One of my favorite kinds of art book is the personal one--a "first person" book--they not only cover anything from methods to materials or techniques; they also give us an inkling of the real individual behind the paintbrush. That kind of book can tell us everything from details about the artist's studio practices and working methods to how they conceive, study, and realize their ideas and aesthetics. Sometimes the personal book is about unique or idiosyncratic ideas and views. For example, Salvador Dali wrote a book called "50 Secrets of Magic Craftsmanship" (published in 1948, available as a Dover reprint) an odd book that mixes solid technical information with other, clearly surreal ideas. In effect the Dali book is itself a work of surrealism, and actually great fun, even where it leaves the beaten track of proven methods. But that sort of book isn't what this post is about. The kind of personal art books I'm most interested in are those that tell us precisely how the artist did what they did. Some of these books are useful and straightforward. Richard Schmid's "Alla Prima II" subititled "Everything I Know About Painting, and More" is an excellent example.
In that useful vein of "how to,"Thomas Buechner (1926-2010) published one of my own favorite books, "How I Paint," subtitled "Secrets of a Sunday Painter," in 2000. "How I Paint" is an informative, straightforward description of how he made his paintings. Although Buechner made his living partly as a museum director, he was also a classically-trained lifelong painter and illustrator. He was born in New York City in 1926 and attended Princeton University and later the Art Student’s League and the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. He kept a foot in two disciplines by working both as an illustrator and as a museum director. He did illustrations for the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, among other commercial work, but he also served as founding director of the Corning Museum of Glass and later as director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art. But it is in this exceptionally useful and concrete book that he has made his greatest contribution, in my opinion. "How I Paint" remains in print, and is widely available online. And no mistake about it, Buechner was much more than a Sunday painter, and it clearly shows. In truth, like every professional in almost every walk of life, he likely did his work every day.
|Thomas Buechner, Self Portrait, ca. 1995|
Like many others before and after him, Buechner devotes a chapter to materials and tools, but by the time he wrote this book he had little time for the old-school methods that he had learned early in his career. Although he had tried many of the "old master" mediums and techniques, mixed hundreds of color swatches, and studied the properties of many paints, Buechner had transitioned to alkyd paints and Liquin as a medium using a traditional palette of ochre, cad yellow, burnt sienna, ultramarine blue, alizarin crimson and titanium white.
|Cover of "How I Paint" featuring "Fletcher in Fur," 1998|
The same chapter contains a section on methods, including such issues as drawing, composing, perspective, and reference material. Unlike many realist painters who decry the use of the camera,. Buechner calls his an "idea machine," meaning his point-and-shoot was never far away. Nonetheless he does say that if you copy a photo that's what you get: a copy of a photo. Truth is, many fine painters and draftsmen have used photo references, probably most famously Norman Rockwell. Still, Buechner advocates painting from life as much as you can. Throughout the chapter he provides full-page high resolution images of many of his works, using them as examples of the various aesthetic and mechanical issues discussed.
The last half or so of the book concerns how Buechner painted various genres, from still life to landscape to people. One part gives extensive background for each painting, wherein he discusses what thought process he followed as a painting developed. For example for a deceptively simple picture of three pears, he mentions that to his way of thinking the grouping represented a struggle among the three shapes, with one pushing, another resisting, and the third already beaten. He discusses why the pears are placed as they are, what surface he used, how he developed the drawing and the final painting, in a series of large and small shots showing much detail. These tiny details are the ones that many writers don't show or sometimes even mention, yet they're crucial to versimilitude.
The final chapter of the book seems a bit out of place to me. In it Buechner details how to make various kinds of brush strokes. The chapter is called "Delivering Paint" and it's definitely all about that--what brush shapes and types are best for what kinds of strokes. He also details how to handle the brushes, which is another area that many neglect.
All in all, "How I Paint" is likely to be one of those classic art books that survive long after the author has passed on. I certainly value my copy and highly recommend that any artist consult it and put a copy on your studio shelves.