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Art Books: What I’m Reading and Why

Art books

One stack of books from my art studio

Art books and what I like about them can’t be covered in one writing. There are just too many, and too many kinds. I’ve chosen here to focus on books I’ve been looking at most recently. (The others I’ll bring up at another time.)

art booksThe Brilliant History of Color in Art
by Victoria Finlay
If you’re curious about where paint colors originated, this is a fun place to start. Did you know that it was not uncommon for women in the late 1700s to late 1800s to die of makeup overdose? This came from using “lead white,” a popular but poisonous makeup foundation that was also considered by Roman artists to be the best white paint available.

Did you know that dried cochineal bugs make a bright red? Yes, bugs—along with rocks, minerals and twigs—have gone into making paint colors. Bright and shiny cinnabar was pulled from mercury mines. Indigo derives from a weed plant from India called nila, meaning “dark blue.”

International Klein Blue, a color we associate with the midcentury French artist Yves Klein, was not a name for the artist’s signature color at all, but rather intended as the name of the process for creating a deep velvety surface by suspending his favorite blue powder in resin.

This book offers an entertaining overview to anyone looking to explore color history from an artistic perspective. There are plenty of visual examples of art pieces to go along with the color histories, which helps to clarifying usage.

I briefly wondered how much I would care about any of this, given that I work primarily digitally. I use a Wacom electronic pen and pad, dipping my virtual brush into the colors of Photoshop. I’m probably never going to be crushing up twigs or dried cochineal bugs to make paint. I gotta say, to my surprise I’m enjoying the fun facts.

Pulse of mixed mediaThe Pulse of Mixed Media
by Seth Apter
Mixed media artist, instructor, author and designer Seth Apter asks 100 other mixed media artists some atypical questions in this compilation of artists’ personal views on art, creativity, trends, regrets, obstacles and more. This is not to say you get to know the artists intimately. What you get is to know some very specific things about their perspectives, which makes for a more intimate way of viewing their work. That works for me.

Questions that I think inspired some of the more intriguing and unexpected responses :

What do you think your preferred art medium says about your personality?
Can you share a secret?
If you could sell one piece of art to anyone, whom would you want to buy it?
Have you ever lost a friendship over art?

There’s some richly interesting art represented here. Visually, I’m getting a big kick out of it.

Henri de Toulouse Latrec by Giles NeretHenri de Toulouse-Lautrec
by Gilles Nerét
Nerét’s telling of Toulouse-Lautrec’s role as a painter journalist of his time has almost as much dramatic flair as the artist’s work. It paints a multi-dimensional narrative of an artist whose aristocratic heritage allowed him the means to submerge himself in the worlds of Parisian brothels and adult entertainment, and to create an atmospheric visual record of the people populating them in the late 18oos. Viewing paintings in a book is never as good as the real thing, but I think the reproductions in this book—from the oil paintings, to ink or charcoal on paper, to the lithographs—all show pretty nicely and tell the tale the author intends.

In February, I had the good fortune to visit the MOMA’s The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters exhibit in NYC. I was taken with the artist’s mastery of graphic composition in his poster art. His color blocking and paint splattering techniques add depth and texture to the almost magical way he had with drawing a line. This book has been sitting in my collection for about a decade, but it was the MOMA exhibit that inspired me to pick it up again. I’m sorry to say the exhibit ended in March, so I can’t suggest you see it! Toulouse-Lautrec’s impressive work and life story has staying power, though, so there will surely be more exhibits in years to come.

Show Your WorkShow Your Work by Austin Kleon
by Austin Kleon
I guess I took a backward approach to the world of encouragement and advice that Austin Kleon offers to artists. I skipped his first book Steal Like an Artist entirely and went straight to Show Your Work. Now that I’m convinced what a smart guy he is, I’ll definitely be reading the first book, too.

