Everyday Play || ed Julian Rothenstein

That’s the trouble you see. Have a bit of fun with a publisher’s playful jeu d’esprit, as I did with The Book of Emotions and they send you something else in full expectation of a similar sparkle. This stuff doesn’t write itself, you know and I toil for – ooh (never you mind) – to get the right words, all in the right order and a mood that reflects what the author was trying (sometimes successfully) to say.

Once again, this isn’t, on the face of it, a fit for what I write about it, but delve below the surface and there’s a lot about art and creativity here. It’s fair to say that neither book is entirely serious and that’s a good thing. Even creatives are allowed to enjoy themselves once in a while. I am right now, for instance. I’m drawn, for example, to the guide to How To Become An Aesthete, which turns out to be a lot harder than just channelling Fotherington Thomas (oh, Google it, for goodness sake). I also chuckled over a shopping list written on a memo sheet for Paul Zee For Senate: “Draino, Plunger, RCA cables, Peaches, Bath Tub Scrub Brush”. The fact that this was apparently found by David Shrigley, wry observer par excellence, just adds to the fun. What tale of domestic meltdown does this betoken and are the peaches part of a weird cleaning ritual or a welcome source of refreshment after doing unspeakable things to drains? And do the cables mean amplified music is a requisite? And is that to relieve the tedium or cover up noises we really shouldn’t think about? No, we shouldn’t be told; speculation is much more fun – and fun is what this book is all about.

There’s so much here. Games, including Dangerous, situated right next to Cricket (a thing my front teeth wouldn’t dispute), insults, book games. Or you might want to try living like Marcel Proust (who was habitually used, to throw buns to the bears, that live under the stairs*). You’d definitely want to dip into Alice in Wonderland, or hobnob with Myles na Gopaleen**.

I could go on, but this coffee won’t drink itself and there’s something interesting happening outside the window which, as all creatives know, absolutely has to be given your full attention. Anyway, thanks for reading, it’s been real.

* That Clerihew is © me, btw.
** AKA Flan O’Brien, aka Brian O’Nolan

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David Bellamy’s Arabian Light

If you thought the Middle East was just sand and showy ziggurats, think again. David Bellamy has always been a travel writer at heart and this book explores the spirit of a region the West often dismisses. His skill lies in finding the hidden corners that define the character of a place rather than its public faces and spaces. He also explores the life of the region through its people as they go about their daily lives; again, these are things done for practical purposes rather than public show. Thus, we get a quiet corner of Cairo at night (David doesn’t completely eschew the larger settlements), the eerie light of midday heat among the rocks of a wadi (a dry valley), where scale is provided by middle-ground figures. At the same time, David also visits Petra and Abu Simbel, somehow managing either to avoid the crowds, or at least edit them out. These results typify his ability to capture atmosphere – in words as well as pictures – with an assuredness that betokens both familiarity and understanding.

David is no wide-eyed first-time tourist and the book tells the stories of several journeys, giving each section an effective narrative arc, for he is also a master storyteller whose words and pictures are part of a whole, rather than one being an adjunct to another. Travel books are often separated between a writer and a photographer whose visions are – even if subtly – different. As a result, you look at the pictures as one piece of the jigsaw and the words as another, the illustrations being a counterpoint to what you are told. When the author is an artist, the images are not necessarily a blindly faithful record, but rather an assemblage that captures both the essence of the scene and the impression it made on the painter. That eerie light would be almost impossible to capture with a camera, but responds perfectly to the subtle hues and granulation of watercolour.

The overall impression of this beautiful book is of the narrative arc I referred to before. It’s the story not just of a journey, but of a place and its people and David has done it supreme justice.

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City Sketching Reimagined || Jeanette Barnes & Paul Brandford

Whenever I see the word “exciting” applied to a book about sketching, I fear the worst. It’s usually shorthand for “expect a wild ride” and “this may be a bit exotic for your taste”. Those two are definitely the case here and there is often a feeling within the world of urban sketching that a certain harshness of line is needed to capture the dynamism of the urban scene and its life.

