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The 6 Best Art Books of 2012

My favorite art books from all those I read during 2012.

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This list is my selection of my favorites amongst all the art books I added to my personal library during the year. Some were first published in 2012, others were new to me this year. The one thing all the books on this list have in common (other than being on art or painting!) is that I feel I've learned something valuable or found inspiration, and that I certainly anticipate dipping into them again in the future.

1. The Language of the Body by Alan McGowan

Figurative art book by Scottish artist Alan McGowan
Photo © 2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.
This is a short, 80 page, book without many words in it other than a quote at the opening of each of its four chapters (Between, Dissolve, Language, See), a brief artist's statement and bio. It's my top book for 2012 as it's been never been far from reach since I bought it, and everyone I've shown it to has wanted to nick my copy.

The artwork in it, by Scottish artist Alan McGowan, is inspirational. Building on the centuries of life drawing and painting this is figurative painting for the 21st century: combining line, tone, and color in a way that can be done only in paint (you can't take a photo like this) and created only through the eye of an artist (you can't run a photo through a program filter to get this). Painterly, without a doubt, and then some.

I've seen two exhibitions of McGowan's work this year, including at the Leith School of Art where he's currently teaching, and while a book obviously can't convey the large size of some of these pieces, the images are well reproduced (clear colors, sharp images). The sense of the layers and redrawing, the artist's eye at work, which I find so mesmerizing, is all there. I think anyone interested in contemporary figure painting ought to have a copy of this to enjoy, to admire, to inspire, and as a reminder about originality. And, no, you can't borrow my copy; buy your own!

2. Man with a Blue Scarf

A book written by an erudite art critic of his experiences sitting for a portrait by Lucian Freud. Months of conversation digested into a narrative that tells much about the artist: his working practice, his personality and approach to life, his models and family. If you enjoy Freud's portrait painting or learning about the artist behind famous paintings, it's a must-read.

3. Wolf Kahn Illustrated Biography

Spanning Wolf Khan's career so far, I enjoy this book not only for the reproductions of the paintings (of which there are many), but also for the insights into his artistic process. You can follow the development of his style from his early work to what is now characteristic, which shows clearly how style evolves and changes. It's filled with snippets and anecdotes, making for entertaining reading.

4. Painting Portraits and Figures in Watercolor by Mary Whyte

Forget wishy-washy, insipid watercolor; enter the bold and intense in terms of color and the mixture of realism and painterly mark-making. It's not a how-to book with step-by-step portraits to copy in an hour, but like a masterclass dealings with all the aspects of making a watercolor painting (the concepts, techniques, how-tos, demos, exercises) illustrated by the artist's work (which clearly shows how intensely colored watercolor can be!).

5. Sennelier: A History in Color

This book was published for the 125th anniversary of this famous French art materials company. It's packed, both historical and contemporary, telling the history of the company and its products, plus profiles of artists who use them. It's a visual treasure trove, artistic eye-candy.

6. Collage, Colour and Texture in Painting by Mike Bernard

Best art books 2012
A book that explains through examples, showing how simplifying detail to create an image that implies rather than states can be extremely powerful. It's about adding visual interest, layer on layer, to keep viewer's looking, to pull them in and make them engage with a painting. Don't expect page after page of step-by-steps; while the text explains concepts, the images are mostly finished examples that you 'unpack' as you read the text.

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