Monday, 20 April 2009

Book Review: Colored Pencil Secrets for Success

Title: Colored Pencil Secrets for Success: How to Critique and Improve Your Paintings
Author: (Publisher): Ann Kullberg (North Light Books)
Synopsis: A coloured pencil art instruction book providing a compendium of helpful hints and tips. Its aim is to help artists develop a critical eye for designing, reviewing and improving their own work. Highlights a range of essential checks that can be made for different types of subject matter. Based on the format of written critiques that Ann has been delivering via her e-magazine for the last 9 years.
Suitable for: "Improvers" interested in improving they way the way they create, fix and refine their coloured pencil artwork. Artists who aspire to realism.
  • highlights ways of avoiding and fixing common problems with typical subject matter
  • a good overview and simple messages about how to improve photographs used for reference purposes
  • simple format for the critiques makes the messages very accessible
  • constructive critiques focus on examples of work produced by different coloured pencil artists and a wide range of useful hints and tips
  • showcases and explains the work of advanced/professional artists
  • book lies open and flat very easily due to a hardcover with a concealed spiral - excellent for those using the book for learning
Think Again?
  • design sometimes swamps content e.g. layout and use of a handwriting font for text on some pages makes some of the text difficult to read; use of text on pages with a 'wooden desk top' back ground makes some of the text difficult to read
  • style of work is firmly located in 'realism'; this may not appeal to artists wanting to use a looser and/or more creative approach
Summary: a useful purchase for those looking to improve their work. It provides one place where you can find all Ann's critique techniques, hints and tips. For people unfamilar with Ann's structured critique approach, there's a lot of solid content which is useful to read and absorb. The book is let down by some design weaknesses.

Most coloured pencil artists will know Ann Kullberg and/or have one or the other or both of her two books on drawing with coloured pencils Colored Pencil Portraits (1999) and Capturing Soft Realism in Colored Pencil (2002). I regard them as art instruction standards. Consequently any new book by Ann Kullberg has got to be worth taking a look at.

You might also like to read A "Making A Mark" interview with Ann Kullberg which provides more insight into Ann and her long love affair with coloured pencils.

Colored Pencil Secrets for Success: How to Critique and Improve Your Paintings will be published in May 2009. I was sent a review copy so you can get my perspective on what the book is about and how well it delivers what Ann has set out to do in advance of publication!

I think there are some weaknesses in this book but I rather suspect that these relate to the design and publishing aspect rather than what Ann set out to do. This is based on the fact that I was a subscriber to Ann's magazine for some time and I know the way her critiques are normally presented and what her target audience is used to.

The book is divided into six main sections:
  • Getting started
  • Reference Photos
  • Critiques/Showcase - Portraits
  • Critiques/Showcase - Animals
  • Critiques/Showcase - Landscapes and Florals
  • Critiques/Showcase - Still Life
Getting started - My comments about this section are based on the notion that this is essentially a book for improvers - people who have learned the basics and now want to get to grips with how they can remedy mistakes and improve their work.

This section covers basic tools and techniques and is possibly the weakest section of the book. Information about coloured pencils, paper, tools and techniques to use is provided in summary form. The text is not dense and there's a lot of 'desktop' on show. (it is for example a marked contrast to Alyona's new book which I reviewed last week which provides a surfeit of detail).

This book isn't aiming to be an introduction to coloured pencils and, in theory, the level of detail provided is probably fine given the nature of its focus. Those wanting more detail would do much better to look elsewhere. However I do query whether it's necessary at all. I also wonder why publishers always seem to insist on having a basic and introductory materials/techniques section up front in a book which is going to be bought by artists who have got beyond first base. Surely those pages could be put to better use? If there is a need for a refresher about basics I think it could have been delivered in a better way.

For example, the practical hints that Ann provides (in "post-it note" format) are very useful. I found I scanned and largely skipped the text about stuff I already knew - but I did find I read all the tips to see if there was anything new I could learn. I'm guessing here but I think that most improvers would have preferred a well-developed catalogue of advanced tips about materials, tools and techniques of the sort provided in the post-it notes - with illustrations as appropriate. (Please do comment if you'd like to influence the content of future books for improvers!)

Reference Photos - Many artists using coloured pencils work from reference photographs but "working from photographs" is a topic which hasn't always been covered well in the past. This section looks at how to take and use reference photos and what you can do with your computer to improve them. Ann tackles all the right topics, but keeps it simple and provides lots of very useful messages and tips for creating better resource material. I like the fact that it assumed that the person with the camera is operating something simple, straightforward and automatic and that this doesn't become a lesson in owning a camera! Instead it's a lesson in how to look for light, how to point the camera, what adjustments to make and how many pictures to take. Ann reduces her tips down to very simple sentences such as "Take a million shots" and "Don't take a picture, tell a story" and then explains them. She also includes a useful checklist.

