Long years ago, I used to harbor dreams of being a Real Artist someday. My aspirations ran nerdy; I wanted to be a manga-ka or a video game concept artist. After I tried art school, though, I realized it wasn't for me. More power to all the visual artists out there, and maybe my experience isn't the norm, but the hostile, overly-competitive, backbiting nature of my art studios made me want to crawl in a hole and die.
Today, my art is limited to wild-haired sketches and adult coloring books. But even if being an artist didn't pan out, that doesn't mean I can't still read like one. I love art books, and I think it's a shame that more creative types don't interact with each other. I've talked to (seriously misguided) artists before who swore to me that books couldn't possibly have anything valuable to say about art, presumably because words and pictures are two completely different things. While I certainly agree that there is a wide chasm between the innately talented and the merely educated — in any field! — the idea that artists have nothing to learn from reading is pretty ridiculous.
This is to say that, if you're not a visual artist — if you're an actor, a writer, or even an accountant — I still highly recommend you read the books on this list. Here are 20 of the best books for artists to own.
'Show Your Work!' by Austin Kleon
I first read Show Your Work! shortly after I started writing freelance, and, holy crap, did it change my outlook on things. Austin Kleon demolishes the idea that artists — of any kind — should remain locked up in their ateliers until they finish a project. Instead, Kleon says, you should share a little bit of your work everyday to generate interest and feedback.
'The Creative Habit' by Twyla Tharp
In The Creative Habit, choreographer Twyla Tharp provides strategies for maximizing your creative productivity. That the author is so well-respected in the dance world will come as no surprise to anyone who has read this book. Tharp’s recommendations are an elusive breed of common sense, brought to light by her wise prose.
'Creative Confidence' by Tom and David Kelley
'Catching the Big Fish' by David Lynch
From one of Hollywood’s most fantastic minds comes this fantastic metaphor for bottling and executing creative ideas. In Catching the Big Fish, David Lynch describes his process of hunting down an idea — or a fish, if you will — and developing it for the screen. As Lynch is quick to note, you don’t have to be a filmmaker to benefit from his method: just a person looking for an idea.
'Steal Like an Artist' by Austin Kleon
Every artist wants to be revolutionary, or at least original. This desire often conflicts with the eventual realization that there is nothing new under the sun. In Steal Like an Artist, Austin Kleon challenges artists to embrace their inspirations and celebrate them by emulating them.
'Imaginative Realism' by James Gurney
For anyone who wants to draw, paint, or sculpt from the mind, James Gurney’s Imaginative Realism is an invaluable book. The author provides strategies for creating new worlds and their inhabitants, as well as the history of imaginative art, stretching back to the Renaissance. If you’ve been dismayed by traditional art books, give Imaginative Realism a shot at impressing you.
'The Brilliant History of Color in Art' by Victoria Finlay
Victoria Finlay’s The Brilliant History of Color in Art is part microhistory, part color theory. It’s an exploration of how and why colors came to be identified and used in art, and how humans react to seeing those colors. If you’re looking for a new take on color theory, or just an interesting and pretty read, The Brilliant History of Color in Art is the book you want.
'Banksy in New York' by Ray Mock
'Draw Paint Print Like the Great Artists' by Marion Deuchars
Though it’s often marketed toward juvenile artists, Marion Deuchars’ Draw Paint Print Like the Great Artists is an excellent choice for anyone who wants to dabble in new art techniques and rituals. Providing readers with facts about artists’ lives and projects based on their methods, Draw Paint Print is sure to entertain anyone who picks it up.
'Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creating Imaginative Fiction' by Jeff VanderMeer
I really can’t praise this book enough. Although Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide to Creative Imaginative Fiction is tailored to inspire writers, anyone can find valuable takeaways hidden in its glossy pages.
'Color and Light' by James Gurney
If you’ve ever wondered about the mechanics of art’s most basic elements, James Gurney’s Color and Light is the book you’ve been looking for. Gurney examines how light and color operate under differing conditions, how they work together, and more — questions that’ll open your mind to the way you see art.
'Creative Block' by Danielle Krysa
How do you handle artist’s block? In Creative Block, Danielle Krysa has collected the strategies of 50 artists for overcoming these doldrums, as well as images of the work they produced after employing them. With dozens of interviews and beautiful illustrations, Creative Block is certain to bust yours.
'A Separate Cinema: The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art' by John Duke Kisch
From Josephine Baker to Spike Lee, John Duke Kirsch’s A Separate Cinema: The First 100 Years of Black Poster Art chronicles the changing look of black film advertisements over the course of the 20th century. Part film history, part critical race theory, A Separate Cinema is not to be missed.
'Illuminations: Essays and Reflections' by Walter Benjamin
Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations: Essays and Reflections isn’t your average art book. It’s actually critical Marxist theory with an application so broad that it’s taught today in a variety of disciplines, from art to theater to film to literature. Benjamin’s thoughts on the nature of art as a commodity, as given in his essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” will change how every artist thinks about her craft.
'Art History' by Marilyn Stokstad and Michael Cothren
In any field, there’s almost always something to be said for learning your history. Marilyn Stokstad and Michael Cothren’s Art History is a beautiful, comprehensive look at the subject, covering major art movements in all corners of the globe. The contributing writers explore the sociopolitical events that shaped these places, movements, and philosophies with engaging prose, making Art History an entertaining and informative read.
'Figure Drawing for All It's Worth' by Andrew Loomis
More than five decades after his death, the man behind iconic Coca-Cola and Kellogg’s advertising illustrations, Andrew Loomis, is a benevolent god of the art world. First published in the 1930s, Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth is now available for a new generation of artists to use and appreciate, thanks to Titan’s 2011 reissuing. It’s one of the most comprehensive instructional art books ever written, and I’d be remiss to not include it here.
'Flow' by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
You know that feeling, when you’re working and enjoying it and don’t ever want to stop? Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has a name for it: Flow. Flow is the so-called “optimal experience” of anything, including work, entertainment, and life in general. By harnessing it, Csikszentmihalyi asserts, one can maintain a sense of positivity in almost any circumstance. For artists, who fall on hard times more often than most, knowing how to generate contentment is essential.
'Art & Fear' by David Bayles and Ted Orland
Knowing what the creative process looks like for artistic geniuses is valuable, but knowing what the art-making process looks like for ordinary people is important, too. Why? Because how else will you know if your doubts, fears, and hangups are normal? Art & Fear is a guide book, not a how-to manual, and its biggest lesson is this: don’t be afraid to fail; be afraid to let fear keep you from working.
'ART/WORK' by Heather Darcy Bhandari and Jonathan Melber
Making art and making a living off that art are two entirely different things. ART/WORK is there for you when you’re ready to take that leap. Even if you haven’t made the decision to become an Actual Artist yet, you need this book in your arsenal. Written by a gallery owner and an art lawyer, ART/WORK will teach you how to manage and market yourself without losing money or the rights to your work — indispensable know-how in today’s cutthroat art world.