Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Which are the best art books about watercolour painting?

If you're a watercolour artist - or aspire to become one - then this post is just for you! It focuses on art instruction books which cover watercolour with a view to identifying which are the best.

When I took up art again - after many moons learning how to do other things - I wanted to develop my skills as a watercolour artist. I loved watercolours and wanted to be able to be able to reproduce the same results - ideally looking like Turner!

As a result, I went on workshops with watercolour artists and bought a lot of books. A lot of books. In fact my bookshelves are weighed down with books about watercolour.

One of my favourites - The Art of Watercolor by Charles Le Clair

Despite the fact that I susbsequently decided that I love drawing best and opted to develop most of my art in dry media I still remember which books influenced me the most and which ones I thought were the best.

I'm also thinking about working more in mixed media and incorporating watercolour into my work and am back reviewing my watercolour books again.

As ever when I'm doing research I always think about how best to make this accessible to other people - and then I create a website of resource links!

Working out which are the best books about watercolour painting

As ever I'm a huge believer in the wisdom of crowds. I've developed a couple of listings of books previously based on book reviews and input from art bloggers and people who read this blog. You can see them here:
Plus I like the way that people who are interested in a topic can identify which are the really popular 'forever' art books even if these are not featured by the publishers

Here's what I'm aiming to do - with your help:
  • develop a listing of 'The Best Books' of instruction in watercolour painting
  • develop a listing of 'The Best Books' about watercolour artists - past and present
FIRST (and what this post is about) I'm going to start with a couple of posts inviting suggestions. From these suggestions I'm then going to run a Making A Mark Poll and let people decide the overall order of the books listed in terms of popularity

Now 'popular' is not always the same as 'best', so in order to construct a listing of the top books (top 10 or top 20?) I'm going take the results of recommendations, reviews and the vote on popularity and from that construct the list of the best book and incorporate that into an information site.

The best watercolour art instruction books

This is how I'd like to 'surface' YOUR RECOMMENDATIONS to create a list for a Making A Mark Poll next month. It looks a bit complicated but it's actually quite simple.
  1. YOU IDENTIFY your own personal top watercolour art instruction books - the ones you'd be happy to recommend to other people. (Identify as many or as few as you like; come back later with more recommendations if you like)
  2. YOU RANK each of the books in order of preference. Identify which is your personal #1 etc, then #2 etc
  3. YOU SCORE each book out of 10 - consistent with your rankings (eg #1 = 9 points; #2 = 8 points)
  4. YOU COMMENT on this blog with your recommendations and points awarded
  5. YOU WRITE (optional) about what you've concluded on your blog - explaining in more detail the reasons behind your scoring and why each book is good
  6. YOU LEAVE A LINK asa comment on this blog post if you've written a review of the books you recommend (this might be an old review which is still relevant today)
What happens then is I will:
  • construct a spreadsheet to record the book and the points awarded and work out which ones make it into the top 10.
  • use your comments to highlight the reasons why the top books are recommended
  • try and work out which are the most popular authors in terms of number of mentions
  • work out which books to include in the Making A Mark opinion poll for April
Later on, I'll repeat this exercise again for books about watercolour artists.

So over to you - tell me which are the best books about watercolour painting - and why.

[Note: This blog post is going to be up all week as I am now going to go and submerge myself in local government strategies, policies and planning documents relating to where I live - we've got Hearings coming up in April and my submission needs to be in next Monday!]


  1. Color in Sketching and Rendering.

    Arthur L. Guptill
    rheinhold, 1935 (and later editions)

    An incredibly rich source of information on color, composition, and everything else you need to know. A lot about architectural rendering, stunningly beautiful examples. About watercolor but applicable to any medium. No tricks or gimmicks. Hard to find, though it does come up in used book searches.

    I grew up with this book as my dad had it in his library. Recently found a copy of it and was so pleased to find that this early primer has not lost its value as a technical and inspirational source.

  2. Wonderful! An old one to start us off - I'm so pleased about that.

    I do want to emphasise this is about all books - whether or not they are currently in print.

  3. My favorite wc book? Really? I have to pick just one? I'm not sure that's possible. When I look at my shelf of watercolor books, I feel the same way I do at a gelato shop on a hot day. Who can decide?

