Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Your favourite art books - what you like

This is for people who read art instruction books and those who write and publish them. Plus any would-be authors out there. It's grown out of the views expressed about art instruction books in the comments made on two posts last week, namely
This posts focuses on books you like and why you like them and the characteristics of a good art book for those wanting to develop both knowledge and skills.

It's not based on a scientific survey - in fact it didn't even set out to be a survey! However since the two posts generated such a lot of thoughtful feedback it seems a pity not to try and identify the common themes - which is what I've done below.

I've split views into:
  • your favourite art books - ones which you've found very helpful
  • why you buy and read art books
  • characteristics of a good art book
  • TOMORROW - what sort of books are missing from our art bookshelves
The quotations come from people who commented on my posts.

Do feel free to discuss any conclusions I've drawn.

Ecology Park Ponds Series #4 - 26th December 2008
The Willows across Moor Hen Pond
10" x 14", coloured pencils on Arches HP
copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Your favourite art books

I asked:
  • Do you have a favourite art book?
  • Is there one book which had a huge impact on you and your work?
What you said follows. The number after each book is the number of people who mentioned it.

The outright winner of "most popular art book" is Betty Edwards's Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain which most people seem to have read in the original edition.

Drawing and sketching

Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain was the most exciting art instruction book I ever read--she had me do actual drawing, and learning how to see was intrinsic to her instruction, and I could transfer that to any drawing, not just an example one.

The best book on the planet packed with tricks, tips, and techniques to learn how to draw, or improve your drawing skills.

Betty Edward's book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain did an excellent job of explaining to new artists how an artist sees.
I also love that (Keys to Drawing) book for his drawings. None of this "must be flawless" stuff in there - just excellent renderings with lots of feeling. Love them!
It absolutely convinced me to pick up a pen and start drawing, fearlessly. I keep reading it, over and over. It's like having my own personal art coach in a book. I can't say enough about it.





I think all of us benefit from the websites and blogs that are out there. They have inspired me to work at sketching and painting more than ever before.

Being an artist


  • Burton Silverman - books (1)

Why you buy and read art books

These are the common reasons why people buy art books
  • I live in a remote area and get knowledge, ideas and stimulation from art instruction books
  • I read art books to find out how an artist creates their work
  • I read art books to find out HOW a process works
  • I don't take instruction well and prefer art instruction books
  • I get stimulation from the images
  • I but art books (rather than e-books) because I can read them in bed
I was addicted to art instruction books for years, but have since found a much better, much more personalised and in-depth source of art instruction and inspiration right at my fingertips: art blogs.

Characteristics of a good art instruction book

You said what you liked to find in art instruction books. Obviously I'm summarising a number of perspectives here so not all views will be shared by everyone.

Comments in italics are asides by me.

In summary art instruction books should be:
  • by an artist whose work is an inspiration - if the art does not inspire then you probably won't want to look at the book - the eye must be delighted. (If I don't like the art then the book goes straight back on the shelf - I don't care how good they are as an instructor - I don't want to hurt my eyes)
  • stimulating / full of good quality images - really good images of excellent artwork are always a hook. No poor or yawnworthy work allowed. Images need to be excellent both in terms of the photography and the competence of the artist. (I cannot tell you how many art books I've looked at where I immediately replaced them on the shelves as the artist was not competent in the use of a particular medium. I call these the 'jobbing books' - an artist gets asked to provide images and instruction irrespective of their credibility in the use of that medium)
  • generous in sharing a wealth of good information
  • well-structured: the content is structured to create a series of topics which enable the information provided to flow in a logical way from chapter to chapter
  • well written text - precise in explaining all step by step processes for all the stages plus high resolution photographs (if you're going to do step by step do them in an informative way!) (It made me wonder whether authors are given instruction on how to write and nature and the quality of the input that people like to see in an art instruction book. )
  • articulate WHY artists paint as they do
    • what the artist's motivation is to paint that particular subject matter
    • how the artist see the subject - in perceptual terms and mind's eye
    • why the artist chooses to highlight certain aspects
    • why the artist paints in one way rather than another
    • what are the influences on the artist's work
  • inclusive of images of students' work
  • AVOID providing the same basic information about materials in all art instruction books except the most advanced (let's assume that we've found that in another book!)
Since almost every book seems to have a chapter on materials (and I get really sick of reading them) why not put that chapter at the end?
  • AVOID the 'one trick pony' approach and do NOT try to persuade the reader that there is only way of working

TOMORROW - check back to find out "What sort of art book is missing from our shelves?"

