Learn to Paint Portraits Quickly || Hazel Soan

This excellent series from Batsford continues to impress. Illustration-led and based around clearly executed examples and exercises, it packs a vast amount of information into a compact format and relatively few pages. If you find larger books sometimes intimidating, this is about as user-friendly as you can get.

The choice of authors has been critical to its success, as they are required to understand their subjects intimately and be able to condense the fundamentals into the format required. Lengthy explanations are out and eloquent illustrations de rigeur. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that Hazel Soan features so prominently in the list.

The idea that you can learn portrait painting quickly is a conceit, of course. It requires a lifetime of study to understand both people and ways of representing their appearance and character on paper or canvas. For all that, there are plenty of basics, such as putting your sitter at ease, getting the basic outline and then working with colour, skin tones, hair, eyes and so on. These are the basic mechanics and the foundations that you can spend the rest of your time working on. Although this is a book you can read through in probably an hour or so and whose message can be picked up in perhaps a week, it forms the basis for additional work that will occupy you for a very long time if you decide you want to continue.

And therein lies its chief value. Under Hazel’s expert tuition, you should find yourself understanding the basics quickly and producing results that work and will encourage you to progress further. If you find you are enjoying the process and have the necessary skills, this short book will take you a lot further than you might expect. If it’s still not working, you’ve lost very little in time and outlay.

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Drawing With Charcoal || Kate Boucher

There have never been many books about charcoal. It’s almost invariably lumped in with other drawing media, and not unreasonably. The basic techniques, after all, can be applied to pencils, pastels, pen & ink and so on and it makes sense not to repeat these for each one.

For all that, a thorough study will not come amiss and, given that this will probably be a one-off for quite some time, it is to be hoped that Kate Boucher steps up to the mark. It is pleasing to report that she certainly does. This is no mere “make some marks and have done with it” overview and the quality of the artwork will have you wondering why you never realised before that quite such subtlety was possible. Charcoal is a monochrome medium that is difficult to persuade into half-tones or, by its soft nature, to produce fine detail.

Just a quick look at the illustrations here will show you that such things are by no means impossible and your first thought might be that you are actually looking at a book about monoprinting. Although there is discussion at the beginning about materials and mark-making, Kate assumes a reasonable degree of experience – you can, after all, get that from one of the many introductory guides to drawing that are available. Instead, through a series of demonstrations that are fully described and analysed, she explains the use of erasers, tone, layers of texture and the use of other materials – the introduction of pastels in the final chapter is genuinely shocking, albeit in a good way.

This is everything you’d hope it would be and probably more. I said there’s unlikely to be another book for quite some time but, frankly, there’s no need for one. Kate has nailed it.

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Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs || Emily Willoughby

With new discoveries regularly in the news at the moment, this is nothing if not timely. We’ve all seen artists’ impressions of what these prehistoric creatures may have looked like, but I for one hadn’t realised the extent to which paleoart is a recognised discipline (there is, in fact, another book on the same subject coming from another publisher at about the same time).

There are not, therefore, flights of fancy, but rather serious pieces of science based on the surprising amount of detail we have about creatures no human has ever seen. Those working in the field do so in conjunction with specialists and their pieces are based on thoroughgoing research which, of course, develops all the time.

I’m honestly not sure who this book is aimed at. Well, that’s slightly unfair, but there are, as well as some superb and informative illustrations, exercises and demonstrations. These will show you how to paint a variety of species from basic outline shapes to a realistic outline as well as, if you want, scales, colours and feathers. Quite how many amateur artists want to study this field I’m really not sure and I assume that those who are serious will already be working in universities. Children, you will say. Yes, they are fascinated by dinosaurs, always have been, but this is far too advanced (mostly) for them, unless they have considerable artistic ability and are old enough to have maintained their interest into their teens.

For anyone old enough to at least retain curiosity, this is a fascinating study of where we are now in the field. It contains plenty of information about the dinosaurs themselves as well as images that show them in likely habitats and performing likely behaviours. For that alone, it’s worthwhile. The stand-out? For me, it’s a small ink drawing of a Velociraptor. We know that birds are the survivors of what was a mass extinction, and that’s a Magpie if ever I saw one.

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Creative Drawing Techniques || David Brammeld

Subtitled From first mark to full expression, this is a comprehensive, but not exhausting, study of drawing using everything from pencils and pen & ink to watercolour washes, graphite, charcoal, acrylic inks and mixed media.

You could forgive yourself for asking how all this could be not creative – the title does sort of hint at that possibility. The truth is, it’s one of those rather vague words that publishers use when they’re not quite sure how to categorise the work of an author they’ve felt attracted to and want to do a book with. There’s an immediate attractiveness to David’s work that eloquently explains this without the need for any words. There’s huge variety here and he is one of those artists whose work somehow transcends their medium. In a way, this isn’t a book about drawing at all, but about creating and where the fact that tools are used is merely incidental.

