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Watercolor Painting Books by Charles Reid

May 11, 2009

I love Charles Reid's watercolor paintings. I love the looseness of his approach, which still reads representationally. I love his use of vibrant color. I enjoy how he works out his compositions with thoughtful spontaneity.

Recently I purchased Charles Reid's latest watercolor "instruction" book: Watercolor Solutions: Learn to Solve the Most Common Painting Problems. I thought that I would write a review of the book. I know people are always on the look out for a good book on watercolor techniques. I have to admit that I bought this book unseen because I love his work. This is another reason I've decided that I'm going to rank the books I have of his and tell you why I like them and let you decide if any of this matters and if you need the newest book. If you don't already have any of his books I don't think this is the one you need to get—what follows are reasons why.

But before I review the books, if you are a fan of Charles Reid the first thing you should do is get the CD called Charles Reid's Watercolor Secrets. (There is also a book by the same name, see below.) You don't need a book to view this CD, you don't need to read any of his other books. I borrowed a copy and found it riveting to watch him paint and compose and think and talk about his painting, both live models and landscapes (I think there might have been a still life too, but I watched the other demos twice). Watch this video before you read one of these books, then watch it again. In that way you will really understand what he is saying about what he does with his washes and his brush.

In order of preference, here's the way I rate the books of his I have read (and if he has books beyond these I haven't seen then, so write and let me know):

Painting What You Want to See
This is the most thorough of his books. It contains 46 lessons and assignments in watercolor and oil. The examples cram the pages in the best of ways. His text is clear and pushes you to think through the issues he is explaining and setting up. Many of the paintings used as examples are reproduced at a LARGE size so that you can really see the detail and get the most from the discussion and instruction. I rank this as one of my must-always-have-a-copy-of-art-instruction-books. I love it. You need it if you don't have it and like a looser approach, want to get a looser approach, or simply want to have some useful exercises in watercolor or oil; and some looks at color theory on the way (though Reid's approach to color theory is Value Matters—and fans love him for that; if you want straight color theory you need to try Jeanne Dobie, Stephen Quiller, etc.).

The Natural Way to Paint: Rendering the Figure in Watercolor Simply and Beautifully
If you draw the human figure or draw portraits and want to focus on developing a painterly, loose style, whether you want to emulate Reid's style or not, this is a great book. Reid begins with a discussion of his approach to contour drawing, contour drawing with pen and wash, gesture drawing, holding your brush, mixing your paint—in short, everything you need to get going in this direction with watercolor. AND it is well written, clear if concise, but complete. You can follow these instructions without stopping to scratch your head. He moves on to working with life drawing models and composition. Again the examples are reproduced at a fair and useful size. It's a well-rounded book.

Painting Flowers in Watercolor
This book has much the same introductory material that The Natural Way to Paint has, as far as discussion of palettes and brush handling. Why get this book then? Well there are some cool differences, especially if you don't draw the figure but do draw still life set ups: he has some great step-by-step painting tutorials which  show you how he puts in his washes and that distinctive interplay with cast shadows. I really think because of this and the "fussy" nature due to the inclusion of many objects that happens in still life paintings, this book is worth the expenditure even if you have The Natural Way.

Charles Reid's Watercolor Secrets
I was disappointed in the text of this book. The descriptions at times were too vague for me. If the book, as its subtitle claims, is a look at discoveries from a lifetime of painting, then I would like to see a little more analysis. That said, for people who love Reid's work and just want to see more of it I think this is an excellent book. The images are reproduced at a good size for looking at details. Also, the book gives a delightful overview of his passion for painting. You can see how his style has developed as you leaf through the book. It's got a lot of sketchbook images, all of which have a great freshness to them. There are also some step-by-step looks. These are helpful and welcome, but sadly here the image reproduction is rather small and disapointing. I want to be able to see the washes and how they blended much more clearly. So I give this book a mixed review. CR fans must have it, just 'cause. First time CR readers could start with another book, and just borrow this from the library.

