Paula Rego – the art of story || Deryn Rees-Jones

An artist of the stature of Paula Rego demands a book of uncompromising quality and, in this impressive and beautiful volume, she has it. It’s tempting to say that all art books should be like this but quality, of course, comes at a cost. It is, however, a pleasure to be able to report that the money spent on production has not been wasted. Good quality original images have been sourced, the right paper chosen and proof correction (if such was necessary) given assiduous attention. I’ve seen similarly-priced books that managed to fall at one or more of those hurdles.

Rego’s images do not, for the most part, make for comfortable viewing. Confrontational and uncompromising, the subconscious will inevitably mutter, “a bit like Lucian Freud, then”, to which I’d add “and maybe some of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs too”. Comparisons are dangerous things, but this provides an opportunity to emphasise the quality of compassion that Rego expresses. The medium of pastel, which she uses predominantly in her later work, allows for great subtlety. A small smudge here or there softens edges and mutes colours and it is by these subtle marks that she engages the viewer and enters the character, perhaps even the soul, of her subjects. Looking at a Paula Rego painting, you are not so much a viewer as a participant. The artist possesses great empathy and it is her consummate skill that she is able to transfer this to the onlooker.

She is also a great portrayer of character. There is a lithograph here, from 2002, of Mr Rochester from Jane Eyre that sums up not just his outward character (“dark, strong and stern” as Charlotte Brontë puts it), but also his inward enigma. Even his horse and dog manage to reflect the nature of the novel – Rego understands more than just human character.

This is an absolutely gorgeous book that chronicles Paula Rego’s life and work and illustrates over 300 of her paintings. The paper is heavy and has just the right surface to maintain the quality of the colours used. The binding is also up to supporting its considerable weight – another pitfall in this kind of book is a binding that falls apart under the sheer strain. In many ways, the production is a labour of love. Maybe Paula Rego engenders that.

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Pastels for the Absolute Beginner || Rebecca de Mendonça

The idea of an Absolute Beginner series is a good one. Anyone taking up painting, or starting with a new medium needs a sound guide that is well-grounded in the basics and assumes no previous knowledge. Previous volumes have taken that very much to heart and included some very basic work that doesn’t tax the creative or technical endeavours too heavily.

This is a bit different and, although there’s a sound introduction to materials and techniques, I can’t help feeling it fits better with Search Press’s surveys of the Cinderella media (gouache and oil pastels, for instance). This is by no means a criticism and indeed, if you were looking for a complete guide to pastel – while it’s maybe not a completely Cinderella medium, it’s certainly a lot less published than some – this could well be it.

The book is certainly thorough. Subjects include landscapes, waterscapes, people and animals, with skies, trees and waves thrown in along the way. Rebecca is primarily a portrait and equestrian artist and this shows – these are easily her strongest subjects. However, she is thoroughly at home with her medium and handles everything well. Her demonstrations and explanations are concise, but easy to follow. They will, I think, be of value to anyone – at whatever level – working with pastel.

If you’re a complete beginner, I perhaps wouldn’t make this your very first book. The comprehensive nature of its coverage might put you off. I’d probably start with the compilation Pastel Painting Step-by-Step that Search Press are handily republishing in February 2020. However, once you’ve mastered the basics, you may well find that this one will take you as far as you want to go. If you’re already a practitioner with some experience, it could be the only book you’ll ever need.

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Painting Portraits in Acrylics || Hashim Akib

“Exciting” isn’t normally a word I’d associated with portraiture. “Thorough”, “lifelike”, maybe even “vibrant”, but it’s not normally a subject to get the pulses racing.

This, though, is astounding. Hashim’s style is quite blocky and, if you were looking for almost photographic realism, this is not for you. You actually have to look at the finished results for a few seconds before the features of the faces emerge. When they do, however, they’re full of character and these are people whose presence you can feel. This is something that all portrait painters strive for, but it’s one of the most difficult qualities to achieve. If personality is your goal, place your order now.

I think it also helps that Hashim appears simply to like people. I don’t think it would be possible to get results like this if you simply regarded your subjects as a job. There’s a warmth here, and an understanding of the life and light behind mere structure and outward appearance. This isn’t really something that can be taught, so I’d suggest you might simply want to learn from example here – don’t expect a magic ingredient.

In practical terms, the book offers all the variety you could want. There are male and female figures, different hair styles and skin colours and a wide range of ages. Hashim explains colour, lighting and perspective and he’s also rather good on the main features – eyes, noses, ears, etc. Here, his style is your friend as its vibrancy makes what is inevitably a rather technical section interesting and – well – exciting.

Although it’s inevitably on the idiosyncratic side – no good if you hate Hashim’s style – this is nevertheless a very complete guide.

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Painting Mood & Atmosphere in Watercolour || Barry Herniman

This is an enlarged reissue of a book which first appeared in 2004. I don’t have a copy of the original to hand, so how much new material there is, and what it is, I am unable to say. I don’t however, remember it being quite this vibrant in terms of colour, so I suspect that, as well as everything else, there may have been a degree of re-origination. The only tiny fly in the ointment is that some of the illustrations aren’t quite as sharp as modern standards allow, so you may have to forgive that, if you notice it – it’s not a major problem, but one inevitably gets used to being able to analyse things like brushwork in quite minute detail.

