The best art books for Christmas

Secrets of the studio

Among the best of this season's art books, the first - and most traditional - type is a visual spectacle devoted to a single artist, complemented by text Two of the best books in this category tie in with the major retrospective of Auguste Rodin at the Royal Academy in London. Auguste Rodin: Drawings and Watercolours (Thames & Hudson, £19.95) is an extended tour of the Rodin who existed behind the scenes of the sculptor so familiar to us, a man whose drawings facilitated the making of the renowned works. Rodin's drawings - and drawing was a lifelong habit - are loose, bold, and ceaselessly inventive. His primary fixation, from first to last, was the female body, in all its suppleness, grace and sensual charge. Also recommended is Rodin (Royal Academy Publications, £24.95), the catalogue of the show, with its superb photographs of Rodin's pieces, and excellent essays.

Admirers of Lucian Freud will enjoy Freud at Work (Cape, £30), a book of photographs - by Bruce Bernard and David Dawson - of the artist in his studio, complemented by a searching interview by critic Sebastian Smee. The book shows us finished paintings and, often on the adjacent page, photographs of Freud and his sitters - Leigh Bowery and Sue Tilley, for example - or Freud alone, looking lean, charged, awkward, foxy, manic, in the paint-splattered mess of his studio.

The most extravagant art book of the season, in size, weight and sheer glamour, is an extraordinary over-size tribute to an over-size ego: Andy Warhol: Giant Size (Phaidon, £70). The quote on the cover, by Warhol himself, sums up well this extravagant, non-stop, photographic record of his career as the supreme art entertainer of recent times: "Don't pay any attention to what they write about you, just measure it in inches." If you can't afford it, maybe some library nearby can.

Those with less money might want to check out the first in a useful series of paperback profiles from the Tate Gallery. The Turner Book (Tate Publishing, £16.99) not only gives us a lavishly illustrated potted life, but also tells us about his working methods, and informs us where the works can be seen. Look out for Rothko in the same series. If you aspire to be a collector of contemporary art, Owning Art: The contemporary art collector's handbook (Cultureshock Media, £14.95) by Louisa Buck and Judith Greer will prove a very useful tool. The book, through a series of interviews with collectors, curators and other experts, addresses exactly the kinds of questions you need to answers to get started: how and where to buy; how to structure a collection; how to train your eye.

Among books which survey particular periods or movements, one of the best is Julian Freeman's British Art: A walk round the rusty pier (Southbank Publishing, £25). This is a serendipitous and often surprising journey through 500 years of British art. Anyone looking for the most readable survey of the history of art from the cave paintings to the 20th century should buy the new, beautifully produced pocket edition of Ernst Gombrich's The Story of Art (Phaidon, £15), still one of the great classics of art criticism.

The Making of the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A Publications, £35), edited by Rosemary Crill and Tim Stanley, sounds a touch dull - but it isn't. This book takes us behind the scenes with two V&A curators. We learn where works came from, how the museum came to acquire its great collections of Islamic art, and what sort of thinking goes into displaying masterpieces in a major museum. John Baskett's The Horse in Art (Yale, £30) is a thoughtfully illustrated survey of how and why horses have been depicted, from the cave paintings of Lascaux to the present. Like almost all the art books on Yale's list, this is a handsome piece of book-making.

Art, by its very nature, impinges upon many other disciplines - the science of perception, geometry, chaos theory, for example. The single most thought-provoking and eloquently written book from current lists is Martin Kemp's Seen/Unseen: Art, Science and Intuition from Leonardo to the Hubble Telescope (Oxford, £25). Kemp explores the imagery of art and science down the centuries, and examines what their differing approaches to the idea of nature have in common. Kemp's Leonardo: Experience, Experiment and Design (V&A Publications, £35), also tied in to a major exhibition (at the V&A), surveys the range and complexity of Leonardo's visual thinking.

But what is art really for? That is the question that historian Simon Schama has been posing in his BBC2 series, Power of Art. The book of the same name (BBC Books, £25) stands on its own as a compellingly readable account of how art has the power to disturb, challenge and disrupt not only the onlooker, but its often febrile and irascible makers too.