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20 Must-Watch Movies & Documentaries For Artists

Resources Written by McKella Sawyer Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. That means if you buy something we get a small commission at no extra cost to you(learn more)

Art is a visual pursuit and film is an amazing way to learn about artists & art forms.

If you’re in the mood to be inspired here are some of the best art documentaries and movies ever made. In this list you’ll find everything from drama to comedy to big picture documentaries and fictional dramatizations.

Whether you’re in the mood to think deep, learn something new, or just be entertained, we’ve got you covered.

This list breaks into three sections: documentaries, movies, and TV series.

Browse for whatever you’re most interested to watch and get some snacks ready!

Documentary Films

1. The Art of the Steal

Art of the Steal cover

This documentary is about the Barnes Foundation and its controversial decision to move the location of its extensive collection of post-impressionist work despite the will of its founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes.

Before his death, Barnes stated in his will that he wanted his art collection to stay put and for the space to function as an art school rather than a museum.

The Barnes Foundation argued that the art should be shared with the world and wanted to move the collection to a museum in Philadelphia where it could become a major attraction in the area.

However many criticized the decision for being a cash grab and a blatant disregard of Barnes’s wishes.

This documentary team investigates the controversy. And while the film has been criticized for being one-sided(slanted toward the position that his will should have been respected and the collection unmoved), it’s still a fascinating look at the function of art in our world and the murky legal waters that surround its management and display.

The film also raises some timeless questions surrounding art, commerce, and ownership.

For example, should art be shared with the masses, or should it be protected to allow the viewer a more intimate experience with it? To whom does art truly belong?

And more specific to the Barnes collection, is the Barnes collection truly being shared with the world or simply exploited for the gain of a few companies?

You decide.

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2. Painters Painting

Painters Painting cover

This 1973 documentary follows the development of the New York art scene from 1940 to 1970 covering the progression from abstraction to the pop art movement in America by interviewing and documenting artists at work.

Featured artists include Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler, Hans Hofmann, Jules Olitski, and many more.

Art history can be a boring subject unless you have the right material. This documentary has the right material.

You’ll be hooked the whole time and it covers the not-too-distant past(mid-1900s) so the contents are still very relevant today.

Not to mention it’s kinda fun to see how artists worked and created pieces before they became household names.

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3. The Cool School

Cool School cover

Here’s an interesting documentary from 2008 exploring the Ferus Gallery and how it shaped the contemporary art scene in Los Angeles during the 50s and 60s.

It all started when Walter Hopps met artist Ed Kienholz and drafted their first business contract on a hot dog wrapper.

The Ferus Gallery went on to host early exhibitions for now-famous post-war artists such as Wallace Berman, Robert Irwin, and Craig Kauffman, as well as up and coming New York artists like Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns.

The Cool School follows the short life of the gallery and its exhibitions while shining light on its radical effects on egos, the relationships of its artists and operators, and artistic competition in LA.

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4. National Gallery

National Gallery film cover

The 2014 film National Gallery details the operations, educational mission, and collection housed by the National Gallery in London, one of the most famous museums in the world.

While it’s not the most fast-paced film on this list it’s still an informative in-depth look at many of the classic artworks on display in the National Gallery.

It’s also a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how this massive museum operates, how collections are curated, and how the art is maintained and cared for, even when vandalism occurs.

Not only is this a beautiful tour of classic art, but it’s a story of the gallery and the people who bring the art to life for patrons from all over the world.

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5. Andy Warhol: A Documentary Film

Andy Warhol doc cover

At fours hours long this documentary might be the longest film on our list, but it’s worth the watch!

This film from 2006 argues that Warhol is the greatest artist of the second half of the twentieth century and sets out to prove that claim.

The documentary positions Warhol’s work as a modern take of subjects taken on by old masters and religious paintings, comparing his portraits of Marilyn Monroe to religious iconography displayed in the Byzantine church that the filmmaker attended as a child.

The film also follows the development of Warhol’s career and style in New York City as well as touching on events in his personal life.

This is an intimate view of the work of this famous artist in a way you might have never seen before, hailing him as a modern master in the 20th century.

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6. Beauty Is Embarrassing

Beauty Is Embarrassing cover

Here’s another focused documentary following the career and process of Wayne White, an artist who’s worn many hats throughout his career such as painter, set designer, puppeteer, sculptor, cartoonist, and more.

