Do you devour art books like the Cookie Monster getting his hands on a sweet chocolate chip dessert? Then you are a painter after my own heart!

Since my dad is an artist who has always had art books on hand, I learned early on the power of books to transport me to worlds of wonder. Much of my training as an artist came from books – everything I could get my hands on from works of the Impressionists, Expressionists and Norman Rockwell, the etchings and drawings of M. C. Escher, Durer and Rembrandt to step-by-step Walter Foster tutorials and pastel painting instruction by Daniel Greene.

Because books have been so integral to my success as an artist, I thought you might enjoy learning what my favorites are today. The list is long so I will organize it into two categories – Art Instruction and Inspiration.

Art Instruction:

Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting by John Carlson – You will want to study this book! The first time I read this was in 1985 at the insistence of Leon Parson. I consider this the best book on the market for painting instruction (next to Alla Prima)

Alla Prima II Everything I Know About Painting – and More by Richard Schmid. This book is expensive and worth hundreds of times more than its cost. If the price stretches your budget and you must save for months or years to purchase it – do it! I ordered the first edition back when it first came out in ’99 and couldn’t resist when he expanded the book so I purchased it as well.

Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis – you say you’re not an illustrator? Many of the best artists I know began their careers as illustrators and learned techniques and principles of art that propelled their skills and success like a rocket to the moon. This book will increase your understanding of so much that is involved in representational painting.

Color and Light – A Guide for the Realist Painter by James Gurney. If you are struggling with understanding the effects and colors of light when you paint on location or in your studio, this book does a fantastic job of explaining so much about light and color in an easy to read format. Highly recommended!

Want even more inspiration from Gurney?

Blank Canvas – An Interview with James Gurney

Painting on Location Secrets to Plein Air Painting by David Curtis. I found this book recently and haven’t finished reading the whole thing, but what I have read is top notch. Curtis does some fantastic plein air work.

Composition of Outdoor Painting by Edgar Payne. While I believe it can be dangerous to our creative imagination to try and distill compositions into formulaic descriptions, it can be very helpful to understand what professional artists are often seeing and why we choose a particular composition in our paintings. Edgar Payne is a master of dramatic compositions and when (and why) to use them.

Oil Painting Techniques and Materials by Harold Speed. This is not a ‘learn to paint easy seascapes’ kind of book. You will only enjoy this if you like to read. If you do, this is a thought provoking essay on the clear distinctions between ‘modern’ and classical art and provides intelligent reasoning for expression and the need for thorough understanding of our materials and techniques.


Inspiration Art Books – When You Need a Creative Boost

The Landscapes by Richard Schmid – Wow is the only appropriate description…

Lawrence Alma-Tadema by RJ Barrow – this artist had an incredible mastery of realist color and subtlety. Beautiful!

Spirit of the Plains People – Howard Terpning by Don Hedgpeth. I may not paint western subject matter, but I have a great appreciation for much of it, especially skilled artists like Terpning.

Sorolla the Masterworks. Sorolla’s mastery of light is phenomenal.

Sargent Abroad by Warren Adelson and others – I love that this book focuses more on his landscapes and figures within a landscape, rather than his portraits.

Edward Hopper by Gerry Souter. Hopper was a miserable person, but he did have a way with light.

The Master’s Hand – the Art of Carl Heinrich Bloch by Dawn C. Pheysey. I am a huge fan of Bloch’s religious paintings.

The Art of Tom Lovell by Don Hedgpeth. Lovell had a fantastic sculptural feel to his paintings the way he laid brushstrokes directionally.

Update: Lovell  and Huling (below) were featured in the Prix de West:

37 Stunning Paintings from Artists at the Prix de West

Hulings – A Gallery of Paintings by Clark Hulings. My wife found this for me in a flea market for $15 – not likely to have that happen twice!

Carl Rungius by Whtye and Hart. Wildlife art at its best.

Anything you can get your hands on with T. Allen Lawson’s or Clyde Aspevig’s work.

Update: Both Lawson and Aspevig were featured in the Prix de West:

37 Stunning Paintings from Artists at the Prix de West

Also, I have many, many books of the Impressionists’ paintings like Childe Hassam, Monet, Pissarro, Degas, Twachtman and Cassatt as well as one of my absolute favorites Van Gogh (Post Impressionism).

Last, but never least, too many books to mention of Norman Rockwell’s paintings.


You’ve probably noticed a wide gamut in the styles of these artists. My interests expand much farther beyond these. If I included every book or artist I study…well, we both know I’ve already stretched the limits of most of our attention spans.

We don’t want to become myopic, studying only those artists or topics that fall directly in our path. I believe our art will only grow stronger as we thoughtfully examine artwork from many different artists.

Now, that in no way suggests we should jump ship every time we get excited about some new artist we’ve discovered.

Remember, we will progress much faster if we focus. Ponder what excites you about that new artist and experiment to see if you might improve what you are already doing – that is much more effective than completely changing course – often it’s simply a matter of a few well targeted tweaks that can escalate the quality of our paintings.

C. Wyeth and his sons, William Trost Richards, Willard Metcalf, Peder Mork Monsted, Quang Ho, James Reynolds, Oleg Stravowsky, Nelson Shanks, Bob Kuhn, David Shepherd, Guy Rose, William Wendt, Arthur Streeton, the Russian Impressionists – and on and on. For some of these I have books I can study of their paintings, for others I use the internet or visit museums (Indianapolis has some incredible paintings on display).

What are your favorite or most helpful art books? If you were stranded on an island and had a couple books with you (as well as decades worth of art supplies – hey we might as well enjoy our stay on the island), what two books would they be?

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