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
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.