So. You're fresh. Dabbling. Playing. Feeling the pull to create, create, create. Maybe you're even ready to sell your art.
And if you're anything like me, then in the midst of all this you're looking for guidance. Why? Because you probably didn't go to art school. You don't have a built-in network to lean on. And because of that, nudging your way into the art world feels overwhelming or straight up intimidating. Just a quick visit to any art-related Instagram hashtag is enough to send even seasoned artists into a scroll fest of self-doubt. Which is why comparison is usually reason #1 we throw in the towel and give up on our curiosities and aspirations. But please, don't. There's hope.
Let's return to something real quick—the art world.
If it were up to me, that phrase would be trashed. Why? Because in the same way that we refer to nature as if it’s something separate from us measly humans, the art world in all its big, bold, freaky italics signifies a place that's also separate. Especially from those of us who are self-taught or at the beginning of our journey—a world reserved for a special few.
I call bull. We can be as close to this world as we want—because it is our world. Art is life. Life is art. Are you living life? Then your life has infinite potential for art to be part of it. It's that simple. It only feels separate because a small, select group of people made the rest of us think that we had to answer to gatekeepers. My 100% not-British self says pish posh to that. But—as pish posh as this notion is, we must believe that the desire for artful expression is inherent to all of humanity, our humanity. Only then will we be able to break down the invisible gate.
A few years ago I dove heavily, and I mean heavily, into an art practice seemingly out of nowhere. I was in my early 30s and up until then the only memorable connections I had to art had taken place 15+ years earlier in my youth when I sat at the kitchen table reading books about how to draw this or that, filling up sketchbooks, and taking the typical high school art classes. I didn’t suck, but I wasn’t a Monet in the making either. I just loved to draw. Then in early 2012, I traveled out to Oregon and fell head over heels for the place. Six months later I moved here. But during those months in between, I went back to where I was living at the time, Ohio, and started painting for the first time ever. Mountains. Ocean. Trees. They were unrecognizable blobs of paint on tiny palm-sized canvases from the craft store, but I could look past their ugly duckling faces because they’d been born from an important life experience—one that moved me so much that I had to express it, skills or lack thereof be damned. I continued dabbling with painting over the next couple of years but it never amounted to more than random one-offs, until 2017. Then everything changed. The muse possessed me.
Point is, I had no clue what I was doing when I got started. No teachers. No formal education. No idea what the difference was between acrylic, oil, and watercolors. I was simply driven to create. Why? Because I’m human. I felt things. And those things needed to be processed. When people feel some type of way, good bad or in between, we find ways to work through it. Cooking, building, working in the garage, shopping. For me, painting became the outlet.
But today, even after three years, I still feel like an infant in my art journey—and I’m not entirely convinced I’ll ever feel otherwise no matter how many years pass. Self-education takes time. It’s important we remember that. It’s important we give ourselves grace and accept that we won’t learn it all overnight. We won’t even learn it all in a lifetime. That’s cool.
So yeah, if you’re anything like me, you didn’t go to art school. And to that I say—awesome. What an opportunity. What a chance to discover new tricks. Now, if you’re really like me, then you you get warm, fuzzy feelings over a nice full bookshelf. To you, it's not a dust-collecting graveyard of written artifacts. No, to you a bookshelf is a tool of empowerment. A source of comfort. A guide. Whenever I’ve gotten curious about something, I’ve always looked to the books. So with that, here’s a list of six practical and inspiring books for self-taught artists or those who want to dip their toes in the water, even just a little. These have become staples in my studio and I hope you find them as helpful as I have.
1. Design Basics Index
A graphic designer's guide to designing effective compositions, selecting dynamic components & developing creative concepts.
Jim Krause | 1962
Not interested in being a graphic designer? Read this anyway. This book is an excellent resource for learning the basic principles of design, which can be applied to all forms of visual art. Krause breaks it down here into “The Three C’s”: Composition. Components. Concept. Whether he’s discussing color theory, logos, typography, or compositional hierarchy, this is a great way to think beyond pretty colors and making random marks. Approaching art with a designer's eye will help make your work more intentional, and likely more powerful to the viewer.
