What Painting Is: 2nd Edition (Paperback) book cover

What Painting Is

2nd Edition

By James Elkins


288 pages | 15 Color Illus. | 15 B/W Illus.

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Paperback: 9781138319882
pub: 2019-11-12
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Hardback: 9781138319899
pub: 2019-11-12
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In this classic text, 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 the studio--the smells, the mess, the struggle to control the uncontrollable, the special knowledge only painters hold of how colors will mix, and how they will look. Written from the perspective of a painter-turned-art historian, this anniversary edition includes a new introduction and preface by Elkins in which he further reflects on the experience of painting and its role in the study of art today.


"One of the few essential books on oil painting….In passages from which every critic should learn, Elkins tries to decode the exact physical gestures that produced what he sees….He makes readers feel they are truly tasting a viewpoint of reality alien to the modern scientific world view." --San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle

"A truly original book. It will make you look at paintings differently and think about paint differently." -- Boston Globe

"Wandering in the Metropolitan, needing a break from looking at art, I went to the shop, purchased What Painting Is, and sat down and started to read. When then I got up again, the art looked different. Elkins's best writing teaches you how to look more closely and see more."--David Carrier, Art Journal

"What Painting Is succeeds very well in evoking the odors, stickiness, and intense attraction of the paint itself."--Katerina Duskova, The Art Bulletin

Table of Contents


Introduction to the 20th Anniversary edition


  1. A Short Course in Forgetting Chemistry
  2. How to Count in Oil and Stone
  3. The Mouldy Materia Prima
  4. How do Substances Occupy the Mind?
  5. Coagulating, cohobating, macerating, reverberating
  6. The Studio as a Kind of Psychosis
  7. Steplessness
  8. The Beautiful Reddish Light of the Philosopher’s Stone
  9. Last Words

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 How to Use Your Eyes, What Photography Is, Visual Literacy, and Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction, among other titles.

Subject Categories

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