Favourite art books 2019 stack

My 10 Favourite Art Books From 2019

I recently returned from a Caribbean cruise with my parents, my sweetheart Cam, my sister and brother and their partners. This family gathering was to celebrate my Mum and Dad’s 65th (yes 65th!!) wedding anniversary. The cruise was marvellous in so many ways. It refreshed and reconnected our souls. And it slowed me down…..I took time to ponder and daydream, to hang out with various family members, to sketch and even do a bit of pastelling, and to read. Speaking of reading (one of my favourite pastimes!), for the last blog of the year, I thought I’d share my favourite art books of 2019.

I love books. What can I say. I love reading books, I love talking about books, I love sharing my passion for books!

I love the feel of them, the smell of them, the weight of them. If in digital version, I love the lightness of the tablet (Kindle in my case) and the secretiveness of them.

I love the way books can take you away to another world, the way they can teach you something or deepen your knowledge of a topic. I love that they can fill you up, make you laugh, flummox you, enlighten you.

I can’t wait to share my favourite art books with you!!! I’ve divided them into two categories: books about artists and their work and books about the creative process.

Books About Artists

I love reading about the lives and thoughts and process of other artists. Love it.  I’ve got four books for you in this category. Two are by Martin Gayford. (Basically I’ll read anything by this writer. His newest book, The Pursuit of Art, is on order so I can’t tell you about that …yet.) Another is by the Pulitzer prize-winning art critic Sebastian Smee. I was thrilled when I heard he’d written a book! And finally, there’s one by Ross King, an author who’s produced other historical art books such as Michelangelo and The Pope’s Ceiling and The Judgement of Paris (about Impressionism). He has a couple of new books out that I’m keen to read: Florence: The Paintings & Frescos and Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies.

A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney by Martin Gayford

I had this book for a year before I opened it up. Why? You know those books that you put off reading because you just know they’re going to be sooooo good that you don’t want to start them because that will mean you’ll come to the end?? This was one of those books. And oh did I enjoy it.

A Bigger Conversation - book cover

I’ve been a follower of David Hockney since the 1980s. I’ve always been intrigued by his art and also his ideas and how he constantly keeps reinventing himself and his work. This book allows us into the artist’s thoughts on process, on other artists like Vermeer and Turner, on the importance of place (Yorkshire and California for example). Hockney has a way of making you see things in a new way. He makes you think! It’s a fascinating book and I loved it!!

Here’s a random sample (pg.102):

“We see with memory. My memory is different from yours, so if we are both standing in the same place we are not quite seeing the same thing. Different individuals have different memories, therefore other elements are playing a part. Whether you have been in a place before will affect you, and how well you know it. There’s no objective vision everever.”

~ David Hockney

Modernists and Mavericks by Martin Gayford

This book is yummy! I read it slowly because I didn’t want it to end. I’m a fan of the work of Lucien Freud, Francis Bacon, and David Hockney. This book tells their story in relation to each other and to other London-based painters in the context of the 1940s through to the 1970s. It talks about their support of each other and their rivalries. And Gayford writes is such a way as to hook us in without us even realizing it! He makes reading soon easy. 

Modernists and Mavericks-book cover (one version)

(By the way, I’ve seen this book with three different covers!)

Here’s a random sampling (pg. 59):

“The objective truth of what we see is elusive: in one sense we all see the same thing, in another we all perceive it differently, filtered through our emotions and memories. This explains some of the agonies of Coldstream [an artist and teacher at the time] and his followers as they attempted to measure and represent which was really in front of them. One problem, as Hockney has also pointed out, is that the eye is connected to the mind, and so the data passed through the optic nerve to the brain is interpreted in very different ways. Thus there are as many ways of seeing the world as there are people.”

~ Martin Gayford

The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art by Sebastian Smee

This book was a total delight! Author Sebastian Smee pairs up eight artists (Manet and Degas, Picasso and Matisse, Freud and Bacon, Pollock and de Kooning) each related through their art, each influencing the other, each in competition with and supportive of each other. Smee tells his story of these relationships vividly, with wit and insightfulness. I so wanted more and hope Sebastian Smee writes another book soon!

The Art of Rivalry - book cover

(Another book with a variety of different covers!)

