Art » Applied Arts

The best books on Drawing and Painting

recommended by Juliette Aristides

Figure Drawing Atelier by Juliette Aristides

Figure Drawing Atelier
by Juliette Aristides

Read

Geniuses may only be born once a century or so, but great art gets made all the time. Some of it follows atelier methods inspired by an apprenticeship model that has been handed down through the centuries. Juliette Aristides, an artist at the forefront of the atelier revival movement, discusses five books that are 'core curriculum' for anyone who wants to learn how to paint and draw, and thereby explore the virtues of sustained attention and close observation that come with making representational art.

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Figure Drawing Atelier by Juliette Aristides

Figure Drawing Atelier
by Juliette Aristides

Read

You’ve written that the best way to learn about art is to make it. The art you’ve been making has been in informed by the classical atelier tradition, an academic approach to drawing and painting. Before we discuss the books you’ve chosen on drawing and painting, tell us about your own work and what an ‘atelier’ is today.

‘Atelier’ simply means studio. In this context, small artist-run studios where students work directly under professional painters to master their craft. It is a historical model that predates universities. In an atelier, students are trained through practice; the learning is not theoretical, but practical. Students arrive as beginners and emerge with the skills and tools to be an artist.

Today we are seeing a resurgence of interest in atelier training. Most of these studio schools follow a progressive form of study, starting with mastering drawing and painting from the life model, still life and other subjects. Once students gain mastery, they can apply the skills creatively to express their own personal vision.

You’ve been drawing and painting in the atelier arena for many years. Tell us about your practice and the books that you’ve written. What inspired you to write those books and how do they fit into in the context of the atelier movement?

As a student, I spent a decade piecing together my education at multiple institutions and ateliers. When I started studying, figurative art was underground and it was difficult to find training. Much historical knowledge of drawing and painting had been effectively lost by the late twentieth century. Those of us with interest travelled to get the missing puzzle pieces from those who had spent their professional lives preserving classical drawing and painting skills.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

I started the Aristides Atelier in Seattle, WA at the Gage Academy of Fine Art 20 years ago, and it was the first atelier in the Northwest of the United States. I wrote the books to preserve the knowledge base and to make it accessible to anyone who wants to learn to draw and paint. Although the educational practice is sequential and skill-based, in my personal practice as a painter I’m constantly exploring and challenging what I know and creating different kinds of work. Atelier-trained painters can use the education to break new ground and support their personal vision.

The first book on drawing and painting you’ve chosen, Harold Speed’s The Practice and Science of Drawing, was written very much in this tradition. Would you consider this part of a ‘core curriculum’?

Many people are born with a spark, and an aptitude for drawing, but are not able to do develop their potential because they don’t have the tools. Some have said that talent is nothing more than the ‘love of a thing’, and this love gives us the patience to work through all the steps necessary for achievement. Speed’s book is an insightful guide to drawing written by an expert draftsman. He pulls back the curtain on what goes into a drawing and provides an overview.

The book is a hundred years old, yet is as true and useful now as when it was first released. An underlying theme through all the books we’re discussing is that art is a skill that can be taught and mastery achieved by cultivating your skills. Even if you are born a genius, your gifts must be developed through practice. Thankfully there are books like The Practice and Science of Drawing to point the way.

Harold Speed presents us with a lot of how-to, practical information, but he also has some very interesting things to say about art and about the philosophy of art.

Today, drawing and painting are intertwined with photography, so many readers may not realise that there are prior forms of representation in drawing and painting that do not conform to photographic models. Speed comes from a pre-photographic tradition of drawing. It was arguably a more intellectual time than the present, and he speaks much about the ideas of emphasis—selection and design—and composition.

Speed had this notion which he called ‘dither’, a subtle balance between pure observation and artistic design, in which perfection or mechanical accuracy does not necessarily result in the greatest art. There is much more to an artistically engaging work than accurate representation. Speed’s book gets to the essence of drawing, dealing with the why as well as the how. This is not a step-by-step book, but the moment you are ready to dedicate yourself to art with intention, this book can become an important touchstone.

