Me, Myself, I || Tessa Jackson & Lara Perry

You might think that there isn’t much to be said about the self-portrait beyond the fact that’s it’s the artist’s view of themselves and, from earlier ages, often the only image we have.

There is, however, considerable social context and, if the artist worked on other portraits, an insight into how they saw their sitters both as figures and human beings.

Any painting is, necessarily, a reflection of its times and the authors here give consideration to how these works, all by British-based artists, reflect their own era. Robert Home, for example, appears in The Reception of the Mysorean Hostage Princes by Lieutenant General Cornwallis (1792). It’s a large work of Imperial greatness in which the artist appears at one side, portfolio under his arm to identify him. He doesn’t look over-impressed and you can’t help wondering whether, despite taking the undoubtedly lucrative commission, he wasn’t entirely happy with the scene.

A similar mood continues on the next page, which shows us Pieter Christoffel Wonder’s Study for Patrons and Lovers of Art. Here, three men, who exude solidity and connoisseurship, are examining a work in what we can assume is the artist’s studio (the painting is unhung, unlike others depicted). A classical bust emphasises the seriousness of the scene. From behind one of the patrons, a figure, a palette indicating that he is the artist, leans out and looks straight at the viewer. His expression is best described as sardonic and the message is hard to interpret as anything but “they may be wealthy and I may depend on them, but they know nothing”.

The works cover the years between 1722 and 2022 and it is instructive to see how attitudes have changed yet remained the same. Stanley Spencer’s view of himself is more than a little mocking, Rachel McLean’s a caricature and there is frequent irony across the ages. The one thing none of them do is aggrandise, which is worthy of note in itself.

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Landscape in Ink and Coloured Pencil || Helen Hanson

I think we need a new term for the style introduced by this really rather charming book, and I’m calling it Soft Realism.

As with pen & wash, the use of ink creates sharply defined outlines that provide immediate impact, with a softer core that accentuates colour and adds a more impressionistic feel. The difference between watercolour and pencil, however is that the latter works with finer lines, more shading and includes detail itself. The result is that landscapes can recede subtly by the use not just of cooler colour, but by a softer focus and a reduction in detail.

What is surprising is that this is, as far as I can remember, the first book devoted to this method of working, which has much to recommend it. Yes, there have been books on ink drawing and, yes, there have been books on pencil work and, yes, again, all of them have covered mixed media, but it’s never been the star of the show as it is here. In a whole book, there’s nowhere to hide, and you’d better have plenty to say and a very clear idea of what you’re about.

Helen covers not just the broad sweep of landscape, but details such as flowers, trees, rocks and water, and explains both her approach and working methods thoroughly but concisely. As is the way with Crowood, there are more words than some publishers, but these are well-chosen and a pleasure to read, complementing the exercises and demonstrations nicely.

If you hadn’t thought about this way of working, Helen should convert you quickly and have you fully proficient by the time you’re through.

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Keith Tyson: Iterations & Variations

When an artist has been a Turner prize winner, you can expect to be in for a bumpy ride. Rightly, the award features artists who are at the forefront – I don’t think it’s unfair to say the bleeding edge – of contemporary art, while at the same time having a body of work that ensures that they are not merely the darling of the current moment. This would also explain why they are frequently names that are not familiar to the wider public.

Keith Tyson’s work defies categorisation, and this is deliberate. It is, in a nutshell, an exploration of reality. Thus, the cover image here is entitled Seed of Consciousness. It certainly represents a vision of the human brain, with synapses, neurons and pathways visible among nascent images and emerging patterns of thought. The more you look at it, the more a feeling of reality develops: here are flowers, maybe land and seascapes, perhaps clouds. It most certainly demonstrates an emerging awareness.

Open the book and one of the first things you’re presented with is a flow chart of the creative process, or Keith’s at least. It’s best summarised as “if you’re not happy with what you’ve done, stop work and start something new”, which would be sound advice for any creative process. I’m beginning to like Keith.

The book opens with accounts of Tyson’s work, loosely broken down into Generative Art, Studio Wall Drawings, Painting and Arrays. These take many forms and are not constrained by any one approach or medium and can include sculpture and installation as well as painting and drawing. What is interesting about the book as a piece of production is when we get to the Painting section, because the paper stock changes. I haven’t seen this done before, but we’re now on a glossy, coated surface the reproduces the colour and detail of these works. It predicates a commitment to the artist and his work as well as simple care and attention to detail. Thames & Hudson are very good at reproducing colour on book paper, but that’s clearly not good enough for them here and they have, in a book as thorough and comprehensive as this, rightly refused to compromise. I’d expected a higher price and, although this is by no means cheap, it is extraordinary value.

