What are the best watercolor books to learn watercolor painting from is a question I often get asked. The answer depends to a certain extent on what what level you’re at and where you want to go. All I can say for certain is, that these are some of my personal favourites. Some are full of solid information, some are purely for inspiration but they’re all superb books that I’m certain you will get plenty from.
Originally published in 1989. Big Brush Watercolor is the book that inspired me to take up watercolor painting again after a 30 year hiatus. I’d never heard of Ron Ranson, until I discovered this volume while browsing the art books on the shelf of a used book store a few years ago. Flicking through the pages, I was amazed at how much he could achieve with just three brushes and a minimal palette. I was instantly inspired to buy the book and give it a go.
In Big Brush Watercolor, Ron focuses on the use of the Japanese Hake brush, as the ideal brush to free yourself from slavish photo realism and create bold impressionistic, loose paintings. Ron Ranson’s humorous, persona and playful approach instils confidence in the reader and demystifies the subject beautifully.
Ron has a wealth of advice for the beginner watercolor artist. Even if you are more advanced and are looking to get out of a rut and loosen up, there’s a lot of inspiring work to pore over here.
For someone like me who was long out of spring chicken territory and thinking about learning a brand new skill. I also found it particularly heartening to learn that Ron didn’t even take up painting until his early fifties.
Watercolor Fast & Loose was written before Big Brush Watercolor and is a really useful companion book to have alongside it. He covers a lot of useful topics such as composition, skies, figures, buildings, how to use photography effectively and guides the reader through several interesting demo paintings.
This is a book that I recently bought though I’ve admired Nita Engle’s work for some time now. She produces wonderful paintings, full of drama and stunning light effects.
Whenever I look at her work though, it’s never immediately obvious how she created it. It turns out that a major part of her ethos is that brushstrokes should be invisible. She certainly succeeds for the most part, as her paintings don’t give away their secrets easily. Luckily for us, this inspiring book solves these mysteries in ways that will amaze and surprise you. This book will make you think about painting watercolors in a completely different way.
How To Make A Watercolor Paint Itself, is a must have book for any artist wanting to push the boundaries of the medium.
If you’re not aware of Joseph Zbukvic, he is a modern day master of watercolor painting. His stunning detailed paintings are fresh and full of light. Incredible examples of the capabilities of the medium. This book introduces the concept of the “Watercolor Clock” as a way of explaining in more detail how he creates his beautiful works.
Now the downside. This is clearly quite a rare and sought after book, as it’s currently selling used on Amazon for a ridiculous amount of money. I was lucky enough to find a copy for much less in a used book store a while ago, so it is possible to get lucky. But the good news is that there is a DVD with the same title for much less than the book. I confess that I don’t own it but it does get good reviews. So I would suggest grabbing that as an alternative.
If you only get one book on this list this is probably the one I would recommend. There’s so much essential information in here, that it rewards re-reading over and over again as your journey progresses. Even advanced painters can get a lot out of this book.
Tony Couch is clearly a master draughtsman as well as being a superb watercolor painter proving once more that great drawing is the foundation for great painting.
Learning to use the medium of watercolor is only one of the skills you need to produce great paintings. The others are drawing and design. This book masterfully breaks down into simple “Keys” the the elements you need to incorporate into your paintings.
Hazel Soan’s paintings epitomise everything I love about watercolor. They are loose vibrant and colorful, She’s also a great teacher. All of her books are worth getting but my personal favorites are the two below.
I’m a big fan of Jean Haines’ loose style of painting. Having the confidence to really let go and trust the medium is something that I aspire to but rarely attain. This book if full of great advice and beautiful inspiration paintings.
Faeries was first published in 1979 and is now considered a true classic.
It’s possible that you may be much more familiar with Alan Lee and Brian Froud than you realised. They are English fantasy illustrators who both later moved on to produce the concept art for the Lord of The Rings and Labyrinth movies respectively. Apart from dozens of incredible drawings and watercolor paintings, Faeries is a highly entertaining and informative read about the legends and folklore of the British Isles.
Faeries is not actually an instructional book in the sense that my previous choices were but I’ve included it because there is just so much in it to inspire and aspire to. This is a wonderful book which I still regularly look at and marvel over.
The “Splash” series of annuals aims to present the best of contemporary watercolor painting. Again I’ve included these for their inspirational appeal rather than for their instructional value.
I like to stress the importance of drawing skills when it comes to painting and these last two books are two of the best drawing books that you can buy.
John Duffield Harding was a 19th century artist and drawing companion of John Ruskin, the famous art critic and philosopher. On Drawing Trees And Nature is a must have for anyone remotely interested in representational landscape art.
It’s not for the faint of heart though. It’s a work that’s very much of it’s time. Written in a dense dated style that couldn’t be further from the “Tricks and tips” style of the modern instructional book. I promise though, perseverence will reap rewards if you stick with it.
Even if you’re not a fan of archaic wordy treatises. You should just get it anyway. Get it purely for the experience of having your jaw drop at seeing a level of draughtsmanship that’s rarely, if ever attained these days.
When I worked in the animation industry Andrew Loomis’ books were all considered to required reading to take your drawing the the next level. Indeed, all of Andrew Loomis’ books are great but this one is a good all round book on how to draw.
It was originally published in 1951 and was out of print for many years but as one reviewer said “Although the style is retro, the information isn’t dated”.