That’s all very well, but you the reader are sat there with a pad on your knees, pens and pencils in hand and a bottle of ink perched precariously on a stool or tree stump beside you. You want to know how to proceed and you won’t be disappointed by how David guides you. That subtitle makes it clear that this is about the whole process of drawing and that there’s advice on mark-making before you get to the process of transcending your media. The more elementary aspects don’t dominate, however, and there’s plenty of variety and exercises to get stuck into. Subject matter includes trees, buildings, still lifes and a few portraits. David tends to go for the closer, more intimate view than the wider perspective, which is why I haven’t mentioned landscapes, even though some of his work does fall broadly into this category.

All-in-all, this is an enjoyable, instructive and thought-provoking book.

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Colour for Botanical Artists and Illustrators || Leigh Ann Gale

This really rather excellent guide to botanical painting comes at its subject from the angle of colour. That much you could glean from the title, but the approach is interesting because Leigh Ann breaks a complex topic down into not just manageable, but also fundamental, parts that allow discussion to broaden into real-life observation and the use of colour theory.

That latter is always a difficult subject to address because it seems so esoteric, yet is also absolutely central to all artistic endeavours. The irony is that its foundations are relatively simple – colours are filters for white light and reduce the amount that is reflected. More is always less. By tackling the matter head on, Leigh Ann simply shows you how correctly-observed colour choices will produce vibrant and, above all, botanically accurate results.

All aspects of colour are covered, including flowers, fruit and foliage, with examples and demonstrations provided for each of the main colour groups. Instructions and analyses are thorough throughout and this is a worthwhile as well as original addition to the canon of botanical literature.

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Bridget Riley: Working Drawings

Bridget Riley is perhaps the only British Op Artist the general public would recognise, maybe even name. Best known for her often eye-popping geometric works, she has had a long and varied career that has gone through several stages including figurative, Impressionist and Pointillist.

Rather amazingly, this is the first book to collect and illustrate her preparatory work and, therefore, to offer an insight into the way her pieces develop. It includes sketches, outlines and preparatory pieces – as she puts it herself: “Studies are my chief method of exploration and way into my paintings”. Most of the illustrations are uncommented, but the book includes texts from various points in her career that explain Riley’s background and development as well as interviews from 2005, 2011 and a new one, specially commissioned for the book.

There is plenty of material here and the overall sense is of a job well done – that this is a complete survey rather than a first footing. Some of the reproduction does seem a little coarse, although that may be down to what material was available. The colour also seems sometimes a little flat and Thames and Hudson are normally good at getting as effective a result as possible on matt paper. £45 is not a trivial sum, but it is excellent value considering what is included and one should perhaps not quibble.

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Atmospheric Animals in Watercolour || Jean Haines

I’m an enormous fan of Jean’s work and, if her sales are anything to go by, you probably are too. I’ve always been impressed by the way her subjects seem to emerge organically from the paper as if propelled by their own life force.

The subtitle of this new volume is Painting with spirit & vitality and it seems to me that this sums that ethos up perfectly. These are not animal portraits in the conventional sense, but rather the life and soul of those creatures. Jean has written books about mind and spirituality expressed through painting and that theme continues here. If you’re worried that it’s all a bit New Age, don’t be. This is firmly a book about painting animals that just happens to sidestep simple representation. A short section on Animal Meanings explains this clearly and a lot of the book is about getting to know your subject just as if it were human. If you have pets, you do that anyway, don’t you?

Technically, there’s a lot about colour and washes – Jean works about as loosely as you can – and that includes how to retain shape and form so that your results are anything but pure abstract. Some of these are startling: a cat whose face is the only delineated part, an elephant done in shades of green, fish that move in their pond because superseded form creates sinuousness.

What’s really remarkable is that you have to look twice to notice all this because the book absolutely lives up to that subtitle. These are real animals. Not just paintings of animals – it’s a heck of a trick to pull off.

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Quick Start to Watercolor Landscapes || Kenneth Hesse

Self-publishing comes with two major pitfalls: the lack of an editor and the lack of a designer. It doesn’t have to lose out on missing a proof-reader, but often does.

An editor will restrain an author’s tendency to write either too much (going into obsessive detail about unimportant matters), or too little (those frustratingly short sentences that equate to the Bake-Off technical’s “make the batter”). A designer will bring a fresh eye to the layout, have more tools than a simple word processor and make sure that illustrations are both reasonably-sized and in the right place.

The first thing to say here is that it’s pretty obvious Ken has used a word processor. The text and, for the most part the illustrations, are fixed to a two-column page. Does this matter? Well, only if you’re a reviewer, probably, although a reader might think that the information provided had better be pretty good if the pages lack visual excitement.

And now the good news. None of the above matters here. Yes, you might observe that there are a few infelicities (let’s not call them any more than that) which a proof-reader would have picked up but even I, notoriously picky about details, passed over them with no more than a wry smile.

This is not a book for the advanced watercolourist, it’s fair to say, but neither does it pretend to be. What it mainly concentrates on is the practicality of painting – the matter of using brushes and colour to get an image down on paper. That’s really the first port of call and creativity and aesthetics can come later; if you can’t handle your materials with confidence, all the best ideas in the world will remain stuck firmly in your head.

