The Best How-to-Draw Books

When I made the decision to learn to draw, the first thing I did was go online to Amazon. There I began browsing for a “how-to” book that would teach me all I needed to know. Of course, at that time, I didn’t really think I could actually learn to draw, so trying to find the right book wasn’t easy. I checked out a number of titles, downloaded samples, and over and over again, I shook my head. Most of the books I previewed looked far too difficult for a beginner like me, even ones that claimed to be written for “absolute” beginners.

Finally, I came across “Drawing Lessons for Beginning Artists” by Kate Berry. Instead of finding long lists of supplies I would need or complicated illustrations I was expected to copy, I was greeted with “Step 1: How to Draw a Straight Line.” That’s when I knew this was the book for me. I bought it at once, and that ninety-nine cent purchase went on to totally change my life.

Now, I’m making another important decision. I want to learn to draw better. Unlike my initial skepticism six years ago, I now know that drawing is a skill that can be learned, and I believe it’s a skill that can be improved. So, I’m searching again for the right book for me at this stage of my pursuit of art.

Since first embarking on my journey, I have purchased a number of “how to draw” books. I’ve read some all the way through, worked in a hit and miss fashion through a few others, and have mostly ignored some for one reason or another.

I thought it would be helpful, not only for me but for others who are wanting to learn to draw or who would like to improve their drawing skills, to take a look at some of the most popular and most highly-recommended books in the “how-to-draw” field.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards

This one has been around for quite some time, and whenever “art books” are mentioned, this title is sure to come up. Originally published in 1979, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain has gone through several editions, including a “new” version, as well as a “definitive fourth edition”, a “starter kit”, and a workbook. One of the noted features in her drawing instruction is the concept of drawing upside-down. For what it’s worth, scientific studies with beginning artists have shown that the “upside-down” approach doesn’t work. The beginning students who were tested turned out better drawings — all faces — when the illustrations they were copying from were upright. Still, the book remains popular, and is considered “the world’s most widely-used instructional drawing book.” My feelings about this seminal work is that it is worth reading — and the exercises worth trying — if you’re already familiar with the basic principles of drawing. I’m not sure it’s the best book for beginning artists, but that’s merely my opinion. The premise, of course, is that we need to look at things differently as artists and learn to draw what we actually see, not what we think we see.

Use Your Artist’s Brain by Carl Purcell

This book echoes the ideas of Betty Edwards. The lengthy sub-title, in fact, is “Use the right side of your brain to draw and paint what you see — not what you think you see”. I spent a rather discouraging few weeks with this book several summers ago, lamenting the obvious fact that I just didn’t really have the brain of an artist. I worked through many of the exercises, felt that my drawings were horrible, but later looked back at them and realized I had been making progress. About a year ago, I also completed a few exercises from the book that I’d skipped over before — using the broad stroke technique. This book is definitely not for beginning artists. It’s intended for those — like me — who have learned the basics and who are now looking for ways to improve.

Drawing for the Absolute and Utter Beginner by Claire Watson Garcia

This how-to-draw book came highly-recommended. Matt Fussell, the “Virtual Instructor” who teaches art through his online site, called it the best drawing book he’d ever read. I’ve gone all the way through this book, and I did find it helpful. At times, I found it a bit frustrating, but that’s just me. Drawing is not a natural talent for me, so even now after six years of practice I still struggle at times. It’s becoming easier, and some drawings are easier than others, but I do still have a tendency toward anxiety when confronted with different drawing “assignments”. I made my way through this book, did my best, and came away a better artist, I think. She, too, advocates the “drawing upside down” method as a good practice exercise.

The Natural Way to Draw by Kimon Nicholaides

Another highly-recommended book. I bought this one several years ago — in the spring of 2016 — and I planned to work my way through it. Its sub-title is “A Working Plan for Art Study”, and that sounded like just what I needed. But, despite my good intentions, I have yet to read much of the book. Life became busy that spring, I set the book aside for some reason, and then in my “hit and miss” learning fashion, I moved on to other things and never returned to this working plan for art study. This one is definitely on my “must-read” list. More to the point, it’s on my “must-do” list.

 

This might be a good time to point out that no matter which art books we choose, we’re only going to see results if we take time to read and do the drawing exercises. These books won’t work unless we do.

 

Drawing for the Absolute Beginner by Mark and Mary Willenbrink

This was one of the first books I looked at online back in 2015 when I made the decision to learn to draw. While it calls itself a book for the “absolute beginner”, I took one look at it and backed away. Even the first few illustrations shown seemed far too complex for me. Of course, take that for what it’s worth, keeping in mind that I was incapable of drawing even the simplest lines at the time. I’ll guess that most “beginning artists” might fare well with this book. It intimidated me, but that’s just me.

Yes, I was definitely intimidated by seeing sketches like this in a drawing book for “absolute beginners”.

I do now have this book in my art library, and I’ve done a few exercises from it. It does have a lot of good information on topics like “how to hold a pencil” and “basic shapes”. This is another book I plan to get out and go through from start to finish. I wasn’t ready for it when I first started drawing, but I think I could handle the instruction now.

Keys to Drawing by Bert Dodson

I wasn’t familiar with this one, but I soon will be! I found a used copy for a few dollars, used some of my Amazon points, so this book will soon me on its way to be — at no charge. I spent a little time looking through the book online, and I liked what I saw. I think what most impressed me — and what most informed my decision to buy the book — was the “looseness” I noticed in the illustrations. This loose, “scribbled” element in drawing is something I’m developing now. I believe this book will take me in the direction I’m wanting to go.

