advanced instruction

Making Color Sing by Jeanne Dobie – Jeanne Dobie is a no nonsense teacher. She paints a refrigerator to prove to you that "anything can be painted!", then declares that "using the brain more than the brush" is essential to transform your visual idea into a creative watercolor.

Dobie uses the traditional transparent quartet (aureolin, rose madder genuine, cobalt blue and viridian), with staining and semiopaque pigments added, as her teaching palette. (See my comments on the lightfastness problems with the Jeanne Dobie palette.) She describes how to mix luminous grays (her famous "mouse power"), deep dark blacks, lively greens, pastel whites; then how to use the "push-pull" and color vibration possibilities of warm/cool color contrasts. This leads naturally to using warm and cool variations of a color to model three dimensional objects, as Dobie illustrates in the differences between a human figure viewed under the cool studio light of fluorescent lamps or the warm outdoor light of the sun.

Dobie is very good at showing how painting methods relate to one another, as solutions to problems or avenues out of limitations. Thus, "mouse power" is a way to make colors more vivid; color vibration is a way to enhance color excitement.

With the basic color concepts and mixing skills in place, Dobie describes glazes and washes as the basic techniques to build a painting. These seem like the methods Dobie prefers to use, but they also keep the discussion focused on the organization of very large areas — no texturing effects or rigger brushes here. And they lead naturally to the problems of good composition: the painting's value structure, the balance between muted and bright colors, the arrangement of large shapes, the use of white space, and so on.


jeanne dobie
skip lawrence
charles reid
shirley trevena
paul jackson
marilyn simandle
barbara nechis
charles leclair
leonardo davinci
john ruskin
robert henri
rudolf arnheim
ernst gombrich
bayles & orland

This is not a beginner's book. In contrast to almost every other watercolor book out there, Dobie provides no demonstration paintings or step by step rote training. Instead we're asked to make lots of color swatches, do mixing and glazing exercises, and paint subjects of our own choice, on our own. She covers a lot of ground and makes few concessions to the reader's lack of skill or self motivation. Some may find this uncongenial. I found Dobie remarkably insightful and accurate, and still learn with delight from chapters I've read many times.

Painting Light and Shadow in Watercolor by Skip Lawrence – The influential watercolor teacher Ed Whitney had many students, of whom Skip Lawrence is one of the most talented. It's really hard to teach the abstract principles of art in an intelligible way, but Lawrence offers his principles, many of them distilled from the "Whitney method," in one of the clearest watercolor guides available.

Lawrence, like Dobie, does not beat around the bush. In the first chapter, to make us understand the issue of simplifying a painting down to its important shapes, he challenges us to make a painting using only two shapes: the simplified "shape" of everything in direct sunlight, and the simplified "shape" of all the interconnected shadows. Your pencil lines should follow the edges between light and shade, and when you're done, you must leave the "light" shape as bare paper, and paint only the colors in the "shade"! He then permits more shapes, and through them more complicated artistic problems, but at each step makes his points with similar clarity and force.

In some places I had the feeling Lawrence had too much to say. (Indeed, his impulse to teach is a major force behind The Palette Magazine and an active workshop schedule.) His splashy, colorful style provides for a lot of visual recreation while reading the book, yet he also varies his painting approach to illustrate basic principles in different stylistic contexts. This variety can free the reader's vision from the one dimensional examples of a single painting approach and can present the problems of light, color, value, composition and form "from 30,000 feet." Or, it can simply confuse — too much variation and information.

The real issue is that Lawrence is trying to teach some very deep ideas: seeing shapes not things, keeping clear painting goals, carefully choosing lighting, getting good shapes and especially a good value structure, and freeing yourself from the way things look. Rich in pictorial examples and clearly written throughout, this book repays careful study. For me, the book seems to burst with new insights no matter how many times I come back to it. And that's really the key to any challenging book: you have to spend time with it, take small steps, actually paint the examples and demonstrations yourself, and carry the lessons into new painting ideas of your own.

This book is currently out of print but available from online used booksellers, and I strongly urge you to get a copy of your own. And if you find Lawrence's approach or painting style congenial, you may want to go to the source by reading Whitney's own Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting, available as a Dover reprint. There is also Learn Watercolor the Edgar Whitney Way, edited by Ron Ranson. This is a collection of chapters on painting, each by a Whitney student (Lawrence leads the pack).

