Book Review: What are you Looking At? by Will Gompertz

This is a truly excellent book for anyone interested in modern art.  Gompertz writes in a very accessible way in an almost novel like style and he makes the subject interesting and relevant.  In this book he covers a great deal of history from Pre-Impresionism up to the current era.  Alongside the vast amount of knowledge are relevant photographs of pieces of art, both black and white in the text and relevant colour plates in the centre of the book.

As I have been struggling to get back into my coursework, this book has provided the much needed push back towards enthusiasm for art that I needed!

 

Reference:

Gompertz, W. What are You Looking at? 150 Years of modern art in the blink of an eye.  2016.  London: Penguin Books.

Book Review: A Concise History of Modern Painting by Herbert Read

I started this book back in December and have finally reached the end.  As I mentioned in the previous post what I do really like and find useful about this book is the good mix of images an text.  Another very useful feature is at the back of the book is a pictorial survey of modern painting with key paintings displayed in chronological order, it makes you appreciate the general trends but also pieces that at the time bucked the trend.

What this book has made me think about in a lot of detail is how movements are formed, how they develop and how they change.  Is it a case of being in the right place at the right time?  Certainly in the past I think that was a key issue, people had to geographically relocate to be at the hubs of activity in Germany, Paris, New York etc.  Is that still the case today?  I don’t think so, due to the influence of social media, better transport, video links, electronic communication and ease of communication in general.  I do still think there is a massive importance on reading about other artists, looking at work from both the past and current exhibitions and linking in with people as much as possible.  I don’t think  it is possible for someone working in pure isolation to get their ideas on the main stage.  By nature I am quite introverted and generally like to work alone, I’m also not that confident in sharing my work and tend to back out of discussions but I need to push myself out of my comfort zone slightly and get more involved with other people working.  Studying with the OCA is quite isolating in that we don’t work together in studios and see each others work regularly, we rely on people posting online and you never really get a true sense of a piece of work from just an image.  However, we need to make the most of what we do have and that is great internet discussions and I will try and get even more involved in them.

 

References:

Read H, 1998.  A Concise History of Modern Painting .Thames and Hudosn Ltd London

Book Review: ‘Think Like an Artist’ by Will Gompertz

I have been in a bit of a slump recently, my own mental health hasn’t been too great and I have started to neglect my Drawing 1 coursework.  To be honest I’m struggling with all the still life early on in the course and am lacking a bit of inspiration for the work leading up to Assignment two.  In order to try and perk myself up I went to the local library and had a look through their art books.  I found this book and as it is only about 200 pages long I decided to give it a read to see if it would help me get back into the creativity and productive work I was doing before the new year.

Will Gompertz is the Arts Editor at the BBC and someone whose other books and TV shows I have enjoyed in the past, he writes about Art in a very accessible way and so I started with high hopes for this book.
The introduction starts with a bold claim that ‘we are all artists’.  This is interesting in itself as I have recently been following an online discussion thread with fellow Drawing 1 students about when we start calling ourselves artists.  What are we now?  Are we artists?  Are we student artists?  My own feelings are similar to the statement in the book, I think we are all artists, we all have the ability to create and express ourselves but that some of us do it in different ways or choose not to.  Yes, we have different levels of skill and experience but I don’t think that some of us are more talented than others just that some people have chosen to focus on art and their way of expressing and so have spent time and energy developing their skills to a higher level than others.
The following chapters each take a theme each and state how artists employ them and what others can learn from them.  I don’t for one moment see this book as a blueprint as to how live a creative life but there are a lot of useful hints and tips and for me, a reminder of why I like living a creative life and why I get great satisfaction from expressing myself.
Chapter Two ‘Artists Don’t Fail’ is particularly interesting to me as it is all about how artists experiment, try, go to plan B etc until they find their own personal artistic voice and style.  Experimenting more is something my tutor highlighted to me in my feedback to Assignment 1 and it is something I need to do more in my preliminary work for assignments.  I need to try something, reflect on it, experiment and repeat until I find my own personal style and voice.
Chapter 3 about curiosity is also interesting to me, especially at a time when I’m struggling to engage with the course tasks.  Artists are naturally curious about the subjects they draw and paint, they study them in immense detail and immerse themselves in research.  To do this they must find subjects they are passionate about to dedicate the time and energy required.  I think this sums up why I am struggling with the tasks in Part 2 so far, I haven’t yet found the angle or subject within them that I am passionate about.  Perhaps I need some time reflecting on the course materials and tasks and try to find an angle I can take that I can get behind.

Book Review: A Concise History of Modern Painting – Chapter One by Herbert Read

Yet another book I picked up from my local library.  On a first glance this book looks very inviting, it looks like a good mix of text and full colour photographs of artworks.  The preface sets out the author’s position on the book, Read talks about significant omissions and sets the caveat that of course there is some personal prejudice about the artists he has chosen to include.  I think that’s an important point to keep in mind when reading any art book.  The book will never tell the whole story of art.

