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September 11, 2008

Choosing a How-to-Paint Book

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I've griped more than once on this blog about my lousy art training: here, for instance.

The consequence when I decided to take up painting again as I was about to retire was that I ran out and bought a how-to-paint book. Then I bought another. And another. Must have 20 of the darn things now.

Since it seems that I'm finally improving at little at painting, I've cut down on such purchases. Along the way, I discovered that they don't always agree with one another. This is understandable because painting, believe it or not, is an art, not a science.

Another reason for cutting down on purchases is that there's a lot of agreement between the books (along with those differences), so any new purchase usually yields a large amount of redundancy. After all, painting can be as much a craft as an art, and the purpose of those books is to provide time-tested rules-of-thumb such as "thick over thin" for painting in oils.

Nowadays, I tend to look for books that deal with specific aspects of art that I know I need to work on (such as clothing and how fabrics drape). Otherwise, I'll thumb through a book to look at the author's style of painting. If the style doesn't interest or impress me, I probably won't buy the book. But if I find the style interesting and wish that I could incorporate aspects of it in my own work, I'm likely to swipe the plastic through the card reader or call up the site and add the tome to my too-large collection. (Hmm. Next time I go to Powell's in Portland, I ought to bring some of the losers along and try to sell them.)


This book by British painter David Curtis is an example of a how-to book I bought because the author's style impressed me. Here are some examples of his work I found on the Internet. Some are found in the book, but the book contains others that I find even more interesting.


I don't have a title for this. Curtis is mostly a landscape guy, but does the occasional portrait.

Moorings on the Chesterfield Canal

Pembrokeshire Sea Cliffs, Port St. Justinian

Rocky Cove, Lleyn Peninsula

Rooftops and Cliffs, Staithes

Fine Autumn Day, Clayworth Wharf

Vintage Car Workshop
Strikes me as an oils version of Frank Wootton's charcoal automobile drawings.

You can't really tell from the sampling above, but Curtis tends to dramatize his paintings by selecting a sun angle that approaches backlighting. Neat trick, though it can become a crutch or habit. One dark secret he didn't reveal was how he does those thin lines needed to depict ships' rigging; I'd love to know that.



posted by Donald at September 11, 2008


As ever, thank you.

Posted by: dearieme on September 11, 2008 9:27 PM

I find the "Vintage Car Workshop" the most interesting. But maybe that's because of the oddly warped perspective.

So are you mostly into oils? I've never tried them, myself, but I'm absolutely in love with watercolors. (I hesitate to plug my own website, but I do have some paintings up on there.)

I've never looked at any books about painting, so I feel I don't have much to add to this discussion but, in my experience, there something universal to art, a core of knowledge that can easily be transferred from medium to medium. For instance, most of my formal training is in photography. Though I did take one class in watercolor, the professor never taught us how to paint, he pretty much just let us have at it, with only a few technical lessons to start us off.

Pardon my rambling, as I'm awfully tired right now.

Posted by: Jonathan Schnapp on September 11, 2008 10:58 PM

Me too: whenever I go into one of my taking-art-classes phases I tend to buy and hoard how-to books as well. And many of them are really good: full of knowledge and tips, and awfully well-done as books. If only I had the talent and perseverance to benefit more from them. Actually, eager to hear your recommendations. Which of the books would you urge on someone who's getting started?

Curtis has a nice style that's free and precise at the same time. As you've shown over and over, once you start to venture outside the usual authority-approved circles of visual artists, there's an awful lot of talent and productivity (and care) happening out there. You may respond enthusiastically or not, but I can't see that there's any disputing the talent or the impressiveness.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 12, 2008 11:21 AM

The untitled woman seems to have an unusually shaped head, large and warped. Is that deliberate?

Posted by: PatrickH on September 12, 2008 11:41 AM

Art instruction books are a bit funny. Sometimes the really good painters don't teach so well, and vice versa. A lot of art instruction books are created simply as a self-promotion for the artist. If this Curtis guy were really trying to teach beginners how to paint, he probably would have no need to put those finished paintings in the book, as they are far beyond the scope of the average art instruction book-buyer.

