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The Best Books about Painting

Katherine regularly reviews art books and has a very extensive art library (4 bookcases and lots of stacks waiting for the next one!)


The best selling and top rated painting books

The best selling and top rated art books about painting - for beginners, improving artists and advanced painters.

These books have been identified through my monthly surveys of top art books - see Makingamark's Top 10 Fine Art Books - and surveys of the readers of my blog Making A Mark.

These books are typically those that have sold well or been highly rated in recent times

Other well regarded books on specific topics can be found in other dedicated websites - as listed on this site

How to Paint - Art Instruction Books

Top rated and best selling books about how to paint

Why paint from imagination?

Many of the great paintings in art history are entirely imagined. They tell stories, they highlight great issues of the time, they record what is important in the society and culture of the day. They can also pose problems and ask questions which cause those viewing the painting to stand and stare.

However they don't just appear from nowhere. There's a lot of work involved in creating images which have no real substance and the artist needs to use a lot of tools and techniques to assist with the creation of a real world on a canvas or paper.

Imaginative Realism

How to Paint What Doesn't Exist

PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2009 / TOP RATED for several months

HIGHLY RECOMMENDED - On publication this book became the #1 art instruction book on Amazon

  • Rated an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars by 263 customer ratings
  • PLUS 119 customer reviews

Read my Book Review - Imaginative Realism by James Gurney

The reason this book is so highly rated and remains a top art instruction book on Amazon is because it sets a very high standard for all art instruction books! It is jam packed full of useful content which is both very accessible and highly informative.

The bias is towards Gurney's normal fantasy art subject matter but the principles are applicable to all painters who create works which involve some element of imagined realism.

The book also demonstrates clearly the amount of research that the author uses when tackling a topic or developing a technique

Hercules and the Hydra (after 1537) by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553). The second of the 12 Labours of Hercules was to kill The Lernean Hydra.

Hercules and the Hydra (after 1537) by Lucas Cranach (1472-1553). The second of the 12 Labours of Hercules was to kill The Lernean Hydra.

Why paint landscapes?

Landscape painting is more recent than you might imagine. It used to be called "painting the background" when the important objects in paintings were the people.

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You can read more about the history of landscape painting on my blog The Art of the Landscape. For example:

Today, landscape painting is very popular - particularly with those who like to paint plein air.

People also paint all sorts of different landscapes - both urban and rural - and make art in all sorts of different media. The landscape offers a lot of opportunity for individual creativity while at the same time painting with friends if that's what you enjoy doing.

Find out more about The Best Books about Landscape Art

Early Spring Afternoon - Central Park (c.1911) by Willard Leroy Metcalf (Brooklyn Museum) - this painting combines an aerial view of the landscape of Central Park with the urban scene at its edges

Early Spring Afternoon - Central Park (c.1911) by Willard Leroy Metcalf (Brooklyn Museum) - this painting combines an aerial view of the landscape of Central Park with the urban scene at its edges

The Watercolorist's Essential Notebook - Landscapes

MAKINGAMARK'S TOP TEN ART BOOKS: Top rated in May -September and November 201 and January 2011

  • Rated an average of 4.6 out of 5 stars by 117 customer ratings
  • PLUS 62 customer reviews on Amazon
  • Goodreads: 4.86 of 5 stars (7 ratings)

I've now bought a copy of this book having marvelled for months as to why it keeps topping the poll. I can now see why.

It's billed as "A Treasury of Landscape Painting Tricks and Techniques Discovered Through Years of Painting and Experimentation"

The book comprises three sections:

  1. The Medium: Tools and Techniques - the basics needed to work effectively with watercolour when painting landscapes. It includes useful information and recommendations about different pigments
  2. Composing a Landscape Painting - this is about taking control of the composition of the painting and covers colour, perspective and leading the eye
  3. Landscape Elements - which examines specific approaches for paintings water, skies and the land - includes trees and seasonal effects. It examines different ways of painting the different elements of a landscape.

Landscape Painting

Essential Concepts and Techniques for Plein Air and Studio Practice

A book which topped the MOST GIFTED and MOST WISHED FOR landscape painting book categories.

  • Average rating of 4.6 out of 5 stars 194 Amazon customers
  • PLUS 122 customer reviews

Read my review Book Review: Landscape Painting by Mitchell Albala

Summary review: This book will become a new classic manual of landscape art.

