Archive for category Subject: Portraiture

Figure Drawing – a complete guide || Giovanni Civardi

I’m not normally a fan of smaller-format bind-ups. The original books were the way they were for a reason and smaller pages and thick spines can make for difficult reading. All too often, they look like the sort of bumper value nonsense someone else would buy for you and which just sits on the shelf taking up space.

So, it’s a pleasure to be able to welcome this one. The Giovanni Civardi drawing books are a valuable resource, and there are a lot of them. This compilation includes seven, which would cost you the wrong side of sixty quid to buy individually. £12.99 for a bulk deal is a real bargain, especially as the result is actually usable. I’d like to say that Search Press have taken my previous criticisms of this kind of thing on board, but it’s probably more to do with the happenstance of production. What seems to have happened is that thinner paper and cover card have been used, meaning that the book falls open easily and isn’t too heavy to hold. It’ll even, more or less, lay flat by itself without breaking the spine. The smaller format also adds to the manageability: 440 A4 pages would make for a coffee table book, which this emphatically isn’t.

So, what do you get? Well, not Giovanni’s complete output, for sure. However, the selection is nicely thought-out and makes for a book that lives up to its own billing of being the complete guide. Drawing Techniques is a useful introduction. Being from 2002, some of the repro is showing its age compared to later titles, but not so much that it’s an issue, though the half-tones aren’t as good as they are later. Further chapters are Understanding Human Form & Structure, The Nude, Sketching People, Heads & Faces, Drawing Hands & Feet and Clothing on Figures. It’s worth a complete list to show just how nicely this progresses.

The page-size reduction necessarily reduces the size of the type too, so you may find yourself needing your glasses more that you otherwise would, but this isn’t too much of an issue due to the fact that so much of Giovanni’s instruction is done via the drawings rather than the words. The illustrations themselves are still perfectly adequate.

If you haven’t already got an extensive collection of the separate volumes, and you’re looking for a good primer on figure drawing, buy this. It’s very reasonably priced and so practical as to be ridiculously good value.

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Drawing & Painting Portraits in Watercolour || David Thomas

This is quite the best book on portrait painting, in any medium, that I’ve seen for a very long time, perhaps ever. I’m drawn to a comparison with Capturing Personality in Pastel by Dennis Frost, which appeared in the late 1970’s. The main similarity, it seems to me, is that this is more about getting the character of your subject than of preserving a detailed likeness, which is perhaps the prerogative of oils or acrylics. Watercolour is a more fluid medium and its washes, tints and hues are perhaps best suited to this more relaxed, looser approach. There is certainly great subtlety here.

As an instructional book, this is maybe not one for the complete beginner. There are very few simple exercises and David assumes a fair degree of familiarity with your materials and the techniques and properties associated with the medium. Although there are demonstrations, they are there more to show how the work was built up than to be followed literally, I feel. I would also question how useful it is to work on a subject you’ve never met, though you might find it worth practising with some of them just to see whether you can achieve the result aimed for.

However, as a book for someone who’s had a bit of experience and wants to progress further, particularly in relation to capturing character, this is totally worthwhile. It’s thorough and goes into a lot of detail, with plenty of examples and explanations that will keep you happy for a very long time. Even if you were to conclude that your work will never be as good as David’s, it can’t help but be a very great deal better than when you started.

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We Think the World of You || David Remfry

I’d better explain that the subtitle to this tells you what it’s about: People and Dogs Drawn Together. And, yes, that wins my personal prize for the most bizarre idea of the year. Maybe even decade. No, millennium. In fact, what in all that’s crazy did a body as august as the RA think they were doing putting their name to this?

I thought we’d better get all that out of the way right at the start, let off steam, because this is a fantastic idea that’s beautifully executed and reproduced. The title and subtitle, of course, are ambiguous. Who thinks the most of who? Both, of course, because the relationship between an owner and their dog is a very special one – I can see that and I’m not even a dog person, by the way. Even if I didn’t, David’s sensitive portraits would convince me.

So, how do you go about presenting a book of drawings of people and dogs? Well, the answer is that you devote a chapter to each session. You get to know the people – some are in the public eye and some aren’t – and then you start sketching to get the basic character. Finally, you put them together and that’s where the alchemy takes place. You know that old adage about people getting to look like their dogs? Well, it’s true, especially when an artist as sensitive as David (try telling me he’s not a dog person) gets under their skin, as a good portraitist should, and exposes their character and inner being. And what’s so brilliant is that he can do this for both humans and animals; it’s a rare artist who’s good at both.

I love this. It’s charming, it has a warm heart and it will make you smile, both from affection and amusement. Of course the RA should be the publisher. Who else has the gravitas?

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Picturing People || Charlotte Mullins

Figurative art, it says here, is currently riding high in the zeitgeist. Well, pardon me while I stroke my beard (I do have a beard, but fear not, it’s not a Hoxton Horror). The subtitle to this is “The new state of the art” and the book apparently features “a fresh and exciting selection of artists”. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

It’s perhaps unfair to have this much fun with a book that has a serious intent and is well-intentioned. For all my shoving it into Pseud’s Corner, there are going to be plenty of people who will welcome a comprehensive and authoritative survey of current work in figurative art. If you were looking for the conventional portrait, though, this is probably not the place to find it. The cover image provides a good indication of what’s to come. Unconventional and not a little humorous, it points to a book that is not afraid to stray from the beaten track.