Here’s a sample (pg. 142):

Manet had attempted to win over critics by setting up a pavilion of his own outside the 1867 Exposition Universelle. He filled it with fifty of his paintings. But the gambit backfired. The show failed to sell, leaving him in debt to his mother to the tune of 18,000 francs. By the next year he had slipped into a serious funk. He was mourning his friend and confidant Baudelaire, who died at the end of August 1867. His rate of production had slowed almost to a halt. It seemed to him that whatever he ventured forth as an artist was delivered back at his door in tatters.

~ Sebastian Smee

Brunelleschi’s Dome: How a Renaissance Genius Reinvented Architecture by Ross King

I was teaching in Tuscany, Italy in June and after the workshop, I spent a few days in Florence. Naturally I had to take in the iconic structure of Santa Maria del Fiore with its famous Duomo. What made the visit to the cathedral even richer was reading, at the time I was there, this fascinating account of the competition for and construction of the famous dome, all set against the backdrop of life in the Renaissance. 

Brunelleschi's Dome - book cover

Here’s a sample that gives you a sense of what you’ll find in this book (pg 2):

Florence in the early 1400s still retained a rural aspect. Wheat fields, orchards, and vineyards could be found inside its walls, while flocks of sheep were driven bleating through the streets to the market near the Baptistery of San Giovanni. But the city also had a population of 50,000, roughly the same as London’s, and the new cathedral was intended to reflect its important as a large and powerful mercantile city.

Florence had become one of the most prosperous cities in Europe. Much of its wealth came from the wool industry started by the Umiliati monks soon after their arrival in the city in 1239. Bales of English wool – the finest in the world – were brought from monasteries in the Cotswolds to be washed in the river Arno, combed, spun into yarn, woven on wooden looms, then dyed beautiful colors: vermilion, made from Cinnabar gathered on the shores of the Red Sea, or a brilliant yellow procured from the crocuses growing in meadows near the hilltop town of San Gimignano. The result was the most expensive and most sought after cloth in Europe.

~ Ross King

Books on The Creative Life

Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

You’ve probably all read this book by now! I’ve had this book since it came out in 2016 (!) but only entered its pages this year. The delay was for the same reasons mentioned above for the Hockney book, namely, I put off the inevitable finishing of the book by not starting it! 

I’m a big fan of Elizabeth Gilbert (I loved her most recent novel, City of Girls!). She writes from the heart and with an openness about her life. My expectations were high for this book and I was not disappointed! She talks about creativity – about all the roadblocks and myths we bump into as we move along in our journey and how to cope with them. Gilbert is a marvellous writer who writes with passion, humour, and clarity. She inspires! Every time I pick up the book, open it randomly, and read a passage, I’m motivated to go and create. 

Big Magic - book cover

Have a read of this sampling (pg. 117):

So, yeah – here’s a trick: Stop complaining.

Trust me on this. Trust Werner Herzog on this, too. There are so many good reasons to stop complaining if you want to live a more creative life.

First of all, it’s annoying. Every artist complains, so it’s a dead and boring topic. (From the volume of complaints that emerges from the professional creative class, you would think these people have been sentenced to their vocations by an evil dictator, rather than having chosen their work with a free will and an open heart.)

Second, of course it’s difficult to create things; if it wasn’t difficult, everyone would be doing it, and it wouldn’t be special or interesting.

Third, nobody ever really listens to anybody else’s complaints, anyhow, because were all too focused on our own holy struggle, so basically you’re just talking to a brick wall

~ Elizabeth Gilbert

The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use it For Life by Twyla Tharp

This is a book I read and loved years ago when it was first published. Recently, I pulled it off the shelf as I entered into a new painting project. This is a great book to reach for if you feel like you’re at a creative impasse or are completely blocked or just want some inspiration. Tharp offers up exercises to get out of the rut and move forward with a creative project. I get excited just thinking about the book!!

(I know Tharp has a new book out, Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life, but I haven’t got my hands on it yet. Next year!!)

