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'The Nude: A Study in Ideal Form' by Kenneth Clarke was one of the earliest additions to my bookshelf, and is still relevant these sixty years later. The book was based on the A. W. Mellon Lectures in Fine Arts at the National Gallery in Washington, DC in 1953, and then as now showed only black and white photographs in the paperback edition. But the thought, erudition and dignified style were more than compensation, and the new hardback edition (reasonably priced at $34) apparently has full colour.

Much more low key was Edward Lucie-Smith’s thoughtful 'Sexuality in Western Art' (World of Art, 1991), though the illustrations were full-page colour and sensibly chosen. 

While we’re on the subject, you might want to consider 'Naked: The Nude in America' by Bram Dijkstra, though I have to say the illustrations of nineteenth-century figure painting seemed most uninviting – coy, insipid, or embarrassingly cute. Perhaps they get better later (beyond the ‘look inside’ facility.

Rather better should be Flaminio Gualdoni’s 'The History of Nude', in which an art historian traces the history of the nude from Palaeolithic times to photographic realism in the art of the twentieth century. I haven’t purchased the book myself, but the publisher is Skira, the great names in European nude painting are covered, and the cover illustration is a joy in itself. 
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The Renaissance studios got the matter down to a production-line smoothness. The master would make sketches, arrange and pull them together into a final design. Assistants would square up, and carefully transfer the outlines to wood or canvas or plastered wall. Journeyman painters would then bring the work up to a general proficiency, and the master would do the difficult bits: the face, hands and texture of the clothes.  Skill and creativity were exercised just where they counted most, in the preparatory drawings and the finishing touches. Craft skills were fostered in transferring the sketch, preparing the support and mixing the paints. Quality was essential: the finished work had to outlast the studio, the patron, and sometimes the church or palace that commissioned it.

Nor all painters were so painstaking, of course. Tintoretto made sketches but often added figures as the painting proceeded, usually at a phenomenal rate. El Greco probably dispensed with sketches altogether in his mature style. Tiepolo, on the other hand, was meticulous, working from chalk study to pen and wash for tones to final precise design. But he could also dash off vigorous paint sketches if something wasn’t coming out right — again at high speed because he had enormous fresco surfaces to cover. The process made for smooth delivery, but it was equally important not to become a prisoner of mechanical procedures.

Today there are many electronic devices to help the painter. Photos can be taken by digital camera, phone or tablet. Those photos can be enhanced, drastically altered, combined, or converted to line drawings by relatively cheap software. The results can be altered further: areas of a certain colour or tone can be replaced for others, or the line drawings be manipulated as simple curves. And so on.

Do painters use these aids? Not generally, I think, and for several reasons. The ‘painting’ process is not intuitive. The hand, eye and memory do not work together in the way so necessary for creativity. And the painting does not record  the journey to the final result, which fellow painters can see, even if the public supposes the work was dashed off under a fit of sustained creativity. Even students taking a fine art course will commonly have some practical training, and though their skills lie in writing and salesmanship, these forthcoming critics, monograph writers and museum curators will learn something of the artistic process, and be the better for it. How things are done enters into our appreciation of them.
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Islam Art and Architecture by  Markus Hattstein and Peter Delius (Eds.)

This massive coffee-table book is produced to the highest standards — 640 pages packed out with informative texts by recognized authorities, sumptuously illustrations, tables, glossaries and references — and probably represents the easiest way of approaching the rich and varied inheritance of Muslim art. Perhaps Muslim history altogether, which can be dry and complicated without the illustrated groupings adopted by this work. A table of contents may help:

Introduction:
Islam: World Religion and Cultural Power
Art and Culture in the Islamic World
The Mosque
Science in Islam

Artistic and Cultural Development:
Ummayad Caliphate
Abbasids
Aghlabids and Fatimids
Ayyubids, Mamluks and Crusaders
Spanish Umayyads
Almoravids and Almohads
Nasrids of Granada
The Maghgreb
Ghaznavids and Gurids
Seljuks and Khwarazm Shahs
Islamic Mongols
Timurids, Shaybanids and Khan Princedoms
Indian Sultanates and Moghuls
Safavids and Qajars
Ottomans
Islam in the Modern Age

Appendix
Authors, bibliography, Islamic calendar, glossary of dynasties, index, etc. 

