I’m a big believer that painters of all levels benefit greatly from reading books about the lives and working methods of the great painters and not just reading the books of the current “watercolor masters” containing the tip of the day. Specifically, I recommend reading books that discuss the struggles and successes of the artist and contain a retrospective of their work. It is important to understand that most great painters evolved from a more primitive and searching style to arrive at their moment of greatness. Some arrived earlier in life than others, but they all ultimately found their own voice by remaining true to themselves. By reading these books, you find that it was not always an immediate flash of divine inspiration but rather a continual quest for understanding, inspiration, and creative interpretation that makes these artists great. It helps to know what it took for them to create and the internal struggles they went through and then we can apply these lessons in our own work to become a creative and expressive artist — that should be our goal.
I am not a fan of the traditional “how to-look at me” instructional books. Although they do have a place for the beginner painter, these books lead the painter toward the copying of styles and repetition subject matter. Usually these books present a skewed view of the artist because they show very little about the journey the author went through to get to their finished style. The books give the impression that the painter always painted at this level and if you learn their techniques you can paint just like them and at their level. My question is: why would you want to? And even if you did paint like them, would you really be all that creative of an artist? Read the instructional books for help with techniques and then study and absorb the illustrated biographies of the greats to help find support for your creativity and to find comfort and assurance that it is cool to walk your own path.
It is not always important to me that I begin by liking the artist I am reading about because it has been my experience that I learn to like the artist by understanding who they were and why they painted the way they did. Don’t disregard a painter because of the style, or only read about the painters you feel comfortable with, because you will not grow in understanding and you will not appreciate the bigger world of creative expression. Remember, becoming an artist is a life journey, not a destination. We need all of the creative inspiration we can get to become unique and expressive painters. There are too many painters following the pack, getting the techniques just right and not enough painters risking failure to find success.
The following is a short list from those books I could suggest:
“The Art Spirit” Robert Henri
“Art & Fear” Bayles and Orland
“Two Worlds of Andrew Wyeth” Metropolitan Museum of Art
“Donald Holden Watercolors” Boyle/Holden
“Trevor Chamberlain Light and Atmosphere in Watercolor” David and Charles Publisher
“Wolf Kahn” Justin Spring
“Jackson Pollock” Landau
“Mark Rothko” Jeffrey Weiss
“The Art of Richard Deibenkorn” Livingston
“Emil Nolde-Unpainted Pictures” Hatje Cantz Publishers
“Lawrence Goldsmith a life in Watercolor”