We’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.