Top 10 Best Books on Painting

Well, maybe a top 11 or 12. And that’s not counting the ones I don’t know about and you do. There are a lot of books on painting out there. And I mean a lot. They range from simple beginners books to technical tomes for the advanced. Some are full of nonsense, others full of pearls of wisdom.  So how do you choose if you want to know a bit more? Recently some of my students asked this very question and I thought I’d share my answer.

​I am a self taught artist. I never learned to stretch canvas in art school, I never was told how to set up a palette, let alone how to survive as an artist. And so I learned the little bit of what I know by trial, error, reading and asking. And some might argue that is the best way of learning. The learning process never ends. There are many, many artists out there who have been in business much longer than I have and they know a lot. Thankfully I can ask some of them what to do when I get stuck. But it is great to be in this place where I can help others too. That’s why I write this blog and teach workshops.

In my quest to learn how to paint I relied mostly on trial and error and online forums and groups. But I have come across some books on painting that proved worthwhile and sometimes even vital. Of course I can write a book review on each (and I am hoping, if you, dear reader, would enjoy it, to offer more book reviews in the future) but for now I will list the ones I have found particularly wonderful.

​These books are in my bookcase, they were bought for my painting development and so therefore they reflect my taste and interest and painting style. Therefore you will not find any books on abstract or conceptual art. But don’t worry, they do not all focus on realistic portraiture or lace painting. There is even a book on landscape painting! Many good writers write about a certain topic but you can apply their lessons on much more. You will see.

Oh, and a little note on the side: I don’t like the ‘how-to’ books very much as they often pretend you can come up with a masterpiece if only you follow the steps prescribed. Art is and cannot ever be that simple. I also have learned and gained much inspiration from art history books, artists monographs and exhibition catalogues, which are not mentioned here. These are books about painting and books on how to paint. Do read them with a critical mind. Even in the best of books (including the ones below)  I come across stuff that is clearly nonsense.

I never set out to know about all good painting books, so please add your suggestions in the comments below. Together we might come up with the the best books on painting of all time!

Painting Books

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Richard Schmid, Alla Prima. Everything I know about Painting – and More

This is a true classic. Although Schmid writes about painting ‘Alla Prima’ (wet-in-wet, in one go, without letting paint layers dry) the book is full (and I mean full!) of pearls of wisdom that apply to painting in general. Schmid’s tone is wonderfully down to earth and practical, yet he shares the spiritual qualities of painting and paintings evocatively. His work is beautiful (how can anyone like a book about painting if you don’t love the author’s work?) and the book is richly illustrated with it. It is expensive (especially for artists outside the US) but if you can afford it, it is worth it. Some UK shops stock it for a reasonable price so it is worth it to shop around. You can also buy it from Richard Schmid’s website direct.

​Looseness should describe how a painting looks, not how it was done. (Schmid)

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Michal Albala, Landscape Painting

I don’t paint landscapes. And yet this is a wonderful book full of practical advice. There are chapters on values, composition, light and colour, working from photographs and more. The chapter on site selection is relevant even for a studio painter as it discusses patterns of light and shade, overlapping subject matter and perspective. Albala discusses materials and how to prepare them, brush marks and layering. He has some wonderful thoughts on colour, colour relationships and value. This book is a true and unexpected gem.

As much as we pay respect to our initial inspiration, and try to capture a particular moment of light, the colour within the painting ultimately answers only to itself, not the world that inspired it. Take your lessons and inspiration from nature, but judge success by how well the light works within the painting. The light in front of you lasts but a few moments but the painting remains. (Albala)

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James Gurney, Color and Light. A Guide for the Realist Painter

This book is written by the painter James Gurney who is known for his Dinotopia books. His paintings are realistic and full of narrative. In this great handbook he explores everything a realistic artist would ever need for practical advice. For example he has chapters on different sources of light and how they affect your painting, how lighting works on a form, and how light can have various effects on different surfaces. Besides light his other main theme is colour. He discusses colour extensively in chapters on pigments, lightfastness, chroma, values, colour wheel,  warm and cool colours, mixing colour strings and so much more. Particularly useful are his pieces on colour effects (is moonlight blue?). A practical and wonderfully illustrated book. Gurney also writes a hugely popular blog http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.co.uk which is great to read.

One way to create drama, especially with a vertical form, is to light the top half and leave the rest in shadow. (Gurney)

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Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier

This is a beautiful book. It is full of reproductions of old and current masters. All very yummy. Aristides presents the atelier approach to oil painting. So if that is what you are interested in, this is a must-have book. It leans heavily on the past and the old techniques but many current masters show how valuable those can be. The writing is a little lofty here and there but the content is full of advice on painting principles. There are beautiful chapters on values and colour where the images show what the text is expressing. Although there are plenty of practical tips in this book, I think its is most successful where Aristides writes passionately about painting and its principles.  It is great to see she did not fill the book with her own work (she a is fabulous artist) but shows how many artists now and in the past, applied some of the “timeless” principles of painting. You’ll find Rubens as well as Daniel Sprick. Bits of art history are nicely mixed in with the main story and so all in all this book is very complete.

