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10 Books Every Artist Must Read

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.


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.

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.

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.

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.

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. And while I’m on the subject let me recommend these two DVDs put out by Gnomon: The Mechanics of Color and Practical Light and Color. Both helped me enormously when it came to learning color theory.

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.

Alla Prima

Written by one of the most influential living artists, 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.

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.

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.

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.

And there we have it. For a total of just over $160 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.

Categories
Advice

Don’t Go to Art School

I’ve had it.

I will no longer encourage aspiring artists to attend art school. I just won’t do it. Unless you’re given a full ride scholarship (or have parents with money to burn), attending art school is a waste of your money.

I have a diploma from the best public art school in the nation. Prior to that I attended the best private art school in the nation. I’m not some flaky, disgruntled art graduate, either. I have a quite successful career, thankyouverymuch.

But I am saddened and ashamed at art schools and their blatant exploitation of students. Graduates are woefully ill-prepared for the realities of being professional artists and racked with obscene amounts of debt. By their own estimation, the cost of a four year education at RISD is $245,816. As way of comparison, the cost of a diploma from Harvard Law School is a mere $236,100.

This is embarrassing. It’s downright shameful. That any art school should deceive its students into believing that this is a smart decision is cruel and unusual.

Artists are neither doctors nor lawyers. We do not, on average, make huge six-figure salaries. We can make livable salaries, certainly. Even comfortable salaries. But we ain’t usually making a quarter mil a year. Hate to break it to you. An online debt repayment calculator recommended a salary exceeding $400,000 in order to pay off a RISD education within 10 years.

Don’t do it.

Don’t start your career with debilitating debt.

Please. I beg you. Think long and hard whether you’re willing to pay student loan companies $3000 every single month for the next 10 years.

You’ve got other options.

You don’t have to go to college to be an artist. Not once have I needed my diploma to get a job. Nobody cares. The education is all that matters. The work that you produce should be your sole concern.

There are excellent atelier schools all over the world that offer superior education for a mere fraction of the price. Here are a few:

There are more. Many, many more. And none of them will cost nearly as much as a traditional four year school.

And then there are the online options. The availability of drawing and painting resources is incredible.

Sitting at a computer I have direct access to artists all over the world. I have the combined wisdom of the artistic community to pull from at my leisure. For less than a few grand a year I can view more educational material than I would see at any art school. You can get a year of access to all of the Gnomon Workshop’s videos for the cost of a few days at the average art school.

With all of these options it can be a little daunting. So you know what? I’ve come up with a plan for you. Do this:

The $10k Ultimate Art Education

  • $500Buy an annual subscription to The Gnomon Workshop and watch every single video they have.
  • $404.95 – Buy Glenn Vilppu’s Anatomy Lectures and watch all of them. Sadly, Glenn’s lectures are no longer available. Instead, I suggest you spend $530 and buy all of Proko’s content. They are phenomenal and the best anatomy resources I’ve seen.
  • $300Sign up for a year of Schoolism
  • $190 Buy all of these books and read them cover to cover.
  • $1040 ($20/week x 52 weeks) – Weekly figure drawing sessions. Look up nearby colleges and art groups and find a weekly session to attend. If you can’t find out, go to Reference.Pictures and buy our first two figure drawing packs for a total of just $30. Also grab the hands and expressions packs for an extra $8 and you’ll have a ton of resources to practice figures from.
  • $2500Sign up for a SmART School Mentorship when you feel ready to get one-on-one guidance to push your abilities.
  • $2400Sign up for four classes from CGMA. Get taught by professionals in the industry on exactly the skills you want to learn.
  • FreeWatch all of these keynotes.
  • FreeStudy other things for free. Suggested topics: business, history, philosophy, English, literature, marketing, and anything else you might be interested in.
  • $500 – Throughout the year, use at least this much money to visit museums in your area. And not just art museums. All museums.
  • Free – Create accountability. One of the great advantages to attending a school is the camaraderie. So use the internet to create your own. Go join a forum where you can give and receive critique on the work you’re developing. There are many different ones out there that can suit whatever flavor you prefer.
  • The rest – Materials. Buy yourself some good art materials to create with. Whether digital or traditional. Don’t skimp.

There. For less than a quarter of the tuition for RISD you’ve got yourself a killer education. You’ve received more quality, focused education than I think you’ll find at any art school.

Moving forward

There has never been a better time to be an artist. I’m inspired by the sheer quantity and quality of internet resources available to artists.

But I encourage all aspiring artists to think long and hard about their options. Student loans are unforgivable through bankruptcy and can wreck your financial future. Establishing a career while under the unceasing brutality of student loans makes an already difficult task nearly impossible.

Find another path. Art is a wonderful, beautiful, fulfilling pursuit. Don’t ruin it with a mountain of debt.


Disclaimer: I do not mean any offense to any of the educators at art schools. I have numerous professors who I consider close friends. This is neither an attack on you, nor your teaching abilities, nor the value that you provide for your students. I’m talking about the schools, not the artists teaching at them.