Turner’s Apprentice: a watercolour masterclass || Tony Smibert

The basic thesis of this is a sound one. Tony Smibert is a Visiting Art Researcher at Tate Britain as well as a trained art teacher. He is therefore well placed to conduct the nearest thing you’ll get to a masterclass with one of Britain’s greatest painters.

The question, though, is do you want to? What?, you ask. How can he even suggest that’s not a good thing? Well, Turner had such an individual style that emulating it is always going to look like imitation, and probably second best at that. Would it perhaps be better to study the Norwich School or the Twentieth Century tradition from Edward Seago onwards?

Well, the thing about Turner is that he taught us a huge amount about light and colour and was innovative not just in his day but, arguably, in the history of art. He was, you could posit, an impressionist before the Impressionists and one of the first to move art away from a very classical tradition that was getting just a little too rule-bound. It’s not just his paintings that merit further study, but his notebooks too, and there aren’t many artists you can say that about. No, you can’t: Turner’s notebooks contain a wealth of experimentation that led to some of his masterpieces.

So, having established that to sit at his feet is something worthwhile, what’s the experience like? Well, Tony is adept at deconstructing not just Turner’s paintings, but his methods of working. This is not an atelier process, where you stand in front of the great canvases and copy them, but rather of understanding and applying the methods that created them.

The book concludes with a chapter devoted to Tony’s own paintings – not just a gallery, they’re properly analysed. In these, you can clearly see Turner’s influence, but also the fact that the results are entirely original. It’s not at all a bad way of demonstrating what you should be aiming for – a deeper understanding of your own work, not that of someone else.


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The Unquiet Landscape || Christopher Neve

This isn’t a book about art. Rather, it’s a book about how art and the landscape interact and the way in which places and philosophy work together to stimulate the creative process.

Does that sound complicated? Well, just imagine you’re painting a landscape. You could just sit there and make an exact representation of what you see, but that wouldn’t be much more than a photograph. Even the least pretentious artist would want to put some kind of expression into their work – as Edgar Degas reminded us: art isn’t what you see, but what you make others see. Study a landscape, maybe for years, see and understand it in all its moods, make sketches and then – only then – start work in the studio, and you have something completely different. The result isn’t a representation of what you saw, it’s a map of what was going on in your mind as a result of this contemplative process.

So, you see, it is all about art after all, but also that much deeper process that underpins a great work. Christopher Neve writes about artists from William Sickert to Stanley Spencer , Eric Ravilious and John Nash. He had extensive conversations with Ben Nicholson and others that get behind what appears on paper or canvas.

This is a new edition of a book that first appeared in 1990. Frustratingly, the preface doesn’t reveal what has changed, but the blurb hints at the addition of the illustrations and of additional text. If you have the original, it would be useful to know whether that justifies a second purchase.

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The Story of Scottish Art || Lachlan Goudie

Scottish art has a long and noble history that is perhaps not as often recounted as it should be.

This rather delightful book is part of what looks like a new “story of” series that deals with wide vistas in a straightforward and eminently manageable way. Much of this relies on the quality of the authors – they need to be able to understand their subject intimately and select and condense their material to make it comprehensible in a relatively short narrative arc. They also need to avoid the factionalism that all too often infects art criticism (although there will undoubtedly be those queuing up to say that they’ve got the approach, the facts and the interpretations wrong). General readers will, however, just be thankful for something that doesn’t require prior specialist knowledge or become obsessed with minor detail.

Lachlan Goudie is such an author. An artist himself, the blurb describes this as “a deeply personal account”, perhaps aiming to head off perceived avenues of criticism. However, as long as you know who you’re dealing with, a less that fully objective approach can itself be interesting, and Goudie is an author who commands respect.

The book is only 384 pages. I say “only” because it covers 5000 years, which means it moves form Neolithic symbols to Glasgow’s position as a centre for contemporary art. That’s a lot of ground to cover and it’s pulling off a neat trick to do so at pace, but without becoming breathless.

There are some 180 illustrations, but as my copy is a black & white pre-press proof, I can’t comment on the quality of the reproduction.

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The Story of Contemporary Art || Tony Godfrey

This is an excellent narrative account of developments in art from 1980 to the present day. Covering forty years internationally is an ambitious project and, at 280 pages, this necessarily doesn’t go into a massive amount of detail. That, you may think, is a blessing and this is a subject in which it would be all too easy to get bogged down. Contemporary art (like contemporary anything) is contentious and a relatively straightforward storytelling approach is a neat way of avoiding controversy and factionalism.

Non-specialists will undoubtedly welcome a lively, readable account, but even the cognoscenti may be glad of what amounts to an authoritative potted history.

The book has over 200 illustrations but I can’t comment on the quality as my copy is a black & white pre-press proof.

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The Kew Book of Painting Roses in Watercolour || Trevor Waugh

This is the second volume in this new series and it offers a perennially popular subject. I said of its predecessor on orchids that, while not perhaps the most obvious subject, those flowers nevertheless offered a wide variety of shape, form and colour. Well, the same is true of roses, but coupled with the fact that examples are available in just about every garden. Am I implying that this should have been the one that introduced the series? You know what, maybe I am.

Now that we have two volumes under our belt, it’s possible to take a broader look and it’s pleasing to say that, despite the Kew connection, these books are not heading in a botanical direction. That, while impressive, would be a shame because very few people want (or, perhaps, are able) to work in such precise detail. This, therefore, is primarily a Trevor Waugh book. If you’re familiar with his work, you’ll know that it’s primarily about colour and the feel, the character of the flower and not the minute details of its petals and stamens. I can’t claim to have audited every page, but I do not believe that the word “calyx” appears anywhere, and hurrah for that.

