Top Books for Painting Ideas and Inspiration

Looking for an idea as to what to paint next? It is the rare artist who doesn't occasionally get stuck. What do you do when that happens? While that period of uncertainty can be somewhat scary for an artist, don't let it overwhelm you, and by all means, don't throw in the towel and give it all up. To the contrary, take some time to read through any of these books.

In these informative books you will learn things to do in order to generate painting ideas as well as get  suggestions for artistic exercises you can try. Some of them will give you specific step-by-step instructions and introduce you to new materials and techniques, others will be books you will want to return to again and again for inspiration and encouragement. As a result of reading them and engaging in  some of the exercises, you may find yourself on a path that you never anticipated but that inspires a whole new body of work. 

01
of 06
Paint Lab: 52 Exercises inspired by Artists, Materials, Time, Place, and Method

Paint Lab, a Book of Painting Ideas
Paint Lab: 52 Exercises Inspired by Artists, Materials, Time, Place, and Method, by Deborah Forman. Courtesy of Amazon.com

 Paint Lab: 52 Exercises Inspired by Artists, Materials, Time, Place, and Method, by Deborah Forman, is premised on the idea that painting should be about play, pleasure, and experimentation. She points out that "Picasso filled stacks of sketchbooks before his masterpiece Guernica came to be."  

The book is filled with fifty-two varied projects that use different materials, although the projects are idea-based rather than specific, so materials are interchangeable. The author recommends water-based paints, such as acrylic, watercolor, and gouache, and the gels and mediums that can be used with them. The projects are arranged in units by themes that are: inspired by artists; based on tools and materials; based on the concept of time; based on a sense of place; and based on color and technique. The steps of many of the exercises are illustrated with colorful photographs along with examples of the finished works. 

This is a book for both the beginner and more seasoned artist looking to revitalize their work and learn some new techniques. Buy from Amazon »

02
of 06
The Painting Workbook: How to Get Started and Stay Inspired

The Painting Workbook: How to Get Started and Stay Inspired
The Painting Workbook: How to Get Started and Stay Inspired. Courtesy of Amazon.com

The Painting Workbook: How to Get Started and Stay Inspired (2014), by Alena Hennessy, shows you how to get started painting, explains materials and process, and gives you 52 prompts to get your creative juices flowing. The book is especially good for experienced artists who want some new ideas and techniques to get them back creating. The book is illustrated in with bright colorful paintings that draw you in and fuel your imagination. Some of the prompts are more detailed, allowing you to follow them step by step  to create your own version. Prompts include such things as Color Pairs, Silhouettes, Mirror-Mirror, Working with Nature, and Bless this Mess. Some of the mini-workshop prompts include Masking Technique, Light Impressions, and Paint with Prints. Buy from Amazon »

03
of 06
Painting Abstracts: Ideas, Projects, and Techniques

Painting Abstracts: Ideas, Projects and Techniques book
Painting Abstracts: Ideas, Projects and Techniques. Courtesy of Amazon.com

Painting Abstracts: Ideas, Projects, and Technique (2008), by Rolina van Vliet provides clear instructions, although not step-by-step, for sixty-five abstract paintings. The author explains the meaning and purpose of abstract painting, and then creates instruction based on the formal elements of art and design and principles of art and design, what she calls the primary and secondary picture elements, respectively. The exercises are theme-based, such as Variations in Shape, and Geometric Shape - with enough instruction to get you started, but not enough to inhibit individual creativity and expression.  Buy from Amazon »

04
of 06
The New Creative Artist

A Book to Develop Your Creativity, The New Creative Artist, by Nita Leland
The New Creative Artist, by Nita Leland. Courtesy of Amazon.com

The New Creative Artist: A Guide to Developing Your Creative Spirit (2006), by Nita Leland is a book for all artists, beginners to advanced. It is a new and revised version of her book, The Creative Artist. Leland says that anyone and everyone can be creative. According to Leland, this book is "a hands-on book of activities for stimulating creative thinking and doing. It taps into many different aspect of creativity, from theory, to technique, to practical exercises, for developing creativity in art and daily life."

