Read What Painting Is by James Elkins Online


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 lanUnlike 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 language to explore what it is a painter really does in her or his studio - the smells, the mess, the struggle to control the uncontrollable, the special knowledge only painters hold of how colours will mix, and how they will look.Written from the perspective of a painter-turned-art historian, What Painting Is is like nothing you have ever read about art."...

Title : What Painting Is
Author :
Rating :
ISBN : 9780415926621
Format Type : Paperback
Number of Pages : 246 Pages
Status : Available For Download
Last checked : 21 Minutes ago!

What Painting Is Reviews

  • Kim
    2019-05-31 09:38

    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, and about alchemy. Just a bit too much about alchemy and not enough about painting for me to think that this book merits the title that was chosen for it. Perhaps, "How Alchemy Is Like Painting", or some such title. I might go back to it someday, I might not, but I'll probably never get through it from the beginning to the end like a proper reader.Times change and people too. I regret this earlier review because after all I've gone back to this book several times since. Leaving my previous review nonetheless as a reminder of the peregrinations of the human mind.

  • Derek
    2019-06-20 03:37

    A must for painters. It has changed my view of painting and art making.

  • David Rourke
    2019-06-11 04:17

    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 books on the history and criticism of painting, enough for several lifetimes of reading. Another 1,500 books cover painters' techniques—most of them popular artists' manuals describing how color wheels work, or how to paint birds and flowers. In all that torrent of words I have found less than a half-dozen books that address paint itself, and try to explain why it has such a powerful attraction before it is trained to mimic some object, before the painting is framed, hung, sold, exhibited and interpreted. But I know how strong the attraction of paint can be, and how wrong people are who assume painters merely put up with paint as a way to make pictures. I was a painter before I trained to be an art historian, and I know from experience how utterly hypnotic the act of painting can be, and how completely it can overwhelm the mind with its smells and colors, and by the rhythmic motions of the brush."Reading that made me really want to find out what he had to say. Unfortunately, the book would have been better as an essay—i.e., shorter. In Chapter 1 Elkins takes his single metaphor and pushes it, hard. Then you get to chapter two, and he keeps going. For the rest of the book. It doesn't take too long before the metaphor starts to get strained. We learn a lot about the different processes of classical alchemy and the bizarre ways that alchemists thought about them. For each process, Elkins comes up with a (usually) strained comparison to how painters work with their materials. If I happened to be deeply interested in the practice of alchemy (both historical and modern) as well as painting, I'm sure that I would have had lots of "eureka" moments as I read this. But even though I am fascinated by painting and sort of interested in wierd and arcane bits of history, Elkins lost me somewhere around the middle of the book as it became clear that his metaphor was all he had. It's just not enough to justify a whole book. And what's really painful is that I'm sure Elkins felt like he was leaving a lot out. This is an interesting and quirky essay, stretched into a short-ish book, that wishes it was a really long book, with a whole lot more footnotes. In other words, Elkins is even more of an art geek than I am. I'm impressed by that, but I can't recommend the book unless you are one of the seven other people who share these two interests with Elkins. If you are, and you didn't know this book existed, then you're going to love it.

  • Aaron Berger
    2019-06-11 06:21

    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.

  • Jim
    2019-05-29 05:19

    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 artists, as it may help them to understand a bit of what it's like to live with an artist's obsessions and maybe to better understand the odd beings they've fallen in love with.Elkins includes many references to contemporary and original alchemical documents in his chapter notes.This is my third time reading this book and each time, I've found more to contemplate. I'm about to set up a new painting studio here in France, and I am extra inspired to get to work and let the substances "occupy my mind".

  • Rachel
    2019-05-30 03:23

    "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. What matters in any specific instance is what is occupying the mind: a certain oil varnish may be engaging because it is unusually viscous, in which case a quality counts as a substance....substances occupy the mind as concepts and and concepts occupy the mind as substances." pgs 112-113

  • Craig
    2019-06-04 03:23

    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 book. This is what great painting is really about, and you thought it was the subject matter ? Its about the process and the result. This book turns me on. I think Ill have to read it again.

  • Sarah Stolar
    2019-06-11 03:39

    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.

  • MaryAddison
    2019-06-14 04:39

    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.

  • Flob
    2019-06-08 04:32

    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
    2019-05-30 07:30

    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
    2019-06-10 03:29

    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 to use an insight into one to provide insights into the other.Probably the best book I've read on what painting is about from the view of the painter - trying to get that across to a non-painter.

  • Lee Piechocki
    2019-05-26 09:23

    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.

  • Sara-Anne
    2019-06-09 07:32

    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.

  • Nashay
    2019-06-11 10:13

    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.

  • Chris
    2019-06-01 10:23

    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?

  • Curt
    2019-05-28 07:42

    Compares painting to alchemy - both attempt to create amazing things from base materials.

  • Mackenzie Dw
    2019-06-11 11:31


  • Gary Daugherty
    2019-06-23 11:41

    Very good! Recommended by art professor at Boise State U.Painting as experimentation was excellent. Put a new perspectiveon leaning to paint.

  • Nick
    2019-06-02 06:33

    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.

  • Janice
    2019-06-21 10:15

    Alchemy provides a magical language on an artist's journey

  • Marti
    2019-06-01 03:23

    Have set this aside for the time being.

  • Andrew
    2019-06-06 06:42


  • Chip
    2019-06-22 08:41

    Awesome! Compares painting to alchemy in a most undeniable way.

  • jeremy bradner
    2019-06-01 08:15

    painting is alchemy. it's true.

  • Jackie
    2019-06-06 10:22

    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.

  • Sandy
    2019-06-01 04:35

    like the book but can't get rolling off and on for years

  • Alex Bigney
    2019-06-02 09:24

    the bestest book on painting i have ever read. really magical, in the true sense of the word.

  • BrendanMcAuliffe
    2019-06-23 11:30

    Just started this