Art Books: What’s On Your Shelf?

89-art-book-library.jpgWe’re all curious about the contents of other artists’ studios. How are things laid out? What type of lighting is employed? What color are the walls? But one of the most interesting questions is: What art books do they keep on hand?

Books can play a valuable role in the success of an artist. They carry on a lineage of information passed from one generation to the next. A debt of gratitude is owed to those industrious teachers and painters who felt the need, or desire, to take pen to paper and place their observations, understandings, and experiences down to enlighten future generations.

Western art has had a long history of influential artist/authors and much has been made of the opinions they expressed. As valuable as these works can be, however, it’s imperative that we place them in the context of their time. Scientific knowledge evolves, providing heightened understanding of the way we see and the phenomenon of light. Tastes change. What was acceptable in one time becomes passé and trite in another. However, the core observations and reasonings of these writers retain importance. As scholars instruct: if we don’t learn from the past, we are destined to repeat it.

Through study of these “text books” on the craft of painting, we create our own way, adapting what we read into our process. With time we shed dependency upon them for the “answers” of how to paint and instead rely on them as comforting reminders of art foundations—of the “why” certain things work in our paintings. They become the combined observations of many generations, providing a pool of information upon which we form our individual beliefs.

Personally, I have few historic favorites on the subject of landscape: Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John F. Carlson, published in 1929 (the landscape painters’ bible); Landscape Painting by Birge Harrison, published in 1909 (a series of impromptu lectures given to the Art Students League summer school in Woodstock, N.Y. (Harrison was a teacher to Carlson); and The Art of Landscape Painting in Oil Colour by Sir Alfred East, published in 1906 (an interesting, highly informative read filled with strong opinions). Another must have is: Composition, Understanding Line, Notan and Color by Arthur Wesley Dow, published in 1899 (an eye opening exercise in design). Acquiring copies of these books use to require a treasure hunt through used bookstores. Now with book-find sites on the Internet and public domain publishers, picking up out-of-print treasures can be a mouse click away. Digital versions are also becoming accessible as PDF files that are easily downloaded to a computer. Check out “Google Books” or do a web search for available copies.

Today’s art publishers, such as North Light Books, continue to provide instructional art books filled with sage advice for the beginner to the advanced. Many of these will undoubtedly become the treasured studio guides to a future generation of painters.

What are your favorite “historic” art books? Your favorite contemporary art books? Please share highlights from your personal library by posting a comment here.

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16 thoughts on “Art Books: What’s On Your Shelf?

  1. Debra Mickelson

    So many great ones have already been mentioned. To add to the list, for general instruction, I have found one of the best to be "Painting Better Landscapes" by Margaret Kessler. Packed full of really informative, useful info for the oil painter. I have two copies; one that is all high-lighted and marked up and starting to fall apart from use! Other good ones are "Fill Your Oil Paintings with Light & Color" by Kevin MacPherson, "Timeless Techniques For Better Oil Paintings" by Tom Browning, and the new Bob Rohm book, "The Painterly Approach". And anything by Albert Handel or Richard Schmidt.

  2. Phyllis Cutcher

    In addition to Richard Schmid’s book and several others mentioned above, I have Harley Brown’s books "Eternal Truths for Every Artist", "Inspirations for Every Artist" and "Confessions of a Starving Artist". He is one of the funniest, most congenial and talented pastel artists I have ever met. With his way of teaching, you couldn’t help but learn even though you didn’t realize it at the time.

  3. Suzi Zefting-Kuhn

    I agree wholeheartedly with adding Robert Henri’s book ‘The Art Spirit’ to the list of must have’s for any art studio as well as Richard Schmid’s ‘Alla Prima Everything I know about Painting’. I just heard Richard Schmid at the 2009 Portrait Society Conference of America and found him to be a wonderful surprise. He is charming, funny and not in any way ‘full of himself’. I would also suggest Mary Whyte’s book ‘An Artist’s Way of Seeing’. She is a very poised, talented, spiritual artist who stole the show at the same conference. Another surprise to me were artists Scott Burdick and his wife Susan Lyon. Susan has a book out called ‘Visions and Voyages’ ( which is a visual dream . Her work is so sensitive. I tend to be a book hoarder and those are the ones I have near me at all times lately.

  4. Gina Lento

    I have Robert Henri’s book….I picked up Carlson’s book on the recommendation that Richard had in one the of the magazines…

    I think that the book "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Tracey Chevalier and "Lydia Cassatt reading the morning newspaper" By Harriet Scott Chessman are both great and so is "The Sistine Secrets" and anything by Dan Brown regarding art fr recreational reading.