Subject-wise, the book is mainly land and waterscapes plus a few buildings, which is about right for the topic in question. There are plenty of skies, from looming and overcast to vivid sunsets (though I do wonder whether the vividness I referred to earlier has been achieved by dialling up the red and yellow in the printing process – the book has a very orange feel to it).

Whatever these reservations, this is an excellent look at getting a sense of place into your work and Barry’s water, in particular, has that elusive sense of solidity that suggests volume and movement.

There are five full projects as well as explanations and analyses – the style of the book pre-dates the breakout hints and tips that pepper modern volumes and the text is longer than we’re perhaps used to now. If you shout “hurrah”, make a beeline for your bookshop. If you’re not sure, you may be surprised by how well a more in-depth look works and how a more relaxed pace can induce understanding.

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Paint Pad Poster Book – Flowers

Search Press have supersized their Paint Pad series. Not so much a triple-stack cheeseburger with a quart of fizzy sugar as the full 48 ounce free-if-you-can-finish-it T-bone. These are BIG.

Interestingly, there is no author credit and I think I recognise the images from other books. A lot of thought has clearly gone into the format, though. An A3 book is not easy to manage so, instead of the portfolio styling of the parent series, these are pads where you’re clearly intended to pull out not just the sheets of watercolour paper with their pre-printed outlines, but the instruction pages as well. Tape the paper down onto a drawing board, pin the instructions on the wall and it all starts to make sense. This isn’t mentioned in the How To Use This Book introduction, but it’s the obvious solution.

The content has also been pared down severely in the light of this not being something to sit down and read. There’s no list of materials or introduction to techniques, although there is a “what you’ll need” list for each section. The whole thing is about the image and completing it. Once you’ve painted the five exercises, the rest of the book is basically disposable. That sounds likes sacrilege for something costing a whisker under sixteen pounds, but your return is the five full-size paintings you can frame and hang on the wall.

The quality is stunning. Each painting is shown in its complete state and, at this size, any shortcomings in the reproduction are going to be immediately obvious and a massive frustration. Full use has been made of the large page size to lay the instructions out clearly and illustrate them in detail. Everything is really clear and, if you’re adopting my suggestion of pinning them on a wall, easy to see.

This is quite a departure and a lot more than just a vary-it-a-bit exercise to generate extra sales. There’s an elegant simplicity to it that’ll make serious art easily accessible to even the raw beginner.

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Lucian Freud Herbarium || Giovanni Aloi

Lucian Freud is best known for his frequently visceral figurative paintings. That he also worked with natural subjects comes as something of a surprise. These works are by no means unknown, but they are certainly unfamiliar to the more general viewer and add a perspective to his more famous oeuvre.

There’s a worthwhile comparison with Don McCullin’s landscape photography, or Robert Mapplethorpe’s flowers. Both of these are from later in their creators’ careers, but require a knowledge of what went before to better understand the thought processes behind them. Freud didn’t come to flowers and plants late – these works appear throughout his life, but they nevertheless add a counterpoint to the bulk of his output.

Usefully, Giovanni Aloi includes a couple of the figure paintings to provide a starting point, and also a history of plants in art. I can’t help wondering, though, given the idiosyncratic nature of Freud’s work, whether this is strictly necessary. There are plenty of other books on that subject a general reader could approach if they felt it necessary. Nevertheless this, alongside the figurative recap, adds to the sense of completeness of the present volume.

Freud’s approach to plants is by no means lyrical and there is a sense of enquiry and investigation in his depictions. Although they are more directly representational than the figure work, the eye is uncompromising and the composition rarely straightforward – a sense of the surreal persists. Where figures and faces appear, they often appear questioning or even disturbed; the artist’s unflinching eye and attention to detail are always present.

This is a beautiful and intriguing book that adds a new dimension to one of the towering greats of British art of the Twentieth Century and does its subject more than ample justice.

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Living With Leonardo || Martin Kemp

Leonardo Da Vinci has captured the public imagination like almost no other artist. Why else would they queue in their thousands for hours just to shuffle past the Mona Lisa without ever getting a proper view? Why else would Salvator Mundi, having been “restored” almost to destruction, sell for unimaginable millions, even though its attribution has been questioned at the highest level? Maybe it’s the enigma, maybe it’s the writings – the intriguing idea that, even if he didn’t invent the helicopter, he at least invented the idea of it.

This is an account of a lifetime of study. There is no shortage of Leonardo experts (Kemp is one of the best), pundits, collectors, dealers and fantasists. Precisely because the man himself is such an enigma, stories can be told about him, the truth bent into shapes that themselves could count as works of plastic art. If you want to sell a thriller, The Da Vinci Code is probably the most eye-catching title you could give it – after that, who cares how much hokum it contains?

This is a serious but accessible study of Leonardo’s work, but also an account of the industry that feeds on it, and of the process of untangling fact from myth and fantasy. A focus merely on the art would be one for the specialists (though, when it comes to Leonardo, everyone is arguably a specialist). This, while being authoritative in that respect, is also an account of the chase and very much accessible for the more general reader.

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