Archive for category Subject: Still life

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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Nature Morte || Michael Petry

Subtitled “contemporary artists reinvigorate the Still-Life tradition”, this is an eclectic and somewhat surprisingly large collection of work. As such, it would be nothing without cataloguing and organisation, simply becoming a ragbag of assorted and unrelated images. Michael Petry has gone to a great deal of trouble, including the entirely appropriate positioning on opposite pages of Damien Hirst’s For The Love of God and Gabriel Orozco’s Black Kites – both decorated skulls in a section on death, and part of a larger group that includes other skull images.

The term Still Life is interpreted just about as widely as it could be and the main sections of the book are: Flora, Food, House & Home, Fauna and Death. There is further organisation within those larger groupings that make sense of the variety of material included and a brief, but useful, history of the subject. Images range from the simple, maybe even expected, to the downright disturbing. Bowls of fruit fit well into the tradition as we expect it, but that is then disrupted by some of the figurative pieces, of which the Damien Hirst might be said to be one of the more conventional.

This is a book which can be informing, entertaining and disturbing all at the same time which, I suppose, is a way of saying that it makes you think.

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Painting Still Life in Gouache || Kevin Scully

I always get a slight sense of time-warp when I pick up a book from Crowood. That’s no bad thing and I’m sure a lot of people are in fact going to like their approach, which is a lot more wordy than many books these days. The tendency in most practical books is to be illustration-led, with extended captions making the links and relying on the pictures to carry the message. Increasing the text has the downside of sometimes submerging the images and, in some cases, making them too small in order to accommodate the verbiage. That’s if it’s done badly. Although the sense, when you flick through a Crowood book is indeed of a lot of text you will, if you slow down, also notice that the illustrations are well-reproduced and given quite as much space as they need. Some are indeed quarter-page, but they’re usually the footnotes that are at least as small in other books. The main event is still full page and enhanced by the glossy paper the publisher usually uses.

There are up and downsides to this approach, of course. The first obstacle is that you need an artist who can write and that’s not a given. People who think visually aren’t always good when plonked in front of a typewriter and the natural writer may not be the best artist. It’s a book editor’s nightmare! On the other hand, strike a balance, as we have here, and you have the chance for some reasoned discussion and explanation of the hows and whys, the choice of destination and the possible routes to it. It does mean that, if you’re looking for clear and simple teaching, you may not so easily find it but, if you want a more mature consideration, these are books you’ll welcome and blaze a trail to.

Having said all that, there’s not a great deal more to add in this particular case. Kevin Scully discusses (I think we’ve agreed we can use that word) two subjects that don’t get a lot of coverage – still life as a subject and gouache as a medium. He does so thoughtfully and in considerable detail so that, if this is a combination you want, you’ll probably find this is the only book you’ll need.

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Flowers, Fruit & Vegetables || Giovanni Civardi

Subtitled “Simple approaches to drawing natural forms”, this is an excellent primer in capturing the subtleties and characteristics of botanical subjects.

Giovanni Civardi uses very few words after the initial introduction and some notes of perspective, composition and botanical anatomy. He teaches by example rather than instruction, which makes the book very easy to follow as long as you have a reasonable grasp of the basics.

The beautiful and delicate pencil drawings that make up the body of the book demonstrate how to use line, shading and hatching to record form and shape, and the book is a total delight from start to finish.

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The Natural World in Watercolour || Jean-Claude Chaillou

Well here’s something refreshingly different. Translated from a French original, this is a look at the more intimate corners of landscapes in an attractively loose style that should suit the British eye. A series of nine demonstrations looks at landscapes and waterscapes, producing really rather charming results that provide a perspective that’s often overlooked.

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Watercolour Fruit & Vegetable Portraits || Billy Showell

On the face of it, this seems a pretty unlikely idea for a book. I mean, I can see the attraction of flower portraits, obviously, but the ingredients for soup? On the other hand, when you see the really rather beautiful results that Billy gets, it’s ten to one you’re going to want to have a go yourself. However, if it wasn’t done as well as it is here, I still contend that you’d lower your gaze and hurry on by.

