Archive for category Subject: The creative process

Vibrant Watercolours || Hazel Lale

Rather helpfully, Hazel explains in her introduction, some of what a “vibrant” watercolour is. To summarise, it’s about the use of colour, often unexpected colour and in unconventional ways. She recounts, as a child, wondering why some artists painted portraits with white or green faces and of coming to understand how painting was more than simple representation – an artistic maturity, as it were.

The subtitle also provides a clue: How to paint with drama and intensity. This is, in short, a book mainly about working with and revelling in colour. It’s about seeing, not the obvious, the superficial, but the true character of any subject, whether it’s a person, an animal or any inanimate object. On top of colour, there are also shape and form and these can be manipulated, along with the colours, to tell the viewer more about what you’re painting than simple representation. A photograph will record a subject and allow the onlooker to interpret it for themselves. The job of an artist is to shape the response and convey a personal view. At its extreme, this leads to abstraction, where the response is purely emotional but, here, it’s also about the object itself as much as the pure image. It’s a hard topic to explain in words because it’s so inherently visual, but think of it as poetry rather than prose.

This is an approach that’s been covered before, but Hazel’s sheer enthusiasm will carry you along and almost certainly open your eyes to, if not a new, then certainly an enhanced way of seeing.

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The Diary of Mary Watts 1887 – 1904 || Desna Greenhow

Mary Watts was a leading designer of the Arts & Crafts movement and founder of the Compton Pottery, as well as the wife of the painter George Frederic Watts. While her husband was alive, she was also an assiduous diarist and recorded her thoughts both on art and on daily life with an artist who was at the height of his powers. There is a narrative to the entries that reflects Mary’s desire to make the most of what she felt was the most wonderful luck that had befallen her: basically, she worshipped Frederic.

The comparatively short period covered by the diaries is explained by the couple’s relative ages. Mary was 32 years Frederic’s junior. When they married in 1886, he was 69, she 36 and the 17 years cover the period from then until Frederic’s death in 1901.

Basing herself at Linnerslease, the house the couple built for themselves at Compton in the Surrey Hills, Mary was able to give full rein to her artistic talents. The diaries, begun at her husband’s suggestion, acted as a confidante where she was able to make the most of what she knew was the precious, but limited, time she would have with Frederic. Written in a tiny, almost illegible hand, there is no particular evidence that they were ever anything other than a personal memoir and they have remained unpublished until now. Desna Greenhow has rightly not chosen everything for this book, but concentrated on those passages that most illuminate Mary and Frederic’s story and the artistic, literary and political circles of the time. As a result, it becomes a social as well as a historical document that, while the style can be a little intense at times – “The sweet blessed air as we drove out was delicious … The blessing hand of the ceiling was over our heads in an instant” – her account of the life of an artist and musings on art and creativity hold the attention well.

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A History of Pictures || David Hockney & Martin Gayford

I’ve had this sitting on the shelf for several weeks and it’s been daring me to write about it. It’s become something of a cause célèbre since its publication both because Hockney’s views are authoritative and also because they are trenchant.

I have to say at the outset that this comes close to the book I’ve been hoping Hockney would produce. His views on art can be controversial, but he has a fundamental understanding of ways of seeing that are at once intuitive and convincing. His work with both still and moving photography adds a dimension rarely found and (naturally) completely missing before the middle of the Nineteenth Century. His ability to manipulate perspective while retaining a single viewpoint is one of the most original ideas there has been.

The book takes the form of a series of conversations between Hockney (the artist) and Martin Gayford (the critic). It is a little hard to tell whether these are transcriptions or a more formal, written exchange, though they do have a slightly literary quality at times. The scope of the book is “from the cave to the computer screen” and the progression is chronological, which makes for readability, although it does sometimes repress the idea of ways of expression echoing across millennia. You might counter that art regards itself as a steady development, perhaps from simple realism to more complex means of interpretation, however.

In a way, it doesn’t matter whether you like either of the protagonists. What is more important is that their views are clear and that there are plenty of illustrations – hardly anything is discussed in its absence – giving you the chance to explore your own thoughts and be informed or disagree as often as you wish.

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Colour and Line in Watercolour || Glen Scouller

The term “mixed media” often produces a mixed bag, but this is nicely concentrated as Glen Scouller works primarily in pen, ink and watercolour wash. He also works directly from life and this is the unstated second theme of the book – one, indeed, for which you might consider buying it, regardless of the medium.

The colour and line of the title are entirely appropriate, but there is a third aspect to Glen’s work: light, which both informs and pervades his work, bringing with it bright colours and vivid results that a fluidity of line fills with life and movement.

As is so often the case with books by artists who are not primarily teachers, this is in the “how I work” style, though the step-by-step demonstrations that are included are easy to follow and there is a notable lack of bravura and jargon. His advice on working methods, both outdoors and in the studio, is particularly sound and there are also useful tips on the use of sketchbooks.