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Hazel Soan’s Art of the Limited Palette

Most watercolour books will have a section on working with a limited palette and there have been previous volumes on the subject. Those, however, have tended to base themselves on the author’s specific and unvaried selection. Yes, you could probably buy a set of them – how convenient.

I have never seen a Hazel Soan branded product and I doubt I ever will. This is not a book about what you should do half so much as what you can do. The difference is both subtle and vast and anyone who’s familiar with Hazel’s work will understand immediately. She’s an artist and writer who leads by example, inspires and gently guides and this is what has won her so many fans.

The paintings here are mostly done with between three and five colours, but they’re not prescriptive and Hazel varies them depending on the subject, so you might get the unsurprising Ultramarine Blue, Yellow Ochre and Permanent Rose where a blue shirt is the key hue in a simple composition. Then, a few pages later, you’re working on a summer landscape with Aureolin, Ultramarine Blue and Alizarin Crimson. The point being eloquently made is that it’s the subject that guides you, not the paintbox. These are pictures, not technical exercises.

Even more interesting are the sections where we’re down to just two colours. These are not clever tricks, but rather a way of achieving a particular result in a particular part of the work. You’ll be aware, for example, of how good Hazel is with shadows and reflections. So you’ll find yourself making a pre-mix of two greys, one red- and the other blue-shifted. Yes, there are five colours involved here, but they come down to two and depict those shadows and reflections in a rain-soaked street scene perfectly.

As much as anything else, this is a book about thinking about colour. The limited palette forces you to avoid the tendency to reach for yet another shade from the dozens you have in your box (yes you do). Hazel begins with some studies that look at how different combinations enhance and set each other off – blues and yellows (obviously), but also yellows and reds, reds and blues. She also explains, with well-chosen examples that make the message abundantly clear, how to make secondary colours quickly and easily. There’s a look at the earth colours as well as the use of both related and opposing shades.

There’s so much here that this becomes one of the most comprehensive studies of and guides to colour there is.

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Hans Holbein: his life and works in 500 images || Rosalind Ormiston

This series from Lorenz Books has been going for a long time and provides a useful, well-illustrated, way into the works of a great many artists from all periods of history.

Hans Holbein played a central role in the history of Britain, being Court Painter to Henry VIII, creating images of him for which the word “iconic” can never be redundant and, famously, painting the portrait of Anne of Cleves that caused so much trouble for Thomas Cromwell and led, at least in part, to his downfall. A portrait of Cromwell himself is uncompromising and suggests a figure the artist perhaps didn’t like that much. Did Henry reject “the Flanders mare”, or did the reality of his physical appearance disgust her so much that she rejected him? History does not relate, but it might explain Cromwell’s fate. Henry was not a man to cross in any way.

Holbein did, however, have a much broader and longer-sustained career and received commissions form Hanseatic merchants as well as the scholar Erasmus. Details of his early life are sketchy, but Rosalind Ormiston, who has taught art history at Kingston University, provides as much detail as possible. She relates known events from the artist’s life to the chronology of his work and analyses works from the whole gamut of his career, often using enlarged details for clarity and to explain a particular point. The book is large-format and all the illustrations that matter are reproduced at an appropriate size, often full-page. The quality of reproduction is excellent, and certainly remarkable for the price – you get a huge amount, not just of illustrations, but of scholarship, for a ridiculously modest outlay.

Overall, a bit of a tour de force.

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Drawing Architecture || Richard Taylor

It’s a tribute to how book production has progressed that this looks as fresh as it did when it was first published in 2005 (as Drawing & Painting Buildings). If you want an excellent introduction to the subject, look no further.

You can read my original review via the link above.

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Cross Hatching in Pen & Ink || August Lamm

In four decades of writing about art, this is the first book I’ve seen solely devoted to the technique of cross hatching. You might think that it’s something that really only needs to be covered in a more general book about drawing, and you would be partly right because this is, in fact, a more general book than the title implies.

That’s not to say it’s running a false flag, but rather that any technique is only as valuable as the results it produces and August Lamm has the good sense to set her narrative in a wider context. Let’s say, therefore, that this is a book about drawing where cross hatching is the primary feature.

The main purpose of hatching is to create shade, emphasise detail and enhance shape in monochrome line work. This can be anything from simple shapes to still lifes, landscape and portraiture and figure work. It is those latter that form the bulk of what is presented here, although still lifes are used as conveniently simple initial exercises and the examples of landscape work well-chosen and informative.

