Summer Reading List for Artists - 2024 Edition – Marianne Vander Dussen

Summer Reading List for Artists - 2024 Edition

Ahhh, summer. The longer, hotter days invite us to slow down, relax, and spend some time taking care of ourselves before the busyness of fall. 
And if you're anything like me, that means tending to your neglected reading list. I currently have an embarrassingly tall pile of unread books staring woefully at me from beside my bed. 
If you're looking for a new summer read, I've put together my top five art-related book picks for summer 2024 in this blog post. Some of them are classics that I've had for years, and others are new favourites. But each one comes with a wholehearted recommendation and stamp of approval from my studio. 
Also…it was really hard to choose just five. So I'm going to be releasing this list quarterly, with new picks for every season. I hope you enjoy!
P.S. Feel free to let me know what you're reading in the comments below!

1. The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life by Twyla Tharp

If you liked James Clear's Atomic Habits, you'll love The Creative Habit. One of my greatest pet peeves is how the word “talent” is used to explain an artist's skill, as if genetics or luck have predetermined their abilities. Twyla Tharp smashes this assumption into smithereens, and gives an actionable framework for you as an artist to build the habits and patterns that will propel you towards success in your respective niches.

If you've known me for awhile, you've probably heard me tell the story of the yellow towel, which I took from this book. Here's the direct excerpt: 

"When Mike Nichols was directing the Broadway musical, Annie, one scene that was supposed to be funny was failing to get laughs. He tried everything. Nothing worked. The audience watched the scene, but didn’t laugh. So, Nichols asked a fellow director, Jerome Robbins, to take a look. Then, Nichols asked Robbins how to fix the scene. Robbins pointed to a white towel hanging on the back of the set.

“The towel should be yellow,” Robbins explained.

“That’s it? That will make the scene work?” Nichols thought, but did not say aloud.

Nichols changed the towel. From then on, the scene got laughs.

When it comes to creativity, everything is subjective. Except when it isn’t."

The reason I love this story is because I view the yellow towel as being a metaphor for when something is wrong, but you're not sure what it is. If your painting or drawing feels like it's off, or something about your studio setup is bothering you but you're not sure what, you're actually searching for the yellow towel. It's a little piece of friction that, once removed or adjusted, will allow the whole system to function as it should. 

If someone is telling you to just live with it, it's not that bad, it'll grow on you...maybe if will, or maybe you've got a towel to fix. Knowing the difference is crucial, and for me it boils down to both intuition and experience. 

2. Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson  

They say that when you truly admire someone, you should study not just their work, but their entire life. As someone who is profoundly inspired by Leonardo's Codex sketchbooks, I decided to pick up this book a few weeks ago, and I've barely been able to put it down.
Isaacson as an author is a bit of an artiste himself, writing about Leonardo's life with the same reverence and respect as one would paint a portrait. You can't help but feel drawn into a world where the de Medici family handpicked the painters whose names would live on for all of human history (most infamously as the Ninja Turtles). 
One of my favourite moments is in the beginning, where Isaacson asks a scholar of da Vinci if Leonardo would have seen himself as an artist or a scientist. The scholar replied that Leonardo saw no distinction between the two.
I absolutely love this. As an educator, I often feel frustrated by our collective desire to categorize and separate the world around if it weren't all inextricably linked. I reject the concept that artists can't be good at math and science because we're "right brain thinkers," and Leonardo da Vinci certainly would've found the notion laughable.
The best thing about reading his biography is that you feel inspired to shed your inhibitions and preconceived notions of your own capabilities and walk in his great footsteps. 

3. The Art of Still Life: a Contemporary Guide to Classical Techniques, Composition and Painting in Oil by Todd M. Casey

This pick is for all you oil painters out there. I absolutely adored reading this book, and Casey's mastery of oil is impressive. This is both an outstanding reference resource and fabulous coffee table book. Even as a seasoned artist, I felt like I was sitting in a masterclass. Little tidbits of valuable information are embedded in practically every paragraph.
Casey covers so much ground in this book, it's difficult to do it justice in only a few short paragraphs. In addition to teaching about the art of still life, he also touches on setting up your studio space, colour mixing, and a multitude of other painting practice tips and tricks. But if you're an oil painter, looking for a large resource that will act as a de facto teacher and mentor, this book is for you. 


