Thursday, June 05, 2008

Buyer beware

I'm a self-confessed bookaholic. I love my art books and I'm never happier than when I find myself in front of a big shelf of art books - which might just have some which I've never seen or read before. However, sad to say, I'm very often disappointed by the calibre of books in stock and on offer in a number of book shops and art shops.

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.
The above is the main reason why I will continue to recommend books which are out of print. They may not be easy to get hold of but they are very often well worth the effort.

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.
When I find too many disappointing books on a shelf, I tend to come to the conclusion that the bookshelves have been "dumbed down". I've almost always tended to blame this on the buyers/stockists - in other words the bookseller or art shop.

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 beware
A caution on the use of artist books and magazines: they are, after all, in a business.
handprint - books
It 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).

'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):
If you have the time, for those who paint using watercolour, I also recommend a thorough exploration of his site - when you have a spare week or two! You can find the site map here - which is also worth checking out even if you don't use watercolour. (Note - click the blue swirly icon to go up a level to the previous page)



  1. Handprint is an excellent site and I referred to it all the time as I got into watercolour last year. I missed this article though, it's so accurate. In fact, I tend not to go for 'how to' books anymore - they fail miserably so often! - but look for inspiration instead and try and work it out myself. As he says about the yellows (not being listed but obviously used), I see so many examples of the reader being mislead - important steps left out or even different paintings used in the step by step photos. I'm always looking out for a book that tells it like it is - that it's not all done with a flourish in ten mins, half an hour max, and it's not about having (that overused word!) fun *all* the time! The Sistine Chapel would never have been painted if Michelangelo wanted to have fun! ;)
    Shame these books can't be more informative, after all, everyone has their own style that surfaces regardless.

  2. I worship Bruce. I don't own a single book about watercolour technique, and probably won't consider buying any until I've absorbed fully all of his free lessons.

  3. Having worked in publishing I can only say ABSOLUTELY! It's about moving inventory. Obviously the content needs to be of a certain calibre to do that, or they'll get bad reviews and such, and then the product won't move. There's a fine balance.

    Handprint is an amazing site. I use it like I use most books: as a dip-in reference. For that reason I find most books quite disappointing. I don't need colour mixing instructions but like colour theory, scientific explanations and analysis of paintings. Even then, my books are never read cover to cover.

    We have to recognise the intended audience for each book, and I think you're quite good at that Katherine. You can be very honest about a book offering a benefit to certain kinds of artists or students.

    Interestingly, when it comes to technique books I'd rather have lots and lots of pictures, I rarely read the text with it. For this reason I've always like the Search Press series "The Encyclopedia of ... Techniques" (oil, acrylic, watercolour, pastel, etc)

    I think I've rambled off topic. ;)

  4. Thanks all - I think I may have inaugurated a meeting of the Handprint Fan Club!

    Felicity - I so agree with your comments about the instant result/let's all have fun approach. It can be fine for some - and I do appreciate that there are people who just want to paint for fun - but it would be nice to see a bit more emphasis on the constant practice and hard work involved as well!

  5. Julie - I don't think you're alone in that view!

    I find that the big trick with Handprint Watercolors is to find the site map which sets out all that it contains and covers and then the updates which highlight the new stuff. Every time I visit I find something new! Mind you it could be an update!!! ;)

  6. Tina - it seems to be me that there are two main forces abroad at present which tend to drive how business operates and products (or books) are conceived and produced
    - the first is essentially a profit-oriented one. This approach seems to be to globalise / homegenise and generally create products which you can sell to the maximum number of people (one might call it the 'one size fits all' approach). It may be economically efficient - BUT is if effective in terms of giving people what they want?
    - the second approach is the 'long tail' dedicated/specialist niche boutique sort of operation - which actually chooses to differentiate very clearly and precisely in order to find an audience or a market and to tailor its product to consumer preferences. Consumers who I might add have typically got very bored with the 'one size fits all' approach to marketing (well this one has anyway!)

    It seems to me that book publishing is no exception to the above. Self-publishing fits very neatly into the 'long tail' mode approach catering for specialist interests eg Richard Bell of Wild West Yorkshire and Alyson Stanfield of Art Biz Blog spring to mind.

    Ditto book selling. There will always be a place for a Waterstones or an Amazon - but hopefully there is also going to be a place for more specialist booksellers as well.

    Now as to the pictures versus text debate - I think there's definitely room for both. It's just that the pictures need to be good and demonstrate what they're supposed to be demonstrating!

    I rate the Encyclopaedia books - but I think they're a good introduction as opposed to the sort of book which might suit people with particular interests.

    Logically, the publishers MUST stay with the product which maximises sales and repeat buyers and consequently enables them to shift inventory. However I don't see any reason why that product should not also be well researched, accurate and edited well even if it is trying to be all things to all people. I think this one of the points Bruce is making - basically that slipshod is not acceptable when selling instruction.

    Of course if you don't need to inventory your product there's a completely different cost paradigm.........

