I've read a number of art books over the years, but these few are the ones I keep going back to. This includes both the rare technique-focused book, books about art history, and books focusing on single artists and their works.
I feel this is a somewhat eclectic list, lacking a lot of the standard evergreen books you see on most "best books for artists" lists; and it's mostly so because I am a deeply weird person.
There are two books I cannot find on Bookshop.org, that I would also add if I could:
- Japanese Ink Painting: Shubun to Sesshu by Ichimatsu Tanaka. ISBN-13: 978-0834810051
- Sketching - from Square One to Trafalgar Square by Richard E. Scott. ISBN-13: 978-0615855349
Seriously, Scott's book on sketching is the best book on sketching and general drawing I've seen. If you're into any kind of sketching, even urban sketching, I recommend this book as a foundation. You can buy it from the artist directly: https://www.sketchingfromsquareone.com/
One of the few instruction-orientated books I keep. Not only is this a great book about pen and ink for beginners (and an inspiring review for folks more experienced), but this book contains non-prescriptive guidance for other aspects of art like composition. I ended up cutting my artistic teeth on pen and ink because of Dunn's YouTube channel and this book, and the experience made me a better artist.
Kwo Da-Wei$18.95 $17.43
I cherish this book because it offers a rare look in English at the history of Chinese ink painting, as well as covering the aesthetics and composition techniques of Chinese art. These have been incredibly valuable in developing my own work, and I rely on the aesthetics discussed in this book before I rely on any composition theories from the West. Yeah, I am weird and probably wrong and few (if any) Western artists would even agree with me, but I recommend this book anyways.
John Muir Laws$35.00 $31.50
I understand it's unusual for artists to list nature journaling books as among the ones they return to again and again, as nature journaling is very explicitly about observation and not about making pretty art. However, I feel keeping books like this one helps maintain proper hubris for an artist to remember that art is not the be-all and end-all of things, also nature journaling is cool and helps hone your skills of observation. This is among the best nature journaling books to start with for anybody.
Ingo F. Walther and Rainer Metzger$20.00 $18.00
A lot of people, including artists who should know better, get things wrong about Van Gogh. For instance, I know multiple particularly well-respected artists with highly popular "how to art" books who think Van Gogh could not draw so he relied on color, and more who are convinced he was a transcendent inhuman genius who just slapped paint on canvas and got masterworks thereby. Get this book to dispel such illusions from your mind, and also to admire the huge amount of work and thought he put into many of his paintings. You will learn how much thought he put into his works, his life history and art development, and also how much of a socialist he was. (One of my favorite Van Gogh stories about how he created prints of The Potato Eaters and handed them out to the people he had used as models, who were all poor and could never have paid for them.)
If you can't get Hokusai's little series "Quick Lessons in Simplified Drawing" I feel this is the next best thing, even though this is a historical work from China and not Japan and has a much different tone. This book, a collection of thoughts and illustrations from many Chinese ink painting artists throughout history, expounds on the philosophy behind Chinese art, and is followed by many, many pages of examples. This book translates the original Chinese as well, and adds many helpful contextual footnotes.
Scott McCloud$24.99 $22.49
Now this is a more standard "good book for artists" book... I think, although fine artists who respect comic book artists aren't that common. This book is one that I don't always agree with (I think some of McCloud's theory on the development of sequential art can be reaching in places), but otherwise this book is an excellent look at what makes the storytelling in comics work; it's a very different skillset that's needed for non-sequential art, even if you don't write scripts. I also really like his thoughts on the levels of arting, something I did not understand decades ago when I had never considered being an artist, but that I understand a lot more now that I am an artist.
Alphonso a. Dunn$19.95
I got this a year after Dunn's first book about pen and ink, even though I had already gotten a lot more experience with ink, including with metal-nib dip pens. I found that this book was incredibly useful to turn to for exercises when I'm learning a nib I'm unfamiliar drawing with, such as the Brause Steno ("Blue Pumpkin") and the Tachikawa Soft Maru.
John Muir Laws$24.95 $22.46
This is a deep dive into birds I've found very useful both for naturalistic bird studies and for more abstracted bird studies (such as when working with pen and ink). I've found the best way for me to get the tons of information into my head is to follow along and sketch the illustrations while rewriting the captions and text in my own words.
Adele Schlombs$15.00 $13.80
The TASCHEN series of highly affordable, focused books on artists and art movements is a series I have multiple books in. This is one of my favorites. I also love the ones about Van Gogh, Basquiat, Hokusai, and 10+ others. (Perhaps I'll create a separate book list about those.) One thing that is exceptional about these books is that despite their low cost, the paper is good and especially the printing is extremely good, rather important for art in general.
Katsushika Hokusai$24.95 $22.46
Disclaimer: I don't have this particular book, I have two separate books that comprise the visual content of this book. But I'm glad people no longer have to hunt down two old books with multiple editions of varying quality to get access to Hokusai's 100 views of Mt. Fuji (in ink without color) and his additional 36 views of Mt. Fuji (color prints). Hokusai was a master of composition.
Scott McCloud$25.99 $23.39
This is a much more technical, nitty-gritty look at the techniques of creating comics. Don't come here expecting specialized teaching about art techniques; come here for non-prescriptive guidance and advice about how to think about the creation of sequential art.