The Natural Way to Paint by Charles Reid – Subtitled Rendering the Figure in Watercolor Simply and Beautifully, this book is actually quite a bit more. With informative sections on drawing, color mixing, brushstrokes, painting the face and effective composition, Charles Reid presents a wide ranging course in watercolor painting with the nude figure as the unifying theme.

This book, and its companion volumes Painting Flowers in Watercolor with Charles Reid (2001) and Painting What You Want to See (1983), have been highly recommended by several visitors to this site. As a set, these three books emphasize a few basic but very important technical points (contour drawing, brush handling and "undermixing" colors with minimal water) but also focus on different solutions to specific problems. The book on flowers is more explicitly a step by step, beginners' book; the figure drawing text best integrates the higher level aspects of drawing and color mixing; the "how to see" book is I think the most conceptual and advanced (it treats both oils and watercolors), and should probably be tackled last.

An oil painter who was assigned to teach a figure painting course by mail, Reid adopted his simplified figure drawing style from contemporary fashion magazines. His oils happily remind me of Fairfield Porter, but I don't much enjoy his watercolors — the florals smack of illustration art, and his figure nudes seem to squirm and dissolve under acidic color. There's always lots of white space stained with splots, drips and splashes of paint, as if Reid were wading in his palette.

No matter: the admirable and desirable thing about Reid's style is that it is loose. He is continually explaining how to loosen up something — line, color mixing, expression, composition, contrast, brushwork. As he says, the beginner's mistake is tightness and control, as well as "normalizing" or conventionalizing the forms in a drawing, and those are blocks Reid works hard to overcome.

All three books focus on process, another good strategy for loosening up the image and what Reid calls "fear of paint." He avoids most of the "workshop mafia" cliches for painting improvement. My studio wall is well dented from books I've thrown at it that counseled me to "punch up those darks!" Reid discusses value design without that trick — in fact, he even advises against it, preferring color as the excitement tool.

Among Reid's most valuable discussions are his analysis of flesh or green mixtures (difficult colors for artists to get right); the explanation of how to hold and handle a brush; his discussion of drawing the shapes of light rather than the shapes of objects, his encouragement to mix color on the page rather than on the palette, and finally his explanation of how to "direct the eye" to the simplification or adjustment of forms, colors and lighting to produce a unified and effective design. These and related points are mentioned in all the books, although the figure and "how to see" books are most explicit about how they fit together.

Least valuable: Reid frequently recommends the fugitive paint alizarin crimson (wow, you mean people still use that stuff?), and he seems never to have heard of the brighter and more lightfast quinacridones. Indeed, Reid seems clueless about what is actually in his favorite Holbein paints: he calls mineral violet an organic "dye" when the Holbein paint he is thinking of is made with ultramarine violet, and he thinks Holbein's carmine, made with alizarin crimson, is somehow different from alizarin crimson. (See the section on pigments, paints & "colors" for a discussion of the fog that marketing names can create in paint selection.)

The book on painting flowers is most up to date on paints and materials. It also devotes more space to basic topics such as color values, shading local colors, mixing colors on the paper rather than the palette, controlling edges, and basic composition. There are several very simple, step by step demonstration paintings of vegetables and flowers — not much on flower anatomy or drawing the intricate forms of plants, but a lot on painting different flowers using characteristic brush strokes or negative shapes.

Local values, color mixing, edge control and simplifying the image are also the central themes of Reid's latest book, Charles Reid's Watercolor Secrets, presented more casually and in a heavily illustrated discussion of sketchbook and plein air painting.

Taking Risks with Watercolour by Shirley Trevena – An artist with a very recognizable style — exuberant color, energetic textures and aggressively "designed" images — Shirley Trevena has written a visual manifesto for ignoring the rules and going for the gusto. As the reader, you won't plod patiently through this book. You'll skim it until you can't stand it any longer, throw it on the floor, and plunge into a painting of your own. After repeating this drama many times, your own paintings grow into the inspiration for more.

This book is designed around the principles of flow and cycle. Trevena narrates her first steps in painting, from her first attempt (a figure nude painted from a photograph) through her first solo exhibition (at a London wine bar). She carries this "first steps" theme into a tour of painting genres, methods to build inspiration through preliminary drawings, and the basics of image composition. She rushes through a single page discussion of selecting materials to get to the meat of things: "developing a painting". This long section is a kaleidoscope of finished paintings, tool marks, technical examples and pithy commentary in an editorial style that is illustrative rather than instructional. You are shown rather than taught.

