5 Books That Helped Me See More Opportunities With My Art, Gain Control Over Procrastination, and Live a More Creative Life.

“Making art is dangerous and revealing. Making art precipitates self-doubt, stirring deep waters that lay between what you know you should be, and what you fear you might be.”- Art & Fear

Yesterday afternoon, I found myself lost in a maze of handwritten notes about books I’d enjoyed and was excited to recommend.

Twenty minutes in, an article about Da Vinci piqued my interest, so I moved to the comfy sofa to fully concentrate. An endeavour that culminated in me falling asleep.

Ironically, I’d sat down to share the secrets of avoiding procrastination, mastering time management, boosting art sales, and living a more creative life – but I had gotten distracted.

That said, reading about Leonardo was not only fascinating but enlightening.

Architect, engineer, scientist, sculptor and painter. His first job was as a theatrical producer and set designer, teaching him tricks with perspective that he carried on through into his paintings.

The Last Supper, Leonardo Da Vinci, Tempera on Gesso, c.1495-1498

Notice the viewpoint and how the angle or perspective of the table top has been shifted very slighlty towards us to reveal more of the surface but still sits comfortably within the composition, I’d never really noticed this before.

If you wanted ideas, he was your man.

Leonardo’s interests were broad, and new subjects compelled him so intensely that he usually left projects unfinished, which meant working with him was a nightmare. Clients would avoid relying on him because he couldn’t be trusted to finish.

“to urge Leonardo the Florentine to finish the work on the Refectory of the Grazie, which he has begun, in order to attend afterwards to the other wall of the Refectory of the Grazie; and that agreements to which he has subscribed by his hand be fulfilled, which shall oblige him to finish the work within the time that shall be agreed upon with him.” From Leonardo by Martin Kemp

He spent most of his time observing nature or pondering on scientific theories. In his defence, he was just getting interested in other more captivating subjects, like how to fly or understanding human anatomy.

Really, he was just being curious, which is making me feel a lot more soothed about my limited attention span.

“In addition to his instinct for discerning patterns across disciplines, Leonardo honed two other traits that aided his scientific pursuits: an omnivorous curiosity, which bordered on the fanatical, and an acute power of observation, which was eerily intense.” –  Walter Isaacson, Leonardo Da Vinci

So, after reading (or revisiting) over 20 books in 2023, here is a list of 5 books that have sparked my curiosity and given me some ideas and principles I’ve tried to adopt in my daily routines.

Live a More Creative Life

  1. The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity by Julia Cameron

“But do you know how old I will be by the time I learn to really play the piano / act / paint / write a decent play?” Yes . . . the same age you will be if you don’t.”
Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity

The Artist’s Way is laid out as a 12-week program to get back in touch with your creative self, with exercises, activities, and insights that help you overcome creative blocks and discover your true potential as an artist. Ever heard of ‘morning pages’? This book will show you how this simple practice can revolutionize your creativity and bring clarity to your life.

I read this book as an art student and can’t remember finishing the whole 12-week course, but I adopted two key practices that I use to this day.

  • Morning Pages
  • Artists’ Dates

Morning pages are so handy to stop your mind whirring over issues. The practice is to write freehand using a pen and paper, three pages of a train of thought. No editing, no re-reading, no punctuation. Just pure free-flowing words. If you’ve been tied to your keyboard, writing longhand for three pages can seem to take ages.

Your handwriting might not be able to keep up with the speed of your thoughts, but it can be very beneficial. Just getting any ideas, worries, or frustrations down on a page has a really therapeutic effect.

You’re not looking for solutions; you don’t re-read to try and discover your problems; you just write. The process is the cure.

I also love the concept of ‘Artist Dates’.

If you want to feel inspired, you need to book a date with yourself to go to an event, a museum, or a show. Preferably on your own (although I often bend the rules a bit and go with Vanessa)

So check your calendar for the next month. Where are you going to get inspired?

Making a date, actually going to a museum, going to a bookshop, going to these things on your own rather than with friends is the key; otherwise, you tend to end up just going for a coffee….( erm…I can confirm that is mostly true but we still had fun)

Face the fear of creating your art

2. Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (And Rewards of Artmaking) By David Bayles and Ted Orland

“What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit. In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.” – David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear

This book is particularly helpful if you went to art college but haven’t quite fulfilled that potential that you dreamed about whilst quaffing ale in the student union. It looks into the fears we all face – fear of failure, not being good enough, or not being understood. The authors, both artists themselves, share personal stories and advice on their own art journeys.

