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.


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


Research Point 1 – Odilon Redon, Two Trees

From  –  (1875, Charcoal on paper, 49.5 x 63.5 cm)

The drawing above was made using charcoal on paper in 1875 by Odilon Redon.

The artwork is clearly of two tree trunks in what looks like the entrance a forest or wood.  The trees have an almost human like quality and it looks like they are embracing each other with the tree on the left whispering something to the one on the right.  There is what looks like a path running from the front of the image and passes through the centre of the two trees and leaves the painting as some steps up a small hill.

The words that come to mind when I see this are: darkness, light, anthropomorphism, glade, wood, gnarled, rough, bumpy texture, bark, fairytale.

Although this an image we have to look at as part of Drawing 1, there is a great deal which attracts me to it and would have enjoyed looking at it even if it weren’t compulsory.  The sense of fantasy appeals to me, it wouldn’t look out of place in Tolkiens work which are my favourite books.  I also like the intrigue the piece creates, where are the stairs leading?  Are these the only two trees in the wood?  I mentioned Tolkien as I get the sense that when you turn your back on the trees they would spring into life as the tree on the left in particular looks like it is in an unnatural pose as if it has just been caught.

When you first look at the drawing you are drawn to the space between the two trees, like an entrance way leading you to the steps, you then notice the entrance is guarded by the two big trees and then finally you notice the tree details like the gnarled branch and the texture of the trunk.

There are a variety of different lines made in this drawing.  The tree on the left has twists and curves that follow the shape of the bent trunk, there are also shorter lines to give the texture of the bark higher up in the shadow.  The tree on the right has much straighter vertical lines to show perhaps it is a younger tree, it is less deformed and has a smoother texture.  Around the trees are lighter more free lines of the small plants on the path with longer lines to show the shadow from the trees.  In the centre the dark entrance is created by dark small close shading.

The shapes too are varied, the right tree is almost like a long cylinder and the left tree is a more twisted shape but still fundamentally is a cylinder.  Both are shaded to show the concave and bulges associated with old trees.

Tone is used with exceptional detail in this piece.  There are very dark areas to areas of light where the sun is shining down.  In between are a whole range of mid-tones created using close shading and some hatches.  Overall thought there is a very soft blended almost warm feeling even though it is a monochrome piece.  There are no harsh lines between the different shades and the tones blend in to create a very realistic piece of work.

Odilon Redon created this piece around the year 1875.  Redon was a French painter born in 1840 and so was around 35 years old when he drew this, he was known as a symbolist painter.  In 1870 he served in the Franco-Prussian war and so this was drawn just after he had seen battle.  He called his series of dark drawings which were done in shades of black his noirs. and it was not until 1878 that his work gained any recognition with Guardian Spirit of the Waters, therefore Two Trees was made before he was well known.

Guardian Spirit of the Waters (47 x 38 cm, charcoal on paper, 1878)


In Guardian Spirit of the Waters, Redon is still using charcoal on paper to create a very dramatic, atmospheric piece.  Again there is a huge range of tones from very dark shadows around the face to bright highlights on the boat and lit part of the face.  It is a very strange piece in that it should be scary and nightmarish with a giant head floating above a small boat but the dream like quality makes it more fantasy like than frightening.

After 1900, Redon moved on from his noirs to use colours and pastel work, often using Buddha in his drawings:


This is moving away from a style that was reliant on monochrome tones but Redon still captures the mystical fantasy atmosphere in his work.  The plant towards the front of the picture for example is drawn in a very fleeting whimsical way to give it an ethereal quality.  The patches of colour in the background are a mix of tones which again helps create the unreal impressionistic atmosphere.




Book Review: Compendium of Drawing Techniques, Donna Krizek

As I don’t have that much experience with different drawing techniques, I picked up a couple of books from my local library.  One of which was a compendium of drawing techniques by Donna Krizek.  The book covers topics such as: tools and materials, sketching and drawing techniques, working with your subject and commissions and display.

The book begins with the very basics of drawing like how to hold a pencil, how to sit whilst drawing, how to use an easel, different types of pencil and drawing media.  As I have quite a few different media at home already that I have experimented with I skipped through the first few pages fairly quickly but I did appreciate the vast array of examples the book included.  The book is less of a step by step approach but more a lot of different ideas that you could use to produce different types of drawing.  Useful for my study on texture was page 20-21 which included examples of drawing textural sunflowers and a Tree Bark Study by Diane Wright.

Relevant to the Assignment at the end of the first section is a study on still life techniques (page 24-27).  One tip I did pick up that I will use in my own piece is how to use a piece of string to help establish the composition and the flow of the drawing.  The book uses a Myrtle Pizzey drawing as an example.

One thing that is very useful about this book is the mixture of techniques and how to choose different media for different effects.  It has opened up my mind to trying out different surfaces to experiment with how that impacts the final drawing.  Page 58-63 are particularly useful for thinking about different types of paper.

Another section that will be useful for the first assignment is on page 98 which talks about how to arrange subjects for a still life and in particular how to explore the light options for your objects to create interest and contrast in the final drawing.

For me personally, perhaps one of the most useful sections on the book is from page 118-119 on how to analyse your own work.  One useful tip is to not always critique your own work just after you have finished it but to sometimes look at it with fresh eyes the next day.  It states that critiques at the end of a session can sometimes just focus on the negatives and what is wrong with the piece of work as fatigue has set in.  It suggests making notes in your sketch book with one list for what is working and another for what is not.

Overall, this book is very good for short tips and ideas but does not really cover anything in great detail.  As a beginner it would be a great starting point and I think most people would find one or two useful pieces of advice in there but I am finding myself then having to research each idea further in a different book or website.  I will try and use the examples of critiquing your own work and will bear in mind some of the still life tips when I plan my assignment piece in the next few weeks.

Sources of Information:

Krizek, D.  (2012). Compendium of Drawing Techniques 200 tips, techniques and trade secrets.  1st Edition.  Tunbridge Wells: Search Press Ltd.