The best books on artists

10 authors have picked their favorite books about artists and why they recommend each book.

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Whistler

By Daniel E. Sutherland,

Book cover of Whistler: A Life for Art's Sake

Known to broad public due to the hilarious “Whistler’s Mother” starring Mr. Bean, James Whistler is a paramount American participant in the Fin-de-siècle artistic life of France and England and a predecessor of most important artistic endeavors of the 20th century. Daniel Sutherland combed all possible archives and  produced a stunning study of Whistler’s private life, full of scandals, sufferings, travels, and triumphs. From the childhood Whister spent in the tsarist Russia to his vagabond life in Paris, his life is always a journey and a self-quest. Eminently readable and bright narrative of a somber and paradoxical character.


Who am I?

Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies and a Professor of Jewish History in the History Department at Northwestern University. He teaches a variety of courses that include early modern and modern Jewish history; Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah; history and culture of Ukraine; and Slavic-Jewish literary encounters.


I wrote...

Lenin's Jewish Question

By Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern,

Book cover of Lenin's Jewish Question

What is my book about?

In this first examination of Lenin's genealogical and political connections to East European Jews, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern reveals the broad cultural meanings of indisputable evidence that Lenin's maternal grandfather was a Jew. He examines why and how Lenin's Jewish relatives converted to Christianity, explains how Lenin's vision of Russian Marxism shaped his identity, and explores Lenin's treatment of party colleagues of Jewish origin and the Jewish Question in Europe.

Petrovsky-Shtern also uncovers the continuous efforts of the Soviet communists to suppress Lenin's Jewishness and the no less persistent attempts of Russian extremists to portray Lenin as a Jew. In this fascinating book, Petrovsky-Shtern expands our understanding not only of Lenin, but also of Russian and Soviet handling of the Jewish Question.

Paper Son

By Julie Leung, Chris Sasaki (illustrator),

Book cover of Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Tyrus Wong, Immigrant and Artist

Many kids love the Disney animated film Bambi, but how many know they have a Chinese American immigrant to thank for its lush and lovely look? Author Julie Leung tells the moving story of a boy named Wong Geng Yeo who traveled across an ocean from China to America with little more than the immigration papers he needed to start his new life. Chris Sasaki’s delicate illustrations detail how Wong dreamed of making art even as he worked as a janitor at night to pay the bills. The love and care that Tyrus Wong poured into what would become one of the great movies of love, friendship, and, years before The Lion King, of the circle of life, Paper Son is an exquisite reminder of the great gifts that immigrants have brought to America.

Who am I?

I am an award-winning children’s book author who writes stories about ordinary people, like you and me, that discovered their unique gifts and used those gifts, plus perseverance, to make the world a better place. All my books come with free teacher guides, resources, and projects on my website where kids can share photos of the great things they do.


I wrote...

Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring

By Nancy Churnin, Felicia Marshall (illustrator),

Book cover of Beautiful Shades of Brown: The Art of Laura Wheeler Waring

What is my book about?

Beautiful Shades of Brown tells the true story of Laura Wheeler Waring, who didn’t see any paintings of people who looked like her. She didn’t see artists that look like her when she was growing up in the late 19th century, either. Determined to change this, she studied art in America and Paris. Back in Philadelphia, the Harmon Foundation, admiring her brilliance, commissioned her to paint portraits of accomplished African Americans. She did! Her portraits traveled around the country and now hang in Washington DC’s National Portrait Gallery, where children of all races can admire the beautiful shades of brown she captured. At the end of the book, you can see reproductions of Waring’s actual paintings and learn about the people she portrayed.

The Secret World of Walter Anderson

By Hester Bass, E.B. Lewis (illustrator),

Book cover of The Secret World of Walter Anderson

The Secret World of Walter Anderson is one of my favorite picture book biographies. From the first lyrical lines, Bass draws the reader into another time and place where a solitary Mississippi artist climbs into his leaky skiff and sails off to an uninhabited island to paint the world around him. The watercolor illustrations are so wonderful, the reader will hear the crash of the waves, feel the warm sun on their shoulders, and breathe in the salty air right along with the illusive artist. It’s a brilliant story about a man who “may be the most famous American artist you’ve never heard of.”

Who am I?

