The Good Books


Dear Artist,

Some days this studio computer pops regularly with question emails. Yesterday was one of those days. Dorothy thought it must have been the phase of the moon. A lot of the questions were fairly basic — the sort of thing that might be looked up in an art reference or a “how to” book. It always strikes me that there are quite a few artists who worry about becoming wonky or even being poisoned by some book “knowhow.” While this is understandable, I’ve always felt that some of our best friends can be the good books. North Light Books (and I’m not working for them) have some excellent titles that deserve to be thoroughly thumbed and spotted.

A good example is Painting with Your Artist’s Brain, by Carl Purcell. This well-illustrated book is of the “learn to paint what you see — not what you think you see” variety. Carl, a watercolourist who teaches art at the college level, says, “Push aside your know-it-all intellectual brain to maximize the power of seeing and unveil the secret of creating better art.” He shows a variety of techniques, how to see and use shapes and silhouettes, the shapes of space and the value of value, how to activate patterns and ensure focus and centers of interest. His ideas and tips are all the more convincing because his own work excels.

In his book Carl shows his watercolour methodology in nine demonstrations. He gives examples and exercises in how to find, see and design better compositions. Sidebars help you to grasp each concept. It’s all such straightforward and valuable stuff.

A lot of effort these days goes into workshops and art classes. Carl is in demand for these too. But a great deal of fine input can be had at our own speed by exemplary illustrations and the written word. Again today there were many emails of a workshop nature with questions that might perhaps have been better answered this way: “Get Carl’s book and the materials he recommends — plus 50 sheets of 140-lb.(300gsm) Arches. Rent a cheap off-season motel in an unfamiliar mountain pass. Forget the phone, TV, and email. A few days ought to be enough. Use up all the Arches and don’t worry if you get Carl’s book covered with spots.”

Best regards,


PS: “Our interpretations of subjects are clouded by our intellects. My teaching approach grew out of that discovery.” (Carl Purcell)

Esoterica: Questions like “How do you make a watercolour gradation?” are difficult to answer by email. Carl shows how to tilt, make an enriched one-time load, apply, re-wet and pull down the bead. “Resist any urge to go back into the stroke,” he cautions. Ours is a hands-on job where theory needs to be overtaken by practice. It’s only a book. New stuff learned from masters is there to be modified — and can certainly be tossed when a better idea — your idea — comes along.


Carl Purcell Watercolors 


Water lillies


Autumns falls


Valley of Fire


Northern exposure






Feedback appreciated
by Carl Purcell, Mani, UT, USA

Thank you for the letter concerning my book, Painting With Your Artist’s Brain. My editor at Northlight Books sent me a copy. A friend also sent me a copy and asked me how much I had to pay you to write it. I don’t think I could afford to pay for that kind of endorsement. Your comments were very kind and much appreciated. After I wrote the book and it was out of my hands, I realized just how much I was hanging myself out there. It isn’t like entering a show and facing a possible rejection. I’ve lived through that a number of times and my confidence only suffered a minor bruise which was healed by the process of the next painting. But a book stays out there for a lot of people to see. The potential for emotional melt down is greater than I realized while writing it. So it is really nice to read such wonderful comments about the effort.


Studied on her own
by Sandy B. Donn, Orlando, FL, USA


“Parrot Tulips on my coffee table”
watercolor painting
by Sandy B. Donn

When I started painting nearly eight years ago my first thought was I wanted to develop my own style and possibly break rules along the way! My local library let me check out all the art books I could carry — for two weeks at a time. It was heaven. I went through them all, did the demonstrations, made notes for future reference. Studying on my own really prepared me for the studio life — the “art” of working alone all day, which was new to me after a career and child raising. People are astonished to hear my library story. Dedication to hard work and practice and books has produced my best year yet. I paint instinctively now, but I still refer to my personal art library collected over the years, especially when I’m facing a challenge in a painting. It’s so comforting to have solutions at my fingertips! Sometimes I refer to my books simply as a confidence builder.


Studied with top artists
by Bobbe Bergen Dennis, Boulder, CO, USA


“Nude Study3”
oil on linen, 9 x 12 inches
by Bobbe Bergen Dennis

I have studied with the best, been mentored by the great through my collection of art books. A few years ago, I spent 3 months studying with Henri Matisse through the book, Matisse on Art. Over the years I have gleaned the ideas and methods of the likes of Rembrandt, Pieter Bruegel, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Richard Diebenkorn, de Kooning, Wolf Kahn, Joan Mitchell and Georgia O’Keeffe through the printed word.



Ceased to worry about it
by June Raabe, Vancouver Island, BC, Canada

I too wonder at the people who are afraid to read or take classes because they don’t want to be influenced. I wonder almost as much at the people who are looking for their voice, when it’s like Dorothy and “home” — all you have to do is click your heels and focus and say “no place like home”! No matter how much I admire other people’s styles, my own way of painting comes out. I have ceased to worry about it.


