Last night I came across an explanation of why that might be - hence this post today. First a preamble to state where I was at prior to last night.
Art instruction books I rate highly include:
- good examples of artwork by artists who are recognised leaders in their particular field. Basically, the artwork is excellent of its type, is a pleasure to look at, may well expand my horizons in terms of what's possible and provides visual stimulation for my own work. (eg see The Drawing Book - into the vivid heart of drawing)
- have a clear view as to the target audience (beginners / improvers / advanced) and differentiate the content and/or instruction appropriately
- books which don't short change beginners (eg see So you want to learn how to draw....... )
- focus on the main topic and don't pad the book out with information which is largely redundant given the audience it is aimed at. In fact they well may do the reverse and provide appendices which are really interesting, provide a lot of new knowledge and keep me up far too late at night!
- books which are written by people who are experts in their field rather than by jobbing authors who have been commissioned to fulfil a task. In other words books or articles which communicate and stimulate because they are written by people who can write well (or have a good editor) and have
- up to date knowledge of their topic
- extensive practical experience of their topic
- real enthusiasm for their topic
- a positive approach to learning and development - and the sharing of ideas and techniques, and
- sometimes a unique perspective and/or challenging ideas on their topic.
In my view, art instruction books which disappoint tend to have:
- not a lot of content - lots of pictures to fill the space instead!
- artwork which hurts my eyes (I did try to find a number of different ways of saying this - but this is what it boils down to!)
- authors who fail to demonstrate any real skill in the media they are using. It's not their specialist area and a very generous description of the skill level of some would be 'serious hobby artist'.
- contain mistakes or have not been well researched - which tends to undermine the credibility of the rest of the content and any other books by that author
- content which starts to looks very familiar - and after flicking through a few more pages I realise it is old content being recycled with a new cover.
This is a conclusion which is frequently reinforced when I do hit a really good bookshop selling art books - such as the flagship Waterstones in Piccadilly or Hatchards, also on Piccadilly. (see Gardens in Art: 2 bookshops and 1001 Gardens)
An alternative perspective - and the need for a rethink......
However last night, I read Bruce MacEvoy's take on the economics of publishing and editing standards and the whole process of producing art instruction books - and I've concluded I need to rethink my perspective.
I have a huge amount of respect for Bruce and his website handprint. It is both an amazing endeavour and a stunning website. Part of the site is dedicated to watercolours (and pigments and paints, colour vision and book reviews among other things). This part of the site contains the most amazing amount of expert knowledge and detailed content which is of huge help to all those interested in watercolours - while also providing a wealth of information for all of us who are interested in, for example, lightfastness and colour vision and theories. It's the biproduct of both diligent research, extensive reading and a huge commitment to share and inform for free - and it now gets over 2,500 visitors a day.
The content of Bruce's article (see below) may well surprise some readers of this blog.
All I can say is that it surprised me. Then I realised it explained some of the particular ways in which some art instruction books tend to disappoint me. I confess I alternated between chortling in the way you do when somebody says something out loud that you've been thinking privately (it's an 'emperor's new clothes' thing!) and experiencing a sudden movement as my jaw dropped and my mouth gaped.
So - finally - here is buyer beware - which is Bruce's explanation of the background to the production of art books.
Buyer bewareIt certainly explains why I am so often disappointed when looking at new art books - and also why some articles in some art magazines fall short in meeting my expectations. (I'd also add there are some articles in the same magazines which I find very helpful and interesting to read - I just think it's a very great pity that the standard slips at times).
A caution on the use of artist books and magazines: they are, after all, in a business.
handprint - books
'Buyer beware' also includes "five reliable earmarks of art books to avoid". I agree with and endorse every statement he makes in this section.
I recommend you also read some of his book reviews and his comments on factual errors and misunderstandings of basic concepts contained in some books - such as very loose use of the term 'color'. Not being a watercolour expert, I've just had to revise my opinion of one or two - hence why you're not seeing a post about books which focus on mixing colours today!
For me, his perspective was reinforced when I also realised that Bruce shares my views on some of the books which I recommend. Here are his links to his reviews of books also recommended by me in the last two days (see links below):
- Color Choices by Stephen Quiller - a Handprint review
- Color in Contemporary Painting by Charles LeClair - a Handprint review
- Making Colour Sing by Jeanne Dobie - a Handprint review
- Color - Right from the Start by Hilary Page - a Handprint review