Learn Acrylics Quickly || Soraya French

This series from Batsford is shaping up nicely. The key to its success is to use authors who are at home with larger books, rather than to assume that, because the format is simple, the approach can be too. In fact, it’s quite the opposite and simplicity requires greater communication skill than does complexity.

Soraya French has a pleasant, approachable and colourful style that suits the medium well. The series method is to concentrate on illustrations, explain them with straightforward captions and link them with concise paragraphs that carry the narrative and the reader forward and retain their interest.

There’s plenty here, from different types of acrylic to colours and colour mixing, working methods and a good range of subjects. If you want to get started, this will live up to its title and get you producing worthwhile results with a minimum of fuss. The more experienced student might also find it a handy source of recapping and revision.

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Josef Albers: life & work || Charles Darwent

Josef Albers was one of the members of the Bauhaus, that institution that did much to revitalise creative life in Germany after its defeat in the First World War. Less well-known than names such as Gropius, Klee and Kandinsky, he was, however, responsible for much of the spirit and direction of the school.

Albers’ fame is mainly built on his work in America, where he relocated after the dissolution of the Bauhaus in 1933. It was there, now in his 60’s, that he worked on Homages to the Square, a series of 2000 images that explore the interaction of colours. If this reminds you of Robert Rauschenberg’s Black and White paintings, the influence is palpable. Much of Albers’ archive is devoted to correspondence with John Cage (whose 4’33” was itself influenced by Rauschenberg’s white canvases), Robert Rauschenberg, Buckminster Fuller, Louis Kahn and Philip Johnson. That list itself shows the breadth of Albers’ interests and influence, representing as it does music, art and architecture.

This is an extensive and very complete biography of a figure who, although not now widely known, was one of the Twentieth Century’s great creative theorists. The roll-call of those he taught and who felt his influence is testament enough to his importance and this, coinciding with the centenary of the founding of the Bauhaus, is a timely reminder of his genius.

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John Blockley – a retrospective || Ann Blockley

John Blockley was one of the founders of modern watercolour and his muscular style reflects not just the form of the landscape but its texture.

Relatively little of his work has been seen in print: The Challenge of Watercolour, published in 1979, had the customary few colour plates and 1987’s Watercolour Interpretations was more inclusive, although the quality of reproduction, even by then, was not up to modern standards. John also ran courses and contributed regularly to The Artist magazine. His reputation during his lifetime was considerable but he has, inevitably, faded from view somewhat since his death in 2002.

This beguiling retrospective is therefore important on several fronts. Firstly, it brings John’s work to a new audience. It also plays a part in showing the development of watercolour painting since the 1970s and, in particular, puts the work of John’s daughter Ann in context. Best, though, the superb reproduction makes his work available in all its glory to a wider audience for the first time. Originals are relatively hard to find and a book is as close as many of us will get.

This is really quite a revelation. The richness of John’s use of colour and the vigorous nature of his brushwork at last become apparent. Ann has also included sketches that show her father’s sensitive and perceptive use of line and how he could create form from just a few marks.

I really hope this book does well and gets the attention it deserves. It’s tempting to say that it’s a brave publication sixteen years after the artist’s death, given that his reputation was to such a large extent gleaned from teaching and writing. It certainly should be read by anyone who cares about the practice of watercolour because it shows just what the medium can achieve and why it is by no means a poor relation to the often more seriously-regarded oils.

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In Perspective || Robert E Wells

This magnificently produced volume has introduced me to the work of an artist with whom I’ll admit I was not previously familiar.

Robert’s style, in both oils and sketches, is generally impressionistic, but his control of detail is interesting. Some works are almost abstract and convey more of an atmosphere than a scene. Others have just enough information to make the location recognisable, while blurring specifics so that, for instance, it is not always clear whether those are street bollards or pedestrians hurrying to get out of the wind and the rain. In the same work, St Martin-in-the Fields, traffic is present, yet the details of individual vehicles obscured. In the wrong hands, this could be mannered and annoying (obscurantism always is) but here the grey light of an autumn afternoon – there are just enough leaves on the foreground tree to suggest the season – is perfectly captured.

Robert isn’t just a painter of townscapes – although his former career as an architectural illustrator does feed into these. There are also portraits, figures and rural scenes. It is in these, perhaps ironically, that his abstract tendencies most show themselves and where the sense of atmosphere versus record is most noticeable. Except in the sketches, which are sensitively done, his people have little facial detail and stand almost as placeholders. There is one particular work, Walking to the Shops, where a mother and two children are almost level with the artist and, although they dominate the scene, the view behind them is as important as the foreground, to which it is both a foil and a balance to the image. The colours are also reminiscent of Victorian painting, Walter Sickert in particular.

Robert is an intriguing painter whose work could be frustrating in the lack of information it presents, but who manages to turn this to intrigue instead.

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Figure Drawing || Miss Led (Joanna Henly)

This rather slight volume is actually one of the most useful guides to figure drawing I’ve seen. The style of finished work is relaxed and casual and has a much more up-to-date feel than many other books. The author, whose background as an illustrator can be guessed from the illustrations, brings a freshness to the art that makes for figures that look like real people rather than stiffly posed models.

There is plenty on technique, but this is light on technicality. Capturing body shapes as well as features such as hands, faces and feet seems as straightforward as it’s possible to get it. You’ll also find help with expressions – where the character comes from – and clothes, this latter looking natural without getting into too much detail.

This would make a perfect introduction for the beginner, but also has much to say for the more experienced artist, who should enjoy the spontaneous approach. My only quibble is that the small page size necessitates a rather small font that makes the text a little difficult to read.

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Fabulous Figures || Jane Davenport

If fashion illustration is your thing, this is the book for you. However, I’m not reviewing for that market, so it’s a question here of looking for anything that might appeal to the general painter.

Although this isn’t a guide to figure drawing, there are some handy tips on form. While the subjects are not completely realistic, certainly not likenesses, and the clothes the main focus, these are useful. When it comes to putting clothes on the body, of course, the book shines.

Jane has a basic technique of creating figures using heart shapes and this considerably simplifies the initial sketch. She’s also sound on things like hair and posture, both important elements in fashion, but also with broader relevance.

As an adjunct to a wider study of figure drawing, this has considerable appeal.

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Edwin G Lucas – an individual eye || Helen E Scott

The art of Edwin Lucas (1911-1990) defies categorisation. Largely self-taught, he was prolific in his output and exhibited regularly at the Royal Scottish Academy and Society of Scottish artists; he was much more than a talented amateur.

Coinciding, as Sansom publications frequently do, with a retrospective exhibition, this book contains a generous and representative selection of Lucas’s work as well as useful biographical and critical material. The development of the artist’s style can be traced from relatively conventional beginnings to his encounter with Surrealism in the 1930s and his incorporation of this with his very individual, and often Expressionist, world view. “Idiosyncrasy” can often be a codeword for “difficult”, but Lucas’s paintings are more than that and invite, rather than demand, further scrutiny which they reward with humour and insight.

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