Experimental Coasts in Mixed Media || Mike Bernard with Susie Hodge

Mike Bernard’s approach to mixed media is well known by now and involves quite a lot of collage. It’s probably therefore fair to say that this is a book that will have instant appeal to his many followers, although it is by no means a closed shop and there is plenty of explanation of materials and techniques that will instruct those new to the form.

There is always a danger with mixed media that it becomes an end in itself, ignoring the basic tenets of creativity. Here, though, the starting point is always the subject – how it appears, what it tells the artist and what they can then say about it to the viewer. The opening sections, for example, are Motivation, Inspiration, Location and Focal Point. The next chapter covers the palette, which is where the choice of materials comes in, but also includes a section on “releasing the inner child” (basically, looking and seeing anew). This is followed by a chapter on Creative Techniques, so we’re quickly back with ideas rather than methods.

Mike’s way of working is largely instinctive. This is probably true of any artist who has extensive experience, but he has a broad range of materials and techniques available to him that encourage a keen analytical eye, which this book will help you to develop too.

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En Plein Air Light & Color || Iain Stewart

This accessible and enjoyable guide is as good as you’re going to get on working from nature. The subject matter is varied and includes landscapes, buildings, boats, flowers and people, the work being conducted in a loose style that relies heavily on washes. Despite being American, the tonal values are generally insular rather than continental – that’s to say, colours are as subtle and muted as we’d expect on this side of the Atlantic, rather than the sometimes over-bright tones that characterise the light in a larger land mass.

The approach is via discussions and demonstrations and there’s more text than is sometimes the case in books of this kind. The stages work from palette selection to outline drawing and through to the finished painting and are well-described and illustrated.

There is, however, a major drawback. The paper chosen tends to swallow the colours and the images are simply too coarse, meaning that detail, particularly in some of the pencil work, can be hard to see and interpret. This is a shame, as it detracts from what would otherwise be an excellent book. If you can overlook it, however, this won’t disappoint.

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Drawing Perspective || Tim Fisher

Tim Fisher’s excellent guide to perspective, once part of the Drawing Masterclass series, has been reissued. You can read the original review here.

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Drawing Nature: a complete guide || Giovanni Civardi

The bind-up reissue of Giovanni Civardi’s excellent guides continues. Here, you get seven volumes on the subject of nature, covering scenery, light & shade, basic techniques, flowers, fruit & vegetables, pets, perspective and wild animals. Is all of that nature? Well, stretching a point, it does give you a thorough amount of reading around the subject. It’s perhaps a quibble, but you also get the Drawing Techniques volume in the Figure Drawing bind-up and you can’t help suspecting it may make an appearance in future collections too.

If you’re a fan of Giovanni, you’ll probably have all the original volumes anyway, so purchasers of these reduced-format collections will perhaps only buy one, so a bit of thoughtful curation maybe doesn’t go amiss. However it goes, you get seven books for a little under two quid each, which is thumpingly good value even if there is a little duplication.

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Contemporary Flowers in Mixed Media || Soraya French

When a publisher uses the word “contemporary” in a title, it can all too often mean “we’re not quite sure about this one, it’s a bit off the wall and perhaps not quite what we had in mind”. Mixed media can have multiple meanings too, from the artist using a bit of gouache or maybe pastel here and there to frankly alarming amounts of collage.

It’s therefore a pleasure to be able to report that this is a thoroughly thought through guide to flower painting that fits well into the Impressionist wing of the art and sometimes even borders on abstraction. These are flowers as they appeal to the emotions rather than as botanical specimens. You’d expect no less from Soraya French. “When working on personal projects”, she says, “I am careful not to let the analytical side stifle the intuitive process”. Amen, I think we can say, to that.

Although this is a relatively short book, it packs in a lot of analysis, wisdom and creative ideas, all concisely expressed and thoroughly illustrated. There are musings (I think that’s the right word) about the properties of media: watercolour, gouache, acrylic, inks and oils as well as dry media, and quite a lot about colour, light and palettes. This is entirely appropriate as the book itself is the proverbial riot of colour that’s often applied to gardens.

