My favorite art books aren’t necessarily about art. They’re about peak performance and neuroscience. I’ve been studying this subject since the very beginning of my illustration career when there weren’t any books at all on the subject.
Or so I thought. I adore books and back then, during one of my long visits to a local bookstore, I found a thin volume entitled, Creativity: Genius and Other Myths, by Robert Weisberg. The book was all about one of my suspicions in art school: that the idea of talent was overblown and useless. I thought that because I knew I didn’t have any. And many instructors told me I didn’t have any either. But I had a desire to learn.
Weisberg’s excellent book was the only one out there for a long time until I stumbled over the performance studies conducted by Anders Ericsson. He wanted to understand why some people could excel in fields like athletics and music, while the majority struggled.
As I read through these books, their discoveries about music led me to understand other creative endeavors such as writing and painting. My speculations about innate talent became clearer.
You can train with the intensity and extreme focus of an Olympian to achieve your goals as an artist.
I applied what I’d learned and watched my skills take hold and then soar. I’ve studied the myths of talent for decades and have used what I describe as ‘focused training’ to continually improve my ability to paint.
I’m not the only one tracking this. Besides athletes, there are now lots of successful creatives, musicians, artists, and authors using neuroscience to understand how they perform. You can train with the intensity and extreme focus of an Olympian to achieve your goals as an artist.
Each of these books overlap each other. What seems unclear in one will be simplified and explained again in another. Taken as a whole, I generally read them in this order, making new discoveries as I went.
They are mind-openers about a subject which so many claim to have a deep understanding.
The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle
Start with this one. For a succinct and easy understanding of how you grow your skills, this one will get you flying. This is the one to blow your mind right off the bat. Be prepared to learn how simply you can achieve, if only you can focus.
Mindset, Carol Dweck
The classic of neuroscience books that describes the differences in peoples’ mindsets in their approach to life. It practically describes the polarity in today’s societal issues and why. It will challenge just how open-minded you think you are. Artists are all about that, aren’t they? Uh huh.
The Genius in All of Us, David Shenk
Wonderful and necessary new information about IQ and genetics that will actually inspire and free you up to gain confidence.
Talent is Overrated, Geoffrey Colvin
Gets right to the point. Based on an article in Fortune magazine, Colvin explains how it’s not just hard work, but a very specific kind of work. (What I call ‘focused training’) The key to all of these books is how you train, how you analyze results, and how you learn from mistakes.
A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink
Fascinating book about the right/left hemispheres of the brain and how they do what they do. How the right brain dominates in the creative market place. How artists and creative thinkers are becoming leaders in more fields than simply art and graphics, and will eventually guide the species forward.
Bounce, Matthew Syed
Specifically studies sports performance, but every time he talks about training, you’ll hear artistic training. It widens out into many other fields that draw on similar methods to achieving skills.
Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
Another classic of the field about his famous investigations of ‘optimal performance’ and focusing your attention to keep you in the zone, or ‘flow,’ as a state of consciousness.
Creativity: Genius and Other Myths, Robert Weisberg
This is the one that got me rolling as a young artist. It has been updated, but appears to only reach academics. Get an old copy of the original as they’re still out there.
Peak, Anders Ericsson
Ericsson wrote about the subject so early that his original books about it are almost unreadable for the layman. He teamed up in recent years to work with an author to clarify his studies in this incredibly inspiring book. It’s a great way back to the main understanding of focus and peak performance for this list.
But there’s one last book to bring us full circle from above…
The Little Book of Talent, Daniel Coyle
A tiny little book with a huge heart that’s brilliant for distilling the complicated information down to helpful bits and habits to build and use for growing your skillset. I wrote about it on Muddy some years ago.
Extras: anything by Richard Restak about learning and brain performance.
Many more books come out regularly now. None seem to focus on art alone. We’re artists, right? For a subject so wrought with ideas about ‘how to be creative’ and chock full of methods for ‘opening your mind’ to creative thinking, it still falters from the stigma that one is born an artist, with innate talent, or they are hopelessly lost and will never make it.
The myth of the gift is still with us. Don’t let it slow you down.