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15 Ways to Write an Art Book

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, 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

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.

Example: The King’s Painter: The Life of Hans Holbein, by Franny Moyle

2 – Life & Works

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.

Example: Monet: His Life and Works in 500 Images, by Susie Hodge

3 – Creation of a Masterpiece  

Rather than looking at an artist’s broader life, this type of art book focus on a single piece. Readers learn how the idea for the work came together, what influenced the artist, and how funding issues or any 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.

Example: Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling, by Ross King

4 – How an Artist Revolutionized the Art World  

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.

Example: The Dali Legacy: How an Eccentric Genuis Changed the Art World and Created a Lasting Legacy, by Christopher Brown

5 – A Moment in Time  

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 a period of tragedy that radically changed the artist’s style and view of the world.  

Example: Van Gogh’s Ear, by Bernadette Murphy

6 – How One Artist Influenced Another  

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 art works, 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.

Example: Van Gogh and the Artists He Loved, by Steven Naifeh

7 – Fraught Relationships Between Competing Artists  

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.

Examples: The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art, by Sebastian Smee

8 – Relationship Between an Artist and a Patron

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.

Example: An Elephant in Rome, by Loyd Grossman

9 – Artists and their Times  

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.

Example: Of Arms and Artists: The American Revolution through Painters’ Eyes, by Paul Staiti

10 – Exploration of an Artistic Genre or Genres

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.

Example: Art of the Western World, by Michael Wood, Bruce Cole and Adelheid Gealt

11 – Survey of Many Artists and Styles

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.

Example: Artists: Their Lives and Works, by DK Publishing

12 – Exploration of Masterpieces  

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.

Example: When Art Really Works, by Andy Pankhurst and Lucinda Hawksley

13 – Close Look at a Collection

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 at 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.

Example: In the Footsteps of Popes: A Spirited Guide to the Treasures of the Vatican, by Enrico Bruschini

14 – Art as History  

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.

Example: Old Masters, New World: America’s Raid on Europe’s Great Pictures, by Cynthia Saltzman

15 – Novelized Story of an Artist

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.

Example: Raphael, Painter in Rome: A Novel, by Stephanie Storey

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…

Barry Fox, Nadine Taylor, ghostwriters, memoirs, business books, art books, history books, health books

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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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