The Creative Habit - book cover

Here’s a taste (pg.184):

It’s going to happen sometimes: despite all the good habits you’ve developed, the preparation rituals, the organizational tools, the techniques for scratching out pre-ideas and actual ideas, there will come a time when your creativity feels you. You stare at the canvas, the screen, the keyboard, the empty room – and it refuses to meet your eyes. It looks away as if it’s ashamed of you. You may as well be painting on shards of broken glass. Your screen shows nothing but wavy lines. Your finger slipped off the keyboard, never getting traction. The room turns dark and cold, and someone is locking the door behind you. You are in a rut.

~ Twyla Tharp

Feck Perfection: Dangerous Idea on the Business of Life by James Victore

Okay, I admit it, I love the title of this book. It goes to the heart of perfectionism (something I definitely struggle with!). I’ve been a follower of James Victore for some time now. I love his out-there brazenness, his boldness in saying things like they are, and his humour. He makes you want to get in the studio NOW. Need a bit of a kick up the butt? This book’s for you!

Feck Perfection - book cover

Here’s a rather long sample but it will give you a sense of the voice of this book! (pg. 50):

Weddings are a test, not only for the bride and groom but also for everyone else. At some point, the music builds and there’s a cue: “Everyone dance now!”

But not everyone dances… cuz it’s a test. It’s a test of how comfortable you are in your skin. Check my wedding math: if half of the guests get up and dance, more than half of those are mummies. Their bodies are stuck in a fixed, dance like position, encased by the fear that moving will expose the dancing fool trapped inside.

Everyone can dance. To hell with the music; just let go and move.
What stops you is your ego. It doesn’t want you to look bad or funny or goofy.

Your ego starts to develop when you’re a child and is influenced and shaped over the years both by you and by society’s reaction to you. Its purpose is to protect you by controlling you. Like a gyroscope always reacting and rebalancing, making sure that it’s on top of the situation, your ego is in perpetual motion to keep you from feeling shame or embarrassment. It’s not bad, it’s a part of you – but it’s not all of you. Your ego wants you safe, but safety isn’t interesting or fun or creative.

To be freely creative is to be completely and honestly you, not a sphinctered-down version of yourself. Worrying what others may think is the death knell of creative work. You have to be willing to make a fool of yourself, or at least go out on that ledge. Creativity wants to let go of control and present authenticity and vulnerability. This is what moves others. This is attractive. Complete conviction makes great work.

I have a good pal who is possibly the worst dancer in the world but loves to dance. When he’s on the dance floor and flails his leggy body, he becomes the Lord of the Goofy Dance – and the crowd goes wild! It’s no surprise he’s also a brilliant filmmaker. Make the work you want to make, dance like a fool, and leave your ego at the door.

~ James Victore

Orbiting  the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace by Gordon MacKenzie

This book was recommended to me by the artist and author Nick Bantock (of Sabine and Griffin fame). It goes deep into how to keep creativity alive in the hairball – a tangled mess of traditions and rules. Published in 1998, and now almost a cult classic, this small book (I love the size!) is filled with the author’s experiences working on the edges of the Hallmark corporation. His stories are funny and inspiring. He urges you through example to stick keenly to the ideal of doing your own self-expressive work. You can see his creative expression in the fun illustrations. A delight to read!!

Orbiting the Giant Hairball-book cover

A sampling (pg. 21):

There is a Fool in each of us, you know.
A rash, brash, harebrained, audacious, impudent,
Ill-suited, spontaneous, impolitic, daredevil Fool, which,
In most of us,
Was long ago hog-tied and locked in the basement.
If you want to see a full-fledged Fool in action,
Watch an undisciplined child.
(The more undisciplined, the better!)
Oblivious to concepts of appropriate behavior,
Driven by rampant curiosity and innocent lust.
Raw genius,
Resolutely stumbling into hurt and wondrous dicks discovery.
Inspired, annoying,
Rapturous, petulant.
The creative savage of our being.

~ Gordon MacKenzie

Art Matters: Because Your Imagination Can Change the World by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Chris Riddell

A small book that tugs at my soul. Because Art does matter! This is a wee manifesto wonderfully illustrated by Chris Riddell. The book brings together four of Neil Gaiman’s writings: Credo -written after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, Make Good Art – commencement speech, Making a Chair – a poem about the joys of creating even when it doesn’t come, and On Libraries – an argument for keeping libraries. It makes you feel like cheering! (Well, it makes me feel like cheering…)

Art Matters-book cover

A wee sample:

Life is sometimes hard.
Things go wrong, in life and in love
and in business and in friendship
and in health and in
all the other ways that
life can go wrong.

