Learn to Paint in Watercolour with 50 Small Paintings || Wil Freeborn

This is one of the most original, entertaining and instructive books I’ve seen in a long time. The starting point, Wil tells us, was the idea of doing a daily drawing as part of his commute. This extended to wider travels in search of new places, subjects and ideas.

The result is a book that records not the grand scenes, but the mundane. This is a tricky thing to get right because that very familiarity can lead to a lack of interest. It only works if you’re determined to find new angles on the things you see every day. Will makes it work and a drawing of breakfast, for example, becomes an exercise in distorted perspective, like a photograph taken with a wide-angle lens. Suddenly, the full English becomes a technical challenge as well as a worthy subject.

Wil manages to sustain interest throughout the book and explores a wide variety of techniques and subjects. The whole is handily divided into Still Lifes, Landscapes, Cityscapes, Animals and People. None of the demonstrations is long and, when the emphasis is on the quick sketch, that’s right. There are, however, sufficient notes on materials, the colour palette and the stages of completion for you to pick up what’s going on. I’d suggest using the paintings here as a jumping-off point for your own ideas, rather than as exercises to copy but, if something intrigues you and you want to delve deeper, you could certainly use any of them as a lesson.

I’d originally assumed that this was an inspired one-off, but the publisher’s forthcoming list shows that there’s an acrylic volume to come, so it’s beginning to look like a series. Can they make it work? Can I trust Wil’s assertions in the introduction – has the rest built on his idea or is he being disingenuous? It’s still a good idea and only time will tell if it’s sustainable.

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Learn to Paint in Watercolour Step by Step || William Newton

This isn’t, as far as I can tell, a re-working, just a reissue with a new title of a book which first appeared in 2013 as William Newton’s Complete Guide to Painting. To the credit of Search Press, I got that information from the copyright page.

I don’t normally review reissues, but this is so good, and has stood the test of time so well, that I will at least give it a mention. It’s a classic guide to classic watercolour and well worth a read. You can see what I said originally here.

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How to Paint Skies || Geoff Kersey

Once again, Search Press have been raiding and renovating their backlist.

I reviewed this on its original publication in 2006, so there’s little to add here except to say that the reissue has been redesigned and that some additional material has been added from Geoff’s Top Tips for Watercolour Artists to beef up the technical sections. The result is a freshness that belies the book’s age and it feels, as it is, thoroughly up to date.

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David Hockney: Current

There’s almost no end of books about David Hockney, up to and including the impressive and impressively-priced A Bigger Book. Hockney’s output over a long career is vast and any compilation can only be a selection at best. It’s largely a question of choosing the one that includes the most of what you like and has a quality of reproduction that will satisfy.

This, which was originally published to accompany an exhibition of the same title at the National Gallery of Victoria, Australia, is one of the best and most comprehensive for the period it covers, the last decade, which is described as “a profound turning point in [Hockney’s] exceptional sixty-year career”. As is usual, a few earlier works are included where they are necessary to provide perspective.

The quality of reproduction is first class and, with 2,036 illustrations, you’re not going to feel short-changed on that front. The curation is good too, with sections organised by theme: iPad works, Yosemite, The Arrival of Spring (selections from the 2012 RA show), the multipoint perspective works, the complete 82 Portraits & 1 Still Life and a full catalogue raisonné of the iPhone and iPad drawings. Each section is headed by an essay considering its topic in some depth and followed by a listing of the works included. I was fascinated to discover that the figure of Peter Schlesinger in Portrait of An Artist (pool with two figures) is based on an earlier photomontage (which is shown here).

There are drawbacks. The illustrations in the iPhone/Pad section are necessarily small and some of the detail is lost. Also, although the lists of works are keyed to page numbers, you need to do a considerable amount of jumping about in a heavy book to find titles. The reverse of that coin, of course, is that the plates themselves are uncluttered and without distractions.

Despite those very small reservations, this is an excellent book and is certainly one for my core library. I’d choose it, I think, over the catalogue for the 2017 Tate retrospective, in spite of the broader scope that has. At £45, it’s amazing value, too!

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Bird Art || Alan Woollett

This is not, I think it’s fair to say, for the faint-hearted. Birds are a challenge to paint at the best of times, but in this detail, you need absolute confidence with your materials and techniques. If you’re up for it, however, this guide will satisfy the most demanding exponent. If you think of the difference between basic flower painting and botanical illustration, you’ll get the idea of what’s involved. Back when I was selling books, I was always surprised by how well this kind of thing did, so I think there’s a solid market.

