It feels like such a simple thing to start a post by saying “I love art,” but, I mean, I do. And that’s really the whole basis of this list. My earliest childhood memories include a child easel and countless coloring books. From there, I graduated to art classes and have spent my entire life at the very least doodling on any paper within inches of my hands. I’ve also never met a museum or gallery I could walk past without popping into — the same as bookstores. So it’s not really surprising that I’m always delighted to find books that in some way are art-y.
I don’t mean straight up picking up a nonfiction tome on Vincent van Gogh or Frida Kahlo — although I have read many of those. But rather, I mean choices that are a bit outside the box. This is the land of creatives, after all. So the biographies I have are in the format of graphic nonfiction and picture books. The nonfiction is about colors and their histories. The memoir is about a portrait artist whose outlook changed thanks to meeting a group of artists building Disability Culture. And the fiction ranges from a YA graphic novel to crime and mystery novels. Each book either focuses on an artist or a person with a job related to art, is set in the world of art, or even is inspired by colonizers stealing art and the original countries stealing them back from museums. It’s an excellent group of books whether you already love everything art related or just want to dip your toe in a world of creatives.
Kusama: The Graphic Novel by Elisa Macellari
The perfect medium for an artist biography is graphic nonfiction. I mean, what better way to celebrate an artist than with graphic illustrations?! That’s why I’m starting this list with two of them. In this graphic biography, you get to watch Japanese contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama from a young artist in Japan to 1960s New York and finally back to Japan as she rises in fame around the world. The illustrations really do such a wonderful job representing Kusama’s life and art. This is one to linger over the pages and read more than once.
Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide by Isabel Quintero and Zeke Peña
A wonderful way to experience and get to know artists you may not have heard of is graphic biographies. I love Isabel Quintero (Gabi, a Girl in Pieces), and then I saw the cover of this book and immediately bought it knowing nothing else. It tells the life of Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide and how she sees the world around her through her camera lens. It’s told through a wonderful mix of black and white comic strips, photographs, and collages. It’s beautiful and powerful.
Unbound: The Life and Art of Judith Scott by Joyce Scott, Brie Spangler, and Melissa Sweet
I recently started reading a picture book a week, and it’s one of the best life decisions I’ve made. Biographical picture books are an excellent introduction into people, and like graphic nonfiction, the illustrations are perfect to showcase artists. Here we learn about Judith Scott, who was Deaf, nonverbal, and had Down syndrome. Her story is told by her twin sister Joyce, who enrolled her in art classes, a step that would later result in Judith’s work being displayed in galleries and museums around the world.
Still Lives by Maria Hummel
This is a missing person mystery: a famous artist that a gallery is relying on to revive their business disappears on opening night. Her exhibit is paintings of famous crime scenes where women were murdered that she has painted herself into. The beginning half of this book is an exploration of the art world and of our obsession with violence towards women.
The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair
I love a fascinating and informational book that you can dip in and out of. Maybe today you’re feeling like a sunflower and want to learn about yellow, so you pop into Blonde or Acid Yellow. Tomorrow, you may be feeling like you want to know more about Cochineal. Or maybe you want to learn about the language around colors and if it affects how we see the color. It’s a great book to also leave on the coffee table and see what section people gravitate towards.
Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li
This literary crime novel is inspired by Chinese art vanishing from Western museums and focuses on the diaspora and Chinese Americans while firing at the colonization of art. Oh, and the ringleader, Will Chen, is an art history major hired to steal back bronze Chinese sculptures from museums.
Slip by Marika McCoola and Aatmaja Pandya
Here’s a YA graphic novel tackling big things while set at a summer art intensive. Jade was thrilled to be going to the Art Farm to get to be purely artistic, but before leaving, her best friend Phoebe attempted suicide. Now, Jade doesn’t know what to do with all her emotions, and her ceramic pieces are coming to life in the kiln…Jade will get to find her voice through her art while having to deal with real tough things, like someone you love going through a mental health crisis.
The 99 Boyfriends of Micah Summers by Adam Sass
In this YA romance, we follow the teen son of a local celebrity as he tries to find his prince charming, keep his friends from leaving Chicago, and most importantly for the theme of this post, he’s trying to find his artistic voice. Or maybe just get the courage to no longer show his art anonymously on Instagram and instead show a mural he’s been secretly working on. Bonus: Micah gives us great descriptions of his artwork and his process.
Golem Girl: A Memoir by Riva Lehrer
Riva Lehrer was born with spina bifida, and because her parents and doctors took the ableist mindset of “fixing” her, she grew up with the message of being “broken” and all the things that would not be possible for her. She then got invited to a group of artists working to create art against the harmful disability tropes and ends up painting their portraits. Through this work, she found herself able to work against the things she’d been told growing up. Read her story and look at her powerful work in her memoir.
Portrait of an Unknown Lady by María Gainza, translated by Thomas Bunstead
This literary novel takes readers into the 1960s Buenos Aires art world and is narrated by an unnamed auction house employee and art critic who is trying to figure out the identity of a mysterious art forger. Their specialty is creating forgeries of a portraitist of Argentine high society. It’s a story about art, obsession, and beauty that asks, “what is authenticity?”
If your genre is romance, you may also want to check out these 9 Contemporary Romances Starring Visual Artists!