Known for creating the puppets in PeeWee’s Playhouse, White also worked on film and TV projects such as Beakman’s World, The Weird Al Show, and music videos for The Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Gabriel.

His colorful and unique style of cartooning and puppetry, and his irreverent and poignant word paintings have made their mark in the film and art worlds alike.

The film also takes a look at White’s latest creation: A biographical one-man show featured at the Roseland Ballroom and Largo Theater.

This is a funny and inspiring look at an incredible artist.

White narrates the film himself which gives the viewer an inside look at his process and his struggle to balance his career with his creative expression.

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7. Tim’s Vermeer

Tims Vermeer cover

Directed and produced by Penn and Teller, this 2014 documentary is an unusual film about an inventor named Tim.

It follows beliefs that Vermeer used mirrors, lenses, and other optical devices to aid his view of subjects and create a hyper realistic representation of color that’s impossible to achieve with the naked eye alone.

Tim goes on to test this theory by setting out to duplicate Vermeer’s paintings using increasingly complex optical devices.

The experiments grow more and more elaborate until finally Tim builds a perfect real-life replica of a scene in one of Vermeer’s paintings, duplicating it to the most minute detail, and uses his optical devices to paint it from life…even though he has only limited painting skills.

This film is a unique look at Vermeer, told in a funny and honest way by a guy who doesn’t claim to be a painter.

It also raises the question of whether Vermeer really did use similar devices to create his paintings and if other artists might have done the same.

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8. Crumb

Crumb movie cover

Here’s a much more personal flick created in 1994 as a documentary about the cartoonist Robert Crumb and his family, particularly his brothers and children.

The filmmakers believed the only way to get a truly in-depth and well-rounded look at Crumb was to shine the spotlight on those closest to him, so this is just as much a portrait of the artist’s environment as it is of the artist himself.

Classic movie that may not appeal to everyone, but cartoonists and animators will certainly enjoy the story.

And this is one of many flicks you can find streaming on Amazon so you can get it running in a matter of minutes.

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9. Eames: The Architect & The Painter

Eames documentary cover

For another interesting documentary you might like this 2011 hit Eames about the creative marriage and careers of Charles and Ray Eames, architects and painters respectively. This follows the wildly creative company they built together.

It started with the design of a chair that many people know by name.

But their company quickly blossomed into something more, not only producing revolutionary furniture, but also moving into photography and film.

The documentary is a mashup of original film clips and interviews, plus narration from James Franco.

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Movies & Biographical Dramatizations

10. Big Eyes

Big Eyes netflix

Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz star in this 2014 film that dramatizes the story of artist Margaret Keane and her husband, who took credit for her massively successful “big eye children” paintings for almost their entire marriage.

The film delivers amazing performances from both Adams and Waltz, but be prepared to really want to punch out the husband.

If you’re a big Tim Burton fan you’ll probably enjoy this movie.

It’s meant to keep you engrossed while still feeling experimental—much like what you’d expect in a piece of great art.

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11. Pollock

Pollock movie cover

This 2000 award-winning biographical movie explores the life and career of Jackson Pollock from 1941 until his death.

The movie follows Pollock through his struggles with his career and creative process, his alcoholism, and his relationships.

Ed Harris, who directed the film and stars as Pollock himself, does all the painting shown in the movie.

This was a passion project of his and is adapted from the the book Jackson Pollock: An American Saga by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith.

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12. Lust For Life

Lust For Life movie cover

An oldie but a goodie here; this 1956 biographical movie dramatizes the troubled life and artistic frustration of Vincent Van Gogh.

Based on Irving Stone’s novel by the same name, this colorful film follows the life of Van Gogh, his pitfalls with love, his struggle to support himself financially, and his increasingly tense relationship with his art.

Kirk Douglas, who stars as Van Gogh, sank deeply into the character for this film and even practiced painting so he could imitate Van Gogh on screen.

It’s on old film but still a beautiful representation of an artist who was never appreciated in his time.

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13. Modigliani

Modigliani movie cover

Here’s an interesting 2004 dramatized biographical film about the Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, exploring his rivalry with Pablo Picasso.

It may not interest everyone but the cinematography is great and there’s a lot to appreciate if you’re into art history.

Worth a watch if you’re curious to learn more about Modigliani’s life and times.

You can get this streaming for pretty cheap on Amazon so it’s real simple to find, watch, and enjoy!