The medium used is graphite and coloured pencils, which are capable of great subtlety of shading and record fine detail readily. The book has, as you’d expect, plenty of step-by-step demonstrations, but the way they’re incorporated into the overall instruction is interesting. Rather than an introductory section on materials and techniques that is separate from the main work, Alan plunges pretty much straight in. There’s no real “basic” section, but rather considerations of composition, colour, structure and the overall shape of the finished work: “leaving space” is some of the soundest advice here.

There are more words in this than you sometimes get in instructional books, but also plenty of illustrations and this betokens the fact that Alan is under no illusions about the magnitude of the task he has set himself. Although I said that this is not a book for the beginner, he doesn’t short-change the student and explains both the technical and ornithological considerations absolutely as much as is necessary.

This is a major work and Alan carries it through rather magnificently.

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Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art? || Kyung An & Jessica Kerasi

Please, sir. Me, sir. I am, sir. The trouble with modern art is the fear of saying the wrong thing, of being unable to recognise the juxtaposition of referenced elements within the contemporary zeitgeist. The last thing you want is someone with over-sized glasses rolling their eyes.

There is, though, a coming realisation that non-pictorial art does need to be explained, and Susie Hodge has previously made some valiant and remarkably successful efforts. This, written by two experienced curators is, at first sight, not welcoming and user-friendly. A tendency to diagrams, word clouds and rather small illustrations does not help the casual reader get into it.

This is a shame, as it’s a remarkably helpful book and there’s a stream of quite subtle humour running through it – the authors may be highly experienced in their field, but they really do want to help the uninitiated.

The best way into the book, I think, is to start with the contents list. This is arranged in a A-Z format and reveals topics such as How Did We Get Here (contemporary before contemporary), Geeks and Techies (when did it all get so technical) and Picasso Baby (why does everyone want in on art – Kanye West, a minimalist in a rapper’s body). You see what I mean about inclusion and humour? You want to know more now, don’t you. Add to this explanation of the Guerrilla Girls, the Emperor’s new Clothes (what makes it art?), Fun, and the language of contemporary art (that word cloud) and you begin to see that this is a very clever way into a complex subject that often does close itself out to a world outside the cognoscenti.

The sections are short, so you won’t get bogged down in lengthy explanations – if you want to know more, there are plenty more books – trust me, plenty!

Overall, this is a brave and largely successful attempt to explain something that threatens to be unexplainable.

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DVD A Simple Approach in Oils || Roger Dellar

Simplicity is a complicated thing. It takes a lot of skill and experience to learn how to extract the essence of a scene without fiddling, over-working and getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. In the five paintings demonstrated here, Roger works from a basic blocking-out of shapes, a carefully selected palette that reflects the dominant colours and an economy of brushstrokes. His remark, “I’m lazy; I only use a few brushes” is disingenuous – there’s nothing lazy about it and, although he’s not one of those painters who thinks hard before making every mark, each one is deliberately placed. There’s no random working, placing and re-placing. It’s fascinating to see how he works from the general to the specific, with details at first scratched into shapes and blocks before being delineated with colour some time later.

Of the five scenes, three involve water – the other two are in the centres of Chichester and Midhurst. The common factor is that there’s a lot going on – different craft on the water, details, people coming and going or a jumble of buildings. A literal approach, where everything is recorded, would be indigestible, but Roger’s way of building up manages to leave nothing out while at the same time omitting all extraneous matter. That’s what I meant by the complication of simplicity: it’s not just about developing an eye for a picture, but about the means of putting it down on canvas.

It’s also worth noting the palette exposition that starts the film. These are usually a matter of “this is my palette, I put these colours on it”. Roger’s is much more, because he works with such a limited range and he explains here and throughout the film how these are chosen to reflect the scene in front of him. His idea of having two sections of white, one for warm and one for cool colours is a neat one, too. Palette explanations are rarely of more than passing interest, but this is riveting.

After I watched this film, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say about it. I left it overnight. “It has to mature”, I said, and it has. Roger doesn’t instruct, he just explains what he’s doing, so extracting the information is like brewing coffee – it can’t be hurried. I find I have a surprisingly clear memory of almost the whole film and that’s a measure of good explanation – simplicity always leads to comprehension.

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