There are seven more or less traditional painting demonstrations, which are actually a single painting built in seven stages. These place the emphasis on responding to or developing what is already on the page, rather than marching step by step through a preconceived plan. Although the separate stages emphasize some basic points — bold textures, edge control, tonal composition, rich pattern — they do not amount to a system or formula. The key idea is simply that paintings start with a germ image, a key detail or inspiration, and expand from there. How they expand depends on your creative impulse.

This narrative lends painting the same spirit as flying: the germ image is the inevitable runway, but once the painting takes wing it can soar in any direction. Trevena's guidance amounts to hints and observations, and the illustration finished paintings always contain much more interest than the specific point highlighted by the caption. I liked this very much. First of all, the paintings are themselves gorgeous, unpredictable, fanciful and accomplished; and the advice is consistently at the level of attitude rather than gesture. Yes, many specific techniques are illustrated, but always in the spirit of "you could try this" or "this might work". Even the closing sections on closure decisions ("is it finished?" and "moving on") encourage an open ended attitude.

The recent sequel volume, Vibrant Watercolours, published in the "Artist's Studio" series from Collins (HarperCollins Publishers), takes a different path through painting practice. Here the emphasis is on "heroes" (painters worth emulating, which Trevena says is Matisse), "starting points" (convenient sources of kickstarting inspiration, such as flowers, foods, fabrics and landscapes), and finally color design — the basics of complementary colors, neutrals, and nuances (colors of similar lightness and chroma). These three touchstones serve as themes for variation across later discussions of painting technique. Thus, "heroes" is adapted into portfolios of paintings by other artists who illustrate (more or less) the points developed in the previous section; the section on "favorite colors" looks at favorite paint colors as the starting point for inspired design ... and we're back in the tumble of example and suggestion that characterize the flow of her first book.

Or almost. I think the sequel reaches toward a traditional teaching approach yet doesn't go all the way: there are basic study points, but these are too briefly discussed and add little to the wisdom of the earlier book. The example paintings seem less inspirational overall, too much of the text is personal or idiosyncratic ("brown madder seems like a deep red to me"), and the "studio tips" are annoyingly banal ("make a promise to yourself to discover more about the mixing of grays"). But words can't describe the delight you'll find in the first book.

Painting Spectacular Light Effects in Watercolor by Paul Jackson – Although it seems at first to be another "how to" book in the genre of photorealism, this is actually a fairly unique study of light and watercolor painting.

Jackson is known for pushing watercolor to pretty spectacular extremes — fireworks displays at night, candlelit still lifes — often by combining dramatic lighting, point of view, and perspective effects. Jackson's method starts with a careful pencil outline of the subject, logically broken into distinctly bordered color fields; he then works through the fields from lightest to darkest, usually by applying multiple glazes of color. All the advice in this direction, excepting the use of cameras, resists and masking tape, resembles the instruction offered by Dawn Heim or Judy Treman.

The range of Jackson's demonstration paintings is very wide: brightly lit buildings, fireworks, drops of water, streetlights in fog, clear and colored glass, brass instruments, misty landscapes, sunset colored buildings, reflective water ... all presenting unique effects of reflected or filtered light that call for slightly different painting techniques. He provides a cursory overview of painting washes and textures, mixing paints and colors, and handling a brush. Beginning painters may find these sections too short and not clearly linked to the demonstration paintings; advanced painters will probably not need them at all.

Light in all its many forms gets star treatment, through photos of natural scenes and staged examples of reflections, shadows and the distortions caused by glass or water. This part of the book is especially valuable, since it invites us to see light as the fundamental subject of the painting, and presents good photographic documentation of effects that are difficult to see with the unaided eye.

Paintings as visually controlled as Jackson's require an extraordinary sense of color mixing, color value, and the color shifts that occur as paints dry. Regrettably, none of these issues is dealt with anywhere in the book, apart from a single mention that colors do shift as paints dry. (Multiple glazes are implicitly the method Jackson uses to control these shifts.) And though Jackson does mention that a value scale is something useful to have, and prints a picture of one, he doesn't explain why it is valuable or how to use it! I came away with the strong impression that a photograph is the value guide Jackson is most comfortable working with.

