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38 Top Reads on Drawing & Painting

As an artist, you never stop learning. It can be an overwhelming thought at times, but as Confucious said: It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop. Yet with so much to learn and limited time, we can at least make the process more efficient by learning from the best teachers and turning to the best references.

Irish artist Deirdre Shanny joined Art Escape Italy as an Artist in Residence in September 2016. A life-long student of the theory and practice of art, and one of the most well-read artists we have ever met, we asked Deirdre to compile a list of her picks of the most informative and useful reads on drawing and painting. There is something in the list of 38 books below for artists of all levels – from beginners looking for step-by-step instruction, to professional artists and teachers looking for fresh insights or new approaches to teaching.


Drawing Atelier - The Figure: How to Draw in a Classical Style

by Jon deMartin

Grounded in the techniques of the Old Masters, deMartin’s book contains step-by-step lessons on proportion and measurement, drawing the head and features, rendering the figure in motion, and more. The focus is on the power of line to achieve a sense of “living force” in figurative drawing.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain

by Betty Edwards

Edwards’ book is based on the idea that learning to draw requires us to train our brain and our eyes to see. The book is divided into chapters on perceiving edges, perceiving spaces, perceiving relationships, perceiving light and shadow, and drawing a profile portrait.

Memory Drawing: Perceptual Training and Recall

By Darren R. Rousar

The premise of this book is that to draw, paint, or sculpt well requires highly trained observational skills, and that one of the ways to develop these skills to practice memory drawing. After a discussion of the history and science of memory drawing, the book then goes on to cover process, shape, value, and colour.

Cast Drawing: Using the Sight-Size Approach

by Darren R. Rousar

Rousar’s book provides a comprehensive description of how to approach sight-size cast drawing, beginning with an explanation of how to set up your cast drawing correctly, then moving through chapters on blocking in, values and shading, and edges, focus and finish. An excellent read for anyone planning to undertake study in the academic tradition.

Charles Bargue: Drawing Course

by Gerald Ackerman

An essential read for those interested in academic drawing techniques, this book is a reprint of the seminal nineteenth century drawing course by Charles Bargue and Jean-Léon Gérôme. The course is divided into three parts: cast drawing, copying master drawings, and preparation for drawing nude male models. The course was originally designed to prepare art students to draw from life and to faithfully imitate nature.

Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters

by Robert Beverly Hale

Robert Beverly Hale’s Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters has been a best seller for over 45 years. The book is divided into chapters on line, light and planes, mass, position and thrust/direction, and artistic anatomy. Each of these topics is broken down by analyzing the drawings of the masters – da Vinci, Rodin, Goya, Rembrandt and more.

Lessons in Classical Drawing: Essential Techniques from Inside the Atelier

by Juliette Aristides

Broken down into a series of short lessons on a comprehensive range of topics, Aristides’ books differs from other references on drawing in that she combines the technical with a “sensitivity of expression” and an emphasis on the overall vision for each drawing. Like similar reference books, Aristides covers line, relationships, light and shadow, but she also places emphasis on composition and pattern seeking. The book comes with a DVD of live instruction filmed in Florence.

Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice

by Juliette Aristides

Intended to be “an atelier in a book”, Aristides’ Classical Drawing Atelier follows the traditional atelier mode of teaching, using works of the Old Masters to demonstrate principles of realist drawing.

Light and Shade: With Chapters on Charcoal, Pencil, and Brush Drawing

by Anson K. Cross.

One of the most in-depth books on the principles of light and shade, this book covers techniques, natural and artificial light, gradations and more.

Light, Shade & Shadow

by E.L. Koller.

Originally published in 1914 and continuously popular, this book contains step-by-step lessons on using light and shadow to create dimension, starting with basic geometric shapes and progressing to the human figure.

Bridgman’s Life Drawing (Dover Anatomy for Artists)

by George B. Bridgman

Bridgman’s concept of life drawing is that to draw the figure, the artist must “sense the nature and condition of the action or inaction.” Beginning by examining movement, Bridgman’s teaching approach is based on geometric abstractions of the main masses of the body, and understanding how these masses move in space.

The Practice & Science of Drawing

by Harold Speed

Speed is interested in the difference between the “scientifically accurate” and the “artistically accurate”. Starting out with basic chapters on line and mass, the second half of the book is concerned with rhythm, as achieved by the combination of variety and unity in mass and line. A classic that has been a staple book for artists for over 100 years.

