Monday, February 23, 2009

Book review: The Coloured Pencil Artist's drawing bible

If you give a book a title which includes the words "drawing bible" then expectations are created. For me 'a bible' suggests this is the only book you need if you want to be a coloured pencil artist. I'm afraid I disagree. While The Coloured Pencil Artist's Drawing Bible has its merits, it's disappointing to also find some serious weaknesses in the discussions of tools and materials and techniques for working in this media.

I used to have a policy of not reviewing a book unless I thought it was good ("If you can't say anything good, don't say anything" etc). However with a recession upon us, I'm going to have to revise that policy and start indicating more clearly where books fall short - as this one does.

First a small digression on the topic of authors. For me there are three sorts of art instruction books for media.
  • Artist/author - doing it my way: Books which are written by people who have worked for a long time in the media they're writing about and developed their own techniques. Coloured pencil artists like Janie Gildow, Barbara Benedetti Newton and Ann Kullberg have in the past produced instruction books which have become popular standards for those wishing to learn more about coloured pencils. More recent publications carry on this tradition of the artist/author. One does need to be aware though that these often tend towards presenting the author's perspective on "how to" rather than demonstrating a compendium of different approaches. It can lead to multiple book purchases! :)
  • Author writes art books: Then there are books which are written by artists who write art instruction books for a living. They can be very good (Hazel Harrison and Judy Martin are authors who spring to mind) - but they can also struggle if they don't know their medium well.
  • Artist/author - compendium: Personally I'm a huge advocate of the third type - books which are written by an artist who knows her medium extremely well and who can write objectively about different approaches to that medium and knows and includes a wide range of other artists work. Jackie Simmonds is an excellent example of this type of author in relation to pastels. I would highlight Vera Curnow as having demonstrated this sort of approach in the past in relation to coloured pencils.
Recently I seem to be seeing a lot more books by artists who have been commissioned to write a book irrespective of their background. I don't know Jane Strother, the author of this book. So far as I'm aware she's not a signature member of a coloured pencil society although she is the author of The Colored Pencil Artist's Pocket Palette. Google suggests she is a teacher, commercial illustrator and painter in oils.

The book is divided into chapters - and I'll comment on each in turn. Up front, I'd like to note that it's good to see a range of work in coloured pencil by a number of artists from the UK and USA illustrating this book.

Tools and Materials
I confess. I'm a complete addict for the approach used by the Watson Guptill material and techniques book. These provide an in-depth and expert analysis of all the relevant media, supports and tools needed for working in a particular medium. To my mind they set a standard which it is difficult to match. However anything calling itself 'a bible' should be aiming to match that sort of standard - or choose another title!

For me, this chapter in this 'bible' is a very serious weakness. Much of it could come from any generic book about drawing. More seriously this is what it does NOT do:
  • Types of coloured pencils - This very brief two page spread demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of coloured pencils. For example it fails to distinguish between oil based and wax based pencils. The major distinction according to this book is whether or not a pencil can be used for watercolour! It totally ignores all the different manufacturers and the different brands of coloured pencils and hence provides no commentary whatsoever on any of these. It says the pencils vary in character from chalky and opaque to soft and waxy to hard and translucent without giving you a clue as to which these might be! There is absolutely no reference to lightfastness issues and the need to be very careful about which pencils you buy. See my 'resources for artists' information site for more details about all these issues - Coloured Pencils - Resources for Artists
  • Paper types - One of the interesting aspects of coloured pencil is how important the support is for the nature of the work produced. This book only provides discussion of generic paper types which include ones which I'd suggest are infrequently used by coloured pencil artists. As anybody who takes up this media knows, coloured pencil artists can talk for hours and hours in person and on forums about the different types and brands of support - in terms of brands of papers, abrasive surfaces, illustration boards and other rigid boards. This is one of THE big topics of interest for CP artists. The book suggests drawing (cartridge) paper is a good all rounder whereas the recommendation most CP artists would make is buy good quality paper and find out what a huge difference it makes to the quality of your work
  • Sketchbooks - The sketchbook section is entirely generic - no attempt has been made to reference artists who use coloured pencils for sketching. In my extensive experience of sketching with coloured pencils, the paper in certain sketchbooks is far more receptive to the use of coloured pencils than others. However the discussion is around the really important issues - such as size and spiral binding!
  • Stretching paper - this section left me wondering what type of book I was reading!
  • Essential tools - omits entirely a number of tools any CP artist would regard as basic. Examples include the electric sharpener with the spiral cutter, the battery powered or electric eraser, BluTak or similar and solvents. It does however have room for yet more pictures of indeterminate pencils and sketchbooks!
Techniques
I'm afraid to say I've seen everything covered by this section done better in other books. Again this doesn't come up to the standard I would expect of a "bible".
  • Handling pencils - The section on different grips is interesting but is probably more appropriate for a book on drawing techniques and fails to connect with coloured pencils. It fails to recognise most people who invest in equipment use a drawing board of different levels of sophistication and instead includes a section on using an easel!
  • Mark-making: dry pencils (and watercolour pencils) - These sections could have been good if it had related the techniques suggested to CP art - but neither does and the examples in both are crude.
  • Hatching - the examples are very crude and fail to demonstrate the delights of hatching and cross hatching or the opportunities for working with colour theory to deliver the optical mixing of colours
  • Blending -it begins to get better at this point and it's good to see looser examples of artwork included
  • Blending with solvents - I have difficulty with a book which is recommending the use of turpentine as a solvent when odorless and safe alternatives are available. It completely omits any reference to which sort of pencils work best with solvents and their use for an underpainting. The example is very poor compared to any number that I have seen elsewhere.
Colour
The book provides a very rudimentary explanation of colour theory. The use of complementaries is important in coloured pencil and this section could have been longer. There is a reference elsewhere to the production of vibrant darks 'in passing' without any demonstration of this important aspect. The reference to low key and high key is useful but the example images were less persuasive. When it came to layering colours explanations were either sparse or repetitious and left me feeling like the book needed a really good edit or a better structure.

