10 illustration books every artist should read

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If you're looking for the best illustration books, you're in the right place. Whether you're a beginner or more established artist, we've rounded up 10 must-read books for illustrators in this essential list. 

These books don't just explore how to draw. You'll also find titles that give an overview of the history of illustration; instructional books to help you master the fundamentals of the craft; and books that'll help when you're struggling for inspiration. Whether you're a hobbyist, art student, freelancer or a studio professional, every book here is essential reading. 

Read on for our 10 must-read illustration books. 

01. Fifty Years of Illustration

This book charts contemporary illustration’s rich history.

Author: Lawrence Zeegen, Caroline Roberts | RRP: $40/£30 | Publisher: Laurence King Publishing | Published: 2014 | Format: hardback | Pages: 384

Useful reference book
Packed with inspiration

Let's start at the beginning. 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.

02. Thinking Visually for Illustrators

A thorough reference book for any illustrator.

Author: Mark Wigan | RRP: $32.95/£23.99 | Publisher: Fairchild Books | Published: 2014 | Format: Paperback | Pages: 184

Thorough look at visual language
Analysis of creation processes

What is visual language and how do you develop it? Mark Wigan's Thinking Visually for Illustrators asks you to "take a step back from your own work and explore the approaches of contemporary illustrators". He looks at work from students, recent graduates, and the people who teach them. The book is a little more academic than others on this list, but it's also one of the most thorough. The visual library will get your ideas going, but it's in the analysis of the processes behind each image that the book comes into its own.

03. Picture This

A fascinating insight into the psychology of image composition.

Author: Molly Bang | Publisher: SeaStar Books | Published: 2001 | Format: Paperback | Pages: 96

Leading book on composition
A must-read for any illustrator

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.

04. Color and Light

An indispensable illustration book for any artist.

Author: James Gurney | RRP: $24.99/£16.99 | Publisher: Andrews McMeel Publishing | Published: 2010 | Format: Paperback | Pages: 224

Leading book on colour and light
No jargon

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. 

05. Figure Drawing for all it’s Worth

A hugely influential instruction book for figure drawing.

Author: Andrew Loomis | RRP: $39.95/£29.99 | Publisher: Titan Books | Published: 2011 | Format: Hardback | Pages: 208

Great foundation info
Explores key principles 

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.

06. How To Be An Illustrator

A must-read illustration book for beginners.

Author: Darrel Rees | Publisher: Laurence King | Published: 2008 | Format: Paperback | Pages: 160

Covers core business principles
Interviews with industry pros 

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. 

07. Inside the Business of Illustration

This top illustration book tells you everything your teacher didn't.

Author: Steven Heller, Marshall Arisman | Publisher: Allworth Press | Published: 2004 | Format: Paperback | Pages: 2004

Explores strategy for success
Doesn't feel academic

Many artists shy away from terms like marketing and strategy. But understanding how these things work is the difference between a hobbyist and a successful professional. Marshall Arisman and Steven Heller's Inside the Business of Illustration 'tells budding illustrators everything that their teacher didn't know or their art director didn't tell them'. And it succeeds in doing so without sucking the fun out of drawing. This book includes interviews with illustrators, art directors, and art buyers (the current edition has an afterword with Milton Glaser) but is thoughtfully structured to avoid ever feeling too academic.

08. Show your Work

Invaluable self-promotion advice for illustrators.

Author: Austin Kleon | RRP: $11.95/£8.99 | Publisher: Algonquin Books | Published: 2014 | Format: Paperback | Pages: 215

Learn how to use your network
Tips for getting discovered

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.'

09. Champagne and Wax Crayons

An engaging and insightful book for illustrators at any stage of their career.

Author: Ben Tallon | RRP: £12.99 | Publisher: LID Publishing | Published: 2015 | Format: Paperback | Pages: 256

Clear, funny prose
Trademark scratchy drawings
Helpful for new freelancers

'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.

10. Lost in Translation

The perfect illustration book to get the creative juices flowing.

Author: Ella Frances Sanders | Publisher: Ten Speed Press | Published: 2014 | Format: Hardback | Pages: 112

Reminds you why you love art
50 clever illustrations

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.

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