I’m an award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books, including many biographies. I first fell in love with biographies when I was a child and read about young blind and deaf Helen Keller. Blind and deaf? I couldn’t imagine. Yet, page by page, as I stepped into little Helen’s world, I felt as if I experienced her struggles, triumphs, and tragedies right along with her. I discovered that in spite of her great challenges, she succeeded. That’s why I love biographies and why I write them. I hope my biographies open a door into someone else’s world that can remind readers that they can succeed too, in spite of obstacles in front of them. I try to write the sort of picture books I love—funny, whimsical, captivating, and unforgettable.


I wrote...

Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey

By Lori Mortensen, Chloe Bristol (illustrator),

Book cover of Nonsense! The Curious Story of Edward Gorey

What is my book about?

Nonsense! is about one of literature’s most creepily creative authors and illustrators who was the inspiration behind a generation of creators, including Lemony Snicket, Neil Gaiman, and Tim Burton.

Instead of following the crowd, Gorey did things his own way, writing strange stories with peculiar titles like The Abandoned Sock, The Galoshes of Remorse, and The Gashlycrumb Tinies. When other publishers rejected his work, he published them himself—curious stories that mingled sweetness and innocence, danger and darkness, all mixed with his own brand of silliness. Edward Gorey—mysterious, brilliant, a one-of-a-kind original. Will the curious stories of Edward Gorey ever end? Nonsense.

Nightbitch

By Rachel Yoder,

Book cover of Nightbitch

A mother of a toddler thinks she’s turning into a dog. Sign. Me. Up. I love a weird and wild story, and this was everything I could ask for. And this mom has the perfect right to explore and embrace her animal side. She’s given up her dream job to be a full-time mom, she’s lonely and exhausted, and she’s overwhelmed and deeply sad. But when she taps into the anger beneath all of that, the rage at our culture that treats mothers with schizophrenic disdain, she becomes something otherworldly, deeply primal, and very powerful. The book is beautiful and hilarious and upsetting in all the right ways, and shows how our anger may actually make us into the people we want to be.


Who am I?

I’m fascinated by angry, feral, primal women. In my book, ten stories feature these women, the ones doing the things we’re not supposed to do, thinking and feeling and saying the things we’re not supposed to. I think we’re beyond powerful when we embrace our anger, nourish and cultivate it, channel it. So I write about these women in the hopes that I’ll get a bit of their strength. The books in this list have inspired me as a writer and thrilled me as a reader.


I wrote...

Dig Me Out

By Amy Lee Lillard,

Book cover of Dig Me Out

What is my book about?

Dig Me Out is ten deeply absorbing stories about the women who won’t smile: angry, aching women, and women returning to base instincts, primal fears, and mythic power. Across past, present, and future, around the midwest and the world, these women demand we witness as they work to break through, to defy, to become. It won’t be pretty, and it won’t be safe, but it will be real.

Spanning genres, continents, and eras, Dig Me Out takes on misogyny and homophobia, societal and climatological violence, and the specter of our technologized future — all with a punk rock literary twist.

This Little Artist

By Joan Holub, Daniel Roode (illustrator),

Book cover of This Little Artist: An Art History Primer

Part of the This Little series, Joan Holub’s This Little Artist is an introduction to art history for our wee ones. Daniel Roode’s stylized figures with big round eyes illustrate greats such as Michelangelo, Mary Cassatt, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. A rhyme and portrait give an introduction on the left-hand page, and several facts follow to accompany the artist in their own setting on the right page. The book concludes with eighteen other artists and their techniques, as well as questioning what your reader might create. This is a little treasure of creativity and inspiration.  


Who am I?

In the course of everyday life, when I’m writing books for middle grade and young adult readers, board books spring to my mind. Sometimes they come from catching a glimpse of a child hugging a parent, or they may spring from a phrase I overhear or say myself. That sounds like a board book, I think, and I write it down quickly. Sometimes, I’ll wake in the night, and a board book text will come to me in rhyme. Along with writing board books, I’ve been recommending quality works at the readertotz blog since 2009 in order to raise the profile of the format. Authors, illustrators, and publishers must create the very best quality, and then we must support, enjoy, and celebrate the works. A simple eight words may introduce a first reader to a love of books for life.


I wrote...

