We artists do love to buy books.
Especially books that promise to teach us how to draw or paint better.
In fact, we spend so much time buying books it’s a wonder we have any time for drawing.
I’ll come clean. I have a special weakness for art instruction books. There’s something about the possibility of learning new drawing and painting skills that has a special pull for me. I have more art instruction books than I care to think about, and certainly more than I need.
From all my book buying and reading, one thing stands out above all else.
Most of them were useless!
Sad but true. And in a few cases, they were worse than useless, either because the information in them was just plain wrong, or because they directed me down unproductive paths and wasted my time with fripperies instead of concentrating on drawing fundamentals.
Still, in all the books I’ve come across there is a very short list of real gems that I’ve found have really helped me in my bid to grow artistically and develop my drawing skills.
The books on this list are outrageously useful, in my opinion. I recommend them without reserve. They account for a very small percentage of all the art books I have, but they’re the only ones I really needed to buy.
If you’re teaching yourself to draw, I recommend you get these three books and work with them constantly and consistently for two years. If you put the effort in, I think you’ll be amazed at how far you can develop your drawing skills.
How these books were chosen
For a book to make it onto this list, it has to be one that I’ve come back to again again. It has to have been of practical use, so it will have included practical exercises, not just theory or glossy pictures.
It will have proved itself so useful to me, that I doubt I could have got as far as I’ve got without it.
And it will be evergreen: Still as useful to me now as it was when I first started working with it. And worth working through in its entirety multiple times. In many ways, that’s the true test of the usefulness of an art book.
So here’s a list of the books that I’ve personally found the most useful.
My 3 Best Art Instruction Books
1. The Practice and Science of Drawing – Harold Speed
This is hands-down the best art instruction book I’ve ever read, ever worked with.
I suspect that many of the people who own this book have read it without actually doing the drawing exercises it describes. That’s a mistake, because the exercises are extremely practical and informative, and will teach you timeless fundamentals of drawing.
The language might be difficult for some people. Speed was English, and wrote this book at the turn of the last century. All work is a product of its time to an extent, and there are some passages that are a little embarrassing to read, and some ideas that no longer carry much weight.
But if you’re serious about developing your drawing skills, there’s no better book in my humble opinion, both from a practical and philosophical point of view.
Best of all, you can download it for free.
James Gurney recently published some good blog posts about this book, if you want to see some more of the detail. They start here.
2. The Bargue book
Although this book has a lengthier and weightier title, everyone I know just calls it the Bargue Book.
This book will teach you a method that will help you learn to see. It will teach you focus, and patience. It will bloody well teach you to draw, if you follow the method to the letter, strive for absolute accuracy and don’t stint on your practice.
Look closely at the way the hatching has been done, how the values are created, the subtlety of the marks, and try to match all of those as closely as you can.
It will be very hard. It will teach you an incredible amount about drawing.
Now, you don’t have to copy every plate. To get a huge amount of benefit from this book, you just have to copy a few of them. But copy them really intensively, till you can’t tell any difference between your own drawing and the original.
Then watch what happens the next time you try to draw something from life.
Unfortunately, this book is expensive, so if you’re cash-strapped you can skip it 🙂
3. Composition – Arthur Wesley Dow
Of the three, this is probably my favourite, for two reasons: It has taught me so much, and it covers an area of drawing in practical detail that most books either skirt around or approach vaguely and more philosophically.
If you want to improve your composition skills, this book is the one.
Composition encapsulates everything I think an art book should be. It is filled with practical exercises. It is very short on theory and justification. There is zero author ego. After the short introduction, Dow gets right out of the way and just presents you with a load of practical stuff to do.
But it doesn’t give you everything, this book, and like the Speed book, it was written some time ago and will require some interpretation on your part. You’ll have to think, and unfortunately I have a feeling that we’re less and less used to doing that for ourselves these days.
But more than any of the other books here, it allows you to grow as an artist and as an individual. I believe that if you have the staying power to stick with it over the long term (I’ve been working with it for about three years so far) will teach you to make art and help you to find your voice.
This book can also be downloaded for free.
Drawing on the right side of the brain – Betty Edwards
I’ve included this one as a runner up. It’s often seen as a beginner’s book, and sometimes gets a hard time from people who have advanced beyond the beginning stages of drawing. But there’s much really useful stuff in the approach and the sheer practicality of the exercises.
Artists who think they don’t need to work on the fundamentals any more are not advanced enough yet to realise that they need to work on the fundamentals all the time. That’s how progress is made. If you want to make consistent progress, you must adopt an attitude of Shoshin (beginner’s mind).
Whilst all of the drawing exercises in the book are available elsewhere, and the idea of right brain drawing is oversimplified and slightly gimmicky, this is still a great book. It is, quite simply, a series of very simple exercises that will help you develop spatial awareness and get over your brain’s tendency to rely on its symbol system when drawing.
If you’re ever stuck for something to draw, pick up this book and run through one of the exercises. It will never be a waste of time. There are few books that you can say that about.
What’s on your list?
I realise that this list is highly personal, and there are inevitably many, many art instruction books out there that I haven’t read. Many of them will be excellent, I’m sure (although even more of them will be useless, I’m equally sure!)
These three books represent a collection of (I believe) balanced and practical approaches to learning to draw that will benefit anyone. I think they’re that good. But it’s just my opinion.
Is there a book you love that you think I should have included? One that holds a special place in your heart, and helped you make real progress that you can see in your work?
If there is, please let me know in the comments.
Best wishes, and thanks for reading,
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