buyer beware

Books and magazines on painting are a miniscule part of the sprawling publishing industry that brings us everything from daily tabloids to deluxe limited editions. As a particular publishing niche, however, art publications cater to the needs — and economic dictates — of specific audiences.

I've worked with several superb editors and consulted to media companies in my years as a university professor, business consultant, market researcher and internet executive. That experience taught me a few things about professional editing standards and the economics of publishing, which I pass along to guide your choice of art instructional books. (I critique elsewhere the available books on art history.)

The basic and surprising fact is that most art publications are designed to entertain or promote rather than inform. It may seem nonsensical to think of art magazines or "how to" books as entertaining infomercials, but that's in effect what they are.

The promotional pact works both ways. Publishers want successful gallery and workshop artists, because exhibition awards and gallery sales mean the artist's paintings are attractive (attractive paintings sell books), and the workshop stars know how to entertain an audience with a demonstration painting. Artists in turn attract more students and buyers when they've authored a book or magazine article: it makes them a published expert, and is a catalog of their recent work.

But it's bad for either side to put out too much information. The artist doesn't want to disclose distinctive techniques, or bore with details, or labor too long at writing. Publishers dislike factually rich and carefully edited books, as these are costly and time consuming to produce. In fact, the publisher's most lucrative source of revenue is repeat buyers — the folks who discover that the last books didn't really improve their painting, so merrily go out and buy more. These readers accept books that show but don't tell, that contain lovely reproductions of paintings in progress but are a little fuzzy on the specific steps required to make them.

So what should you look for in a painting book? The reviews on this site explore, sometimes at length, the strengths or weaknesses of several useful or popular books. On the negative side, I've found five reliable earmarks of books to avoid:

• Reinventing the wheel. Many "intermediate" books pad their pages with elementary descriptions of choosing a palette, holding a brush, stretching the paper, laying a wash. You already know all that, or you would have bought a book for beginners instead.

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• More picture than print. Pictures must be joined with text to tell the story of painting, but beware of books with demonstration illustrations and little supporting text — the "picture story" doesn't actually explain anything, it just makes painting look easy.

• Cheesy slogans. Some art tutorials skip along from one cheerleader cliche to the next — Punch up your painting with darks! Mix your own greens! You browse through them, thinking "hmm, this sounds informative," until you ask yourself: how dark? what greens? used when? used why?

• Empty description. An artist who wants to tell you how to do something will tell you how to do it. An artist who wants to entertain will describe the way the painting looks: Before punching up the darks, this painting looks dull and boring. But look at how those added darks make the second version into a winner!

• Secret cliches. Many art books get away with passing on "secret methods" that are common knowledge to begin with. The secret is — the paper is the source of light! The secret is — you have to know when a painting is finished! The secret is — mix your paints on the paper, not on the palette! With secrets like those, who needs cliches?  

Because the focus is really on entertainment, not information, many art instructional books and painting magazines display a lack of editorial professionalism that would never be tolerated in other print categories. I point to specific examples in my review of books by Michael Wilcox, Paul Jackson, Ian Sidaway, Jim Kosvanec or Susanna Spann. However, editorial standards reflect business realities, and the realities behind art publications are easier to see if we look at a familiar artist's magazine.

The most common failing is inaccurate information. For example, opening the most recent edition of Watercolor (Spring, 2002) almost at random (p. 99), I found the following description of Florida artist David Coolidge's palette:

In all his years of painting professionally, Coolidge's palette has remained constant. Arranged clockwise, it includes sepia, burnt umber, ultramarine green shade, ultramarine blue shade, French ultramarine, cobalt blue, cerulean blue, Hooker's green, Winsor green, brown madder, alizarin crimson, and burnt sienna. Sometimes he adds vermilion and bright red. All his pigments are Winsor & Newton....

This was written by E. Lynne Moss, senior editor of Watercolor magazine and herself a painter, so it is startling to discover several glaring blunders.