If you are really serious about painting, you need to find great painter and study with them on a long-term basis. They can correct you while you work. Look for some in your area, and don't be afraid to travel a bit for a weekly class or for critiques. Art books won't do that, so they're a bit of a racket. I don't buy them anymore.

Posted by: BTM on September 12, 2008 1:44 PM

PatrickH, that woman is probably a Canadian.


Posted by: Charlton Griffin on September 12, 2008 10:07 PM

The first painting reminds me of Jennifer Anniston.

I like these works and I will never tire of looking at the human face, I mean, paintings of the human face. I love portraits.

Posted by: MD on September 13, 2008 4:34 PM

Charlton Griffin, can you be more insensitive towards our delicate Canadian friends? Really, you might ruin PatrickH' day! And risk that he'll never speak to you again!

Besides, he's rather correct in his comment here.
I will add that the sitter of the painting in question appear to possess rather unusual anatomical curiosity: her breasts' highest points happen to align with her armpits. That would be extremely rare condition even in a perky 16yo, and the subject looks older than that. [I'm saying it as someone who once was a perky 16 yo.]

The painting I like the most is the one of a barge at Clayworth Warf. The light and the general mood of autumnal short-lived, a bit neurotic joy in the air is very well done.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 13, 2008 5:12 PM

On no, no no no. I must vigorously disagree.

As someone who is a perky 55 year old, my own breasts align quite nicely with my armpits. I hate to see this fine painter maligned so gratuitously and indeed unfairly.

I actually have a copy of this book and it is a personal favorite. The barge picture in my opinion is utterly without discernible neurosis, although I must say I now detect a smidgen of psychosis in one of the chimneys in the distance.

Excellent post, Donald!

Posted by: Sister Wolf on September 13, 2008 6:19 PM

It wasn't that I refused to speak to Tatyana again. I just hoped that I'd never have to hear from her again.

Oh well. Another dream dashed by the Sourpuss Slav.

Posted by: PatrickH on September 13, 2008 7:18 PM

Now, Charlton. You really must try harder to be a better person. :-)

Posted by: PatrickH on September 13, 2008 7:21 PM

See, PatrickH, you're doing it again.

Sign. Repetition - mother of knowledge, as our professor in best-in-the-world-soviet-school-system told us.
So, repeat after me:

1.Tatyana isn't Slav, by ethnic origins.
2.To confess of belonging to a tribe characterized by sourness and then to call somebody else A Sourpuss is to expose yourself to deserved ridicule.
3.To call a woman names is impolite. Especially to call someone with generally sunny disposition a sourpuss. Trust me, you wouldn't want to hear me when I really am in a growling mood.
4.It is quite silly to twist the meaning of your own words in hope nobody will notice - very easy, on this internet thingy, to check.

Also, you should have known better by now, being so experienced with women' psychology (or ask them out there, at Roissy's) than tell a woman you .
Then you'll hear from her day and night. At least from this woman. And we can't have that, can we?

Posted by: Tatyana on September 13, 2008 9:54 PM

I have made up my mind to like you, Tatyana. I have decided I am reacting mistakenly to a tone that is not intended to communicate venom, bile or malice, but is instead sharp, acid, irritable, but otherwise, if not well-intentioned, then at least not ill-intentioned.

So, I withdraw all my comments about it being impossible to like you. I do like you, I always have, I'm not sure why, but I do. I think you're more than half-mad. I think you are needlessly combative--but then again, that's not uncommon here. I also think your attitude to me varies between boredom, contempt, occasional mild interest, and even (gasp!) occasional mild amusement. Despite your attitude, I am actually fond of you, if only mildly.

So...I am going to like you from now on. If I think some comment of yours is needlessly harsh, I will simply remember it is from you, and will discount the harshness accordingly. I suspect you will make a pointedly pointy Tatyana-style point of ignoring me--or pretending to--but I will not ignore you.

I like you too much. I am not being in any way ironic here. I do like you. So you're stuck with me, Tatyana. Not too much (I stalk someone else). But I will write to you here as the mood strikes me. Whether you write back or not!