Why should art lovers think serious about adding this book to their library? For the artistic riches. Matters of faith and social custom were accompanied by an expression of staggering refinement and richness, quite the equal of our Renaissance in architecture and the decorative arts. And for understanding. The Islamic world inherited and built on the Graeco-Roman world that underpins our modern societies. The Islamic world created communities with different standards to ours but equally vibrant and coherent. 

Each of the large pages in this book is illustrated with one or more photographs in full colour. Many are ravishing, and will set the traveler and photographer yearning for new destinations. There are also maps, tables and a text which is detailed and sensible: no scholarly wrangling but the main facts backed by the more specialist texts listed in the Appendix.

In short, it is difficult to over praise this work, which itself exemplifies beautifully the art of the book. The price is a steal.
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An early Braque piece, which you can read about on http://www.oil-painting-techniques.com/analysis-georges-braque.html
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I’ve suggested painters learn to look at their colleagues’ work intelligently, both to learn and (which is much the same thing) to appreciate it better. Barbara Rae is fairly well known now, and although associated with Scottish landscapes in fact uses landscape sketches only as a starting point. In recent years she has been to France, Spain, Ireland and California in search of material, and her palette is often high key: vivid reds and yellows, brilliant blues and a wide variety of material added to the oil paint, acrylic, etc. with which she commonly works.

Christmas Ronda dates from 1991, measures 60 cm by 60 cm, and was  painted (I would guess) at the southern town of Ronda in Andalucia, which I know a little, having spent a few days there gathering material for a novel (whose main protagonist was indeed a painter.) I don’t know why it’s called Christmas.

The painters most called to mind by such work are John Piper and Nicolas de Stael, and like them, Barbara Rae has sought to capture the overall atmosphere of a place: here the fierce intensity of the sun, the parched surroundings and the strange setting of Ronda itself, which sits perched on a craggy hilltop dissected by a deep ravine. This is not a tourist’s piece, however. Ronda is now a pretty town, with some splendid buildings, shady squares and a troubled history in the Spanish Civil War.  My concern was to imagine how my protagonist would have painted the cathedral, and from what vantage points, but Rae’s interest is in the elemental Spanish countryside I imagine, which is so bare and unforgiving. Is it fanciful to see in this painting the ravine, the bloodshed, the bullet marks and the sutures of a place a town that suffered so badly from General Varela’s troops? 

I don’t know, of course, but would draw attention to the acid yellows and browns,  the intense darkness of the blacks which the blue stripes bring out, the louring sky and the sheer hostility of the painting. Abstract elements have been used to say something which would otherwise be difficult to achieve (I did try myself with a conventional watercolour.) I would also guess that, unlike de Stael’s works, that were often completed in the one ‘sitting’, this was a painting worked at. It is not at all fluent or pleasing but demands to be looked at. You can get more on Barbara Rae’s work from the references below.

Barbara Rae RA. http://www.royalacademy.org.uk/academicians/painters/barbara-rae-ra,198,AR.html

Barbara Rae, RA. http://www.adamgallery.com/artists/rae-ra/?gallery=London

Christmas- Ronda. http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/christmas-ronda-186592

Barbara Rae by Bill Hare, Andrew Lambirth and Gareth Wardell. Lund Humphries, 2008.

Barbara Rae Sketchbooks by Richard Cork and Gareth Wardell. Royal Acamedy of Arts, 2011.
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I mentioned Chinese calligraphy in an earlier post, and now may be the time to say a bit more.

Chinese characters are written in a certain order of strokes, and it’s these ‘roots’ that have to be understood to use a Chinese dictionary. It’s not actually so difficult as it sounds, and there are modern dictionaries that are a pleasure to use, indeed little works of art in their own right. (1)

My own introduction was through coins, and numismatists look for small variations in inscriptions on Chinese cash (cast) coinages to identify provinces, or just identify types, some of which are rare and therefore valuable. The  variations range from something immediately obvious to what takes long practice to spot. Compare the  illustrations in the Wikipedia article, (2) that of the rubbing with the copy by Yao Mengku’s copy: there’s a world of difference between them. The first is a rubbing made in Sung times of a piece by the famous Tang calligrapher Ouyang Xun (557–641).  The second is a copy made by a recent calligrapher and critic. You can see how hard and mechanical is Yao Mengku’s copy: indeed the characters, although entirely recognisable, have constituent strokes that are quite different on close inspection: hooks, blobs and very feel of the strokes.

