These books are presented under the form of lists of art-technological instructions providing information on various artistic disciplines, such as drawing, painting, frescos, illumination, gilding, etching, but also dyeing, metal and glass working, amongst others.
A great number of recipes deals with the production, preparation and conservation of pigments, colourants, dyes, media –such as glues, varnishes, binding agents-, inks and so on.
Collections of artisanal recipes are considered to be key primary sources in the historical study of artistic practices and materials. Prominent examples include very well-known work such as the De diversis artibus attributed to Theophilus for the Middle Ages, the Libro dell’arte by Cennino Cennini for the (pre)-Renaissance period or the De Mayerne Manuscript for the Modern Period, to cite but a few. However, hundreds of other such examples exist and are still largely unknown. Artisanal recipes, which date back to Antiquity, continued to be recorded throughout the Middle Ages until at least the 19th century.
In parallel to the physical descriptions of both the raw materials and the final products, these instructions deliver information concerning optical characteristics, (in)compatibility with other substances and information regarding the ageing properties of materials. They also describe the various sorts of artistic support and their preparation as well as the ways to apply materials on it. In addition, a number of recipes are dedicated to the production, refining or colouring of materials such as textiles, glass, metals, horn, stones, etc.
In his 2001 publication The Art of All Colours, Mark Clarke compiled an inventory of 400 source documents, dating from the production of the first artists' recipe collections up to 1500. Since then, numerous other surviving writing containing artisanal recipes have been discovered. Many more recipes were written down in manuscript and print in the period after 1500.