Monday, May 13, 2013

Which are the best books about Portraiture?

This is a post for all portrait artists and those who aspire to become one.

The idea is to crowdsource a perspective on which are the best art instruction books which cover portraiture:
  • drawing and/or painting portraits 
  • and/or portrait artists 
  • and/or portraiture in general
In recent years round about this time I ask you about your views on your best art books
I decided the next crowd sourcing enquiry one should be about drawing and painting people - and portraiture.  However ran into one or two problems.....

I personally arrived at portraiture via drawing people with no clothes on! I got back into art via a life class at Central St. Martins School of Art.  A lot of the first art books I bought were about drawing people - here's part of my portraiture (art instruction) shelf - except I look at it and can spot the ones which are missing!

Some of my books about drawing and painting figures and portraits

From there I then later did a class about Drawing the Head at the Princes Drawing School - and you can see my efforts on my website - Drawing A Head and Drawing Artists
The thing is when I first came to tackle the topic of portraiture for this Enquiry I got well and truly entangled.

There are just so many sub-topics and so many books!  So I started trying to sort them out and ended up creating two websites (which I've almost finished)

The first one I decided should be about art instruction relating to:
  • drawing the figure / anatomy for artists
  • drawing key features - the head, face and hands
  • painting portraits (in different media)
My second website is about the history of portraiture and individual portrait artists.  It focuses more on books which show you the artwork produced by individual portrait artists and those who liked drawing figures.

This is my Lucian Freud stash!
Which books about portraiture do you recommend?

In the past I know I've bought books on the basis of ones which other artists have shown to me. I've also bought books which artists have recommended in forums or on their websites or blogs

I'd like for us all to share our own recommendations - both in terms of giving and receiving.

Please share the book or books about drawing and painting people and portraits that you have personally found most stimulating and helpful
  • Personal preference: Which are your personal top three (or five or ten!) books about portraiture and drawing/painting the figure. Ranking is good and reasons for your choice are most helpful
  • Beginners: Which is the best book for somebody starting to learn about how to draw or paint people or portraits - and why?
  • Improvers: Which is the best book for somebody looking to improve their knowledge and/or skills in painting portraits - and why?
  • Advanced: Which is the best book for a more experienced artist looking to refine their work - and why?
If it helps you, try giving them marks out of 10 to indicate how good they are and how you rank them in terms of value.

If you would like to share your views, please TELL ME and the readers of this blog the answers to the following questions about books which have taught you about
  • drawing and/or painting people 
  • and/or helped you to improve your knowledge and skills about painting portraits 
  • and/or individual portrait artists
  • portraiture in general


  1. I'm surprised by the few responses too, especially since this was an easy involvement post.
    I would agree portraits being the most difficult since they are subject to more than a mere figurative depiction.

    Especially true if doing a portrait of family or a well known person. Remember the recent controversial portrait of Kate Middleton?

  2. Oops, I inadvertently misplaced my above comment.
    Was supposed to be previous post.

  3. This is a tough one since I don't consider myself a portrait artist.
    I found myself actually looking forward to what others had to recommend on this subject thus prompting me to take a look at those.

    However I am going to try to get the ball rolling here.

    After all the books on drawing/painting the head, of which there are many great ones, what would the portrait artist need?

    I am going to suggest books relating to the mechanics of the head, specifically 'how it works'.
    The muscles, how they work and how they make facial expressions and maybe the how that relates to psychological aspect of the portrait.
    I would think understanding that would be really important to any portrait artist in the same way the mechanics of the body are important to the figure artist, even if doing 'static' poses.

    The only one I own is
    The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression
    by Gary Faigin

    Another I have seen but do not own is
    Atlas of Facial Expression
    by Stephen Rodgers Peck

    I would give either at least an 8 out of 10.

    Next I would think books offering insight on portrait making, beyond art technique, would be important
    I don't know of any specifically but am sure they are out there.

    So..... c'mon portrait artists... help the rest of us out.

  4. This is a tricky one. I am not one for art instruction books, I prefer either artists monographs or exhibition catalogues. And I cannot say that a particular book has helped me to draw or paint portraits. I am very doubtful there are any books like that, although there are plenty of books on how to draw heads and faces. Painting portraits is like painting anything paint/draw what you see. Shapes, values, tones, edges...all the painting advice applies to portraits as well as figures, still lives etc etc. So the best books for me were the books that other subjects use: Richard Schmid, Linda Cateura. Catalogues like Dutch Portraits (Ekkart), or books on the pre-raphaelites. But then we come to the areae of personal taste and preference and whether your study Freud or Rembrandt is up to you....

  5. I can recommend "Expressive Portraits" by Jean Pederson, published by North Light Books. Not only has this book enabled me to achieve reasonable watercolor portraits it has resulted in an improvement in my portraiture in other mediums. My signature picture is a self portrait painted using Jean's methods.

    My favorite portrait artists are John Singer Sargent and David Hockney.


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