The Best Books on Oil Painting

Posted by Vincent Keeling on

There is no shortage of books on oil painting out there, however, these three, or four including Harold Speed's book on drawing are to my mind must-haves. To begin with perhaps the Daddy of the them all, and the one I've heard recommended by countless highly accomplished artists is "Alla Prima II" by the Richard Schmid. This was a game changer for so many aspiring artists searching out good information, especially before the internet age.

On the positive side this is a physically beautiful book full of lush illustrations of Richard's work. He's also a highly entertaining and engaging writer, with a talent for communicating and a deep love of his subject. He really lives and breathes the life of an artist. He also has distilled what can be at times a confusing and overly complex subject into simplicity itself. 

For all the good, and there is so much, I would add two small caveats. The first is that it's not cheap. Just checked the website I bought it from in the UK (Lavender Hill Colours), and it was £98 for the softcover, and £130 for the hardcover. Another downside for this book, is that its focus is squarely on Alla Prima painting, which given the title should be no surprise. But for those who Don't know the different "Alla Prima" also known as "Direct painting", is all about starting and finishing a painting in one sitting. Thus, the more common approach of Indirect painting, of painting in multiple layers over days and weeks, is not covered here. That being said, all the information is still relevant, vital for and wonderfully told. Thus, this is still my top pick, if money isn't an issue that is.

Oh, by the way, if you're in the States go to Richard Schmid's own website to buy it. Richard sadly, is not with us any more, but I'm sure his wife Nancy, also a great painter, and the team there would appreciate it. 

Now moving on to Harold Speed, who if Richard above is the Daddy, could be perhaps viewed as the Grand Daddy of authors in this world of oil painting instruction. His first book "The Science and Practice of Drawing" was first published in 1917, and "Oil Painting Techniques and Materials" goes back to 1924. It might seem like a strange choice to include the drawing book but they really are of a pair, where the loss of the knowledge in the one would leave only half prepared for your journey.

Even Richard Schmid above has a whole chapter on drawing and doesn't distinguish between drawing in pencil or drawing in paint. It's all about learning to see and learning to make lines and shapes that capture the unique proportions of your subject. And although Speed himself, makes a distinction between "Linear Drawing" and what he calls "Mass Drawing", guess what exercise he offers up when he gets to mass drawing? Nope, not pencil, now crayon not even charcoal but a monochrome oil painting study. Anyway, if in doubt get them both is my advice.

So much I like about these books and it's perhaps time again for me to read them for each time I do, new little nuggets of insight and art wisdom reveal themselves. As for the writing style, at over a hundred years old, it does have that slightly antiquated sound to it, but I frankly love that stuff so for me if anything it adds to charm. Kind of feels like eavesdropping on secret oil painting knowledge from ages past. 

Like with Richard Schmid's book these two classic art books will invariably be on any art school reading list worth its salt; At least the schools, that is, who are interested in teaching the craft and skills of oil painting. 

Oh, and did I mention these are soft back Dover publications so very affordable. The only downside might be the quality of the reproductions. No rich glossy spreads of colourful illustrations like in Richard Schmid's book, I'm afraid; But still useful and timeless in the quality and value of information. 

If we've moved through the Daddy ad Grand-Daddy of art instructional books, then this next one, could be said to be the new new kid on the block; This is Todd M. Casey's "The Art of Still Life", combines  both rich colour illustrations and affordability, and deals with both ALLA PRIMA painting, and Indirect layered oil painting techniques. 

To my mind this is a wonderful book, and I even if Still Life painting is not your goal there is so much good information in here that I think it's a real contender. Also Todd had a very interesting education himself studying under two legendary artists in New York. Max Ginsberg who taught for decades at The Art Student's League and then Jacob Collins famed for his small highly influential Waterstreet Atelier later morphing into The Grand Central Academy of Art In New York. In one camp you had Max who was highly focused on the ALLA PRIMA optical approach of painting like Richard Schmid we discussed earlier, whereas Jacob was coming from a much more conceptual approach, and one that focused on a much slower method of long poses and complex layering of oil paint.  Thus, what Todd brings into this book, is wealth of diverse knowledge that I haven't seen in other books. It's a really comprehensive book, which would be a no brainer for a Still Life fan, and still highy valuable to any oil painter out there, professional or amateur alike. 

Oh, and by the way, it has no only countless examples of Todd Casey's own beautiful paintings here, with lots of precedural step-by-step info, but also countless beautiful colour reproductions of other contemporary and historical masters of The Art of Still Life. Very nicely put together, and this man knows his stuff!

One final note to say that there are many other honourable mentions out there, and I probably will follow this up with another round of recommendations. Amongst these would surely be.

- Traditional Oil Painting by Virgil Elliot
- Classical Painting Atelier by Juliette Aristides (Anything by Juliette invariably very good.)
- The Practice of Oil Painting and Drawing by Solomon J. Soloman
- Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis has some very useful chapters in it.


Thanks for reading as ever and don't forget you can sign up to receive an email as my blog posts are released with more of this art nerdy stuff for oil painters. 



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