A Few Good Books, and Cake

Let’s face it: it’s going to be a long winter. Between the darkness, cold and Covid-19, I figure we’re all going to need a few good books and an extra helping of cake to make it through. So here are my top five book picks for artists, plus a delicious apple-cranberry torte.

Just because you can’t have a party, doesn’t mean you can’t eat cake.

My choices include a mix of artistic styles, from the highly precise to the wildly loose, from urban sketchers to nature journalers, each with a distinct approach that has expanded my skills and pushed me in new directions. If you’re looking for holiday gifts or winter reading, consider these with my highest recommendation:

Artist’s Journal Workshop, Cathy Johnson (2011)
This thoughtful and comprehensive book unlocked the idea of keeping a journal to record my personal journey as an artist. It expanded my subject matter and approach, and ultimately led me to connect with other sketchbook artists and begin this blog. This book is one of Cathy Johnson’s finest—which is saying a lot, since all of her books are terrific. I love that it includes insights and artwork not only from Johnson, but from other artists as well, which provides excellent variety, inspiration, and examples.

Working With Color, Shari Blaukopf (2019)
I’ve been following Shari Blaukopf’s blog for years and this book puts her expertise and artwork close at hand. If you’re not familiar with the Urban Sketching Handbook series, I recommend you seek it out. The series provides practical techniques and lots of examples in a small, handy format. In Working With Color, Blaukopf shares techniques for using watercolor on the go, with special emphasis on color choices and limited palettes. This book is suitable for beginners as well as more advanced watercolor artists. I’m also eager to get a copy of Suhita Shirodkar’s Techniques for Beginners, a new release from the same series.

The Joy of Botanical Drawing, Wendy Hollender (2020)
Precision and beauty are key in botanical illustration and Wendy Hollender’s comprehensive book shows you how it’s done. She primarily uses colored pencils and watercolor pencils to create her masterpieces, but I find all of the underlying techniques she uses to be applicable to working in watercolor. This step-by-step guide to drawing and painting flowers, leaves, fruit, and more spells out how to work with basic shapes, develop values, and build up forms. Rather than leaving you overwhelmed, you’ll feel as though you finally understand the techniques and materials needed for botanical illustration. It takes patience and practice to work this way, but the investment will make you a better artist.

Urban Watercolor Sketching, Felix Scheinberger (2014)
On the other end of the spectrum from Wendy Hollender, Felix Scheinberger’s style is super loose, his color choices bold, his lines wonky and fun. But don’t let that fool you. This guy is also a master of his medium. He provides a concise history of how watercolors are made, explores glazing and wet-in-wet techniques, explains color theory, and encourages you to develop your own style. The book is fun and engaging; I love coming back to it again and again for inspiration.

Explorers’ Sketchbooks, Huw Lewis-Jones and Kari Herbert (2016)
I am fascinated by men and women throughout history who journeyed far and wide in search of new places and species and recorded their discoveries in sketchbooks. This book is a collection of excerpts from 70 artist-explorers and includes exquisite sketches and paintings they made in jungles, deserts, forests, and mountaintops. The explorer’s theme of my own book, The Nature Explorer’s Sketchbook, is inspired by them. If these men and women could work in the most challenging of conditions, we can certainly step outside, put pencil to paper, and begin a lifetime of discovery.

And a few brief mentions…
If you are looking for books specifically focused on keeping a traditional nature journal, try Roseann Hanson’s Nature Journaling for a Wild Life, Hannah Hinchman’s Little Things in a Big Country, John Muir Laws’ Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling, or books by Claire Walker Leslie. All share techniques and tools to get you started and plenty of ideas and artwork to keep you going.

And finallyCake, Maira Kalman
New York City based artist and author Maira Kalman’s books are quirky and fun and Cake is no exception. She’s teamed up with food writer Barbara Scott-Goodman for a delicious book with seventeen illustrated recipes. May I recommend the Flourless Chocolate Torte?


