Archive for category Subject: Colour

Hazel Soan’s Art of the Limited Palette

Most watercolour books will have a section on working with a limited palette and there have been previous volumes on the subject. Those, however, have tended to base themselves on the author’s specific and unvaried selection. Yes, you could probably buy a set of them – how convenient.

I have never seen a Hazel Soan branded product and I doubt I ever will. This is not a book about what you should do half so much as what you can do. The difference is both subtle and vast and anyone who’s familiar with Hazel’s work will understand immediately. She’s an artist and writer who leads by example, inspires and gently guides and this is what has won her so many fans.

The paintings here are mostly done with between three and five colours, but they’re not prescriptive and Hazel varies them depending on the subject, so you might get the unsurprising Ultramarine Blue, Yellow Ochre and Permanent Rose where a blue shirt is the key hue in a simple composition. Then, a few pages later, you’re working on a summer landscape with Aureolin, Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson. The point being eloquently made is that it’s the subject that guides you, not the paintbox. These are pictures, not technical exercises.

Even more interesting are the sections where we’re down to just two colours. These are not clever tricks, but rather a way of achieving a particular result in a particular part of the work. You’ll be aware, for example, of how good Hazel is with shadows and reflections. So you’ll find yourself making a pre-mix of two greys, one red- and the other blue-shifted. Yes, there are five colours involved here, but they come down to two and depict those shadows and reflections in a rain-soaked street scene perfectly.

As much as anything else, this is a book about thinking about colour. The limited palette forces you to avoid the tendency to reach for yet another shade from the dozens you have in your box (yes you do). Hazel begins with some studies that look at how different combinations enhance and set each other off – blues and yellows (obviously), but also yellows and reds, reds and blues. She also explains, with well-chosen examples that make the message abundantly clear, how to make secondary colours quickly and easily. There’s a look at the earth colours as well as the use of both related and opposing shades.

There’s so much here that this becomes one of the most comprehensive studies of and guides to colour there is.

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The World According to Colour || James Fox

“Colour might be one of those subjects that simply couldn’t be written about. But I can’t resist trying”. It’s a bold statement but also a challenge, to the reader as well as the author and this is a book that confronts as well as explains our relationship with the world around us.

For once, such a journey is not scientific – geological or biological – but rather cultural. Colour is entirely subjective and we have no idea whether what we see is what anyone else sees. Experiences are also cultural and what can seem garish in one will be scintillating and natural to another. Look, for example, at a piece of fine eighteenth century furniture. Marvel at the subtlety of the marquetry, but then remember that, in its day, those patterns would have been picked out in bright colours that have faded through time. Modern reconstructions come as a real shock.

Each chapter in this absorbing book is devoted to a single colour – seven of them, beginning with black, the primeval darkness out of which enlightenment emerged and still the place to look for ignorance, fear and evil. This is a history of culture and understanding that examines not just how we see the world, but how we have seen it at various stages of history, our view coloured by the prevailing attitudes of their times.

Cultural histories abound and new ways of interpreting the past are hard to find, but this is an original and thoroughly worthwhile journey from a genuinely original perspective.

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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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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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The Colors of Nature || Lindsay Hopkins

It’s my policy to review as much as possible of what I’m sent, and always to do so if it’s something I’ve requested. This isn’t something I’d normally cover, being a book to colour in, but I asked for it, not quire realising what it was, and I’m not going to make an exception to my own rules.

There isn’t a lot you can say critically about this kind of thing. It is what it is, which is to say: outlines, with a few words, that you can colour in. The text consists of quotations and some basic lore: “Did you know that dahlias represent elegance and dignity?” There are also some very basic drawing hints, which do actually break each of the subjects down to four simple steps if you want to attempt outlines of your own. Colouring hints are also promised although, as this is predominantly an adult colouring book, I think the idea is that you should allow free rein to your imagination.

To be honest, there isn’t a lot for the serious artist here, even though the drawing hints are actually quite good. However, if you think they’d be helpful, you may also like having pre-drawing outlines to practice your colour work on.

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Chromatopia || David Coles

This is a visual feast. Its presentation is very much in the mould of cookery porn (if we can call it that) – sumptuous illustrations that make you want to rub your face in the plate and absorb the delicious goodness before you. Information is there, but presented in a narrative form rather than simple step-by-step instructions (in the case of cookery) or bald scientific facts (in the case of colour).

Most artists would benefit from at least a little information about what’s happening on their palette, but the chemistry of it all is probably beyond them and certainly more than they need. If you do want that, Ralph Meyer’s authoritative Handbook of Art Materials and Techniques is there for you.

