Oil/Pastel Painting Step-by-Step

Search Press have re-reissued these compilations of their Leisure Arts series of short books, originating form 1999-2004. Age is not necessarily a barrier to usefulness and these were always sound guides that offered simple advice clearly presented.

The problem with older books, though, can be that the quality of reproduction doesn’t compare well with what can be achieved today. However, there are no problems here – whether a particularly good job was done in the first place, or there has been some re-originating, I can’t say, but there are no complaints on that score. The results are therefore stonkingly good value at under a tenner each.

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Landscape Painting: The Complete Guide || Richard Pikesley

This is a bold claim which requires an artist of considerable skill and versatility to pull off at all, let alone successfully. In Richard Pikesley, Crowood undoubtedly have their man. An experienced artist and teacher, he is equally at home with oil and water-based media as well as drawing and pastel (although this latter does not receive extensive coverage).

At 224 pages, this is a substantial book that addresses the creative as well as technical processes. Richard begins with the whole question of seeing: that is to say, looking and observing, finding and understanding your subject. It says a lot about his overall approach that this is the starting point of the book, just as it should be for a painting, before brush or pencil hits paper or canvas. It’s also where he looks at perspective and parallax in both monochrome and colour. There’s a surprising amount of detail here and the subtleties that Richard finds even at this early stage are typical of the book as a whole – it’s about a lot more than just process and technique and the extent gives him space to consider much more than just major points and general headings.

As you may have gathered, there’s a lot to read here, although it’s leavened with plenty of example illustrations and the sections are nicely broken up. Extensive texts can, while invaluable, easily become indigestible in a practical context and the publisher is to be congratulated on recognising this. Richard has also chosen his words carefully and has not written simply for the sake of it, something I’ve seen happen when authors are given more space than they are perhaps used to.

Much of the book proceeds by explanation and example and there are only a few demonstrations, but this is not an exercise book – however useful and instructive those can be. Reading, rather than doing is not for everyone, but this is such a comprehensive study that this potential obstacle should be easy to overcome, especially with the wealth of illustrations that leaven and enhance the text.

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John Ruskin: an idiosyncratic dictionary || Michael Glover

Just how seriously this small volume should be taken is indicated by the rest of the subtitle (“an idiosyncratic dictionary encompassing his passions, his delusions & his prophesies”). There is a portentousness to the structure of the sentence that entirely reflects the man himself, who was in no doubt as to his own greatness, yet has influenced others as diverse as the first Labour Party MPs and Martin Luther King.

This is in some ways a vade mecum, a book to open at random for asides, insights, diversions and, maybe, inspiration. Whether baby language, badgers or railway stations, Ruskin had an Opinion. He promoted the value of physical labour and organised Oxford undergraduates in a scheme for repairing roads, which even involved Oscar Wilde (Glover doesn’t remark that this may have come in handy later, but…)

This is a book to be taken lightly. Although it pokes gentle fun at its subject, it is also aware of his place in history and does not debunk him, being rather an affectionate look at the lighter side of his eccentricities. As well as quotes and anecdotes, there are also entries, such as that rather unexpected one on Martin Luther King, that also enlighten and enhance our vision of John Ruskin on the bi-centenary of his birth.

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Etching: an artist’s guide || Ann Norfield

Etching is a subject that is difficult to cover in a single volume, particularly one that intends to be both an introduction and a creative guide. A fair amount of unfamiliar equipment is required, as well as a whole new range of techniques and terminology. It isn’t really something to try on a winter’s afternoon, but rather to embark on after serious consideration and with a fair degree of commitment.

Ann Norfield recognises all these issues and presents an overview that is perhaps of most use as a reader for someone whose interest has been piqued and is looking at the world of printmaking. All the basic information is here, from aquatint to photo etching, with a clear outline both of what is needed and what can be achieved. Interviews with other practitioners that punctuate the text provide different angles on the creative side of the process.

Given the bulk of some of the equipment required, the spaces and the safety considerations, it’s likely that a newcomer will be using a shared space and have access to advice from more experienced printmakers. However, a guide as thorough as this is useful – essential, perhaps – as background reading and for technical and creative insights.

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Beyond the Brotherhood: the pre-Raphaelite legacy || Anne Anderson

Most people would, I think, assume that the Pre-Raphaelite movement was largely a backwater, fascinating undoubtedly, but complete in itself. A first reaction to the blurb’s mention of a reinvention in The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones would probably be scepticism; it certainly sounds like a point being stretched for the benefit of a book.

