There really aren’t any rules in art. But there are certain techniques and styles you can follow, guidelines that can help you create something wonderful.
It’s the same with writing art books. There are no fixed approaches, and no templates set in stone. Instead, you can choose from among several approaches that will help you write your opus magnus.
If you believe you have an art book inside you, but you’re not sure how to go about writing it, here are fifteen solid approaches to structuring and writing an art book.
1 – Standard Biography
Example: The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein, by Franny Moyle
Sometimes an artist’s life is just as interesting as their art. In a standard art biography, you explore their life and work, including successes and failures, influences and education, the culture they lived in, and their prominent works. While art biographies are mostly text, they usually include some photos and/or images of the artist’s creations.
2 – Life & Works
Example: Monet: His Life and Works in 500 Images, by Susie Hodge
A popular way to write an art book is to focus on the works of a single creator.
The “life and works” of an artist is a form of biography. But it focuses less on the details and span of an artist’s life, and looks more closely at a number of their noteworthy pieces, going into greater depth about how and why these pieces were created, as well as their larger impact.
The life and works art book has less text and more images than a traditional biography.
3 – Creation of a Masterpiece
Example: Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, by Ross King
Rather than looking at an artist’s broader life, this type of art book focuses on a single piece. Readers learn how the idea for the work came together, what influenced the artist, and how funding issues or controversies played into the creation.
The “creation of a masterpiece” book can also discuss the creation process and reception once the piece was revealed to the world, as well as its overall legacy.
4 – How an Artist Revolutionized the Art World
Example: The Dali Legacy: How an Eccentric Genius Changed the Art World and Created a Lasting Legacy, by Christopher Brown
This approach to writing an art book focuses on the overall impact an artist’s life and art had on the greater culture, and how that impact was felt beyond the artistic community.
When you write an art book in this manner, you help your readers understand how a painter or sculptor was both a product of the times and a creator of the times to come.
5 – A Moment in Time
Example: Van Gogh’s Ear, by Bernadette Murphy
Occasionally, a particular moment or period in an artist’s life becomes a source of fascination for art enthusiasts and historians through the ages. Perhaps it was the year they received their largest commission or produced the largest number of works. Then again, it might be a period of tragedy that radically changed the artist’s style and view of the world.
6 – How One Artist Influenced Another
Example: Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved, by Steven Naifeh
Whether as teachers, students, companions, or members of a movement, many artists have gravitated toward other artists. They have studied each other’s styles, painted together, swapped artworks, and influenced each other through their exhibitions and manifestos. This approach to writing an art book allows you to go beyond focusing on a single person to look at a group of linked artists, such as the Impressionists, and explore how their shared ideas influenced each other and, ultimately, art itself.
7 – Fraught Relationships Between Competing Artists
Examples: The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art, by Sebastian Smee
While many relationships between artists have been cordial, others were less so, sometimes involving active rivalries and public spats. (Caravaggio was accused by rival artist Giovanni Baglione of hiring assassins to kill him, and later sued Caravaggio for libel.) The “fraught relationships” approach allows you to share examples of the tension between competing artists from various perspectives, including how it manifested in their art, and how it influenced the course of the artists’ work.
With this approach, you’re writing about history, business, emotions, and relationships as much as you are writing a straight art book.
8 – Relationship Between an Artist and a Patron
Example: An Elephant in Rome, by Loyd Grossman
Patrons have always been crucial to artists and to art, and many patrons wielded a great deal of influence on an artist’s oeuvre. This approach to writing an art book looks at the influential figure or figures who helped elevate the status of a great artist. Why did they do this? Was the relationship smooth or rocky? Was the patron’s support public or private? Readers will enjoy learning about the behind-the-scenes arrangements that have influenced the course of art.
9 – Artists and their Times
Example: Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters’ Eyes, by Paul Staiti
Artists do not live or create in a vacuum; they are very much a part of their culture and time. The “artists and their times” book examines the artists’ milieu and the world beyond. How did personal, local, or global circumstances shape the artists and their art? Were they influenced by revolution, economic depression, scientific advances, wartime experiences, or something else? As much a look at history as art, this approach to writing an art book can help readers understand the impact and passions of a particular time, as seen through the lens of the lives and works of a group of artists.
10 – Exploration of an Artistic Genre or Genres
Example: Art of the Western World, by Michael Wood, Bruce Cole and Adelheid Gealt
Rather than looking at a single artist or group of artists, the “genre exploration” art book examines a certain genre, including what defines it in terms of style, content, dates, and noteworthy participants. This type of art book can have educational value beyond the examination of the genre, as it can ground different art movements and eras in history. It often includes a variety of images, especially close-ups, allowing readers to see some of the subtle differences in color and texture.
11 – Survey of Many Artists and Styles
Example: Artists: Their Lives and Works, by DK Publishing
This is similar to the “genre exploration” approach above but looks at more genres and artists over a greater span of time. It can be useful as a reference tool and an interesting introduction to a wide variety of artists. With many genres and much time to fill, the “survey of many artists and styles” approach may not probe too deeply into any artist’s life, but it can be a good overview of the basics.
12 – Exploration of Masterpieces
Example: When Art Really Works, by Andy Pankhurst and Lucinda Hawksley
The “exploration of masterpieces” art book cuts across medium, genre, time, and culture to look at shining examples of art. The scope may be broad, as in “masterpieces of the world,” or more narrowly focused, as in “masterpieces of 20th-century European art.” You, the author, can provide a detached view, presenting works that are commonly accepted as masterpieces, or create your own personal selection.
13 – Close Look at a Collection
Example: In the Footsteps of Popes: A Spirited Guide to the Treasures of the Vatican, by Enrico Bruschini
This type of art book might be a photo essay, with a heavy emphasis on the images but relatively little text.
Or, it may devote a great deal of time to discussing the works, how they came together, how the collection was influenced by its patron(s), and how it influenced artists who have studied the works.
14 – Art as History
Example: Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures, by Cynthia Saltzman
Sometimes, the art itself becomes part of the story.
The “art as history” approach allows you to share interesting stories about prominent pieces of art that have played roles in history—perhaps in various diplomatic conflicts or all-out wars.
15 – Novelized Story of an Artist
Example: Raphael, Painter in Rome: A Novel, by Stephanie Storey
Sometimes, amazing artwork is only one aspect of an artist’s life, with behind-the-scenes stories every bit as fascinating. The novelized stories of some artists can be as fun to read as they are informative. While the taking of certain “artistic liberties” may be necessary, the result can be highly entertaining and illuminating.
These 15 ways to write an art book are not the only approaches you can take. Remember: there are no rules in art! Think of them as ideas to prime you to begin organizing and structuring your book. If you develop your own approach while writing your art book, so much the better!
For more on the art of writing art books, see “10 Ways to Write About an Art Period.”
IF YOU’D LIKE TO WRITE AN ART BOOK, BUT NEED SOME HELP…
We’re Barry Fox and Nadine Taylor, professional ghostwriters and authors with a long list of satisfied clients and editors at major publishing houses.
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We’d love to talk to you about your exciting idea for an art book!
P.S. You might also enjoy 12 Ways to Write a Business Book, 14 Ways to Write a Political Book, and 12 Ways to Write a History Book.
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