On art
Some favourites from my library that have helped me on my art journey.

Book I have found helpful

Some favourites from my library that have helped me on my art journey.

I have all sorts of books in my art library, on technical aspects, artistic aspects such as composition or colour, and art history and the art world. But my most valued books are the books on the practice of art, the ones that talk you through the common struggles of life as an artist.

If I was to choose just one book for an artist to own, it would be Creative Authenticity by Ian Roberts. Plain, straight talk (after a philosophical chapter about what is beauty?) on what you paint and why, and how you go about it, and talent ('You are more than creative enough’). Nourishing daily bread/soul food for an artist.

A similar one is Art & fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland. It is pitched at art students and graduates but there is a lot that holds true for any artist, especially the chapters on ’Fears about yourself’, ‘Fears about others’ as well as ‘Finding your work’.

A refreshing look from a different viewpoint is The creative habit, learn it and use it for life by Twyla Tharp, a top New York choreographer. What an eye-opener, to read such a different perspective yet find so much in common. We painters experience nothing like the pressure on a choreographer. So many people are relying on her creation for their income or return on investment - dancers, musicians, theatre owners, promoters, the people buying the tickets. It certainly puts our blank canvas into perspective.  Has good chapters like ‘your creative DNA’ and ‘An A in failure’.

And of course the classic The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron, as well as her Letters to a young artist. A gem from somewhere in her writing is the concept that you should paint what comes easy to you. Too often people who can dash off, for example, a wonderful still life, leave that behind to struggle with a more ‘worthy’ goal, say serious portraits. She says never forget to do what you find easy, even if you do other stuff too, because what you find easy is obviously where you have some natural ability; art doesn’t have to be hard grind to be good art.
- December 2015

My favourite book on how to draw is Bert Dodson’s best-seller Keys to drawing. It teaches drawing that has personality. The first chapter alone (‘The drawing process’) is worth the price of the book and is one I keep returning to for the fundamentals. The book is now in its 25th anniversary classic edition.

Charles Reid gives good basic instruction on how to actually put the brush in the paint and onto the paper, in his books Flowers in Watercolour (2001) and Watercolour Solutions (2008) and, I think, in some of his DVDs. Any of his books give invaluable advice on the issues every artist encounters - local colour, tonal value, shadow, detail, shapes, colour mixing and more. You get a mini-lesson on various essentials every time you pick one up.

Another best-seller in its 25th anniversary edition is Jean Dobie’s Making colour sing. It too is a book I have come back to again and again - as you progress, there is a more sophisticated aspect to master. It basically has two sections - colour then composition. One thing to note: since it was published a new range of colours came on to the market due to developments in colour technology - the quinacridones for example. So on her website Dobie has published a palette update on colours to use, which I simply printed out and stuck in the front of my copy.

Beyond that, the method I have followed and recommend is to pick good artists whose work you like and learn from them - by book, DVD, magazine article or website (or best of all, a workshop). All instructors have different tips and techniques for what they are trying to accomplish. Your task is to pick up the things you need to learn for whatever personal path you are trying to take, not to become a clone of a particular artist.

For assorted tips on specific technical things (such as ‘make sure a tree trunk has the feeling of air going all the way around it’) combined with big picture thinking, it can be nice to read an older art instruction book: Hawthorne on painting, compiled by Hawthorne’s widow Mrs Charles W Hawthorne (first published 1938); The art spirit by Robert Henri (from 1923); and a book by or on Edgar Whitney, such as his Complete guide to watercolour painting (1974). Whitney was a key influence on some of today’s top US watercolourists, particularly those who design their paintings carefully and including three I have studied with - Mel Stabin, Frank Webb and Joyce Hicks.

Finally, for some instruction on ways to rescue paintings as well as good advice on how to evaluate your paintings and your art journey, Master Disaster by Susan Webb Tregay.

A recent book that is an international best-seller is Japanese author Mario Kondo’s The life-changing magic of tidying. It is really about surrounding yourself with the things that make you feel good - applicable to creating a nurturing studio environment as well as simply appreciating your kit and treating it with care. Her approach has a lot of Zen and mindfulness about it without overtly being so, as well as refreshing insights into dealing with your stuff - and artists accumulate a lot of stuff.