A more glaring problem: surely an artist and a publisher as experienced as Paul Jackson and North Light Books are aware of the lightfastness problems with alizarin crimson. Yet the paint is freely used throughout Jackson's examples, without any mention of how quickly it can fade, or of the paints that provide lightfast alternatives. A responsible author and publisher (represented by the editor, Jennifer Lepore) can do better than that.

Capturing Light in Watercolor by Marilyn Simandle & Lewis Lehrman – This is an invitation to watercolor by an artist who makes beautiful, brightly lit paintings that literally dance with painterly grace and life.

I was entranced with Simandle's work, and spent happy leisure poring over her beautiful paintings in much the same way as I would the illustrations in a children's book. And just as a good fairy tale stimulates our imagination, the key idea Simandle wants us to grasp is the absolute imaginative freedom we have when we create a painting. Her first demonstration, "Create Your Own Scene," builds a completed painting out of fragments from two photos — a stone walkway, and houses along an Italian marina — from the value sketch right through the washes and final details. Her point is that a work of art doesn't have to remain within our habitual photorealist ("retinal" as Duchamp used to say) view of the world: a painting can combine different elements — from different photos, different sketches, different memories — to create an effective composition.

There's a lot of substance here, and it is mostly presented through the fifteen demonstration paintings. These are surprisingly similar in basic outline — lay out the pencil sketch, paint the big areas first, fill in the foreground, focus on the center of interest, connect shapes and define patterns, add finishing touches. But the annotations that cluster around the margins of the paintings provide a lot of specific recommendations or comments that help make each demonstration unique.

Simandle lets us in on some great tricks: how to sketch the design in the sequence you'll paint it, how to simplify, how to plan where the eye enters and moves around the painting, how to set up rhythms, how to use "broken color" to create visual interest and movement. Simandle's palette is idiosyncratic — she uses mostly burnt and raw sienna for her yellows, and no green paints at all (apart from occasionally indulging in sap green) — yet her pictures resonate with airy light and color.

I don't think many people will be able to copy Simandle's inimitably loose and vibrant demonstration paintings. You have to let yourself enjoy the demonstration much as you would enjoy watching the paintings being made, and work the specific tricks and comments into your own style in whatever way you can — by letting your imagination guide your steps.

Watercolor from the Heart by Barbara Nechis – Nechis is another Whitney student who emphasizes the creative process as the painter's guide to the choice of materials and techniques.

Nechis's focus is on breaking rules and diving wholeheartedly into the unexpected demands of painting wet in wet, which is inherently hard to predict. The painter's main task is bringing forward an intriguing composition, which is the core of visual narrative. She explains that her approach evolved from her fragmented schedule as a mother of young children: paintings had to be worked in short intervals, in layers, in stages, and she eventually began to cultivate this step by step approach for its own possibilities.

Her aim is to get us to think less and respond more to the experience of painting. She describes her painting method as a continual rhythm of watching the effects of her work, and waiting for new insights or directions to emerge from what is already there. (In fact, wet in wet improvisational techniques have a very long history, and were advocated for landscape painting by Alexander Cozens over 200 years ago.) Nechis offers dozens of nature images in unfamiliar orientations or points of view, chosen to reveal the fundamentally abstract patterns of Nature's beauty.

Only after she has led the reader to relax into the creative possibilities of painting does Nechis approach "Technique As a Source of Ideas." This gets to the heart of her methods — painting with clear water, using a brush charged with many colors, controlling rivers of paint, color mixing on the paper, layering shapes. Then follow separate chapters devoted to glazing techniques, painting wet in wet, and inventive design. She goes farther into wet in wet methods than any other painter besides Nita Engle, but is much more inquisitive about the many ways to play with wet paint on wet paper. Everything depends on your imagination.

Nechis concludes her book with advice on using nature as a source of inspiration, and using photographs of natural forms as a source of ideas. This brings us back to her introductory theme — the vital similarity between natural beauty and the exploratory process of creativity. (If you like the Nechis style and technique, you may also enjoy Painting the Spirit of Nature by Maxine Masterfield.)

The Art of Watercolor Painting (revised and expanded edition) by Charles LeClair – Frequently recommended as one of the best books available on watercolor painting, LeClair's book requires artistic experience to appreciate fully. He does not adopt the method of cookbook instructions and step by step demonstration works. Instead he attempts to weave together the separate topics of art history, painting techniques, genre styles (still life, landscape, figure studies), and painting styles (as represented by paintings from many different artists). A familiarity with all these topics (or the commentary of a knowledgeable teacher) is often necessary to unravel exactly what LeClair is trying to teach.