The whole thing is about exploration, both creative and technical – Soraya talks quite a lot about mediums, for instance, but also examines shades, tints, complementary colours and colour harmony.

I honestly think this is, as much as anything else, a book that will lift your spirits (and don’t we need that right now?) as much as teach you about painting. I’m not a flower painter, but I’m itching to have a go just looking at it.

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Contemporary Figures in Watercolour || Leo Crane

This is not conventional figure painting, but the subtitle – speed, gesture and story – provides a clue to what it is really about.

The images that Leo Crane, working with model Roy Joseph Butler, produces are not likenesses in the portraiture sense, but rather accounts of the dynamic nature of the human form. It’s an interesting and logical approach, but also quite shocking at first glance. Indeed, pick this up and look through it quickly and there’s a fair likelihood that you’ll put it straight back on the shelf. The illustrations are by no means immediately attractive, either by their shape or the bright and often clashing colours Roy uses.

Stay a bit longer and delve a bit deeper, though, and it all starts to make sense. We’re back with the subtitle. These are figures in movement – if they were photographs, a slow shutter speed would have been used. They have a depth that goes behind the eyes, there’s character and, yes, a story. These people have personality, not just appearance. Some of the images are almost completely abstract and represent glimpses of movement, rather like a Zoescope or a flick book taken at half speed. Particularly interesting is the use of contrasting colours and tones to achieve this and the ways in which, although initially shocking, the results are also completely natural.

When I first opened this, I didn’t know what to make of it, but I’ve had to get into it in order to write about it. It’s taken a while, but I totally get it and now I love it. It’s a very different approach that, even if you don’t follow to the letter, will inform your figure painting probably for ever.

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Colours of Nature || Sandrine Maugy

This is not a new book, having first appeared in 2013, but its reissue is timely and it’s something that really shouldn’t be out of print.

There are all kinds of guides to colour, from the mixing swatch-books to highly technical volumes that are really of more interest to the scientist than the artist. This one is firmly practical and written for those working with pigment to create end results, which are the main, indeed only, focus.

What colours do, especially in relation to each other, is of prime importance and a basic understanding of their properties is essential if predictable and reliable results are to be achieved. This doesn’t necessarily mean a crash course in chemistry, although that’s behind a lot of what happens on the palette and the paper. An author who can understand that and translate it into the language and requirements of the artist is someone to be treasured.

Sandrine works through each of a wide range of colours individually as well as explaining some basic techniques for botanical painting. She also names specific brands, but recommends alternatives as well. You don’t have to throw away the contents of your paintbox in order to work with her prescribed choices, which is very welcome – this is about you, not her.

Each colour choice is accompanied by a detailed floral demonstration that pays particular attention to the colours used – how and why – for each part of the subject. It’s particularly useful to be able to see and understand why a particular mix is appropriate at any particular stage and where they all fit into the overall result.

This is a very thorough guide to a complex subject, but one which is told clearly and concisely and, above all, in language the artist will readily understand.

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Colour Demystified || Julie Collins

Julie has previously been the author of fairly conventional colour mixing guides, but this is something else altogether.

There’s a hint of what’s to come in the list of acknowledgements, which includes several artists and art writers, the Tate Gallery and many art brands which will be familiar to the reader. Julie has not just done her research, but done it in depth.

It’s no exaggeration to say that, if this were alchemy, it would be the philosopher’s stone, the catalyst that turns the base metal of simple pigments into the gold of a successful painting. It’s not magic or witchcraft and has nothing to do with the creative side of painting (you’re on your own there). What it is, though, is a completely reliable guide to how your materials behave on paper (we’re working with watercolours here).

Watercolour has many properties and they’re all based in chemistry. Guides to this have appeared before, most notably Ralph Meyer’s Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, an exhaustive and exhausting tome that has its roots firmly in research chemistry. For the faint-hearted it is not.

