If you’ve been struggling to keep your head and heart right when it comes to creativity, you need to check out these must-read books for artists.

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stacks of old books with the text "must-read books for artists"

Original photo by Ed Robertson 

Lately I’ve been trying to psych myself up. You know when you feel like you aren’t good at anything? You know when it feels like the Universe is actively thwarting any opportunity to grow that might come your way? You know when you just need to get out of your own head and see things from a new perspective?

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That’s what pre-empted this list of must-read books for artists. I don’t think I’m in a super dark-before-the-dawn sort of place. But I do think that I have some hella stagnant energy. So, in an effort to change my perspective and get my head right, I’m sharing these books for artists.

Pssst! I have a lot of book lists on this blog, so here’s a selection that you may enjoy:

Also, I would like to say that no one feels creative all the time. No one wants to sit down every day and move forward on big projects. And no one has good ideas all the time. I’m not saying you should.

But what I am saying is that it’s okay to step outside of your head for a bit and get some perspective. It’s always good to see how other artists do what they do, and maybe finding new ways that you can approach your creative work is just the thing to get you moving forward again.

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Must-Read Books for Artists

Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

One of the hardest parts about being an artist is learning to trust your instincts and following your creative intuition when it’s right to do so. On the other hand, you need that critical eye and the ability to edit what you’ve done. So, how does the brain do that? (That was a rhetorical question.)

This book covers how the fast-thinking intuition part of the brain works as well as how the slow and deliberate part of the brain functions. Kahneman discusses when you should trust wich part of the brain, and how you can avoid making mistakes in your life and business with this knowledge.

Manage Your Day-to-Day edited by Jocelyn K. Glei

I spend a lot of time feeling like I’m outrunning deadlines. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but there is something about being a creative with a day job, side hustle, and a novel I’m working on that just straight up wears me out.

This book gives advice from 20 different creatives about how they structure their days in a world that expects you to be on 24/7. I don’t know if it will help me slow down and focus in on what’s important, but lord, I hope it does.

Living and Sustaining a Creative Life: Essays by 40 Working Artists edited by Sharon Louden

The tricky thing about a career in the arts is that you can’t look to the careers of others and assume they will work for you. Like, how one writer gets where they’re going isn’t how all writers will. And if any writer is trying to tell you they have a patented system that works, then they’re lying because every other writer they were friends with would’ve “made it” by now.

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Anyway, the one reason we should look to other artists and creatives is because we need to see their processes. We need to look at how they approach problems, or how they tackle their to do lists. I’ve also gotten to a point in my life where success looks like having the freedom to work on the projects I want to work on and to create the things I want to create. That’s why I’m recommending this book. These essays tackle the question of how to build a sustainable, artistic existence in a world that wants to commodify everything.

Creative Confidence by Tom Kelley and David Kelley

Writing, by and large, can feel like solving a really big problem. Sure, you’re making stuff up, but it’s all coming from inside your head. Recently I had two Ph.D. candidates tell me that the writing I do is easy, and the one they do with all that source material and an entire institution behind them is the real hard stuff.

Sure, Jan.

I’m not saying that one is harder than the other. In fact, there is definitely more financial pressure on the Ph.D. candidate, because they’re footing a huge bill that they will probably never make back. But I am saying they’re both hard.

Anyway, this book is all about examples of people from the Stanford Design School and IDEO using creative problem solving strategies to enable innovation. So, if you’re looking for a thought process or a way to approach the stresses of being a writer with a day job and not finding time to write, or if you just need help filling in a plot hole, this book may give you a new way to look at things.

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The Artist’s Guide: How to Make a Living Doing What You Love by Jackie Battenfield

One of the big things that I’m tackling right now alongside a group of pretty badass writers is finding ways to make money doing what we actually want to do. Recently, a whole lot of Plan Bs fell through for me, and so I’m finding myself reassessing how I want to spend my time.

(Spoilers: I want to do what I want to do. Not what a company or organization wants from me.)

If you, like me, are embarking on a hairy, scary adventure where you probably won’t get it right the first time (or the tenth time) because there is no right way, then this might be a book for you. If you’re looking for applicable advice and interviews from successful people who have been there, then give this book a read.

What's your go-to book that you recommend to fellow artists? Share on X

What Are Your Must-Read Books for Artists?

Is there a book that got you in the right headspace to complete a project? Is there a book that changed how you thought about what you do? Any books out there that fundamentally changed your process? Leave them in the comments!

7 Responses

  1. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
    Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
    Art, Money, Success: Finally Make a Living Doing what You Love by Maria Brophy
    The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp
    In the Country We Love by Diane Guerrero
    Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain
    Broad Strokes by Bridget Quinn
    Steal Like an Artist by Austin Kleon
    Catching the Big Fish by David Lynch
    Creative Block: Get Unstuck, Discover New Ideas. Advice & Projects from 50 Successful Artists by Danielle Krysa
    On Color by David Scott Kastan
    Just Kids by Patti Smith

  2. “My Name is Asher Lev.” It’s a novel but there is content in there and character truths about an artist life that cut right through. It’s not marketing, it gets at the heart of the conflict of what it takes to live your life as an artist vs living someone else’s idea of your life.

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