For me, the main attraction of the book is LeClair's selection of historical and contemporary watercolorists — here is what the medium can do! — that shows how different watercolor techniques are employed in unique painting styles. An academic artist, his choice of examples emphasizes too much the "Pearlstein Freckelton Brady" side of modern realism, including many of his own works. But the overall diversity of styles is very stimulating.

LeClair does not dig very deep into technical details, other than how to create washes, handle paint wet in wet, or use photos to design a painting (the major chapter added in this revised edition). He gives a conceptual or overview description of many techniques, but these explanations will leave readers struggling with how you actually do it. The section on "Painting the Figure" is a case in point: nothing about how to set up the pose, pace the model, mix accurate fleshtones, or draw facial features. His main compositional suggestion? Surround the figure with busy patterns, so that you have something to work on while the painted figure is drying!

Through your own practice you'll eventually understand the technical issues that LeClair found important enough to mention in his text, though often it won't be his explanation but your own experience that produces your insight. Where LeClair offers reliable support is in his suggested projects and praise for many different painting styles. The projects are great for striking out in new directions, and the styles are all worthy of emulation.

Other books are better on technical issues because that is all they teach. The merit of LeClair's approach is that he has a bigger ambition than writing a cookbook: he wants to tie painting technique to artistic style. It's worth returning to this book regularly as you learn, to see how clearly you are keeping that ultimate goal in view.

Leonardo on Painting by Leonardo da Vinci, edited by Martin Kemp – I must begin a review of this marvelous book by saying that there is very little advice here that a modern painter can use, or cannot find more conveniently or accurately described elsewhere. So why read it?

Leonardo was first of all a man of his times, and it is stimulating to read the beliefs and outlook of a Renaissance artist stated with such clarity, confidence and supreme individualism. As an architect, sculptor, military engineer, anatomist, perspective theorist and painter of portraits, allegories and landscapes, Leonardo had an awesome grasp of all the visual and constructive arts of his time. It is great to be in contact with a great mind.

Second, it is sobering and inspiring to experience, even as excerpts, the depth of thought and study that Leonardo lavished on the basic problems of his craft. There is unfortunately a strong preconception created by art monographs and museum exhibitions that full sized easel masterworks spring readymade from a master's brush: we rarely see the dozens or hundreds of sketches and studies that build up to the finished images and the finely tuned skill that created them.

Martin Kemp, widely regarded for his Renaissance art researches, has combed through Leonardo's surviving notebooks and selected, edited and ordered by topic a generous sampling of excerpts on painting, perspective, color, analytical seeing, characterization of faces and much more. So a third reason to browse this book is simply the interest of topics that may require a modern solution. The sections on facial proportions and caricature, for example, got me thinking in terms of my own portrait concepts and my skills in rendering facial emotions and individual character.

I said browse: there are some topics that will bore a modern reader, for example the opening pages of paragoni — rhetorical arguments for the superiority of painting over sculpture, music or poetry. This was hot stuff in the Renaissance, a mode of expression that leaves us cold. Even here there is value, however: our trendy debates about the superiority of photography or video over painting, and the intellectual fetishism toward multiculturalism, neofreudianism, radical feminism — really, how compelling will those concerns appear to future generations? The question Leonardo's book leaves us with is the most difficult of all: is painting based on any timeless human values; and if it is, what values are they?

The Elements of Drawing by John Ruskin – This is one of the classics of watercolor literature, out of print only once since it was first published in 1857, and sumptuously presented in the Watson & Guptill paperback edition with many illustrations and notes by the editor Bernard Dunstan.

In addition to his role as social philosopher, Ruskin was the most influential art critic of his time, a passionate advocate of architectural preservation, the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and the power of "drawing" (a term that in the 19th century applied also to watercolors) to enhance an individual's awareness of the world. The book summarizes a course of study Ruskin taught for a few years at the Working Men's College in London, and in private lessons to many acquaintances. Ruskin's ambition as a teacher was to raise the moral strength and spiritual health of his students by teaching them to see. As he put it: "I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw."