Your turn: What are your must-haves, game changers, or bed rock books?

24 thoughts on “A Few Good Books, and Cake

  1. You’ve listed so many of my favorite books!! (they’re ones on my shelf that I still enjoy pulling out to peruse, read & enjoy!!). And the cake…..whoooo- looks like one my daughter usually makes for us (and oh my is it ever good, dang it, was trying to avoid another COVID15 (pounds, haha). Resistance is futile! 😉

  2. Hello Jean, well today seems to be “book blog” day. You and Shari posted about some recommended art books. Already have hers, and yours will be coming with “Santa”! I’m not sure how her books fit in with all of this, but I do enjoy all the cookbooks,Calendars, and “novels” by Susan Branch. Each one is completely written by hand, and her illustrations are so appealing. Thank you for all the work you share with us!

  3. Oh Jean, you have hit a book junkie right in the heart. I have most of these wonderful books including your beautiful and inspiring one. I read and re-read them and continue to learn from them. The two that I am reading (at the same time) may be of interest: The Nearsighted Naturalist by Ann Haymond Zwinger – a collection of her beautiful essays and illustrations. The other book I’m reading is Journey Into Summer by Edwin Way Teale. He and his wife are journeying across the US in the 1960’s and he is writing and photographing. It’s a wonderful book and he has written several others which I am looking forward to reading. I’m also looking forward to traveling when this virus is finished!

    • Thanks for your recommendations, Audrey. I have Teale’s “Adventures in Nature” and enjoy picking it up from time to time. I’ll look for Ann Zwinger collection. You might like “When Birds are Near” by Susan Fox Rogers. It’s a collection of essays, including ones by Tim Gallagher and Rachel Dickinson, whom you may know from Hog Island. I’m nearly finished and don’t want it to end.

    • Hi Audrey- I’m so excited to hear you mention Edwin Way Teale’s books. I had the good fortune to be an ‘artist-in-residence’ at his home in CT back in 2015. I did a joint residency with my writer friend Judy Benson, we’ve collaborated on several projects together. That was such an insightful week getting to spend that time there…painting in his ‘footsteps’!! You made my day mentioning his books! 😀

      • You were so fortunate to spend a week at the Teale home. I have just googled it and put the information in my travel folder for “after Covid”. I never knew it existed. Thank you!

  4. Oh thanks Jean! I’ve added the “Explorers’ Sketchbooks” to my Christmas wish list. I’d never heard of it, but it sounds fabulous. I hope you have a happy Thanksgiving, however you’re celebrating that this year.

  5. Hi, Jean. I have several of your top picks and honorable mentions. Here are a few additional favorites”

    Edith Holden – The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady
    Leslie Holmes – A Sketchbook, A Cotswolds Sketchbook
    Mary Jo Koch – all of her books
    Sara Midda – all of her books
    Laura Stoddart – Off the Beaten Path, The Sweet Live
    Mary Whyte – An Artist’s Way of Seeing
    HRH The Prince of Wales Watercolors – absolutely love this book

      • I highly recommend HRH especially. I never knew Prince Charles kept a watercolor sketchbook. His sketches are wonderful, and his writing reveals a thoughtful human being appreciative of the natural world around him. I think you would like it too. ~SusanA

  6. What a nice gift, Jean…you’re right, we’re going to need books, inspiration, and cake!!
    I just finished a fun read, Harriot Scott Chessman’s ‘Lydia Cassatt – Reading the Morning Paper.’ It’s a beautiful little book and a nice read for any art lover. I leaf through local field guides a lot, trying to get stuff to sink in. 😉
    The Maira Kalman book is a great addition to your list. 😉 That reminds me, a cookbook that I did the illustrations for back in the 1980s is still available. It’s called the Greyston Bakery Cookbook (1988 edition, not later editions). It also has a fabulous flourless chocolate torte recipe and an amazing Cchocolate mousse cake. 🙂

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