  7. Agree 100 percent with bruce macevoy & you re-'buyer beware'.

    the other thing i've always liked about bruce's site is his journal.
    IMO, it actually has some of the most interesting of concepts embedded into it a way where form isn't contradicted by content ... written in the first voice, feels more like art to me or at least like letters about art, you know Rilke, Van Gogh, Delacroix etc... it was there that he first played with the idea of 'gift images'...

    i've been reading handprint from more or less it's inception on the web, way back before blogs became widespread. in one sense, the online art journal at handprint is the precursor of the 'painting a day' blogs. i was delighted when bruce started blogging & not overly surprised when he gave up 'a painting a day' with his usual caustic humour.

    Handprint - the blog

    katherine, this debate about art instruction books obiviously follows on from your previous enquiry about painting holidays. so much to say about both! you've done a great job (few missing important parts tho').

    at art school, we used to be scathing about 'how to paint/draw books', believing them to only be cliché bound & only capable of inducing stereo-typical art. some twenty three or so years on, after some seventeen years of teaching art in variety of settings, i can see their use. And confess to having researched more than one lesson by using instruction manuals. there's a body of information available & a good teacher should use this as a tool to help his/her students. which leads me to the real point i wanted to make, which was that, yes, there is A LOT of recycling in teaching and also in writing 'how to paint'instruction manuals... Bruce & your websites, with the many very fine book reviews of other people's publications are a good example of this recycling. i agree with you that it is correct behaviour to cite one's sources, especially when one is doing a précise or resumé, which is of course what bruce has done so very very well for the science of colour.

    more about recycling: in the world of painting, one artist is influenced by another, borrows & recycles ideas, techniques & approaches. Builds on previous learning, previous art. this body of endeavour is called 'culture'... ok, it's only part of culture ...but the point is that producers are often consumers as well. c'est comme ça.

    re-editors ... publishing houses have their own styles & ways of doing things... you can for example read watson-guptill's conditions for submission of proposals online, if you're interested. and if ever you come across a mid-century publication by aurthur guptill, i recommend it!

    i would think that you are now in a position to either publish off-line some of your writings & drawings OR become an editor yourself. You have enough intellectual knowledge of the subject. Why not offer proof reading services?

    paint on
    (who has been writing an off-line 'how to paint' book for over ten years now...and wonders if it'll ever be finished, zut alors!enjoy the ride, it's all about learning)

  8. Great article Kathrine! I had never been to that site before, but then again I'm not a watercolorist either. Thanks for the link.


  9. I so agree with his viewpoint!

    Students, at the beginning, sometimes come to class copying poor examples from how-to books, with generic trees and landscapes that are churned out by unimaginative painters, dumbing down their already not-very-interesting-work - and I point out that trees are unique individuals with character like people and no formulaic colour recipe and method is going to create a really interesting work or sense of place. As they work they start to realise why :>) and produce work that is unique instead of formulaic.

    2 of my favourite books that do containn 'how to' elements are Jeanne Dobie's Making Color Sing, that you've already mentioned and Shirley Trevena's 2 books where she is generous with information on the ways she has worked to produce some gorgeous paintings - nothing at all generic and boring!

  10. Adam - I'm so pleased you've highlighted Bruce's journal. I've only just started getting into it - and it is another gem within this wonderful site

    I love Bruce's blog masthead comment on daily painting! (Which is here for those who'd like to see it.)

    Adam - I'm about 10 minutes from leaving for my drawing class - and have no shoes on! - so I'll comment on the rest later.

  11. Vivien - I know you like Jeanne Dobie and Shirley Trevena - and Bruce does too! Read his comment on Shirley!

  12. thanks for that link - he writes extremely well and with so much common sense - he says what I believe but so much more articulately!

  13. I am interested in digital art (using software like Photoshop and Painter), and I have been really disappointed in the quality of those art instruction books. Almost all of them skip steps in the instructions, or leave out important information, I guess they're assuming you would already know something. And almost all of them have pictures and screen capture shots so small that you can't really tell what the artist is talking about. It's very frustrating!

    I have found that the Watson-Guptill art instruction books from the 70s seem to have the most information that is really practical. I also really enjoyed "Drawing from Line to Life" by Mike Sibley(?) He really went into depth explaining his technique.

  14. Carol - I'm not quite sure what you mean by "these art instruction books" as the ones featured in this post are all about colour rather than digital art. Did you mean that art instruction books haven't yet got to grips with digital art?

    I'd have to agree that Watson Guptill have certainly had a very good track record of producing high quality art books. I was somewhat amazed when I came to do my list by just how many were by Watson Guptill. I'd have to say that they were still doing very well in the eighties - when they produced some of my favourite books - and have produced some fine books of late as well.

    This is the page of the their website listing books classified under Art Techniques

  15. Bruce is my brother and I must tell you he is a very colorful person! There isn't anything he can't do and he is a very lovable guy. Enjoy him!


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