Archive for category Subject: Buildings
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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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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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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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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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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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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I really can’t praise this enough. Let me enumerate:
For a start, James has what, as far as I know, is a unique viewpoint. Using an ingenious rig, he provides an artist’s-eye viewpoint as he works. Rather than getting oblique angles where the light isn’t quite right, or over-the-shoulder shots that don’t reveal quite enough detail, what you see is what he sees, and it’s as if you’re completing the demonstration yourself. The sense of immediacy is stunning and so is the clarity.
Then there’s the material and equipment section. I know, yada yada, these are my paints, here are some brushes and I have these pencils. But James has reduced things down to a watercolour kit that can be carried in a belt bag and go literally anywhere – even a theatre, he claims. He’s clearly a bit of an inventor because, as well as the camera rig, he’s also made up a magnetic water jar that attaches to his paintbox. Now you never have to wonder where exactly to put it. For longer trips where a car is available, there’s a larger backpack that includes a camera tripod that doubles as an easel, and a folding stool.
I’m mentioning all this because I sat, utterly absorbed, through the whole section without ever touching the fast forward button. Never done that before. The added fact is that James is one of the most engaging presenters you ever came across. His approach isn’t didactic or prescriptive. There’s no “you have to do it this way” or “my way’s best”. He simply describes what he’s doing – it’s always in the present tense and always what you’re looking at – and allows you to make up your own mind whether you like it or not. He’s warm and inclusive. Apart from watching this film, I’ve exchanged half a dozen emails with him and he’s my new best friend.
OK, so James can make a film, put some kit together and talk the talk, but can he paint? Oh yes, and his approach is very interesting. For a start, he allows himself about an hour for a painting. Each demonstration here – there are six, covering buildings, animals, people and landscapes – is edited down to about fifteen minutes and covers all the important bits without leaving you thinking, “hang on, what did he do just then?”. He begins, conventionally enough, with a pencil drawing, but then spends the next thirty to forty minutes putting in tones, values and shading. With a quarter of an hour or less to go, he gets to the detail. That’s not enough, surely? No, not for fine detail, but the point is he’s working on very solid foundations: the subject has structure and substance and he doesn’t paint the detail at all, just suggests what the viewer should be seeing so that they create the finer stuff for themselves. It’s very subtle and, although not unique in itself, certainly unusual in combination with so much preparatory work.
The exception to the one hour approach is a painting of a sleeping foal. Young animals are rarely still and only for short periods and this one is no exception. A large chunk of this section is taken up with watching the creature running round, interacting with its mother and eating. Finally, it needs a nap and we get to work. The point of this demonstration is to show how you can capture the essence of a subject if you’ve already understood it before you lift a brush. I like the fact that, once again, James doesn’t tell you this, but shows you.
This is an exceptional piece of work and amazingly good value. I’ll leave you with one quote. Paraphrasing Goethe, James says, “The dangers of watercolour are infinite and safety is one of the dangers.” Hell of an aphorism that, and the more you think about it, the more it means.
Available as a digital download from:
https://gumroad.com/l/watercolor – $15, credit card payment
https://sellfy.com/p/Pvxb/ – $14.99, PayPal only
There is also a shrink-wrapped DVD, but it’s NTSC format and possibly also Region 1. I could get it to play, but without sound.
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