Animation Art Books - Top 10 List

Top 10 list of the very best animation art books published. Find out more about these books, and learn the techniques coming from the masters of animation.

#1 - THE ILLUSION OF LIFE: DISNEY ANIMATION by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston

Frank and Ollie, as young animators who took part in the Disney “revolution” of the 1930s and then became two of the Nine Old Men, were uniquely qualified to write this most beloved of all animation art books.

Michael Barrier declares it “a highly valuable book because it sets out in such detail the aesthetic credo that has governed Disney animation, and by extension most other Hollywood animation, for the last half century or so.”

Virtually every voter in this poll singled out The Illusion of Life as a recognized classic, making it the single constant in an otherwise diverse receipt of book lists. Its popularity is staggering, garnering an overwhelming amount of votes.

Some voters referred to it as the “animation bible,” a term I’ve heard used several times before. Animators have long spoken of this animation art book with reverence. In fact, there was a period in the early 90s when Illusion of Life had fallen out of print and its used sale price was beginning to soar well into the hundreds of dollars, making it easily the most coveted general edition among animation enthusiasts.

Fortunately this shortage and its inflationary pressure was relieved when Hyperion thankfully re-released it in 1995. Since then, readers continue to find in Thomas and Johnston’s classic a book that is like no other. It is at once a memoir of an age of discovery, a document of an animation ideology, a tribute to the vision of Walt Disney, a how-to guide, a history, and the most beautiful of all illustrated animation books on animation.

Frank and Ollie, as they are popularly known, not only helped create some of the most memorable films of the 20th century, they also contributed immeasurably to our appreciation of animation by offering us this book.


No other animation art book has so consistently furthered the public knowledge of American studio animation as this one. If Illusion of Life is our bible, then Of Mice and Magic is surely our encyclopedia. With research assistance from Jerry Beck, Leonard Maltin turned out this book at a time when most fans of cartoons had little access to a reliable survey history. The format was simple.

Each chapter would efficiently and chronologically explain the notable achievements of each of the major cartoon studios. Animators and directors were named, character developments were traced, and a nice appendix at the end of the volume listed the title of every American theatrical short released during the period covered.

It’s been an indispensable book for quite a number of years now. However, it’s not without its detractors. There’s been suspicion that Maltin hasn’t seen all of the cartoons he purports to be covering, that he relied on sampling to inform his views of studios’ bodies of work.

As more animation art books and fan magazines continue to raise the bar, some weaknesses in Maltin’s book have become apparent. His chapter on Lantz seems spotty, for instance, even if his chapters on Fleischer and Terry remain excellent.

Despite this, Of Mice and Magic is still our foremost general reference book, remaining continuously in print and maintaining its usefulness long after others have come and gone.


The wellspring of support for this animation art book, and the high ranking it has in this poll, is all the more remarkable considering that it’s only been in publication for a few months. And many voters, especially those in Europe, couldn’t even vote for it because they haven’t seen a copy of it yet.

Those who have read it, however, were eager to give it high marks for its impeccable research and its well-crafted narrative. It’s an understatement to say that this book is thorough. Michael Barrier and Milt Gray conducted interviews and material research to a degree that is unparalleled in the field, and Barrier took the time writing this to get the history right. The result: an instant classic.

His conclusions and his strong opinions will be the source of debate for years to come, but few would deny what a massive contribution Hollywood Cartoons is to animation scholarship. Such is the gravity of this book that if this poll was conducted again at the end of the next century, I think two animation art books would emerge as the likeliest candidates to still be on the list: Illusion of Life and Hollywood Cartoons.


This is the best of the world survey histories, a far-reaching account of the animated cinema that even pays heed to artists from developing countries. Bendazzi gives a refreshing perspective by examining the vast diversity of animation in the 20th century.

No other book offers such balanced coverage of both studio and independent animators. No other book casts as wide a net, inclusive of animation from Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Canada, the Middle East, the Far East, and Africa, to name just a few regions. Bendazzi is the first scholar to truly span the globe, reporting on the history of cartoons on every continent.

Cartoons: One Hundred Years is an excellent reference work that broadens our knowledge of international animation. It also serves as the cornerstone of the current book series being published by John Libbey, the most diversifying influence in animation publishing today.

#5 - BEFORE MICKEY:THE ANIMATED FILM 1898-1928 by Donald Crafton

It is ironic that one of the best animation art books not about Disney animation should invoke the name of Mickey. Crafton’s landmark book opened up our understanding of silent cartoons and offered profiles of animators like Cohl, Starevitch, Reiniger, and Messmer, among others. His was an early “serious” history of animation.

Crafton’s reputation as a scholar is equaled probably only by Canemaker and Barrier. In fact, this book is one of those classics that stands alongside Maltin’s Of Mice and Magic as the most frequently referenced and footnoted of published sources on animation. Not only does it inform us about films Before Mickey, it also remains an influence on so many books After Crafton.

