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Art Books in Your Local Thrift Store: Better Than Your Stupid College Art Books

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Two things struck me today while I was sitting on the floor of one of the hundreds of Philadelphia thrift stores surrounded Michelangelo books and trying to decide which ones to buy. The first was a personal revelation that I have probably ten Michelangelo books sitting on my shelf at home, and that maybe it’s time to read up on someone else. The second realization was that this pile of grungy books sitting on an old shelf in a store that sells anything and everything is a million times more useful and practical than any art book I purchased or glanced at in college. This second realization is what inspired me to write this because it’s striking to think that in art school so many of us have spent thousands of dollars on a class, only to then spend another $100-200 on a book that we either never read or just end up hopelessly skimming so that we can finish a homework assignment or cram for an exam. Basically what I’m aiming to do here is break down my own personal experience with college or art school style art books, explain why they’re bullshit, and guide you to the much more beneficial and fun experience of hunting for reasonably priced books and expanding your knowledge in a way that does more than scratch the surface. Once I’ve done all that I’m going to break down my latest haul too, partly to emphasize my point and partly just because it’s awesome and I’m excited about my new books.

I feel like I should start this by saying that in college I was not a reader, it never excited me and when it needed to be done I either found a way to skim through an online article on the same subject or I just took the loss and didn’t do it. It wasn’t like I didn’t like reading or the subject matter didn’t excite me, it was that scholarly books are just so tired and boring. In my own personal experience, and to broaden the spectrum so we’re not here all day, there are two types of art books in school, first is the “How to Art” type book that is supposed to teach you how to paint or draw through step by step instructions or giving you bare bones subjects to work off of in hopes that you’ll progress and the second is art history books.

Let’s start with the Art 101 style “How to Art” type book. these things suck, plain and simple. I remember my first semester of college taking Drawing 1 we had to buy this book on drawing techniques and I was a little confused when I first heard this but I was optimistic, excited to start to art school, so I headed down to the bookstore and hunted it down and BAM! $150. Well, that wasn’t fun but this will be useful, I figured. Class number two I had to buy another book that cost an insane amount of money and the same with class three and class four. Now I’m not wealthy in the slightest, between my parents and myself we can barely afford to get me through college and here I am 8 hours into the first day with a $600+ bill on books alone sitting in front of me. It was my first day and I wasn’t an expert but I figured these things better be made of gold or give me the tools to become the next master artist on the planet.

Now I think based on the title of this article you can deduce that none of those books hit either of those criteria. What was actually in them was a bunch of tutorials on the perfect way to do certain techniques, step-by-step instructions on how to draw the human anatomy or blend two oils together to get the perfect hue. Useful, right? In a way yes, but were they hundreds of dollars useful? No! Art isn’t an ikea shelf, there’s step by step instructions and you certainly can’t just read a book and be a master drawer or painter or sculptor. I would spend hours reading the 3 chapters on shading assigned to me for drawing class and learn more in the 30 second demo my professor would do on someone’s sketch pad before we started a study drawing. If we refer to the classical painters and how they learned, we see there was a master teaching an apprentice techniques that have been passed down from generation to generation and once the apprentice had a grip they would take that and master their own craft through practice. Now obviously, art has changed immensely since then but it hasn’t, and won’t ever, come to a point where someone can just read a book and be a master artist. If anything, the idea that that is even potentially possible is poisoning the art world. Techniques should be simple because in the end we’re all going to find our own way. I always think of the heads example, when classical painters would draw or paint a body, each figure would be x amount of heads tall, now scale is established and the rest comes down to skill and technique that has been developed through, you guessed it, practice. Technique can only take you so far, telling me that if you draw these 12 circles, then draw a straight line through the first 7 and an arc through the last 5, then connect the corners, draw 3 ovals, put it all together and voila a perfect human figure is a little crazy. Obviously this is a bit of an exaggeration, but that’s how wild some of the tutorials that these books are giving you seem.

I’m not saying these books are totally useless, some of them are excellent references and the tools in them can be helpful, but art is all about practice, trying new things, figuring out your own way to make your art work because that’s exactly what it is; Your art. It’s not your professors, or the author of some books, it’s yours. Both of those could be great tools to some people on figuring out their art and for some people they might be totally useless, in the end what links both of those artists together is that help or no help it took pure trial and error to figure out what their style or subject is. The idea that if on Monday I can’t utilize a technique and i get assigned a 98 page reading on how to do that technique, by the time I get to class on Wednesday I’ll have an understanding of it with no or limited practice is asinine. A reference is a great tool, but putting all this weight on a potential reference is not what young artists need, and it’s certainly not what they can afford.

