Feeling stuck in your painting practice? Looking to learn more techniques, better understand how to use your tools, or just want to bone up on anatomy? (Ha.) Here are the 12(ish) books that led me to one breakthrough or another, complete with links in case you’d like to pick them up on Amazon.
Plus, I have a promo code if you’d like to check out any two of these books for free on Audible, so you can listen while you paint. :)
1) Alla Prima II (and the Alla Prima II: Companion, if you want more) - Richard Schmid & Katie Swatland
This is hands down where I believe any painter who is interested in alla prima techniques should begin. It is the book I pull from my shelf most often, and I’ve seen artists at all stages of their journeys benefit from this tremendously.
Whether you’re interested in paint application, composition, studio practices or just want to see how the master himself works, this is the first book you should invest in.
And if you want more technical insights after reading Alla Prima II, definitely opt for the Companion. If you’re anything like me you immediately want to know the exact tools and techniques used, the Companion has your back. I almost find myself reaching for this as often as Alla Prima itself these days, just to double check one studio process or another.
Alla Prima II: https://www.richardschmid.com/Alla-Prima-II-By-Richard-Schmid-p/skuap.htm
Alla Prima Companion: https://www.richardschmid.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=SKUAPC
2) The War of Art - Steven Pressfield
Raise your hand if you’ve ever wanted to paint one day and instead whittled it away jumping back and forth between Facebook and Instagram. Okay, you can put your hand down. I won’t tell.
I don’t know a single artist who doesn’t occasionally ask themself why they have so much trouble doing the singular thing they are passionate about. (Hint: It’s not because you don’t love it).
In The War of Art, just like Pressfield’s other fantastic books, we’re introduced to the idea of Resistance, whether it’s fear of failure or fear of success. No other books have given me quite the kick in the pants that Pressfield’s have. In fact, I have the Kindle versions of all three, and I still opted to buy physical copies because I wanted them on my shelf at all times, both as a motivational reminder and a nod to how much I owe them.
3) The Art of Asking - Amanda Palmer
After going through The War of Art, the next most important book I’ve read on the emotional and professional journey of being an artist was The Art of Asking. Once we become brave enough to make the work, what happens when it’s time to show it to people? Or even scarier, what happens when it’s time to try and sell that work?
Asking for money can be the ickiest feeling, particularly when it comes to selling art, but after reading this book I hold a special reverence for that exchange. It’s no longer something filled with shame and second thoughts, but instead a connection and sense of gratitude that I could never have realized before.
I personally enjoy this most in audiobook form, as Amanda does a great reading. Plus you get the addition of several of her songs between chapters.
4) Creative Illustration - Andrew Loomis
Whether I am talking to a fine artist or illustrator, I hear this book (as well as any other by Loomis) come up all the time. Loomis was a master of composition, and it really shows as he gives examples of reference photos versus the final image, and walks you through how he arrived at each change.
Whether you want to improve your grasp on drawing hands, master life drawing gestures, pin down perspective or simply compose more pleasing paintings, Loomis has something for you.
I’d start with Creative Illustration, but all of his books are immensely valuable.
5) Drawing from Life - George B. Bridgman
An essential primer on anatomy as it relates to life drawing. These books may not be packed with reading material, but includes helpful illustrations of all major anatomical forms. I carried a copy of this with me in college and would often pull this out to copy the illustrations during some of the more boring lectures.
Drawing from Life: https://amzn.to/2MAZA0V
6) Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist - Stephen Rogers Peck
If you really want a close look at human anatomy beyond some of the simplified illustrations you might see from Loomis or Bridgman, Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist has you covered. A bit more technical, with greater explanations of the anatomy itself, I’d say any advanced figurative artist should have this as a reference.
I’d recommend dedicating dedicating a sketchbook just to anatomical studies from the three books above. You’ll be amazed at how much more quickly and accurately you can capture the human form once you have a mental heuristic for what you see on the model, and these books will get you there.
Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist: https://amzn.to/2MB3Tte
7) Oil Painting Techniques and Materials - Harold Speed
A comprehensive primer on all things oil painting, from exercises and techniques to materials. This book is a bit dense, with fewer illustrations and more outright explanation, but if you really want to get a solid grasp of painting foundations this is where you should start.
Unlike some of the other primers listed below, Speed is heavily influenced by the style he values. If you like Sargent, Zorn, or Schmid, you’ll be right at home, and this book will get you an even deeper understanding of how these masters worked.
Oil Painting Techniques and Materials: https://amzn.to/2TeDzaK
8) The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques - Ralph Mayer
Whether I’m in the studio or in the kitchen, my friend’s know that my undoing will be trying to pinpoint the exact right ingredient or tool I need for a task I’m having trouble with. At the recommendation of Richard Schmid within Alla Prima, I picked up this book when I needed more information on any suppliers who carry a very specific formula of lead ground, and had some additional questions about a the must-have 5-1-1 medium.
Boy did this not disappoint — everything you’ve ever needed to know from pigments to solvents is in this tome of a resource. I’d recommend it to any artist serious about understanding their materials, their safety and their craft.
The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques: https://amzn.to/2B7FJ50
9) The Artist’s Guide to Selecting Colours - Michael Wilcox
I got this as a companion to The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques, once again based on a nod within Alla Prima II. Unlike the previous book, this one offers an in-depth review of various pigments that looks at everything from listfastness to mixing tips. Perfect if you are building your own palette, want to understand why student grade paints might be just as good for some colors, or simply want to better understand why you might use cadmium instead of Napthol red.
Side note: if you want to see what colors I’m currently working with, check out my blog post here.
The Artist’s Guide to Selecting Colours: https://amzn.to/2MCH4p9
10) Composition of Outdoor Painting - Edgar Payne
This is the primer on composition for illustrators and fine artists alike. Sure, there are no hard and fast rules of composing a painting (or we’d all be out of a job by now), and any rules that do exist are made to be broken, but this is nonetheless essential reading. Even if you aren’t a landscape painter, the principles will apply to just about any sort of painting you may want to embark on. It’s not the easiest read, but the illustrations alone make it a must-read.
Composition of Outdoor Painting: https://amzn.to/2TjUIzU
11) Quality art books by your favorite living artists
I have several books by artists I deeply admire and want to learn from. They may not be a definitive guide to any given topic, or may not display as prominently in your home as an original painting or event print of theirs may, but I absolutely love to get to support the artists I admire, have a vast catalogue of their work in one place, and get to learn more about how they work. Plus buying these books usually means you get to directly support the artist in question.
Here are a couple of books I’m personally partial to:
Henry Yan: https://amzn.to/2Wnc7cS
Wangjie Li: https://www.gallerynucleus.com/detail/23923/
David Downton: https://amzn.to/2WplzfI
Jeremy Mann: https://redrabbit7.com/store/mann-vol-17-the-sketchbooks
Greg Manchess: https://amzn.to/2Tk3Pk3
12) Quality art books on the (old) masters
In addition to art books by my favorite living artists, I also have a pretty substantial collection of books on Sargent’s work, and a few coffee table books on artists like Zorn or Sorolla. I can’t say who the authority is on every artist, but these books can offer tremendous insights as well as a treasure trove of images. Here are some of my favorites:
And if you ever want more art books but aren’t looking for a particular artist, check out your local used book store. I have coffee table books that are practically tomes on Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and more, and rather than paying the $100 they normally sell for I picked them up for probably around $10.
And that’s it! I’m sure next year I’ll have a few more to add to this list, but in the meantime I’d love to hear what books have been the most important to you! Comment below and share your favorites — I can’t wait to read them!