Edgar A. Whitney: Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting

Edgar A. Whitney: Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting


Today I would like to talk about Edgar Whitney’s classic, the Complete Guide to Watercolor Painting. This article has been a long time coming. Honestly I don’t understand why it took me such a long time to produce this write-up. After all, this is one of the essential books that I think everyone serious about watercolor should read. It’s definitely in my top 5 books on painting and possibly top 10 on art. The reason why I decided to sit down and put my thoughts on the book together now is the new series of articles on Design that I’m currently launching on my blog.

Though the book was originally published in 1974 the information contained within is far from dated. It is a mere 40+ years after all. It is true that watercolor paints have undergone an overhaul in the recent years, mainly with the introduction of synthetic dyes, but overall not much has changed. Let me note also that if you’re looking into Edgar Whitney’s book it is not likely that you’re looking for the most recent info on materials and tools. If you are, however, don’t be disappointed and get the book anyway. Edgar Whitney does talk about the tools of the trade but to the extent any experienced artist would, he doesn’t overthink it. Rather he deals with them briefly and moves on to discuss more profound painting issues that are vital to making a good painting.

There’s one more thing I’d like to mention. Many a beginner makes the mistake of looking for books and study materials exclusively from teachers who produce work visually appealing to their personal perception and feeling. Often this robs them of the opportunities gained by studying that which they don’t quite like or understand. Staying in one’s comfort zone can hardly expand one’s horizons. Missing on often more profound knowledge is a result of such behavior. If this is not your case, that’s great. But I know from experience that it indeed is a deterrent if a teacher’s work is done in style that does not appeal to the student. This may cause him to steer clear of exploring his teaching. That being said, this is not necessarily the case with this particular book by Edgar Whitney, rather I felt it important to finally point it out after making a dozen of these book recommendations.

As you can see from the image, I have the new 2001 Dover republication of a 1974 Watson-Guptill edition. This by itself should tell you that the book is indeed worth getting into. Being still published today when the market is flooded with hundreds of subpar books says something. It’s been pointed out to me that there are some differences in the new edition but the bibliographical note says, “No changes have been made except for the addition of a new Preface by Robert E. Conlan.” This suggests that the 1974 and 2001 editions are the same but there were of course a number of other ones throughout the years. Which one is the most “complete” I really cannot say, nor I think it really matters.

As to the contents of the book, the structure is pretty straightforward. The book begins with the aforementioned preface, followed by an introduction by the author which is then followed by 11 chapters:

  1. Tools for Watercolor
  2. The Drills
  3. Painting the Picture
  4. Landscape Painting
  5. Figure and Portrait Painting
  6. Principles of Design
  7. Elements of Design
  8. Drawing
  9. Matting, Framing, and Selling
  10. A Craft Philosophy and Art Today
  11. Color Demonstrations

These are followed by additional chapters: Notes, Conclusion, Epilogue, Bibliography and Index.

The list of contents itself gives you a pretty good idea of how extensive this book is. It really is a complete guide to watercolor painting. It may not be the most extensive discussion of every aspect mentioned but that’s quite all right. Topics of interest should be studied more individually further anyway. There is a Bibliography section at the end of the book, listing a number of excellent resources but I’m afraid precious few of the books can still be obtained, at least online. Perhaps in the U. S. libraries may still have those titles.

I’m not going to go too far in explaining the book content because as I said, in my opinion everyone serious about painting should have a copy. This is not a book that you buy for looking at pretty paintings. This is a reference to be studied thoroughly and repeatedly. The advice should be taken to heart and be implemented into your own painting philosophy, especially if you’ve never given much thought to design. This is one of the very few books that not only discusses design patterns but stresses their importance by stating “Nothing is more important [than design pattern].” And yet nothing is forced upon the reader. You need to actually be very perceptive and open to new inputs because you can easily miss things.

There’s great amount of information contained in the book and the approach is quite straightforward. I like the way the book is written. The sections are short and clear. The language is very enjoyable too. Depending on where you are presently as an artist you may not be able to absorb everything immediately but I am convinced that this book can help anyone sincerely interested in improving make a great leap forward in their efforts.

And that’s pretty much all I wanted to say. Let me know what you think in the comments down below and as always should you have any questions ask away and I’ll be happy to get back to you as soon as possible.

Please note this is an article repost.
Original publish date overwritten.
Comments loaded with incorrect timestamps.


  1. Russell

    Hi Daniel,
    You’ve made one small error, that of the book’s origin. The original text for the current edition (which is a reprint) was originally published in 1958 by Watson-Guptill under the title, “Watercolor – The Hows and Whys.” This is Whitney’s original text and differs significantly from the current edition. When the book was republished the order of the chapters was altered by the publisher. Many of the original illustrations were removed and new ones substituted. Though the actual text did not seem to undergo any alterations, the flow of the original manuscript was lost with the rewrite.
    The original text was written before ISBN numbers, but the Library of Congress Catalog Card number is 58-9992.

    1. Hi Russell,
      thanks for additional information. I don’t have the resources to compare with earlier editions, I am just working with the details provided in this particular one. This is what the bibliographical note found inside my book says: “This Dover edition, published in 2001, is a reprint of the New, Enlarged, edition published originally by Watson-Guptill in 1974. No changes have been made except for the addition of a new Preface by Robert E. Conlan.”

      1. Russell

        Hi Daniel,
        Its unfortunate that Dover didn’t mention the original text. If you check Amazon under “Edgar Whitney”, you would have seen the original 1958 edition, the “first” edition. The “second” edition can be considered the 1974 reprint where the changes to the chapter orientation occurred. Technically, Dover is correct in its description as any time a book is altered it can be considered a new edition. Of course, I happen to have a first edition, first printing of “Hows and Whys” and its a treasured part of my collection, One of three books that I would grab in case of fire here at the house. The other two are “Watercolor Landscape” by my mentor, Rex Brandt, and “Watercolor Workshop” by my other teacher, Robert Wood. These are the only three books I really ever needed.

        1. You are fortunate to have the first edition. I didn’t know the specifics as to how they exactly differ but remembered you mentioning this to me some time back, that’s why I mentioned it. Thanks for completing the information.
          As for Rex Brandt, I have finished his Painter’s Eye and want to write an article on that one too in the near future. It’s a very good book as well. Also the Watercolor Workshop by Robert Wood, though the style is very different. Too bad that there are so very few reprints of these great books.

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