Collecting Books About Art and About Making Art

I’ve always been a bookish person. As a child I devoured the books of Enid Blyton before moving on to more substantial literature. Everyone I’ve ever known, every important place and event in my life, can be mapped using the books I was reading at the time. These book-memories are almost as visceral to me as scent memories; sometimes, more so.

Memories are the starting point of nearly all the art I make. My own memories and the traces of memories of people long forgotten. Memorialising the past. Making the past visible, tactile. These things are hugely important to me.

These days I buy many of my books on Kindle (fiction in particular), but my art books are all in physical format. Apart from the fact that colour illustrations simply don’t work on an e-book, I need physical books around me. I need to be able to touch them, to breathe them in, to engage with them in a tactile way.

Although my art book library is an ongoing process, I’d like to talk you through my collection as it stands. I’ll split this into two separate posts: books about artists, and books about the process of making art, specifically mixed media collage art.

Because I’m contrary, I’m going to begin with the second strand, books about the process of making collages. I’m going to pick out those books which I’ve found particularly useful and worth investing money and time in, but I’ll give you a list of all the other books on my shelves as well if you want to explore further. (Full disclosure: I haven’t explored in detail all the books I own, and some I have yet to do more than flick through, so there may well be hidden gems here that are waiting for me to discover!)

If I could keep only one of these books, it would be The Art of Expressive Collage: Techniques for Creating with Paper and Glue by Crystal Neubauer

What I like about this book is that, like many of the other books on my shelf, it is a visual feast, but the author goes further in explaining techniques and some of the key elements that make for a strong composition. The focus of Neubauer’s approach is very much on working intuitively – listening to the ‘music’ of the collage elements you have in front of you, trusting your own senses and intuition as you move them around on the paper until you hear them sing.

This book will hold your hand as you work through this process of letting go and trusting your inner voice. Simply, it changed completely the way I approached mixed media art and opened up new worlds of possibility. It’s very much an ongoing process (where would the joy be if there was nothing further to explore, nothing more to discover?), and I recommend it very highly for anyone who really wants to open themselves up to the rich joys this kind of artwork can offer.

An early work of mine, very much inspired by Crystal’s book

On the topic of visual treats, if you’re new to mixed media art you may be frustrated with some of my recommendations which are packed with images but don’t give much information on the techniques used. I appreciate this can be frustrating, but I would recommend having a good balance of books that provide pictorial inspiration as well as those that drill down into describing methods, techniques and equipment in detail.  There are plenty of books that will give you step by step descriptions of these (and of course there are plenty of online resources available as well). The value in image-heavy books lies in what they can teach about composition. As important as how artists put their work together is why. What effects do their compositions achieve? What emotions do they evoke? Why is it pleasing to the eye? I will often make a quick, very basic sketch of a work I particularly admire to see how the different elements fit together and then analyse how the different elements fit together. I find this exercise really useful when I’m stick on a piece, unsure whether or not it ‘works’.

Lynne Perrella’s books are particularly useful from an inspiration and composition point of view, and I highly recommend both Alphabetica: an a-z creativity guide for collage and book artists and Artists’ journals and sketchbooks: exploring and creating personal pages, both of which will provide plenty of inspiration.

Apart from Crystal Neubauer’s book, the other book that for me is a must-have is The collage workbook: how to get started and stay inspired by Randel Plowman. Plowman’s approach is very user-friendly and although the book includes information about tools and materials and a library of images for your own use (and advice about where to find other copyright-free images), the bulk of the book is taken up with ’50 creativity exercises’ which I promise are worth exploring. Plowman will lead you through all kinds of approaches to experiment with, and the examples he gives of his own work are massively inspiring. I learnt so much about composition from this book, so if that’s something with which you struggle I recommend you give this book a go.

© Helen Kitson 2021. A work on a vintage book cover inspired and informed by Randel Plowman’s book

The Best of the Rest:

Collage techniques: a guide for artists and illustrators – Gerald Brommer

This book isn’t really aimed at the beginner, and the focus is very much on the ‘art’ of collage rather than the ‘craft’. Recommended if you’re interested in the pioneers of collage in fine art (e.g. Picasso and Schwitters) and would like to know more about some of the many wonderful current practitioners of the art.

A world of Arist Journal pages – ed Dawn Devries Sokol

This book is a delight and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who enjoys art journaling, but there’s plenty of visual inspiration in here whatever format your art takes. The short interviews with the many contributors to this book are really useful  – plenty of advice for what to do when you feel blocked and how to overcome ‘blank page syndrome’!

The Collage ideas book – Alannah Moore

A lovely little dip-into book that does exactly what it says on the cover, providing a source book of ideas (Monoprint a Collage, Work with Wool and Felt, Create Imaginary Beings, etc) to use if you need something to kick-start your work when you’re in a funk.

The Complete guide to altered imagery: mixed media techniques for collage, altered books, artist journals, and more – Karen Michel

This book is particularly useful for ways to alter photos, and if that’s something you want to explore I would recommend this book. The emphasis on this book is in incorporating altered photographs and images into compositions, and collage is very much a secondary concern. As with all books that deal with image transfers, this one focuses on ink-jet rather than laser techniques. This is something I always find problematic as I live with a laser printer, so the ink-jet techniques aren’t of any use to me. (As always, there are ways around such problems: you can use paint or gesso to transfer laser images to paper, but it’s a long and tedious process. My favourite image transfer technique is to use acetone – the stuff used to remove acrylic nails – but I’ll be talking about image transfers in more detail in a separate post.)

Other books on my shelf:

Collage care: Transforming emotions and life experiences with collage – Laurie Kanyer [NB The illustrations are amazing and although I haven’t yet read this book, I feel sure it’s going to be a keeper]

The Mixed media artist: art tips, secrets and dreams from over 40 amazing artists – Seth Apter

The Pulse of mixed media: secrets and passions of 100 artists revealed – Seth Apter

Playing with Image transfers: exploring creative imagery for use in art, mixed media, and design – Courtney Cerruti [I use image transfers a lot in my work, and this recent addition to my shelf is one I’m keen to explore]

Altered Books, Collaborative Journals, and other adventures in bookmaking – Holly Harrison

Mixed Media Collage: An exploration of contemporary artists, methods, and materials  – Holly Harrison

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