#6 - CARTOON ANIMATION by Preston Blair

Animators invariably agree that the Preston Blair softcovers published by Walter Foster are the best of the how-to books. Keeping words to a minimum, Blair offers lots of sequential drawings that not only convey fluid movement but reveal the personalities of the characters in motion.Students have long pored over the quickly dog-eared Foster animation art books to gain insight into animation’s greatest “secrets.” Perhaps the biggest tribute to Blair’s book is the frequency with which his walk cycles are appropriated for use in student films. The 1994 edition is in fact a compilation of two previous workbooks, the first of which was originally published in 1949.It seems that Preston Blair, via his books, has been the most accessible animation instructor of this century, with most contemporary animators counting themselves among his pupils.


There is simply no other autobiography of an animator that is as entertaining and informing as this one. Culhane’s long and varied career allowed him a privileged view of the breadth of American studio animation. Best of all, Culhane gladly tells it like he saw it, offering plenty of salty tales from the Golden Age.
The only downside is that he relied too much on memory and would have been best served if he had carefully reviewed his commercial work in cartoons and had done some more research before he submitted his text for publication. None of the main points of this animation art book are in question, but there seems to be some sloppiness in the details.

His life is such a well-told yarn, though, and his passages on tapping into one’s creativity are so inspiring that all is forgiven. Shamus sadly passed away a few years ago, but his memoir will forever stand as the wonderful legacy of a man who drew so many Talking Animals.


One of the very best animation art books on Walt Disney is not a Hyperion publication and was first printed in a bilingual Italian edition. Merritt and Kaufman’s Walt in Wonderland is notable because it carefully probes the work of the young Disney, a period which normally gets rushed over in the standard Disney biographies.
It is also well illustrated, giving many readers their best access to the hard-to-find Alice comedies and the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. The title, Walt in Wonderland, appropriately captures the spirit of this book: a young director enamored of the escapist possibilities of animation learns his way by producing roughly a hundred lively yet mediocre silent films.

The experience this provided him and the failures he encountered were necessary for him to reach his eventual greatness. Merritt and Kaufman offer us the very best document of these years that readers can find.

#9 - WINSOR McCAY: HIS LIFE AND ART by John Canemaker

McCay’s career was primarily as a strip cartoonist, not an animator, and Canemaker’s biography reflects this. However, Winsor McCay’s contributions to animation are so significant, and Canemaker’s study of his subject is so well regarded, that voters didn’t hesitate to include this excellent and handsomely illustrated book on their lists.
McCay was such a naturally gifted animator that his films conveyed the principles of character animation some twenty years ahead of their time. Canemaker documents all of McCay’s achievements with a passion and an enthusiasm that a reader cannot help but share. Throughout all of his many animation art books on animation, Canemaker always reveals his excitement for his topic and his integrity as an historian.

Many of his animation art books received substantial numbers of votes from readers, but this one was the favorite.

#10 - TEX AVERY: KING OF CARTOONS by Joe Adamson

Historian J.B. Kaufman writes, “As far as I can tell, it almost singlehandedly put Avery on the film-history map, and it’s a model of constructing the format to fit the subject.” People forget that there was a time when Tex Avery was not widely known as a great cartoon director.

It is assumed by younger fans that there has been an uninterrupted appreciation of Avery’s work in America since the 1940s, along with a general awareness of the name Tex Avery. This is not the case. Adamson’s book, much of it an extended interview with Avery and his collaborators, did more than introduce Tex to eager readers, it also was a catalyst for the public’s deeper interest in animation.

The fact that fans now discern the difference between a Chuck Jones cartoon and a Tex Avery cartoon is in many ways a debt to this book.

Animation Art Books - The Sceond Tier

These runner-up books all received a considerable amount of votes and are in many ways just as crucial reading as the top ten. However, they were all so relatively close in votes that it was harder to justify ranking them, unlike the top ten which all seemed to break away from the pack in various levels of polling prowess. The animation art books of the second tier, for all intents and purposes, can be considered tied for #11, and are arranged alphabetically.

Animation Art Books Polling Methods

Polling for the Animation-Books/ANiMATO list of the 10 Greatest Animation art Books was conducted via email votes during the summer of 1999. Voters included animators, animation historians, authors, professors, and booksellers, with many of these same voters recognized as members of the Society for Animation Studies (SAS) or ASIFA. Votes were received from North America, South America, Europe and Australia. 

A majority of voters speak English as their first language or are residents of the United States, certainly a factor in the prevalence of American titles in the top ten, though a great deal of votes from outside the U.S. were, in fact, cast for American animation art books, reflecting a bias that is apparently not exclusively American. Italy ranked with the second best showing. 

Giannalberto Bendazzi’s Cartoons received a #4 placement in the poll and the #8 Walt in Wonderland counts itself among the efforts of Italian publishers.Voters were asked to submit ten votes in ranked order. 

In tabulating votes, the submitted titles were given a weighted score based on their ranking in each voter’s list. A #1 pick, for instance, received 10 points, #2=9 points, #3=8 points, #4=7 points, etc. all the way to the last #10 vote which received 1 point. 

In the event that a voter sent less than ten ranked picks, which was not infrequent, the titles were still tabulated with the #1 receiving 10 points and so on in descending order. Any detractors to weighted scoring will at least be pleased to know that the same books which got high votes also received frequent votes, yielding roughly the same top ten list under any scoring system.

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