And when things get tough,
This is what you should do…


I’m serious.

~ Neil Gaiman

Inside the Painter’s Studio by Joe Fig

When I bought this book, I treated myself to a chapter every morning before going into the studio. By visiting a single artist in his or her studio each day, I was inspired to go into mine and create. It was perfect! The 24 artists were each asked a series of similar questions about their journey as an artist, about their creative process, about advice for new artists. It’s fascinating and revelatory and confirming. I think I need to get Fig’s next book: Inside the Artist’s Studio!

Inside the Painter's Studio - book cover

Here’s a taste of what you’ll find (pg 33) – from an interview with Ross Bleckner:

Question (Joe Fig): Do you have a motto or creed that as an artist do you live by?

Answer (Ross Bleckner): I do. Life is short. Life goes fast. And what I really want to do in my life is to bring something new, something beautiful, and something filled with light into the world. I try to think of that every day so that I can remember why I am coming to my studio. And then the other thing is, just go, just show up.


So that’s my round up of favourite art books from 2019.

Have you read any of these? If so, what are your thoughts about them?

Please feel free to add to the list by sharing any favourite art books you enjoyed this year and tell us what made them special. I’d love to hear about them!

Until next time,

~ Gail

Here’s the list of my favourite art books for 2019 all in one place!

(Full transparency – if you purchase a book through any of the links, I get a wee commission. By doing so, I get to buy more books I can then share with you. Win win!!)

Family portrait on cruise
Me with my family on the Caribbean cruise celebrating my parents’s 65th wedding anniversary!

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23 thoughts on “My 10 Favourite Art Books From 2019”

  1. Thank you for this list. I’m going to order some of them to read on my upcoming trips. Have you ever read Robin Oliveira’s I Always Loved You about Mary Cassat and Degas? I read it about 4 or 5 years ago and it hit a chord with me.

  2. I am a big fan of yours. I do enjoy having your emails. I feel we are kindred spirits. How can I thank you for your suggestions which propel me forward,
    Your emails are medicine for my soul. Haven’t been “arting” for a long time …. ready to explode.
    Health issues and other life problems. I’ll get some of the books. I’m a long time Hockney lover too! I’m no longer young so some of my artist friends are dead. Love listening to you who see and say the things I miss hearing. Thank you. I live in New York City.
    Thought it was time to share how much I admire and enjoy you!

    1. Margo, thanks so much for writing and telling me how you feel about me and what I post in my blogs. You touch my heart.

      As to no ‘arting’ and a potential explosion (I get it!), what about picking up a pencil and small sketchbook, make a few scribbles, a couple connecting lines. It’s amazing how doing just this small thing can relieve that building pressure. And if that even seems too much, grab a pen and a napkin at the kitchen table, or take the back of a bill envelope and doodle on it, or use the corner of the newspaper and copy the face of some celebrity right there and then. Move hand as the eye looks and the mind computes. Drawing in such a casual way takes the pressure off of doing something ‘good’. Just do!
      Enjoy some of these books. If you are a Hockney fan, another book I really enjoyed a couple years ago was David Hockney: The Biography 1937-1975. There’s a second part – David Hockney: The Biography 1975-2012 – that I haven’t yet read. Then of course there are all the picture books!! Sigh. The 2017 book David Hockney has been recommended to me.

  3. Dear Gail,

    Thank you for this list of art books. I would like to read them all, but which one to get first is my dilemma. I enjoyed all the excerpts!
    And, your family picture is wonderful! Sixty-five years, WOW!

    Happy Holidays,

    1. Yay Carole!! Perhaps pick one book from each category? I don’t know how else to help you cos I love them all!

      And yes, 65 years together. It’s truly amazing! And I am soooooo grateful to still have these wonderful two human beings in my life.
      Happy Holidays!