I Love All of Me (Wonderful Me)

By Lorie Ann Grover, Carolina Búzio (illustrator),

Book cover of I Love All of Me (Wonderful Me)

What is my book about?

What do you love about you? Find out in this book full of wonder and love! I love my wiggle toes. I love my smelly nose!

From head to toe, there's so much to love about you! With charming illustrations and a bouncy text that begs to be read aloud, this padded board book is a joyous reminder to little ones to love their whole selves -- just as they are. A glorious celebration that's full of humor, love, and heart. Wonderful Me: Books that celebrate the milestone emotional and social moments of little ones!

Nature's Friend

By Lindsey McDivitt, Eileen Ryan Ewen (illustrator),

Book cover of Nature's Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story

Gwen Frostic overcame disability as a child to become one of the most famous nature artists. Through her engaging art and writing, Frostic reminded people to stop and revel in the wonder and beauty of the natural world which is all around. The colorful illustrations highlight the informative and lyrical text. 


Who am I?

I have been involved in the arts all my life, working as a writer, in film, and as a musician. I have degrees in music and creative writing and have studied visual arts and art history extensively as well. Besides being an author, I teach writing and humanities at the college level. I hope you enjoy these books as much as I do!


I wrote...

Dancing Through Fields of Color: The Story of Helen Frankenthaler

By Elizabeth Brown, Aimée Sicuro (illustrator),

Book cover of Dancing Through Fields of Color: The Story of Helen Frankenthaler

What is my book about?

They said only men could paint powerful pictures, but Helen Frankenthaler (1928-2011) splashed her way through the modern art world. Channeling deep emotion, Helen poured paint onto her canvas and danced with the colors to make art, unlike anything anyone had ever seen. She used unique tools like mops and squeegees to push the paint around, to dazzling effects. Frankenthaler became an originator of the influential “Color Field” style of abstract expressionist painting with her “soak stain” technique, and her artwork continues to electrify new generations of artists today.

Dancing Through Fields of Color discusses Frankenthaler’s early life, how she used colors to express emotion, and how she overcame the male-dominated art world of the 1950s.

Inkling

By Kenneth Oppel, Sydney Smith (illustrator),

Book cover of Inkling

Adventure awaits when an inkblot from one of Ethan’s dad’s sketches comes to life and leaps off the page. Sydney Smith’s inky illustrations add to the fun of this fast-paced and funny story about friendship and family. And because Inkling loves to read/eat up ink, and he takes on the mood of whatever text he’s just devoured, it’s also a cool and clever introduction for kids to some classics and to different genres of writing. 

What’s more, the book ends on a note that suggests a sequel that I can’t wait to read!


Who am I?

There are so many ways to make friends—and to be friends. As a painfully shy person for most of my life, I’ve learned that words aren’t always necessary, and that shared interests and non-verbal (or differently-verbal) communication can take you a long way. It’s probably why so many of my books focus on unconventional friendships, like that between a boy and a funny-talking fruit bat (in Megabat), a boy and his emotional support duck (in Quack), or even a bee and a flea (in Bee and Flea and the Compost Caper). Not surprisingly, I also love reading books that celebrate unlikely friends. These are just a few of my favorites. 


I wrote...

Megabat

By Anna Humphrey, Kass Reich (illustrator),

Book cover of Megabat

What is my book about?

Daniel Misumi has just moved to a new house. It's big and old and far away from his friends and his life before. And it's haunted . . . or is it? Megabat was just napping on a papaya one day when he was stuffed in a box and shipped halfway across the world. Now he's living in an old house far from home, feeling sorry for himself and accidentally scaring the people who live there.

Daniel realizes it's not a ghost in his new house. It's a bat. And he can talk. And he's actually kind of cute. Megabat realizes that not every human wants to whack him with a broom. This one shares his smooshfruit. Add some buttermelon, juice boxes, a lightsaber, and a common enemy and you've got a new friendship in the making!

Stitches

By David Small,

Book cover of Stitches

In this riveting memoir told through minimum text and vivid black and white graphic art, we learn of the hardships, sorrow, and choices Small dealt with as a young man. Although heartbreaking, this is ultimately a story of courage despite a painful upbringing. The reader senses how art helped Small cope with sadness, disappointment, and confusion growing up in a difficult family.