If you have access to the world’s top galleries, on your doorstep or on your computer, where do you start? If you want to ‘learn from the Masters’, what do you look for?

For the history of art you can pick up any brief guide on the major developments, in order to gain a sense of how art works and how it is created; any further learning is optional. (It’s an easy trap for an artist to fall into, to spend more time learning about art than actually doing it. If your art time is limited try to balance lunchtime art reading with sketchbook time too.)

For a comprehensive text, the classic book I enjoyed is The Story of Art by EH Gombrich. But it’s a heavy read to take in slowly over time, not a quick guide. The opening sentences are often quoted: ‘There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.’ A major lesson for me from the book is that when you look at any painting you are seeing the personal choices that particular artist made, whatever era the artist was alive. Even without knowing art history, you can simply bring your attention to the fact that everything in the painting is there by that artist’s choice - for example a gesture or a colour. Do you like those choices? Would you have done something different? (Similarly, everything in your painting is there by your choice.)

Phaidon publishes The art book, an alphabetical compilation of famous artists. For example the page on Andrew Wyeth shows a key example of his work with a few paragraphs telling what to see in it and what he was famous for. Small print at the bottom lists biographical details. A useful book for learning what is valued in the modern art world today, and to see the huge variety of ways artists can express themselves.

A refreshing and irreverent look at modern art is Playing to the gallery by UK’s 2003 Turner prize winner, potter and flamboyant cross-dresser Grayson Perry.

For an eye-opener on how the modern art world (or rather art business) operates, read Seven days in the art world by Sarah Thornton, written around 2007. It reveals the reality of rich collectors, global art fairs, blockbuster artists, art school critiques, glossy art magazines and more. Art sometimes far removed from its humble roots.

If you’re wondering whether you want to return to study for a fine art degree, it is worth reading Why art cannot be taught by James Elkins, a handbook for art students written by a lecturer on art history and criticism. Essentially, these days we value art as a personal statement. How can it be personal if someone else taught it to you? The only meaningful art is that created as you travel your own path. This book tries to find some answers to how and what to teach in art schools, and shows a different aspect of what art is all about.

- March 2016

I have been enjoying a most unusual art book, A new dictionary of art, edited by Robert Good (Peculiarity Press, 2017), subtitled ‘one word, 3,000 definitions’.

It consists of page after page of different definitions of the word ‘art’.

The author has drawn on a wide variety of sources including internet submissions open to anyone. So the listings range from the traditional (p 11, ‘art: a cultural form of expression of human beings’) to individual artists’ personal definitions (p85, ‘art: comes when the artist is floating downstream’); from formal artspeak (p 194, ‘art: the mechanism that an artist uses to share his/her transcendent vision of life with others’) to outspoken viewpoints (p18, ‘art: a hoax perpetrated on the public…’.).

It is listed, of course, in alphabetical order, so ‘art: a thing ….’ is listed before ‘art: a very …’, and well before ‘art: more than …’ Which means the listings all tumble together in a wonderful random kaleidoscope of concepts.

The book has made me realise that I paint for more reasons than I was aware of (as well as identifying some motivations that are definitely not me, which is helpful too.). There is the internal drive to paint, and the idea in my head that I am trying to bring to fruition; the tangible manufactured product, and the inevitable external aspect of communication - if people are going to see my paintings, what do I want them to find there? And every one of these aspects is subject to multiple influences, which different listings bring into focus.

Here are a few definitions of 'art' that resonate with me:
- p26: ‘a personal gift that changes the recipient’;
- p60: ‘an inward dive’;
- p73: ‘anything that moves you’;
- p83: ‘can never be judged or justified’;
- p84: ‘clarifies itself as the artist clarifies his or her own story’;
- p89: ‘creation first and foremost for its own sake’.

An amazing book, best read a page or two at a time, with lots of time for mulling over.

- March 2020

Text copyright Jenelle Latcham, not to be reproduced without permission.