Sunday, June 24, 2012

Survival Guide for Art Students

I met with the editors of Dover Publishing a while ago. They publish a lot of classic books on art instruction from days of yore. I told them that most of what I know about drawing and painting comes from studying their books. They asked me for a list of the ten art instruction books that I thought were most useful, with a blurb about why I love each one.

They just put this recommended list in their catalog, so here it is: "James Gurney's Survival Guide for Art Students."


Bridgman's Life Drawing by George Bridgman

Bridgman's legendary figure drawing demonstrations at the Art Students League of New York have inspired generations of artists, from Norman Rockwell to Frank Frazetta. His dynamic, chunky form analysis reminds students of the big shapes and how they interlock with each other, which is easy to overlook when faced with the subtleties of the actual figure. 

John Vanderpoel, who studied in France at the Académie Julian, offers a classical approach to figure drawing, noteworthy for its timeless grace. His approach focuses on the important planes of the figure understood in terms of simple light and shade. Male and female models are analyzed in many detailed drawings of parts, such as the head, neck, torso, and limbs. The plates are so good that it would profit a student to systematically copy all of them.

Harold Speed's classic text bridges the often-difficult gap between drawing and painting. He starts with a tutorial on seeing, the foundation of accurate drawing. He distinguishes between line drawing and what he calls 'mass drawing'—essentially monochrome painting. Although his writing style might strike some modern readers as old fashioned and opinionated, he makes a good case and covers useful aesthetic territory.

Speed's book on painting builds on his drawing book, offering painting instruction as it was practiced in the Royal Academy. Although not everyone will agree with his views on modern art, his advice on tone, color, and edges is concise and inspiring, and his analysis of the old masters benefits from the insights of a skilled practitioner.

Perspective can be a daunting topic, like advanced mathematics, but in its most basic form, it is easy to grasp. Norling does a good job of emphasizing the most fundamental points, especially the all-important subject of eye level. He concentrates on the familiar problems faced by most artists, such as one-, two-, and three-point perspective.

This is a useful reference book, dominated by large and carefully drawn plates. The animal kingdom is represented by a small number of familiar domesticated mammals: horse, dog, cow, and goat, together with a lion. Each animal is shown in neutral poses in side, top, and front views, with skeletal and muscular dissections for comparison.

Disney animator Ken Hultgren shares an approach to drawing animals that emphasizes the unique characteristics of all the major types of mammals. His style features action poses ranging from straight to cartoony. His pen-and-ink drawings are usually accompanied by a skeletal analysis to help students see the hidden structure. He never loses sight of the lines of action flowing through a pose, something that both realist painters and cartoonists can benefit from.

This book is a good one to consult when one needs a reminder that not all trees look the same. Cole draws upon the Victorian tradition of close observation of nature, and he analyzes trees at the level of roots, branches, stems, blossoms, leaves, and foliage masses. The book transcends the limits of a botanical treatise by exploring artistic issues, such as the grouping of masses and the simplification of contours. The text is profusely illustrated with black-and-white explanatory drawings, as well as compositions by early masters.

John Carlson, himself a noted American Impressionist painter and teacher, addresses all the common elements faced by landscape painters, including design, light, perspective, color, clouds, trees, and composition. While the book was first published in 1929, Dover has reprinted the 1958 edition, so the language is a little more accessible to the modern reader without sacrificing Carlson's forthright style. Although the 58 diagrams are in black and white, the book's chief value is its practical principles and insights.

This classic text from an associate of Rodin guides the sculptor through the theory and practice needed to successfully interpret the figure in three dimensions. It covers basic technique, materials, and anatomy. Although the text is extensive and old fashioned, it provides a rare window into the working methods and thought processes that led to some of the greatest masterpieces of figural sculpture.

Here's the list again in no particular order. The titles are linked to Amazon pages:
I'd be interested in your experience with old books on art instruction (say, 50 years old or more). What do you like or dislike about them? Do you have some favorite old-time art instruction books that I overlooked? Let me know in the comments. Later in the week I'll do a poll and compile a crowd-sourced list.


Ezra said...

I have heard that Edgar Payne's "Composition of Outdoor Painting" is good but I have not found a copy to look through yet. Also, although not 50 years old yet, "The Artist's Guide to Sketching" has a special place on my bookshelf.

Craig Wilson said...