I warmed to this on page 3, where Ken gives us a list of terms and their definitions. Sure, I’m pretty confident that I know what a ferrule is and that you do too; we could also both work out that fresh paint comes newly squeezed from the tube. I’m being unfair deliberately to make a point, because having all this in one place is good and you may well find that succinct summaries of Complementary, Convenience and Local colours are a thing to treasure. In fact, having things in one place is perhaps the book’s greatest virtue. The layout may not be exciting, but Ken’s mind is extremely well-organised and information is absolutely not scattered about and hard to find. In the step-by-step demonstrations, I particularly like the chart of steps that appears at the beginning. It makes back-reference easy and I haven’t seen it elsewhere – other publishers might want to take note.

The two-column layout maybe isn’t the friend of the demonstrations as the stage illustrations are quite small. I am, however, reviewing this from a PDF, which is not my normal practice, and I’ve zoomed the pages a few times. It’s pleasing to be able to report that image quality stands that.

As for content, there’s a lot of detail, especially about techniques of application, but no over-writing and (remember what I said about designers?) everything is in the right place. Those illustrations may be somewhat small, but they’re where you want them – next to the text and on the same page. It makes the book not just easy to follow, but a pleasure to read.

So, in summary, this is a book for the new watercolourist who needs something basic and easily understandable about technique. I would honestly recommend it as a beginner’s first book for that reason alone. Easily-followed demonstrations and subjects that aren’t over-complicated are just the icing on the cake really.

This is a US private publication, available from Barnes & Noble

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What Artists Wear || Charlie Porter

When this arrived, I felt completely unqualified to have an opinion about it. Fortunately, I have a friend who is a costume designer, so what follows are her words.

Artists leave behind traces of their existence through material created that is more permanent than themselves. The average person might be able to tell you the difference between a Van Gogh and a Monet painting, but could they tell you what each artist chose to wear to his studio?

An artist’s choice of clothing can become a further stem of their practice. A great example of this was in the section on Lynn Hershman Leeson. With ‘Roberta Breitmore’ the artist’s choice of clothing became integral to creating the artwork. Her costume, wig and make-up created the character she performed as for 5 years, her choices in clothes helped form a commentary on the treatment women within 1970’s culture.

Filled with an array of artists from sculptors to performance artists mainly during the 20th century, the book takes on an impressive amount of case studies. The text is sandwiched between images of artists in their studios, offering an often intimate window into their life.

Reading as a costume designer and performance artist, at points I wished the author, Charlie Porter, made a greater distinction between an artist wearing fashion or costume.

My personal preferences meant I was most enticed mostly by Porter’s sections referring to what artists wear during a performance. However, I feel a greater separation could have been made between an artist such as Basquiat, who wore designer clothing in the process of creating his art and artists like Louise Bourgeois who wore costumes as her art. Their intentions were entirely different, and I begin to wonder if this investigation could therefore have been split into two editions: artist’s clothes / distinctive clothes worn by artists?

This subject opened up a bees-nest of artists who would fit into this surprisingly intimate investigation. Grayson Perry and Rebecca Horn immediately come to mind and could have perhaps replaced some of the dryer sections discussing Nicole Eisenman, who is a wonderful artist but perhaps wasn’t the best choice for this book. That said, provoking the desire to add artists into this investigation suggests how rich the subject is.

The focus on what artists decide to wear daily and in performance art proves to be a window into the wider culture their art is born into. It situates where they fit or more commonly, resist pressure to comply with their contemporaries.

JD

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Women in Abstraction || edited by Christine Macel and Karolina Lewandowska

You could, I suspect, be forgiven for expressing surprise at the extent of this very thorough look at abstract art as created purely by women. You might also assume that being selective in this way would restrict the coverage. Are there not styles and movements that are overlooked? Well, no, just about everything you’d expect is included as well as a full range of painting, sculpture, installations and performance pieces. As a survey and history of abstract art the book stands as something as complete as you could wish.

Unless you are a specialist, many of the names will probably be unfamiliar, but one stands out and tells the usual tale. Yes, Elaine de Kooning was married to Willem, of whom you have undoubtedly heard. She was taught by Josef Albers and Buckminster Fuller and her subjects included Ornette Coleman, Pelé and John F Kennedy, of whom she was commissioned to produce an official portrait. If her reputation has been eclipsed by that of her husband (as so often happens, even if not deliberately), she had an extensive career in her own right. I particularly like her remark, quoted here: “To me, all art is self-portraits”. That’s one I shall reflect on for some time to come.

As well as examples from and short essays about 112 artists (yes, that many) there are further pieces that analyse wider aspects of the subject. Of particular interest is the piece about the roles of Hilda Rebay and Peggy Guggenheim, founders of major collections in what was then an absolutely male-dominated world.

One has to be wary of describing books as ground-breaking, because the truth is they are usually built on work that has gone before and ride a rising tide. This is, however, a major contribution to art history in general and a neglected corner (if that’s the right word) in particular.

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