I should add that Yao Mengku wrote very well: he described the organic relationship between parts of the script as: ‘a life-unit consisting of bones and muscles, flesh and blood, a pattern in which the upper and lower portions are balanced, the right and left sides are juxtaposed, the four corners interrelated, the relative sides of the different elements harmonized, although its width and length are left to the discretion of the artist — in short, a work of art with a life of its own.’ (4)

That’s not fanciful writing. If you can find the time to study Chinese calligraphy properly you’ll not only understand why it’s so highly prized, indeed venerated, but also opens a door into a different world, where refinement, elegance, poise, balance and a dozen other human characteristics become a great source of pleasure.

The Wikipedia article has a list of reference works, but my favourite is ‘Chinese Calligraphers and their Art’ by Ch’en Chih-Mai. (3)

References.

1. Chinese Characters: A Genealogy and Dictionary by Rick Harbaugh. Zhongwen.com, 1998.
2. Chinese Calligraphy. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_calligraphy
3. Chinese Calligraphers and their Art by Ch’en Chih-Mai, Melbourne Univ. Press,  1966.
4. Chih-Mai, p. 198. 
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I should declare an interest here. My wife, also a miniature painter, is a good friend of the author — indeed has several of Pauline’s splendid works hanging in her studio — and asked me to review the book for Amazon. Happily (for both of us) I was able to do so enthusiastically, and what follows is that review a little dressed up. I called the book ‘a little gem’, and it really is an excellent example of what art publishers can turn out these days (look round your local second-hand bookseller if you want to see how far they’ve come in recent decades.) Electronic books haven’t yet displaced the traditional product, and perhaps they never will. But to the book.

Pauline Denyer-Baker’s ‘Painting Miniatures’ takes the reader from first steps to an assured mastery of this difficult but rewarding art. The eleven chapters cover 1. the nature of miniatures, 2. their history, 3. materials and studio needs, 4. choice of subjects, use of the sketchpad and approaches of contemporary masters, 5. basic techniques and helpful exercises, 6. various ways of getting started, 7. mixing colours, 8. still life, 9. portraiture, 10. silhouettes, and 11. framing the work. There is a short bibliography and a list of artist materials suppliers.

The exposition is exceptionally logical, sensible and engaging. The book is part commentary and part manual. Advice is clearly laid out, and clearly packed with first-hand, practical help from someone who calls on her own experience to enable the beginner understand the artist’s life. Drawing skills have to be kept up. A sketch-pad is important: to plan and try out possibilities if time is not be wasted later. Even a studio or work-area is worth thinking about. Artists are creatures of feeling, but those feelings need to be given space and encouragement by sound working practices. Those practices naturally vary between artists, and a most useful feature of the book are the sections featuring the various approaches of other miniature painters. My wife finds these sections particularly rewarding.

What is most noticeable is the artwork, the ‘how to’ illustrations and the many examples of finished work, all of excellent quality, well chosen and helpful. Perhaps the author intrudes a little too much in the captions at times, and maybe the book should emphasize more that miniature painting requires great care and patience because mistakes are not so always easily corrected. But overall it’s a very pleasing book. Design, typesetting and finish of this 8½ x 11 inch format book will make it a worthy addition to the bookshelves of art-lovers who simply enjoy looking at miniatures, and want to deepen that appreciation by understanding how they are painted. Miniature painter of all levels will find the book offers considerably more: a detailed and thorough survey of the field. 
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One of the late Degas pastels — about which there’s excellent material on the Internet.
Degas Painting ( http://www.degas-painting.info/degasstyle.htm )
has a sensible and thorough article on the artist’s techniques in later years, when his eyesight was failing and more improvisational approaches became necessary.

Artistsnetwork looks at Dega’s ‘steaming effect’ — use of a steam iron on pastels, giving them a mixed media appearance. http://www.artistsnetwork.com/articles/art-demos-techniques/pastel-pointers-a-steamy-situation

The Phillips Blog (http://blog.phillipscollection.org/2011/12/21/degas-and-pastels-part-ii/)
has a short discussion on Degas’ use of fixatives, their value and dangers.

