10 Books Every Artist Must Read

Published on August 27, 2014 by Noah Bradley

I love reading books on art. Not just the kind with pretty pictures, either. But the kind with words. It baffles me how few of my classes during art school actually had required texts. Thankfully I was lucky enough to stumble into the world of art books on my own, and I believe I’m a better artist for it.

Here are ten books that I sincerely believe every artist out there should purchase and read—at least once.

01. Art & Fear

If you’ve ever started to have thoughts in your head about “am I talented enough?” or “why do I bother making art?” then you need to read this book. You also need to read this book if you haven’t had those thoughts yet. It’s a quick read and very enjoyable. I don’t think any book will get you back to your easel faster than this one.

02. The Art Spirit

Sometimes I read too many books on technique, so I like to balance it out with some theory and emotion. Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit is a classic. You won’t find out the “best way to draw anime” in this book, but you might just discover why you’re making art in the first place.

03. How Pictures Work

It’s small, simple, and entirely profound. In my opinion the single best book on composition available. The illustrations are all made with cut paper, so all frills are left aside, leaving only pure design and composition. Molly Bang uses a number of comparison pictures to show you how design actually works. You can probably sit down and read it in one go, but you’ll find yourself returning to it time and time again.

04. Imaginative Realism

Though this might, at first glance, seem to lean heavily towards the genre illustrators in our midst, this book is great for artists of all types. James Gurney is a phenomenal painter and an equally fantastic teacher. He writes clearly and to the point. No matter what sort of art you want to do, I think you’ll find something pertinent in here.

05. Color and Light

This is James Gurney’s second book, and it’s easily as good as the first. I’ve done quite a lot of searching for good books on color and light and didn’t find anything useful enough to recommend… until this. James Gurney has done extensive research into how light and color work in the real world and how it applies to art. He balances the scientific understanding with artistic flare in the most eloquent way possible. The other resource I’d recommend for learning color theory is Marco Bucci’s youtube channel.

06. Hawthorne on Painting

Short & sweet. A small bite-sized book with tons of little nuggets of wisdom. It can be a little off-putting in its format (mostly transcribed critiques of images, but without the images), but it’s worth it. Some people also find it a little wishy-washy and not solidly academic enough, but I find it completely refreshing and hopeful. I don’t think any other book has been able to instill quite the passion for painting that this book exudes.

07. Alla Prima II

Written by one of the most influential artists of our time, Alla Prima is an essential tome of observational painting. Richard Schmid can, at times, come across as all-knowing to some people, but he does so with a fair bit of justification. His own skills at painting are incredible and he does a remarkably good job at putting everything into words. It’s the priciest book on this list, but it’s worth every penny. It’s been expanded since I originally put this list together, and the update is fantastic. Better printings and even more images to ogle.

08. Oil Painting Techniques and Materials

It can feel a little dated at times—like when Harold Speed talks about the “new brush” known as a “filbert”—but it’s a timeless book. Anyone starting out painting and looking for guidance should pick this up. The more advanced readers can find some equally useful techniques as well.

09. The Practice and Science of Drawing

Also written by Harold Speed, this is a classic drawing book. It covers design as well, but all through the lens of drawing. Since drawing is the basis for all that we artists do, it makes sense to do a little reading on the subject.

10. Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth

I could put every book Andrew Loomis wrote on this list, but sadly they’re all out of print (and consequently obscenely expensive). This one, however, was recently republished and is easily and cheaply available. There were PDF’s going around for a while of all of his books, but since they’re being republished I question the legality of them now. All that said, this is a figure drawing book for the ages.

Ignore what I said before. All of the Loomis books have been reprinted. So now you can pick up Drawing the Head and Hands, Fun With a Pencil, Creative Illustration, and Successful Drawing. That puts us way over 10 books, but who care? Go learn stuff.

11. Paint Figures Better

I wrote my first book on how I went from constantly struggling at painting figures to actually being able to paint them pretty well! If you’re stuck with your figure painting skills and want to break through, this book might be able to help. In it I share the 55 tips that helped me bust those barriers holding me back and actually paint figures better.

And there we have it. For a total of just over $160 $285 (inflation sucks) you have an extraordinary art curriculum that I would dare suggest is better than you can find at most art schools. These are all books that I have come back to time and time again. As my skills improve and I read them again I discover all new gems contained within them.

Do your art a favor and read any of these you haven’t already.

P.S. Libraries are amazing! Not only should you look in your local library for copies of these books, but you can also browse through free apps like Libby to see if they have ebooks of any of them. Libraries are great and so is saving money.