A Short List of Books to Read in Short Bursts

I’m always reading too many books at once. If I count – like my friend forced me to count my succulent collection recently – it turns out I’m currently reading 10 books. (I’m not yet ready to publicly share how many succulents I have. That information would just be distracting anyway.) Of course, some of these books are in a hiatus sort of situation, and I should probably just start over because it’s been so long since I last opened them.

But other books I don’t feel bad about reading so incrementally slowly. Because these are “short burst” kind of books.

Short Burst Books Title Image with book hanging on a string

What are Short Burst Books?

A concept I just made up. I’ve been thinking about becoming a researcher lately, and researchers need to be able to make up new words and concepts at the drop of a hat. So don’t go throwing this phrase around and expecting people to get it.

But in my mind, short burst books are books broken into a lot of small essays. Usually, these essays are densely packed with information, inspiration, or just general goodness. So it’s better, actually, to only read a little bit at a time so your brain can really take it in.

Alternatively, maybe you only read bursts of these books when you feel uninspired, or discouraged, or need a kick in the butt to get going. Short burst books are excellent for that.

Okay, okay, you might be thinking. This short burst concept seems reasonable. Let’s see some of these books already.

I hear you. Just one more thing – this short list of short burst books is all about art. So if you’re not an artist, you might not be interested in the first book. If you have absolutely no desire to engage in any creative pursuits ever, you won’t care for the second book. And if you’re not a living, breathing human being, the third book won’t apply to you.

Let’s begin!

The Art Spirit – Robert Henri

Short burst books 1: The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

The Art Spirit is the most artsy book on this list. Its author, Robert Henri, was a famous and well-followed American painter and teacher during his time, which was 1865 to 1929.

Henri made important contributions to the art world, being part of the Ashcan School of Art and mysterious sound group The Eight (just kidding they were just a group of eight American painters). They challenged impressionism and academic standards of art at the time. I won’t go into it here because I’m not very knowledgeable on the subject myself, but you can read up on Ashcan and The Eight if you wish.

Because he’s such a big deal, Robert Henri didn’t even compose a book. The Art Spirit is a compilation of his works, speeches, letters, and instruction to students. The subtitle in my copy reads:

“Notes, Articles, Fragments of Letters and Talks to Students Bearing on the Concept and Technique of Picture Making, the Study of Art Generally, and on Appreciation.”

It does the book a disservice since the contents are far more interesting than the description. Henri and his editor Margery Ryerson have crammed The Art Spirit with excellent tips on art, motivation, and more specifically painting.

I have trouble ever getting very far in one sitting because I feel like I need to stop and paint so I can apply Henri’s advice. Perhaps because most of the fragments were written directly at his students, reading the book feels like you have a real, in-the-flesh artist speaking to you. A compact art teacher for busy artists on the go. (That sounded strange – sorry art teachers.)

It’s probably better if you just read some quotes for yourself. Like these broad art-teacher-y quotes:

“An interest in the subject; something you want to say definitely about the subject; this is the first condition of a portrait.”

“A weak background is a deadly thing.”

…to the specific and sometimes odd quotes:

“The white of the eye is more often the same color as the flesh about it than the average painter is likely to think it to be.”

“The eyebrow must not be drawn hesitatingly.”

…to the motivational, of course:

“Don’t worry about your originality. You could not get rid of it even if you wanted to. It will stick with you and show up for better or worse in spite of all you or anyone else can do.”

The War of Art -Steven Pressfield

Short burst books 2: The War of Art by Steven Pressfield

Next on the list is a better-known work of creative inspiration. The War of Art is a motivational staple for creatives of any sort. I first borrowed this book from the library. I read the first chapter, a preface of sorts called “What I Do.”

Hey, this is me, I thought. This is the kind of routine that I need to be figuring out for myself.

At the surface level, the intro is relatively mundane compared to the rest of book. All Pressfield does is outline his daily routine as a writer. But read through my freelance writer eyes, Pressfield stirred up aspiration (I need to figure out my routine too!) and trust (this guy knows my life). I was ready to soak up everything this pro-writer was saying. I still am.

Steven Pressfield’s advice doesn’t just apply to writers. Visual artists, musicians, homemade crochet craft business owners – go for it. Read this book.

The War of Art is a series of short essays that deals with the creative’s worst enemy – writer’s block, artist’s block, lack of motivation, procrastination – all summed up as something he dubs Resistance.

He has three sections; defining Resistance, combating Resistance, and beyond Resistance. The chapters are super short, not even a page long in some cases, so you have no excuse to not give it a shot.

