The best artists never stop learning, no matter if they are just starting out doing small jobs from home or work in the most famous studio in the world. With all the internet has to offer, such as online classes, tutorials and YouTube videos, it may be easy to forget about one important source of knowledge, the oldest of them all – a book. There is still something special about turning a page, feeling the paper, admiring beautiful printed illustrations and most importantly, having access to the author’s unique experience and knowledge. In this article, I would like to introduce you to a list of my most recommended books about art that I think every artist would greatly benefit from. I have highlighted the best aspects of each book as well as some minor things that may be considered a minus to some. There is also a bonus list of a few art books that I find absolutely inspiring. So let’s begin!
Creative Illustration by Andrew Loomis
This classic book on illustration, first published in 1947 and reprinted in 2012 after many years, is one of the most famous titles about composition, tone and color ever written. Andrew Loomis was an American illustrator for advertising and magazines but is now best known for his art teachings. His light, humorous writing makes lessons in the book pleasurable and easy to remember while at the same time being most useful and aimed at professional artists. Each chapter is packed with tips and advices that you can put to practice in your work right away. While the context of some information may be a little outdated, most of the stuff you will learn from this book has extreme value and never gets old. Plus, it’s packed with beautiful and inspirational illustrations from mid 20th century. I highly recommend this book to all artists, beginners as well as advanced.
- many practical and useful tips to make your work look great
- beautiful illustrations
- fun to read
- over 70 years old so obviously some content may no longer be relevant
Color and Light by James Gurney
James Gurney is a master painter with extensive experience in traditional painting. He is the author and illustrator of a book series, Dinotopia which sold over million copies around the world. In Color and Light he shares in-depth knowledge about one of the most difficult aspects of creating a realistic illustration. While painting from life is crucial in understanding the subject and gaining valuable experience, theoretical knowledge of the basic rules and mechanics of the way light and color interact with each other and surroundings can get you a long way in getting your skill to a professional level. This is the kind of book that you will be going back to many times, whenever you are unsure of how to proceed with your work.
The book includes a collection of beautiful illustrations from Dinotopia as well as various open air paintings, all done by the author (except a few works by other masters that can be found in the first chapter). Definitely, a must-have position on your shelf if you want your work to look more realistic and believable.
- everything you need to know about color and light
- accompanied by stunning illustrations on each page
- not as useful if you are not aiming for realism in your work
These books are not for a complete beginner, though the title may suggest that. They contain step-by-step instructions on how to create detailed drawings which will require you to actively participate (draw along) in order to remember and be able to use the techniques presented in the books. It may sound difficult but it’s well worth the trouble if you are going to get comparable results to the drawings found in the books. Just take a look at these beautiful concepts! If you keep practicing with this series, you will learn how to construct complex objects (such as vehicles, machines and airplanes) and environments in perspective and later bring them all to life by adding realistic three-dimensional shading and color. I recommend this series to concept artists and especially to those who are interested in drawing their ideas without having to rely on reference.
- step-by-step instructions you can follow to get high quality results shown in the book
- practical knowledge explained in great detail
- not for total beginners
- some technical parts may be difficult to understand
Framed Ink by Marcos Mateu-Mestre
The author of this book has over 20 years of experience working for companies such as Dreamworks and Sony Pictures Animation. He is also a graphic novel artist with a distinctive style which especially shows in Framed Ink which contains black and white comic panels drawn by him. I found this book extremely informative when it comes to choosing the right composition for storytelling. Everything is explained in a simple way and each page has valuable information to be put to practice right away. Most of the book is about composition and lighting but there is also a chapter on how to design characters using different shapes and expressions. I go back to Framed Ink every now and then to sort in my head my knowledge about composition and think more consciously when planning my illustrations. I would recommend this book to every artist who wants to get better at storytelling by effectively using composition to convey the right atmosphere and create impact in their work.
- many illustrated examples and the written content right on point
- great for visual storytellers
- some topics could be explained a little more in-depth
The Art of Perspective by Phil Metzger
One of many books about perspective but I find this one practical and well explained. This is a guide directed towards painters or drawers who wish to know enough to be able to interpret their surroundings and give their work a sense of depth. Unlike Scott Robertson’s How to Draw, the book focuses more on organic environments and landscapes than complex mechanical objects. In this book you will find many solutions to common difficulties, such as drawing roofs or stairs in perspective. The Art of Perspective will teach you how to see your subject in perspective and correctly translate it to your painting.
