Our Favorite Movies about Artists

By Charles Purdy

Looking for a bit of cinematic inspiration? We’ve got you covered. We were wondering what the best movies about artists might be, so we asked some friends (old and new) and colleagues for their recommendations. The 16 flicks that follow—as well as a few extra—constitute a creative’s film festival, curated by creatives. Some are documentaries, some are biopics, some are fiction, and some cannot be easily classified. (And if you don’t see your favorite on this list, please share it in the Comments section.) Note that two of these films can be watched in full, for free, online!

Still from the movie

Beautiful Losers

Directors: Aaron Rose, Joshua Leonard


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We’re leading with this one, because it was chosen by three people:

My favorite has to be Beautiful Losers, as it brought together a set of artists I had followed since I was a teenager in the early ’90s: Thomas Campbell, Geoff McFetridge, Barry McGee, Margaret Kilgallen, etc., etc. It covers some of the best modern fine artists—crossing the boundaries of street art and culture, film, music, illustration, and the independent gallery scene.—chosen by Ben the Illustrator (a.k.a. Ben O’Brien)

I love this documentary about the careers of a handful of noteworthy artists who changed the art world, using their DIY techniques…. It's cool because you see it zoomed out, how huge this was in the ’90s. But what’s really inspiring is just watching these people talk about their work and create for the sake of creating—because they can’t imagine doing anything else.—chosen by Becky Simpson

Beautiful Losers has always been an inspiration…. Every time I watch this movie, it makes me go back to my studio and create something new or start an exploratory project. I totally recommend watching it.—chosen by Fredy Santiago (a.k.a. Sugar Coated)

Beauty Is Embarrassing

Director: Neil Berkeley


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There’s something beautiful about Wayne White’s unassuming, unapologetic creativity. Funny, loose, comfortable, down-to-earth, and charming. Art can be for everyone, not just those who can afford it. There’s something contagious about the guy. That’s the documentary all kids should watch…just to know that everyone can unlock this stuff inside themselves. Life can be weird, fun, wild, and filled with joy and art. Thank you, Mr. White!—chosen by Aaron Draplin

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Director: Terry Zwigoff


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I think I’ll have to go with Terry Zwigoff’s Crumb, a cinematic portrait of the artist Robert Crumb. I don’t know of a better cinematic expression of the effects of the familial formative experience—in this case including trauma, dysfunction, and twisted genetics—on the artist. The petri dish that was the Crumb household resulted in three similar but very different mutations, where Robert was actually “the normal one” amongst the Crumb brothers. Check it out.—chosen by Dan Cowles, Adobe senior creative director

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Marina Abramović: The Artist Is Present

Directors: Matthew Akers, Jeff Dupre


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This documentary is really one of my all-time faves. It’s about the performance artist Marina Abramović, and the movie takes you inside her world as she’s planning a retrospective exhibition at MoMA. You see her process and the level of effort it takes to pull this exhibition off successfully. It’s deeply moving and a very honest in-depth look at her—you just fall in love with Marina and what she’s trying to achieve as an artist. I want to see it again and again.—chosen by Hajdeja Ehline, Adobe senior designer

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Finding Vivian Maier

Directors: John Maloof, Charlie Siskel


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Finding Vivian Maier was an amazing documentary. The idea that someone can make massive amounts of work out of sheer need (or neurosis?) and simply never share it is incredible. Pure need, no ego. It really made me think about why we do what we do and how we do it.—chosen by Adam J. Kurtz


Director: Martin Provost


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This beautiful, poignant film about the life of self-taught French painter Séraphine Louis, known as Séraphine de Senlis, addresses so many interesting questions: “Where does creativity come from?” “What makes a work of art ‘good,’ or ‘significant’?” and “What is the importance of art—to the creator and the viewer?” But the thing that makes this film so special is the sensitive performance of Yolande Moreau as Séraphine, a deeply religious housemaid who painted only for herself, for years (often by candlelight after a day of strenuous physical labor), before her work was discovered, a few years before the start of World War I, by a German art collector. Success proved very difficult for the mentally fragile woman to cope with—raising yet another question for artists: “What price fame?”—chosen by Charles Purdy, Adobe Create managing editor


Director: Anton Corbijn


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I would have to say Control, which is about Joy Division—a beautifully shot, tragic movie.—chosen by Erik Johansson

still from the movie Pollock, with Ed Harris


Director: Ed Harris


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I love the movie Pollock. First, Ed Harris as Jackson Pollock is amazing. Second, the dialogue! My favorite lines are when Lee Krasner (played by the brilliant Marcia Gay Harden) sees Pollock’s drip paintings for the first time and declares: “You’ve done it, Pollock. You’ve cracked it wide open.” And then the most sizzling line of all comes when Pollock is asked how he knows when a painting is finished and he responds, “How do you know when you are finished making love?”—chosen by Debbie Millman