    "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" is a must have. So is a good anatomy book.

    For sketch books, "Watercolor Journeys" by Richard Schilling is a nice little book and I love "The Art of Travel with a Sketchbook" by Mari Le Glatin Keis.

    Daniel Smith’s website has some interesting Inksmiths worth readin, my favorite is the 3D color wheel.

  5. Phyllis Von Holdt

    I love Harley Brown and his books! Another book I really like is: Keys to Drawing with Imagination by Bert Dodson. I pick up this book and start one of his exercises and then another and then . . .

  6. Robert Sloan

    I was about to start off with Carlson’s Landscape Guide but you mentioned that already. Charles R. Knight’s book "Animal Drawing: Anatomy and Action for Artists" is a favorite that I’ve worn out four copies. Jack Hamm, "Drawing Scenery: Landscapes and Seascapes" and "How to Draw Animals."

    A friend of mine gave me two oversize volumes in binders out of the set of textboks from the Famous Artists Correspondence School that include essays by Norman Rockwell and numerous others — they are wonderful. They date from the 1950s or so and they are full of good information even if some sections like the bit on saving a morgue of physical photo references from magazines are a bit dated.

    I can only hope the present-day school still uses these texts. I hate to think of Rockwell’s excellent lessons and essays out of print and gone forever. Nothing in it really talks about color much but that may have been the following volume. I know it’s not complete. When I was a kid I wanted that course and my family thought it wasn’t worth the money. They were so wrong.

    A class by Charlotte Herczfeld aka Colorix on pushed that up another notch, so I bought "Capturing Radiant Light & Color" by Susan Sarbach, which is great but I’m still working my way through the Carlson guide before studying it.

  7. Becky Hicks-Roesler

    I couldn’t live without: "The Art of Perspective-The Ultimate Guide For Artists In Every Medium" by Phil Metzger, "Capturing Radiant Light & Color In Oils and Soft Pastels" by Susan Sarback, and "A Painter’s Guide to Design and Composition" by Margot Schulzke. There’s tons of others, but these are my current favorites.

  8. Ruth Rodgers

    I agree with the addition of Robert Henri’s Art Spirit. Among contemporary works, I find myself turning often to Elizabeth Mowry’s The Poetic Landscape–the first art book I ever read which spoke to me of the "why" we paint what we paint, as well as the how…

    Also, been meaning to buy the Schmid book, and will soon, based on these comments.


  9. Mimi

    My bible is Richard Schmid’s, Alla Prima,Everything i know about painting,[signed]as well as Schmid’s Painting the Figure[out of print]. In Addition, Problem solving for oil painters, by Gregg Kruntz is full of good info.
    To inspire, David Laffel’s book,the big set of Sargent books and anything by Wolf Kahn.
    If you really want to learn color,do the color charts in
    Schmid’s Alla Prima!

  10. Bernard Victor

    I’d go along with the Anthea Cullen book. It is a very comprehensive guide to not just Impressionist painting but the whole field of modern painting.

    Another good volume on Impressionism is Robert Herbert’s ‘Impressionism, art, pleasure and Parisian Society’, which gives a very good background as to the inspiration behind impressionist painting.

    A very good series over here in the UK is ‘The Ecyclopaedia of….Techniques’ series from Search Press. The series includes, Pastels Techniques, Oil Painting Techniques, Acrylic Techniques and Watercolour Techniques, all of which are covered in a great deal of depth with excellent illustrations.

  11. Isabel Forbes

    A book that was a turning point for me at art school was "Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation" by Frederick Franck. Other favorites are "Alla Prima: Everything I Know About Painting" by Richard Schmid,"Painting by Design: Getting to the Essence of Good Picture-Making (Master Class)" by Charles Reid, "Edward Hopper: A Journal of His Work" by Edward Hopper, Deborah Lyons, and Brian O’Doherty and to add a little spice to this mixture there is "The Art of Richard Diebenkorn" by Jane Livingston. I love my art books. If I ever get in an art slump, looking at a good art book can pull me out of it. I look forward to seeing what others post. Thanks!

  12. Marion Boddy-Evans

    It’s hard choosing, so many books are favorites for different reasons. For technique info: "The Art of Impressionism: Painting techniques and the making of modernity" by Anthea Callen. For the pleasure of dipping into his letters and the sheer beauty of the books: 3-vol boxed set of Van Gogh’s letters. For artwork I’ll never see in a museum, Andy Goldsworthy’s books. For combining words and images, Tom Phillips’s A Humument. And that monster The Art Book (the original big edition, not the pocket one) which was one of the first art books I bought and introduced me to all sorts of artists.