- practical and not overloaded with technical information
- great for environment and landscape artists
- Maybe not technical enough if you plan to draw very complex objects
The Story of Art by F. H. Gombrich
Although this is an art history book, the reason I included it in this list is because I consider studying the works of old masters to be essential in my development as an artist. There is so much to learn just by analyzing masterpieces from the past and I strongly believe that this will make my own work better. The Story of Art starts from prehistoric times and continues through all ages until 20th Century. Just like the title says it is written like a story, more than a textbook. It is a great introduction to the history of art and I would start from it if you haven’t read much about the subject yet. It is not overly detailed but will give you a general idea of how art progressed through the ages and who were the most important figures that contributed to it. The book contains many reproductions as well as photographs of architecture accompanied by good writing that will pull you in to the world of art and let you breathe the air of the past.
- reads like a story
- a great introduction to the history of art
- full-page photo reproductions
- detailed historical facts were omitted
- photo-reproductions only of the most notable works of art
A World History of Art by Hugh Honour and John Fleming
If after reading The Story of Art you feel like you want to delve deeper into the subject, A world History of Art is a perfect choice for your next read. It’s big, heavy (literally!) and packed with detailed information on each period in history, including every part of the world. This book is less of a story and more of a perfect textbook that probably has everything you want to know about the history of art. It may be a challenge to just read it all from the beginning to the end but it’s a book you will pick up from your shelf many times, whenever you are in need of reliable information. Let’s remember that the internet, as much as it gives fast and easy access to knowledge, doesn’t always give correct answers. This book will!
- extremely detailed and in-depth
- summary of the most important events at the beginning of each chapter
- has many reproductions but most of them are small and take up less than 1/4 of a page
Figure Drawing: Design and Invention by Michael Hampton
This book is in my opinion one of the best figure drawing books available. It is focused strongly on practical usage that can be easily assimilated into your working process. It presents a structural approach to building a human figure with formulas to achieve a 3-dimensional look. While the main muscle groups and their functionalities are well explained, the best part of the book explains how to build a figure using ellipses, boxes and cylinders. A lot of focus is also put on creating dynamic expressions and movement. This book not only teaches about anatomy of a human figure but also how to construct a dynamic pose with a correct structure, balance and proportions. The strongest aspect of this book are the illustrations and diagrams which are very easy to understand and hugely contribute to the learning process – you get the point of the lessons just by looking at the drawings. I recommend this book to artists on every level. You can never learn enough about the human figure!
- self-explanatory illustrations and diagrams
- learn how to build a dynamic human figure without reference
- it may take some practice to capture movement if you focus too much on the structure
Figure Drawing for All It’s Worth by Andrew Loomis
Another great book by Loomis, which, although over 70 years old, is still considered one of the best titles on anatomy for artists ever written. It’s purpose is to teach you how to build a realistic human figure from your imagination or based on a model. You will understand the structure, proportions, balance and movement that are necessary to create a successful drawing. Loomis includes many practical advices and you can admire his beautiful drawings as well as learn from instructional diagrams which explain muscle groups and structures. This book is suitable for beginners as well as artists aiming to reach a professional level.
- easy and fun to read
- draw along and watch your skill evolve in a matter of days
- a less simplified approach; focused on photo-realistic drawing and rendering
The Art of Animal Drawing by Ken Hultgren
Just like a human figure, drawing animals is one of the essential skills to master as an artist. In this book, a Disney animator explains body structures of various animal species, their movement and how to capture it avoiding a stiff look. The drawings found in the book are dynamic and simplified for a better understanding of the shapes and mechanics of an animal body. I recommend this book to all artists and especially to those interested in drawing animals.
