The Laws of Nature

Friday, September 17, 2010

Art Instruction Books

Photo: A wonderful group of students at a rehabilitation center beginning to learn watercolors.

Now that I’m back in New York, I decided to look through my bookshelves and was alarmed by the magnitude of my neglected collection of art instruction books. I suspect that I’m not the only person on the planet to own a large number of these books. I also suspect I’m not the only person guilty of reading through an art instruction book once or twice, trying a few tips, and then putting it on the bookshelf to collect dust for eternity. I don’t even want to think about how much money I spent on these books!

When I go to the bookstore I’m amazed at how many of these books exist! How do these authors convince a publishing house that they have something new and different worth publishing? Hmmm… this thought led me to reread the introductions of my books to see. Here’s a sampling:

Creative Discoveries in Watermedia by Pat Dews. Introduction statement: “Techniques are methods of rendering artistic works, procedures used to translate your ideas into finished paintings. Being familiar with a variety of techniques makes it easier to represent your ideas. This book includes many techniques for starting and finishing successful paintings, as well as how to generate excitement, create new surfaces, correct mistakes, crop creatively and much more.”

Master Disaster: Five Ways to Rescue Desperate Watercolors by Susan Webb Tregay. Introduction statement: “There are two reasons that this book is different from others on watercolor painting. First, I have learned that the detailed planning of a painting is not always desirable. Flexibility, rather than the perfect plan, is what makes finishing a painting possible. This book will allow you the freedom to be motivated by spontaneous washes of color and flashes of inspiration… Second, I am not writing this to teach you how to paint like me. My purpose is to teach you how to finish your own paintings in your own style. You will learn how to paint like yourself – only better.”

A Proven Strategy for Creating Great Art by Dan McCaw. Introduction statement: “My goal in writing this book is to provide you with a map leading you toward the treasure that lies within you – your individuality, your own voice.”

Watercolor: A New Beginning by Ann K. Lindsay. Introduction statement: “This book is the result of my quest to find a way of teaching watercolor that would work for everyone, that would let anyone experience painting as an enjoyable, playful, and magical part of his or her life. It also came from my own growing understanding that making art is an intuitive process, yet as far as I had seen, it had always been taught from a rational point of view. Increasingly, this just didn’t make sense. I began to feel that teaching techniques, rules, principles, and theories first was simply not appropriate and, more often than not, shut down a person’s own creative process.”

How to Make a Watercolor Paint Itself: Experimental Techniques for Achieving Realist Effects by Nita Engle. Introduction statement: “Rather than teach you the basics of composition, color theory, and the like – information you can readily find elsewhere – I will tell you how I discovered my own identity in painting, how I found out why I do what I do, and help you find your own answers so you can turn the techniques I present to your own use.”

Color and Light for the Watercolor Painter: How to Get the Effects You Want Every Time by Christopher Schink. Introductory statement: “Most of the painters I encounter in my classes have developed enough skill in color mixing to produce a great variety of the colors they desire. Their problem is not technique; where they have difficulty is in deciding where, when, and how to use their mixtures, and most importantly, in understanding why certain choices work or do not work. In this book I have attempted to provide answers to these problems, but not necessarily the infallibly right answers, and certainly not the only answers.”

Creative Watercolor Workshops: Challenge Your Artistic Boundaries With 25 Fund Painting Exercises by Mark E. Mehaffey. Introduction statement: “Why write another book about painting? The answer is simple: I am a teacher. I have ideas that I believe will help artists. But this book is designed to get you to think about what you want to accomplish rather than to just follow along. This book will help you paint like you, not like me.”

And so on…

In rereading these lofty goals I can see why I was enticed to purchase these books and it’s true that I learned something from each one. BUT, it can be confusing to try to learn and adhere to this myriad of approaches to creating art. In the balance, were all these books helpful or confusing? Did they help me learn to paint like “me” but only better or did they lead me to imitate? Did they influence my aesthetic sensibility to the point of conformity?

I must ponder these questions and, as I do so, I think I’ll head to the bookstore and find another book!

What do you think?


Susan Roux said...

I'm so guilty of all of this! Painting came naturally to me. I read books to be able to talk to others about art, for a better understanding of what I was doing and to improve. I tried so many different things.

In the end I was so confused and had completely lost myself! It took me several frustrating years to find myself again... Though I must admit, my work had improved.

I stopped reading them all together...

M said...

I have a whole bookcase of such books and I have read most of them. This is how I acquired my technical knowledge in the absence of a fine art background. I certainly didn't try to utilize all of the ideas gained from my reading and I've probably forgotten most of what I read, but I think the process was valuable. It taught me what was possible and gave me permission to be experimental. That is how I found my artistic voice. Now the books either gather dust or I lend them out to friends who know I have a better collection of painting books than the local library.

Unknown said...

Hi Susan - I'm glad to know that you eventually found yourself. It's the MOST important aspect of being an artist and the only chance we have at being original and meaningful in our work. Like you, I did learn something from these books but eventually had to lay them aside and think for myself.

