Humans have been creating art for thousands of years. Whatever the form and format—cave walls, canvas, clothing, or computers—art is a wonderful way to express creativity and feelings.
Even as we have been creating art, we’ve also been trying to make sense of it. Why, as viewers, are we able to feel something when seeing or interacting with art? Why do certain types of art speak to us, while others do nothing for us?
We may also find ourselves interested in the artists and their relationships with their times and places, as well as with each other. Why are some artists so good at capturing the spirit of a particular time in history? How and why does a certain epoch, place, or society affect an artist?
If you’re thinking of writing an art book, you may want to consider focusing on one particular period or style of art, such as the High Renaissance or Impressionism, and examine that style, its works and noted artists, what was happening in the world that affected the artists, and why the art of that period took the form that it did.
There are at least ten ways to write about an art period, style, or movement:
1 – Overview of the Entire Art Period
Example: History of Italian Renaissance Art, by Frederick Hartt
The “overview” paints a picture of a period from beginning to end, examining major and minor artists and their works, and discussing distinguishing features of that period and its art. An “overview” book can be a broad-stroke introduction to the period aimed at casual readers, or an in-depth examination of the period and its impact, aimed at more dedicated enthusiasts.
2 – Social and Physical Settings
Example: The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism, by Ross King
Some artistic periods are as much about the time and places in which the artists congregated and created as they are about the art. Mid-nineteenth century Paris, for instance, famously inspired many of the Impressionists. A “settings” book presents information about the places where artists lived, created, recreated, ate, drank, and even shopped for supplies. It might also look at what the artists themselves were seeing, in the streets, museums, and other artists’ studios—or how their rivalries shaped the course of art history.
3 – One “Corner” of the Art Period
Example: In Wonderland: The Surrealists Adventures of Woman Artists in Mexico and the United States, edited by Ilene Susan Fort, Tere Arcq, and Terri Geis
Art historians can quote starting and ending dates for art styles and movements, but the truth is not all artists, in all places, changed styles at exactly the same time and in exactly the same way. Influenced by their own cultures, and by having to deal with local tastes, patrons, and other issues, artists in different corners of the world have moved at their own pace. For instance, some Western European movements were taking place an entire decade before they reached the U.S. or Russia. A “corner” book examining how the same art movement developed in unique ways in different parts of the world would attract local interest, as well as interest from fans of the movement everywhere.
4 – Biography of an Artist of the Period
Example: Van Gogh: The Life, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
Focusing on a single artist by constructing his biography can be an excellent way to present and explain the art of a particular period. Describing an artist’s background, life experiences, and art training, along with his lifestyle and life conditions, helps readers understand how he fits into a particular art period or movement. Readers might be intrigued to learn that not everyone who is thought to be part of a certain period fits in perfectly in terms of dates and artistic styles, while still belonging for other reasons.
5 – Correspondence & Notebooks
Example: Michelangelo’s Notebooks, edited by Carolyn Vaughan
Taking a peek into an artist’s mind can be an intriguing way to get a sense of a particular art period. The artist’s letters and notebooks can reveal how she responded to society and the prevailing attitudes about art, as well as challenges to those attitudes. They can also help readers understand the topics that were on her mind, the answers she was searching for, and how she interacted with her artistic peers, patrons, and society at large.
6 – The World at the Time of the Art Period
Example: Fascist Visions: Art and Ideology in France and Italy, by Matthew Affron and Mark Antliff
Rather than focusing on the artists and what they created, the “world” book looks more at the external social, political, and economic conditions of a particular artistic period, how they influenced artists, and the public reaction to the artists and their artwork.
7 – How-To
Example: Paint with the Impressionists: A Step-by-step guide to their methods and materials for today’s artists, by Jonathan Stephenson
What better way to understand a particular art period than by trying to reproduce the art yourself, or at least its style? The “how-to” book explains the brushwork, colors, materials, and details necessary to create the works of a particular period. The instruction can be accompanied by images from that period.
8 – Visual Look at an Art Period
Example: A Year In Impressionism (365 paintings), by Prestel Publishing
The “visual look” book is perfect for readers who prefer simply looking at beautiful and/or thought-provoking art of a certain period, rather than studying the often-complex back stories of its creators and their milieu. A “visual look” book can take the form of a coffee-table book that is light on text but heavy on images of the art of the period, the artists, and their environment.
9 – Re-Examining the Understanding of a Period
Example: The Lives of the Artists, by Giorgio Vasari, written in 1550, reexamined by Oxford World’s Classics editors.
No matter how an art period was perceived while it was unfolding, it may be seen in a very different light by later observers. The “re-examining” book takes an older publication that discusses the art period in question and offers new commentary about the meaning of the period as well as the ideas put forth by the original book, this time addressing a brand-new audience.
10 – Compare & Contrast Multiple Periods
Example: Art in Time: A World History of Styles and Movements, by Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Alistair Rider, and Matthew McKelway
The “compare & contrast” art book examines multiple periods, explaining how they differed in terms of style, and influence on future periods. The “compare & contrast” approach allows you to present general comparisons between several art periods to give readers an idea of what makes each one unique, including how it started, how it changed the art world, ways that it evolved, and how it ended.
These are ten interesting approaches you might want to consider when writing about an art period, but they certainly aren’t the only ones you can take. Think of them as ideas to “prime the canvas” as you begin organizing and structuring your book. If you end up developing your own approach while writing an art book, so much the better!
For more on the art of writing art books, see “15 Ways to Write an Art Book.”
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