Thursday, September 20, 2007

My Favorite How-To Books

A good how-to book is like a time machine that transports you right into the studios of the great artists of the past.

Here’s a list of my favorites. These are the ones I keep returning to for inspiration. They’re packed with insight and information from masters who knew their craft and were good at explaining it. We’re lucky that people like Norman Rockwell and Andrew Loomis took time out to write down not just their techniques, but the thinking behind their working practice.

Some of these books are available free online. Some are still in print in book form and are cheap and easy to get; others cost an arm and a leg, but they’re all worth seeking out.

The Practice and Science of Drawing by Harold Speed, 1917. Sensible overview of drawing and composition from a teacher who painted very well in the academic manner. Also The Practice and Science of Painting by the same author. Both are in print from Dover in inexpensive editions.

The Enjoyment and Use of Color by Walter Sargent, 1923. Also from Dover, a solid presentation of color theory as it applies to the actual practice of painting.

Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life, by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnson, 1981. This is the bible for animators, but there’s so much on composition, design, and characterization that every illustrator should have a copy, too. Written by two of Disney’s classic “nine old men” who have generously downloaded much of their vast knowledge, with hundreds of great examples dug out of the Disney archives.

Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis, 1946. In one volume, the best instruction by a master of painterly illustration from the Chicago school. Loomis has absorbed lessons of design from Howard Pyle, as well as painting and drawing principles from Sargent and Zorn. In a cheery tone, he works through the laws of line, tone, edges, and storytelling in a way that makes solid sense for any painter or illustrator. Loomis’s books on figure drawing and head drawing are also excellent. There’s a website and another dedicated to saving this material.

The Famous Artists Course, by Rockwell, Al Dorne, Parker and others. Started around 1950, this set of four binders was originally a correspondence course, but the lessons still apply today. The instruction breaks down storytelling illustration into topics about figure drawing, design, and composition from the great American magazine illustrators. Not particularly strong on painting and color. Get the sets from the mid-50s; the quality of instruction suffers later. The book Rockwell on Rockwell from Watson Guptill is based on Rockwell’s own lessons for the Famous Artists School, and gives you the core of his teaching. Also the book Norman Rockwell, Illustrator by Arthur Guptill has an appendix that outlines his method.

The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century by Albert Boime, 1971. Not a how-to book so much as a scholarly reconstruction of the methods and thinking used in the French academies, including their unique terminology for painting. Several books have talked about the academies in a sort of vague art-historical way, but this one really lays out the actual practice that was used in the classrooms.

I'd love to hear about your encounters with any these books, or recommendations of your own favorite how-to books.


Anonymous said...

No recomendations (I'm still too new an artist to start doing that), just a note.

The book "The Practice and Science of Drawing" is availiable for download at the Project Gutenberg. Here's the link:

This might be useful for those living outside the United States.

That said, I wish to thank you for keeping such an interesting blog, Mr. Gurney! I'm learning a lot here. :D

Bill Robinson said...

Oh man oh man. weakness! I think all artists are book lovers, and I can't wait to have a house with a giant library in it. As an animator I have read The Illusion of Life and I was happy to see it on your list here. I am familiar with Loomis, but not so much with any of the other books. I will definitely have to check them out! Thanks for the heads up on these. (And thanks orlando for pointing out that link on gutenberg.)

Michael Dooney said...

I am a big "how to" art book fan. I've never found anything better than the Andrew Loomis books (yeah all of them!) and the Famous Artist School courses.
When I first got my hands on that course I'd been working professionally as an artist for about 15 years and it blew me away.
I'll add a couple of oldies but goodies to your list...
Willy Pogany's THE ART OF DRAWING, Jack Hamm's DRAWING THE HEAD AND FIGURE (still in print and available in most bookstores..very cheap and great stuff) and finally, A COMPLETE GUIDE TO DRAWING,ILLUSTRATION CARTOONING AND PAINTING by Gene Byrnes great how to stuff in all media...includes a Dean Cornwell section...yeah!
Oh, yeah and 40 ILLUSTRATORS AND HOW THEY WORK....okay, okay, I'll stop now...;)

Anonymous said...

Bill's first three sentences sums it up perfectly!
Everyone should have a well dog eared copy of The ILLUSION OF LIFE.
THE EYE OF THE PAINTER makes a companion piece to CREATIVE ILLUSTRATION in the same way that the two Speed books go together.
Recommendations I'd throw in the pot are Pearce's COMPOSITION...PRINCIPLES OF PICTORAL DESIGN, and Faber Birren's CREATIVE COLOR, which still floors me when I leaf through it. The old edition has tempera plates that look like they were painted in a jazzy Tiki bar.
Arthur Wheelock's observations in his first Vermeer book showed how one can paint and see using amazing examples; it was like vicariously attending a real eye opening painting class.
To me,how-to books are Pez Dispensers for the brain.
I gobble them up.
Boime's other book on the teachings of Thomas Couture is a great armchair time travel book too (can't recall the title).

Stephen James. said...

Not to sound patronizing, but I'd like to add The Artist guide to skeching!!!

Okay other good animation books.

Preston Blair's book, and Richard William's Animator' survival kit.

How to Draw comics the Marvel way is another great book and anything by Burne Hogarth is also worth looking into.

Beverley Hale wrote some books using examples from the great masters. Those were cool.

Carter said...

Thanks for this list of books, James! I'm a librarian at the Ringling College, and I'm going to make sure we have as many of these books as possible!

Jared Shear said...

Nice group of book recommendations...I'm not familiar with the Walter Sargent's book on color, but will have to check it out.

One of the books I have found a constant source of inspiration that I would consider worthy to be in a stack of books with the works of Loomis and the like would be--

"Composition of Outdoor Painting" by Edgar Payne.

John Fleck said...

I love "The Illusion of Life" and would also suggest to anyone who enjoys that book to check out "Walt Disney's Fantasia" by John Culhane.
I love that film and the book gives fascinating glimpses into the artists and the processes that gave life to each segment.

Daniel New said...

Thank You so much for this list! I've read all but one and have been working my way through the Famous Artist Course from the 50's and have found it to be completely invaluable. However, you call it a group of 4 books. I've purchase the red yellow and blue from the 50's with lessons 1 through 24 in them, and I thought that was a complete set. But in this picture you have a grey book with lessons 19 - 24. Maybe it's a pointless question, but is this grey one a later version? from what I can gather online it seems to have the same lessons as the blue book i have (but the blue is only 17-24.) Did they maybe change the line up at some point in the fifties to include (or exclude) something? Sorry for such a weird question, but I can't find any information on these earlier sets from anyone. And now I'm feeling like i'm a book short, and missing out on something.

PS: Thank-you so much for this blog. It's been the root of my art education for the last 2 years.

-Daniel New

James Gurney said...

Daniel, Good question. Yes, I think they adapted the content into a 3 binder form, so if you have through lesson 24, you should have it all. The content changes a bit as you get into the 60s. I think the best stuff is from the 50s.