Friday, 10 September 2010

Coloured Pencil Book Review by Lesley Sharman

Lesley Sharman was one of the two winners of a copy of Botanical Painting with Coloured Pencils by UKCPS member Ann Swan SBA GM in the competition which ran on this blog during May.  Pauline Longley was the other winner and her review follows in the next post.

Below you can find Lesley Sharman's book review.

Lesley Sharman doing an exercise from
Ann Swan's Botanical Painting with Coloured Pencils
As I have read many coloured pencil books, covering many different subjects (but none on botanical painting, of which I think this is the first) I have compared this book with them, as well as reviewing the content.

First impressions were very good. It is a hardback book, nicely printed on good paper and very well illustrated, with lots of lovely finished works to admire. It is written in the first person, with a friendly, conversational tone used throughout. The book is about botanical illustration, which has to be anatomically correct, as against flower painting, which allows a looser interpretation. After reading through it I was inspired enough to buy a set of Polychromos to try some of the exercises, but then I was disappointed as I often felt frustrated whilst trying to follow the instructions. I found that they were not detailed enough, unlike most of the other instruction books I have read, and thought that there were possibly some problems with the editing.

The book is divided into nine chapters, each covering a different aspect of botanical art and explaining how the author achieves such outstanding results using coloured pencil.

Ann starts the book by describing how and why she started using coloured pencils and explains a little about the medium, before moving on to materials. She mainly uses Faber-Castell Polychromos, with some Prismacolor Premiers, and gives limited information about other ranges. Then comes the usual basic information on materials as is found in most other CP books, but this is quite succinct.

We are then taken through the procedure of getting to know the subject, including observation, setting up, measuring and colour matching. Some of the information in this section would also be useful for flower arrangers, for example how to keep specimens fresh for as long as possible. Although most botanical subjects are drawn from life there is some information on using photographs.

The next chapter is on composition and style, where the author stresses the need to attract the viewer’s attention as well as for producing detailed drawings, and there is some good information on how to achieve this.

The whole of the chapter “Basic Pencil Techniques” is given over to pencil drawing, with the emphasis on the need to draw well to create realistic botanical illustrations, and looks at basic line and tonal drawings using graphite. There is also some good information on different techniques to use with pencil and Ann covers underpainting graphite, which is quite an unusual technique.  We then move on to coloured pencil techniques in the following chapter, including layering, burnishing and underpainting using felt pens and solvents, with accompanying step-by-step demonstrations of a bearded iris and red peppers.

Chapter 6 concerns colour, where the usual colour theory basics are covered. As botanical artists will need to replicate many shades of green, there is some useful information about the various green pencils produced by the different manufacturers, and recommendations are given. There are also some good tips on how to depict white and yellow flowers convincingly, illustrated by a three-stage step-by-step of an arum lily. However, the finished picture is of two lilies with several leaves, although the instructions only cover one flower, and there is no mention of how the leaves were achieved.

The next chapter, “Small Details”, has some useful information, including an explanation of how to convey hairs and veins on plants in various ways. But I thought the step-by-step of cherries was inadequate. Details were too sketchy: no mention was made of the colours used for the stems, and the “Final Stage” step didn’t even follow on from the previous ones, but showed a different picture completely. I also tried to follow the instructions for depicting bloom on grapes, but found they were very brief and no colours were suggested for the green grapes. The only instructions given were to use grey for the shading, layer the colour and use white for the bloom. (I was getting pretty frustrated at this point and my grapes looked blooming awful!)

Chapter 8, “Finishing Touches” covers how to make finished work look professional. There is some useful information here, such as sharpening edges, polishing the surface and cleaning the paper, as well as framing and presentation.

The final chapter “Gallery” shows some excellent examples of botanical work in coloured pencil by other artists: some lovely pictures to linger over here. There is also a brief checklist and details of stockists and societies (including UKCPS). Throughout the book, the author uses terms which may not be familiar to readers, such as “spadix” , “spathe” and “drupelet” and I thought an appendix or some explanation of these terms would have been helpful.

Would I recommend buying this book?

Yes, if you want to see how Ann achieves such wonderful results using coloured pencil, but not if you want proper detailed instructions to try to achieve similar results yourself. It could be of interest to botanical artists who use the more usual watercolour paints, to gain an understanding of how coloured pencil is used, and to experienced CP artists who can use some of the hints when creating botanical or flower paintings. I felt it would not be good for coloured pencil novices, as the step-by-steps are frustrating to follow due to their lack of detail.

Lesley Sharman 2010

Note:  This book review post represents the views of the individual author only.  


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