Drawing and Painting Trees

by Adrian Hill.

A classic guide to drawing and painting beeches, elms, pines and other varieties trees, this book begins with a history of tree painting by masters including Titian, Rubens, Constable and Turner, and then sets out a series of guiding principles for rendering trees. Colour choice and technique are covered in detail, and the concepts contained in the book are demonstrated in over 150 illustrations by the author.


Lessons in Classical Painting: Essential Techniques from Inside the Atelier

by Juliette Aristides.

A companion book to Lessons in Classical Drawing, this book explains the fundamental skills and tools needed to master painting in the atelier style. Subjects covered include grisaille, form and edges, temperature, and colour.

Color by Betty Edwards: A Course in Mastering the Art of Mixing Colors

by Betty Edwards

This book distills the science of colour theory into a practical method for mixing colours. Based around exercises of increasing complexity, this books teaches you how to correctly perceive colours in relation to one another, how to manipulate hue, value and intensity, and how to achieve balance and harmony of colour in your paintings.

Oil Painting for the Serious Beginner: Basic Lessons in Becoming a Good Painter

by Steve Allrich

Allrich’s book gives step-by-step instruction for the beginner painter with illustrated demonstrations. Beginning with practical basics – such as how to select paint, canvas and brushes – the book progresses through fundamental techniques, to still life, and finally to landscape painting.

Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Colour

by Arthur Wesley Dow

Originally published in 1920, Dow’s book on composition has had a strong influence on artists for the past century. Presented in text-book format, the book systematically works through the principles for using light, value and colour to create harmonious compositions.

The Painter’s Handbook

by Mark David Gottsegen

The Painter’s handbook is all about materials, and contains practical, step-by-step instructions for stretching canvases as well as making your own sizes and grounds, paints, pastels, varnishes, gessoes and more. An essential reference for artists working in oil.

Oil Painting Techniques and Materials

by Harold Speed

Lessons in technique, painting from life, and materials (paints, varnishes, oils, mediums, grounds etc). The book also contains extensive discussion of form, tone and colour, as illustrated through analysis of the painting style of Velasquez, Rembrandt, Reynolds, Titial, Corot and more.

Still Life Painting Atelier

by Michael Friel

For beginner to intermediate artists, this book uses the still life as a way to teach oil techniques, with chapters on materials, painting with a limited palette, alla prima painting with a full palette, grisaille, glazes, and painting reflective surfaces and glass.

Classical Painting Atelier

by Juliette Aristides

Step-by-step instruction in the atelier tradition, with reference to the works of the Old Masters. Chapters cover composition, value, colour, technique and the painter’s process, and painting from life.

Hawthorne on Painting

by Mrs Charles W. Hawthorne

Charles Hawthorne’s lessons at Cape Cod School of Art are captured in this book written by his wife. The book is divided into sections on the outdoor model, still life, landscape, the indoor model, and watercolour. Each section opens with a short essay full of pearls of wisdom such as “Do the obvious thing before you do the superhuman thing” and “Use a bigger brush – you don’t know what fun you are missing”. A great read for teachers as well as students.

Portrait Painting Atelier: Old Master Techniques and Contemporary Applications

by Suzanne Brooker

Illustrated with the work of Millet, Géricault, van Gogh, and leading contemporary portrait artists, this book demonstrates Old Master techniques and contains step-by-step portrait demonstrations.

Alla Prima II: Everything I Know About Painting - And More

by Richard Schmid with Katie Swatland

An extremely popular and well-loved book on direct painting from life, Schmid shares his insights about theory and technique, as well as personal anecdotes about his own journey as an artist. Beautifully illustrated with 262 colour images.

Alla Prima II Companion: Richard Schmid’s Materials, Tools and Techniques

by Katie Swatland

This book complements Alla Prima II by delving into the technical aspects of materials, tools and paint handling. Includes exercises on topics such as brushwork, and lessons on how to stretch canvases, varnish paintings, photograph them properly and more.

Composition of Outdoor Painting

by Edgar Payne

This book goes in and out of print and can be hard to find, but it is highly regarded as one of the definitive books on composition from one of the great American landscape painters. Payne discusses the principles of good composition, as well as colour, repetition, rhythm and value. It’s mostly text with few images, and not especially well-written or edited, but the substance of what is being said is highly valuable.

Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting

by John F Carlson

Carlson’s popular book covers painting technique, value, design, light and edges, atmospheric and linear perspective, trees, clouds, composition and more. Concepts are illustrated with 34 black and white reproductions of Carlson’s own work and 58 explanatory diagrams.

Fill Your Oil Paintings with Light and Colour

by Kevin D. Macpherson

The focus of this book is how to achieve vibrant landscape paintings using a limited palette. Kevin Macpherson is a founding member of Plein Air Painters of America, and is highly sought-after as a workshop instructor.

Landscape Painting Inside and Out

by Kevin D. Macpherson

This book is concerned with how to create personal, poetic landscape paintings that capture the moment of being there. Include step-by-step demonstrations on how to use a limited palette, how to capture nature through a combination of outdoor studies and studio work, how to capture the fleeting qualities of atmosphere, how to incorporate impressionistic touches to give depth and vibrancy, and how to approach painting as a corrective process that isn’t based on formulaic solutions.

Cast Painting Using the Sight-Size Approach

by Darren R Rousar

In this book, Rousar teachers the sight-size approach to cast painting in oil. The book also has sections on materials and stretching canvases.


Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History

By Stephen F. Eisenman

Eisenman critiques European and North American art of nineteenth century through the lens of the political, industrial and cultural revolutions that were happening at the time. Issues such as class, gender, race and Eurocentrism are examined through the works of Blake, Goya, Constable, Turner, Courbet, Cassatt, Eakins, Van Gough and Cezanne.

The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History

by James Hall

Hall tells the history of the self-portrait, from the myth of Narcissus, to the medieval mirror craze, to the Christian tradition of “bearing witness”. Works by a wide range of artists are discussed for the insights they offer into the artists’ personal world, including Caravaggio, Gentileschi, Ghiberti, Giotto, Goya, Kahlo, Magritte, Picasso, Raphael, Rembrandt and Van Eyck.

A Treatise on Painting

by Leonardo Da Vinci

Upon his death, Leonardo’s manuscripts and drawings were bequeathed to Messer Francesco da Melzi, but when da Melzi died 4 years later his heirs first stored the 13 bound volumes in a garret and eventually allowed the collection to be divided. In 1651, a selection of the manuscripts relating to the Art of Painting came into the possession of Raphael du Fresno, who published them under the title Trattato della Pittura in1651. The book was translated into English in 1721, and in 1835 the English version was reissued with a chapter on the life of Leonardo. Not exactly light reading, but it is worth the effort to read the words of the Master himself.

Man with a Blue Scarf: On Sitting for a Portrait by Lucian Freud

by Martin Gayford

This is the record of the daily encounters between Lucian Freud and art critic Martin Gayford as Gayford sat for a portrait over a period of seven months. The resulting observations describe the intimate creative process from the perspective of the sitter, while simultaneously creating a portrait of the artist himself.

Edgar Payne: The Scenic Journey

By Scott Shields

Californian plein-air painter Edgar Alwin Payne (1883-1947) is most famous for applying the loose brushwork, vibrant palette and simmering light effects of impressionism to the majestic Sierra Nevada landscape. This book contains 125 reproductions of his work, including his paintings of Sierra Nevada, the American Southwest and the European Alps. An excellent reference for composition, atmospheric perspective, and skies.

Lives of the Great 20th-Century Artists

by Edward Lucie- Smith

Authoritative biographies of the lives of 100 renowned artists who shaped the cultural perceptions of the past 100 years, from Picasso to Jean-Michel Basquiat.

Hensche on Painting

by John W .Robichaux

Following Monet’s tradition, Henry Hensche (1901-92) taught his students to “see the light, not the object”. This book explains Hensche’s painting philosophy and methodology, and shares his insights with regards to portrait, figure and landscape painting.

The Craftman’s Handbook: ll Libro dell’ Arte

By Cennino d’Andrea Cennini

Written in fifteenth century Florence, this guide to the methods of painting presents the secrets and techniques of the Renaissance masters. Not strictly an art history book, but rather a manual for art students of the fifteenth century, it contains descriptions of many lost arts such as coloring parchment and fashioning saint’s diadems.


Deirdre also recommends seeking out books on the works of Fechin, Antonio Lopez Garcia, Ivan Shishkin and Valentin Serov.

WHAT DO YOU THINK? Add your comments below to tell us your favourite books on drawing and painting.

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