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Exit Through the Gift Shop

Director: Banksy


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Exit Through the Gift Shop put a spotlight on the questions “What is art?” “Who can make art?” and “What is art worth?” Also, “Who is Banksy?” and “Who is Mr. Brainwash?!”—chosen by Emily Keller

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It Might Get Loud

Director: David Guggenheim


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Jack White talks extensively about the reduction process in music and art, and how hard it is to find the truth in its simplest form—something I’m always trying to work at. He discusses many of the ideas I share, such as the idea that poetry and unexpectedness in your art are far more interesting than making sure things are “pretty.” He goes on to say, “Technology is a big destroyer of emotion and truth…. Yeah, it makes it easier, and you can get home sooner, but it doesn’t make you a more creative person. That’s the disease we have to fight in any creative field: ease of use.”—chosen by Timothy Goodman

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Tim’s Vermeer

Director: Teller


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Having thought about it a bit and gone through all the usual suspects, I think I have to go with Tim’s Vermeer, as I find it the most analogous to my experience. It’s about a guy that becomes obsessed with trying to learn how Vermeer painted so realistically, especially so far in advance of any of his contemporaries. Through this obsession he investigates multiple theories, eventually settling in on what he feels to be the most valid, and, with no artistic background whatsoever, he paints an accurate Vermeer. It’s through oblique thinking that he is able to solve a problem, which happens to have a phenomenally artistic byproduct. I really appreciate that it shows the other side of art—whereas most people consider art to be talent, it can often be just looking at something from an angle that no one else has. It’s a vision of how the world works that can be just as powerful as an artistic ability: that a different thought itself is often art…. The message that the brain is as important as the hand resonates with me.—chosen by Corey Holms

The Pillow Book

Director: Peter Greenaway


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I would have to choose The Pillow Book—a fascinating story in its attractive and very particular combination of calligraphy, tragedy, literature, and sex. The film’s highly original and masterful plot draws from a legendary Japanese book from the tenth century, and tells the story of a beautiful woman (Vivian Wu) whose father painted characters of good fortune on her face when she was a child. As an adult, she is obsessed with sexual pleasure as well as calligraphy and poetry…. Greenaway’s style is more like a painter than a storyteller, making the film beautiful and compelling.—chosen by Bruno Sellés

Metamorphose: M.C. Escher, 1898–1972

Director: Jan Bosdriesz


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This wonderful documentary is a little treasure for fans of M.C. Escher…it gives insights into his methods of working, and into the references he used to create his “impossible art” and his stunning tessellations, but it also tells of his struggles with life as an artist.—chosen by Birgit Palma

The Wind Rises

Director: Hayao Miyazaki


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The Wind Rises came to my mind first. Technically it features an aeronautical engineer named Jiro Horikoshi, but it feels to me as though Miyazaki relates to Jiro as an artist. Throughout the film, Jiro is seeking to create and attain beauty, even if it is an idealized, abstract beauty in his dreams of flight. His childhood love for planes leads him to follow a career of designing them, becoming an engineer of Japanese fighter planes during World War II. Jiro goes through the film almost in two realities, trying to reconcile how he views his work and aspirations toward the beauty of aircraft and flight, and the violence his planes are ultimately created and used for. I think the feeling of Jiro being an artist also stems from the feeling I got of this being a very personal film from Miyazaki. You can see his exploration of wartime atrocities and the people behind them by empathizing with Jiro, who is based on a controversial real-life engineer. Miyazaki is an incredible artist and storyteller, and I am deeply moved whenever I watch one of his films, but this film left me shaken when I left the theater. It’s absolutely beautiful.—chosen by Lauren Haroutunian

The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend

Director: Celia Carey


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Two that stand out to me are Jiro Dreams of Sushi and The Quiltmakers of Gee’s Bend. The subject matter is very different, but they touch on similar ideas. I like them because they remind me that there is always room for improvement, to enjoy the process, and to work with what you’ve got!—chosen by Robby Davis

Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown to Off the Wall

Director: Spike Lee


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This film was insightful, direct, thorough, thoughtful and clever. As a director and fan, I enjoyed every moment.—chosen by Taylor Humphries 


Need more films? Some of our contributors had runners-up: Dan Cowles mentioned Martin Scorsese’s short “Life Lessons” segment from the New York Stories trilogy; Erik Johansson nominated Whiplash; Hajedja Ehline loves The Woodmans, Ben the Illustrator gave close second places to Eames: The Architect and the Painter, Basquiat, and the documentary Made You Look; and Taylor Humphries also recommends Gonzo.

What are your favorite movies about art and artists?

July 6, 2016

Marquee illustration: Sandra Blikås / byHands