Critiques - The Critique section is the main substance of the book and those who know Ann's work well will know what to expect. Which basically means that the vast majority of the artwork is produced by artists other than Ann. They're all of a different standard too which I thought was very helpful. Seeing other people's work gives you a much better appreciation of the stages of improvement.

Each of the critiques follows a similar format. You see a reference photo and the drawing completed by the artist. Ann provides a brief about the artist, says what her first impressions are and then highlghts what works and the areas which need a helping hand. The tips in this critique section are all "Hints" in a "post-it note" format! The great bit about Ann's critiques is that she explains why different aspects work (eg teeth which are not bright white and have been drawn as a group rather than as individual teeth) as well as explaining what's not quite right and how to improve it. She also takes the image and demonstrates how it can be improved using digital technology.

As I indicated earlier what improvers need is a catalogue of helpful hints. That, in effect, is what the critiques deliver. However the hints are structured and made more accessible through being oriented around one image at a time. I like the way she delivers them - punchy headline in capitals and then generally between 50-70 words to describe each point. It's succinct and it makes learning the basics much easier. In design terms I also noticed that these points were easy to read as they're on a pale neutral background.

The book highlights a technique which I will always associate with Ann. That of drawing virtual lines on the photo reference and an image of the drawing to see the relative size and relationships of different features more clearly and how well this has been replicated in the coloured pencil drawing. Again and again this technique delivers the message very fast. In fact I'd go so far as to say if you're interested in portraiture and do not currently get Ann's e-magazine but are in need help with proportions then buying this book for that one technique is money well spent.

Many of the techniques are ones which do get discussed on CP internet forums again and again. However, the advantage of this book and Ann's approach is that you have a professional tutor showing you how to use them properly again and again and again. It's essentially a compendium of most of the helpful hints and tips that you need to learn to produce work of a high standard.

Incidentally it was a pleasure to see that the artists who contributed work to the book came from a wide cross-section in terms of backgrounds and locations where they lived.

Ann finishes each section with a small showcase of work by more experienced artists - and discusses why their work is good. As has always been the case, it's sometimes easiest to learn by understanding more about how good work is produced and what decisions were made in bringing it to fruition. The book finishes with a useful summary of the main things to watch out for and to work on.

Presentation - The design and presentation of the book has both strengths and flaws. North Light Books have started to produce a number of art instruction books in hardback with a covered spiral binding the pages. This is an excellent approach which allows a book to lie flat - especially important for art instruction books. A lot of the artwork is also shown at near life size which highlights the texture of coloured pencil on paper which can often be lost when an image is seen in a reduced format. Thankfully I didn't see any at larger than life size which I have seen in other books of late and which I personally think is a great mistake.

The 'design' for the book gives the impression of a wooden desktop with reference photos, artwork in progress and instruction notes (on pages of lined paper) lying on top. Some of the text (eg the Introduction by Ann and introduction to each artist in the critiques section) is then provided in a small handwriting font. I didn't find this at all easy to read. Nor did I find the more conventional font on a wooden desktop background easy to read either. Generally I had the impression of a design team which had become overly design oriented and a bit 'gimmicky' and had forgotten the dictat of 'form follows function'. I'm sure it all looked great if you have young eyes but I do wonder if they checked it out first with the potential target audience - a lot of whom are middle aged ladies who wear glasses and read in the evening!

In conclusion - I think this is a book which will prove to be a useful purchase for those looking to improve their work and who like realism. For those who are familiar with Ann's critique approach and techniques it provides one place where you can find all her techniques, hints and tips a summary. For those who have not come across her structured critique approach before there's am awful lot of solid content which is useful to read and absorb. The major weakness lies with the design used for the content - aspects of which render the content less accessible than I suspect most readers will like.

Colored Pencil Secrets for Success: How to Critique and Improve Your Paintings
128 pages; 25 b&w illustrations, 250 color; Hardcover with concealed spiral; 8¼ x 10-7/8 inches; ISBN: 978-1-60061-124-7

Coloured Pencils - Resources for Artists
Find out about coloured pencils. This leading resource has information for everybody from experienced artists to beginners wanting to learn all they can. Topics include
  • tips and techniques for working with coloured pencils,
  • information about coloured pencil brands and associated products (CHECK OUT the poll - find out which make of artist grade coloured pencils is the favourite.)
  • coloured pencil societies,
  • coloured pencil artists and
  • forums where you can discuss coloured pencil matters with artists working in coloured pencils

1 comment:

Teresa Mallen said...

Thank you for this detailed review. I also question the usefulness of repeating cp basics in every cp book that is published. Advanced tips would be a refreshing change.

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