Chapter One covers the origins of modern art.   In the first paragraph is a very interesting point: in art, a school once established normally deteriorates as it goes on, it starts off as a burst of perfection sometimes too quick for a historian to capture and the equilibrium is permanently unstable.  This to me is why Art is so exciting, it is unpredictable and we don’t know what the next big trend will be, where it’ll come from or how long it will last.  I think in the modern age where information can be spread around the world so quickly and people from their own homes can share their artwork globally this is ever true.  There are little pockets of activity dotted worldwide and I don’t think we are confined to the big exhibitions anymore as our source of movements.

A few paragraphs later is the author’s definition of art ‘as a means of conceiving the world visually’.  The artist is simply the man who has the ability and the desire to transform his visual perception into a material form, this requires first perception and secondly expression.  A very important point made is that ‘we see what we learn to see’, we see what we want to see sometimes.  This is true in drawings I have done and then looke dback at, I have drawn what I thought was there instead of a true observation, something I am working through with the help of the ‘Required Reading – Experimental Drawing by Robert Kaupelis.

The author makes the claim that what is called the modern movement began with a painter who was determined to see the world objectively – Cezanne.  Cezanne wanted to an object without any intervention of the mind or untidy emotions. Cezanne followed the Impressionists who had seen the world subjectively and he wanted to get rid of the shimmering and ambiguous nature to get to the true reality that wasn’t changed by the senses.  Cezanne also thought the human perception was confused and he saw it as an artist’s role to bring some sense to this confusion.  The result from his attempts to eliminate the act of perception was what he himself called an ‘abstraction’.  Read goes on to claim that there was no considerable artist of the twentieth century that was not influenced by Cezanne, such was the importance of his break from impressionism.

At this same time in history were a couple of other significant influences, from Great Britain was the Arts and Crafts movement as styled by the likes of William Morris and Charles Rennie Macintosh, and from Japan came the likes of ‘curios’ and woodcut print.  For example in the background of Manet’s portrait of Zola (1868) is a Japanese print and there were many other examples.  Van Gogh took the Japanese influence further and began to copy Japanese woodcut prints in oil paint, even using Oriental reed pens for his ink drawings.  Gauguin was another to adopt features of Oriental art.

Georges Seurat was another to chase after the objective nature of objects and he read scientific papers on optics and colours in order to break down colours into their constituent hues and adding them to the canvas in tiny brush strokes or dots.  This is another technique I want to try when we start looking at colour later in the course.  His research into colour was followed by a scientific look at aesthetic harmony.

References:

Read H, 1998.  A Concise History of Modern Painting .Thames and Hudosn Ltd London

https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/artists/georges-seurat

Required Reading – Experimental Drawing by Robert Kaupelis

This book starts with a very interesting question about Willem deKooning.  It shows a charcoal drawing by him, done early in his life, and is very different from the abstract style he is more well-known for and asks the question ‘Was it necessary for deKooning to be able to produce this type of drawing before working in the expressive, violent mode of his later style?’.  I find this interesting because it is something I have asked myself, not necessarily about deKooning but about a lot of modern artists and to some extent myself.

The introductory passage ‘a few words’ also makes points of interest to me.  Kaupelis makes the point that really there is no beginning / intermediate / advanced expressive activity.  What all artists want to do is improve and get better and often the only thing that does differentiate a beginner to an advanced student is experience and trying f new techniques.  When I was at school I was guided away from art as a subject and told to concentrate on science and maths subjects so I feel like I have missed out on a lot of experience and I really come into this course with probably a lot less formal experience that others.  However, I also dont’ believe in this inherent property of talent and I do think anyone can learn to express their creativity with a lot of practice and dedication.

It is with this dedication to practice that I love Kaupelis’ sketchbook oath:

I solemnly swear that from this day forward I shall never again be caught without a sketchbook during my waking hours, and also that I shall use it faithfully everyday.

Daily sketching is something I am now in the habit of.  I don’t think many of them are very good and if you flicked through the book you would see how random my thoughts are as I tend to skip around from idea to idea, using places like pinterest for inspiration.  I am currently working in two books, a larger A3 book that is specifically for Drawing 1 exercises and a smaller A5 book that is my random every day thoughts.

The concluding paragraph of the introductory chapter I think is the most important.  It says to work hard, experiment, try anything and everything and that we often learn less from our successes than we do our failures (and that there aren’t really any true failures).

Chapter two covers some basics of drawing.  It has a number of techniques to try as you read the book.  The first of which is ‘blind contouring’, this really made me observe what I was drawing and made me concentrate on drawing what was actually there instead of what I thought was there.  There is a long list of ideas to try on page 21, which I will try to work through in my personal sketch book.  A similarly long list of ideas for gesture drawing is on page 30 which again I will try.

References:

Kaupelis, R.  Experimental Drawing (1980).  Watson Guptill, New York

Book review: ‘Success and Failure of Picasso’ by John Berger.

I was recently reminded of John Berger by an excellent TV documentary I saw on the BBC called ‘The Art of Looking’.   I have a draft blog post written up about that show which I will publish but in the mean time it did make me look through my local library catalogue for books by Berger.  As I had recently been looking at some work by Picasso the book that caught my eye was ‘Success and Failure of Picasso’.

