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What Painting Is [Hardcover]

James Elkins
4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)

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Book Description

September 23, 1998 0415921139 978-0415921138 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.

Editorial Reviews

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

Review illuminating exploration of the pungent and visceral fecundity of the painter's workplace. -- Nicholas Harding, Sydney Morning Herald
...colorful and entertaining... This is a richly interesting look at the worlds of alchemy and painting. -- Virginia Bryant, Parabola
...this is a truly original book. It will make you look at paintings differently and think about paint differently. -- Globe
This is a novel way of considering paintings, and excitingly different from standard art criticism. -- The Atlantic Monthly
An inspired, poetic account of an artist's creation is revealed. -- Reviewer's Bookwatch
Elkins...has conjured up an original and insightful book that will transform the reader's understanding of painting. -- Editors' Choice
Like the alcemist, a painter enters the studio to mix and match substances in search of a recipe that will turn unpromising materia prima into the perfect painting. Elkins, a true alchemist of ideas, has conjured up an original and insightful book that will transform the reader's understanding of painting. -- Booklist
The best books often introduce new worlds. What Painting Is exposes the reader to painting materials, brushstroke techniques and alchemy (of all things), in a book filled with rich description and illuminating insight. Read this and you'll never look at paintings in the same way again. -- Columbus, OH Dispatch
James Elkins, who teaches at the Art Institute of Chicago, has written one of the few essential books on oil painting...Perhaps the greatest surprise of Elkins' book is that he can communicate his learned enthusiasms for alchemy's weird doctrines and symbolism. He makes readers feel they are truly tasting a view point of reality alien to the modern scientific world view. 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
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. -- Booklist, starred review
James Elkins, 'his academic laces untied,' traces a marvelous, evocative and utterly convincing parallel between two spirits grounded in the earth--alchemy and painting. The author is an alchemist of ideas, and a painter. His openness mo the love of quicksilver and sulfur, to putrefying animal excretions, and his expertise in imprimaturas, his feeling for the mysteries of the brushstroke--all these allow him to concoct a heady elixir. -- Roald Hoffmann, winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 1981
This book is brilliant. -- Frank Auerbach, painter
A remarkable discussion... an extraordinary evocation of art and oil painting. -- Leon Golub, painter

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Routledge; 1 edition (September 23, 1998)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0415921139
  • ISBN-13: 978-0415921138
  • Product Dimensions: 8.2 x 5.8 x 0.9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #903,844 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Note: information on reaching me, on unpublished texts, etc., follows this bio.

James Elkins grew up in Ithaca, New York, separated from Cornell University by a quarter-mile of woods once owned by the naturalist Laurence Palmer.

He stayed on in Ithaca long enough to get the BA degree (in English and Art History), with summer hitchhiking trips to Alaska, Mexico, Guatemala, the Caribbean, and Columbia. For the last twenty-five years he has lived in Chicago; he got a graduate degree in painting, and then switched to Art History, got another graduate degree, and went on to do the PhD in Art History, which he finished in 1989. (All from the University of Chicago.) Since then he has been teaching at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is currently E.C. Chadbourne Chair in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism.

His writing focuses on the history and theory of images in art, science, and nature. Some of his books are exclusively on fine art (What Painting Is, Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles?). Others include scientific and non-art images, writing systems, and archaeology (The Domain of Images, On Pictures and the Words That Fail Them), and some are about natural history (How to Use Your Eyes).

Current projects include a series called the Stone Summer Theory Institutes, a book called The Project of Painting: 1900-2000, a series called Theories of Modernism and Postmodernism in the Visual Art, and a book written against Camera Lucida.

He married Margaret MacNamidhe in 1994 on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, off the West coast of Ireland. Margaret is also an art historian, with a specialty in Delacroix. Jim's interests include microscopy (with a Zeiss Nomarski differential interference microscope and Anoptral phase contrast), optics (he owns an ophthalmologist's slit-lamp microscope), stereo photography (with a Realist camera), playing piano, and (whenever possible) winter ocean diving.

Contact information:

Hi, most everything about me, including unpublished texts, is here:

That site also has a contact form:

And that website also has my travel calendar, in case you live outside the US:

(Amazon won't let people link their Google calendars to their profile page: don't know why.)