But no matter. The greengrocer’s stock in trade provides a wealth of colour and texture and something you, as an artist, can really get your teeth into (yes, yes, I know, but you should see the ones that got edited out!) and there are some really serious exercises in watercolour virtuosity here. Clearly, this is not a book aimed at the beginner and all of the introductory material is written for the experienced artist who just needs a little guidance in what’s required for this specific subject matter – there’s none of the elementary how-to-paint stuff that plagues so many books. It’s nice to be treated as a grown-up for once and this is undoubtedly going to make you well-disposed towards the author before you even get started and that can’t be a bad thing. After that, it’s straight into the subject matter with a nicely varied chapter on drawing a wide range of different shaped vegetables and fruit. From here, it’s on to composition though, as this is a book of portraits (that is to say, the bare subject without any real context) this tends toward some sometimes slightly bizarre arrangements, the value of which I’m not totally sure of. However, this is a bit of a quibble, because the next chapter is about colour and this is really valuable as it deals with shades you may well not have encountered before and Billy offers some excellently clear advice that’s likely to be useful in all your work, not just this specialised area. There’s a lot more on light and shade, dealing with white vegetables, flowers and details before a set of projects where Billy demonstrates four subjects in some detail.

If you’re tired of the same old subjects and you fancy something that’s really going to challenge your abilities as a painter, then this is undoubtedly the book for you. I don’t think it’s going to turn you into a fruit and veg specialist and you may well feel that, when you’ve tried it, that’s quite enough, thank you, but I don’t think you’ll feel it was an exercise that wasn’t worthwhile.

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Be An Artist in 10 Steps || Ian Sidaway & Patricia Seligman

This substantial volume is a bind-up of five previously-issued titles covering drawing, watercolour, oils, acrylics and pastel. The approach in each of these was the same: paint a complete picture (a still life), learning a good variety of basic techniques in the chosen medium as you went along. Most medium guides do more or less the same thing, that is to say they give you a series of demonstrations that showcase things like colour, tone, blending, washes, brushwork and so on. Normally, though, these are quite truncated sessions that may not really result in anything more than a collection of unrelated subjects and don’t always lead to anything in the way of a coherent finished result.

Where this book differs and is, as far as I know, unique, is that the authors work their way through different elements of a single overall composition to achieve the same result, so that what you get is a much more complete work of art at the end of it and a much better idea of whether what you’ve learned has been worthwhile. All this, of course, depends on whether you are comfortable with this single-minded way of working and whether you want to paint a still life. No pain, no gain, however, and it’s worth sacrificing the variety of the more traditional approach for this more seamless way of working.

Many artists choose to concentrate on one or maybe two media, so the value of a compendium such as this is necessarily limited. I’ve always suspected that this kind of book appeals to people who think they want to paint and to others who are looking for a gift book, rather than to those who are already a rung or two up the ladder. Nevertheless, there’s no shortage of these compendium guides about, so one has to assume there’s a market, though how may of their buyers or recipients then go on to pursue their craft at any length, I wouldn’t like to guess. It’s also worth observing that this volume is, at 415 pages, both longer than most and also more expensive. Its unique approach and the quality of the authors, both of them experienced and effective teachers and writers, do on the whole justify the price though.

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Art Of Still Life Drawing || David Sanmiguel

The Spanish publishing house of Parramon has had a reputation for many years for the quality of its art books which tend to be well-structured and copiously illustrated. It’s a shame that that the publishers of the English language edition of this one have chosen not to credit the author on the cover as David Sanmiguel is one of Parramon’s best writers.

This isn’t a subject that’s particularly widely covered. Still lifes tend to conjure up an image of something, ironically, rather dead (for those who care, the French is nature morte!), a composition you throw together on a wet winter evening when there’s nothing on telly and nothing to paint. On top of that, it’s also going to be full of boxes, cylinders and cones and all those dry-as-dust exercises you’ve spent your life trying to get away from.

But then again, some of the world’s greatest paintings have been still lifes – Van Gogh’s Sunflowers are, after all, in a vase. So, okay, yes there are bottles and wine glass and bowls of fruit in this book, but, rather cleverly, they’re part of an image rather than being entirely an end in themselves. The book also follows the Parramon formula of being illustration-led: that is to say, the words are captions rather than treatises and this allows the author to get away with a lot. As a guide to drawing, it’s hard to beat, in fact.

You get a lot for you money here. There are five main sections, beginning with Starting Drawing, which is where most of the basic exercises are and which, if you feel you’re already competent, you could skip. It only occupies 32 pages, so as well as being concise, it also won’t hold you up for too long. The next three sections cover Light and Shadow, Shapes Qualities and Subjects and Composition. Each one is sub-divided and adds progressively to your knowledge and skills. The final section covers a series of step-by-step demonstrations in a variety of media, including pencil, charcoal, pastel and pen & ink.

The text does slightly betray its origin in another language: it doesn’t absolutely feel as though it was written in English, but this is a minor and slightly unfair niggle as it’s more important in a book of this kind to relay the information than to write a piece of elegant prose. As I said before, the book is led by its illustrations and these work in any language, so it’s not something you’re exactly going to be tripping over.

Year published 2006
List price: £12.99

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