Creating a convincing painting requires more than just matching what one sees. It also requires color harmony, which allows the work of art to function as an integrated whole in a way that conforms to the purpose of the artist. In the end, even formulas to get the perfect color fail, because ultimately the right color is the one that works with the overall logic of the piece. (Aristides)

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Nicholas Verrall, Colour and Light in Oils

Verrall is a wizard of light. I love his paintings. This book is full of his paintings and therefore oozes colour and light. But the book is more than that. It talks about the practicalities of painting in the chapters on varnishing, glazing, lighting and equipment. It becomes more interesting in the chapters on capturing light and colour. Local colour, mood, space and depth are all discussed with plenty of images as references.Linda Cateura, Oil Painting Secrets from a Master
Cateura was one of David Leffel’s students and in this book she published his teachings in bite-sized bits. It is organised by topics (materials, colour, portraits, still life etc) but the wonderful thing is that it is all put in one-liners. So basically this a book full of golden one-liners. And since Leffel is a master painter, most are worth reading and remembering.

On the face and figure in your painting, decide where your light will travel and paint it. Think how the light might do certain things and paint that picture. (Cateura)

This is an old classic, first published in 1944. It is a book full of text and without pictures and therefore dry to read through. But is full of good advice and timeless wisdom.
Henry Hensche On Painting
Hawthorne on Painting
Another two old works. Student and master take on painting in a unique manner. Hawthorn (1872-1930) founded the Cape Cod School of Art and his approach to colour and light – and taken on by his student Hensche in his own work – is wonderful and refreshing to read. A must-read for every serious artist.
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Andrew James, Painting Self Portraits

This is one of my more recent purchases and I am including it as not only is James a brilliant artist but I love his practical and modest tone. He writes about painting with just the right mix of intuition and pragmatism and is happy to show a failure. In the book he describes the various stages he goes through when painting a self portrait (one from life, one from photographs, one ‘expressive’ self portrait). I have signed up to one of his workshops – very much looking forward to it.

Daniel Shadbolt, Painting and Drawing the Head

Ok, am not sure whether this one deserves to be in this list as I only bought this yesterday. But I am throwing it in anyway. Shadbolt paints (as does James) in a completely different style than I do. But good painting is good painting. And it is good and refreshing to step away from the familiar. Shadbolt’s painterly portraits are full of life, colour and melancholy. He is very practical in this book and tells you all about how to set up a model, how to work with light, composition etc etc. He is also one of the few who describes how to stretch and prime a canvas (the old fashioned way with rabbit-glue) although he does not mention the many alternatives currently on the market. The book looks promising. Will let you know more detail when I finish reading it.

Pastel Books

There are very few pastel painting books out there that I find worth while. Here is one:

​Ellen Eagle, Pastel Painting Atelier
Beautifully published book with Eagle’s own work taking pride of place. She is a wonderful painter (and writer) and takes you on an informative pastel journey. She discusses everything from different types of pastel, making your own pastels, papers and colours. A word on different subjects and practical lessons are also included. By no means the bible of pastel but a nice book with some good info.

Drawing Books

​Although there are many techniques, exercises and approaches to drawing in my own drawing and in my teaching I often (not always) use my own no doubt fraying-at-the-edges approach to the classical method. This method I learned via watching various videos but mostly through these two books. It is a great technique for getting accuracy and likeness and although I don’t always use it, it is great to fall back on in case things go pear-shaped in my work.

Anthony Ryder, The Artist’s Complete Guide to Figure Drawing
Juliette Aristides, Lessons in Classical Drawing

Please do add your suggestions in the comments below. What works for me, might not work for you and so together we might be able provide tips for all. As said above, every book has bits of nonsense in it, but the ones in this blog post have a vast amount of sensible and worthwhile advice and inspiration. Do let me know what you think of my top 10!

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10 thoughts on “Top 10 Best Books on Painting

  1. Great reviews Sophie. I am particularly interested in the self portrait book as that is a current project and I have been looking for a book on the subject. Alan.

  2. Really interesting Sophie! I have the Landscape book which I find very useful as I paint a lot outside, I have Schmids 1st book and after reading your blog I’m going to look into getting the second.
    I really like your portraits and am still tempted to have a go at pastel portraits, after all I love drawing and I guess its drawing with colour, although it’s called pastel painting isn’t it.

