It’s been many months since has had some regular activity and now, when I’ve finally managed to carve out some writing time, all of London’s galleries and cultural organisations are currently shut due to Corona Quarantine 2020. Though doors everywhere are closed, thankfully, books can stay open! And since I love both art and books, art book reviews seems like just The Thing right now, beginning with “Painting Masterclass” (2019) by Susie Hodge. 

Painting Masterclass – an actual book and a little break from online art school

Who else needs something constructive to do while under quarantine? I don’t know about you but I’m desperate for a break from my computer at the same time when I can’t break from my need for art. Perhaps reviewing an art book can stand in when I can’t go out to galleries right now.  It also couldn’t hurt to expand my general knowledge of painters and paintings, especially ones I’ve not seen before, aiming to gain further understanding by looking at many different techniques and approaches to painting through a good variety of examples. And when the galleries are open again, perhaps I’ll have gained increased focus and context, and I’ll know more about what to look for when standing in front of a painting.

after Leonora Carrington ‘Self Portrait (1937-38)’, 2020, ink and watercolour.

First a brief overview: ‘Painting Masterclass: Creative Techniques of 100 Great Artists’ by Susie Hodge (2019) is about, well, more than just applying liquidy colour to canvas. Not only is there a bit of history and contemporary context on the work of 100 artists, a good-sized colour image of an artwork from each maker has been selected from the Renaissance forwards to illustrate something in particular about a wide range of painting methods. A quick calculation of the 100 painters yields the sum that 20% of the artists listed are women, achieving better representation than in most major art galleries and for that matter, many art history books. Painting Masterclass is organised by genre: nudes, figures, landscapes, still life, heads, fantasy, and abstraction; in this way, the text allows for comparison of different methods and concepts in painting, yet remains specific to the subject matter.

after Gustav Klimt ‘Danaë (1907)’, 2020, ink, watercolour, acrylic, aluminium foil

Side note: there are stacks of other books out there that offer plenty of useful “how-to”  information (from composition to materials) but this book serves a different purpose. Hodge’s approach to teaching painting is really useful and timely for new-ish painters (like me) who have conquered their fear of the blank canvas, can make a few colours, kinda know how to hold a brush, and are now ready to take the next step. I also thought by studying Painting Masterclass, I might get a better idea of what painters, styles, genres and so forth that I enjoy looking at and making, so when confronted with the next void surface, I’d hopefully be rewarded with The Spark of an Idea, Something New to Try. 

after Philip Guston ‘The Street (1977)’ and Paula Rego ‘The Dance (1988)’, 2020, ink and watercolour.

So a few months ago (pre-COVID quarantine 2020), I had found Painting Masterclass in one or another of Tate’s bookshops, cleared a space on my kitchen table and started to work through the book, with a few visits to National Gallery, Tate Britain/Modern and others to look at actual paintings. I aimed for “sketching reviews”, an active process that is slowed beyond reading, helping me learn more deeply, as I spent over 30 minutes, pen to paper, to really scrutinise each image. In my sketchbook I used (mostly) ink, graphite, and watercolour (as this dries quickly). Maybe later I’ll revisit some of what I learnt, with acrylic, oils, and other materials to try some of the techniques more closely aligned to what the artist did.

after Eugene Carrière ‘Self Portrait (1933)’. Graphite, ink, and watercolour.

Each two-page spread showcases the work of a painter chosen to illustrate a specific quality or technique (light, rhythm, composition etc). Along with a great image, an artist bio, and a few paragraghs about context (e.g., relevant “movements” or history), each includes something practical – e.g., how she achieved drama with chiaroscuro, how you might experiment with his similar brushwork technique or approach to colour. I haven’t come across too many art history books that offer this little bit “extra”.

after Edward Burne-Jones ‘Perseus Slaying the Sea Serpent (1882)’, 2020, ink and watercolour.

Now a confession: I couldn’t really bring myself to spend much time on the “still life” section. I more often than not find this subject deadly dull, and so as not to miss out, I made a collage picking elements from supermarket catalogues and tried to make note of the most salient details Hodge presented for the chapter. That said, I do enjoy a good skull which appears in Dutch still life paintings galore as a ‘memento mori’ (i.e., a reminder everyone dies, and to cherish the present… a good thing to bear in mind these days). But one object I’ve rarely noticed is the giant knife that traditional still life painters almost always put in the composition. What the heck is that about? Well, knives make a POINT of leading the viewer into the image, kind of like saying in today’s lingo, “Click HERE to begin downloading this painting into your mind”.

Look for the knife or other angles, points, and shapes that elucidate a still-life painting, when it seems like it’s not saying much at all. Image courtesy Kelise Franclemont.

Though I’m sure my particular study approach has a lot to do with it, Painting Masterclass is already an important addition to my studio library, and I will certainly revisit the book (and my sketched notes) as I continue to gain more experience with brushes and canvas. If you’re like me, this book may be an important next-step in your own painting practice. Highly recommended!

Painting Masterclass is recommended for: art students, art history buffs, painters, and art lovers in general. Some of the techniques discussed in the book might be good for adult arty people to try with the younger makers in your house, with supervision.

About Susie Hodge

after Gillian Ayres ‘Sons of Seven Circles Shine (2014)’, 2020, watercolour.

Related links

Published 2019 by Thames and Hudson. 288 pages.