Hi Margaret - I like the way you put it: these books gave you insight to the possibilities and permission to experiment. That's so true and a good reason to read these books and think about them. It's great that you loan out your books. You must have quite a collection if it amounts to more than the local library!

Carolyn Abrams said...

Yes, i am guilty of all of the above. But at the time it was my only source of self-teaching in the absence of formal instruction. And I became addicted to them until i realized they all started to sound the same. That is when i had to look outside of my books for someone to fill in the blanks of things i needed to know that were not found in the books. That is where you came in Kathy and taught me the basics that just are not there in the instruction books. This information was amazing to me and truly helped me find my "true voice". I am still in love with books but more for the creativity and inspiration than the instruction.

Meera Rao said...

I agree with others -the books show me what is possible, especially since I didn't go to art school. Reading about and looking at all the different styles confirm that there isn't just one way of doing art -so to just go ahead and do my own thing :) The color photos in all the art instruction examples usually inspire and spur me get back to my own experiments.

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy, Welcome back. I hope you had a nice time away.

I am conflicted about the books. I have learned quite a bit, particularly technical information. But, I also have the urge not to look at them any more and just try to solve problems my own way. Then, I worry I'll miss something important...back and forth!

I think I'll try to focus more on art history and great artists.

-Don said...

When I was a teenager I bought several Walter T. Foster "how to" books. I still have them and enjoy thumbing through them - more for nostalgia than actual info, but I find useful nuggets in there sometimes. Since college, though, I have bought very few instruction books. I usually find them boring and often stifling. The last instruction books I bought were when I started learning about desktop publishing, specifically Photoshop, in the mid-90's.

I love books on art, but almost all of mine are centered around art history and specific artists. In fact, I've been packing my library up lately in preparation of an impending move and have already filled at least 10 decent sized boxes, with at least 5 or 6 more boxes worth to pack. But, those will be done at the last minute as I love to reference them too much.

One book I value that is like an art instruction book is titled "Techniques of the Great Masters of Art" published by Quantum Press. They break down the techniques, palettes, under-drawings and brushwork of art masters as far back as Giotto and as recent as Lucien Freud. To see via x-rays how da Vinci changed the inclination of the Christ Child's head in "The Virgin of the Rocks", or how van Eyck made changes in the placement of the hands between under-drawing and finished painting in "The Arnolfini Marriage" opened my eyes to the realization that it doesn't matter how we get to the final product as long as we're happy with it. Since reading this book I look at paintings much differently. I don't just look at them, I look into them.

Can you tell I missed these conversations? I sure am long-winded today...


Unknown said...

Hi Meera - your experience illustrates why these books are important to many of us. Thanks for sharing!

Hi Peggy - like you, I've stopped reading these books and am now reading art history/theory. Thanks!

Hi Don - I can identify with your statements. I, too, have learned a great deal from books about historical work/techniques and often marvel at the innovations and perseverence in the midst of adversity of some artists. It's inspiring. Packing to move can be trying, and I wish you and yours the very best during this transition! Keep painting ... and keep blogging. It's good to hear your "voice."

Ann said...

Art books are so easily addicting! I have acquired quite a few, and they are mostly selected because I admire that artist's work and so hope to learn something about their particular technique. The art books I return to most often though, are those that address issues of creativity, when I am looking for inspiration or the courage to try something new.

Unknown said...

Hi Ann - I agree. We all need to revisit those authors that encourage us to find our own voice, our own unique path and vision. These are the books that truly inspire us!

Anonymous said...

Hi Kathy,
I think I have to revise my comment. Maybe I'm in denial or something. I looked around my house and saw "hot to" books strewn in multiple places. It seems I read little bits now and then. And, I'm actively working on exercises from Linda Kemp's "Drawing Outside the Lines". I must still be looking for the nuggets of gold..probably always will! I think your previous statement is most compelling. I like it when I can apply a lesson to my way of doing things. Thanks!

Unknown said...

Hi Peggy - I, too, was surprised when I looked through my library and found so many "how to" books. I rarely look at them anymore, but they served a purpose when I needed them. Thanks for your comment!

Tonya Vollertsen said...

Hi Kathy, so glad to see you back at the blog! I love my art instruction books and get sustenance from them them and visit with them as old and dear friends. I sometimes get them out in groups that seem to go together and look at them with my morning coffee over several days depending on what solution I am looking for at the time.
I remember something that really stuck with me as an informative comment was by Colorado Artist and a teacher of mine, Buffalo Kaplinski, "Everything you put down on the paper is an interpretation of what you see"
I love to see how different people interpret some of the same things I am trying to convey myself. For some reason when I see some possibilities it starts my own imagination going and I come up with new things myself. I have to admit I have culled my books and brought a specific list of them with me to Bahrain and left so many others at home.

Unknown said...

Hi Tonya - it's great that you are able to glean so much from your art instruction books. I'm guilty of not spending enough time with the ones I own and should probably follow your lead and revisit them. I hope your life abroad is exciting and wonderful! Thanks for stopping by and commenting.