Yours with reasonable moderate fondness,

Posted by: PatrickH on September 14, 2008 12:52 AM

No preview policy in the comments punished me for being too lazy to check for omissions. My last paragraph should have read

"Also, you should have known better by now, being so experienced with woman psychology (or ask them out there, at Roissy's) than tell a woman you hoped that I'd never have to hear from her again.Then you'll hear from her day and night. At least from this woman. And we can't have that, can we?"

But I see, PatrickH, that you deciphered that puzzle on your own - and decided to follow my advice.

Besides, I too, picked up crumbs of understanding of [supposedly simple] male psychology. And it works, apparently. Just stick a word negligee in any rambling text, and a man will be unable to resist. All declarations of reserve are gone!

Have a wonderful Sunday, sweet Patrick. Add a delicious chocolate croissant for me to your breakfast espresso (I, alas, am going to Pilates class)and think about the ways you can improve lives of your numerous friends. Home and abroad.

Posted by: Tatyana on September 14, 2008 7:59 AM

Tatyana, you have a sunny disposition? Really?

O Irony!

My tribe is indeed sour and dour, but I am sweetness personified. I am a doll, a honeybun, an angel among men. Gentleness, thy name is Patrick! And besides, why on earth would confessing to belong to a tribe that's "sour" and then calling someone else a sourpuss cause me to be subjected to ridicule? Just because Canadians are sour doesn't mean you aren't? Lordy! The logic of these Eastern folk!

I get it: you're not ETHNICALLY a Slav. I get it! I really do! I have managed to get my head around that central crucial axial fact about you. I am very down with that. I am so cool with that I'm shivering here! Brrrrrrr.....

And...what possible difference could it make to me if you're ETHNICALLY a Slav, a Bukharan, a Peruvian wool knitter or anything else? I don't care about your DNA sequences. You have a Slavic name, you write in Russian, and you seem Slavic in disposition: sour, sarcastic, pessimistic, depressive. So I shall not refer to you as a Slav, but Tatyana, the designation is not entirely unjustified, and if you keep hearing it as a subtext when I write to you, well that's great! 'Cause I think of you as a real sourpuss, a dyspeptic, morose misanthrope, busy working on a heart attack or a set of ulcers or something: in short as a sourpuss and a Slav.

But I do promise I won't call you any more of those hurtful names. I like you too much!

It is quite silly to twist the meaning of your own words in hope nobody will notice...

Well yes. Even when it's my words you're twisting.

And sigh. I don't understand women. Not you. Not Clio. Not Sister. Not Moira. None of you. You are mysteries to me.

But I like you! I really really do!

Have a great day, Tatyana,

Posted by: PatrickH on September 14, 2008 11:41 AM

You are irresistible, Tatyana. I mean that. I just can't resist you. I don't why, but I can't.

And yes, negligee did get my attention.

Enjoy your Pilates class (I think someone here should post an inflammatory mini-essay on the relative merits of various exercise modalities: Pilates, Gyro, Yoga of different types and my favourite Crossfit.) That would get people arguing more than Canada would!

Canada is boring. Exercise and diet are cooool. I'd love to have a drag-down all-out catfight over workouts and food. Life itself!

Posted by: PatrickH on September 14, 2008 1:27 PM

People! "Can't we all get along?" as Rodney King asked so poignantly is his famous cri de coeur?

Cannot we return to the relative mental health of the barge painting?! Or what about my perky breasts, akin to the ones in the portrait?!

I suggest you people stay on topic.

Posted by: Sister Wolf on September 14, 2008 5:58 PM

My darling Sister, I would love to stay on topic: your perky breasts. Indeed, I would like very much to be all over that topic. So, you ready?

Posted by: PatrickH on September 14, 2008 7:19 PM

My breasts are the perkiest in the land!

Posted by: ricpic on September 14, 2008 8:53 PM

being the practical person that i am, i just have to say, take a scrap of matte board and dip it in paint and carefully put it onto the painting (using the edge) where the rigging belongs. makes a straight, thin mark.

Posted by: robin on September 18, 2008 2:49 AM

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