- a collection of beautiful, dynamic animal drawings to learn from
- simplified forms and structure for better understanding
- very little commentary
The Principles of Art
Alla Prima II by Richard Schmid
Richard Shmid, a master painter shares his knowledge and techniques about direct painting, also called alla prima or painting from life. I find his advice to be very practical and useful, even if you don’t usually go outside to paint. In this book you are offered guidance in becoming a great artist and tips to instantly improve your skills. There is a list of questions to ask yourself if you get stuck with a painting and also various lists of things to remember while painting to ensure a successful result. There are chapters dedicated to values and edges, two of the more problematic fundamentals of a good painting. You will find some very useful tips on how to make them work in your illustrations. Of course, there is also a big chapter dedicated to color and a section about composition, as these are essential to any painting. Overall, the book is written in an easy to understand language and each sentence is worth remembering, so I would read this book a few times to make sure I got the most of it. I recommend this book to all artists and especially traditional or digital painters who wish to paint realistically but also give life and dynamism to their brush work.
- loaded with useful advice from a master painter
- a collection of beautiful paintings by the author
How to Draw Portraits in Charcoal by Nathan Fowkes
Although this book is about portrait drawing, I found that most of the advice can be applied to any type of art. Nathan Fowkes is a concept artist who worked at studios such as Disney, Dreamworks and Blue Sky and contributed to feature animation films such as The Prince of Egypt, How to Train Your Dragon, Shrek Forever After, The Legend of Puss in Boots and many more. He is also a teacher and you can find his classes online. I had had the opportunity to participate in one of his live workshops and taken some of his online classes all of which have greatly impacted the way I approach my paintings. More than actual step-by-step techniques, Nathan Fowkes focuses on the important principles that make a drawing or painting appealing and impactful. If you carefully read the contents of this book and apply the lessons to your work, you may find your skill to have instantly improved, without much practice.
- learn how to create impact in your work by simplifying light and shadow
- see the big picture instead of getting into too much detail that can ruin your work
- great for character artists
- focused on traditional realistic drawing so for best experience you should invest in some paper and charcoal as well!
Bonus – Books for inspiration
The series features drawings from sketchbooks of various contemporary artists, each having their own style and technique. After looking at all the stunning work you will feel motivated to do more sketching yourself, either with traditional or digital media. Open up to creative thinking, let yourself go and see what your mind leads you to. If you are struggling to find new ideas and motivation to draw more, these are perfect additions to your collection!
Have you ever heard of studio Ghibli? I would be surprised if you haven’t! Being one of the world’s most famous animation studios it has produced many masterpieces over a period of more than 3o years. One of the founders, Miyazaki Hayao has directed the studio’s best feature films, such as Castle in the Sky, Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and more. His concept sketches and drawings that served as bases for the visual development of the movies are extremely inspiring and great to learn from. I would recommend these books to artists interested in animation but also anyone who likes fantasy and is looking for inspiration to design their own imaginary worlds and characters.
Kim Jung Gi is somewhat of a star among concept artists and comic illustrators and not without reason. He has an extraordinary visual memory that lets him imagine with high detail each drawing that he is going to put on paper before it actually happens. Thanks to this ability he has no need to draw pencil sketches – he can get straight to drawing the final version. When you watch him draw it almost seems like the drawing has always been there on the paper and he is just uncovering it bit by bit. I have had an opportunity to attend one of his live classes and it made a huge impression on me. He makes drawing seem so effortless! Instead of feeling depressed that I will never be able to draw like him I went straight back to my hotel room after the workshop and drew in my sketchbook with a new found confidence. Seeing the way he works his magic had a very positive impact on my own approach to drawing.
His sketch collections are just pages and pages of detailed and stunning illustrations that he drew in his sketchbook. You can try to copy some of them as practice to get better at drawing and to learn his techniques. I also recommend watching his classes on YouTube, although most of them are in Korean, just so you can see how he creates and get inspired.
Nemiri Book by Nicolas Nemiri
I found out about this artist by chance, while attending a workshop that he taught at as a replacement for another artist who couldn’t come. I was really amazed at his unique style and technique and immediately bought his art book. Nicolas Nemiri was born in France but his art is heavily inspired by Asian culture and style. His work is very loose and graphic, poetic and chaotic at the same time, a mixture of subtlety and brutality. Each of his sketches is very expressive and creates a unique mood to the portrayed scene making it full of life and movement. This art book is a great addition to any collection, even if you are not an artist yourself. On a side note, it is not suitable for children as some of the pages feature adult content.
That’s it! I hope you enjoyed my list and hopefully found an interesting book to add to your collection!