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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.

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Advice

Why Cruising is Still Moving

As creators, we are consumed with finding ways to speed up our journey. We optimise, maximise and streamline. We’re on this funny old highway called “Life”, surrounded by other little artistic automobiles, all trying to reach our glorious artistic holy place called “Made It”. We’ve heard how great it is there, and we’re tired of driving, so we look for ways to accelerate. Ways to increase our speed.

But when we’re driving in a real car, we know that the best way to get there is to maintain a steady speed. We know it’s a long drive, but we don’t question it. We put on some tunes and stock up on snacks and hit the road. We only accelerate if it’s safe and comfortable to. You can be moving fast without accelerating. Cruising at a safe, optimal speed is the driving holy grail. We know that speeding is bad.

This is true for creators, too. We’re forever looking at the other cars on the highway, seeing them speed past us and wondering how the hell they’re doing it. Why can’t we do that? We only see the small section of their journey, and we have no idea how long they’ve been on the road or the pace of the rest of their journey. We have no idea where they are from or where they are going. We have no idea if, in their furious stop-start pace, they’ve had to take much longer breaks or have been pulled over by the police. We only know that we wish we were moving as fast as them.

But, when we’re in a real car, cruising is easier. We can have an acceleration of zero but clearly see we are still moving at 70mph. Artistically, when we take our foot off the gas and hit cruise control, it can be harder to measure our progress and we’re tempted to put our foot back down on the pedal until our muscles cramp. But if we can learn to trust ourselves, cruising is fine. Cruising is healthy. Cruising gets you to where you need to be just as fast as driving in on-off bursts. No one drives their art-mobile with their pedal constantly to the metal.

We (rightly) fear stagnation, but stagnation doesn’t come from slowing down, it comes from stopping. Stagnation is in the overall speed, not the rate of change. You can decelerate and still move forwards. Stagnation only happens when we come to a stand still or, heaven forbid, we start driving in reverse down the highway. But it sure as hell doesn’t come from dropping to a slower speed- that’s still moving forwards.

Now I’ve milked this metaphor for all it’s worth, I want to translate it into healthy advice. Shift your focus away from how quickly you can increase the speed of your journey and instead find the speed at which you can most healthily work. When I was employed in a 40+ hour per week job, I would berate myself for only putting 5 hours a week into my art. But you know what? That was still moving forward. I was crawling in the slow lane, sure, but within 6 months I improved more than I had done in my whole life. Neat! If I had worked harder, I’d have had to stop more frequently. 5 hours a week was my pace, and that was enough.

Your cruise speed will be incredibly personal and you shouldn’t let the journey of others make you feel bad about it. Maybe you like bursting, maybe you like slow and steady. Maybe you have other commitments, or maybe your work energises you and long, hard days make you happy. But whatever that pace is, don’t ignore it. Find your own optimum and work with it. Know your steady pace, and know the cost of pushing it. And don’t forget: your journey is the only one you see in its entirety.

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Advice

Don’t Wait to Be Saved

I want to talk about something close to my heart.

Something that isn’t easy to admit, but is so important to say.

Life has been incredibly kind to me. I’m disgustingly happy. I get to pursue my passion for a living. I’m surrounded by wonderful, inspiring people. And, as you might have guessed, I couldn’t have done this without the intervention of a certain successful artist. There, I said it. I was the damsel in distress, and my husband saved me.

But let me clarify, the emphasis is on the “I”. I couldn’t have done this.

Falling in love with my idol taught me so, so many lessons. Sure, living with one of the best teachers in the industry has its perks. I had a lot handed to me that many have to fight for. But this was only scratching the surface- the true lessons came in different, unexpected forms. And I found that, if I woke up tomorrow and discovered my life with Noah had been a dream, I’d know now exactly how to succeed.

Transparency in my journey is so important to me. I want everyone to know how lucky I’ve been, how much I struggled despite my luck, and how in the end the things that have really helped me to succeed were things I could have done all along.

Heed my painfully honest lessons so you don’t have to wait to be saved the way I did.

Lesson One: The Buck Stops With You

I used to believe the future would fix my problems. Aged 24, I worked a fairly decent but unfulfilling job in London, I had a few wonderful close friends that I got to see a few times a year, and I had a passion. Yet I lived every day afraid, alone and frustrated. I sucked. I consoled myself with “one day” and “if only” sentiments, and allowed myself to stagnate.