I have found Loomis' instruction on perspective in Successful Drawing to be the most helpful, complete treatment of linear perspective that I have read. All of Loomis' books are great, but his way with breaking down the various problems of perspective really stand out for me. What he did with perspective for me, Famous Artists Course (1960 version is the one I've got) did with understanding how to draw clothing and draperies, in breaking down and simplifying the reason behind how and why certain folds occur as they do.

Simona said...

Loomis books are my favorites too. "Successful drawing" has a really enlightening treatment of perspective. Another one I love is "Creative Illustration" - the simple and effective way to explain composition and value in that book makes it quite unique.

Anonymous said...

The main thing I dislike about older art books, especially the ones on drawing humans, is a lack of diversity. All the "example humans" tend to be white and European. Not that more modern books are that much better.

Craig Wilson said...

Dear Anonymous, perhaps you shall find this link to your liking:

runninghead said...

James helped me find Earnest Norling's "Perspective Drawing". I'd been given it as a child and I'd forgotten both Title and Author. Since buying an old copy online I've found it just as comprehensive and useful as I'd remembered. As you progress through the book the charmingly vintage American illustration style walks you gently through everything you need to know in a very efficient manner. An infant would find the early pages understandable and a professional might find the final pages challenging. It really is a book that can serve you well for a lifetime in art.

Carol Scown-Raynal said...

Thanks for this post on books. Dover is wonderful. I like very much the book : On Drawing Trees And Nature: A Classic Victorian Manual With Lessons And Examples by James Duffield Harding (Dover publications). It's mostly text but what a text, very rich in the explanations on the structure of trees. The Encyclopédie Diderot are old and very good (in french). A very good book on composition : The basis of successful art -Concept and Composition by Fritz Henning (1983). There are books too like "Cours et Leçons à l'Académie de la Grande Chaumière" 1909-1929 by Antoine Bourdelle which a very good read to learn to see (french). I love the book "Treasury of American pen and ink illustration 1881 to 1938 (dover)...

John said...

When I first started college in January 1990, I was starting a bit late and had to take the second drawing class first. Our professor had us use "The Natural Way to Draw" by Nicolaides. That class was the equivalent of figure drawing boot camp...but by the end absolutely every one of us was better for it. I loved it for MAKING us pay attention to weight and form.

Tom said...

- "Hawthorne on painting"
- "The classic point of view" by Kenyon Cox. Not "art-instructional" like the others but a great read nonetheless.
- "Creative perspective for artists and illutrators" by Ernest W. Watson

Richard said...

Here some of the best books from my collection

1. Mastering the Craft of Painting by Angelo John Grado, Watson Guptill , 1985 (Describes Frank Reilly's teaching method. Reilly's big innovation was to set the palette with several "strings" of the same hue but of about seven different values.

2. Alla Prima by Richard Schmid, Stove Prairie Press, 1998

3. Landscape Graphics by Rant W. Reid Whitney Library of Design (an imprint of Watson-Guptill). The first 128 pages are about drawing plans, but from their on it has wonderful quick drawings of trees, cars, etc.

4. Rendering with Markers, Ronald B. Kemnitzer, Watson-Guptill, 1983

5. Magic Marker, The Rendering Problem Solver for Designers by Richard McGarry and Greg Madsen, Wiley, 1993

6. Pencil Pictures by Theodore Kautzky, Reinhold 1947 -- a classic

7. Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne, Payne Studios 1941 (but probably still in print)

8. Light and Shade by Mrs. Mary P,. Merrifield, Dover (originally 1805. She describes now forgotten changes in values at edges

9. Hawthorne on Painting collected by Mrs. Charles W. Hawthorne , Dover (originally 1938)

10. Hensche on Painting by John W. Robichaux Dover (originally 1997)

11. Rendering in Pen and Ink by Arthur L. Guptill , Watson Guptill 1976 (drawing examples not by him)

12. Rockwell on Rockwell, How I Make a Picture by Normal Rockwell, Watson Guptil 1979

and last but not least

The Artist's Guide to Sketching, a handbook for drawing on the spot" by James Gurney and Thomas Kinkade, Watson Guptill 1982


Richard said...


It occurred to me that in my above list, the books that have not been reprinted are in a large format.


jeff said...

Great list.
I have almost all them.
I have the Loomis books as well and
Rex Vicat Cole' book on perspective.
Between Cole and Loomis everything one wants to know about perspective is there. I know the Ernst Norling book and it's a good book on this subject. Definitely simpler to grasp than Cole' book.

I would add Bridgman's Constructive Anatomy, Peck's Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist, and Human Anatomy for Artist: The Elements of From by Elliot Goldfinger.

Anton said...