This is shorter, illustrated and altogether more manageable. Or, let’s just say, manageable. Colours can be transparent or opaque. Some are staining, some will granulate. Some are perfect for glazing, others decidedly not. You need to know all these things, you need to know which pigments play nicely together and which should never be invited to each other’s birthday parties. It’s all in the chemistry, but you’re not a chemist, you’re an artist. You want the magic (OK, it is magic really) to happen on the palette, not in the library.

This is what Julie gives you – a practical artist’s guide to how colours work for the artist. It’s full of colour swatches, examples and demonstrations and you can see what’s happening at every stage, even try it out for yourself. It’s a book you’ll want to keep handy for reference, although there’s also a very good chance that you find you’ve remembered most of it. It’s convincing, comprehensive and joyously concise. Above all, it’s a key that opens just about every door.

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Barbara Hepworth: art & life || Eleanor Clayton

Next to Antony Gormley, Barbara Hepworth is probably the sculptor most people will have heard of, or could name if asked. They would also be likely to be able to say something about her abstract style, even if that was accompanied by a confession of being unable to understand it. Reading this paragraph back, I realise I’ve omitted Henry Moore and, you know what, I’m sticking to that. I think the person in the street might get to Gormley and Hepworth before they got to Moore.

There has been no shortage of books about Hepworth, but this is perhaps the most comprehensive and is certainly timely, coinciding with a major retrospective at the eponymous gallery in Wakefield – the town is rightly proud of its daughter. One review I have seen expresses disappointment that the book extends to only 250 pages, including plenty of illustrations. I’m not sure how much more would be required, or whether that reviewer was looking for something more than a book which can be managed by the general reader. Full artistic analyses are available elsewhere and there is a limit to how much domestic and diurnal detail is required, even in a book avowedly for the specialist. This is concise and readable, and let’s be grateful for that.

In fact, there’s a good spread of material here, from Hepworth’s beginnings and examples of early work – good, even promising, one might say, but not hugely exceptional. This is often the case with great artists, who take a while to find their mature voice and vision. The blurb also tells us that the book “reflects for the first time the artist’s multifaceted and interdisciplinary approach, bringing together as never before her interests in dance, music, poetry, contemporary politics, science and technology”. There is a hint to this in one of the early illustrations: a photograph, commissioned by her, of the Cow & Calf Rocks above Ilkley in Yorkshire and hinting at her later interaction with landforms.

Eleanor Clayton also quotes extensively from Hepworth’s own writings. Although this rightly gives a voice to the artist, one might cavil at that idea and think that it perhaps supplants authorial analysis. Nevertheless, it does help to present its subjects as more than just The Artist and as a person in her own right which, ultimately, is what this book is about. There is a humanity to these extracts that feeds directly into the artworks and gives them extra depth and warmth.

Biographical books can often suffer either (or both) from a lack of illustrations or a lack of quality in them. Book paper tends to swallow colour, but Thames & Hudson have become adept at countering this and it would be entirely fair to describe this as an illustrated biography rather than simply a biography with illustrations.

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Abstract Painting || Petra Thölken

There was a time when books on abstract painting were rarer than hens’ teeth and a very hard sell indeed. One infamous one rather gloriously had the signature on the rear cover illustration in the top left-hand corner, confirming the old joke about frames needing to be labelled “top” and “bottom”.

Things have changed. If the regular appearance of books is anything to go by (and it should be), everyone wants a piece of the action. It’s not unreasonable, because abstraction, at its best, is about distilling the essence of your subject, then reconstructing it in a way that tells the viewer more than they could get from looking at it themselves. We’ve become so used to loose and impressionistic ways of working which are the first step on this particular road that we’re not just prepared, but willing, to take those further steps.

With plenty of choice, the reader can have their pick of approaches. Given that abstraction is as much a state of mind as anything else, how-to is not the obvious way to come at it and, indeed, step by step demonstrations are rarely offered.

This is a project-based book that does, in fact, offer demonstrations. Do you want to copy someone else’s ideas? Well, if you’re new to all this, it’s as good a starting point as any other. The fact is, abstraction is such a personal thing that it’s entirely up to you to choose the way in that works best for you personally.

To sum up: I can’t review this, other than to say it’s nicely produced. If you like it, buy it.

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