Who am I?

From the time I was a kid, I loved books about real people who lived through difficult and colorful times.  As a writer, I’ve written about people whose lives fascinated and inspired me like Franklin Law Olmsted (The Man Who Made Parks) I believe that a riveting story or memoir gives the reader a strong sense of a person and the times in which they lived. And after reading one of these books, I wanted to know more about the person and the period in which they lived.


I wrote...

Avis Dolphin

By Frieda Wishinsky, Willow Dawson (illustrator),

Book cover of Avis Dolphin

What is my book about?

Avis Dolphin is an unforgettable novel inspired by the true account of a young girl on the ill-fated Lusitania. It’s also a story of friendship, courage, and resilience set amidst war and unexpected terror.

Drawing Projects

By Mick Maslen, Jack Southern,

Book cover of Drawing Projects: An Exploration of the Language of Drawing

This book is great because it combines illuminating interviews with leading contemporary artists who draw, such as Cornelia Parker, Dryden Goodwin, and Charles Avery, with no-nonsense practical projects. The book has the atmosphere of an art school studio about it, which is understandable because it has sprung from the authors’ collective 45 years as artists and lecturers. It feels like a creative launchpad, one that will take your drawings in new exciting directions if you’re prepared to give it a go. This is a book you should get dirty in the studio. I can almost taste the charcoal dust in the air reading this book.


Who am I?

I started drawing in my twenties when I was lucky to meet and be inspired by tutors who passed on their passion for it. I have drawn and kept sketchbooks ever since: they trace the everyday things, my travels and important life events, but they are also places for thoughts and experiments, notes, and phone numbers. I don’t dare leave home without a sketchbook and pen in case I miss some unmissable thing. I went to art college, trained as a journalist, worked at a variety of art publications, have written three books about drawing, and exhibit and sell my drawings and prints. 


I wrote...

Sketch Your World: Drawing techniques for great results on the go

By James Hobbs,

Book cover of Sketch Your World: Drawing techniques for great results on the go

What is my book about?

Sketch Your World shows how 60 artists go about drawing on location and capturing the energy of the scene around them. Drawing can change the way you see your environment – it makes you stop, look and engage with your surroundings in ways that you probably wouldn’t otherwise. Sketch Your World is an accessible and encouraging guide, if that’s what you want to do too. It doesn’t try to tell you how to draw, but instead artists, architects, illustrators, students, and reportage artists explain how they select tools, find subjects, deal with onlookers and take creative risks.

You need only the simplest, cheapest items – just a pen or pencil and small sketchbook – to do this thing that can excite and sustain you for the rest of your days.

Holy Terror

By Bob Colacello,

Book cover of Holy Terror: Andy Warhol Close Up

Of the many biographies of Andy Warhol this early one remains the best, written by a man who worked and partied with the artist in the heyday of the artist’s glamorous world (and I make another brief cameo appearance). Everything about the enigmatic icon of contemporary art continues to inform our culture and I was deeply influenced not only by Warhol’s paintings but by my friendship with him from 1964 until his death in 1987. In books and movies he has been transformed into a cultural icon rather than the complicated amusing hard-working artist I knew. Bob Colacello wrote this book shortly after Warhol died and for me is the best portrait of the “real” Andy Warhol and the era he helped to define.


Who am I?

I have spent an exciting half-century in the New York art world as a dealer and an author and while my passion is to encourage people to enjoy art for art’s sake (rather than money or prestige) my many close friendships with artists demonstrate how much their life informs their art. The authors of these five books bring the art as well as the artists to life.


I wrote...

Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art

By Michael Findlay,

Book cover of Seeing Slowly: Looking at Modern Art

What is my book about?

When it comes to viewing art, living in the information age is not necessarily a benefit. So argues Michael Findlay in this book that encourages a new way of looking at art. Much of this thinking involves stripping away what we have been taught and instead of trusting our own instincts, opinions, and reactions. Including reproductions of works by Mark Rothko, Paul Klee, Joan Miró, Jacob Lawrence, and other modern and contemporary masters, this book takes readers on a journey through modern art. “The most important thing for us to grasp,” writes Findlay, “is that the essence of a great work of art is inert until it is seen. Our engagement with the work of art liberates its essence.”

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