Planning and procedures
This is extremely generic and covers choosing a viewpoint, format and composition and drawings styles. Similarly there are much better step by step demonstrations in other books. Do NOT ever take a craft knife out sketching as recommended by the author or you risk being arrested! Sharpeners with a container are safer and won't litter your surroundings with your shavings.

Themed palettes
I was in two minds about this section. It takes a photograph and then produces a pallete which represents the colours from an identified range of pencils. The problem as usual with this book is that it completely fails to identify manufacturer or brand and hence the suggestions are generic only. For beginners who are apt to use local colour only this is a useful prompt but is probably completely redundant for any intermediate or advanced artist. Possibly pitched at the sort of person who'd buy the author's other book about palettes?

Gallery
This is the redeeming feature of this book and to my mind the only real reason for buying this book. There is a good range of coloured pencil artwork from a number of different artists - however you can also find such a range in other books about coloured pencil. There's a bit of a tendency to err towards demonstrating its use for realism - but then that tends to be what a lot of coloured pencil artists do. I'd have preferred the book to more clearly differentiate between works which are essentially mixed media, works which have involved some form of solvents and works which are produced using dry pencil work only. That would have provided a much clearer understanding of what is possible with each approach. It would also have been very helpful if dimensions had been included.

I feel it's a shame that the techniques articulated by the artists are not reflected in the rest of the book. It's as if the front end was produced in isolation from the gallery. Personally speaking I'd have much preferred to have seen a more extended explanation from each artist of the key techniques used to produce each picture. After all, lessons from the experts are what really makes a book worth buying!

Subjects

I was completely bemused by this section which is a series of photographs from Shutterstock with suggestions for how to treat them. The fact that it then recommended copying the images just left me with my jaw agape! Coloured pencil societies have been spending a lot of time and effort in advising members about the perils of copying other people's material particularly when it is copyrighted.

Conclusion

I'm not sure the publishers were clear what audience they were aiming at. If it was artists beginning to use coloured pencil then the book simply doesn't deliver in enough depth and as indicated above there are other books around which deliver better value for money. If it's people starting to draw then I guess it might explain the choice of author and the wealth of very generic material that it includes - but I can't help thinking such people would be more likely to buy any of the really good drawings books which are around. I'm afraid I can't recommend this book because of the serious weaknesses it displays in relation to the more technical aspects of drawing with coloured pencils and because there are much better books around which tackle the subjects covered in a more accurate and comprehensive way.

I think it's a great pity that the artists whose work has been included in this book haven't had the quality of their work matched by the art instruction on offer.

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5 comments:

Louise said...

Amen, Katherine and thank you for saving me some money.

Too often artist books are borderline vanity productions and too light in the meat and potatoes of a given medium. As a buyer, you are clued in too late, (after you've bought it) to know that it does precious little to expand your knowledge of a medium.

Louise

Jeanette said...

I don't know this book personally and don't buy huge numbers of art books, but I agree with many of your comments generally.

There are few classic books out there on the medium that may be considered 'bibles', but even that would be stretching it. No one book can cover all things.

Consumers, publishers and authors themselves are the only ones who can change this by being knowledgeable about a subject and knowing whether it fits a market niche. Particularly consumers, who can, through reputable reviews like these, and sound judgment based on their own needs, make the decision of whether to confirm to the author that they've been successful or not. All success is measured in sales for books.

I won't be buying.

vivien said...

As Jeanette and Louise point out - the subject of art is so vast that anything calling itself a Bible is immediately suspect to me! It already suggests a simplistic view with little depth and not much to offer.

I think more of these honest looks at books can only be a very good thing :>)

I find the majority of 'how to' books do lack depth.

Elizabeth Lamb said...

I have just bought this book. It was the title that caught me, I must admit to being very disappointed. I expected to find something a bit different. I have Ann Swans and Alyona Nickelsens books, and this I am afraid is much inferior and tell you hardly anything. I was also concerned about the photographs and copyright issue, as I am always pointing this out to members on my site.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

You should have read my book review first Elizabeth!

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