However, prepare to be convinced, because the illustrations alone demonstrate the truth of the thesis and, while some of the most recent works in the collection owe as much to the general run of Victorian and fantasy art in general, there is nevertheless a visible thread. Perhaps it would be better to see the PRB as proto-fantasists.

The book accompanies an exhibition at Southampton Art and Russell-Cotes Galleries running between October 2019 and June 2020. If you want to see a really rather good collection in the original, this is an excellent opportunity. As we have come to expect from Sansom, the quality of the reproduction is excellent and the image sizes generous – major works mostly appear as near full-page as possible. The price, for what you get, is also quite modest, possibly because some of the costs have been defrayed by the exhibition – however it’s achieved, it’s superb value.

Inevitably, this is something of a specialised subject. There are plenty of books about the Pre-Raphaelites and not everyone who wants those will also be interested in the legacy. However, the book, which includes a thorough interpretative text, makes a very convincing argument and includes a great deal of material that isn’t often seen together.

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Beginner’s Guide to Screen Printing || Erin Lacy

Screen printing is a deceptively simple technique that takes a lifetime to master and is capable of great subtlety. Although the amount of basic equipment required is relatively small, simply sourcing and getting the hang of it can deter many beginners.

This is a straightforward guide that doesn’t attempt to get over-complicated and works with only those materials that are absolutely essential. At first sight, the lack of a list of suppliers looks like a major omission. However, perhaps a little too buried on the copyright page is the invitation to visit the publisher’s website for this information. As long as the list there is kept up to date, it avoids the frustration of finding that an outlet mentioned on the printed page has closed up or moved on. Good idea.

After the technical introduction – which benefits hugely from being written for the non-specialist, but without skating over essential information – the book is based around a series of 12 projects, for which templates are provided. This is absolutely the way to go with a subject such as this, where techniques are best learnt by practice and imitation. Once you’ve got the hang of how things work, and what’s supposed to happen when, you’re in a much better place to branch out on your own. In spite of being a short book, at 112 pages, there’s plenty of information to get you started without feeling overwhelmed or intimidated.

This is a well thought-out book that, despite being illustration-led as well as welcoming and attractive to look at, contains all the essential information. Both author and publisher are at home with their material and it shows.

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Artists’ Letters || Michael Bird

This is one of those books that probably benefits from being dipped into, rather than read from cover to cover, a thing to be kept handy when there’s an odd moment to fill. This is not to denigrate it to the point of superficiality, but rather to recognise that, while informative and often illuminating, correspondence in bulk (rather like collected newspaper articles) can get a little repetitive.

The blurb describes this as a “treasure trove” and I wouldn’t quibble with that. Michael Bird has had the good sense to be selective, even if his collection does run to a fairly substantial 224 pages. He also includes plenty of visual material because artists, being artists, often fail to resist the inclusion of a sketch or cartoon. Being largely private letters, these are frequently acerbic or amusing and refer to the relationship between the sender and recipient. And, without labouring the point, Bird also explains the context of the epistle in question, adding to both understanding and enjoyment.

The book handily subtitles itself “Leonardo da Vinci to David Hockney”, emphasising the breadth of its coverage (no, the creator of Mona Lisa didn’t communicate with the painter of Mr & Mrs Clarke and Percy). Curation in a collection such as this is key and Bird avoids the temptation to get too clever or to stick to the ploddingly obvious chronological arrangement. He arranges his material by themes and his chapter headings make it clear that he isn’t taking his task too seriously (I refer back to my suggestion of dipping in). These include “I saw a new giraffe”, “Your book on witchcraft” and “Hey beautiful” – all quotes, of course, not meditations on the inner workings of creativity.

This is a book of entertainment rather than erudition and it’s all the better for that. There are plenty of studies of art and artists that cover their working methods, philosophy and private lives. This one exposes the workings of their minds when they were thinking less about art than whether Michelangelo’s nephew should marry, Mondrian’s teeth are in good shape or how soon Jean Cocteau will recover from illness. (Picasso adds, “I’ve got good ideas for our theatre story” – Cocteau was working on ideas for the ballet, Parade.)

This contributes more to an understanding and enjoyment of art and artists than you might expect, by bringing its characters to life in their own words.

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