As Mr. Kleon likes to say, he’s a writer who draws. As a result, his down to earth advice is peppered with hand drawn graphs, newspaper blackout art, flow charts and pie charts, as well as the occasional hand written list. Standing confidently in defiance of the manic self-promotion frenzy that exists on social media, his advice is simple: Teach what you know. Learn to take a punch. Think process, not product. Tell good stories.

In other words, be human. Also, be nice. Don’t be a schmuck. Focus on doing your best work. Sound boring? It’s not. If you’re a creative person looking to make connections with other humans, and to get your work out into the world, this is a grounding read. Sobering, with chuckles.

Hand Lettering Ledger by Mary Kate McDevittHand Lettering Ledger
by Mary Kate McDevitt
As I began to study the illustrations in this book, I came to truly appreciate the level of detail the author and hand letterer Mary Kate McDevitt has gone to in order to show the anatomy of hand letters. This isn’t the kind of book you can fly through if you want to develop hand lettering skills. You’ve got to make the time to do the exercises.

As McDevitt explains, hand lettering is a different beast than calligraphy and typography:

Typography is the art of arranging type: specifically, to be prepared for press…One key factor that differentiates typography from lettering is that in lettering you do not use a typeface. Because, of course, lettering is completely hand drawn.

Calligraphy is a bit more similar to lettering, but calligraphy is the design and execution of lettering, written with one smooth stroke using a brush or pen. The key distinction is that in lettering letters are drawn and in calligraphy they are written. And in calligraphy requires little or no retouching.”

I got this book because I was considering what else I might like incorporating into my multi-layered images. I typically work with electronic painting media, but occasionally I crave a more tactile process. My work is usually mixed media—it often begins with a base of my photography, scanned hand drawings or paper collage— and that’s what got me carving my own rubber stamps, and what inspired me to get better at hand lettering. I saw these skills adding to my repertoire of mixed media tools.

I was nervous putting pencil to page in one of the workspaces provided for one of the lettering exercises. My first attempt came out pretty well, I think, and I’d say that’s due to the author’s clear explanations and guidance. If you get this book to develop your hand lettering skills, keep an eraser at your side lest you become discouraged. (Actually, there’s a handy illustration on pages 12/13 of all the potential lettering tools.) That said, I haven’t gotten very far. It’s sitting on top of my pile, though, so I can grab it easily and get in some practice here and there.

Hand Lettering Ledger by Mary McDevitt

Some illustrative pages from Hand Lettering Ledger by Mary Kate McDevitt

Art inc. bookArt Inc.
by Lisa Congdon
This is the only book on this list that I don’t have a physical copy of. I bought a downloadable version on Google Play Books to read on my tablet. I take it to bed with me. I believe it motivates my spirit to leap out of bed the next morning and immediately do something to further my art business!

My art business looms big on my mind this year. I’m consciously putting more energy into learning and implementing practices that will serve my business. For example, how to set up my website to take orders and payments for poster art prints (which I’m happy to say it is NOW CAPABLE OF) and how to market my work more effectively. Or how to streamline my systems to keep better track of sales and productivity, which is also what inspired me to sign up for a years’ worth of one-on-one sessions at my local Apple store. But that’s another story.

I like this book a lot. It’s easy to understand, and it’s like having a mentor who doesn’t know you but is nevertheless on your side. Most of the ideas and practices are not new to me, but it helps to have reinforcement of them. It covers everything I can think of, starting with the earlier stages of finding one’s voice, making the time for art, and building a brand. It then moves logically into ways of managing your time and your files, promoting and selling your work, exhibiting, licensing your work and negotiating contracts, getting representation and/or agency (or not), and managing success.

The book also contains interviews with artists other than Ms. Congdon, so you’ll get their opinions on business practices as well.

If the name Lisa Congdon sounds familiar, you might remember her A Collection A Day book, a series of photographs of 365 collections designed and published by UPPERCASE.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art…
offers free downloadable art history books.

I haven’t downloaded any yet, but perhaps if I tell you they’re available I’ll remember to take advantage of them myself.

Happy reading,


I invite you to visit my online galleries.

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