The examples and exercises use both simple and more complex techniques, along with wash and inking where necessary. The cover illustration (I think a self-portrait) gives a good example of the sort of work than can be produced. August is also very sound on the basics of facial structure and the proportions of the figure, adding a perhaps unexpected dimension that increases the book’s broader appeal.

There is much to like here. A thorough introduction to hatching cannot but be welcomed, but the wider consideration of drawing methods provides a completeness that makes for a worthwhile and thought-provoking read.

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Botanical Watercolours Through The Seasons || Sandrine Maugy

When it comes to the arrangement of flower painting books, you pays your money and you takes your choice. Do you want them alphabetical for reference, by colour for handy palette selection, or seasonal for easy access to what’s around at any particular time? We shouldn’t be unkind, because the publisher has to do something and all these are perfectly valid and what really matters is the quality of the instruction.

The sales blurb for this begins: “This stunning book follows the rhythm of nature through the year”, and I wouldn’t disagree with any of that. It is stunning and there’s also a sense of originality and wonder in what is, let’s face it, a crowded field.

Open any art instruction book at random and it’s usually fairly easy to pick out the structure: general introduction, materials, techniques, basic exercises, demonstrations. It’s a convention because it works and you break away from it at your peril. Sandrine and the production team at Search Press have taken quite a risk here, because this doesn’t have an obviously linear structure. Rather, the technical pieces, such as Drawing a Rose, or discussions of colour (Drawing and A Viridian Palette) appear within the body of the work. This could very easily break up the flow but, sensitively handled, puts what sometimes amount to thought pieces right next to the subject they relate to. It also makes the book subtly immersive and I think it’s one you’d probably want to read right through before breaking out the paintbox and then going to the section covering the season you’re in right now.

Style-wise, Sandrine works with individual subjects – these include fruit and leaves as well as flowers – rather than larger arrangements and she paints them with quite a lot of, but not obsessive, detail. She’s not afraid of a wash when the result demands it. This makes the book eminently accessible and the overall sense is of immersing yourself in the subject and a feeling of being enveloped, informed and entertained. And that’s quite an achievement.

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A Gift from artists, poets and photographers (under 13)

“Out of the mouths of babes”, we say, when a simple and sometimes uncomfortable truth emerges. This child’s eye view of the world has all the charm that characterises everything else Redstone Press have sent me. They seem to have decided that I understand their rather eclectic mindset and sideways views. And, yes, I think I do.

Books like this can easily be – and frequently are – cutesy, saccharine or twee. This, however, relies on its content for impact and has the good sense not to dress it up as anything other than it is. It wears its manifesto on the cover: “The most joyful art is made by children. Adult artists are almost never able to recapture the clarity with which they saw the world in childhood” – a quote by David Shrigley.

And he’s right. For a child, everything is new, is as it is and not to be questioned and above all, black and white. Thus we get “Dear God, Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy” – joy and disappointment in a single thought, honestly expressed without judgement and accepting of the world as it is because to change it is unthinkable. We also get simplicity: asked what they want to be when they grow up, a three year old answers “When I grow up I want to get a hat and put it on”. You see what I mean? Delightful, let’s all go “Awwww”, but acknowledge that the book hasn’t told us to do that. The lack of narrative, particularly a narrative from an adult point of view allows us (the adults) to express our own emotions, not one a random editor has created for us.

Because this is a written review (well spotted, go to the top of the class), I’m having to quote words, but there are, as the subtitle says, pictures as well. I’ll leave you to find the drawing on a sheet headed “Today Was My First Day in Art Class – this is what my teacher looks like”, or a painting, definitely from the naïve school, of the artist’s friend that is so creatively good that it’s in the collection of the Children’s Museum of the Arts. You can look at it for a long time and see depths that an older artist (this one is 8) would have missed through analysis and artifice. The face is open and honest in a way only a child could see.

Why am I reviewing this? Well, because they sent it to me and it would seem curmudgeonly not to, but also because I like it. I don’t belong to the school that insists that everything a child does is brilliant. I’m more with Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby. Told that the great Dr Slop composed a work the day he was born, he responded, “They should have wiped it up, and said no more about it”. For the grown-up artist, it’s a break from mundanity and the perfect palate-cleanser.

But, as I said, this has charm and nothing else.

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Watercolour Landscapes For The Absolute Beginner || Matthew Palmer

This is a reissue of Matthew Palmer’s Step-by-Step Guide to Watercolour Painting, which first appeared in 2018. Actually, the copyright page says “includes material from”, but I’m unable to check whether there is anything new here, so let’s assume that it’s probably not much.

Whatever, it remains an excellent introduction and you can read my previous review via the link above.

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