Some people think art instruction books are evil. I don’t agree. I like them. I think you can learn a lot from them. One of my favourite things is to get inspiration for a new style or a new technique from them. Art instruction books almost always have something in them that’s just plain wrong, overly prescriptive or at odds with what you already know or have learned from experience, but you cannot deny that they inspire you, all the same.
Some of my favourite books come from the North Light series: http://www.fwbookstore.com/category/north-light
Terry Harrison’s books also help you build confidence and technique, when you first start out painting: http://www.terryharrisonart.com/BOOKS/Default.aspx
Some of the cheapest fun you can have is to go to a charity shop and pick up old, donated art instruction books for a tiny amount of money, compared to brand new books. Books from the 1980s and 1990s are out of print, forgotten and almost worthless to the main stream book trade, but the goodies to be had are manifold. Look for books in the Ron Ranson Painting School series. The guilty secret is that, while artists, instructors and styles might have changed, painting and drawing hasn’t, at least not over that time period. It’s often nice to see what the artistic styles and concerns were, a few decades ago. If you’re really lucky, you can pick up gems from much earlier periods and these can be really inspirational. Some of the really early commercial art books and the ones that taught you how to draw for money can be fantastic source material.
Amazon.com often carries listings for old, out of print art instruction books and they can be obtained relatively cheaply from the merchants that list on the Amazon site. http://www.amazon.com/Art-Instruction-Books/lm/30AJZCSITBKDF
There are even specialist dealers that carry old art instruction books.
Other books that are useful to teach you technique are exhibition catalogues from the larger galleries. The Tate Online Bookshop is a great source: http://www.tate.org.uk/shop/do/Exhibition-Catalogues/range/312
The MoMA Online Store is another great source: http://www.momastore.org/museum/moma/CategoryDisplay_10451_10001_11485_11492_-1_shop_
Don’t forget the Musee D’Orsay’s shop: http://www.boutiquesdemusees.fr/en/shop/products/4-art-books-guides
I think that by studying how the artists you like do what they do, you can almost reverse-engineer their techniques. I find books about master artists to be very instructive. These days, the artists covered in books go all the way up to the modern day: http://www.tate.org.uk/shop/do/Modern-Artists-Series/range/303
If you want to compare artists from a particular genre or movement, you can’t beat these: http://www.tate.org.uk/shop/do/Movements-Modern-Art-Series/range/304
My favourite books are the Taschen books about particular artists, because the range is vast, the books are glorious, they are relatively cheap (so you can own a lot of them) and the artists covered are the really good ones. The books all come with colour illustrations. My favourite series are the Basic Art and Basic Genre series of paperbacks: http://www.taschen.com/pages/en/catalogue/basic_art/index.1.htm
They have an online shop too: http://www.taschen.com/?gclid=COmuu9Sbk6QCFd392Aodr0-rJg
I’ve generally found the library to be a bit disappointing when it comes to art books. I don’t know if that is just the libraries I have access to, but I find it sad.
Don’t forget that the Google Image Search feature is another fantastic way to get art inspiration and ideas about how and what to paint. Here’s an example: http://www.google.co.uk/images?um=1&hl=en&biw=1440&bih=785&tbs=isch:1&sa=1&q=ruth+piper+artist&aq=f&aqi=&aql=&oq=&gs_rfai=
So, if you find yourself without an idea for a new work, you don’t know where to learn a new technique or how to freshen up your approach, or if you find your art teacher in your art class has stagnated in his or her teaching, you really aren’t paying attention. There is so much to learn and so many fantastic learning resources to draw upon.
EDIT: The first major exhibition of Monet’s work in thirty years is about to open in Paris (tomorrow, September 22nd, 2010). Advance ticket sales have been strong.
The catalogue of the 200 works on show is available online here: http://www.boutiquesdemusees.fr/en/shop/products/details/2022-exhibition-catalogue-monet.html?r=L2VuL3Nob3AvcHJvZHVjdHMvNC1hcnQtYm9va3MtZ3VpZGVzLzE%3D
They have a lovely web site about the exhibition (in French): http://www.monet2010.com/fr#/home/
You could spend literally hours on the web site alone.
Here are the pictures: http://www.monet2010.com/fr#/galerie/ Spend some time zooming in on the works and note how the brush strokes make all the difference. Monet used a much dryer brush than I thought, in place, allowing the canvas behind to show through. He didn’t plaster every canvas with thick paint at all. Observe:
A feast for the eye to behold!