“Employing the principles within these three areas of design will provide a practical and versatile framework for your creative process, whether you are brainstorming for ideas, constructing a layout or finalizing a design for presentation.” - J. KRAUSE
2. Find Your Artistic Voice
The essential guide to working your creative magic.
Lisa Congdon | 2019
Lisa Congdon, the book’s author, first caught my attention on Instagram because we have one big thing in common: neither of us started seriously creating art until our 30s. Now in her 50s, Congdon has gone on to make a major brand and name for herself and is a bright reminder that every new decade holds the potential for growth—professionally, creatively, and emotionally. In this book, she pools together loads of interviews conducted with diverse artists and shares their words, advice, and wisdom that timelessly apply to all of us, no matter what stage of creativity we’re at.
Most artists are so busy simply attempting to produce satisfying work or make a living that they forget that, ultimately, they are making work to communicate their own version of the truth.
- L. CONGDON
3. The Artist’s Guide
How to make a living doing what you love.
Jackie Battenfield | 2009
If you’ve ever wanted a comprehensive guide on how to get your art out into the world—and by that I mean plan, market, sell, and create a living of some sort from it—this book is an excellent resource. Battenfield, who spent years working as gallery director before stepping out as a full-fledged artist, helps bridge the gap between the art world and everyday artists. If you've had little or no exposure to people “on the inside,” this book is the wizard pulling back the curtain on how to find that exposure and make those connections.
Taking responsibility for those parts of your practice that don't readily correlate to your creative process—documenting the work, writing a compelling artist statement, making professional contacts, managing time and finances—will have a huge impact on your success and satisfaction as an artist. - J. BATTENFIELD
4. The Crossroads of Should and Must
Find and follow your passion.
Elle Luna | 2015
This book changed my life. Not because it led me to art, but because it got me thinking differently about my life and my art—about what I should do, what I must do, and the difference between the two. When I started reading it, I was knee deep in an intense workaholic phase of my copywriting career and frankly, I was beyond stressed and distressed by the toll it was taking on my outside life. This book, which I’ve read at least three times, helped set me straight. Not overnight, but gradually. And I’ve often returned to its pages when I need a reminder of what matters, especially as my art practice has grown more and more important to me. For anyone at a crossroads in their life, for anyone feeling the gentle tug of some peripheral hobby or activity that craves to be more, for anyone just looking for some guidance on where and how to spend your energy, this book is not a should read, it’s a must read.
“To choose Must is the greatest thing you can do with your life because this congruent, rooted way of living shines through everything that you do. ”
- E. LUNA
5. Steal Like an Artist
10 things nobody told you about being creative.
Austin Kleon | 2012
Based on the premise that nothing is original, Kleon playfully yet eloquently illustrates why copying from other artists—whether in film, fine art, photography, music, and so on—is a critical part of the creative process. The question is: who do we copy? What do we copy? And how do we put our own spin on it? You’ll begin the journey of answering those questions through this book.
“We Learn to write by copying down the alphabet. Musicians learn to play by practicing scales. Painters learn to paint by reproducing masterpieces. Remember: Even The Beatles started as a cover band.” - A. KLEON
6. Lessons in Classical Drawing
Essential techniques from inside the atelier.
Juliette Aristides | 2011
This is a book I recently started and without even being half way through it I already want to give a copy to every artist I know. That’s because understanding the principles of drawing is a lot like understanding the principles of design—drawing is about really seeing with your own eyes. Design is about really seeing through someone else’s eyes. And both of these are necessary for someone who wants to create and share their art with the world. As for drawing in particular, it’s a practice that awakens the eyes and forces you to look closely at what is, not what you think is. It’s about harmony, composition, the forces of light and shadow. Lines and contours. And even for the most abstract of abstract artists, this stuff applies. The wonderful thing about this book is that it’s chock full of exercises and fundamental tips and tricks that have been used through the ages and remain relevant to artists today. Through clean prose and tactical exercises, Aristides makes these fundamental drawing techniques accessible and fun to learn.
“The biggest mistake many people make in modern times is proceeding to painting before they have put enough work into first learning to draw. Drawing is the key that will open the doors to everything else. There is no way around it.” - J. ARISTIDES