I'm also very active on Facebook:

And I am active on Library Thing (posting reviews of contemporary fiction):

PS, I also have an Amazon "aStore," a special site for buying books:

And last, I also have an Amazon Listmania! list:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent read September 19, 2004
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Elkins uses alchemy to interpret and read paintings. It sounds strange, but the way he explains it using such an odd device helped me to expand the way I think about art and paintings. It also is a book about paint- not conceptual or computer art or even theory. It is more concerned with the physical act of pushing paint, the solid matter of pigment, and the artisan-like way a painter opperates in the studio. If youre a person who is interested in the hands-on experience in art, and like thinking about new ideas, this book will be a lot of fun. If you dont like getting your hands dirty, you may want to look elsewhere.
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23 of 25 people found the following review helpful
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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17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Painter's perspective on painting August 14, 2006
By Scott
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have been painting for nearly 20 years and this is the first book that I have encountered that has accurately described the material act of painting itself from a painter's perspective. I agree to some extent with other reviewers who complained that the discussions of alchemy were too long and obscure. However, in an age of digital images this foray into obsolete and arcane mucking about is absolutely necessary to explain why paint remains a vital medium. Even without the metaphoric parallels between painting and alchemy, delving into the alchemists kitchen seems like an excellent introduction into the mind of a painter.

I have one serious reservation about this book: I do not think that it would be useful for inexperienced painters. It is all too easy to be utterly seduced by the descriptions of lush thickets of paint and exquisite glazes. These must remain a means to greater understanding rather than an end in themselves. Elkins is aware of the problem and devotes a later chapter to self-reference and narcissism.

I am keen to try this book out on non-painting friends to see what impression it makes on them...
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Dear Prospective Readers:

I just finished rereading "What Painting Is." It is a wonderful book! The first time I read it years ago, I liked it a lot, but this second time it hit my heart harder. I suppose the knowledge and experience I have accumulated since my first reading have made me that much more sensitive to what Elkins had to say about painting. In particular, I think he precisely describes how a painter's thoughts transmute the paint into something other than grease, and more importantly, how the paint and the process of painting transmute the painter's thoughts. I take for granted at times that paint is changed from something liquid to something solid when it dries; thus making immutable these otherwise fluid and transient transmutations. The Painter's Stone! Thanks for reminding me about this Dr. Elkins.

The book's chapter about the psychosis of the studio was very meaningful to me, especially the section about how painting could be interpreted as --pardon me--masturbatory or `incestuous' because it cannot help being so self-referential. I can remember when I was a student how hard critiques were to take because of how close I was to my work. I must confess, I still find criticism hard to take even though it is often in a context that is meant to be constructive! From my student days I remember my work being criticized for being `self-indulgent' because my painting surfaces got so thick and clotted. I was a huge fan of those thickly painted, black and white heads by Auerbach and Kossoff, done early in their careers. I still struggle with this to this day, regardless of whether I work in oil or casein.

Last, the chapter on steplessness really got me, too.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars A very helpful book. A good read. Very well written. Truly great...
This book was recommended reading before attending a workshop. I found it extremely helpful. Full of very interesting examples and information about the history of art, the... Read more
Published 5 months ago by Lori Daniel
5.0 out of 5 stars Great book for dealing with painting physically in the moment.
I don't read, but during my art studies in college. I was attached to this book. Changed the way I saw painting. Read more
Published 22 months ago by Andy Arnett
5.0 out of 5 stars simple excellent
Truly excellent book for artists. So many books on art are at best irritating, but this one was wonderful. Sent me into my studio filled with energy and ideas.
Published on June 25, 2011 by Dorian Nisinson
5.0 out of 5 stars My Favorite read this year.
Not sure the exact reason, but this is my favorite read this year.
I mix my own paints, and this the only book gets
the joy of mixing oil pigments and experimenting. Read more
Published on June 16, 2011 by Patrick Faith
3.0 out of 5 stars The Why of Painting

What is painting?

Typically, art historians answer that question with a litany of the who and what for facts of painting--the social, financial, and... Read more
Published on August 25, 2009 by E. C. Hager
5.0 out of 5 stars Better than I even expected.
Was in better condition than I even expected. I'm very pleased and would definitely purchase from this seller again.
Published on July 5, 2009 by Sean Cabral
2.0 out of 5 stars What Alchemy Is
I think the title of this book is misleading. It should be, "What Alchemy Is". Most of the book is devoted to an overview of alchemy, with a few relatively modest observations... Read more
Published on July 6, 2008 by T. Ceirin
5.0 out of 5 stars Quirky, great read
Although the author occasionally gets bogged down in the esoteric notions of alchemy this book may be just the thing you've been looking for if you need to see painting in a new... Read more
Published on November 9, 2007 by Brad Teare
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent
I am not a painter, nor an artist. I am interested in the creative processes in life. I found this book entertaining and enlightning on many levels.
Published on May 9, 2007 by Renie Derenzi
5.0 out of 5 stars For painters who like to paint
This book reminded me what I love about painting. After reading it I felt completely rejuvenated and excited to be in the studio. Read more
Published on April 23, 2007 by Jake
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