The book is organized as three very long "letters" to the student on the topics of technical basics ("On First Practice"), sketching from nature, and color and composition. All the advice is authoritative and stylishly written. Ruskin was a pupil of Anthony Copley Fielding, an admirer of William Henry Hunt, and had complete command of the techniques of Victorian watercolor painting. But he also had an extraordinarily perceptive and analytical mind: his discussion of natural forms, for example, contains some concepts that seem lifted from the writings of 20th century scientists D'Arcy Thompson and Benoit Mandelbrot.

Dunstan has deleted sections of the work where Ruskin veers off on obscure tangents, and has gathered reproductions of works that Ruskin refers to as examples in his text. The single remaining obstacle is Ruskin's Victorian English, which is not always familiar or easy to read. But the substance of the book, bursting with ideas and insights about art, carries us over any difficulties. Reading even a page at a time is highly rewarding, particularly if you already have the art experience to appreciate the depth of Ruskin's advice and insight.

I found this book only after I had discovered on my own many of the basic ideas it teaches. So I came to it with a jolt of recognition, and gratitude that I seemed to be on the right track. There is much here that cannot be found in contemporary art instruction books, with their focus on quick competence and superficial effects. Ruskin teaches perseverence, organized study, and close observation of nature. If you have these things, your art vision will inevitably flourish.

The Art Spirit by Robert Henri – An American painter (1865-1929) best known as the leader of "The Eight" or Ashcan group of painters, Henri was a truly inspired and charismatic teacher at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Philadelphia) and, from 1900 until his death, at the New York School of Art. This book is a loose compilation of excerpts from Henri's letters, lectures, conversations, art critiques, and class notes written by his students.

Henri's artistic spirit flowered in reaction to the stifling and genteel traditions of the academies, which timidly imitated the most conservative styles of European art. He preached instead a spontaneous, honest reaction to the current American scene, using rapid and expressive brushwork to record urban realities. He evangelized a group of artist reporters in Philadelphia, who illustrated urban events for daily newspapers, to become serious artists, and through the influence of this group popularized the rebellious new thinking that helped make American modernism possible.

This book seems digressive and repetitive if read straight through, but it contains many powerful passages of inspiration and clarity, the essentials of Henri's art philosophy. Henri preached that art meant expressing one's artistic sensibility honestly, unsentimentally, but with passion and conviction. He taught that a painter must have a strong motive to make a work of art, and must keep that purpose clearly and consistently in view; he encouraged the painter to work from memory (much as the artist reporters learned to do in their jobs), and to develop the power to see the world, rather than paint in a pretty style.

There is also much practical advice — a very interesting analysis of portrait painting (down to the lights of the eyes, the rendering of hair and clothes, and the proper role of the background), extensive comments on color theory, and an entire section on brushwork. Most of Henri's technical comments are directed to the problems of oil painting rather than watercolors, but his approach shows how to make effective artistic choices.

The Art Spirit includes a good index, which makes it relatively easy to find a favorite quote. But I find when I dip into the book that I am carried along for several pages by the vigor and clarity of Henri's ideas. It's a great read to replenish your artistic determination and renew your joy in the work.

Art and Visual Perception by Rudolf Arnheim – Subtitled "A Psychology of the Creative Eye," this is a classic in the literature on "psychology and art," which attempts to take contemporary psychological research and apply it to an understanding of the visual arts. It can be read for insight, for provocation, for amusement or for historical interest (depending on your point of view), but it is never boring, arcane, careless or out of touch regarding the problems that artists grapple with every day.

Written "in one long sitting" of 15 months in 1951-52, the book has an urgency that reveals the depth of study that came before and the many contacts with artists and psychologists that Arnheim cultivated as a professor at several east coast (USA) universities. Arnheim was most interested to challenge the "divine" or mysterious aura around art: art is something human, not something spiritual.

Much of Arnheim's approach derives from the school of Gestalt psychology, a highly influential and, I think, profound response to the dominant behaviorism and associationism of the 1930's. Gestalt thinkers emphasized the many ways that perception seems to create, synthesize or interpret what we see, rather than mechanically assemble fragmented bits of perception through learned associations, as the behaviorists assumed. Hence his belief that "vision is not a mechanical recording of elements but rather the apprehension of significant structural patterns."