Overall, I just don’t think that we need these books and we certainly don’t need the price tags. Schools and professors are telling kids that they need to buy these books and they cost hundreds of dollars, are a thousand pages and collect dust more than they help artists. If a professor wants to reference a book or give a suggestion, awesome! If a kid wants to go read a book to help them understand something on their own time because they believe it will help, even better! But don’t force a kid who’s spending thousands of dollars to be in a classroom to spend even more money on a book full of tired tutorials that drag for page after page when seeing someone do something in that same classroom and then practicing their own version of that skill is infinitely more useful.

Moving on, let’s look at art history books. I’ll open with a thought that’s always baffled me about these school style art history textbooks, how can a book feel like it has an infinite amount of pages, virtually never end, but still barely scratch the surface on art or an artist? It’s crazy. Unlike the technique books, these things are supposed to be how we learn, the hub of information for a class and yet they can’t even really give that. I want to preface this by saying that my problem with these books may stem from my issues with the overall structure in college art history in general, so I may be addressing things that go a little past just the book. But these books are even more astronomically priced than the other ones I talked about, they have 6,000,000,000 pages and weigh the equivalent of a loaded barbell as you carry it across campus. Now what are the titles of these classes and these books? “Ancient Art,” “Renaissance to Modern,” “Art from 1890-1940,” etc. Just these awful lump sum approximations that breeze through art history like it’s just a pile of statues and pictures that we like to look at rather than masters of a craft who created pieces that bared massive significance at the time and that significance has carried into today shaping things like culture, religion and just overall life. How many things that we use today or see today feel like they could be so permanent or significant? I’ve read at least 10 books on Michelangelo’s life and works and I wouldn’t say I’m an expert on him or his works or that time period. That’s just one artist in one time period working in just a few of the styles that we know of across human history and I still feel like I have tons to learn about him. 10 books, and I don’t think I’ve even scratched the surface on the guy but college art history classes are deducing geniuses and masters of crafts to just their work, and just a few pieces of that work at that, and then they’re mashing the time period that work was done in into just highlights and then trying to span all of these artistic styles and time periods across recorded human history into a book and they’re not even doing it well. Let’s say an average chapter in an art history textbook is 30 pages, are we really expected to learn and understand a time period of art and all the masterful artists who came out of that time period in 30 pages? How could we do that.

These books and these classes just feel like schools are trying to deliberately skim over this information for students who just needed to fill a criteria. Even the more advanced classes that do go into certain time periods or areas more extensively are flawed. I took a class in college called “Making American Art,” and I believe the book was the same title (if not it was similar) and I was stoked because I felt like finally, an art history class that was about more than just a timeline of who and when painted this or sculpted that, we’re going to learn about artists as people and how they went about making these pieces that we’re still looking at today. Nope, none of that. It was just another week to week dance across a timeline where in this year this artist painted these paintings and his style was this and then a few years later he painted these and his style became this, then after that guy came this guy and he did this and blah blah blah. I’m boring myself out of my mind just typing it like it needs to stop. Artists are people! Art has shaped and built entire cultures! Why are we deducing it down to just boring time lines and funneling it into people’s heads and telling them they know art history when they can memorize some dates. It’s baffling.

Well Forrest, that’s a pretty great rant about why $1,000,000 art books that weigh a ton suck, but how can we find books that teach us about art and artists?

That’s a great question, Forrest, I thank you for asking it! That leads me into my final point and that point is that there’s and infinite number of books that have so much more information about artist periods, art styles, artists themselves and you can learn so much more about artwork and artists and actually get in depth information! Must cost a fortune, right? Nope. I’m fortunate enough to live in Philadelphia so I’ve got a lot of options, but wherever you are there’s definitely some sort of thrift store or book exchange and that’s the ultimate art book tool. Go there, just look around, you’ll be amazed at all the treasures you find.

I’ve learned more about art and artists that I’m actually passionate about and built a better reference network just wandering the shelves at thrift stores and book exchanges than I ever did in a classroom. Now I’m not knocking art school, if you have the ability to go to art school and are passionate, go! GO! What I’m saying is don’t bury yourself in books that cripple your bank account the whole time. Learn from your professors, learn from your classmates and if you want learn about an artist or an art period, go find one of the stacks of books on those subjects that give you actual in depth information. Just like I referenced before, I’ve read probably ten books on Michelangelo and I learn something new every time, and there’s still plenty of books out there that I haven’t read that have even more information on him. These books aren’t just lists of what he made, when he made it and what he change between that and the next thing he made, those books are a waste of time. Go get information that you’re passionate about, learn about more than just the artist. I’m reading a book on Caravaggio right now and it’s one of the most compelling things I’ve ever picked up, it’s all totally new to me and I’ve probably taken 6 classes that talk about him some capacity or another.