Gem of a book
by Rene Wojcik, Midland, TX, USA


“Fruit Bowl and Quilt”
watercolor painting
by Rene Wojcik

I picked up a copy of Carl Purcell’s book a few weeks ago while visiting a bookstore in Austin, Texas. It is a gem of a book. I often find the best books are those that come from educators who have earned their credibility through years of practice and teaching. In my opinion, this book is a must buy. I also have an extensive book collection on drawing and watercolor… many from Northlight and they provide some really nice books. Carl’s book is at the top of the list regardless of publisher.


by Kim Power, The Netherlands


textile painting
by Kim Power

While I did study art in school, I am a strong advocate of self-education. My library grows every year with books that help me in my art, both in technique and philosophy. Sometimes I find real gems. I really like, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and The Artist’s Way right now. I don’t necessarily use all of the advice given in books, but I take what I need and can absorb at the time.


When art goes to college
by Philip Koch, Baltimore, MD, USA


oil painting, 45 x 60 inches
by Philip Koch

Yesterday I was in the faculty office at the art school where I teach and a fellow instructor was making copies of dense articles on “contemporary concepts in painting.” He was handing out like 60 pages of dense text for the first week of class alone — and this is a studio painting class not an art history or art theory class.

Now he is a good guy and I like him a lot, and I don’t doubt that among all those pages were a couple of ideas some young artists will find useful. But I couldn’t shake the feeling that even more of the young artists would have come up with some more useful ideas of their own spending more time at the easel and less at the reading table.

It’s a challenge to figure out what is the role of the intellect in making art. Artists as a type tend toward the curious and the thoughtful. And who wants to discourage that? Yet especially when art goes to college there is a subtle drift toward trusting the written or spoken word over the eye. For me, art has to first ravish the eye of the viewer — and then and only then can it stir the viewer’s intellectual side.

I do think viewing art makes people more thoughtful and less mechanical in how they view the world. This is good. But artists need to remind themselves, especially artists who hang out with art historians and art theorists on college campuses, that art is about vision and the emotions first. And then after that it can address other concerns.


Conceptual and perceptual
by Bryan Dunleavy, Southampton, UK


“Morning Mood”
acrylic on canvas, 80 x 80 cm
by Bryan Dunleavy

Once universities grabbed art education a generation ago they began to stress the conceptual at the expense of the perceptual. Over the same period the workshop and instruction manual providers shifted their emphasis to the perceptual and the “how to” at the expense of the conceptual. So we ended up with polarization instead of integration. Consider: Renaissance painters’ decision to paint Christ as a thin, tallish, bearded, Latin-faced figure, rather than a short, stocky, dark-skinned Nazarene; Monet’s decision to paint haystacks at different times of the day; Cornelia Parker’s decision to blow up a garden shed and exhibit the retrieved parts in a gallery arrangement. All are examples of conceptual art, except that the first two are more in touch with their perceptual side.


Valuable videos
by Taylor Ilkin, Tampa, FL, USA


“Up River”
original painting
by Taylor Ilkin

Videos are another way to become informed about the world of making art. Creative Catalyst Productions has produced a great stable of artists. I will be making a YUPO video with them this March and feel honored to be working with such an honest company and to be a part of their impressive family of professionals. Videos are a wonderful tool… in addition to books… and the standards of Creative Catalyst Productions are excellent. Something about how the artist uses the brush and moves about the painting area… it really gets me going! I think the verbiage, handling of the brush and general commentary tell me more about a painter, whilst a book is great for reviewing the technique. Both means compliment each other.


Creativity by not hearing
by Lyn Asselta, St. Augustine, FL, USA


“The Fisherman’s Basket”
by Lyn Asselta

I spent some time as an art teacher for deaf students. What impressed me most was that I noticed a freshness in their work that I was completely unaccustomed to. From early in life we “hear” a lot about how things should look, what colors they should be, how to interpret our world. Having never really “heard” those preconceived notions, these students simply drew what they saw. I never once heard “I can’t draw a straight line” or “your tree should be brown and green.” It was an amazing revelation to me and I grew from just being around that un-intellectualized approach. Our art tends to be more real when we concentrate on what we actually see with our eyes and with our instincts. It becomes difficult and cumbersome when we are busy trying to figure out what we’re supposed to be seeing.


Heavy paper better
by Paul B. Ohannesian, Vancouver, BC, Canada


“Just Like You”
watercolor painting
by Paul B. Ohannesian

I just want to comment on the suggestion of painting on 140lb paper. Yes, it’s much cheaper than 300 lb. I used to use only the lighter paper. However, two years ago I studied with a local artist whose rich watercolours were all painted on 300lb paper, and she told me that certain valuable techniques can only be fully accomplished on the thicker stock. These include multiple over-glazing (over already-dried areas, leading to denser pigment, more richness, and allowing use of only pure colour in the washes, letting the eye do the optical mixing), and lifting-out (removing pigment with absorbent materials for such things as highlights).


