can do, watching an artist push paint around in random shapes can be quite remarkably like watching it dry. However, you’re inclined to stick with it initially because this is Robert Wade. This quickly develops into interest as random shapes and wet-in-wet happy accidents start to coalesce into recognisable forms. Oh look, there’s a line of trees against the horizon, and those are figures in a crowd. And all the time, of course, Robert is keeping up a fascinating and entertaining commentary. “It’s just playing with watercolour … it’s unhindered”, “What fun.”

The whole purpose is to become familiar with the technical aspects of painting so that, when you need a particular trick, it’s instinctive – “The important thing is you know what to expect … unless you’ve done these exercises, you’ll be afraid of not having control.”

After the exercises, Robert paints a series of simple images, including a landscape, a seascape and a sky – “The sky’s important. If you can paint a good sky, you can paint a good landscape.”

The final painting is a riverside scene worked up from an earlier painting. This brings all the techniques together in a time-approved fashion and shows how the composition can flow when you don’t have to stop and think about what to do next, or start trying to experiment on a finished work. Fascinating as it is, it can’t be ignored that, not being done plein air, this does lack a little of the spontaneity one might perhaps expect. It’s still an impressive effort, though.

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DVD A Journey in Watercolour || Herman Pekel

Herman Pekel is a magician. Most of the commentary on this film is something akin to a running patter with occasional nuggets of wisdom (“Never let a sky dry until it’s finished”) dropped in apparently at random. In fact, it took me half the film before I had any idea how I was going to find anything to say about it. Part of the problem is that he likes unpromising subjects, but they are in fact the proverbial blank canvas, ideas on which a composition can be superimposed and a painting built.

The first two demonstrations take place in Herman’s native Melbourne and are complex street scenes that need careful marshalling of shapes, colours and structures. Spontaneity is Herman’s stock in trade and he allows the work to develop almost with a life of its own. The result is that, because he has no detailed plan, the audience is similarly in the dark and this can make viewing difficult.

Where the film comes into its own, however, is when we move to Faversham in Kent. A dull day, a flat landscape and a muddy river at low tide do not augur well. However, this is where the magic happens, because Herman pulls three amazing pictures from, quite literally, nothing, manipulating elements of composition, adding boats, vegetation and a church and working in cool colours that reflect the conditions without actually portraying them.

One of the things you also notice is that Herman is a fan of darks – “A dirty palette always has lovely greys”.

It’s in conditions like this that spontaneity comes to the fore and Herman really does create something out of nothing. A rabbit out of a hat, in fact.

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DVD People at Work – watercolours || Joseph Zbukvic

The first review I did of this was for a magazine and I was limited to 150 words. You have to be pithy in that length and the challenge now, when I can write as much as I like, is to capture the joyful simplicity of this delightful film while at the same time taking the opportunity to tell you a bit more about its content.

I was captivated in the first ten minutes. In that short time, Joseph demonstrates how to capture figures from stationary to full exertion in just a few brush strokes. He also shows the importance of structure and proportion – how the rest of the body is always seven and a half times the height of the head and how you should be able to achieve that without measuring. It just looks right. Change it and you either have a Martian or a child. It’s engaging as well as a forehead-slapping moment – “Of course!”

The body of the film is shot on location and Joseph paints and sketches a variety of figurative compositions – at a market, roadworks, a harbour and a café as well as grape-pickers in a vineyard. In the course of these, he explains how to identify your subject, then to assemble the figures that will go in it and, finally, to simplify. He also has valuable advice on the structure of the whole work – “Foreground takes you in, middle ground’s the stage with your figures and the background’s just a pattern. Don’t over-work it.”

The important thing throughout is that these are not portraits, they’re figures that are there to do (and are doing) a job and they need to fit, both in terms of action and proportion, into the scene as a whole.

It’s a hugely informative film, but done with such a light touch, both artistically and in terms of presentation, that you’ll hardly notice you’re learning.

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