As my conclusion, here’s one chapter that I thought was Instagram-worthy:

Resistance and Self-Doubt

Self-doubt can be an ally. This is because it serves as an indicator of aspiration. It reflects love, love of something we dream of doing, and desire, desire to do it. If you find yourself asking yourself (and your friends), “Am I really a writer? And I really an artist?” chances are you are.

The counterfeit innovator is wildly self-confident. The real one is scared to death.

Wisdom from books. And #stevenpressfield. #thewarofart #thewarofartbook

A post shared by Monica Heilman (@writingmonicker) on

Real Artists Have Day Jobs – Sara Benincasa

short burst book 3: Real Artists Have Day Jobs by Sara Benincasa

Maybe someone will call me out on this one. So I have to beat them to it.

You got me. This one isn’t really an art book. But it’s definitely a short burst book. Real Artists Have Day Jobs is informative, motivational, and funny. So if you’re  a living, breathing human being, you’ll probably like at least a chapter or two. And there are 52 of them.

I bought this book on a whim. Somehow, during an Internet procrastinating session that spiraled out of control, I found Benincasa’s book on Amazon. Since I was already procrastinating from something, I spent another good 20 to 30 minutes reading through the preview.

Wait, you might be thinking, Amazon previews aren’t even that long, how did she waste so much time reading a book preview?

Well, here’s an Amazon pro-tip for you: Start reading from the beginning and read all the pages that are available. Then go back to the table of contents. If the chapter titles have hyperlinks, you’re in luck! Click to read as many chapter previews as you want.

While milking the preview for its full worth, I realized quickly that despite the title, there wasn’t a whole lot of art in this book. That’s mostly in the first chapter. But the other chapters, which fall under the subtitle “And Other Awesome Things They Don’t Teach You in School” were pretty fun.

The more I read, the more I laughed. Benincasa has some outrageous stories. And she’s a comedian, so you can’t go wrong there. Her book is aimed at a millennial audience, so I suppose if you’re sufficiently old and wise, you might not be as amused. Maybe you’d just roll your eyes. But if you’re young, young-ish, or feel young, some of these will definitely resonate with you.

You’ll get more out of this book if you read whole chapters, not just a smattering of quotes, so I’ll just end with some memorable chapter titles (out of the ones that are not NSFW):

  • When You Don’t Know What to Do, Ask a Successful Woman
  • Wear a Weird Hat
  • The Power of Being a Dork
  • When You Can’t Figure Something Out, Put Yourself in Water

The End

I’ll tell you now – so that you can’t say I never told you so – that I’m only in the middle of reading all of these books. I haven’t finished any of them. And if I keep going at my short burst pace, I won’t be done with them for a while. But I’ve been sufficiently impressed enough with each book to share them with you.

So give them a shot, if you want, but don’t blame me for any bombs dropped at the end.

By the way, I have 22 succulents.

5 Ways to Attack Art Block

Maybe I’ve already written a lot about art block. But just because I’ve defeated it once doesn’t mean it I won’t struggle with it again. And again. And again. In general though, there are some tricks that have and still do help me get through a slump.

When I’m feeling unmotivated and talentless – because confidence and skill self-esteem are definitely tied to my artistic dry spells – the first thing I try to do is…

1. Draw what’s in front of you.

Yes, this might sound boring. I’ve done more sketches of coffee mugs and pencils than I’d like to admit. But when I’m not feeling creative, I remind myself that drawing from real life is still art. It’s something I can start almost mindlessly, even if internally I’m grumbling about how the subject matter is boring, that there’s nothing interesting in my room or my house or my city. Sometimes though, I’m lucky enough to get caught up in process of creating something. That look of annoyance on my dog’s face. The little Pokemon figurine that brings me nostalgia. The way light and shadow fall on a blanket – how do I best capture that, without worrying that I can’t?

Drawing what’s around me also has the benefit of forcing me to focus on skill. Since there’s nothing compelling about a coffee mug in front of me, I focus on just making it look good. Maybe I try to make it as realistic as possible. Maybe I’m just noticing where the shadows fall today, in this lighting. Maybe I like to imagine that in doing this repetitive exercise, I’m not in a creative block, but just conducting an exploration of light and colors, like Monet and his haystacks.

But if drawing what’s in front of you still seems boring you could…

2. Use new media.

When I’m testing out a new medium, it doesn’t really matter what the subject matter is, I’m just trying to get the feel of for the medium. It can be a good way for me to get lost in art instead of worrying about the quality of what I’m producing. Here’s a quick list of ideas; I’ll go into some of them in more detail.


