Essential books for the artist and the art lover’s library

Developing a personal art library as an artist, art educator or layperson is a valuable endeavor for any individual interested in art, culture, society or various world views. Although the question of whether art imitates life, or life imitates art cannot be answered with any certainty, the knowledge of art certainly affects and informs our lives in a most enriching way. These following recommended books will provide a solid foundation upon which you can begin to personalize your art library as your interests develop in one direction or another.

“The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques” by Ralph Mayer, originally published in 1940, has been on the shelves of artists for more than half a century. It has been revised and updated through many editions in order to keep current with innovations in process and materials. You would be hard pressed to find this book lacking in any form of art process or materials for both two-dimensional and three-dimensional art. Not only does Mayer educate the artist on materials and process, he comments on equipment, conservation techniques and safety issues in the art studio. For the more technically curious artist, you can find information about chemical structure, calculations for formulas, charts, drawings and technical reference materials. He even includes information on where to buy materials that may be hard to obtain.

Mayer’s handbook can be used as a point of departure for artists who wish to experiment with new processes and materials. Flipping through the index will certainly provoke new ideas and creative endeavors that may not have been on the radar. Although Mayer’s book is a technical reference book, it is hard to put down and provides hours of exciting browsing for the creative mind.

“The Harper Collins Dictionary Art Terms and Techniques” by Ralph Mayer is an excellent companion to the Artist’s Handbook by the same author. In fact, any book by Ralph Mayer would make an invaluable addition to any artist bookshelf. There may be some duplicate content between the two Mayer books, but the emphasis is heavier on terminology in the Art Terms and Techniques book.

“The Art Spirit” by Robert Henri reads like a journal and is inspirational in a most helpful way. He offers practical tips and practices in his letters to art students as well as personal notes and comments regarding his thoughts, techniques and processes. The reader will come to know Robert Henri in a personal and delightful way while gaining insight and motivation for their own work. There are many quotes by Henri worthy of pinning on the wall of any artist’s studio such as “Paint like a fiend when the idea possesses you”

“Art History” (Volume I and II) by Marilyn Stokstad is the quintessential art history text book. If there were only one book to choose from all the offerings in the art history section, you could not go wrong with this two volume set.

The introduction alone is worthy of a course of its own as it acquaints the reader with art concepts as it relates to reality, society and beauty as well as insights regarding artists and how they think and interact with society and culture. And finally, the reader is introduced to the curatorial concepts of museums and a bit about how one considers art in general. Following the introduction is a helpful reference guide that defines form, content, style, medium and period as aspects of art history and education.

The format of Marilyn Stokstad’s “Art History” includes highlighted boxes that contain special material related to the text, techniques, timelines and other information to expand and enhance understanding. The chapters cover art history periods from Prehistoric Art to Modernism, Post-modernism and the Avant-garde followed by a very helpful glossary, a bibliography and an extensive index for easy reference.

“History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography” by H. H. Arnason picks up where Stokstad leaves off and is a more thorough investigation into the modern and contemporary art world. Arnason begins with a prehistory of modern painting and ends with post-modernism. He offers insights, explanation and precedence to the reader as he walks through the periods and styles of modern art and architecture.

As you add to your collection of art books, consider acquiring catalogs from various museums as you travel. Most noteworthy museums have a book or catalog of some sort with excellent photographs of their most important pieces.