Many years of many marks
by Paul Schleitwiler, La Grange, IL, USA

In the documentary mentioned by Lin Wryghte that single, clean, precise stroke of Picasso’s left no doubt that a bull had appeared on the glass… and that any additional lines would have ruined the painting/drawing… and seeing it happen, supports the idea to “leave your strokes alone.” I have a videotape of a movie by Jean Renoir of Picasso painting. While he completed several works during the movie, he always began with something like what Lin reports. But then he painted over and over his first efforts until he achieved what he wanted. I have known artists who design thoroughly before beginning to paint, then start in one place and never go back. I have known others who paint over and rework as they develop their ideas ‘in the working.’ Oriental masters train by painting the same thing again and again. Then, when they are prepared, they paint a masterwork with swift, sure strokes, no going back — because they have mastered the ‘character’ they are painting. It is the same way one learns to write and read the minimum 3 to 4 thousand characters necessary to be literate in Chinese. I teach my students to make a mark, then use that as a guide to placing/coloring a better one. Or else they would never continue to study art. I teach calligraphy students to draft, redraft, redraft and redraft until the final draft. That final does not show the reworking done before, but could not be what it is without that effort. The ability to choose the exact color, to place a mark in the exact spot, to grasp at once the place for this stroke in the whole composition only comes after years of making many marks.


Purcell family of artists
by Mary Madsen, Las Vegas, NV, USA

I am so glad to see you recommend Carl Purcell’s book. Not only is he a gifted artist and teacher, he is an incredible human being. I’ve had the tremendous good fortune to take his class a few times, as well as classes taught by his brother, Roy Purcell. Roy has not written a “how to” book, but he does have a book published of his desert watercolors. Both men are as different as night and day — one tall and blonde, the other much shorter with red hair — and both approach the teaching process from different perspectives. Carl is specific and academic, yet he teaches a freedom and spontaneity one doesn’t often find in academe. He gently shakes you and wakes you, and there is no such thing as a mistake while in his care. Roy teaches by doing demonstrations, getting lost in his art and repeating over and over, “Oh, so beautiful. Look at those colors and how they fuse, look at that line, just look at how beautiful it all is” and infects his students with a slow, tender love of their medium and subject. Roy also has the world’s largest press in his studio, but is so humble he didn’t even know it until his son discovered the fact in Guinness Book of World Records. By the way, Roy’s son is an emerging talent, and hopefully we’ll all have his work available to us soon. All three men, the two brothers and the youngest Purcell, are gentle gentlemen who seduce the timid artist within to come out and play in the light.


Disagreements in the club
by Christine Munson, Boise, ID, USA

Our disagreements in our writing group have to do with a reluctance to get serious, with some members feeling that being serious impedes creativity. We have been working on a collaboration and some members want to come up with an ownership agreement and others say that they don’t care and don’t mind being plagiarized. I don’t know if you can give us any insight, but anything would be appreciated.

(RG note) I often think about this Chris. I want to be with people who are just as serious about my business as I am. At the same time I love to be with those who really just want to hang out and play. Fact is, I learn a lot from non-professional goofers. No matter what the art, artists in the end have to see clearly that they are and need to be alone — and an awful lot of the really good stuff comes out in simple, beautiful solitude.


Thanks to our contributors
by Finola Prescott, St. Lucia, West Indies

We have virtually zero resources at our school or even in local libraries or shops, and I see my students mostly once every two weeks (as long as some “special” activity doesn’t take precedence over the art class). Reading in particular, the Genn letter and clickbacks alongside other internet sources, has been crucial to my being able to actually help my students get at least a half decent look at art in school.

These last few weeks I’ve been taking them through their first ever critique — of their exam papers from last term — and through a critiquing project using a local exhibition. At the same time we’ve taken our first look at trying to see past the outline of an object through to the shapes made by the shadows and highlights. And I’ve even broached the concept that they need to try to forget what they think things look like and see what really is there. I think some of them are having fun — getting to realize that they can “make a drawing” and that they can actually identify “important” features or moods in theirs and “real artists'” works. The concept that there’s another way to see is giving them something to chew on and there’s definitely thought that I’m just the nice-but-pretty-weird art teacher when I start telling them about naïve art and that some of their works that normally they’d laugh at, actually have very creative content. I’m awakening the artist in me through this journey and learning so much more by my research and by needing to be able to break it all down so I can pass it on to my students. It’s an exhausting experience I wouldn’t trade for the world. Thanks to all out there who choose to share.





Yu Tan with Basket

oil painting
by Shang Ding, Foothill Ranch, CA, USA


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