  • Digital
  • Real pen and ink
  • Scratchboard
  • Paint (watercolor, oil, acrylic, tempura, coffee)
  • Colored pencil
  • Pastels
  • Charcoal
  • Collage


For me, the apex of trying something new would be going digital. I’m way out of my element with digital painting, but it’s fun and easy to do at any time. No special supplies needed. So one day while fiddling around on my phone, I started to paint – you guessed it – a coffee mug. It held my interest because there were so many brushes and a cool color-mixing tool to try out.

Never mind that the sample paintings in the app were like the one on the left, while mine was the one on the right:

Dip (or Nib) Pen and Ink

Nowadays people use cartridge-filled pens; they’re easier, offer more control, and don’t require constantly having to dip a pen into an ink pot. Dip pens can be fickle, sometimes leave blotches, and don’t always create the line you want. But here’s a secret: in the world of fine art, dip pens are seen as more legitimate. I’m not going to argue for or against that point, but there’s something fun about using an old-fashioned dip pen. So why not try it and feel more legit too?

Well, you may or may not feel more legit on your first attempt, but you still might feel instant gratification from trying something cool and new.


Most people aren’t familiar with scratchboard, or they think of that cutesy craft they did as a kid where you scratch away the surface of coated paper to reveal a rainbow or some silliness underneath. Yeah yeah. I guess that’s scratchboard. But there are some seriously amazing professional artists using scratchboard too. Heather Lara, for example, whose detailed work contains an incredible level of realism.Or Keely Dolan, who creates riveting fantasy and mythology-inspired illustrations.

Scratchboard does take a long time, and it’s tricky since you have to think about lighting in reverse, but it’s so much fun. At the very least, it’s a great way to focus on detail and value.

It might be a little harder to find scratchboard or scratchboard paper, but you can also make your own by coating some stiff paper with ink. There are scratch tools intended for scratchboard – they look like dip pens and have a variety of different nibs – but you can also use an exacto knife or experiment with other objects, like paper clips or spare change.


There are so many kinds of paint: watercolor, oil, acrylic, tempera. Even if you’re an artist by trade, I’m willing to bet there’s some type of paint out there that you haven’t mastered. Why not try a new one?

Watercolor is the most accessible, with cheap sets available almost everywhere. The materials are as basic as you can get – just add water. However it’s often been called the most difficult type of paint to master, leaving you plenty of room for improvement.

And what about non-traditional paints?

Coffee seems to be gaining popularity, and for years I’ve been following an artist who creates art O Ka Fee (with coffee).

3. Be messy.

This is where my own biases come into play. My art tends to be very detailed and tightly-controlled. Loose, abstract art is the bane of my existence. Okay not really. I just really struggle creating it. So for me, it helps to try letting loose because it’s so opposite to what I’m usually doing.

Maybe you’re already a loose kind of artist, and in that case, I don’t know if being strict and detailed would be helpful or frustrating…but when you’re stuck, anything’s worth a try.

Another component to being messy though, is to not worry about how your art turns out. Create simply for the purpose of creating (or if you must, practicing). Give yourself space to do art that is private, free from the expectations and judgments of others.

4. Try different times of day.

By accident, I discovered that I really like doing art in the morning. It’s a nice way to start the day before I become sucked into the world of screens and blue light and headaches. But other days, I’ve really gotten sucked into an art piece at night, working for hours without realizing how much time has gone by.

What about you? Maybe you’ve been trying to work in the afternoon, but you find that actually your art brain is really awake in the morning. Or maybe it depends on the day. I’m still experimenting to find that sweet spot.

5. Find other artists.

Human beings are social creatures, and artists, despite popular belief, are the same. Finding other artists around you has a whole host of benefits, from forcing you to feel accountable to providing mutual encouragement and inspiration.

If I were given this tip though, I can easily imagine myself groaning and grumbling. You mean I have to go out and find people? How am I supposed to just find an art community? But the great thing about living in 2016 is that finding a community as simple as logging onto Tumblr. If you engage and put yourself out there, others will respond.

I still think real life interaction is important, but being in touch with other artists from the comfort of your couch is pretty swell too. And at the very least, well, you can browse through plenty of pretty art and get inspired.

Bonus: Don’t be too hard on yourself.

Some of these tips might not work as well for you. I get the feeling that over time what works for me will change and evolve as well. But dry spells will inevitably be part of any creative’s life.

Creating art is an amazing work, but it also involves an amazing amount of hard work. It’s not only about skill. I only heard this idea put into words recently, in a quote from Joan Erikson, quoted in Composing a Life by Mary Catherine Bateson:

“You have to have a certain basic trust that you can do this – you are going to do this. You have to have will, you have to have imagination enough and fancy enough to do it your way, to make it unique. You have to have confidence, identity, and so on.”

Artist, your work takes more than anyone other than you can know. But what I do know is that the world needs your creativity.