The best books to make you a better artist

The Books I Picked & Why

Revealing Illustrations: The Art of James McMullan

By James McMullan

Book cover of Revealing Illustrations: The Art of James McMullan

Why this book?

James McMullan is one of America’s preeminent illustrators, working consistently from the 60s to today. He may be most familiar for his long series of posters for Broadway shows at Lincoln Center, but he has also done magazine illustrations, children's books, record covers, and animation. Running parallel to his illustration work has been a long career in teaching, principally at New York’s School of Visual Arts (for which he also has done a series of subway posters). I was privileged to take his SVA illustration course– which had a stringent portfolio review – for two years early in my career, about the time this book appeared. No collection of greatest hits, or even a guide to achieving McMullan’s juicy watercolor style, this is a thoroughly candid tour through an illustrator’s work process, including a generous selection of preliminary sketches and reference photos.

Like many of the students who passed through his course, I worked in a McMullanoid watercolor style for a few years. The style I was eventually able to shed, but the method outlined in this book is one I continue to follow.


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A Closer Look: The Art Techniques of Patrick Woodroffe

By Patrick Woodroffe

Book cover of A Closer Look: The Art Techniques of Patrick Woodroffe

Why this book?

British illustrator Patrick Woodroffe was an eclectic virtuoso, working with equal facility in oils, acrylic, pencil, pen and ink, silverpoint, and a unique technique of his own involving cutout drawings photographed in natural settings. Like McMullan’s, this book gives you a practical look inside one artist’s creative process. One remark of Woodroffe’s helped set me free artistically: “I don’t think strict accuracy is important, for if art is to offer us anything at all that is not to be found ‘out there’ or in photographs, then it can only come from those fortunate instances when the artist sees something not quite straight, when his visual memory fails him just a little. Getting it at least slightly wrong is I believe what art is all about.”


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The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression

By Gary Faigin

Book cover of The Artist's Complete Guide to Facial Expression

Why this book?

Gary Faigin is the guy I took my first and only perspective class from, back when he was teaching at the New York Academy of Arts. Eventually we became friends, and fortunately for me he never wrote a book on perspective. Instead, Gary channeled his considerable knowledge of anatomy and drawing into the indispensable book on facial expressions. In profusely illustrated chapters, Gary breaks down the daunting complexity of facial expressions into six basics: joy, anger, sadness, disgust, fear, and surprise. Like the primary colors, this basic palette yields the full spectrum of extreme to subtle, in-between, and mixed expressions. 


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The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher

By Bruno Ernst

Book cover of The Magic Mirror of M.C. Escher

Why this book?

Legendary artist and printmaker M.C. Escher wrote very little about his working method, but fortunately, he gave writer and longtime friend Bruno Ernst full access to his creative process. Ernst does a superb job unpacking the reasoning and revealing the secrets of this always logical but sometimes opaque master. After I read Ernst's chapter explaining the cylindrical perspective in Escher’s classic prints "House of Stairs" and "High And Low", I went right to work drawing my own cylindrical grid, which eventually appeared in my second instructional book Extreme Perspective!


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Architectural Graphics

By Francis D. K. Ching

Book cover of Architectural Graphics

Why this book?

I owe Francis D.K. Ching big time. What I learned about perspective in art school served me well enough during my first few years as a working illustrator, but there came a time when I faced a perspective problem beyond my experience on deadline, and I needed to pick up new skills fast. I knew the neighbor in the next apartment over was a graphic designer, so I knocked on her door to ask if she had any books on perspective, and this is what she had on the shelf. The perspective section is only a small part of this elegantly drawn and hand-lettered book, but the information in it was enough to solve my immediate problem and set me to exploring perspective on my own (and some thirty years later, I found my neighbor again on LinkedIn and returned her copy).


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