One of many, many shelves for "Art Books"
In my teaching work, students occasionally ask me what books I would recommend for learning more about art-making. I say “occasionally” because I find the majority of young people allergic to the printed word and perplexed by the concept of independent learning. (Sigh.) So, in honor of you curious students of art, I’ve compiled some rough reading lists. (Also, there are lots of films, because film is a brilliant medium for learning about visual disciplines.)
FOR DRAWING: The practice of drawing is a terrible thing to try to learn from a book, but once in a while authors explain ideas well, or publish beautiful illustrations that demonstrate real seeing. The Natural Way to Draw, by Kimon Nicolaides; The Practice and Science of Drawing, by Harold Speed; Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards; and Die Gestalt des Menschen, by Gottfried Bammes
FOR PAINTING: Again, only painting will teach you painting. Hawthorne on Painting, by Mrs. Charles Hawthorne; The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri; and maybe What Painting Is, by James Elkins. Also, the film El Sol de Membrillo will blow your mind.
ART HISTORY/THEORY: General Textbooks are a necessary evil. Also, A Short Guide to Writing About Art, by Sylvan Barnet. Afterward you can go very deep very quickly. Here are some suggestions:
Ancient: Ancient Art History and Ancient Regular History aren’t that different. Art History does more with formal analysis, but this area is mostly about knowing how cultures interact and make things to reflect their ideas and values. I like the Crash Course videos for fun overviews with a few insights. I also like Jared Daimond’s approach found in Collapse, and Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Medieval and Renaissance: Read Genesis, The Gospel of Luke, and Revelations. They are shorter than you think, and account for 80% of the imagery in Christian art. Seriously, DO IT. Vasari’s Lives of the Artists is like a fun trip into pre-modern art history, full of inaccuracy, moralizing, and other bad habits of scholarship. For really good scholarship on this period, read anything by Erwin Panofsky, but especially Studies in Iconology. Also Dürer’s The Painter’s Manual is arguably the first modern textbook in the areas of art and design.
Early Modern/Modern: Aside from dry textbooks and the wealth of primary source literature from this period, I like John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, Kurt Vonnegut’s Bluebeard, and the PBS series, Art21 . Terry Barrett’s Criticizing Art is good for understanding theory and has thankfully replaced its hideous cover. I also recommend reading monographs, exhibition catalogs, journals, essays, and interviews BY or ABOUT any artists that interest you.
DESIGN: Yes, designers! Beyond whatever your actual design instructors tell you to read, I recommend many of the preceding titles, especially Collapse, but also Carol Cragoe’s How to Read Buildings, Bill Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture, the films of Gary Hustwit, or about 75% of the talks on TED. I also strongly recommend Ken Robinson’s books on creativity, like Out of Our Minds.
This list is by no means complete or systematic, but is mostly a blend of things I read when I was a student that still affect me or things I wish my students had read. Also, I linked to Amazon like crazy, but I encourage you to find these titles at your local libraries, used, or independent bookstores. Reviews? Comments? Additions?