Great post, thanks! I also want to mention Bruno Lucchesi's "Modeling the figure in clay". It helped me a lot learning digital sculpture. It's not Dover but a great process reference, even if the photos are a bit underexposed.
@Craig Wilson: thanks for sharing the link on human types!!

Anton said...

Oh yeah, almost forgot :) Michael Hampton's 'Figure Drawing Design and Invention". Nice, simple and informative with great explanatory drawings.

Anonymous said...

Bridgman and Norling have long been among my favorites. Two recent additions are "The Artist's Complete Guide to Figure Drawing" by Anthony Ryder and "Color and Light" by James Gurney.

Tyler J said...

My favorite book for reference, not only for it's photo-real illustrations of the muscles and skeleton, but also for it's simplified and symbolic sketches is Stephen Peck's Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist:

Tyler J said...

Also, this is an excellent reference for "athletic" bodies. It has a very diverse range of people, all Olympic or professional athletes:

It's a great way to see that not every fit body must look like a superhero.

JonInFrance said...

I agree with twanski

Michael Hampton's 'Figure Drawing Design and Invention". Nice, simple and informative with great explanatory drawings.

But it's not old/out of print! My all time favorite is Schmid's Alla Prima

Unknown said...

I found this post to be useful for me in compiling a wish list! I also appreciate the recommendations in the comments section.

I was helped by the book "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" and for drawing with children -- I highly recommend "Drawing with Children" by Mona Brooks.

Unknown said...

Fawcett's On the Art of Drawing

Andrew said...

If you can find it, Jack Faragasso's The Student's Guide to Oil Painting is a GREAT book to have if you want to learn more about the Reilly system of painting. Oddly enough, the biggest piece of information I came away with from my first reading was how to achieve the different edges in a painting, I like the method he presents.

Sadly, as far as I know the book is out of print, so it's hard to find.

jeff jordan said...

I love all of Loomis' books, and own most of them, but what I'd love to find is a book at his level about gouache painting, from that period. Any suggestions, anybody?

Anonymous said...

I love dover books and buy one any chance I get, and I'll definitely check these out.

They also have a few books on medieval painting techniques, like the Practice of Tempera Painting by Daniel Thompson. Since I don't tolerate solvents really well and don't like the plastic look of acrylics, I tried out egg tempera. Without this book I wouldn't have gotten very far with it.

Thanks for posting your list!

Janet Oliver said...

Thank you for this, James. Fantastic. I'll look into the perspective book and the tree book. I have some of the others. My recommendation would be, even though it's not old, and not a Dover book, is Robert Beverly Hale's "Master Class in Figure Drawing."

Anonymous said...

I like Dover books, and have a lot of your list already. Another that I really like is Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst's "The painter in oil".

Anonymous said...

I own or at least have read most of all the books mentioned in your post and the comments. Not a bad one in the bunch. I refer back to them often. But, I don't do anything without having a copy of Bert Dodson's Keys to Drawing nearby. This book got me into drawing and keeps me drawing. My copies of Harold Speed and George Bridgemans books are just as dogeared!

mcarspec said...

"Animation" by Preston Blair, published by Walter Foster, and republished in different formats. Aimed at cartoonists, but very basic info on weight, seeing a character in 3-D, and making use of the "line of action." First saw this when I was 13 and have been drawing ever since!

Michael Pianta said...

I second the Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst book ("The Painter in Oil") - it's fairly interesting, although it covers will trodden ground. Also, there's an interesting book called "The Twilight of Painting." It is not instructional; rather it is a polemic written by an academically trained painter (R.H. Ives Gammell), who was mortified by the rise of modern art. His analysis of how this happened and what it will mean (and what should be done about it) is fairly interesting, in that it basically all came true. Unfortunately the book is out of print now and used copies are fairly expensive.

Scorchfield said...

new entry

Emanuele Sangregorio said...

I am selftaught and i practiced art since for a few years so far.

"Fun with a Pencil" by Andrew Loomis. Just for beginners, it has a very slooow learning curve and a very low starting point. By following the book it's possible to learn to draw figures and environments without any unnecessary stress, which in my opinion may be fatal at the beginning.

"Figure Drawing For all it's worth" by Andrew Loomis is my favourite text. I read it many times, It's very easy to follow and every phrase in it is gold.
Plus, it covers a very large variety of fields. Just like with the other Andrew Loomis books, alongside every truth is given an explanation, alongside every technique is given a reason to learn it.