Ruth Schenke’s article covers the whole of the artist’s oeuvre, being as detailed and scholarly as you’d expect from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. (http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/dgsp/hd_dgsp.htm ) The site also recommends three books for those wanting to go further:
·  Boggs, Jean Sutherland, et al. Degas. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1988. 
·  De Vonyar, Jill, and Richard Kendall Degas and the Dance. Exhibition catalogue.. New York: Abrams, 2002. 
·  Kendall, Richard Degas and the Little Dancer. Exhibition catalogue.. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. 

And so on. All one really needs is the time to read, examine the works and learn.
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You can mix your own oil paints to save money — quite a lot of money — but the better reason is the full control you have over the product. You know exactly what goes on the canvas, and can choose the appropriate binding agent. Commonly that agent is linseed oil, but may be poppy seed, safflower or walnut oil. All have slightly different properties (ease of manipulation, drying times, tendency to yellow slightly or to crack) and are siccatives, which means they dry by oxidizing, continuing to oxidize long after they are dry to the touch. That’s why paintings are not varnished until some six months have passed: the drying process is still continuing and needs to be left to work unhindered.

To mix your own paints you’ll need the pigments themselves, which can be purchased in dry powder form from a good art supplies shop, a sheet of glass and something to grind the pigments with. Small quantities can be mixed with a palette knife, but a glass muller will cope better with larger quantities. Mullers are cheap and come in various shapes and sizes: many are simply a flat-ended pestle. It’s best to mix up just what you need, as the fresh-prepared paint lasts only a few days. You can add agents to retard the drying, as commercial suppliers of oil paints do, but at some cost in handling properties and uncertainties over its long-term durability. If you use a spatula, remember that a few pigments discolour on contact with metal: a list is on the oil-painting-techniques.com website.

Put plenty of paper down, anchor the glass if you can to the table, add drops of the binding agent to a little heap of pigment, and grind methodically until all lumps have disappeared and you have a fine dispersion of the pigment. Keep adding drops of binding agent until you have the consistency wanted. Clean the glass and muller/spatula between the preparation of each paint: you don’t want the colours sullied.

Some pigments change colour when made into paint: this is normal and nothing to worry about.  A few,  like ultramarine blue, turn into a sticky mess, and you may want to add a little — repeat little — stabilizer to create the right consistency: beeswax or aluminium stearate. 

You can make expensive (cadmiums, the bright synthetic colours) pigments go a little further by adding fillers. Barium sulphate and aluminium hydroxide are the most used because they are inert, have low tinting power and can help get the consistency wanted. Like most painters I dislike them, and quantities certainly shouldn’t exceed 25% of the final paint. 

There’s more on the http://www.oil-painting-techniques.com/oil-painting-pigments.html page, which also has a few videos. 
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A splendid early Bonnard. The model was his long-suffering mistress. Read more on http://www.oil-painting-techniques.com/analysis-pierre-bonnard.html
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Reviewed: World of Art Movement in Early 20th Century Russia by Vesevolod Petrov and Alexander Kamensky. Translated from the Russian by Arthur Shkarovsky. Aurora Art Publishers, Leningrad, 1991.

This is a curious book, half glossy art book, half social history of a Russia on the eve of the Soviet Revolution. Black and white photos of WWI devastation, personalities of the time, society balls and events are interspersed with reproductions of the works of  Leon Bakst,  Alexander Benois, Ivan Bilibin, Sergei Diaghilev, Alexander Golovin, Igor Grabar, Mstislav Dobuzhinsky, Boris Kustodiev, Evgeny Lanceray, Dmitry Mitrokhin, Georgi Narbut, Anna Ostroumova-Lebedeva, Nicholas Roerich, Nikolai Sapunov, Zaida Serebryakova, Valetin Serov, Constantin Somov and Sergei Sudeikin. Some reproductions are ink sketches or black and white photos, but the great majority are in excellent colour.

As noted on the website page ( http://www.oil-painting-techniques.com/analysis-valentin-serov.html ), the eclectic 'World of Art' movement owed much to the impresario Sergei Diaghilev, who gave the leading Russian artists of the day — Somov, Bakst, Repin, Benois, Lanceray, Kustodiev, Serov, Sapunov — a place on the international stage and encouraged them to revitalize painting, book illustration and theater design. The artists concerned had their individual styles, all immediately recognizable, but were united in their reverence for the work of the past and an openness to new ideas, particularly to the Impressionists of France. 