Charles Reid's Watercolor Solutions
First off, I have to say I delayed getting this book for several months because I thought, from the title, it was the previous book. I couldn't find my copy of Watercolor Secrets and so I couldn't check. Now that I have the book I will tell you that I like that he introduces his drawing and composition ideas, and talks about his palette choices. That's all great. It's just not as great as he does it in his other books (particularly the Natural Way and Painting Flowers books). The discussions are very abreviated. I also found that in reading the captions and looking at the images I often found myself confused. This isn't good. I've read his books, I've looked at his work, if I'm confused then there's a good chance someone picking this book up as a first look at his work will be even more confused. Next, I found that the examples were reproduced in too small a size. The portraits of famous painters is a case in point. Eight images grace the bottom half of the page, cramped together, no more than thumbnails. We can see that they are painted with glorious colors, with adherance to Reid's value theories. We ache to see them closer. Instead we are pushed through the page spread with what comes off as editorial haste and authorial brevity. This is important stuff that needs to be looked at more closely, yet we are sped past it. If the book's designer had lost some of the decorative bars, bands, and box treatments and instead opened up the page to really feature the art and examples this book could have been immediatly 60 percent better. Next the editor needed to pin the author down on some of his vague and confusing language. One shouldn't have to read a caption 3 times to work out what is being shown in the example. There are also several points of contradiction which a close reader will find, even if you aren't forced by circumstances, as I was, to read the book in one sitting. The effect on new students of Charles Reid will be more confusion instead of clarity. It is all part of the editorial haste, let's cram a lot in this book. Yes it's great to get a lot of examples in a book. But clarity, clear and large reproduction, and thoroughness always beat sheer numbers for me. If you don't have a Charles Reid book I would say this should be your last choice, definitely one you borrow from the library rather than buy, unless you simply have to have as many examples of his paintings as you can find. Then by all means, who am I to dissuade you. My problem is his other books have been so superlative that this book was a let down.

    • Chris
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    I love Charles Reid’s books and I just purchased his video last year. I refer to them all the time. If you can ever locate a copy of Dong Kingman’s book, that is one you will want to own.

  1. Reply

    After reading Stan Fellows’s blog on your recommendation, I recently checked out most of the Charles Reid books available through my library system. Fellows likes Reid’s books too. My favorite Reid book was Painting Flowers in Watercolor, but I have not purchased it yet. I am checking out just about everything that is available in my library system and trying to decided which books I like the best and will be the most beneficial to me. I have had a tendency in the past to buy too many books and not to use them beyond a first reading. I’m going to a watercolor painting class during the first week in June, so I am trying to wait until after my class before I make any purchases so that I can make a more informed decision. This review was very helpful. Thanks!

    Oh, and I ordered The Cuckoo’s Haiku yesterday for Mother’s Day!

    • Donna
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    Oh Roz, you do know how much I love Charles Reid and have been working through his books as of late. However, you failed to mention a CD of his, which I think is FABULOUS and pricey, sad to say. It is “Charles Reid’s 10 Lesson Course” and it is about $100. The filming is excellent and he explains what he is doing and why. Everything from colors, palette choices, brushes, brush strokes, water to paint ratios, contour drawing and of course watching him paint the most beautiful still life and seeing how his mind works–just great. Here is a link to a preview of this video. Watch and judge for yourself. BTW, I agree wholeheartedly with your book choices.

    http://it.truveo.com/Watercolor-with-the-Master-Charles-Reid’s-10/id/4166366593

    • Donna
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    Roz, please ask Chris, if you can, which Dong Kingman book he is referring to. Thanks.

    • Roz
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    Katy, I’m glad you found this useful. I definitely fall into the category of one who buys a lot of books, books of all types and description. I think getting them first from the library to see if you actually like what’s in them is a great idea. Looking at a book to see if it something you’ll use again and again, refer back to, is definitely a solid criteria for making a purchase. Reid has authored some really good books; the early ones have much that would be useful to people even if they are uninterested in painting in his style (which I’m not).

    My favorite art instruction books all happen to be “old.” I look at Ruskin’s The Elements of Drawing, over and over, and I look into Speed’s The Practice and Science of Drawing, a lot as well. Stephen Quiller’s books on Color Theory are also on my frequently referred to shelf. I love his paintings but I also like to remind myself that there are colors besides Burnt Sienna and PB60!!! He’s great for making me push myself that way.

    All the great art instruction books are—pushing you to find something that works for you whether or not the end result looks like what the artist/author does. It’s the communication of a concept, applicable over media, message, and mind that appeals to me.

    Reid has certainly done this in his earlier books and I’m glad I have those.

    Good luck with your thoughtful purchases!

    • Roz
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    Donna, I didn’t know about this 10 session video your mention. Thank you for providing the link. I love his CD called Watercolor Secrets (which is around $30 if I remember correctly and much shorter), and can only imagine the fun magnified by many times! Thanks for the heads up!

