On Painting

For years I had a print ad for the venerable Art Students League on my wall. Below a small line drawing was the art school’s motto: “Nulla Dies Sine Linea” – “No Day Without a Line.”

So when I read about the book, “Art Students League of New York On Painting: Lessons and Mediums, Styles, and Methods” by James L. McElhinney and the instructors of the Arts Students League of New York (offered by “Blogging for Books”), I was curious. I spent several days in January reading with pleasure this hefty volume and taking notes.

Written by instructors at the school, the book is divided into three sections with different formats: Lessons and Demos, Advice and Philosophies and Interviews. Two-page spreads titled Lessons in Print give instructions about accomplishing particular paintings. Writings by these different people provide an expansive view of the history of painting, introduce artists (both traditional and innovative), describe techniques, inspirations, and studios, and reveal working and teaching methods.

While they share technical details, much of the pleasure comes from painters’ revelations about the underpinnings of a life in art. They speak of artistic awakenings, (many were struck at a young age by an experience at a museum), paths to becoming an artist, and methods of work. Pages of the artists’ paintings are followed by a gallery of images from accomplished students. The reproduced art, both lavish and beautiful, often fills the page.

Much about art and painting is to be learned from this book, because artists accustomed to communicating describe the making of paintings. With some the artspeak gets thick – but others deliver words of wisdom. Sharon Sprung who paints figures and gorgeous textiles says: “My advice to everyone is to look harder, look more than you paint. Immerse yourself in the visual world. Ask a lot of yourself, but without negativity and self-doubt. You need to risk being wrong if you ever want to be right.”

James L. McElhinney, the author, works in the field and paints in long skinny Moleskine books, making visual journals. Of artists and sketchbooks he writes: “The greatest benefit of journal work may be that it returns painting to a devotional scale – an environment in which painting can be experienced on an individual level where painters and viewers might pursue more intimate conversations.”

Near the end is an interview with Knox Martin, an artist who vehemently distinguishes drawing from sketching. He answers a question this way: “One lovely thing I do: I had a botanical print because it’s descriptive of the plant itself. Every stem and joint is exactly, honestly detailed.” He describes drawing from the print in pen and ink and then enlivening it by extending leaves and pushing stems – “Without making it unrecognizable, the leaves and folds began to rotate this way and that until the whole rectangle was activated.”

Martin is an abstract painter, and no image accompanies his words, but words, descriptions in a good book, can inspire – set one off on a new path!

(Following the example of blogger friends, I signed up for and received this book from the “Blogging For Books” program in exchange for an honest review. More information about the book here.)

Art Students League book cover