Books for the art lovers on your Christmas list

A student asked for book recommendations for Christmas. I’ve gone over my own bookshelves in my mind’s eye. If the binding is worn from overuse, or it’s a new acquisition I’m excited over, I’m recommending it.

I frequently recommend Art & Fear: Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It lays out the fundamental rule of artmaking: if you want to be an artist, you have to make art, lots of it, over and over again.

Drawing is a skill, not a talent. Not being able to do it holds you back as a painter. Sketching from Square One to Trafalgar Square, by Richard Scott, is a series of exercises that will take you from simple measurement to complex architecture.

Art of Sketching will help you expand your drawing to be more intuitive and spontaneous. The Practice and Science of Drawing is a classic Harold Speed text from Dover Art Instruction. It’s dated (especially in its opinions of ‘modern’ art) but contains much useful information on drawing technique.
If you’re looking for similar exercises in figure drawing, I recommend Drawing the Human Form, by William A. Berry. It’s based on anatomy, not style.

Every art studio should have one anatomy textbook. I love Atlas of Human Anatomy, by Frank H. Netter. Netter was both a doctor and an artist, and he did his own beautiful illustrations. There are other, art-targeted, anatomy books, but this provides all the information I need. Since you’re not practicing medicine, you can buy an outdated copy.

Landscape Painting Inside and Out, by Kevin Macpherson, is a clear, concise guide to getting paint from the tube to the canvas.

I have a shelf full of watercolor books, but my primary pigment reference is a website, Handprint, by Bruce MacEvoy. This has replaced the classic Blue and Yellow Don’t Make Green, by David Wilcox. There are many different ways to get watercolor on paper. If you want to buy only one book on the subject, try The Complete Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook, by Gordon MacKenzie.

There are two color books I love. The first is Josef Albers’ Interaction of Color, which is filled with exercises to understand how color works. It’s fifty years old. The writing is dense to our modern sensibilities, but stick with it.

Bright Earth: Art and the Invention of Color, by Philip Ball, is a brilliant, readable treatise on how chemistry and technology have combined to influence art. (It’s far better than Victoria Finlay’s Color, which is merely a travelogue.) When you’re done reading it, you should have a firm handle on the differences between earth, organic and twentieth-century pigments.

I have shelves full of catalogues raisonné, museum guides, and other illustrated histories of art, but following are a few of my favorites:

The Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, by David Silcox, deals with the painters who’ve most influenced me as a landscape painter. Growing up in the shadow of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, I had no concept of twentieth-century realism, but there it was, being made right across border from me.

John Constable: The Making of a Master, by Mark Evans, illustrates a simple truth of landscape painting: it all starts outdoors. I also have Constable’s Skies by the same author. It’s a beautiful picture book.

America after the Fall: Painting in the 1930s, by Judith Barter, et al, is a catalog of Depression-era paintings by some of America’s most important painters. If you’re a fan of Regionalism, you’ll like it.

William Blake’s Watercolors to the Divine Comedy, 2000, by David Bindman is only available on the used-book market now, but it’s one of my favorite books. Of course, I’m energized by Blake and Dante; if you’re not, you won’t care.

I keep returning to Dover Publications’ Albrecht Dürer woodcut and engraving books. They should be subtitled, “so you think you can draw?”

F.C.B. Cadell by Alice Strang, is a book I refer to for composition inspiration. He’s my favorite of the Scottish Colourists.

Frederic Remington: The Color of Night, by Nancy Anderson, et al. One could argue that Remington invented the nocturne. Certainly, nobody did it better.

Vital Passage: The Newfoundland Epic of Rockwell Kent with a Catalogue Raisonne of Kent’s Newfoundland Works, by Jake Milgrem Wien, is a book I just purchased and love. My buddy Stephan Giannini tells me I should also read Kent’s own travel memoirs, which are extensive. I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

N. C. Wyeth: New Perspectives by Jessica May, et al, is a catalog for a show originating at Portland Museum of Art and Brandywine Museum. Wyeth was, of course, much more than an illustrator.

(As ever, I am not getting a spiff for these recommendations. I used Amazon links for convenience, but by all means order these from your local bookseller instead.)