The book is divided into two sections: 1 a introduction to Picasso’s life with details of the era he grew up in and the politics of the time he was working and 2 The Painter Picasso.

The first section was indeed interesting and I did learn a great deal about Picasso the man and his influences but it is section 2 about him as a painter that interested me the most.

This edition of the book was written in 1980 but a lot of the statements in it have relevance still in the year 2016.  Berger makes the point at the beginning of this section that the painter is now to paint anything they choose.  This of course wasn’t always true when painters were made to paint religious symbols or told by the Academy to focus on the human form.  In this modern era we can pick and choose whatever subject and style we like, of course there is still the commercial element and pieces are made for commission but there is a lot of freedom.  Berger asks the question ‘has art gone abstract because the artist is embarrassed by his freedom?’.  This is an interesting point, because we are so free and nothing is forbidden, artists are constantly trying new ways to stand out, to get attention to their work.  Making very abstract pieces that cause people to stop and think and perhaps work out the meaning is one way of doing this.

Berger also makes the point that because we can now paint anything, sometimes choosing that subject is much harder, we have to search for things to give special mention to.  I am finding this myself in choosing items for Assignment 1.  I have a house full of objects I could choose and give some special meaning to but I am in the process of selecting a small sample to draw for my still life.  At the same time of selecting objects personal to myself, ones that create an emotion inside me, I am also aware of choosing objects that will look visually pleasing in the final piece.  After all my actual aim for this assignment is to show my tutor what techniques I can do and so choosing objects that allow me to do this is also a consideration.

Back to Picasso himself he is quotes as saying: “I don’t know beforehand what I shall put on the canvas, even less can I decide what colours to use.  Whilst I am working, I am not aware of what I’m painting on the canvas.  Each time I begin a picture, I have the feeling of throwing myself into space.  I never know if I’ll land on my feet.  It’s only later that I begin to assess the effect of what I’ve done.’

The idea of working in this way pleases me a great deal,  it is complete contrast to how we are asked to work in most of the exercises and assignments but it is very appealing.  In some ways the early exercise of using emotion was like this, I started with no fixed idea on what I was to create and just went with the flow of whatever emotion I was trying to channel.

In the book, Berger then goes on to say ‘When Picasso has found his subjects, he has produced a number of masterpieces.  When he has not, he has produced paintings which will eventually be seen to be absurd’.  This is quite a statement to say about any artist, but especially one who is thought of in such high regards as Picasso.  I do think it is an important message to take in though, every artist at every level will have paintings or drawings that don’t quite work, that don’t please everyone.  I think that is part of the fun and excitement of art, that you never know what a painting or drawing is going to be at the end of the process, you can never be sure if it will be a masterpiece or end up in the rubbish bin, you never know with certainty if it will be liked by others or not.  Recently I had some experience of this, I posted a series of painting I had done on my facebook page, the one that seemed to get the most attention was actually one of my personal least favourites!

The next part of this section deals mainly with Picasso’s inspirations: women, sex, the Spanish war, Communism, despair…it is well worth a read but it mainly made me think about myself.  What are my inspirations?  Where is my art voice currently?  I get a lot of my inspiration and subjects from colour and the effect that can create.  I also tend to paint things I know other people would like, but I feel like I need to get away from that to express my own feelings in my work.  As I have a mental health condition there are a lot of confused feelings sometimes and I tend to try and suppress my own feelings to concentrate on other people, I feel to find my own inner voice this is something I perhaps need to work through.

References

‘The Art of Looking’ (2016).  BBC Television 6 November.

Berger, J. ‘Success and Failure of Picasso’ 2nd Edition (1980), London.  Writers and Readers.

 

Book review: The Artist’s handbook 3rd Ed- Ray Smith

Yet another book I picked up in the library is ‘The Artist’s Handbook’ by Ray Smith.  First off I’ll say that I am definitely going to buy my own copy of this book for future reference.  It covers a lot of the same ideas and techniques as ‘The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer’  but in my opinion is a much more easily accessible version of it.  It has details on materials and techniques but is accompanied by coloured photos and diagrams and projects on how to put into use the techniques you are reading about.

As I have been drawing with pencil and charcoal a lot as part of this course I decided to focus this review on five useful tips I have learned from this book.

  1.  On Page 64 it gives advice on how to shade with a pencil and how to practice using it without rolling the pencil for an even shading tone.
  2. On Page 65 is a suggestion for using matt polyester film as an under drawing for pencil work.  As my attempt with acrylic didn’t work this is something I am going to try.
  3. On Page 66 are ideas for trying different paper textures.  This is something I am going to try in my own work to see how rough and smooth papers affect the overall effect.
  4. Page 70 states to not shade too heavy to begin with, work up the tones gradually.  This is something I am definitely guilty of doing in my own work and so will try to improve this.
  5. Page 92 is an interesting technique for making oil charcoal and is something I want to try as I am getting really into using charcoal for making my drawings.

Reference:

Smith, R (2009). The Artist’s Handbook 3rd Edition.  Dorling Kindersley, London.