    1. Thanks Nigel! Yes, Schmid and Albala are both brilliant books. The 2nd edition of Alla Prima has some extra chapters and bits so it might be worth getting it although the first edition is pretty comprehensive too.
      You can call it pastel painting or drawing…depends how you use the pastel. A quick sketch can be a drawing, a many-layered work would be a painting. Go and play with it, it is such a beautiful medium!!

  3. Hi Sophie,
    I recently came accross your blog and I really like your information! Thank you for sharing this information. I want to ask what kind of forums you recommend for artists to join? I am currently learning oil paining at a art school and I would love to join a place with like minded artists.
    Cheers,
    Forest

    1. Hi Forest, thanks for stopping by! I have learned a lot back in the day at wetcanvas.com. That forum is full of friendly artists sharing and helping each other out. Do check it out. Since then I have moved onto Facebook where thousands of artists are joined into groups and communities. Facebook is really a goldmine for artists as we all connect to share our work, our experiences, we help each other out and make new friends. Do join! Hope that helps, good luck with the course!

  4. Hi Sophie, It’s always interesting to read your blog and this piece is no exception. I love the Albala book too, and he’s written some good articles in the monthly magazines as well, which extend some of the material in his book. Albala is an instructor, of course, and his book reflects that expertise and experience. I have a few of the books on your list, but I thought I’d list some of my own favourites for your interest. And before I forget, I did a workshop with Andrew James in October and it was brilliant. He’s a superb artist AND a superb teacher AND an all-round great guy. I was particularly interested in how his approach to painting mirrored his approach to charcoal drawings. He’ll probably demo both – notice that even the physical action of applying marks is the same in both media. The other point I would add is that while books definitely have their place, DVDs allow you to see the process of mixing paint to various consistencies and applying it to the surface – books can’t do that, yet it is one of the most difficult things for beginners to learn, in my opinion.
    Some of my favourites:
    Flower painting in oil – Charles Reid
    Some of Charles’s other books also include pages on oils, with several demos, though the content is usually biased to watercolours.
    Several by Bernard Dunstan – only available second hand, these are “old school”, and the style may not appeal to everyone, but they’re full of information in the way that many modern books are not:
    – Composing your paintings
    – Starting to paint still life
    – Starting to paint portraits
    – Learning to paint
    (If you do buy these, don’t pay too much, some of the prices I see online are crazy. The quality of production is quite poor by today’s standards, and paying a lot won’t change that.)
    A personal view – Trevor Chamberlain. This one was recommended to me when I was starting out. There is a very good demo near the beginning. It’s a pity he didn’t include more demos.
    Several by David Curtis.
    Inspired by light – Ken Howard.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for your comment! Great to know the James workshop was good – can’t wait to go!!
      Thank you also for the video suggestions. I must admit I am not very much into videos, don’t know why, perhaps I am missing something. But you are right, seeing how things are done must be great! thanks for the suggestions, I am sure that I am not alone in finding that a useful and intriguing list. Will have to go and check them out!! Sophie

      1. Hi Sophie. Thanks for your reply. I think you made this point already, but I realised after a while that the only way to learn is to experiment and *keep asking (yourself) questions*: what happens if I do ‘x’? why does this happen when I do ‘y’? Books often simply tell you what to do, but don’t say why, and don’t say what would happen if you did it another way. Books help you get to a certain basic level, I think, but to go further, you need to experiment. I think DVDs/videos give insights to the process, to the actual physical act of painting, that books cannot do. DVDs/videos are a useful way of experiencing an artist’s way of working without the expense of attending a workshop – and they have helped me to be more selective about which workshops I attend. I often watch DVDs/videos with the sound muted, because I want to focus on how the paint is being mixed and applied. I want to see how wet or dry the paint is, the stroke, the combination of strokes to make a shape, the type of brush being used to make the stroke, how thin or thick the paint is on the surface when new strokes are being added, adjustments and changes, and so on. Books often include demos and give the impression that the painting was developed in a ‘linear’ way – step 1, 2, 3… but don’t show demo’s where the artist decided to change the format, composition/design, or wipe/scrape off a section and re-paint, and so on. Yet these changes/experiments are the way you learn.

      2. Totally true! Thank you for those additional comments. What you say is very valid. I can only add that, at the end of the day, painting is a personal process and no books or videos will teach you your own path. I can’t say I have ever gotten how to mix colours, what brushes to use or any other practical matters from a book or a video. One just needs to do it, it is the only way. There is no ‘cookbook’ for painting where you can just follow the recipes. Books, for me, often just confirmed or clarified something I had already found out. Many beginners are scared to dive in, but that is really the only way: dive in!

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