The drawing style here, I think it’s fair to say, takes no prisoners. The lines are staccato and betoken fast work that, it’s also fair to say, suggests a confidence with form and materials. Leavened with colour, this provides a definite sense of excitement and atmosphere. In pure black, however, I personally find the results rather overwhelming, although there’s no denying the skill and sense of artistry involved. I’m perfectly capable of admiring a piece of work without actually liking it.

The blurb tells me that the book is presented as a series of bite-size entries, by which they mean short paragraphs that do actually match the bursts of energy that go into the illustrations. Again, and this is purely personal, I find myself overwhelmed by those and barely notice the text. The same blurb also suggests that the book will suit both new and experienced artists. I can’t help thinking, however, that it will appeal a lot more to the dedicated urban sketcher who will certainly find much to take from the fast-moving approach and concise writing.

You need to see this in the flesh and I’m sure you’ll react in only one of two ways: return it hastily to the shelf or take it immediately to the checkout. There are no half-measures.

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Abstracts and Mixed Media || Helen Kaminsky

With the popularity of abstract painting showing no sign of abating (there was a time when books on it were a drag on the market), there has for some time been space for a book that comes between the simple project-based approach and the more academic, analytical tomes.

And here we have a thoroughly practical book aimed at the serious artist who has mastered the basics and is ready to move on to more advanced techniques and interpretations. Rather than pitching straight into the dual aspects of the book’s title, Helen first deals with abstraction – colour, composition, design and interpretation, with each section having an accompanying demonstration that manages to be straightforward without being annoyingly elementary. This augurs well for the book’s balance between simplicity and taking its subject and its readers seriously.

The matter of media is now introduced, with textures, pastes, gels, watercolour, inks and acrylics all coming into the picture – or do I mean mix? This is where things start to get exciting and where the book absolutely justifies its inclusion in the Innovative Artist series. Work here takes the form of examples and shorter exercises because Helen’s aim is to get and help you to develop your own vision and voice. Where project-based books will have you completing the author’s idea of a painting, the intention here is to give you ideas to work off and to spark the imagination.

Helen deals with a broad and complex subject, but the book never feels intimidating or inaccessible, but rather draws you in, eager to find out more. An added bonus is that the binding is sewn rather than glued, which is unusual outside hardbacks. As a result, the book falls open easily in the hands and the pages are easy to view and read.

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The World According to Colour || James Fox

“Colour might be one of those subjects that simply couldn’t be written about. But I can’t resist trying”. It’s a bold statement but also a challenge, to the reader as well as the author and this is a book that confronts as well as explains our relationship with the world around us.

For once, such a journey is not scientific – geological or biological – but rather cultural. Colour is entirely subjective and we have no idea whether what we see is what anyone else sees. Experiences are also cultural and what can seem garish in one will be scintillating and natural to another. Look, for example, at a piece of fine eighteenth century furniture. Marvel at the subtlety of the marquetry, but then remember that, in its day, those patterns would have been picked out in bright colours that have faded through time. Modern reconstructions come as a real shock.

Each chapter in this absorbing book is devoted to a single colour – seven of them, beginning with black, the primeval darkness out of which enlightenment emerged and still the place to look for ignorance, fear and evil. This is a history of culture and understanding that examines not just how we see the world, but how we have seen it at various stages of history, our view coloured by the prevailing attitudes of their times.

Cultural histories abound and new ways of interpreting the past are hard to find, but this is an original and thoroughly worthwhile journey from a genuinely original perspective.

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The Easy Guide to Painting Skies in Watercolour || Stephen Coates

Books on skies are not too hard to find and this important element (arguably the most important) of any landscape has been well-covered. The danger, of course, is of producing a masterclass that only serves to muddy the waters with over-complication.

Regular readers will know how wary I am about “easy” guides. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it and it wouldn’t take a lifetime of study. Intelligently approached, however, they can be reassuring and progress in simple, straightforward steps that don’t tax the beginner or those struggling a bit to keep up.

On those counts, this is absolutely admirable. Stephen starts with an analysis and explanations of materials and equipment, moving quickly to basic techniques, of which the first is a large blended wash. The initial exercise uses one colour, then we move to two. It’s simple and progressive and we’re ready to start looking at white clouds. Nothing to frighten the horses, results that will satisfy and I think we’re ready to agree that, yes, it was pretty easy.

