Monday, June 29, 2009

On Books on Painting

When I find a book from the last century on painting, even a beginner's book (as most of them are, there are very few advanced books), I buy it (if it is cheap enough). I have many, I'd almost say, most of them, though I am always surprised by what remains out there and how many were published. The best in my opinion, the ones that speak the most to me, range from the 1940's through to the 60's. They are mostly by old white haired guys, who are serious about taking a paint box out into a field. There are earlier classics of course, excellent Dover reprints, but the few decades I refer to seemed to be a Golden era of "hobby" type books, that are serious and helpful. Books from the last 20 or 30 years are almost entirely useless, I gloss over them, and pick out very few, they seem uninspired, too photographic and without feeling, and are mostly regurgitating things said better elsewhere. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, Charles Reid and Richard Schmid are two obvious examples (and to me, two comically opposite personalites, the humble and likeable, and the vain and irritating).

The first book I recall on painting, checked out from the library when I was a kid, remains my favorite by a long shot. That is Carlson's "Guide to Landscape Painting". It's been reprinted multiple times, proof of its usefulness, and it is the classic "how to" book with basic, timeless advice. His paintings, the real test of the value of what he has to say, are tremendous, though hard to find examples of. He suggests a simple palette, which includes Prussian Blue, a very unusual suggestion, I can't recall it suggested in any other book. In this past week I put Prussian Blue back on my palette, and omitted all other blues, just to see if I could work with it. It gets everywhere, and in everything, as he said in his book, but I trust his advice, and find some promise in it. My old standby has always been Ultramarine, but I didn't realize how limited its range actually was, so I am trying to paint without it for awhile. Carlson is great, the classic New England bespectacled painter with a big round wooden palette.

Recently I purchased off the internet, because they are cheap, almost all of Frederic Taube's books. He was an immigrant, and studied classically before the war. He wrote 20 or so books. I've seen them for years, and have always had a few of the more technical ones, but I never really liked his paintings, or his drawings. Then suddenly I did. His landscapes are weird, goofy even, and his figures are awkward, but they are of a time when this was the "look" I think, and I can see that in other pieces he has done that he shows a very decent sense for a serious portrait. And based on his level of knowledge of technical matters in his books, he must have known a lot, it is quite amazing. And he is honest, opinionated about "modern" art, and to the point. I trust his information, I like him, as a writer and person, and I like the covers on these old books. His son has started a website for him, and features all of his books, so I suppose there will be some sort of rekindling of interest, in part, I think because of his criticism of modernism.

All of the Dover reprints are excellent, Laurie's, Hawthorne, Henri, Slater, etc. , there are plenty of others, they are pithy, and a good window to a time when people were very serious about painting, even amateurs. And there are a host of British books, hobby books really, but as the British seems to take their hobbies seriously, something like landscape painting has dignity in these books, a higher purpose of sorts, and the books are good, and thoughtful. The New Art library, from the 1930s and 40s, printed some of these, but even the newer ones seem good to me.

There is a good book by/about Brackman, an excellent figure painter, and Frank Slater's portrait books are also good, and Jerry Farnsworth, similar in style to Brackman. They are all of a time period which to me seems modern now, the 40s mostly, the last of the dying breed of "realists", skillful but not photographic, structural, products of the hand and heart, and not derivative. I think there is much in these books, and I don't think that there are people or teachers alive now that could speak with the authority that these books have, though I don't really know that for sure. I wish I knew these people, if they are alive now, but consider these books to be my lifelong teachers, and an endless source of instruction.

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