March 13, 2015

Something New: Book Paintings

Dan Walsh, Catalog, 2004; watercolor and mixed media on Yoyoi paper, wood and canvas cover; 8 15/16 x 10 1/8 in.; ed 6, 2 AP's. 

Just when I think that I couldn't possibly get another new idea for a format or medium, along comes a show that excites and inspires me. Last month it was the Dan Walsh show at Paula Cooper. Along with terrific paintings (I wrote about his last show here), there were cases displaying books that he'd made. The precise, yet hand made aspect of many of the books was very beautiful, showing geometries hard and soft.

Dan Walsh, Grid Book, 2008; ink and pencil on paper, 11 1/2 x 13 in.; ed 10, 1 AP

I wish I could have seen more than the double page on view. Here was a variation on a theme of the crossed forms often found in his paintings. Since they are paint, or ink, I wonder how he managed to make editions of these books. It was the hand-made-ness of Walsh's books that so made me want to make books, and got me to figure out how to do very small painted pages in very small books. 

Book 1, cover; egg tempera on Sekishu natural paper, 4 5/8 x 4 7/8 in; 12 pp.

In my often funky fashion, the two books I made are rather irregular and imperfect, but I see that as part of their quality, being similar to my potato prints in that way. I folded strips of Japanese paper and bound them with a simple 4 hole Japanese binding, explained clearly in this video.

Book 1, pp. 2, 3

As you can see in the photos, the paper, although doubled, is translucent, so allows the shapes from one page to appear as ghosts on another.

Book 1, pp. 4, 5

I used the painting on a previous page to guide the work on the following one, to allow for a subtle relationship between shapes. I love this quality of the thin Japanese paper. 

Book 1, pp. 6, 7

The painting of these pages is completely improvisational: my brush hovers over the page, drops down, and marks a shape (of course I hover, I mark). I mix colors that I hope will work with what came before.

Book 1, pp. 8, 9

Improvisation comes in handy sometimes: I groaned when I noticed I'd dropped some paint on the right edge of the page, but then thought "why not paint over it?". I wouldn't have thought of painting on the edge if the sloppiness hadn't happened.

Book 1, pp. 10, 11

I then emphasized the use of the edges by painting two more rectangles along them. I am studiously avoiding the concept of narrative here, wanting each page, or double page, to read as "painting"; there's no development of form or idea, just relationships from page to page. 

Book 1 back cover

The final page is also painted. There was something fanciful and lighthearted for me in making this book, and the one that follows. I'm not sure if it's the medium of books, or the way these are made, or if it's the shapes and colors, but the experience was very pleasurable. I shy from calling these "artist books" because that seems so formal, and these are so informal, so "book paintings".

Book 2, cover; egg tempera on Akatosashi paper, 7 x 6 1/4 in.; 8 pp. 

My second book is larger, but with fewer pages. You might notice that the binding is much neater as I gained some practice. I happen to love this darker paper; it is very beautiful to use, with a wonderful character.

Book 2, pp. 2, 3

The ghosts of other pages aren't as present with this paper, though. With this book, I'm using thicker and more varied shapes, not just rectangles as in Book 1.

Book 2, pp. 4, 5

 I am still paying attention to how the shapes on one page relate to those on the next.

Book 2, pp. 6, 7

I am still using very minimal means, with lots of empty space.

Book 2, back cover

I thought this––3 tiny circles––was a fun way to end the book, centered between the thin lines of the previous page. I often try to articulate to myself what it is about minimal abstraction that so appeals to me, so satisfies my aesthetic longings, but it's difficult. I will just say here that there is a sense of touching something beyond the everyday, a reaching for a sense of the essential, that permeates these forms.


  1. Sensuous, tactile, visual, Who could ask for more?

  2. You say that there is no development of form or idea, but there is a progress, which is fitting for the book form. I prefer the first example, although liking both very much, because for me the ghost shapes mean more. I also like the use of the edges, creating a dynamism: a tension of within and without as well as through.

    Like you I am usually frustrated at not being able to see more than the displayed open double page spread of any exhibited book works. This gives me an ambivalent attitude to artist's books. I love them because they are a very private pleasure, but because of this they do not display well except in reproduction - unless of course one had the number of copies available open at as many double page spreads as there are!

    I also very much like your three flat circles at the end of the second book: it ties in with typographic convention of implying that something is to follow. Four dots conventionally are placed to indicate following to a full stop. So I expect to see more of your book paintings appearing here!

    1. Thanks for the in depth comment, Olga. I personally don't see progress, but a long set of interlocking images. I agree on the ghost images and will use papers in future that are more transparent. I'm glad you like the little circles at the end of Book 2; they just came to me. I certainly will be doing more of these books, since I so enjoyed making these.

    2. By progress I meant that one page's marks were guided by what had gone before.

      I look forward to seeing further book paintings.

  3. I make a lot of my sketching books. They do seem private and more personal when I make the books myself. I really like the translucent aspect of the pages you made. They make you want to page through the book to see what else is happening. Fun.

  4. Altoon, these are exquisite! I can see you doing many more: experimenting, expanding. The four-hole Japanese binding, the translucent paper, the minimalist but somehow whimisical and very human way you have with everything you do. Like your potato prints, these books fill my heart with joy!

  5. Very cool
    Ellipses, more to come...
    happy-accidents - snowflakes form on motes

  6. Thank you so much for your wonderful comments, Lisa and Heather and JBS. I especially appreciate them because this is something new for me, so your support is very valuable.

  7. Wonderful work! Thank you so much for sharing it.