12 illustration books every artist should read
Passionate about illustration? You need the best illustration books. In this post, we round up the must-read books for illustrators, whether beginner or professional. We’ve found titles that give an overview of the history of illustration, instructional books to enable you to master the fundamentals of the craft, and books to inspire you.
Every book here is essential reading, guaranteed to teach you something new. If you want more art lessons, check out our list of how to draw tutorials. Want something more general? Here are the best drawing books and best art books.
Adebanji Alade is caught up in the joys of his creative adventure, and in The Addictive Sketcher, he wants you to join him. An artist, teacher and TV-presenter, Alade covers the sketching basics, starting with the tools he uses before going on to mark-making techniques such as contours, angles and ghosting. It’s accompanied by unfussy photography and short walkthroughs, WIPs and finished art.
The artist spends longer covering core art concepts such as composition and perspective, and provides a range of finished examples, annotated art and a simplified explanation of terms. The heart of the book is given over to specific sketching scenarios, including public transport, buskers, statues and markets. All are within reach of the average artist, and Alade gives practical tips on each. If you’re keen to step away from your desk and start sketching the outside world, this is one for you.
365 Days of Art: A Creative Exercise for Every Day of the Year is an illustration book by Lorna Scobie. It collects together a whole bunch of different artistic mini-challenges with the aim of pushing the user to think outside of the box and nurture their artistic skills and thinking. Tasks range from simple things such as creating a pattern on a grid to trickier challenges like exploring calligraphy.
Becoming a Successful Illustrator is invaluable for anyone thinking of embarking on a career in illustration (or looking for a boost in their existing career) – and this is the second edition, so it’s bang up to date. There’s plenty of advice from practicing illustrators (and those that commission them), practical tips on finding work, how to market yourself and run your illustration business, plus lots of inspiring artwork.
In Fifty Years of Illustration, Lawrence Zeegen and Caroline Roberts plot the evolution of illustration – “the rampant idealism of the 1960s, the bleak realism of the 1970s, the over-blown consumerism of the 1980s, the digital explosion of the 1990s” – and how the craft has changed over of the years. Zeegen looks at the socioeconomic factors that effect illustration and vice versa. He also uses essays and artist profiles to investigate contemporary illustration’s impact on popular culture. This is an illustration book to keep on your bookshelf, and go back to again and again.
Celebrated illustrator Loish created this illustration book to offer a deep dive into her process. The Sketchbook of Loish: Art in progress reveals how her initial sketches graduate into her stunning final work, showing you her speedpaints, studies and first drafts. She also offers some invaluable tips for illustrators and aspiring illustrators.
Two brilliant tutorials will get you sketching, and you even get some exclusive artwork. This book is full of beautiful content, and is fascinating glimpse into the work of a renowned artist and a brilliant read for anyone who loves illustration.
First published in 1991, Molly Bang’s short, beautiful, slightly strange book is one of the best ever written on composition for illustrators. Picture This: How Pictures Work explores the mechanics; the nuts and bolt of picture design. But she also asks abstract questions too: Why are diagonals dramatic? Why are curves calming? Why does red feel hot and blue feel cold? And at just 96 pages, you could easily read this in a oner.
We had to include the legendary artist James Gurney in our list of essential books for illustrators. We could easily have picked his first book, Imaginative Realism, in which he tells you how to paint what doesn’t exist. But his second book, Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, is arguably the best, most exhaustive book ever written on colour and light.
In it, Gurney looks at artists who were experts at using of colour and light, how light reveals form, the properties of colour and pigments, and a variety of atmospheric effects. But he does it without using jargon or overly scientific terms. This book shows Gurney is not only a master artist, but a master teacher too.
Andrew Loomis is one of those artists who transcends art. If you don’t know the name, you will know the work – he is the master of figure drawing. In Figure Drawing for all it’s Worth, Loomis encourages you not to imitate his very distinct style, but instead to understand the principles that prop it up. If you’re starting out, this is as good a place as any to master on of the fundamental building blocks of illustration, but there’s more than enough here for old pros to learn a thing a two.
The realities of being a working artist mean that as well as being able to draw, you need to know how the industry works. A good one for beginners, How to be an Illustrator covers the basics of the business of being a professional illustrator, including putting together a portfolio, approaching clients, preparing for contract meetings, managing your time and money. It also includes valuable interviews with nine industry professionals. Rees has worked with big clients in the UK and the US, so he knows what he’s talking about. His book looks smart too.
Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist is a modern classic for anyone who wants to do anything creative. But once you’ve started making things, what next? You have to show what you’ve made. And this is often the most terrifying, frustrating part. In Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share your Creativity and get Discovered, Kleon – ‘a writer who draws’, in his own words – explains the difference between networking and using the network, how you become ‘findable’. Chapter titles include You Don’t Have to Be a Genius, Share Something Small Every Day, and Stick Around – which pretty much describes the whole arc of the book. ‘It’s not self-promotion,’ Kleon says. ‘It’s self-discovery.’
‘I failed my GSCE art,’ writes Ben Tallon early his brilliantly titled book Champagne and Wax Crayons: Riding the Madness of the Creative Industry. The memoir proves he’s a bit like Hunter S. Thomson and Ralph Steadman rolled into one. He tells you how he made it as freelance illustrator, from that failed exam, through art college, the early days of freelancing, all the way up to the top clients he works for today. He writes in clear, funny prose, and it’s all illustrated with his trademark scratchy drawings. A useful book for anyone setting out on a freelance career of any kind.
After all those books about business and self-promotion, here’s a title that helps you remember why you love to draw in the first place. Lost in Translation: An Illustrated Compendium of Untranslatable Words from Around the World has tips on illustration. But it also features 50 drawings about words in various languages that have no direct translation into English. Author Ella Frances Sanders explains that the Japanese language have a word for the way sunlight filters through the leaves of trees, and in Finnish there’s word for the distance a reindeer can travel before needing to rest. Those written definitions are cumbersome. Her illustrated definitions aren’t.