The book is built around an extended essay by Vsevolod Petrov (1912-78), which was written under the usual Soviet constraints, although the World of Art movement was not generally opposed to the Bolshevik revolution. In their travels throughout Russia, many artists had indeed developed acute social consciences, and welcomed the Soviet takeover, if becoming disaffectd afterwards. Petrov was a close chronicler of artists, whom he researched while working in Leningrad’s Russian Museum, and the essay is detailed, factual and largely independent of Marxist theory. It is not evocative of the artistic life, however, and there are no extended flights of imaginative prose so beloved of western art critics: Petrov’s aim was to document while the material was still available. 

The result of  mixing contemporary photographs reproductions of art works and detailed gallery notes is a little odd but charming. It’s certainly difficult to read such a composition straight through, but what comes over is a keen enthusiasm for the period and a sense of what it was like to live in the last days of the Russian empire: a vanished world that readers of Dostoevsky, Checkov and Bunin will enjoy. The book also illustrates a different approach to that of Modernism, not repudiating the past but incorporating and further developing its techniques and ideas. 

The book is now out of print, but can be obtained from libraries and second-hand booksellers. 
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London’s Victoria and Albert Museum may be my favourite museum, and indeed I once lived a few minute’s walk from its gleaming Victorian façade, built from proceeds of the Great Exhibition when England was oddly eclectic in its architectural styles. Entrance to its current exhibition on Chinese painting is not cheap, but the publicity blurb may well be true: ‘ Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700 - 1900 is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see rare surviving works of art drawn from collections around the world’. Many of its more important works are relatively inaccesssible in Taipei, or in private collections — such is the country’s unhappy history over the last two centuries — and it is also an art phenominally difficult for westerners to appreciate. My own limited skills in this direction came via calligraphy, which I had to study as a professional numismatist dealing with east Asian issues. It’s an art of refinement, emulation and artistic echoes, and quite at odds with the breezy experimentation of modernism — which is probably a good reason for visiting the V & A show: to understand a very different way of looking at life, at least until the current modernisation of the country. (Modernism will go its own way in time, incidentally, as this is how China has always absorbed and modified outside influences. But the exhibition will doubtless explain more.)

The website suggests what’s on offer: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/exhibitions/masterpieces-of-chinese-painting/about-the-exhibition/

There are many ways of approaching Chinese art. The exhibition divides the long period under review into five sctions: religious art 700-950, the quest for reality 950-1250, embracing solitude 1250-1400, pursuit of happiness 1400-1600, its response to the west 1600-1900. That’s no doubt a sensible way of proceeding, though it makes nonsense of the larger picture. There was a strong Buddhist influence in the first period, but probably as a response to the terrible lawlessness that proceeded the Tang and Sung empires. Art of the earlier Han empire (not covered) was particularly joyous. Many scholars did retire to solitude during the Mongol empire, true, but that’s been a characteristic of the scholar class since its inception, and the Mongol period was also one of the common people, with plays, novels and street entertainment. The pursuit of happiness is probably more relevant to the Sung period than the inward-looking Ming. And so on. It’s not my purpose to question the V&A authorities, but to suggest that visitors go properly prepared. You will need a decent grasp of its history. You will need to be able to read landscape paintings and recognise what is important in calligraphy. You must be able to picture Chinese social life, which was until recently very much more rule-defined and conservative than ours. You will need Chinese novels, poetry, monographs, photo albums on China to help you. Otherwise, buy the catalogue and start your own journey of appreciation, which take decades. Happy travelling. 
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Free guide to oil painting approaches, execution and marketing
Introduction

Oil Painting Techniques is a personal look at painting and the art world. The accent is on the practical, though I will comment on theory as it is helpful to the practicing artist, and review such books as I have in my possession, or publishers may care to send me.

 

The posts come from someone who was once very active on the arts scene — attending exhibitions, painting himself, reviewing and mixing socially with artists and gallery owners. If there are no impressive qualifications to give authority to remarks and assessments, there is also no impediment to honesty either — no gallery to promote, no museum’s purchases to defend, and no influential critics to keep in with.

 

I hope contributors will be constructive in their comments. There’s doubtless a lot that’s dubious, incompetent or plain deluded in the contemporary art world, but also much that’s exciting and deserving of support. Art is a hard calling, and few artists paint for fame or money. To find kindred souls and share their vision with the world are the usual motivations, and it’s to this end that the site is dedicated.
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