Book Gift Ideas

I’ve been asked about the books that I recommend for artists and watercolorists.

What a great idea, I thought! Create a list that would contain ideas an excellent gift, or suggestions to add to your personal collection.

This was much harder than I anticipated. I have so many books. And, like with a garden, if someone asks for your favorite flower or favorite herb. Well, it depends.

So this is an eclectic, personal “Jane M. Mason” selection. All are favorites of mine. You can tell by the sticky-notes and exhibit guides tucked inside the books that I keep close at hand 😊

For all you who treasure and take excellent care of your books, beware. I use (and abuse) my favorite books by dragging them along on field trips across streams and up mountains; folding corners pages; adding sticky notes; accidentally dropping them in the dirt; or spraying them with an erratic splatter of paint. “Well-used” is generous. “Rode hard and put away wet,” may be a better description. LOL.

Book topic: John Singer Sargent (an artist I especially admire)

Ok, we could say that I am obsessed with all things John Singer Sargent.

"Above all else, get abroad, see the sunlight and everything else that is to be seen."

​John Singer Sargent

Ah, so much wisdom in that advice.

I own over two dozen books exclusively on Sargent. Plus, I own countless others which include references to him and his circle of artists and his bon vivant friends.

John Singer Sargent (an artist I especially admire)

There is a series of magnificent books by Elaine Kilmurray with Richard Ormond, and others, presenting the definitive collection of Sargent’s work. It covers in nine volumes a chronology of Sargent's life, career, and the total presentation of his work.

It is the pinnacle of scholarship, thoroughness, and insights into a brilliant artist.

I don’t have the complete series. I focused on those relating most to his work in watercolor and geographic areas of interest to me, such as Italy.

I’m not recommending that any (normal) person make this investment.

But just so you know. If you are interested in a deep dive, this is your target. A cumulative index to the series, which is: John Singer Sargent: The Complete Paintings, is in the works to be available in 2024.

Now, back to the list...

A favorite book (although somewhat unlikely because it doesn’t have the pedigree and academics credentials as some of the others) is The Watercolors of John Singer Sargent, by Carl Little.

It is a diverse collection of Sargent’s watercolors. The text is less extensive than others, which is good for those primarily interested in seeing the paintings.

There are many close-ups of the paintings. This was rare in 1998 when this book was published. We did not yet have the technology to zoom in online on digitized paintings in various collections. Even though we have that capability now, it is still very handy to have the close-ups at hand in this book. This book is out of print, but several students have found it recently as a used book.

Watercolors of John Singer Sargent, Carl Little
Watercolors of John Singer Sargent, Carl Little, Berkeley: U of CA Press, 1998.

You can tell by the book falling apart and the number of sticky notes that I refer to this book all the time.

Another favorite is Sargent’s Daughters, the Biography of a Painting, Erica E. Hirshler, 2009. This very readable book is basically a love story by Hirshler about a poignant, beguiling painting, and the circumstances that precipitated its creation.

"The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit," John Singer Sargent
A book about the painting, The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit, John Singer Sargent. Oil on canvas, 1882. In the collection and on display at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

From the book, page 4, “It is a story about … what happened after it was finished, both to the people involved and to the object itself, the great work of art that now hangs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. It is also an account of how viewers reacted to this unusual picture when it was first displayed and how perceptions have changed over time.”

You can read my essay on “One of these things is not like the Other,“ discussing this painting among other observations. There is a link in that essay to the shop at the MFA so you may purchase the book from the museum.

John Singer Sargent: Watercolors
Another favorite, John Singer Sargent: Watercolors, Erica E. Hirshler, Teresa Carbone, and Richard Ormond, 2013.

John Singer Sargent: Watercolors, by Erica E. Hirshler, Teresa Carbone, and Richard Ormond, is a hefty book with 175 color illustrations. Many of the images are paintings are close-up and oversized. I love being able to see the detail and analyze the technique and process.

This book includes images not always found in other books, such as an extensive coverage of his paintings at a quarry in Italy. Affectionately known by me and one of my students as the "men in hats" series for workers wearing fedoras while working in the Carrara Quarry, the series is a astonishing presentation in watercolor the light and shadows on the marble walls of the quarry as well as the rugged, worn texture of the men's clothing and ropes they work with.

