This blog provides reviews of art books, including recently published releases and old classics in the second hand bookstores. My aim is to help fellow art lovers build a collection of richly illustrated art books, with the help of discerning advice about the grandest visual treats and which books are mediocre. This blog mainly focuses on books about individual artists (old masters to modern). We can't all afford to collect original masterpieces, but we can all afford a good art book!

Friday, January 29, 2010

Sparrow series: Kent Williams

As an art book reviewer I regularly extol the virtues of large books, while conversely observing that books that scrimp on size have fallen short of their potential, no matter how well written and fastidiously designed. This book review is therefore a little out of character for me. It’s a short homage to a deliberately weenie book.

There is a very large and lucrative market for the miniature art book. Low income students, cost-conscious artists and other art book lovers living in thrifty circumstances typically favour the most affordable buys. And those who are only new to art book collecting will initially tend to buy books at a modest size and price that resemble “normal” reading on their bookshelves. Bookshelves themselves are a petty constraint for some book lovers, who can brusquely dismiss larger books because they won’t squeeze onto regular sized shelving.

The most lavish of art book publishers have long been attuned to this market segmentation and have offered up affordable small books. For decades Thames and Hudson has led the way with their 8 inch high softcover “World of Art” series, prominent at bookstores in rotating stands. This popular series covers art topics as diverse as celtic art, through to modern fashion design. More recently Taschen has entered the 8 inch contest with thinner but even more colourful art histories, with tougher flexibind covers.

This review singles out a nice book from an even smaller and skinnier series, that packs virtue into just 6 inches. Kent Williams is the third artist featured in the “Sparrow” art book series printed by IDW publishing (purveyors of comics and graphic novels). This book series features modern fantasy artists who paint in the netherworld between realism and cartooning. Sparrow books are most easily found in comic book stores, but can also be found in classier retail establishments and on the shelves of even serious art book collectors.

Kent Williams paints very gritty surrealist scenes. Part naked, muscular, sometimes erotic young adults are depicted in disjointed settings, as if in a dream or a flog or thought. Stray Japanese cartoon figures drift into some of the paintings, like extras in these strange dreams. Williams’ background bushwork is loose but his people are masterfully painted with all the perception of an artist who diligently works with live models, rather than from photographic stills. This artist is particularly skilled at painting shadow and mass, deftly picking out vivid hues of greens, purples and magenta in the human form. He cleverly builds light and shade by switches of rich colour, not by lightening up or greying down his palette.

This little book with its sharp printing does a good job of displaying all the detail and richness in these artworks. Little captions on each page show the dimensions, media and support for each painting (mostly oils on linen). In a way it is a flattery to this graphic artist to demonstrate that his images lose none of their punch in such a condensed reproduction, however splendid and impressive they look in a gallery setting on a large wall.

Books in the Sparrow series come at a trivial price. While the Kent Williams book only includes some 45 pages of artworks, it should be realised that much longer art books can often contain little more art thanks either to effusive writing by authors or budgeting decisions by publishers. If you want to pay a token sum for a compact portfolio of quality art, you cannot get much better value than this nifty book of dramatic paintings.

Books specs:
Hardcover (but no dustjacket), 48 pages, 6.2 x 5.8 inches, 45 illustrations

A couple more books from the Sparrow series:

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