For starters, there is no yellow paint listed, although it is obvious from his paintings that Coolidge uses an intense yellow (such as cadmium yellow), and probably and "earth" yellow (yellow ochre or raw sienna) as well.

Moss says she is describing Winsor & Newton products — which is essential to understand what marketing names such as "brown madder," "Hooker's green," "vermilion" (the paint's actual name is vermilion hue) or "bright red" really mean. But Winsor & Newton makes only two shades of ultramarine blue ("ultramarine blue shade" doesn't exist, and nobody makes a blue shade of a blue paint!); and Winsor & Newton makes two shades of "Winsor green" using two different pigments (winsor green blue shade, PG7, and winsor green yellow shade, PG36); we don't know which one Coolidge uses. Obviously, Moss didn't fact check these marketing names, something any professional editor would make sure to do.

Finally, Moss says that Coolidge uses pigments, but what she really describes are paints: "brown madder" and "bright red" are not pigments! Assuming pigments, paints and "colors" are the same thing is an inept mistake.

Think those are momentary lapses? Then look, in the same issue, at the palette attributed to John Sowers (p. 76): it supposedly includes "phthalocyanine red" and "phthalocyanine yellow." Sorry, Lynne — no such pigments, no such paints. My guess is that the painter (or author James A. Metcalfe) ignorantly puffed up the registered trademark Thalo®, coined by Grumbacher for its synthetic organic pigments (including "thalo red" and "thalo yellow green"); but that marketing name has nothing to do with the green or blue pigment phthalocyanine. The staff at Watercolor said "Whatever!" — and so it went to press.

These errors may seem minor, but no competent editor would let them pass. Why? Because they make the descriptions of the palettes incomprehensible, and therefore useless. Even worse, they demonstrate that the authors and the magazine can't be trusted to get even the simplest facts straight. Moss apparently can't be bothered with the integrity of her own writing, or of the publication she represents as senior editor, and any reader unaware of that is going to be confused and misled.

A more serious failing is that the editors at Watercolor will knowingly suppress information. Paint lightfastness is an especially touchy issue, as this affects both advertisers (paint manufacturers, workshop organizers and galleries) and contributing artists. So although Moss claims that Coolidge uses alizarin crimson (PR83), no mention is made of the fact that it is a paint that fades under moderate light exposure. This "color" is favored by older watercolor painters (Coolidge began painting in the 1960's), and it is frequently cited in Watercolor without mention of its lightfastness problems. When I queried her on this point, Moss airily replied — in a letter under the publisher's masthead — that "we assume most of our readers are already aware of the lightfastness issues with alizarin crimson, so we do not mention them."

The real editorial calculation is not so dainty. Watercolor does not delve into lightfastness issues because this would raise questions about the dubious palette choices of its contributing authors and loyal older subscribers. After all, the ingrained preferences and market reputations of these stodgy "old masters" are at stake.

Meanwhile, art students and art collectors also read the magazine, as Moss well knows, and many of them are not aware of these lightfastness issues and may be misled into purchasing paints or paintings made with alizarin crimson, rose madder (NR9), aureolin (PY40) and other impermanent pigments. These readers matter less, or not at all, because they do not belong to that economically crucial subscriber audience — and anyway, whatever! What a beginner or buyer doesn't know can't hurt them.

Sloppy editing and commercially driven policies are ultimately the responsibility of Watercolor's editor in chief, M. Stephen Doherty. Why isn't he concerned that his readers are served inaccurate and misleading information? Because Watercolor isn't about accuracy: it's about promoting the artists it profiles, selling the art materials it advertises, and entertaining a complacent and hidebound subscriber base. Promotional entertainment isn't supposed to be accurate or informative. It is supposed to drive trade to workshop or gallery artists and corporate art materials manufacturers, and as a business it puts their interests first.

The point here is the timeless caution, buyer beware. For the novice or younger painter struggling to find reliable sources of information, the moral is simple: trust only those who earn your trust. There are accurate and useful art instructional books and art magazines out there. It's your job to find them. I hope my at times blunt reviews help you in that search.