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What Painting Is [Paperback]

James Elkins
3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
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Book Description

March 29 2000 0415926629 978-0415926621 1

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 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.

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From Booklist

When one looks at a Monet, what exactly is one looking at? A framed painting, surely. And, too, as traditional art history texts would suggest, an "impression of light and atmosphere." But for art historian and painter Elkins, the essence of a painting--" what painting is" --goes beyond such abstractions. For one must not overlook the "process" of painting itself, the process by which artists get their hands dirty mixing oils and pigments, jabbing and scraping until one day the mess of paint blobs magically emerges as water lilies (or a haystack or a field of poppies) on the canvas. Indeed, it is the transformative power of the act of painting that Elkins explores in What Painting Is and that he elucidates expertly by way of another transformative art--the ancient practice of alchemy. In each of the nine chapters, Elkins draws parallels between artistic and alchemical processes. Like the alchemist, the painter sequesters him-or herself into the studio to mix and match substances in search of a recipe that will turn unpromising materia prima into the perfect painting (the philosopher's stone). Elkins, a true alchemist of ideas, has conjured up an original and insightful book that is sure to transform the reader's understanding of painting. Veronica Scrol --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"...one of the few essential books on oil painting...No book now in print heightens one's feel for the reality of painting--as object and pursuit--better than What Painting Is." -- San Francisco Chronicle

"A remarkable discussion...an extraordinary evocation of art and oil painting." -- Leon Golub, painter

"This book is brilliant." -- Frank Auerbach, painter

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Esoteric and fresh title by Elkins July 19 2003
The central premise of the title arises from the authors assertions that Painting and Alchemy are linked. It dealt with the notions of how painting like the scientifically naive Alchemy is rife with guesswork. No joke. It compares (as one of many examples) certain passages of Monet's paintings with the sort of haphazard experimentation that goes on in Alchemy. This is a well-researched book as far as I can tell, but then again I'm no expert on Alchemy.*pause* The book attempts to educate the forlorn and lost artist/art student such as myself on the lost pseudo-science of Alchemy.*pause* I had arrived at the idea that painting and alchemy are analogous in my own artwork; which led me to this book.*pause* I cannot stress enough in this review the extent to which he uses the Alchemy/Painting contrast as a springboard to jump into a bastardized survey course on the history of Alchemy. If you want a speculative art book that attempts to concentrate on the physical act of painting (as opposed to art history & criticism of content) this maybe worth checking out. I do have reservations about the book. Elkins compared the painter's studio to a 'jailhouse' and ascribed to painting self-reflexive connotations of the painted picture. The notions of a painters awkward methods of experimenting with media and it's spiritual connection are liken to the arcane pre-sciencitfic experiments of an Alchemists laboratory. "What painting is" really helps a student or artist ponder their personal feelings toward the actual experience of painting rather than the intellectual side of the content. Read more ›
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3.0 out of 5 stars A New Perspective on the Nature of Oil Painting March 17 1999
By A Customer
Elkins gives the artist and nonartist alike a new and unusual perspective on the nature of oil painting. In considering the paint as a substance, and using the language of alchemy, he opens new doors for those who have spent countless hours pushing paint around on a canvas. This is an entertaining read for anyone interested in the more esoteric aspects of painting, and his ability to find meaning in even the smallest aspects of oil painting is refreshing. Although this is not an academic work, his view of painter as alchemist certainly merits discussion in any art school.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Not just Alchemy Jan. 11 2000
By A Customer
This is an intriguing and new approach to understanding the intensity of the process of painting. Elkins offers unique insights and theory not on the subject matter that is presented as much on the metaphoric possibilities that link to painitng and its involvment. This book as his others open wonderful doors into further reasearch via thier bibliographies and references. Simply readable this book is worth the read. unforgettable. His newest book about the body should be another book to have.
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3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but arcane July 26 1999
I found the premis interesting, especially the ideas expressed in the first chapter. However, some of the alchemical ideas in later chapters seemed totally irrelevant to the act of painting. Nevertheless, it is a book with ideas you won't find anywhere else.
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