This is a easily readable book for the non-scholar.

Book topic: General watercolor

An Introduction to Watercolor: In Association with the Royal Academy of Arts, Ray Smith, 1993.

An Introduction to Watercolor, by Ray Smith
An Introduction to Watercolor
, by Ray Smith. In association with Royal 'Academy of Arts. 1993.

This book presents an excellent introduction to watercolor techniques and includes an overview of materials.

It is structured so that a few pages are dedicated to each of over a dozen techniques. It covers a lot of ground. Enough to get started or review the basics with clear, easy-to-follow step by step illustrations.

A section on creating a wash.
A section on creating a wash. This is a valuable basic technique in watercolor, from An Introduction to Watercolor, by Ray Smith.

This is a section on color theory, color mixing and using a color wheel
This is a section on color theory, color mixing and using a color wheel, from An Introduction to Watercolor, by Ray Smith.

Also, it has an extensive glossary of watercolor and watermedia terms.

I don’t agree with recommendations on stretching paper or some of the materials used, so like everything, take it with a grain of salt.

The book is part of the ”DK Art School” series of books, which I fine to be generally good basis books for the beginner or emerging artist.

Splash 6, the Magic of Texture, 2000. North Light Books.
Splash 6, the Magic of Texture
, 2000. North Light Books.

The "Splash" series of watercolor has been a breathtaking, illuminating smorgasbord of the breadth and quality of watercolor painting. One "Splash" book has been published each year for several years. I think "Splash 20" (published in 2019) is the most recent.

Each book covers an astonishing array of craftspersonship and has a central topic, such as “texture.” But honestly, any of the books is brilliant and inspirational. I have about 6 of them. Starting fresh with purchasing a book in the series, I would probably pick the one at the lowest price and start there. They are each stunning in their own way.

The one from my collection featured here is “Splash 6: The Magic of Texture.” And yes, that is a watercolor portrait on the cover. It is a portrait of his wife by Paul W. McCormack.

The contact addresses of the individual featured artists are listed at the back. (At least in Volume 6, and it was current at the time of publishing.)

A paragraph about the technique and the artist’s point of view accompanies each painting.

The series is edited by Rachel Rubin Wolf, whom I have found to be an excellent editor and therefore a solid indicator of a valuable art book.

Book topic: Drawing / Sketching / Journaling

These books are good for all ages, and all levels of artistic experience. they cover drawing, sketching, pen and ink, journaling, note taking, and using additional materials such as watercolor washes, colored pencils, watercolor pencils, ink, and graphite pencils.

These are two books that I refer to frequently for myself and for my students.

Book topic: Drawing / Sketching / Journaling

The first one is: Keeping a Nature Journal by Clare Walker Leslie and Charles E. Roth. Published by Storey Publishing, 2000; My version is the Second Edition, 2003.

It has an emphasis on a "more sketchy" look, less formal. The pages are more often filled with individual vignettes (little mini-sketches of a bird, a branch, or other individual components, rather than a complete scene). The drawing style is less academic.

It has a great section on journaling with children, or all ages, and overall is more user-friendly to any person who wants to sketch.

It has a helpful section about keeping a nature journal; how to get started and what to include.

The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, written and illustrated by John Muir Laws, 2016, is published by Heyday Publishing, Berkeley. He has several other “Laws Guides to…” available. I am not familiar with them, but I would expect them to be excellent too.

Laws includes more extensive details and classic instructions on drawing. It is not as sketchy.

He includes specific details behind composition and color theories.

There are more techniques, exercises, and step-by-steps illustrations with a variety of media: pen and ink, watercolor, graphite pencil, toned paper, gouache, watercolor pencils, etc.

I especially enjoyed the many suggestions on clouds, atmosphere, water, and landscapes.

Laws features more animals, than Keeping a Nature Journal, listed above. He starts with the skeletons of animals, which I do when teaching the drawing of animals. So naturally, I approve of his technique 😆

The Laws book has an extensive bibliography which is helpful if you want to start a collection of books about sketching in nature.

I hope that helps with ideas on books to get for the artist in your life. There are a million books to choose from and these are just a teeny handful that I keep near at hand in my studio!

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