12 Books That Have Shaped Me As An Artist
"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."- Isaac Newton
I had this misconception for years, even though I’ve been an artist for a while, that Professional Artists just paint from this place of enlightened isolation- and for some reason research never occurred to me (it’s worth noting here that I didn’t go to art school, otherwise I might have been set straight on this a lot earlier). But! It has occurred to me, and to the delight of my eternal internal nerd, there’s actually a lot of thinkery and research that goes into being an artist- whether researching subject matter or poses to inform content for a painting, learning new techniques, or thinking about what it means to be an artist. Or at least, there’s a lot of room for it. I love reading as much as I love painting, and so here I’ve compiled a list of books that have shaped and inspired me as an artist. Some of them are the very first books I've read on the subject, and some redefined ideas I previously had, but these are all books that I return to often. They are in no particular order, except that I’ve grouped them into two parts: more technical and more philosophical.
We start with the technical: books that provide the how-to instruction and specific pointers.
Color and Light, James Gurney- This was the first book I ever purchased by way of art instruction. James Gurney is well known for his Dinotopia books and for being an excellent painter. He’s also a great teacher. This book is really accessible and goes in-depth about the use of color and light in painting.
Imaginative Realism, James Gurney- the second book I ever purchased for art instruction. I actually like this one as an instructional guide more than Color and Light- since its main goal is to teach you how to paint imaginary scenes, there’s actually a lot of practical advice on how to observe light and form and create scenes. Also, if you haven’t found him online, it’s worth doing- James Gurney has a blog called Gurney Journey as well as a very instructive Youtube channel. Beyond simply art instruction, he has lots of videos on practical artist things like building a plein air setup. Also he can ride a unicycle and has a method of dealing with bad paintings called his “Gallery Flambeau”.
Figure Painting for All it’s Worth, Andrew Loomis- great guide for figure drawing, even if it was printed 50 years ago. A really helpful nitty-gritty guide to drawing the human figure- answered questions I didn’t know I had. There’s a reason this is a frequently-referenced book on the art world. One caveat is that it is very in-depth and I have heard people say it is a tough study, so this might not be a beginner book.
Landscape Painting, John Carlson- good for teaching how to paint landscapes, yes, but also tips on composition and basic tips for what to bring when plein air painting.
The Artist’s Guide to Sketching, James Gurney and Thomas Kinkade- that’s right, THE Thomas Kinkade. Before he was the painter of light he and James Gurney took a cross-country train trip, sketching all the way. This book is a compilation of practical tips they amassed while riding the rails together, and it includes some fun asides about the trip itself. This one is out of print though, which makes it a tricky and often pricey find.
Lessons in Classical Painting, Juliette Aristides- as the name implies, this is a more textbook-style book with individual lessons with exercises on different concepts in classical-style painting. A good introduction as well as a very helpful survey of techniques, and the student in me rejoiced at having real exercises to do.
The second part of this list contains books that are more philosophical in nature, but they’ve shaped the way I think about art and myself as an artist, and in that way they’ve been as influential as the books above, if not more so.
Culture Care, Makoto Fujimura- a soul- feeding book on the artist’s place in the world and our responsibility for bridging cultural divides and leaning into our calling to create beauty. Fujimura has other books and an active Youtube channel as well, and they’re worth checking out.
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield- the review on the front of my copy says this is a real kick in the butt, and that’s the perfect description for it. The author breaks up his arguments into digestible sections and presents a strong argument for why and how to battle against the resistance that keeps you from making art.
The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron- I don’t think I’ve ever felt so understood by a book. Gently but firmly, Cameron guides you through battling your inner artist demons that tell you that you can’t do it. Each chapter contains exercises for practicing saying yes to your inner artist and shut up to your inner critic.
Art and Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland- a very short but rich book about the fears that confront artists and how to deal with them. Not a light read, but a quick one.
How Should We Then Live?, Francis Schaeffer- I read this one in high school for a class on worldview that was a companion to my art appreciation course (the textbook for which is actually below and is much less dense). Read this if you want an in-depth discussion on the history of art as it parallels cultural thought from a Christian perspective. This was the first book that helped me think about the artists behind the art, and helped me appreciate artists like Marcel Duchamp, Jackson Pollock, and Takashi Murakami.
Art History for Dummies- Listen, not all valuable books on art are highbrow and by people you haven’t heard of. This book made art really simple and takes a no-stupid-questions approach. I really like it as an intro to art history book.
This list is not by any means all the art books I’ve ever read or am reading, but they’re the ones that I treasure for how they've influenced me so far.
Go forth and read, my children.
*Bonus* goodies that aren’t books but that are excellent and have given me much food for thought, and that I definitely do recommend:
The Lonely Palette, a monthly art history podcast by Tamar Avishai that is probably the best podcast ever.
The Art Assignment, art history + current issues in art. I love their series Art Cooking, where they recreate recipes from figures in art history (Dali’s tower of crawfish is my fave, tied with the Dada episode where everything is completely inedible).