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14. Art School Confidential

Art School Confidential cover

Based on the comics by the same name, this movie follows a talented young illustrator named Jerome through his time in an art program at Strathmore College.

As he makes friends, forges connections with other artists, and falls in love, Jerome also grapples with issues that plague so many art students.

Topics include the many conflicts between idealism and the reality of the art world, and the delicate balance of artistic integrity and commercialism.

While maintaining focus on the idealism vs art school reality theme, it even throws in a murder mystery.

It may not be the most informative or highbrow film on this list, but it’s a fun movie with an art theme and a unique look at the struggle that so many art students face: the desire for artistic recognition concerned what “good” art is and who’s allowed to make it.

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15. American Splendor

American Splendor movie

This 2003 biographical dramatization starring Paul Giamatti dramatizes the life of Harvey Pekar who authored the American Splendor comic books.

This film is part biographical dramatization, part adaptation of the comics, and even breaks the fourth wall a little by featuring appearances from Pekar himself where he talks about his life and the film.

A really cool watch for anyone interested in comics and the history of American Splendor.

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TV Series

So these technically aren’t movies but these series belong on this list because they offer detailed looks into the art world, art techniques, and the far-reaching effects of art on society.

Enjoy them over a long period of time, or pop some popcorn and settle in for a miniseries binge!

16. Bob Ross: Beauty Is Everywhere

A lot of us grew up watching Bob Ross paint misty mountains and happy trees on daytime TV. And now you can enjoy his technique on Netflix in this highly bingeable series.

Set up an easel and paint along with Bob or just enjoy watching demonstrations of his unique, loose, wet on wet landscape techniques in oils.

You’ll probably learn a ton just by observing his brushwork, how he prepares his canvases, and how he layers the subjects in his paintings.

But if you just want a nice relaxing show to enjoy on a lazy afternoon this is also a great choice.

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17. Simon Schama’s Power of Art

Each hour-long episode in this documentary series focuses on one influential artist from history such as Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Picasso, Bernini, and many others.

Enjoy learning about these classic artists with a side of Schama’s commentary and viewpoint as well as reenactments performed by big name actors such as Andy Serkis.

This doesn’t have many options online for streaming so if you wanna catch this series you’ll likely have to grab the DVDs.

But keep checking the BBC website if you’re interested! They may release it streaming at some point down the line.

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18. How Art Made the World

Each episode of this series takes a close look at how art and images have impacted an aspect of human life.

For example, one episode focuses on how art shapes the way we view the human body. Another covers how art has changed the way we relay information to one another.

And another episode explores how art influences the way we think about death.

The show explores all kinds of art from cave paintings to contemporary urban sculpture in order to show the full expanse of artistic culture and how it has shaped our world.

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19. The Shock of the New

Here’s a pretty cool series offering eight 60-minute episodes that follow the development of art from impressionism to the present.

With impressive wit and insight the series explores a variety of topics such as the impact of technology, pop culture, poverty, and commercialization of art.

It kind of takes the opposite approach from How Art Made the World mentioned above.

Instead this series examines how culture and history affected art and the artists who create it.

Both series were produced by BBC and these two series offer a fascinating, well-rounded look at how we interact with art.

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20. Art:21

Last but certainly not least is the Art:21 series. Each episode follows two or three contemporary artists from the 21st century who work in every medium from painting and drawing to street art, sculpture, photography, and installation.

The show has featured dozens of artist so far including Ann Hamilton, Kiki Smith, Marina Abramović, Richard Tuttle, Olafur Eliasson, Jeff Koons, and Martin Puryear.

The series takes a close look at their processes, inspiration, and histories through artist interviews and video footage of the artists at work.

Highly recommend this series if you’re into the modern art scene.

Check this out streaming on the PBS website if you have the time.

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And if you’re big into art content then be sure to bookmark this whole list.

The next time you’re around on a Friday night wondering what to watch, we’ve got you covered.

Each of these films offers unique insight into some aspect of the art world, whether it’s an artist, a place, a piece, or an idea.

Sometimes a deep film with commentary about art can be just as inspiring the art itself.


Author: McKella Sawyer

McKella is an artist and freelance writer from Salt Lake City, Utah. When she isn't painting or writing for clients she loves to write fiction, travel, and explore the mountains near her home either on foot, horseback, or a mountain bike. You can view her art on Etsy and her writing services at TheCafeWordsmith.com.