What Painting Is
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What Painting Is

4.08 of 5 stars 4.08  ·  rating details  ·  216 ratings  ·  28 reviews
Unlike many books on painting that usually talk about art or painters, James Elkins compelling and original work focuses on alchemy, for like the alchemist, the painter seeks to transform and be transformed by the medium.

In What Painting Is, James Elkins communicates the experience of painting beyond the traditional vocabulary of art history. Alchemy provides a magical lan...more
Paperback, 256 pages
Published March 29th 2000 by Routledge (first published 1998)
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A must for painters. It has changed my view of painting and art making.
I found myself skipping around in this book for the parts that interested me. For those who don't know me well, I'll explain...I never do that. I like to enjoy a book's progression from beginning to end. I like to see the author develop their ideas and expand on them. I figure that's the reason they wrote it that way, in the order they chose to write it. So, to say that I did what I did, is not high praise. That said, he has some interesting and thought provoking things to say about painting, an...more
Jun 21, 2010 Rachel added it
"This is a conceptual swamp where qualities are tangled with substances, and properties with states. The alchemists debated the nature of qualities; sometimes they thought of them as clothes that could be taken off, leaving the pure "body' of the object, and other times they thought qualities were the body itself...... the moral I draw from these debates.... is that where alchemy and painting are concerned, there is no reason to distinguish substances, qualities, principles, and even elements. W...more
Makes me want to run to the studio. Has made me more observant about looking at painting- things I've taken for granted in my own practice and being more conscious in looking at other's work. Some parts are a little dry, but worth it.
Sarah Stolar
My favorite book of all time. There is no other book, person, lecture, class, artist, etc. who has been able to put the true experiences of a painter into perfect words. The chapter on the studio is especially worthy of praise.
David Rourke
What Painting Is,by James Elkins, is kind of odd. The book is all about one metaphor, explored in great detail. Elkins wants us to understand that painting and alchemy are the same. I must admit that he gets off to a great start. He's an art history academic who was once a practicing artist, and he is inspiring in his ability to describe the obsessive, seductive, overwhelming fascination of playing with colored mud. From the Introduction:

"According to the Library of Congress there are over 7,400...more
Jan 03, 2013 Jim rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: artists, art historians, spouses of artists
What Painting Is is James Elkins' excellent effort to explore the practice of Oil Painting by using analogies from Alchemical practices of the past. He shows these analogies primarily through a discussion of substances and how they "occupy the mind" of both painter and alchemist.

This is a heady, but not overly intellectual exploration which painters, art historians, and art lovers alike will find to be enjoyable and thought-provoking. I would also recommend this book to the spouses and lovers of...more
Been a while since I read it but as a professional painter, this is the only book I know that succeeds in many new ways to describe the appeal and mystery that working with the magic sticky substance of oil paint really has. It attempts no less than to find out and explain the driving force behind of what all oil painting really is about. The struggle, the love-hate relationship with the medium are described beautifully. There is also a rich history of the substances. All painters will love this...more
Gary Daugherty
Very good! Recommended by art professor at Boise State U.
Painting as experimentation was excellent. Put a new perspective
on leaning to paint.
Lee Piechocki
James Elkins = great writer on art theory/history. Writes with personality and depth. What Painting Is, really is about Oil painting specifically and he uses the practice and history of Alchemy as a metaphor the whole way through. It doesn't really answer any questions. It is a book designed to really open up what it is like to be a painter. Any art historian/art history student who is interested in European oil painting should read this.
Aaron Berger
There are passages where he talks about painting that get me so excited. Then he'll go for 20 pages breaking down the history of Alchemy and I get a glaze over looked in my eyes. Then he'll bring it back to painting, and it's as if someone yanked on a hook that i forgot was in my mouth. If you can get through the alchemy the parts on painting are like poetry.
This book was not easy to read, but it provided lots of valuable insights about the act and medium of painting. In comparing painting with the ancient pseudoscience of alchemy, Elkins attempts to explain what I believe many have been hard-pressed to: what painting is and why people are compelled to do it.
Not for me. It's really about Alchemy with a bit of painting thrown in. I got to about page 100 and wondered what I was actually getting out of this. I decided I've walked away with a thought that painting is a bit like alchemy - and that's it really.
Not as relevant to my experience as I had hoped, but moderately interesting nonetheless. I think I appreciate that this kind of thinking is being done more than I want to hear about it in detail.
Apr 04, 2008 Nick rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: oil painters
This is getting into the nitty-gritty of the material appeal and fetish interest in oil paint and the painter as alchemist. Very unique perspective for a book on paint and very well written.
A brief and very arresting comparison of painting and alchemy (!) The best chapters are those on the physicality of painting. How does matter carry meaning?
Elo-mai Mikelsaar
One of the most fascinating books from inside the painter's world, if not one of the most impressive books I've ever read.
Alex Bigney
May 30, 2008 Alex Bigney rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: anyone who wants to read about what painting is...
Recommended to Alex by: a friend
the bestest book on painting i have ever read. really magical, in the true sense of the word.
Compares painting to alchemy - both attempt to create amazing things from base materials.
Awesome! Compares painting to alchemy in a most undeniable way.
Aug 01, 2013 Janice added it
Shelves: arts
Alchemy provides a magical language on an artist's journey
like the book but can't get rolling off and on for years
jeremy bradner
painting is alchemy. it's true.
May 21, 2009 Marti marked it as to-read
Have set this aside for the time being.
Anne Foresman
Incredible paint talk.
Just started this
Hayley marked it as to-read
Jul 22, 2014
Yvette marked it as to-read
Jul 17, 2014
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