What Painting Is

Front Cover
Routledge, Nov 23, 2004 - Art - 256 pages

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.


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Review: What Painting Is

User Review  - Nick - Goodreads

This is getting into the nitty-gritty of the material appeal and fetish interest in oil paint and the painter as alchemist. Very unique perspective for a book on paint and very well written. Read full review

Review: What Painting Is

User Review  - Noah - Goodreads

I thought the painting/alchemy metaphor is a bit of a stretch, but still a worthwhile read for painters and anyone interested in THE ACT of painting. Read full review


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 philosophers stone
9 Last words

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About the author (2004)

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.

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