    • Donna
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    Oh Roz, one more book by CR

    Painting by Design: Getting to the Essence of Good Picture-Making
    (Master Class)

    I went and looked at this at the library and then ordered myself a copy. He really goes into Contour drawing more than any of the other books and paints almost every subject matter in this one. A must have for CR students, IMHO.

    • bill burrell
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    Reid is one of my favorites. I have several of his books. I donated them to the library after I had read them thoroughly, and just checked them out again. Was going to buy another copy of “Painting what you want to see.” out of print and $130. Hmmmm. Guess I’ll have to keep an eye out at the used books store. He is one of the “magic” watercolorists. Watching him paint,(video) the image seems to magically appear from the end of his brush. I know it is hard work, but he sure makes it look easy. Beautiful.
    bill b.

    • Christine F
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    The book is Dong KIngman Watercolors from Watson Guptill. I believe it is out of print so look at Powells or try Alibris.
    His son or daughter (can’t remember which) is collaborating on a new film about his life…..

    • Christine F
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    Oh that 10 lesson video looks great. I just went to see which Reid books I have. I have one you haven’t mentioned called
    Pulling Your Paintings Together

    • Roz
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    Donna, thanks so much for this title and recommendation. I suppose I should get the full set huh!!

    I will look into this.
    I appreciate it.

    • Roz
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    You’re so right Bill, Reid does make it look easy. It’s great though that his text always reminds us it takes work, work, work, hey, I wonder if he has been talking with Gladwell?

    • Roz
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    My gosh Christine, there’s more!!! How do you like the pulling your painting together book? What’s it cover?

    • Chris
    • May 11, 2009
    Reply

    OK Keeping in mind Roz’s criteria……I love this book
    Pulling Your Paintings together. First he has pages and pages about contour drawing, lost and found edges and how to work a drawing from one edge of the paper to the other. Then he has a section where he picks some of his own work to illustrate these points.
    He then goes into gesture drawing and various other topics. There is a section on oils (which I don’t do) he also talks about starting sketches on location and finishing in the studio. Granted these are not step by step lessons. And he doesn’t give you samples from his palette as he does in one of the other books. He does have brief dialogue by each illustration which give you some of his thought process. I find this book to be very useful.
    I priced a workshop he gave somewhere last summer. With the workshop, the plane, the hotel, etc. it was $$$$. I can dream….

  2. Reply

    Thanks for the reviews! Our library has “Painting By Design: Master Class” (1991). I’ve checked it out so many times, I really need to buy. It’s an excellent book.

    • Donna
    • May 13, 2009
    Reply

    I also just got the Pulling your Paintings Together–yes, it is also a must have for CR students. Thanks Chris and thanks Roz for starting this subject.

  3. Reply

    Roz – I’ve got all his books and have enjoyed everyone of them. The videos are pretty good too. 🙂

    He’s the man who taught me about BIG shapes and going for the big blur which are still basic principles which I continue to try and employ even though I no longer work in watercolour. (Not that I always succeed you understand!)

    I’ve got to get round to reviewing these books myself at some point and when I do I’ll be linking back to this post – in fact the URL is going in a draft post right now!

    • Roz
    • August 12, 2009
    Reply

    Katherine, I’ve only see one video of his, the book about watercolor problems or secrets? It had a DVD that a friend lent me. I LOVED IT! It was great fun to watch him sketch and then paint his nudes, and then he did landscape, still life and a building too. A great way to have his books come to life. I think people should definitely check them out!

    Big shapes is something I try to remember—I tend to get too fussy.

    • Mike
    • October 5, 2012
    Reply

    I’m also a huge fan of Charles Reid’s books. Do you know if he is going to write any new ones?

    • Miriam Dougenis
    • August 8, 2013
    Reply

    He never mentions what paper he uses. Would appreciate some information. thanks

    • Miriam Dougenis
    • August 8, 2013
    Reply

    Please answer question as to what paper Mr. Reid uses. He never mentions it and I never see it in his books. Thank you.

  4. Reply

    I don’t have any of his books handy so I can’t check for you. I seem to recall he mentioned a paper, but that’s a vague recollection. I may have remembered him saying something in one of his videos. If you have a library near you you might want to see if you can check out the Watercolor Secrets book and companion CD because that’s the last one I’ve seen. (I borrowed it and we showed it at a Collective meeting.) I think he might have mentioned the paper he used. I thought he used Arches Cold Press. But I really can’t give you a definitive answer because I’m not him.

    Have you tried to write to him via his website?

    Sorry I can’t help you.

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