  • It takes the core concepts and skills required of those creating any type of representational art and interprets and relates how these apply and work within the context of landscape art.
  • It's an in-depth guide produced by somebody who is an experienced educator.
  • It's written and designed by somebody who is an excellent communicator.
  • It deserves a place on the bookshelf of everybody who takes landscape art seriously - whether they paint plein air or in the studio.
Ambleside (1786) by Francis Towne Watercolor and brown and gray ink over graphite on medium slightly textured cream laid paper

Ambleside (1786) by Francis Towne Watercolor and brown and gray ink over graphite on medium slightly textured cream laid paper

Why paint people?

People have painted people since time began.

Those wanting to start learning how to paint very often want to be able to paint people - often their loved ones.

People feature in all the major history paintings of myths and events in the past.

Oddly enough, in current times, the tendency is to paint people as individuals. There's much less painting of large groups compared to the past - possibly because that's a job which is now done better (some think) by photography.

So why does the portrait painter continue to prosper? Could it be because the talent and skill of the artist can say a lot more about the person being painted than a photograph ever can?

Find out more about

Portrait Painting Atelier

Old Master Techniques and Contemporary Applications

This book did well when it was first published. However over time, it's become apparent that opinions vary about this book!

Amazon Reviews: 3.4 out of 5 stars - includes 10 x 5* reviews (34 customer reviews) | Like (54)

The main criticisms revolve around the quality of the artist/author's paintings and the fact that the demonstrations are all by the same artist and hence it becomes variations on a theme as opposed to how different artists tackle the contemporary application of old master techniqes.

The aim of Portrait Painting Atelier is comprehensive coverage of the concepts and techniques of traditional portraiture. It demonstrates the Old Masters' technique of layering paint over a toned-ground surface, a process that builds from the transparent dark areas to the more densely painted lights. This method unifies the entire painting, illuminates skin tones and softly blends all the color tones. Readers will also find instruction in paint mediums from classic oil-based to alkyd-based, the interactive principles of composition and photograph-based composition, and the anatomy of the human face and the key relationships among its features. It also features seven detailed step-by-step portrait demonstrations

Color Mixing Recipes for Portraits

More than 500 Color Combinations for Skin, Eyes, Lips & Hair

  • Rated an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars by 210 customer ratings
  • Plus 99 customer reviews

This is a perennial favourite of portrait painters.

This book takes all the guesswork out of trying to find the right colour when painting the tones and colours of skin and hair of different people in different light.

Painting Portraits and Figures in Watercolor

  • Rated an average of 4.7 out of 5 stars by 140 customer ratings on Amazon
  • Plus 64 customer reviews
  • Goodreads: 4.45 of 5 stars by 29 ratings plus 6 reviews

This book covers all the information needed by an artist wanting to paint people in watercolour. There's a number of good books in this area but this one has proved to be most popular in recent years.

It covers:

  1. materials and tools and techniques
  2. the basics of creating a portrait: drawing, values, edges, colour and light plus what to about backgrounds!
  3. it concludes with a section on life as an artist - particularly one who wants to grow and develop as a portrait artist and who wants to work with models

Why paint with dry media?

Is painting possible with dry media?

Yes - it very definitely is. Although dry media is traditionally associated with drawing, it can also be used for painting.

Ways you can use dry media - such as pastels and pencils - for painting are:

  • covering the whole of the support with the dry media
  • using the dry media with water (e.g. watercolour pencils)
  • using the dry media with a solvent (e.g. artist pencils and soft pastels) to spread the pigment around the support and build up more dense layers in terms of values and colour

Colored Pencil Painting Bible

Techniques for Achieving Luminous Color and Ultrarealistic Effects

PUBLISHED MARCH 2009: This is the first book by award-winning artist Alyona Nickelsen.

  • #1 Best Seller in Colored Pencil Guides
  • Average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars by 511 customers
  • PLUS 258 customer reviews

Read my detailed review of this book in Book Review: Colored Pencil Painting Bible

In her book Alyona reveals her techniques and processes for achieving intense colour in her coloured pencil paintings. These include layering, the proper use and advantages of the translucent properties of the medium, as well as her use of odorless solvents to achieve rich, luminous color and ultra-realistic effects - all backed up with highly detailed step-by-step demonstrations.

© 2012 Katherine Tyrrell

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