What Painting Is: 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

What Painting Is

1st Edition

By James Elkins


246 pages

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New in Paperback: 9780415926621
pub: 2000-03-29
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pub: 2004-11-23
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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.


"…an 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

About the Author

James Elkins is Professor of Art History, Theory and Criticism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He is the author of many books, including The Poetics of Perspective (1994), The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing (1996), Our Beautiful, Dry, and Distant Texts: Art History as Writing(1997) and Why are Our Pictures Puzzles? forthcoming from Routledge.

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
ART / History / General
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Media Studies