Some of what he writes might be equally applicable to certain strands of art education today. He says, for example, “The struggling and fretting after originality that one sees in modern art is certainly an evidence of vitality but one is inclined to doubt whether anything really original was ever done in so forced a way”; with this striving for originality is “a struggling to cloak one’s own commonplaceness under violent essays in peculiarity and the avoidance of the obvious at all costs.” It’s got this wonderful turn of phrase!

Concern with originality, self-expression, and how to balance it with skill is a debate that started with 18th-century Romanticism and continues to our day. We are seeing this in other fields as well, for example now with music, the prevalence of mixing and sampling, which raises questions of originality. The remix and the mash-up are prime examples of drawing upon historic references for inspiration, cultural references that make new art for our times.

Visual art is similar. We are starting to see that reclaiming historic elements does not rob us of originality, but instead opens up greater options. Forced originality as the highest good in the arts, divorced from skill and knowledge, is no longer so interesting to us. True self-expression and authenticity are.

“The past is a source of inspiration and fellowship, allowing our solitary lives and artistic body of work to be seen in a larger context, and we are propelled forward in its current. ”

There is a good reason to look back, even for people who don’t care about history. Art, like mathematics, was developed over generations. We only have one short life to learn the skills and make a body of work. Who has the time to re-solve problems that have already been figured out eons ago? It’s useful to gain knowledge, even if we ultimately end up not using it so we can assess its value.

As we learn about our cultural inheritance, our individual lives become part of a larger story. The past is a source of inspiration and fellowship, allowing our solitary lives and artistic body of work to be seen in a larger context, and we are propelled forward in its current. Without a past, we do not have a future.

Let’s talk about one of those great artists, Delacroix. Thanks to his journals, you might say that he’s as much a literary figure as he is a painterly figure. His journals are extensive and seemingly all-encompassing. I can see how one can draw a terrific amount of inspiration and practical know-how about drawing and painting from what’s in this book.

The romanticism of his paintings may appear overblown to a contemporary audience, but everyone can relate to the simplicity of his journals, where we meet him mind-to-mind. He writes as if he is sitting alongside us, with such honesty. Delacroix is earnest, so restlessly anxious, and high-achieving. He draws from many different sources, which is reflected in a most extraordinary career. At one point, he was an artistic ambassador going on diplomatic field trips to Morocco, coming back with orientalist images that permeated culture French culture at the time. He was enormously influential among artists and the visual culture of his day.

“Artists should take time to write, if only to know their own mind.”

He’s not the reactionary that he’s often caricatured to be. In his journals, he laments that his life was so mundane and he’s always bumping up against the prosaic. “How can you do great work,” he writes, “when you’re always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude.” I love that exhortation. It’s amazing—we think of distraction as being a particularly 20th-century affliction that dovetails with proliferating technology. Reading Delacroix, we’re reminded that many struggles are part of human nature and that we are not alone.

Reading the journal entries in succession, everyday moments alternate with insights into to his studio practice. One moment he’s sitting outside, looking at the moon; the next he’s making observations about painting the rocks in the background of his painting of Christ. There’s self-analysis, but also an evaluation of his practice in real time. It creates a terrific intimacy. The reader feels like she has been invited into the studio with him. To what extent is self-reflection an integral part of artistic practice, in your view?

Our intimate and original thoughts live in crevasses deep within our mind. They are easily scared away by loud noises and bright light. It takes space and quiet introspection for them to come out of hiding. Billions of dollars are now spent to lay siege to our eyes and mind in our new attention economy. In the process, we are losing the ability to be alone and are eroding human thought and liberty that was protected by ancient ideas like the virtues of solitude, introspection and rest.

If we want to impact the culture, we have to be a little outside it and have something to say. Writing gives us a chance to slowly process our thoughts over an extended period of time, away from interaction with other people. Artists should take time to write, if only to know their own mind.