Book Haul

To really emphasize my points here and show you how much you can get for hardly any money, I’m gonna take you through my newest book haul. Today I went to The Book Trader on 2nd St in Philadelphia and I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, all I knew was that I gave myself a $25 limit and I was gonna hit the art section and see what spoke to me. This store is totally awesome, shelves overflowing with books, barely any space to move around and yet it’s all still fantastically organized. I find myself sifting through a pile of potential purchases to find the real winners every time I go in there because they just have so much awesome stuff. I did talk myself out of buying more Michelangelo books today, don’t worry I’ll be back for them, but I got some awesome stuff and I’m gonna show you what I got, give a brief description of the information in it and value it based on how much I paid versus the value of information in it. My purchases are as follows:

  • Buy One: Bernini by Howard Hibbard

  • Cost: $3.00

  • Pages: 255

  • Buy Two: Goya in Perspective by Fred Licht

  • Cost: $4.00

  • Pages: 180

  • Buy Three: The Baroque: Principles, Styles, Modes, Themes by Grmain Bazin

  • Cost: $8.00

  • Pages: 368

  • Buy Four: The Faith of America illustrated by Norman Rockwell text by Fred Bauer

  • Cost: $6.00

  • Pages: 160

Buy One: This book is a Pelican Publishing original, though most new copies I’ve found online use the parent company, Penguin Publishing, for their prints, and if you’ve been around art or read about art in some capacity you’ve likely seen something like this book. Pelican Publishing has always been excellent at putting out art books that are equally informative and understandable. Not the most informative on the life of Bernini himself but it creates a much more in depth chronology of his work and what was going on at the time. This book is also loaded with pictures of all his great works, as well as some preliminary sketches and lesser known pieces. That’s one of the best things about getting a book on an artist rather than just getting an excerpt from a textbook; we’ve all seen Bernini’s David and The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa and they’re both incredible pieces but Bernini was more than that. In fact most artists are far more than just the two or three pieces that made them famous. All in all, I couldn’t really go wrong spending $3.00 on a book about arguably one of the greatest sculptors and architects of all time, as well as one of my personal favorites.

This book is also relatively cheap brand new, so here’s the link to get it on amazon if you’re interested!

Buy Two: This book is from a series, hence the “In Perspective,” and by the looks of what I’ve read so far and some separate online research this book and the others in the series look to be very interesting. Made up of a collection of essays from different scholars, Goya in Perspective looks to be a much more theoretical understanding of Goya as an artist with each writer breaking down a different aspect of the artist’s life or work. Visually it gives you highlights of Goya’s most prominent works with a picture section in the middle, an illustrative style that I’m usually not thrilled with but considering each essay touches a different subject and there’s no defined chronology, I understand it. Mainly I just wish there were more visuals, because I know Goya has a much more extensive body of work. Overall, four bucks, I can’t lose and it was a great find because I had a conversation about Goya the day before and he’s an artist I’ve never really researched so this is a great starting point.

Not quite sure why, but on Amazon a new hard copy of this is like $50, but you can get a used copy for like $4… so if you’re interested in this, go used and here’s the link!

Buy Three: Now this is more of a textbook I could get behind if I’m going the art history route. A solid, comprehensive book that breaks down one artistic time period in depth with space enough to give a visual timeline that pairs with the text. I have a few books like this that break down different time periods in art and I love them, they’re terrific references, and while I haven’t really jumped into this one fully it looks to be both thoroughly informative in both texts and visuals. I’m a sucker for the Baroque, personally, because things just seemed to get so flowing and vivid while artists became known more as characters not just a name on their works so this book was a must buy for $8.00.

Don’t get me wrong, I said this would be a good textbook but I wouldn’t pay crazy textbook prices for it. That being said it looks like you can still find a reasonably priced copy on Amazon.

Buy Four: I haven’t really gotten into the text aspect of this book yet, but, from what I’ve looked at in my glancings and some online research it appears that Fred Bauer creates a verbal timeline and understanding of Rockwell’s elegant depictions of American life. I must admit, however, I didn’t buy this book for the text. I bought this book because it’s hard to deny the elegance of a Norman Rockwell painting, ideology aside, just a nice sized, well printed collection of his work was a must add to my collection. It appears that I’m missing the paper cover that originally came with this hardback book but it’s elegantly bound in navy blue with bronze lettering and I like that much more. Another “can’t lose” for only $6.00, you really can’t lose when you’re spending under $10 on a book.

I’m adding the amazon link on here to stick with my trend (and because why do more research when I already have the book) but it looks like on amazon and I’m sure on plenty of other sites you can find a used copy for far cheaper than the new price.

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