This is perhaps a book more about the creative process of painting than about the technical aspects – and especially not their minutiae. Maybe the use of mixed media, rather than a concentration on any particularly “pure” form, helps.

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Paint Yourself Calm || Jean Haines

It’s hard to convey just how much I hate all that new-agey stuff. Most of it’s just an excuse for a load of self-obsessed navel gazing. And it’s never cheap, either. Do please feel free to disagree with me, but please read the rest of this before you write in!

It would be a shame to dismiss this on the basis I’ve outlined, or even to regard it as having nothing to do with practical art. It has everything to do with the practice of painting and, above all, of getting yourself into the state of mind where you can put down on paper what you feel in your head and see with your mind’s eye. If you want a book that explains the creative process in a way that’s completely relevant and comprehensible, this is it. It may or may not be Jean’s prime purpose, but, for the artist at least, it’s the result she’s produced.

The thing about painting is that it’s so much more than a mechanical process. Sure, there are things you have to do, such as prepare grounds, mix colours and lay washes, but these can take on Zen-like properties if you let them. A lot of people say that routine helps set them in the right frame of mind for what comes next, which is pretty much the same thing.

A lot of the content of this genuinely intriguing book is what might be called pure watercolour. This isn’t a step-by-step how-to manual at all, not one that tells you how to paint specific subjects. Rather, it’s about the use and application of colour to create a state of mind. Jean’s intention, I think, is that this should be within yourself, but the thing is that paintings have an audience: other people will see them and that state can be induced in them as well. Art, as Edgar Degas said, is not what you see but what you make others see. It’s not exactly abstraction – most of the illustrations are entirely recognisable – but the form is definitely more important than the function.

If you know how to paint, but want to understand why, and why that why is important, read this book. It’s beautiful, rewarding and full of insights.

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Visual Contemplations || Lillian Delevoryas

This is nothing if not specialised: “Paintings Inspired by Gregory of Nyssa’s ‘The Life of Moses’”. I turned to the back-cover blurb for enlightenment. “We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be, whether male or female, moulding ourselves to the teaching of vice or virtue.” I’m glad we cleared that up.

It is, of course, always unfair to mock something you don’t understand, not to mention unwise as you display the limits of your own ignorance. Let’s delve a little deeper. Lillian Delevoryas is in her 80’s and has a lifetime of experience, having worked in oils, Japanese-influenced woodblock prints, English floral watercolours, icons and more. This work has been exhibited internationally for more than 60 years. A new talent trying to find an identity this is not. In fact, it’s quite the opposite: a review of a life and a distillation of all those various styles, to “return to [those] subjects in order to perfect them … [with them] stripped of everything but [their] essentials”.

St Gregory, Bishop of Nyssa was a fourth century Christian best known now for his spiritual writings. His Contemplation on the Life of Moses has a theme of “perfection according to virtue” and the prophet’s life is used as analogy for the journey of the soul from slavery to freedom. The introduction tells us that Delevoryas discovered it while recuperating from two bouts of surgery, a time when many people start to re-examine themselves and their lives. Texts read then often turn out to be influential.

Enough of the background, what of the book itself, which stands or falls on its own merits? If I showed you the cover, with its antique figure sitting on the back of an ostrich, which has its head buried in the sand, you might conclude that it wasn’t entirely serious. However, it doesn’t stand alone and, within the sequence of the book, it illustrates a section called “Heading Nowhere”. Suddenly, it’s not a joke. Sure, it’s surreal and meant to be, and illustrates “the state of blind (or purely sense-based) ignorance, which refuses to let in the light of true knowledge”. Other pieces are rather more iconographic and give a much stronger sense of being an illustrated St Gregory sampler – there are quotes from a variety of his writings.

So, to sum up, this is a spiritual journey that was initiated by the artist’s own life and predicament. It is, however, much more than merely inward-looking and has much that will be of interest to anyone embarking on a similar journey themselves.

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Art Students League of New York on Painting || James L McElhinny

This new volume follows on from The Visual Language of Drawing that appeared a few years ago and drew on the work of a well-established institution to provide a variety of views and approaches to its subject.

This, unsurprisingly, follows the same formula. It’s subtitle, Lessons and Meditations on Mediums, Styles and Methods, might lead you to think it’s a bit abstract and academic, but you’d only be partly right. It’s more discussions than meditations and the thoughts of the instructors of the ASL are worth reading. While we’re deconstructing titles, the word Lessons doesn’t mean that there’s overt instruction here: it’s more of a seminar. If you want your books to get you painting with one hand while you read and follow exercises with the other, this won’t cut it. If, though, you enjoy reading about the practice of painting, you might well find the book hard to put down.

The essays that comprise the content are quite long, hugely varied and thoroughly illustrated – the quality of these is excellent, both in terms of the work presented and the reproduction. Above all, it’s not dull. You might find that the views of artists you’ve never heard of are harder to get to grips with but, equally, you might value the fresh viewpoints that brings. Money paid, choice taken.

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