Our brain changes in response to different stimuli and in different contexts. We’re embarking on some of these technological experiments without fully really comprehending where they may take us.

I was recently part of a middle school field trip to the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle, where I was paired with one young girl. In the course of our tour, I asked her, ‘Do you feel that we have the potential for another artistic Renaissance?’ She replied, ‘No, I think our lives are too easy. Everything is coming too quickly’. It was a fair, if fatalistic, reflection. Without a degree of struggle and difficulty how can we fully engage with our humanness and make a lasting contribution?

“The true cost of anything is the amount of our lives given to it, so without a discussion about the price of our progress we leave ourselves open to sticker shock.”

In Nicholas Carr’s book, The Shallows, he talks at length about what is gained and lost by technological progress. He writes that older forms of technology—such as the book, expanded language and consciousness. Reading and writing enlarged people’s sympathetic response and enriched their lives even when the book was put aside. It strengthened people’s ability to think. I could say the same thing about drawing.

New technologies are remarkable tools of connectivity, self-expression, and self-empowerment, but they need to be approached with some caution. Thoreau wrote that the true cost of anything is the amount of our lives given to it, so without a discussion about the price of our progress we leave ourselves open to sticker shock.

There are many ways to pursue sustained attention, but the practice of making art manually is certainly right up there.

Drawing is highly effective in helping us slow down and see things in a new way. The minute you pick up a pencil and try to depict something, everything halts. You find yourself marvelling at small details and realising that you may never have looked at anything this closely before. Learning to draw is often called learning to see, because it’s our eye that is sharpened before our hand. Observational drawing and painting can turn the most uneventful life into a place of breath-taking significance and beauty.

Art demands careful observation, whether in writing or drawing or painting, poetry or prose. Deep, focused attention is necessary in every art form, helping us see significance in everything around us. Ernest Hemingway for example, in giving advice to writers, noted that most people don’t really look or listen. He said the best way to learn to write is by carefully listening and seeing. The same is true for the visual arts.

Is there an inherent virtue to the physicality of the studio or the pencil and paper? What about digital tools when it comes to drawing and painting?

A physical object of art exists on a separate timeline from normal life. It is an attempt at permanence and strives for eternity. It has a presence, like a person has a presence with a physical body.

When you’re holding a device, you can summon and dispel images as you like. You can watch a YouTube video and you can flip to a painting and a stream of images—but a virtual picture will not outlive you and there is no a physical encounter. With a painting or drawing there is only one original, with digital art you have copies often without an original. When the electricity goes out only a drawing on paper still exists.

Contrast the virtual experience with a physical visit to a museum. It is a shared, larger experience with a community, existing apart from us, where we can’t change the channel and are exposed to things we may not normally encounter. The scale of art, the materials used, the way the paint is applied, all factor into our love of the piece. The very way it ages speaks to us. The very fabric of the buildings and the quiet of the communal spaces bring to mind the idea of the museum as a temple, the home of the muse.

One chapter in history that contended with rapidly changing technologies was the Renaissance. When one thinks of the Renaissance Man, the Universal Man, we tend to think of Leonardo. That’s perhaps because we live in an image-saturated age and Leonardo’s work has become iconic in so many ways. However, I was intrigued to learn that in a way Alberti was Leonardo’s predecessor and paved the way for him. 

Much of Alberti’s text is quite technical, but there are elements that are relevant to us today. It’s exciting to see the high regard painting was held in at the time at which he was writing. He has a deeply felt admiration for artists as creators and their intellectual freedom. He writes that nothing is so precious that with association with painting cannot be rendered far more valuable and highly prized. So, the painting of gold is more valuable than gold itself.

“His alternation between these poetic passages in the text with technical advice is so memorable that you only need to read it once. ”

With photography, there are iconic images that stand out and will be remembered from the thousands that we see almost every day. But when we’re looking at great painting, it often has a unique way of distilling and preserving emotion. Alberti also contends that painting not only speaks to the most highly educated but also to the least educated. His alternation between these poetic passages in the text with technical advice is so memorable that you only need to read it once. It stays with the reader for years to come.