One key thing that beginners often get hung up on is their own style. If you’re searching for your style and have trouble thinking you’ll never find a unique voice. The exciting thing is that your unique voice is just by being you! Yay.

It’s a short read with motivational insights. The Artist Way is a slower-burn 12-week program; this feels like a little motivational boost when you need it.

“To all viewers but yourself, what matters is the product: the finished artwork. To you, and you alone, what matters is the process.” – David Bayles & Ted Orland, Art & Fear

Make Time for Your Art

How do you control your attention to focus on what matters in a world that’s trying to distract you from living the creative life you dream about?

These next books help you to make time, appreciate the dedication needed for deep artistic work and prevent yourself from becoming distracted from the task at hand.

3. Make Time: How to Focus on What Matters Every Day By Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky

“What Will Be the Highlight of Your Day?
We want you to begin each day by thinking about what you hope will be the bright spot. If, at the end of the day, someone asks you, “What was the highlight of your day?” what do you want your answer to be? When you look back on your day, what activity or accomplishment or moment do you want to savor? That’s your Highlight.

Your Highlight is not the only thing you’ll do each day. After all, most of us can’t ignore our inboxes or say no to our bosses. But choosing a Highlight gives you a chance to be proactive about how you spend your time, instead of letting technology, office defaults, and other people set your agenda.” – Make Time by Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky

‘Make Time’ is helpful if you’re struggling with finding time for your art. Juggling your schedule with your passions and everything else can roll into one. The authors both used to work at Google, and they have some great frameworks on how to prioritize your day. They also talk about social media and ‘infinity pools’. Apps that can continue to show you an exorbitant amount of things to distract you from what you want to get done.

The two main methods I use from the book are:

  • Daily Highlight
  • Time Timer

Illustration from: Make Time by Jake Knapp & John Zeratsky

I’ve found the daily highlight is a great way to be able to set a focus for the day that you’re excited about, but you know you can achieve without getiing into the minutiae of the to-do list. It’s also a great way to remember what happens on a daily basis, especially if things are super busy. (Another good method for this is ‘homework for life‘ by Matthew Dicks from the book Storyworthy)

My brothers and sisters often laugh at the other method I use.

It’s a timer.

Meant for and used by kids.

And I love it!

You turn the dial, and the red wedge gets progressively smaller as the timer runs down.

I have it on my desk, and I can quickly glance at how long I’ve been working rather than checking an app on my phone and getting drawn down another path! If you want to draw for 10 minutes, set a timer. See if you can answer your emails in 20 minutes and still have time for painting in the hour; set a timer.

It’s not for everyone; Vanessa often tidied it away when it first arrived because, for her, there was no conceivable reason why anyone would need it. And apart from anything else, it was ruining the look of the new coffee table.

But if you find yourself jumping from task to task and not fully concentrating on what you set out to do, it might be worth a go!

Beat Procrastination

4. Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life by Nir Eyal

You can start to see a theme with my procrastination!

‘Ten-minute rule’. If I find myself wanting to check my phone as a pacification device when I can’t think of anything better to do, I tell myself it’s fine to give in, but not right now, I have to wait just ten minutes.” – Nir Eyal, Indistractable

What I find interesting about Indistractable is the author, Nir Eyal, had previously written a book called ‘Hooked’. In Hooked, Eyal goes through the mechanics of what makes tech and social media apps so irresistible. Indistractable is like the antidote! Giving strategies on how to maintain our focus and achieve what we set out to do.

The biggest takeaway from the book was that it’s actually not usually the external triggers and influences that stop of from doing the things we want to do but internal emotional triggers.

“As is the case with all human behaviour, distraction is just another way our brains attempt to deal with pain. If we accept this fact, it makes sense that the only way to handle distraction is by learning to handle discomfort. If distraction costs us time, then time management is pain management.” – Nir Eyal, Indistractable

How to stay focused, not get distracted and do the hard (uncomfortable) work.

Make More Money with Your Art

5. Good Art Does Not Sell Itself: The Artist’s Definitive Guide to Visibility and Opportunites by Shirley-Ann O’Neill & Laura O’Hare

“Emma explained how she traced the success of her art career back to taking a mentor’s advice in her early career; to actively seek opportunities to share her work no matter how small. An art prize led to an exhibition, which created more exhibitions, and collectors, art critics and media began to notice here work.“- Good Art Does Not Sell Itself – In relation to the work of sculptor Emma Rodgers  

This was my most highlighted book of 2023.