This will identify the characteristics of the book which people are asking for.


The following contain links to my
information sites dedicated art books.


  1. A very informative post! I've been mulling over why I prefer certain art books since, and I agree with the person who said it was important the art had to inspire. Almost every book I have is because of the art inspired except Betty Edwards which is, I think, head and shoulders above the others in terms of explaining what the artist needs to think in order to draw. It's the ultimate book in enabling the artist to work it out for themselves - it gives all the 'tools' you need but only if you are prepared to do the rest!

    I do have an issue with one of the books on the list whose author says "Do not use a pencil or erase any of your lines". It's clear which brand of sketchbook they prefer too. (Although it's not named in this particular book, I assume from comments elsewhere that it may be mentioned in another title. Point being it's more trendy than practical for a beginner.) Anything that restricts the artist and creates 'rules' like this is not liberating. Other than that it is an inspiring book.

  2. Thank you, Katherine! I'm gratified to see my books and CDs there in your list--lots of work, and I do try hard to make them as useful as possible. I'm glad people find them so.

    And yes, I love Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and Danny's books, too! Thanks for a useful and inspiring post--now I have lots more to check out!

  3. Katherine,
    Thank you so much for putting a list together of books and CDs. What an informative post!

    I just bought a new book that is one of my favorites. It is geared for oil painting, but most of the principles can easily apply to other media. The author is Elizabeth Tolley and the book is called "Oil Painter's Solution Book Landscapes, Over 100 answers to your oil painting questions".

    The book is divided into sections: materials, composition & design, tonal value, color & light, techniques, demonstrations. The best part is that the book is spiral bound so that the pages stay open - I love that part. It is a great reference book with great examples and most of the book can easily apply to watercolor, acrylic and colored pencil.

  4. What a fantastic list - thank you Katherine!

    I must have bought my copy of Itten's The Art of Color before it went out of print! The Johannes Itten book The Elements of Color is still in print:
    I don't know how I come to have a copy of both books on Color, but the Elements has most of the exercises in it and I use it in my studio for ways to deepen my color understanding.

  5. These are good lists, especially Betty's books, and the two Acrylic ones, as well as old standby's like Bridgman's [tho Hogarth's and Shephard's are more preferred by me] and Loomis' classics [all of them of value]... however, with other mediums, much seemed overlooked [ perhaps out of print, since my copies were gained many years ago] - Guptill's Rendering in Pencil, and moreso his Rendering in Pen and Ink, for example...

    Indeed, this brings up a book am working on which covers an area not generally thought of yet - just as colored pencil used to be in the service of other arenas [illustration mostly] and only now being given its due as a medium for fine art, so too pen and ink has been considered as mostly sketching material, a means to the end of oils or egg tempra or doodling - but not as fine art... this is something I am trying to change thru my pen/ink paintings, and the need for a book explaining and exemplifying that - Rendering in the Grand Manner - which will show how to see thematically and how to achieve pen/ink works in the 20"x30" to 32"x40" size and larger [am planning on a couple of 40"x60" this summer] as finished fine art works... for years have waited for another to so do - and none have, and am tired of waiting... much can be gained by seeing more than the oils, acrylics, pastel, egg tempra, and colored pencils as valid mediums for the artist to use in contemplative measures...

  6. I just found your blog and wanted to say thank you for the info. Count me in with Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain.

  7. Hi katherine

    There's a fantastic book on colour that is missing from your list, 'How to See Colour and Paint It' by Arthur Stern. Its out of print, annoyingly, but its SO good, I use many of the exercises when teaching in College. A no-nonsense, no apology down-to-earth book, completely made up of exercises painted by students. I know a few artists who, having read this book 20 years ago, respect this way of viewing colour so much that they STILL use some of the tips in their own work. Looking at the cover now, its sub-heading is a delicious 'A series of projects designed to open your eyes to colours you never saw before'.