It’s a technical manual in many respects, as the first written account of single point perspective, which makes it quite a revolutionary treatise. He was much more than an artist and a writer. Alberti was also an architect, a town planner and an engineer and archaeologist. When it comes to art, however, he says ‘I speak about these things not like a mathematician but as a painter’. Like Delacroix, he is practicing and reflecting on his practice, while imparting practical insight, and no small measure of poetry, very much in the manner of a Renaissance individual.

All the books aside from Carr were written by practicing artists, and all of them have an element of aspirational philosophy about them. These are not just ‘How-To’ books or books about lifestyle. They get to the heart of the challenges of making art.

Let’s speak then about Art and Fear. Art is often caricatured as a frivolous, easy-go-lucky, freewheeling pursuit. In fact, drawing and painting is downright hard work.

Making art is a high calling but is also difficult and emotionally demanding. The authors of Art and Fear examine some of the perils of art making with great insight. They discuss reasons people either don’t ever make a start in making art, or quit in the process. Many of us just talk our way out of a promising future with self-doubt and unrealistic expectations, when it’s really non-magical qualities like perseverance and grit that are essential to becoming an artist.

“The authors believe that art can be taught, and moreover learned, and the traps that waylay our efforts can be avoided or managed with some cheerful guidance.”

Geniuses may only be born once a century or so, but great art gets made all the time. And even genius is only expressed with hard work. Just think of the degree of application pursued by someone like Van Gogh. The authors believe that art can be taught, and moreover learned, and the traps that waylay our efforts can be avoided or managed with some cheerful guidance.

This is a good book to end our discussion and prompt people who are hesitant about making art to actually get out there and put pen to paper or brush to canvas.

You’ve just published the Figure Drawing Atelier, a very thorough and helpful guideline for anyone who wants to approach this facet of making art, and drawing and painting specifically. What’s next for you? What aspects of the atelier approach do you feel you have yet to explore?

It’s a movement that’s changing continually as it catches hold of the public imagination and being applied in ways that nobody really could foresee a generation ago. It’s adapted for different forms of art that appear to bear no direct relation to nineteenth century models, becoming allied to concept art, gaming and film industries, digital and fantasy artists. And it’s becoming more specialised in some ways, with ateliers being created to pursue specifically drawing or still life. We are seeing a huge amount of growth and interest so who knows where that may lead.

My job is to support each Atelier student’s personal goals, practice and desire for artistic excellence, however they choose to apply it. Our atelier attracts all sorts of people, some have goals to become career painters, others plan on disappearing into the studio and making art, drawing and painting only for themselves for the rest of their life. My books aim to address practicing and aspiring artists of all levels. Now that my latest book Figure Drawing Atelier is out, I’m looking forward to spending more time in the studio again myself!

Interview by Romas Viesulas

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you've enjoyed this interview, please support us by donating a small amount.

Juliette Aristides

Juliette Aristides is an artist and the founder and instructor of the Aristides Atelier at the Gage Academy of Fine Art in Seattle, WA. Juliette exhibits and teaches workshops both nationally and internationally, and is the author of Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice, Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice, Lessons in Classical Drawing and Lessons in Classical Painting, and most recently Figure Drawing Atelier. She is also Vice President and Cofounder of the Da Vinci Initiative, providing artistic training to public school educators nationally in the United States.

Save for later

Juliette Aristides

Juliette Aristides is an artist and the founder and instructor of the Aristides Atelier at the Gage Academy of Fine Art in Seattle, WA. Juliette exhibits and teaches workshops both nationally and internationally, and is the author of Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice, Classical Painting Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice, Lessons in Classical Drawing and Lessons in Classical Painting, and most recently Figure Drawing Atelier. She is also Vice President and Cofounder of the Da Vinci Initiative, providing artistic training to public school educators nationally in the United States.