It takes courage to show your art and make the decision to come out from your studio into the realm of criticism. This is an amazing book to have by your side.

It’s packed with practical strategies for marketing, building a brand, and finding the right opportunities to showcase your work.

It’s split into 4 sections and each page is like a mini-blog post that you can take advice from.

  • Mindset & Habits
  • Getting Artwork Ready
  • Opportunities to get visible
  • Implementation: artist visibility path

The different sections are good for different stages of your work. Some of the ideas on increasing the visibility of your works can help you to stay focused on the long game of creating.

One painting hung in a cafe or posted online can lead to a group show, which can lead to a solo exhibition. Every step is a stepping stone that’s hard to see at the start but builds over time.

Notes on the Quotes: Good Art Does Not Sell Itself

This book is relatable, informative and incredibly useful.

Their insights and recommendations are not only easy to understand but also applicable to real-life situations you find yourself in as an artist. You’ll find yourself nodding along and saying, I can do this! Highly recommended!

I really hope you find one of the ideas or books of interest, because even as a relentless pursuer of new shiny interests and ideas, some of the practices have really stayed with me and helped.

But as with everything, it’s unrealistic to say I’m a changed man, so at this moment, I’m sitting comfortably on the sofa nursing a hot brew, saying it’s ok to go down the odd rabbit hole and fully committing to a few creative ponderings.

This Post Has 54 Comments

  1. Carrie

    Thanks so much for taking the time to share these titles Will. I love your posts- always inspirational and relatable too. I am the world’s greatest procrastinator, especially when it comes to my art (but my closets are clean ) so at least two of these books look like they fit the bill. Happy New Year to you & Vanessa too.

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Carrie, hope you find then helpful.

  2. Jo

    Thanks for the book titles and summaries – really helpful and encouraging! I certainly feel less alone having read your article. Cheers!

    1. Will Kemp

      That’s great to hear Jo.

  3. Carolyn Colagiovnni

    Thanks Will. Always enjoy reading your emails. These look like great reads. Have a great year.

  4. Toi

    wonderful, looking forward to check out the books. Thank you.

  5. Cynthia

    Will, this was perfect timing! What a great list.
    I have been stumbling about and procrastinating because I feel undisciplined and undirected. I actually have a few of these books but have only leafed through them because, well, procrastination is a way of avoiding criticism, both from self and from “someone who might matter.”
    I had already decided that this year I would be more diligent in pursuing my artistic goals and I think reading these in the evenings over this next year will help.
    Thank you!

    1. Will Kemp

      That’s fabulous to hear Cynthia, hope it gives you the encouragement to re-visit them.

  6. Bob Mummert

    Hey Will, greetings from sunny Florida. FYI, found 3 of the 5 books at a used book website, “ Thriftbooks.com”. Now waiting for a quick arrival, my comfy couch and chill.Take care.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks for the tip Bob, really hope you enjoy them.

  7. David Yackley

    Art and Fear is a good one. I’ve recommended to the Art Dept. at a local College. Should be required reading for any artist on any level.

  8. Jen

    Hi Will,
    Thanks for this. I stil follow you closely and appreciate all the artistic insights you share.

  9. Peter Eckel

    I’ve read The Artist’s Way and competed the program. Highly recommended.

    1. Will Kemp

      Thanks Peter, pleased you found the Artist’s Way helpful.

  10. Laura

    Hi Will,

    Fantastic, you must have read my mind. Thanks for sharing these resources.


  11. Kathy

    Thanks for the book suggestions, Will! I definitely think I suffer from too many interests (aka distractions) and not enough focus. I love the concept of a “highlight of the day“! I also realize I need to read a book about da Vinci :) And most importantly, it’s nice to realize I’m not alone! Keep your wonderful newsletters coming! Kathy

    1. Will Kemp

      Hey Kathy, my pleasure, really hope you find them helpful.

  12. Susanne

    Such a timely article, Will. Thanks for your summaries and insights. I should make sure I don’t procrastinate and should jump online and begin ordering the books like Bob above just did! : )

    1. Will Kemp

      Ha, ha! glad you enjoyed them Susanne.

  13. Alana Blusol

    Thank you, Will! I have The Artist’s Way, buying other four today. Many blessings to you and Vanessa!

    1. Will Kemp

      Good one Alana, really hope you enjoy the other books.