4. Painting in Acrylics: the Indispensable Guide by Lorena Kloosterboer

The book that completely transformed me as an acrylic painter. I feel like enough time has passed for me to now share this story: back in 2015, when I was working on my Master of Education degree, I was attending the prestigious Canadian Society for Studies in Education (CSSE) conference in Ottawa…and I decided to sneak out halfway through to go to the National Gallery of Art instead (a part of me is still worried my supervisor will find out, lol). The experience left me floored, and on my way out, I passed through the gift shop and picked up Painting in Acrylics. That night, in the youth hostel I was staying at, I stayed up late reading the book from cover to cover. It's been my go-to recommendation for emerging acrylic painters ever since.
This was the book that taught me literally everything I know about acrylic painting. It taught me how to tone my canvas, how to create a wet palette, how to use mediums, how to mix colours, and how to think in layers. Lorena Kloosterboer includes numerous step by step examples of not only her own paintings, but of other renowned artists in a variety of styles.
I think this book belongs on the shelf of every acrylic painter. Trust me when I say that you won't regret it. 

5. The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron

An absolute classic. You may already be familiar with The Artist's Way, but if you're not, get yourself a copy (your local library will also probably have it). Just like The Creative Habit, Julia Cameron explores how being an artist isn't just a profession, but a way of life, and can be supported and strengthened through lifestyle modifications. Regardless of whether you're an artist as a hobby or as a career, this book will make you feel seen, heard, and understood. I personally have The Complete Artist's Way, which includes three books in one, and I like to read it whenever I'm feeling lost or unmotivated. 
One of Julia Cameron's main ideas, the Morning Pages, is an excellent exercise, but for artists can be modified to be a morning sketch. The idea is that we often bottle ourselves up and need a ritual to unleash our creativity before we can truly get to work. Ritual, habit, practice and exercise are all concepts that are repeated in various forms throughout all of my recommended reading titles, because they work


BONUS BOOK: Slow Productivity by Cal Newport

Okay, so this doesn't have to do with art per se, but it's groundbreaking for anyone who always feels like they're behind in a world obsessed with immediate gratification. One of my favourite conceptual takeaways is that you should automatically expect a project to take twice as long as you anticipate it will take. My immediate reaction was "What?! Won't that drop my productivity in half?!" But Newport makes the compelling argument that your initial timeframe estimation was wildly optimistic, and it's highly unlikely you would've met your own best case scenario timeline. There's more nuggets of wisdom in there, but reading this made me feel like the weight of the world was off my shoulders. I'm not inefficient; I just chronically underestimate the true amount of time it will take to complete a painting. 


That's it, my friends! Let me know what you you already own any of these titles? And if you do wind up ordering one or more of these recommendations, I'd love if you circled back and shared your thoughts! 
Please note: the links included above are Amazon affiliate links, which means I may receive a small commission should you choose to purchase a book through the link. However, I am a HUGE fan of supporting local, so feel free to write this list down and take it to an independent bookseller. 


  • Hollie Hilton

    I have three of your picks, also my favorites! Twyla’s book is so inspirational and like Atomic Habits explains the importance of rituals for success. She has some great personal habits that are motivational. Walter Isaacson is masterful with this book about Leonardo, I have underlined a lot in this personal favorite. The Artist Way is a staple for any creative soul. I just dropped your other recommendations in my cart for my summer reading. Thank you, Marianne!

  • Maria Jesús

    Buenas tardes, muchísimas gracias por los consejos, me gustaría tener a mano alguno de los libros que has comentado, pero, no tengo ni idea de inglés, miraré, a ver si alguno está traducido. Tus comentarios son valiosos, muchas gracias desde Málaga, Spain

  • Peggy

    I was surprised to see that a book I already have, The Artist’s Way, was included here. I purchased it when I considered starting a blog. It was incredibly helpful to create writing habits and work through the purpose of my writing. It didn’t occur to me to modify the Morning Pages to include sketches.
    Marianne Vander Dussen replied:
    I’m thrilled that you love it!!! It’s such a great book. I think the principles included work beautifully for any and all artists, writers and creatives. It’s a classic for sure!

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