15 Essential Books for Artists
It’s been said that “leaders are readers.” Artists who want to make an impact should be readers as well. Great books have a unique power to stretch your mind and take you places you would otherwise never go. In this post I’ll share fifteen books that are essential reading for every artist and creative person.
There are a lot of great books on art and creativity, and if you ask me tomorrow my list might be a little different. But these are books that have impacted me in one way or another, and they will help you be a better artist as well. (I’ve also previously written on great movies for artists, and great podcasts as well.)
One little caveat: It’s easy to get overwhelmed by a list of books, as if you don’t have enough to do already, right? Don’t let this stress you out; just pick one or two that sound most interesting to you. (If you have your own suggestions, please share in the comments.)
That said, let’s dive in. Here are fifteen great books for artists and creatives, in no particular order:
Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces that Stand in the Way of True Inspiration by Ed Catmull. Written by one of the leaders of Pixar, this chronicles the company’s journey through (mostly) triumphs and failures. I love the honesty of the book and its practical lessons for all creative people.
The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice by Todd Henry. I love this book’s practical focus on everyday creativity. We think of creativity as something that only belongs to a gifted few, but everyone can practice creative thinking no matter what they are.
The Artisan Soul: Crafting Your Life Into a Work of Art by Erwin McManus. This book is almost like a devotional for artists. Don’t let that fool you, because it’s very powerful. I appreciated Erwin’s openness about his failure, which is something we can all relate to. This book is required reading for my sophomore class Introduction to the Arts course at St. Louis Christian College.
Make Good Art by Neil Gaiman. This is the text of a speech the bestselling author gave in 2012. It’s extremely quotable and inspiring. Plus, you can read it in about 20 minutes (although you shouldn’t speed through it). He reminds us to chart our own course in life.
Leonardo da Vinci: Complete Paintings and Drawings by Frank Zollner. This is a massive work, but if you can find it cheaply at a bookstore, or get the paperback version, it’s well worth it. We’ll never plumb the depths of the mind of da Vinci, arguably history’s greatest artist, but this gives you a glimpse of his genius. I get inspired every time I open this book.
The Heart of the Artist: A Character-Building Guide for You and Your Ministry Team by Rory Noland. This is geared toward church art teams and has helped thousands of creative people of faith. I have used it in churches and college classes. It’s still the best book of its kind in terms of being practical and getting into the minds of artists who do their art in a church context.
The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? by Seth Godin. Seth Godin sees all types of work as art, and I’m inclined to agree with him. As always, he is insightful, inspiring, and practical.
The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield. You see a lot of creative types refer to this book, and for good reason: it’s amazing. Pressfield talks about the Resistance, the inner force you must battle to do your best work. I love his writing style and transparency.
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Dan Pink. Pink asserts that creative people are taking the lead in the new economy. He outlines the skills you and I need to be successful in our leadership. The book has been out a while but it’s still very relevant.
Roaring Lambs: A Gentle Plan to Radically Change Your World by Bob Briner. This book has been out for a couple of decades now, but its message is more relevant than ever. We need people of faith to do their art in all types of creative endeavors in society. He challenges artists to be salt and light through the excellence of their craft. This book changed the way I think about “ministry.”
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative by Austin Kleon. This is a short but very powerful book about the creative process. It’s amazing how simply and practical his advice is. Plus, it’s a square book and I always appreciate it when publishers do something a little different with the physical book.
Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L’Engle. A very thoughtful book about the intersection of art and faith. The content is wonderful, but it’s also very well-written.
Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us by Seth Godin. This is my favorite of Godin’s books. I don’t think I’ve ever underlined so many passages and written so many notes in the margins of a book. So many great ideas here on connecting with people and building a following.
In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership by Henri Nouwen. Aside from the Bible, this book has impacted me more than any other. Nouwen presents a radical view of leadership and ministry that is rooted in the fact that we are broken and powerless. But it’s out of that weakness that we can truly minister in Jesus’ name. The book isn’t about creativity or art, but it presents a view of leadership that is desperately needed today. Every artist and creative person will be impacted by it.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. It’s easy to believe that we all have to be high-powered, outgoing personalities to make a difference. Cain shatters this myth and helps us understand how introverts can make the world a better place through their unique gifting and personality. I’m a pretty major introvert and really appreciate this book.
What books have helped you grow in your creative work? Share your thoughts in the comments!
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