  14. Mary jamieson

    As always Will , thx for this great info. I’m in the fear mode now, so going to ck out that one!

    Also, Any chance you can tell where to find that cool timer???

    Mary J

    1. Will Kemp

      Ha, ha, sure, the original brand is called ‘time timer’ but this one was a version on Amazon, if you put in ‘time timer’ into the search there should be a number of options.

  15. Susan

    Thank you for this encouragement . I’m in so much overwhelm and distraction by the good and not so good regarding my artwork, studio mess, business tech stuff and life in general. Much appreciated message.

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Susan, hope you find dome of the ideas of help.

  16. Ildiko Hammond

    Hi Will,
    This was really helpful and just what I needed at this time in my life. It has been 4 years since I’ve painted and 14 years since my last exhibition. Hoping these titles will help me change up my life.
    Thank you so much.

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased to hear the article was timely for you Ildiko, really hope they help bring that flow back to your work.

  17. Katherine

    Very helpful post and some great recommendations – thank you!

  18. C-Marie

    Thank you, Will, for all of these suggestions, but first I am going to look again at my copy of Carlson’s Guide To Landscape Painting, which I am assuming is the book next to the bottom in the picture. I am so glad to see it in your stack! Also, I am going to buy one of those little timers as I think that it will be fun to use.
    God bless you and Vanessa,

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure, yes, great detective work! there are some great tips in the book, especially thinking about landscape in terms of different planes.

  19. Lorrie Kempf

    Thank you so much for this! I just ordered several of them!

    1. Will Kemp

      Great stuff Lorrie, really hope you enjoy them.

  20. Peggy

    Hey Will, Happy New Year. The Artist’s Way is a a life changer if stuck tyoo. I have sent it to many friends this year after it kick started me back into painting two years ago. Its been incredible, solos, awards and lots of clients. I love the other recommendations, ill be getting ‘Good art does not sell itself’ for sure. All the very best and thank you, Peggy Zephyr.

    1. Will Kemp

      That’s so great to hear Peggy, what a result from one book. Yes, I think you’ll really enjoy ‘Good Art Does Not Sell Itself’ very actionable.

  21. Wendy Jones

    Happy New Year Will
    Thank you for this post and the book suggestions are just what I need right now. I have not long retired from work and still getting to grips with how best use my time. Committing more time to my art is top of my list, however I have found that it is not that simple as you have highlighted. Procrastination is my enemy so the book that deals with this will really help.
    I will let you know how I get on.
    Best Wishes

    1. Will Kemp

      My pleasure Wendy, really hope you find them helpful.

  22. Renate Pfeifer

    Thank you so much for your suggestions – I ordered all of them right know!
    Best regards from Vienna, Renate

    1. Will Kemp

      Oh wow, good one Renate, really hope you find them useful.

  23. Colette Deschenes

    As always, enjoyed reading you…
    I think I am going to get at least one of these books… and read it and try and apply it!!!

  24. Lydia Rivera

    Hi Will,
    Thank you so much! I just purchased 3 of your recommended books that target fear, distraction and time management – it’s nice to know I’m not the only one that struggles to do the thing that I love. I also purchased one for my son who has a photography business but could use help getting his work in galleries and exhibitions. Thank you for sharing what has helped you.
    All my best…

    1. Will Kemp

      Sound perfect Lydia, hope your son finds it helpful.

  25. Cecilia

    Hi Will, with the skills that I’ve learned from your landscape sketching course (awesome), the new time-management boost from ‘Indistractable’ that you recommended (a great read), plus a free download from the Met Museum Publications of Van Gogh’s treasured drawings, I finally have a straight and enjoyable path toward sketching after my ‘rockstar’. Good luck in everything you do, thank you for everything!

    1. Will Kemp

      Great stuff Cecilia, so pleased you enjoyed the course.

  26. Persephone Whiffen

    Thank you so much Will for the book recommendations. I’m working my way through the weekly tasks highlighted in The Artist’s Way book and am reading Art and Fear too. Fantastic books that I know are going to make a massive difference to my life.

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased you’ve been enjoying them Persephone!

  27. Giovanna Scott

    Appreciate your recommendations (and showing us how “normal” you are!). I am totally sold on the last book just from the image about visibility and opportunities. Have been wrestling with this for a while. Thanks Will.

    1. Will Kemp

      So pleased you found them helpful Giovanna, really hope you enjoy the books.

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