    I'm not surprised that Betty Edwards is so popular, as many of my students have asked if I'd read her books - in the end I only read the drawing one when one of them leant it to me! I heard a prog on radio 4 a couple of months ago about the brain, and her book was not discussed in a positive light. Personally, I'm not keen on how-to-do-it books, but as they go, hers is at least the thinking mans book. The disappointing thing as a tutor is that I know MOST adult learners are a bit quick-fix (I'm sure people will disagree on this, but I've taught hundreds of students, my comments are based on experience!), so they mostly don't READ all of her book, and a depressing number of them quote the Upside -down exercise and don't get any further. Aaargh.

    The Art Book That's Missing from our shelves? ....the ones we're writing!! (cheeky!) Which means, I think, colourful, image-ful and as few words as possible. The average adult student won't read much. Teenage students (which is DEEPLY worrying), don't even take their own notes, even when I teasingly suggest they might like to, just in case I say something astonishingly wise ;)- how ridiculous and scary is that?

    Julie Douglas x I know this is too long, sorry. Must get to work!

  8. Thanks for all the positive comments folks.

    I think I'm going to create a squidoo lens out of this list of books - and add in one or two of my favourites too. That way I can keep the list going!

    Julie - it came as a huge surprise to me some 10 years ago, when I was in the middle of a testing process for a job I really wanted, to discover that I'd apparently lost the power to write by hand for extended periods. I was so used to doing all my writing on a keyboard that taking notes by hand was completely foreign to me! (What do you mean - I asked myself - I have to get it right first time and can't go back and add/amend/delete?) Maybe this keyboard fixated younger generation might be experiencing something similar?

    I'm pleased to say that I got the job - and relearned the skill of writing by hand too!

    I'm stealing your idea re the book that isn't on our bookshelves - but will give you due credit! :)

  9. Katherine

    re your comment on computer keyboards stunting our handwriting..and the teenage students who don't take notes. I thinks its less to do with diminished handwriting skills, and more sadly to do with the fact that they can push a button on their computer and hey presto, all the information is provided.
    I attended a session in college recently where another tutor was explaining perspective to around 60 students. I realized after about 10 minutes that I was the only person in the room who was taking notes - and I already knew how to do it!!! I was simply enjoying another persons descriptions.
    I think its a generational thing, and I work very hard nagging my groups to get notational.
    You're talking about art books, well I reckon if I recorded myself for a day or two during these nags, we'd have a couple more books on the shelf, but no pictures!

  10. I'm very tempted to say that this is what husbands are for - taking the photographs of you explaining the points!

    However having tried that one I know that's easier said than done! ;)

    I bet you'd be amazed at how many image examples you already have which could be used in a book.

    I wonder if your students are already recording you? :-o

    Do tell us which recording machine you get! ;)

  11. Great list,

    Now I have a load more books to buy!!

    Suprised not see any Ian Simpson books! A A Painters Progress & Drawing: Seeing and Observation are both classics in my opinion!

    I also love Robert Beverly Hales anatomy books! learning from the Old Masters!

  12. One more quick comment!

    Isnt it frurstrating when you hear of a great art book and then find out it is out of print and then costs £100 plus for a second hand one!

    Suddenly you feel that it must contain the ultimate clues to art instruction!

    The ones I am thinking of include:

    Harley Brown's Eternal Truths for Every Artist

    Charles Bargue and Jean-Leon Gerome: Drawing Course

    All the Loomis Books.

    and now I have another to add to the list: Ted Seth Jacobs:Light for the artist.

    KAtherine, If you have this last book, could you do a review and maybe give us some hints at what its about??



  13. I couldn't agree more about the 'out of print' books! That's why I tend to buy what looks like it's a good book even if I don't have time to read it straight away.

    The Ted Seth Jacob book that I've got is "Drawing with an Open Mind" - I could maybe do a review of that.

    I've just been to check which Harley Brown I've got - and I can't find it!!!


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