Moving on, you’ll find heavy clouds, sunsets, storms, shafts of sunlight and mists as well as a look at perspective and focal points. Throughout, you’re really only painting skies, with rudimentary foregrounds that add only balance, without becoming an exercise in themselves – actually, if you want lessons in simplicity, you have them right there, an unexpected Brucie bonus.

Easy? Well, maybe. Not too taxing? Absolutely.

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The Book of Emotions || ed Edgar Gerrard Hughes

Sometimes, things arrive on my mat that I’m not expecting and I certainly didn’t expect this one. I wasn’t even quite sure who’d sent it to me, but then I noticed the name of a PR agent who knows me well. Kate, I feel seen – you knew I’d have a go at this, didn’t you?

On the face of it (pun laboriously intended), this isn’t at all a fit for a site that reviews art books, but expressions are, after all, an important part of painting people. There’s a lot here about how emotions develop and are expressed. Some of it is so much self-indulgent guff, but there’s much to enjoy – 30 questions to ask yourself about falling in love, for instance, balanced by another 19 about falling out of love. For all that I dismissed a chunk of the book just now, I think it makes a serious point by not taking itself too seriously. If you want to compile something on How To Be Self-Aware, you might choose this as a starting point. I’m beginning to like Edgar rather a lot, if nothing else because his PhD is in the politics of grief in nineteenth-century Britain, which is definitely a thing.

The reason I have it, and why I’m writing about it is the illustrations. There are artworks, graphic illustrations (the comic book one in the Love section is to die for, and she damn near is), diagrams and photographs. Charles Darwin was fascinated by the way emotions develop and are expressed, studying the faces of his children in microscopic detail (what a dad!). He includes many photographic illustrations in The Expression of The Emotions in Man And Animals and a selection of these, along with some by Duchenne de Boulogne (Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine, 1862) are included for our enlightenment and delectation. As well as the author’s own animadversions, there are also pieces by other writers and I particularly enjoyed After the Party by Natalie Hume, along with its full-page colour plate of the blue lobster that forms the centrepiece of the story (actually a generic blue lobster – we don’t need to be that literal).

I could go on, because this is the most enormous fun. To be serious though (I can do serious), if you draw or paint people, this has plenty of reference material that you’ll find useful. A pile of enjoyment is just a completely free bonus.

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Take Three Colours (compendium)

The idea of this series is a brilliant way of simplifying the painting process, either for the beginner or as a palate-cleanser for someone with more experience who’s become a bit jaded.

With just three brushes and three colours, a team of Search Press’s most successful authors demonstrate projects that show just how much you can do with an absolute minimum of equipment. With little to mess around with, the emphasis is on creativity and making the most of what you have. There’s no chance to over-complicate or get bogged down with an unwieldy palette or too many mixes.

This bind-up is fantastically good value and covers landscapes, seascapes and flowers, with more concentrated subjects such as lakes, rivers, hills and mountains thrown in. Larger books such as this can be difficult to handle, but this falls and stays open nicely and is a pleasure to use.

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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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Sketching For The Absolute Beginner || Peter Cronin

Peter Cronin tells us that he found drawing in “special” classes at school, having been diagnosed as “slow”, but in reality dyslexic. For him, it was a release from the tyranny of the worded page and an introduction to a world that was all his. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that this book is, as much as anything else, a paean to the joy and freedom that Peter finds in working with drawing materials.

Yes, it’s a book of instruction and, yes, it covers all the basic principles, but Peter also manages to convey throughout the joy he feels when working, and he’ll share it with you the reader. So, yes again, it’s a course, but it’s also a journey of discovery.

Peter’s drawings are subtle and sensitive and he works mostly with pencil but also pen & wash. With plenty of examples and short exercises, he introduces line, composition, perspective, form and hatching as well as ways to control the weight of the mark to create values, tone and shading.

There’s a huge amount to get to grips with here and this is a book that you can easy work through or just dip into for advice and inspiration.

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