    I think the "best" wc books will depend on the style of watercolor painting you find most appealing as a painter; loose, juicy and expressive, vs tighter and more deliberate & illustrative, etc.

    For loose painting, I love these:

    Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting
    Edgar A. Whitney, published by Dover

    Light in Watercolor, and Travels with Watercolor both by Lucy Willis, published by Harper Collins (US) and BT Batsford (UK)

    Charles Reid's Watercolor Secrets, published by Northlight Books.

    For lessons in color mixing, I love:

    Making Color Sing by Jeanne Dobie, published by Watson Guptill.

    The Watercolor Painter's Pocket Palette - Instant, practical visual guidance on mixing and matching watercolors to suit all subjects, by Moira Clinch, published by Northlight Books.

    Another good general instructional book is Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Watercolor, published by Watson Guptill, Edited by Marian Appellof.

    For some excellent and very comprehensive analysis of Winslow Homer's process and techniques as they evolved over the years, I highly recommend Watercolors by Winslow Homer; the Color of Light, written by Tedeschi/Dahm and published by the Art Institute of Chicago.

    For more illustrative and controlled wc, I love:

    Light and Mood in Watercolor by Davis Curtis, published by Batsford Press (UK).

    Painting the Things you Love in Watercolor, by Adele Earnshaw, published by Northlight Books.

    Breaking the Rules of Watercolor by Burt Silverman, published by Watson Guptill.

    If I go on and on about why I love each of these, we'll be here for days. I'll spare you, and just say that most - if not all - are available online - many of them used, and they are each wonderful - if you like the style they are teaching. I'm a firm believer that a curious & ever evolving artist would do well to have a comprehensive & varied library for reference and inspiration. :)

  4. No - you definitely do NOT have to pick just one.

    Ranking is good though! :)

    If I had to take them off you one by one and left you with just three which would you hang on to at all costs?

  5. Well, that would be tough... only three, eh? Well, I should clarify that the 3 would not be for their instructional elements, as much as for the variety in what they inspire creatively:

    Watercolors by Winslow Homer
    Breaking the Rules of WC by Burt Silverman
    Light & Mood in WC by David Curtis

    And just so you know, picking three was painful. I might need a bandaid.

  6. Nothing worth doing comes easily!

    Interesting choices....this is going to be fun! :)

  7. I've started to incorporate recommendations with links back to the author's blog into a new information site The Best Books About Watercolour Painting. This is so it doesn't make it too big a job later on......

  8. I've also organised the books on the information site into categories - which of itself reveals some interesting aspects....

  9. My favourite watercolour books, in order of preference, with scores in brackets after each:
    1. Watercolor Bold & Free by Lawrence C. Goldsmith, Watson Guptill Publications/New York, 1979 (9)
    2. Master Class in Watermedia by Edward Betts, Watson-Guptill Publications/ New York, 1993 (8+)
    3. The New Spirit of Watercolor by Mike Ward, North Light/ Cincinnati, 1989 (8)
    4. Mastering Color and Design in Watercolor by Christopher Schink, Watson-Guptill/New York, 1981 (7+)
    5. You Can Paint Vibrant Watercolors by Dan Burt, North Light/Cincinnati, 1999 (7)

    I assigned scores on the basis of two criteria, Ideas and Explanations. My first and second favourites of the five books I listed got most of their points for great ideas. The rest had strong methodology and technical explanations. (Relative to the others, #5 is something of a one-trick pony, in that it deals mainly with the mixing (or not) of clean colour combinations -- but explains the many aspects of this wonderfully well.

  10. This could get danerously expensive - you've just listed five books I don't have!

    Interesting - look at those dates!

    I'm more and more convinced that older books provide better content. It's not as if watercolour painting hasn't been around for a long time so I guess it might be difficult to keep on coming up with a new perspective

    However why don't they just keep the older books in print?

  11. Top of the list, because it is the best guide to the mysteries of wet-in-wet watercolour, would be:

    Wet-on-wet Watercolour Painting
    Ewa Karpinska
    New Holland, 2005

    Originally written in French, translated to English, this book tells you everything you need to know about the wet-in-wet technique. There are full colour photographs throughout, initially focusing on the absolute basics of the water cycle and how to recognise what stage your surface is at in the cycle; and on paint consistency, what each consistency will do at each stage of the water cycle. This in itself was a revelation to me, but the book goes further still with amazing demonstrations.


