The top 10? 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.
Learning to Paint from books
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.
Disclaimer: Some of the links in this article are affiliate links. This means that I earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase through these carefully chosen links. It will cost you nothing extra and you would support this blog for which I would be most grateful.
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.
I don’t like how-to books on painting
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!
Books on Painting
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)
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)
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)
Juliette Aristides, Classical Painting Atelier
This is a beautiful book on painting in a classical way. 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)
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)
Harold Speed, Oil Painting Techniques and Materials
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.
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.
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.
Books on Pastel Painting
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.
Books on drawing
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.
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!