From ideas for crafts and decorative painting, to ideas for realistic painting, drawing, and abstraction, this book is filled with activities that will ignite your imagination. Some of the activities include creating an autobiographical collage, putting ideas for projects into a jar to pull out whenever you need inspiration, keeping a small kit of art supplies - a sketchbook, gluestick, pencil, pen, scrap paper, etc. -  handy in your car for those moments when you're stuck in traffic or waiting for someone. The author emphasizes that everyone can learn to be creative and shows you how. The book includes many inspiring examples of fine arts and crafts.  Buy from Amazon »

05
of 06
Living Color: Painting, Writing, and the Bones of Seeing

Book About Writing, Living Color by Natalie Goldberg
Living Color: Painting, Writing, and The Bone of Seeing, by Natalie Goldberg. Courtesy of Amazon.com

In Living Color: Painting, Writing, and the Bones of Seeing (2014),  the revised and expanded version of Living Color, A Writer Paints Her World, Natalie Goldberg proves yet again how writing and painting go hand-in-hand, with one informing the other. Goldberg explains that "writing is a visual art" and that "writing, painting, and drawing are linked." She warns that you shouldn't "let anyone split them apart, leading you to believe you are capable of expression in only one form. The mind is much more whole and vast than that." (p. 11).  

In this unique and beautiful book, Goldberg describes the process by which she became a painter in a way that is part journal, part memoir. It is a process of exploration guided by intuition and the intellect of a gifted writer and observer of life.  Although for Goldberg, painting started out as "play" compared to her "real work" of writing, it evolved into something much more important in her life. Of her early painting style, in which she first drew the outline in pen and then filled in her drawing with watercolor, she says: 

"Drawing the outline first with my pen was important. It was how I created structure for my painting....And the drawing was not just a skeleton to be fleshed out, like an outline in writing. The line was more like the thin wire some stores use to cut cheese. The wire often disappears from sight in the center of a cheddar wheel, but it still separates the wedges. The drawing in my paintings might become blurred, almost gone, in its contact with watercolor, but it still helped me create the shape of the painting." (p. 19)

The book consists of thirteen essays with titles such as "How I Paint," "Hanging Onto a Hershey Bar," and "Painting My Father" that are illustrated with Goldberg's own bold and brightly colored paintings. The essays are paired with drawing and painting exercises that will have you thinking about and seeing the world in new and invigorating ways.

There are also new chapters describing Goldberg's path to abstract art and her quest to paint "from deep within" rather than from the visible world. She experiments with new media - acrylics and oil pastel among them - in her attempts to go "beyond form," as one of the chapters is titled, and access what is beyond the material world. 

More of her paintings are included in a gallery at the end of the book.

While this is not the book for you if you want to learn new step-by-step painting techniques and try new materials, this is the book for you if you are a writer or a painter, are seeking to ignite your creativity, and to learn new ways of seeing. Goldberg proves that learning to see, both externally and internally, is vital in the painting process. If you are looking for hope, inspiration, and renewed vision, don't miss this book!  Buy from Amazon »

06
of 06
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative

Book of painting ideas and inspiration, Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon
Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative, by Austin Kleon. Courtesy of Amazon.com

Initially conceived as a lecture to college students, Steal Like an Artist: 10 Things Nobody Told You About Being Creative (2012), by Austin Kleonis an engaging little book brimming with useful advice about how to generate ideas and nurture your creativity in the digital age. Based on the premise that "there is nothing new under the sun"   and that creativity is just a "mashup" of what already exists, Kleon advises you to constantly be collecting ideas by being inquisitive, asking questions, taking notes, copying what you like, and practicing your art, even if it involves "faking it until you make it."  

Like Natalie Goldberg, in Living Color (see above), Kleon also advises keeping all your passions. If, like Goldberg, you love to write and paint, do both. Or, as Kleon describes his own experience:

"About a year ago I started playing in a band again. Now I'm starting to feel whole. And the crazy thing is, rather than the music taking away from my writing, I find it interacting with my writing and making it better    - I can tell that new synapses in my brain are firing , and new connections are being made." (p. 71)

Kleon mixes unique contemporary advice with traditional practical advice like "stay out of debt" and "keep your day job." The book is illustrated in an entertaining easy-to-read graphic style of doodles, pictures, and cartoon-like drawings done by Kleon, himself.

The ten major ideas he outlines to unlock your creativity are conveniently summarized and listed for the reader on the back cover of the book, giving you yet another reminder, even when the book is face-down, that the opportunity for creativity exists everywhere, and everyone can be creative. No excuses allowed. Buy from Amazon »