I could have carried on in the cycle… well, forever. I was firmly middling, neither failing nor excelling. Then, a fairytale happened. Someone gave me everything. He removed every “one day” and “if only” excuse I had. Every obstacle was gone. I was one of the few who got scooped out of the net and put into a nice, cushty pond. And you know what?

I still sucked. And I found the biggest obstacle I ever faced was me.

No matter what was given to me, it didn’t make up for my own shortcomings. That’s when I realised that circumstance was an excuse. Privilege makes starting easy, but it cannot outrank hard work. At the end of the day, if you aren’t putting in the work, you’ll never succeed. Do not wait for life to get better for you, or waste energy envying those who had it easier than you. Trust me: privilege doesn’t magically make you (or anyone else) a better person.

Lesson Two: Time is Your Ally

I spent my whole life battling a toxic mindset I didn’t even recognise. It’s one that is stupidly obvious when you say it out loud, but works its way into everything we do in the sneakiest, most insidious ways.

It is the notion that right now is all that matters. If I suck right now, I’m never going to do well. I’m just not cut out for it. I’m not good enough right now, so I’ll never be good enough. It’s the folly of looking at our progress through a microscopic lens and not seeing any difference.

This one struck me around the time I gained access to incredible resources like Art Camp. I was convinced everything would change… and then it didn’t. Or at least I didn’t think it did. I was letting results drive my motivation, which is backwards. I wasn’t immediately at a professional level, therefore it clearly wasn’t working.

Every improvement is a step forward, and every step is small. One step doesn’t make much difference and everything still looks the same. But ten steps? You’re seeing new things, looking at things from different angles. A thousand steps? Sweetie, you’re in a whole new country.

Go read The Slight Edge by Jeff Olsen. It is hands down the greatest self-help book I have ever read. It completely changed my life. Work hard, have faith in the process, and widen your scope for personal comparison. Look back six months, a year. Trust the small improvements and nurture them. They are your babies.

Lesson Three: We’re All Human

People say not to meet your idols as they will only disappoint you. But they only disappoint you if you wanted them to be holier-than-thou, infallible, god-like creatures you could never measure up to. And who wants that?

Maybe it makes me a bad person that I was secretly relieved to find out that Noah, my favourite artist, sometimes does bad drawings, has days where he thinks he sucks, and actually sucked when he had my level of experience (sorry honey <3). For all the ways I looked up to Noah, he saw things in me he too looked up to. Me!

Don’t forget that we are all human. We all have flaws, a history of mistakes and bad days. Usually, the greatest thing that sets our idols apart from us is a long journey of hard work and failures that they overcame. We are every bit as capable as they are. Now, get to it!

Lesson Four: The Hedonic Treadmill is Real

The hedonic treadmill is, according to Wikipedia, “the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes”. It is a psychological theory that suggests we all have a baseline state of happiness that we return to. That, no matter how good or bad life gets, we have a “normal” level of happy we tend to operate at.

Having lived at the two extreme ends of the scale, I can confirm anecdotally that this phenomenon is pretty real. Through the hardest periods of my life, people have commented on my “strength” and “enduring positivity”. And in the happiest periods of my life, I have hated my sorry-arse for ever feeling anything less than ecstatic in my perfect life that past-Rachel would’ve killed to have.

But there is a lesson to be had here: do not glorify the extreme ends of the scale. Do not seek intense happiness as a constant way of life. You will come back down, and you will keep pursuing that ideal of happy. Life just isn’t always extremely happy. It can’t be. No one lives like that. It’s actually exhausting to maintain (and kinda creepy to witness).

I wasted a lot of time and beat myself up needlessly, assuming that spending most of my time at my baseline level of happy meant I was unappreciative, depressed and undeserving of my good fortune. Learning that you don’t have to be deliriously happy constantly was a liberating lesson.

What you can do is raise your baseline. The middle of that graph, between extreme happy and extreme sad, is sacred. It exists in the days where you have no unusual plans, nothing out of the ordinary. Where you sit down to work without anything huge or exciting happening. When you work on jobs that merely pay the bills. Find contentment in (and make peace with) your baseline and you’ll find your whole cycle shifting to a happier place.

Summary

Essentially, my lessons all boil down to one. There is one inescapable factor to success. It can be the key to success, or the obstacle to success. And that factor is you.

The sooner you internalise your journey and stop looking for external factors to help you (or blaming external factors for holding you back), the sooner you’ll become one of those people you look up to. Take it from someone who had no excuses left. Don’t make the same mistakes I did, and don’t wait for someone to save you. You have everything you need right now.

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.