Charlotte Mullins sets herself a task: to find out why so many artists globally are at the moment choosing to work with the human figure. Answering that takes her on a worldwide trip that covers just about every medium and style and includes both Grayson Perry’s tapestries and Cindy Sherman’s photographs as well as many styles of painting and drawing. The images are intriguing, challenging and disturbing but they are also, above all, arresting. This is a book which, if you pick it up, you won’t be putting down for some time.

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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 Watercolor In The Wild || James Gurney

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: – $15, credit card payment – $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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Ken Paine … Nowhere to Hide || Penelope Lee

This affectionate account of an artist whose work is almost entirely figurative is a labour of love in every sense. Penelope Lee has been Paine’s partner in latter years and a party to both his private and working life. Although it is a retrospective, we should be clear that the subject is still with us and that the text therefore reflects, and occasionally quotes, his own point of view. A catalogue raisonnée is it not.

We should also say that this is a private publication and that what it lacks is an editor: some of the writing could be tidied up and some of the detail is perhaps more than we need. However, the selection and quality of the illustrations is second to none, and that’s what matters. If you want to skip a bit of the text, no-one’s going to complain. If the pictures are too small, unsharp or too few, there’s nothing you can do. An editor may also have taken some of the personality out of the book and the intimacy it contains may be what is, for you, its chief feature.

Ken Paine: His Life and Work

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The Self-Portrait –a cultural history || James Hall

With everyone apparently pointing their mobile phone cameras at themselves, this detailed and informative overview of the history of the self-portrait is nothing if not timely.

To preserve one’s own image can seem like the acme of self-obsession, but the desire for immortality is unbounded. From Bak, sculptor to the Pharaoh Akhenaten some 1300 years BC to Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons and Tracey Emin, artists have painted their own likeness and told us as much about their own age as they do about themselves.

The self is an infinitely patient and cost-free model who will also bend unquestioningly to the will of the artist without making the inevitable demands of a paying sitter. The result may be flattering or revealing, but it can also reflect the mores of the times and the development of what became art movements. Just as the discovery of perspective led to recession appearing everywhere, so the mediaeval “mirror craze” led to an outbreak of self-painting. A more analytical age produced what James Hall calls the confessional works of Titian and Michelangelo and the effectively narrative work of serial self-portraitists such as Courbet and Van Gogh (who certainly couldn’t afford models).

This is a serious and scholarly work that nevertheless retains the reader’s interest and attention and is generously and thoughtfully illustrated so that, just as you’re absorbing a new point, an example pops neatly into view.

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DVD: Capturing a Likeness || Rob Wareing

I came up by chance with the realisation of just how much a self-produced DVD relies on the quality of the demonstrator. This may seem like a truism, indeed a basic fact of any film, but an unedited, single-shot take can be unbearably dull. In professional productions, fluffs can be edited out, silent gaps where nothing much is happening on the paper can be bridged and an air of slickness overlaid. The self-producer often lacks these tools and therefore has to be able to stand up for 30 or 60 minutes and talk coherently without hesitation, deviation or repetition as well as without long silences for thought or concentration. It’s not really even a skill you can learn, it’s just something you have or you don’t.

I said this all happened by chance and this is how it was. The first time I watched the film, just to get a preliminary feel for it, I was on my own and needed to keep an ear open for the doorbell. I use headphones on my computer, so my initial run-through was with without sound. The film was not promising and I remarked later that it was going to need a damn good commentary to lift it.

Happily, I can report that it has that. Rob is an engaging demonstrator and does all the things I said above are essential. He also speaks clearly and the quality of the soundtrack is excellent.

In a full demonstration, a lot happens before you really get to the meat of the subject. It’s a bit like building a house. There’s a lot of groundwork to be done first and nothing much is visible for a long time, but then the structure suddenly appears and the basic outline is there quite quickly – and all because of the quality of what went before.

Rob is excellent on all these details, the basic stuff and on the many pitfalls, such as slipping into painting the side of the face (in a profile) that you can’t see, thus twisting the mouth unnaturally. Working on two demonstrations in pastel and one in oils, he also explains the practicalities of the medium he’s using.

I do have one small niggle, and it’s that all the subjects are posed, for no apparent reason, in front of another of Rob’s works. I can see the point of having a studio/gallery setting, but I did find this just a bit distracting at times. It’s not a deal-breaker and, interestingly, it bothered me a lot less the second time round, with the sound on.

If you want to paint portraits, this film is going to be helpful and it certainly does what its title claims. In many ways, I’m reminded of Karen Simmons’ excellent 1-2-3 of Portraits, but with more detail.

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Painting Classic Portraits Step by Step || Luana Luconi Winner

Books on formal portraiture have been thin on the ground for a good number of years. There’s a good reason for this: the stuffed shirt has largely gone out of fashion and even studio portraits of the great and the good have a more relaxed feel to them. People want you to look at them and not the office or the regalia (even if they really do want you to look at the regalia).

But that’s over here. In America, it’s more about success and having arrived and, from the works illustrated here, it’s clear that set features, good clothing and a solid background are still de rigueur. All that’s a way of getting towards saying that you’d never mistake this for anything other than an American book. I don’t mean (as I often do) that it’s full of cowboys or rugged-faced pioneers, it’s just that there’s a set of the face and a way of dress that announces it as clearly as an Old Glory hanging off the front porch.

Having got all that out of the way, let’s say that this is an excellent book. There’s a wide variety of subjects, male, female, young, old, and of settings and backgrounds. The text is concise and to the point and there are very helpful palette notes as well as demonstrations that work through the conventional step-by-step, as well as showing you the importance of working in layers. If you want to paint more formal portraits, this is an excellent and useful guide. Do expect to have to do a little adaptation of the style though.

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