What Artists Read: Books Every Artist Should Have on Their Shelf
Walk into any artist’s studio, and along with the art and materials needed to create the art, you’ll likely find a healthy collection of crafting books written by other artists. Here, Door County artists share some of their most inspiring reads and why these tomes continue to have a place on their bookshelves.
The artistic spirit by Robert-Henri
Recommended by Painter Emmett Johns of Fish Creek
It has been a favorite of artists for over 100 years. Emmett Johns, who has studios in Fish Creek and Albuquerque, said a teacher at an illustration class he was taking in Chicago first recommended it to him. Johns credits Henry’s book with moving him from illustration to fine art and inspiring him to paint spontaneously and free from tight finished pieces.
Today, his original copy is held together by rubber bands, but Johns retains a later edition (most recently reprinted in 2020) for reference. Each reading seems to give the book new life and meaning.
“What I find is that there’s not just an artistic spirit in this book — there’s a life spirit,” Johns said. “I see this undercurrent of a deeper spirituality in addition to the spirit of art. [Henri] incorporates this into his art.
The form of the content by Ben Shahn
Recommended by painter Ernest Beutel of Sturgeon Bay
“Shahn stimulates the artist to think,” Beutel said. “I believe that art is for everyone. All we have to ask is ‘Who are we for [create art]?’ and so begins the journey!
Shahn has often deployed his art in social causes, such as the 111 miners in Illinois killed in an explosion, or a black father who lost his children in a slumber lord’s arson in Chicago. Shahn complained that art education and discussion abandoned interest in content and focused only on form.
“Current aesthetic opinion separates form and content – to talk about content seems in bad taste,” he writes.
In the book, Shahn praises the painter Thomas Eakins.
“He studied very deeply because only a great master would have the will to study. Her vision was unaffected by fashion,” Shahn wrote.
Referring specifically to Eakins’ painting “The Cello Player”, he wrote: “There was a certain intellectual attitude – a complete dedication to understanding something, someone outside of himself.”
Beutel also recommended “A Giacometti Portrait” by James Lord, saying, “The dialogue between artist and sitter and the overall process of painting a portrait is captivating!”
Philip Guston: Collection of Writings, Lectures and Conversations by Philip Guston
Recommended by Painter Paula Swaydan Grebel of Egg Harbor
“It’s a book that I can flip to any page to find interesting, deep, thought-provoking insights,” Grebel said. “There is humor and joy in his intellectual babble.”
She commented that often the words and thoughts of just a few pages continue to resonate long after she puts the book down.
“[I] keep ruminating on his words,” she said. “Any nourishment relevant to my studio artist creativity.”
Grebel is not alone in praising the book. Anne Egan, a painter from Sturgeon Bay, quoted Guston: “If you know how your painting is going to end, why are you even starting?
Hilma af Klint: Paintings of the Future by Tracey Bashkoff
Recommended by Shan Bryan-Hanson, curator and professor of painting at St. Norbert College, represented by Cappaert Contemporary Gallery
Hilma af Klint was creating abstract works inspired by spiritualism a decade before Vasily (Wassily) Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian, but she rarely showed her work.
When af Klint died in 1944, she left over 1,200 paintings and works on paper and over 124 notebooks to her nephew with the stipulation that the works could not be revealed for 20 years.
“His work was really, really ahead of its time,” Bryan-Hanson said. “She was working with abstraction before many painters who we thought were the first. Her work has a really spiritual quality to it.
Borders by Maya Lin
Recommended by ceramic artist Rebecca Carlton at Juddville Clay
“The layout and photography/drawings are really wonderful,” Carlton said. “Lin put the book together like a work of art.”
The work includes text, drawings, and photographs as Lin describes her story, process, and works. The size and placement of each varies on the page. One thing Carlton noted is the importance that time plays in the book.
“On the outer center edge of each page she noted a time – it could mean 12 seconds, 12 minutes or 12 hours, I’m not sure,” she said, “[but] she is interested in time, in cycles, in both individual and universal change.
Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING by David Bayles and Ted Orland
Recommended by sculptor Tony Staroska at Juddville Clay
“If a person studies fine art and chooses to be a studio artist, there is no training program or pathway to tenure,” Staroska said. “You are alone.”
This book, he said, fills that gap by covering many of the pitfalls of that chosen path.
“Less than 5% of studio artists are able to make a living from their art alone,” Staroska said. “This book offers a lot of information about this way of life.”
The authors of the book write that the greatest challenge for art students comes when they graduate and no longer have a teacher to review and comment on their work. There are no assignments; there is no stable artistic support. They suggest artists try to find a circle of other creators to share their work with and cultivate that community.
Fly like an artist: 10 things no one told you about creativity by Austin Kleon
Recommended by pastel artist Mac Scheuppert of Sturgeon Bay, represented by Fine Line Designs at Ephraim
Schueppert recently re-read this book, and his praise remains unwavering.
“He has so many great messages, like his ideas about good stealing/bad stealing, and having a magnetic file,” she said, adding that she had one that she labeled “Admired Works.” .
Kleon recommends artists keep a journal of what they’ve done, as well as write down the best thing that happened that day. Schueppert said she appreciates the author’s message of perseverance and its connection to an artist’s success: successful artists don’t know where good things come from; they just show up and do their thing. Everyday.
Additional books to discover
To do work by Steven Pressman
Seven days in the art world by Sarah Thorton
Bad Boy: My Life On and Off the Web by Eric Fischl
Art in America, 1945-1970edited by Jed Perl
The $12 million plush shark by Don Thompson In pursuit of Cézanne by Peter Mayes