Here are a few art books which I have found helpful and inspiring.
Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne: I spent years looking for someone to teach me landscape composition – most art teachers are frustratingly vague about this subject*. In this book, all is coherently and sensibly explained. The dozen or so formulae are given with examples and, also, very importantly, compositions to avoid are shown – this part of the book stopped me wasting even more time producing real clangers. The text is worth reading carefully as it also touches on the ideals and objectives of the artist as well as painting technique.
* A notable exception to this rule is my landscape teacher Marc Dalessio whose quiet gentleness hides a fiercely unerring eye and a remarkable ability for seeing beauty at every turn.
Velasquez: The Technique of Genius by Jonathan Brown and Carmen Garrido: This book is a joy for artists, firstly because it shows many of Velasquez’s best works in high quality close-ups and secondly because it explains the details of the analyses of the paints Velasquez used and shows the results of the radiographs and infrared reflectography used on the pictures. Brown is Professor of Fine Art at New York University and Garrido is Head of Technical Services at the Prado.
The Art of Velasquez by R.A.M. Stevenson. A thorough biography of the artist with some excellent chapters on his major paintings. Of particular note is the 7th chapter on modelling and brushwork where I found echoes of the advice Charles Cecil often gave us at school – to stand back and get the big picture, the “tout ensemble”, and not paint piecemeal which gives the feeling of a crowd of vignettes ready to be cut out individually and framed. The book has a slightly convoluted style which gives at times the feeling of wading through treacle, but if the reader takes courage and wades on, he will gain a thoughtful insight into the genius of Velasquez.
The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed. A practical book. Speed teaches the mainstays of line and mass drawings, rhythm and variety and peppers his text with drawings and paintings by Ingres, Velasquez and Holbein and explains the techniques in them and their significance. The prose is stilted but worth struggling with.
Oil Painting Techniques and Materials by Harold Speed. Here Speed starts off with a veiled and oddly misplaced critique of “modern art” but then explains in rich detail tonal values, brush stroke, highlights, colour, glazes, materials etc. Some excellent tips on portraiture. Again he helps us along with examples of work by Velasquez, Gainsborough, Vermeer and Reynolds. The prose is as laborious as in his Practice and Science of Drawing but the book is rewarding.
Traité d’Anatomie Artistique by Paul Richer. One of the first good books on anatomical drawings. Richer was a professor of anatomy at the Académie de Médecine and at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris in the 19th century and also an accomplished artist. I am not sure if the drawings were to help medical students in their studies of anatomy or to help art students in their understanding of the human form, but they have helped me. The main muscles are named as are most parts of the skeleton. Only recently available in English.
Sight-Size Portraiture by Nicholas Beer. Nicholas Beer teaches at my old art school, Charles H. Cecil Studios and has his own atelier. The book is an exact and clear explanation of the methods taught there, right down to the cleaning of brushes (use soap – turpentine damages the hairs). My only dissatisfaction is in the history of the use of sight-size which is well researched but, I feel, so short it leaves me craving for more.
John Singer Sargent by Richard Ormond. This comprehensive monograph of Sargent’s work comes in seven volumes. It is well researched and although the photographs of his paintings are very good, the details of certain pictures are few and at times ill-chosen.
The Nude by Kenneth Clark. Scholarly and readable work on the nude in the Western World (mostly). First published in 1956, it is considered an important study of the genre. Clark gives his own insights and opinions on the quality of various works with authority (eg. his comparison of the Esquiline Venus at the Louvre and her sister in Rome). The book is not a chronological history although the sequence of events is not far from the author’s mind throughout – it is based on a series of lectures given by Clark at the National Gallery in Washington. Each chapter explores a theme (eg. Apollo, Venus, the Naked and the Nude). More recent editions have much better photographs.