Arnheim searches for those significant patterns across a wide range of topics — the ten chapters are titled balance, shape, form, growth, space, light, color, movement, dynamics and expression — looking for the fundamental principles that shape art across cultures. Many visual examples are drawn from psychological research and art history. Arnheim also relies heavily on children's art to clarify the basic "rules" of painting, an approach inspired by the early 20th century painters who emulated the childlike qualities of "primitive" or "folk" art. Psychological research has moved beyond many of the issues that seemed compelling at mid 20th century, but Arnheim's basic program is still very much alive — for example, in recent books by Richard Gregory, Semir Zeki and John Willats.

My own extensive training in psychology, and my continuing journey in painting, make me skeptical of these aspirations. I believe the most pertinent psychological analogy for art is not perception but language. Like language, art seems to originate from a universal and irrepressible human cognitive capability. But we don't study hearing to analyze language, so we probably don't gain much insight into the visual arts by studying visual perception. This is a discouraging analogy, because the more we know about human language, the more difficult seems the task of understanding it. But that makes attempts to understand art in terms of science, such as Arnheim's, interesting. Whether or not their explanations convince, they help us to see the deep issues of art more clearly.

Art and Illusion by Ernst Gombrich – Born in 1909 in Vienna, E. H. Gombrich was one of the most influential art historians of the past century. Director of the Warburg Institute and professor of classics at the University of London (1959-1976), he studied art history under Julius von Schlosser and classical archaeology under Emanuel Loewy. He was the Slade Professor of Fine Art at both Oxford and Cambridge, a visiting professor at Harvard, Spencer Trask Lecturer at Princeton, and Walker Ames Professor at the University of Washington.

In this remarkable book, perhaps his most important, Gombrich pursues a single theme: why does representation have a history? By this Gombrich means that humans did not simply pick up a charred stick and start making completely accurate representational images: contemporary art comes at the end of a long, gradual history of refinements in technique and illusionistic conventions. Why did it take humans so long to learn how to make pictures?

Part of the answer, in Gombrich's view, lies in the difference between making and showing, the fact that skill in using materials puts an upper limit on the subtlety and scope of representations. For that reason, it is said, Giotto never painted night scenes and Claude avoided figures. The deeper limitation is that most artists can only do what they've already seen done: representation is the process of categorizing the object as something familiar and then borrowing a conventional template or schema for that familiar thing. Individual artists may modify the schema by trial and error to achieve a more accurate or pleasing representation of the specific or individual. But "more accurate", Gombrich points out, depends on the purpose or function the image is intended to serve, and these functions also change with the background, context and purposes of the beholder in the same culture. The history of artistic style is a history both of our knowledge of how to represent the world and of the increasingly more diverse and complex uses we have found for images, leavened by the individual painter's ambition to improve or go beyond what others have done.

Gombrich looks afresh at the old tension between knowing and seeing, which underlies the prejudice that the Impressionists were the first artists to throw abstract knowledge and conventions aside and "paint what they saw" — Monet's famous patches of color and light in the retinal image. Gombrich argues instead that the history of style does not represent the gradual achievement of "naive" seeing (which is never possible anyway), but the discovery and refinement of schemas and conventions that are accepted as representations of the world on a two dimensional surface. He notes that art itself defined at many stages the preconceptions which guided seeing — Constable saying that he saw nature as a picture by Gainsborough — and concludes that the discovery and refinement of schemas has much in common with the patient observation and experimentation of science.

If you enjoy Gombrich's take on art, then you will probably also enjoy his best known book, The Story of Art (1950), which has been translated into thirteen languages and is among the all time bestsellers in art history. Though admittedly weak on most 20th century art, Gombrich masterfully distills two millennia of art history into a succinct and thought provoking march of technical and stylistic innovations.

Art & Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland – To conclude this long page, a book that is short and to the point. A widely shared secret among artists, this small paperback (in its 10th printing, from sales generated almost entirely by artist word of mouth) puts many misconceptions about art in proper perspective with humor and uncommon common sense.

Subtitled Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, the authors (two California photographers and art teachers) draw their examples from painting, writing, music and photography — but the visual arts create most of the issues they discuss.

There are no discoveries about watercolor technique here. They talk instead about approaching art as a skillful process rather than an activity with a goal. They describe how one work of art leads to another, and why failed works are valuable. They believe that making art means noticing things, and they point out the obstacles — art habits, inner voices, and fear of others' opinions — that you can notice in order to navigate around creatively.

I came away from this small book feeling centered, affirmed, and free to paint the way I wanted.

I suggest you buy two copies of this book. After you read it, you'll want to give a copy to a friend — but you won't want to be without it for very long!