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What Painting Is

4.08  ·  Rating Details ·  361 Ratings  ·  32 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
Paperback, 256 pages
Published March 29th 2000 by Routledge (first published 1998)
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Feb 23, 2009 Kim rated it liked it
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
Aug 29, 2007 Derek rated it it was amazing
A must for painters. It has changed my view of painting and art making.
David Rourke
Oct 08, 2012 David Rourke rated it liked it
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
Aaron Berger
Apr 28, 2011 Aaron Berger rated it really liked it
Shelves: art-books
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.
Aug 14, 2011 Jim rated it it was amazing
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
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
Sarah Stolar
Jul 24, 2008 Sarah Stolar rated it it was amazing
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.
Jul 05, 2008 MaryAddison rated it really liked it
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.
Nov 12, 2013 Flob rated it did not like 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.
Elo-Mai Mikelsaar
Aug 20, 2013 Elo-Mai Mikelsaar rated it it was amazing
One of the most fascinating books from inside the painter's world, if not one of the most impressive books I've ever read.
Kevin Tole
Jun 02, 2014 Kevin Tole rated it it was amazing
Shelves: art, favourites
A very good art book on Painting written by an Art Historian and not full of art bollix.

The difference is that Elkins was a painter. He KNOWS about the urge to paint, the joy and the pain of paint.. Now add to that his great leap and alignment of Painting with Alchemy and you have the basis for a brilliant book. But it takes someone as good as Elkins to pull this off.

It could have degenerated into art bollix or alchemical bollix (anfd at times the alchemy stuff is pretty strong) but he manages t
Aug 08, 2010 Craig rated it it was amazing
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
Lee Piechocki
Oct 06, 2011 Lee Piechocki rated it really liked it
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.
Aug 08, 2016 Sara-Anne rated it really liked it
Fascinating study of oil painting using the historical pseudo-science of alchemy. I'm not a painter, but from the perspective of a writer using literary alchemy, this gave me insights on how alchemists thought about transformation that applies to both painting and writing. It was also really fun to learn about a totally different way of seeing the substances that make up our world.
May 28, 2012 Nashay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: art
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.
Apr 28, 2013 Chris rated it really liked it
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?
Nov 15, 2009 Curt rated it really liked it
Compares painting to alchemy - both attempt to create amazing things from base materials.
Mackenzie Dw
May 03, 2012 Mackenzie Dw rated it it was amazing
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.
Aug 16, 2007 Nick rated it really liked it
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.
Aug 01, 2013 Janice added it
Shelves: arts
Alchemy provides a magical language on an artist's journey
Nov 23, 2008 Marti marked it as to-read
Have set this aside for the time being.
Sep 29, 2008 Andrew rated it it was amazing
Jun 30, 2007 Chip rated it really liked it
Awesome! Compares painting to alchemy in a most undeniable way.
jeremy bradner
Sep 04, 2008 jeremy bradner rated it really liked it
painting is alchemy. it's true.
Dec 11, 2014 Jackie rated it did not like it
Hadn't expected it to be so focused on trying to forge a link between oil painting and alchemy. Found myself skipping pages and heaving a sigh of relief when it was finally over.
Jun 14, 2009 Sandy rated it liked it
like the book but can't get rolling off and on for years
Alex Bigney
May 30, 2008 Alex Bigney rated it it was amazing
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.
Brendan  McAuliffe
Aug 28, 2007 Brendan McAuliffe rated it liked it
Just started this
Sally Schluter
Sally Schluter rated it really liked it
Jan 01, 2015
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James Elkins (1955 – present) is an art historian and art critic. He is E.C. Chadbourne Chair of art history, theory, and criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He also coordinates the Stone Summer Theory Institute, a short term school on contemporary art history based at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
More about James Elkins...

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