    My second and third choices are more inspirational than technical, they don't have any of the basics on paper, paints and brushes, definitely aimed at the experienced watercolour painter.

    Vibrant Watercolours
    Shirley Trevena
    Collins, 2006


    ThTaking Risks with Watercolour
    Shirley Trevena
    Collins, 2004

    These are books I return to whenever I need inspiration and new ideas.

  12. Many thanks Ruth - I know Shirley has her devotees but I hadn't heard about Ewe Karpinska before.

    You might want to take a look at Lawrence Goldsmith's book.

  13. You should definitely check out the Ewa Karpinska, it's an amazing book! I'll look at the Lawrence Goldsmith, it's one I hadn't come across before, thanks Katherine!

  14. Hello Katherine,
    here is my list:
    1. John Pike: "Watercolor".
    If I should go to an deserted island, I would bring this book with me. It contains everything one should know about watercolors - and although it is relatively old, it is still a treasure and one of my most beloved art books.

    2. "Aquarellmalerei" by Bernhard Vogel/ISBN: 3766712721
    This is an exceptional attempt to painting watercolor. Loose and slightly abstract, his style is absolutely fascinating. See his homepage at: http://www.bernhard-vogel.at/de/werk/

    3."Travels with Watercolour" by Lucy Willis and
    4."Light in Watercolor", also by Lucy Willis
    This is one of the watercolor artists I admire deeply. It is not only her painting style, but her choice of motifs I like so very much. Absolutely recommendable!

    5. "Taking risks with watercolour"
    by Shirley Trevena is a completely new and fresh attempt to painting watercolours and using crayons, pencils and other supplies, too. I l o v e her use of colours.

    6. "Vibrant watercolours" by Shirley Trevena.

    7. "Flower painting" by Paul Riley: an excellent book about watercolour painting in general, although the motifs are mainly flowers.

    8. Charles Reid's watercolor books:
    "Watercolor Secrets" and "Painting Flowers in Watercolor"

    9. Richard Taylor: "The watercolourist's Year"

    10. Roland Roycraft: "Fill your watercolors with Light and Color"

    Although I still have another bunch of watercolor books, these are my favourite ones.

    Best regards from Germany,


  15. When you said that you wanted suggestions on the best book of teaching watercolour, I knew instantly what I would suggest.Then I opened the email and saw that you had already chosen it.Most of the many watercolour books on the market are essentially about how to paint like the individual that has written their book and do not really touch what art is about.
    Charles Le Clair presents watercolour as not only one technique but uses many methods comparing the work of famous artists represented by museums-historical and contemporary.
    Content and alternative ways of producing art are dealt with in genre and contemporary art movements
    I read somewhere that the book came about as part of his teaching watercolour at a university.The illustrations are inspiring and beautiful representations of watercolour as an art form.It is a superior text to anything else I have seen

  16. One or two I'd like to add...:

    *Loosen up your watercolours – Judi Whitton

    *Watercolor simple fast and focused – Mel Stabin

    *Aquarelle l’eau creatrice – Jean-Louis Morelle

    *Du croquis a la peinture(From sketch to painting) – Wendy Jelbert

    Thanks K!

  17. Watercolour Painting pure and simple
    Joe Francis Dowden
    2003 Search Press

    I know I'm late to this survey but hopefully better late than never. I recommend this book because it has a very thorough approach to Techniques well illustrated.

    As you know I'm a big fan of both Shirley Trevena's book too.

    Personally I find I get more out of DVDs these days and my favourites are by
    Austalian artist John Lovett

  18. 1) Billy Showell's Botanical Painting in Watercolour (2016) (10)
    2) Watercolour Flower Portraits by Billy Showell (10)
    3) Watercolour fruit and vegetable portraits Billy Showell (10)
    4) How to Paint like Turner (7)
    5) Watercolour Depth and Realism by Laurie Humble (8)

    I apologize if I am 6 years late... I just saw this blog recently. Hopefully you can add new books in the list


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