"Constructive Anatomy" by Brigdman is the first anatomy book which i found easy enough to follow. Since there's not any hint on how to study, I have found it a little difficult at the beginning. When i turned back to it after a while, i just knew what I wanted to know, so it might be considered a reference book , more than an instructional one.

"Dynamic Anatomy for the Artist" by Burne Hogarth. I have the italian version of this. Very bad image quality, translation, paper. The plates are hard to read, but maybe it's just because of the poor transposition.

PatternGhost said...

Not 50 years old, but: Ernest W. Watson's Course in pencil sketching: Four books in one.

Anonymous said...

One the hardest parts of trying to become an artists on a part time basis over the years is coming across lists like this. I tend to buy all the books, reference material, and then when it comes time to sit and learn I get overwhelmed by the sheer volume of resources available. I get paralyzed because I don't know where to start, or I start in to many places and only achieve overload. I've been breaking things down lately to working the learning issues one painting, drawing, or concept at a time. But it is still a struggle for me knowing where I am and where I need to go and not feel the weight of the challenge.

In the end I have found the only path forward is to keep moving becuase if I stop, I won't accomplish anything.

Thanks for the list Jim.


jeffkunze said...

Looks like a good list! I only have the Bridgeman and Hultgren books.
I'll have to check out some of those others.

Adam Hreha said...

I'm glad to see the Vanderpoel book on your list. I have been studying it for the last few months and loving every bit. He describes the planes of the human form more intimately than any other book I've read. It's as if he's your tour guide to the figure.

Value wise you can't beat the Dover books, but the text in older books can be hard to digest unless you really buckle down with them. In general, I prefer art instruction books that present concepts in small doses and then build on them.

Here are some recent favorites:

-Drawn to Life by Walt Stanchfield

-Composing Pictures by Donald W. Graham

-Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar A. Payne

-Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter by James Gurney

Doone said...

I've long been fond Henry Poore's book "Pictorial Composition". In my college art classes, composition seemed to be the one topic that never quite fit in the semester, yet often came up in critiques of my work... At last the library supplied this book to fill the gap. It gives a good solid overview of compositional conventions in the european painting tradition, with ample black and white engravings to illustrate. It's also got a delightful one page graphic summary of the most common geometric compositional schemas, along with metaphorical interpretation (like perpendiculars => opposition, spirals => infinity, etc).

I'm happy to see Nickolaides' "The Natural Way to Draw" also suggested in the comments. Great book. I was lucky enough to get all the main ideas directly from my drawing instructor (in class, with model, which is the best way) but the book was an excellent review in later years.

Unknown said...

Great thoughts you got there, believe I may possibly try just some of it throughout my daily life.
web graphics

Rose Welty said...

I find art books 50+ strong in one or two areas, occasionally both. They either take a detailed look at theory (Speed is good at this) or they focus on the intensely practical requirements/duties of the artist (Guptill is good at this).

Speed spends time *defining* things like rhythm, unity, goals of drawing, goals of style, etc.

Guptill gives you labor intensive, practical exercises - he does not disguise that artwork is hard work. He rather tries to dissuade you from it.

My favorites:
- Guptill's Rendering in Pen and Ink
- Watson's Art of Pencil Drawing (actually any of his pencil books)
-Ted Kautzky Pencil Book

Guptill taught me so much - even though I've moved from pen and ink - I still use his ideas every day. Watson and Kautzky are who I turn to when I need inspiration.

Jacob Reidt said...

One thing I really like about this list of extremely useful books is that you can get each one costs less than 20$. A person trying to get started in the arts doesn't tend to have a lot of money, so a list like this is hugely beneficial.

Anonymous said...

look at Gottfried Bammes for structural anatomy it's excellent, we use some of it in our classical drawing studies. It's in German but you can understand it. Here are some images just copy and paste

David Webb said...

Jack Merriot's 'Discovering Watercolour' was published in 1973. He was a member of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, among several others. Best known, I suppose, for his railway posters, which used to adorn the carriages. With a mix of colour/black & white illustrations, the book has clear descriptions of working methods. In particular the 'controlled wash' technique. Still available on Amazon for a couple of pounds.

James Gurney said...

Thanks, David. You inspired me to do a post about Jack Merriott.

David Webb said...

You're welcome, James. You found some great examples there.

Unknown said...

I want to give a plug for the Andrew Loomis book- 'Figure Drawing for what it's Worth,' which changed my life when My mom spent the then extravagant sum of $12.98 on a copy for my 12th birthday. She did not have that kind of money, but she got it for me anyway and I still have it 50 years later. I went on to work as an layout artist /art director in advertising and most of my training came about by reading that book and the others he wrote. They are back in print after many years and well worth buying, although they do cost a bit more.