If the mere thought of that makes your eyes glaze over, help is at hand in the form of this book. You are, as I’ve already hinted, going to love looking at it, but there’s also a potted account of history, properties and uses that won’t leave you wanting less. Is Cochineal really made of blood? Did you know that Cobalt was named after a malicious goblin? Did you ever feel the need to? Probably not, but it all adds to the rich pageant presented here and the sense of fun, of finding out about things just for the sheer pleasure of it.

Am I going to list all the things the book could tell you? Hell no, of course I’m not. A mere list of useful information would be boring and this is emphatically not that. Sit down, tuck in your napkin and fill your boots (yes, I am mixing metaphors, what of it?). I said this was a feast, didn’t I?

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Learn Colour in Painting Quickly || Hazel Soan

This excellently-conceived series has proved that it is possible not only to learn quickly, but that the unadorned approach is often the way to go. I’m always at least a little sceptical of such claims simply because something that can be a lifetime’s study can’t be mastered in a few minutes. However, I have to concede that getting to grips with the basics is something where speed can be a considerable help. Getting bogged down at the start is not only unhelpful, but positively discouraging to efforts to proceed.

Colour is, of course, the artist’s stock-in-trade, at once the vocabulary and grammar of the language of painting. Those for whom it’s second nature wonder at the number of books about it but, for all that, there are perfectly capable painters who struggle, at least at the outset. However, once you grasp the idea that the basic concept is really quite simple and that a lot of the difficulties are self-imposed, everything becomes much clearer.

Hazel is a master of colour in all its forms and, following the series format, shows plenty of examples linked with just enough words to make sure you know and understand what you’re looking at. She explains colour theory in practice (which means as little explanation and theory as possible) as well as demonstrating ways of creating light, shade, form, tone and hue.

I’m tempted to say that this is the complete guide, but of course it isn’t, and doesn’t pretend to be. It is, however, the complete introduction and you might find that what it teaches you is enough for you to be able to learn the rest for yourself, and that’s a heck of an achievement.

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Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours || P Syme

A band on the jacket helpfully advises that this is “the book Charles Darwin used to describe colours on his voyage on HMS Beagle”. So much, you might say, for that.

This is a facsimile (if you hadn’t guessed) of a book first published in 1814. It was invaluable then and, although mainly of historical interest now, contains information that can still be of use to the artist. This version took a previously existing colour naming system and adapted it for practical use by botanists, zoologists, mineralogists and artists.

Why, you might ask, was it necessary? Two hundred years ago, colour printing didn’t exist in any useful form. Those full-colour guides we’re so used to now are surprisingly recent. Only 30 or so years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for painting books to be illustrated with only some dozen colour plates and those would be concentrated together, not run throughout the text. The quality of the colour reproduction in the present volume suggests that the swatches were hand-tinted, so this would have been a small edition, and by no means cheap.

But still, why place so much importance on how colours are described? Well, if you can’t reproduce it in print, you need a reliable way of writing about it so that the reader can mix it for themselves, and that requires a standard approach. Enter Mr Werner, ably assisted by Mr Syme.

To see how this works in practice, let’s look at Bluish Green. It “is composed of Berlin blue, and a little lemon yellow and greyish white”. The accompanying table tells us that it’s suitable for a thrush egg, the under disc of wild rose leaves or the mineral beryl. And that’s how you get the colours right, even if you haven’t got a reliable chart.

Yes, this is mainly of historical interest, but it’s a fascinating read and a reminder of how the world got on when everything really was black and white.

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Masterclass in Colour || Meriel Thurstan & Rosie Martin

Here’s something completely different from Meriel & Rosie. After their really quite advanced books on painting flowers and natural subjects, this is altogether simpler. Simpler, in fact, than the title implies – I’m really not sure how the word “masterclass” got in there and I’m concerned it might frighten a few people off. Colour has a reputation for being difficult, you see. In many ways, the subtitle defines it better: “a colouring workbook of techniques and inspiration”.

The premise is simple enough. There are outlines that you can colour in – you could do it right there on the printed page if you want – with instructions that’ll show you how to build up tints and shading quickly and reliably. The authors suggest that you can use coloured pencils, watercolour pencils, watercolour paint or felt tips, which gives you a good choice of materials. As a primer on how colours work in an image, this is really easy to follow – to the extent that I really do think you could master it from this book alone (which doesn’t quite make a masterclass, he quibbled!)

The subjects are, as you’d probably expect, flowers and plants, and the page size is generous so that you get images that you can see and work with. It’s rather clever, too, in catching on to the popularity of adult colouring books, but teaching at the same time. Yes, it’s instructional, but fun too.

Meriel & Rosie have a reputation for hitting the nail on the head, and this won’t dent it at all.

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DVD Mixing It Up With Watercolour || Charles Sluga

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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