So, what you get are results that look and, above all, feel like roses. They have depth, both in terms of form and colour, they shimmer and, just maybe, if you catch them quickly, dance in the breeze. Simply, they’re a joy.

This is, of course, primarily a book about painting, not about roses. The usual preliminaries deal with colour and brushwork, with some deceptively simple exercises you really shouldn’t skip. These teach you far more than just elementary skills, even if that’s what they look like. For the reset, there are three full step-by-step projects that cover not only the whole flower, but also leaves, stems and the play of light. There’s nothing specific about perspective, but it’s in there – Trevor is very good at disguising the technical stuff and you’ll have got through it before you even realise it’s happening.

Is this perfect? Maybe. Is it too good to be true? Certainly not.

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South by Southwest || Jeremy Gardiner

Well, this is timely! This is an artist’s account of the South-West coast of Britain and comes just at the moment none of us can get there. Rather than just captioned images, however, each of the four main sections is curated (I don’t think that’s too strong a word) by a writer – Andrew Lambirth, Christiana Payne, Judith LeGrove and Steve Marshall. Their text covers more than just commentary and geographical information and includes history, interpretation and background material. The result is a highly cohesive whole, which makes this more than just an album or even a topographic account.

Gardiner’s work could probably be best described as interpretive realism. That’s to say, these are not simply records of views, nor yet flights of fancy. Rather, they capture the spirit of place and incorporate textures that reflect geological structure. Combined with the accompanying text, a quite remarkable sense of place is achieved.

The book was originally intended to accompany a touring exhibition at the St Barbe Gallery, Lymington, The Nine British Art and Falmouth Art Gallery. Quite what will happen to this is unclear, although maybe it will extend once we can all get out again.

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Ready to Paint in 30 Minutes – Mountain Scenes in Watercolour || Lesley Linley

Having lived for several years on Skye, Lesley is well-placed to understand the many moods and atmospheric variation of mountain landscapes and this latest addition to an excellent series covers everything from aerial perspective and tonal recession to textures in rock and reflections in water.

Each of the 32 projects concentrates on a single topic, so there are no complex scenes to get bogged down in. The whole idea is to develop your skills through simple exercises, each with a full-size A6 tracing that’s easy to transport and can be completed quickly. If you’re stuck on a larger work of your own, you could even break off for a quick bit of revision before going on – so much better than spoiling the whole thing at the last minute!

This is a delightful book in a series that’s already been well thought-out and Lesley’s confident approach makes it especially easy to follow.

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Piranesi Drawings – visions of antiquity || Sarah Vowles

This is another of Thames & Hudson’s collaborations with the British Museum and accompanies an exhibition which, at the time of writing, is of course closed.

The quality of reproduction and generous page size make this a viable alternative to a visit and, if you want to see Piranesi drawings, shouldn’t disappoint. Fifty-one works are illustrated, mostly full page, and extended captions provide descriptive and background information. The purpose of the exhibition is to show how the artist developed as a draughtsman over time and the progression is broadly chronological, rather than by form or theme. Chronological notes and a select bibliography add both clarity and avenues for further study.

With venues closed, viewing originals isn’t possible at the present time and alternatives have to be found. This is a worthy one.

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Painting and Reinterpreting the Masters || Sara Lee Roberts

This isn’t a bad idea at all. Back in the day, students learnt painting by the Atelier method, working in the studio of a master. They’d start by grinding and then mixing colour, progress to preparing canvases and then to laying grounds. Eventually, they might also paint backgrounds for less prestigious commissions – or maybe even the whole work – giving rise to the term “school of”, where the master’s brush might never have touched the canvas.

This is an artistic form of apprenticeship and it taught not just the practicalities of painting, but also those of running a studio and working with clients. If the student wasn’t particularly imaginative, it could lead to what amounted to Master II – simply emulations of what someone had already done. The best students, however, went on the develop their own style and so art progressed through the centuries.

We don’t have apprenticeships these days and they have been replaced by formal schools, books and online tutorials. However, the idea of understanding what happened historically, then taking it up and running with it is no bad thing and that’s what this book attempts to get you to do.

The danger, as it always was, is that you’ll simply end up copying, but that’s up to you. In any case, you may well find that it’s the best starting point, but do please try not to paint a modern Goya.

There’s plenty to get your teeth into here, both from the analytical and productive point of view, but it’s worth noting that the process of the reconstructions that Sara demonstrates are covered in only three or four stages and a page or so – these are not lengthy projects and much of the work will be done on your own.

This is a worthy volume that fulfils its brief well and repays – indeed requires – considerable study. The only complaint I have with it is that the reproduction is somewhat flat and lacking in detail. This is a shame as it’s a rather important part of the whole process.

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Nineteenth-Century Art: a critical history || ed Stephen F Eisenman

This massive brick of a book covers just about every aspect of artistic output including painting, sculpture, photography and furniture.

The comprehensive text from a variety of specialist contributors is accompanied by a generous number of excellently-reproduced illustrations. Big names are here, but also some less well known and even anonymous, such as the Native American representations of both their own culture and interaction with European settlers.

Although substantial and, as I hinted, heavy, this is by no mean unmanageable. The paperback format of this fifth edition is large enough to allow you to see what’s going on without being too big to sit in the hands and it falls open easily without threatening the integrity of the spine. These things don’t happen by accident and the production team at Thames & Hudson deserve credit for giving thought to the poor reader.

Content-wise, consideration has also been given to those who are not approaching this from a drily academic viewpoint. The illustrations leaven what are inevitable text-heavy chapters and breakout features add both summaries and additional depth, with background information on subjects as diverse as race, ecology, utopianism and even madness.

As well as being a thorough survey and history, this magnificent book also manages to show the position of the nineteenth century in the wider history of art and the development of the avant-garde and modernism.

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