  4. Love the pics of you and your family on the ship!!! Hope you had a wonderful time, and it sounds like you did….. I did, too, on my cruise… I got inspiration from just reading the excerpts you posted. Of all of them, I’m intrigued by Big Magic… Look for your wee commission 🙂

    1. How fun that we were both on a cruise at the same time!! The biggest shocks about returning mid-December were the darkness (!!) and the spectre of the Christmas Holidays for which I still am woefully unprepared!!
      Glad the excerpts were inspiring as that was my hope. I know you’ll like Big Magic Ruth!! I’ll look forward to hearing what you think!:-D

  5. Dear Gail,
    This is one of your best blog posts ever. I love the photo of you ad your family–you are all beautiful! You say how lucky you are to have such adorable parents, well, I think they are lucky to have such a gifted and generous daughter.
    I love your Christmas message, with its emphasis on love and sharing.
    As for the books..I’ll have one of each, please!!
    I wish you and your lovely family a Holiday season full of love and light.
    Nancy Malard

    1. Aww Nancy – thanks for giving me a huge thumbs up for this blog post! Sometimes when I put things out there, I wonder if they will be of any use or value so your appreciation is affirming 🙂 I’ll look forward to hearing your verdict on the books as you go through them hah hah!!
      And thank you for your kind words about me (blushing here). And really, I’m the product of my DNA and upbringing (thanks Mum and Dad!), with a little bit of my own stubbornness thrown in!!
      Thank you for your Holiday wishes. And the same to you!

      1. Ah, Gail, I beg to differ: anyone who is merely the product of her DNA could never do the work and write the comments that you do. There is much more to you than you realize! But that is not the subject here…

  6. Wonderful reviews! I remember seeing a David Hockney painting (swimming pool) years ago and being awe-struck without knowing why. And I worked at Hallmark during the times Gordon MacKenzie chronicles. In fact, I was an embarrassed and uneasy participant in the About Teasing chapter. Corporate loonyness gone amuck. I own this book. And I will look forward to reading more of these. Thanks!

    1. Marsha that’s AWESOME!!!! I want to know more about your encounters with MacKenzie and your Hallmark life. WOW!! Who knew. That’s so cool.

      Look forward to your thoughts on the other books!

      1. I worked in IT, installing computers on peoples’ desks. My team eventually converted the artists from pen, brush, ink to Macintosh computers, tablets (horrors!), Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.. It took a few years. Eventually the entire creative process was digitized. An artist might paint a fabulous rose. Then it was scanned, into a digital library of images, so if you needed a rose for a project you were working on, you didn’t need to paint a new one! You could grab the digital one, maybe alter it, etc. It was soul-killing actually, Business (that giant hairball Gordon fought against) dominated the Creative process. Well, Hallmark was in the business to sell cards. The highlights of my day were roaming around the Creative Division to see what the artists were working on. I remember Gordon around the building (many buildings on the campus actually). He was an anomaly, and his book really identified the paradox of Corporate culture clashing with Creative spirits. At one time Hallmark Cards employed some 600 artists, only Disney employed more. There were many product lines and amazing work by very talented people. I retired 20 years ago. And YES I want to read more of those books. Thanks for the book list. Merry Christmas

        1. Ohhhhh that’s soooooooo interesting Marsha!!! And how curious and wonderful that you were in IT and yet loved wandering in the Creative Division. And here you are in art-making. Now that makes me smile big time!!!

  7. Thanks, so much Gail. I’ve just downloaded and read Art Matters. I love Neil Gaiman’s work, but didn’t know this one. It made me cheer, too. Wow. I’ve downloaded a few more and will work my way through your list with pleasure. The photo of you and your family is wonderful. Wow. 65 years. It boggles the imagination. Have a wonderful holiday, Gail. Looking forward to a new year and reading more of your wonderful posts.

    1. Jean, happy to hear you are a Neil Gaiman fan too and that you enjoyed this wee book of his. I will look forward to your response to the others you have chosen to imbibe.
      Yes, the mind does boggle at the number 65! We had such a special time together, sharing experiences and also memories from times gone by.
      Happy Holidays to you too Jean. And bring on the New Year!!

  8. Pingback: Bits and Clips for December 2019 – Polly Castor

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Gail Sibley

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My love of pastel and the enjoyment I receive from teaching about pastel inspired the creation of this blog. It has tips, reviews, some opinions:), and all manner of information regarding their use through the years – old and new. Please enjoy!

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