Unknown said...

After you and my last teacher suggested bridgmans, I just went out and bought it! Got it at a great price and it's totally changing how I view figures! Also bought the anatomy of trees- excited to see how that effects things. Thank you for this list! So excited to try to find them all. Have you read any of the Juliette Aristides Atilier books? They are very good when it comes to classical painting. Some of my favorite art books.

Unknown said...

I'd like to leave an honourable mention for David Dewey's watercolour book. It's comprehensive, covering gouache and mixed media too.

Pam said...

Freehand Drawing Self-Taught by Arthur L. Guptill 1933 is a beautiful book with charming, helpful illustrations and beautiful drawings by a variety of artists.

Dan said...

I like "Freehand Perspective and Sketching" by Dora Norton. The Andrew Loomis books are terrific. There are a few newer books I like too: "Memory Drawing" by Rousar is interesting, and of course James Gurney's two recent books.

I wanted to say something about "The Natural Way to Draw" by Nicolaides. My son and I started with this book, mainly because this kind of method (which I think is the basis for the whole "Right-Brained" school) was what I was taught years ago when I took a beginning drawing course in college.

We went through the first half of the book's rigorous schedules, following everything to the letter, except that we substituted photographs of clothed models for live nudes. (We used a lot of photos of well-exposed bodies in action poses, such as photos of athletes from the Olympics.) After the first half, we decided unanimously not to finish the curriculum.

Nicolaides' method seems to be based, in the main, on the idea of drawing in a completely subconscious way, with as little conscious understanding, thought, or deliberation as possible, and almost no consideration for technique of any kind. While my son and I both have to admit that we did improve our drawing in nine months of this kind of study, eventually we came to feel that there isn't really much to be gained by avoiding understanding what you are doing and practicing technique. Concepts and techniques must be learned until they are automatic, and after that you can focus mostly on expressing yourself in your art, but we found it counter-productive to jump straight into expression without any real study of the rudiments beforehand.

All his exercises are aimed at drawing by feeling while avoiding thought. The gesture study prevents you from thinking about how to handle the subject because you are not given enough time to think. The contour study does not allow you to look at your paper, so you can't try to achieve anything there. Even in the modeled drawing he deliberately avoids teaching you anything about shading and the behavior of light. Compositions are never planned. He has you just start in the middle of the figure somewhere and begin drawing, focusing entirely on feeling the model's weight and contours.

We came to believe in the end that avoiding perspective, shading, and technique, then jumping straight into figure drawing from the model is not a very effective way to learn drawing.

I wanted to post this not to bash Nicolaides, but so that maybe others could avoid repeating our experience. As a beginner, I knew nothing about how to go about learning to draw. Here was Nicolaides, who seemed to promise to teach me how, and who recommended that I start by avoiding acquiring knowledge of the subject, avoiding even reading ahead in his book, and just picking up a pencil and starting to draw from the model according to his instructions. Given that the book is somewhat renowned and has definitely been influential, we decided that it was a good bet. In retrospect, I think we would have been much better starting with learning to draw flat shapes well, and then progressing to geometric solids with shading and perspective. In other words, beginning by learning the fundamentals before progressing into something complex like figure drawing.

That's our experience. Your mileage may vary.

HectorA said...

Hello I am just beginning my journey in art, and was wondering if Bridgeman's guide is good for learning to draw the human figure. I have a fear that I will learn to draw what I know rather than what I see (e.g. drawing a hand that I've sketched a million times instead of the one I'm looking at at the moment). Thank you for your help.

James Gurney said...

Hector, Bridgman and Loomis are both good because they help you see the figure in basic geometric terms, which in turn can help you observe the essence better.

Devere Wint said...

Hi James,
I had picked up Carlson's guide to landscape painting based on your review/list above. I have reached the section on lighting and I am a little lost as to what he is talking about. It seems as if its a situation of contre jour as described in your colour and light book? He stated that in order for objects t not feel as though they are pasted into the sky they should be painted slightly lighter against the light source. In the case of a lighter object against a dark one they should be painted slightly darker. What are your thoughts on this?

James Gurney said...

Devere, I know what you're saying. One would think that a dark object against a bright sky should be made darker, not lighter, to increase the contrast and attract the eye. But actually lightening that dark object makes the sky look brighter because of the spillover effect of bright light. Try it and see if it works in your paintings.