This, of course, is just a quick list showing a few of the many, many books available for artists. There are drawing books devoted to specific media such as colored pencils, graphite, or charcoal. There are books that focus on specific subjects, such as trees or birds, and there are books that are designed for very specific types of drawing — figure drawing, perspective drawing, urban sketching.

Right now, as I push myself toward “drawing better”, I want a book that will take me through the basics — we can never practice basic skills enough — and present exercises with a broad range of subjects and techniques. I know the next few weeks of my art study will be challenging. Drawing is easier now than it was when I first began, but each new drawing I attempt presents its own set of challenges. I am learning. I am growing. I am getting better. That’s exciting to see. So, despite the occasional frustrations and the inevitable disappointments that come along with any skill we’re learning, I’m going to make the most of this process. I am going to learn to draw better. I can do this. Wish me luck.

 

 

23 Comments

  1. Hey, Judith… My best experience was joining a small (5-6) weekly drawing group for a few years… Not a class but an ongoing group… Imagine there are a professional artists in your community who host Open Studio with a model to practice their own portrait and figure work, and would welcome a serious hobbyist… $15-20 for 3 hrs… No instruction… Work along side someone with more advanced drawing skills… Great example… Great feedback during breaks… Tom

    Liked by 2 people

    1. One of our art clubs hosts regular “open studios” and occasionally we have a model there. Sadly, though, the sessions are not well attended. 😦

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      1. Try putting an ad in Craigslist… Looking for professional artist who hosts a weekly small figure drawing group that would welcome a serious hobbyist… $5… Hey… You never know…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Another route to consider is to check out all of the available art instruction books at your local library. If your library is like ours, they have lending agreements throughout their system, so you can have books from other libraries sent to yours without having to hunt them down all over the place.

    By doing that, I was able to review many dozens of watercolor instruction books and whittle down the list of titles I wanted to buy to just a couple.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Excellent suggestion! The library was where I first found Carl Purcell’s book, and I’ve checked out a number of other titles over the years. Where we live now, I’m in walking distance of our library. I love that!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. The drawing of a boat does look too difficult for a beginner. There are a lot of different drawing games out there like don’t erase, close your eyes, don’t look at the paper, do it in one line, etc. Those things don’t help improve your skill. I’ve tried them. The one that says draw upside down sounds like bad advice. Also using your left hand if you’re right handed sounds like it might be a dumb idea. Both sides of your brain will work fine. Are any of the books telling you to use the side of a small piece of charcoal and block in the basic shape first then go back and erase the unneeded parts of the shape before doing an outline? I find charcoal is much easier than pencil. I know you can do it. No one was born knowing how to draw, despite what they might say. Keep it up. Don’t let it frustrate you.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Oh, I just keep plugging away. I’m doing a little drawing every day right now… lots of different things. I always start off with that initial thought of “Oh, I can’t do this. This is awful,” but then I shrug and do it anyway, and in the end it doesn’t turn out half bad. I haven’t read the charcoal trick you mentioned, although I’ve done a few similar exercises — a bit of reverse drawing where you go over the entire space first with charcoal and then erase to create the drawing. One problem for me is that I’m really, really messy. When I work with charcoal I end up with more on me than on the paper. That’s another thing I’m working on. I’m finding myself in this interesting place where part of me wants to be precise, neat, and detailed, and the other part of me is saying, “Come on, just slap that paint on, let loose, let it flow.” So I do a bit of both, and mostly I’m just learning to let myself be what I am. Yes, I want to improve, so I’ll practice different drawing techniques. But, yes, I also want to develop my own individuality, and I’m seeing that coming out a lot more now.

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      1. I’m planning to fight off the mosquitos this morning so I can sit outside and sketch. At least until it starts raining — that’s forecast for later this morning. I’m going to enjoy the day outside while I can.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I asked my husband that question this morning. Yes, it’s in the garage. I was planning to make my own natural repellant (it really works) but haven’t gotten around to it yet. Flower Child and I have just come back inside — there was a construction crew working somewhere nearby and a back-up alarm was disturbing her — and we probably won’t be going out again today since it’s supposed to start raining. For some reason the bugs weren’t too bad this morning. Maybe later I can get my own repellant made.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. I don’t apply it to our skin… but I wipe it on things outdoors where we’re sitting. It’s really been effective. I can’t say that I always use exactly the same ingredients. It mostly depends on what essential oils I have when I make it. 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Most essential oils are too concentrated to use directly on the skin, but if you dilute them first with a carrier oil — such as almond oil — it’s all right. Or you can dilute them with witch hazel. Just be very careful if you use bergamot. It can cause adverse reactions from sunlight. If you browse around online, you’ll find lots of different formulas for natural repellants and other items. I don’t like using chemicals, so I always go with natural ingredients.

        Liked by 1 person

      5. I doubt I’ll make it, just curious. I use the sprays with DEET but wash it off when I get home. So far so good with no side effects, and not every day so hopefully the chemicals won’t affect my health. The bugs really go for my O+ blood. Thanks for the info!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s an interesting collection! I have the right side of the brain one, too, and never quite got into the spirit of it. So much of what I do comes from the state of mind I’m in (sometimes precise and ordered – sometimes free-wheeling – sometimes upbeat and fizzy – sometimes down and dreary) that the book’s exercises felt very forced, which turned me off right away. But I know someone who ADORES that book and swears that it changed her life as an artist, made her 1000% better than she was. It’s all very subjective, I guess. I think I’ll dig out the books, see what’s there. Great inspiration, this post! 👏👏👏🤗👋

    Liked by 1 person

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