Sunday, February 02, 2020

Book Review: Notes from the Atelier by Julie Douglas

This book review of Notes from the Atelier
This coming Tuesday I am delighted that my studio will be part of the first live nation-wide life drawing session, on BBC4 with Lachlan GoudieJulie Douglas, Notes from The Atelier
Notes from the Atelier by Julie Douglas
Cover of Notes from the Atelier by Julie Douglas

My book review is long overdue(!) Its publication coincided with a lot of other things going on and then it hit the pile of books to be reviewed. Having now reviewed it I'm only sorry I didn't do so earlier as I would have been recommending it to people!

Notes from The Atelier is the first book by Julie Douglas, an award-winning designer, artist, illustrator - and art teacher who has been running her own Art School in Northern Ireland - comprising weekly classes and workshops - for over 25 years.

I first got to know Julie via coloured pencil activities when her artwork kept winning major awards. Then in 2015 we met up for the first time when I went across to give a lecture for a Drawing Consortium she organised at Belfast University.  Last year we met up again the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year heat that she participated in and I was watching.

When you read this book it's just like meeting up with Julie. It's very relaxed but very knowledgeable and informative with lots and lots of positivity and encouraging noises!  

If you want to see what I mean watch the video!

Let's DRAW! With Julie Douglas from Julie Douglas on Vimeo.

Title: Notes from The Atelier


The aim of this book is to provide practical steps to successful observation, drawing and painting. It places an emphasis on learning how to see as a stepping stone to being able to draw and paint effectively.

The core of the book is 32 exercises which she has used with her Weekly Class - in other words
  • they're not only tried and tested but also refined as a result 
  • you get to see some of the artwork by her students - which means you can compare what you've produced to what her students in her weekly cass produced doing the exact same exercise.
a double page spread about pencil shading and developing tonal values

The book also contains LOTS of practical tips relating to art materials, drawing and painting practice and looking after your wellbeing which you draw and paint.

I think it's really suitable for people who are complete beginners - as well as those looking to improve.

Summary Review

RECOMMENDED: This is an excellent book for somebody wanting to learn how to draw and paint but unable to get to a class. It's very stimulating and very accessible in the sense that, while reading it, it is exactly like having Julie in the room with you. Everything you need to know is articulated very clearly and in very clear steps. 

Plus it has 45 x 5 star reviews on Amazon UK which are worth a read - and some nice reviews from other leading artist tutors
You’ve inspired me to draw again! I haven't had time to read all of it (or even half - it's a big book!) but what I've read so far is WONDERFUL! I agree with everything you say, and I think you have a SUPER solid method of teaching here. : )I am very happy to recommend it.Carol Marine, Artist, USA
I like the way the overall approach focuses on:
  • learning how to see being fundamental to being able to draw and paint well
  • drawing as underpinning competence in painting. 
Examining options for cropping a complex still life involving light, dark and patterns

The exercises are very clearly set out and cover a variety of media including:
  • graphite pencil
  • coloured pencils
  • charcoal
  • watercolour
Others focus on specific approaches for particular subjects eg "Location Drawing" and "Drawing a Face."

I just wish the book included a listing of the exercises in terms of their main focus or core learning objective. I couldn't find one and I'm one of those "tell me what you're going to tell me before you start and then tell me again at the end" kind of people - so I missed it.

I enjoyed her description of "The Cobweb Technique". I never knew it was called that but that's exactly how I draw - start at the centre and move out slowly measuring as you do in small increments. Which means that anybody who is teaching the way I draw has got to have written an excellent book! :)

Extremely useful tips are also identified clearly. Besides those relating to media and approaches to drawing and painting, these also include ones which are designed to maintain the wellbeing of the learner e.g. stretch / have a break / make a cup of tea.
"Sitting kills, moving heals"
I thought this was an incredibly sensible idea and one which marks this book out from others on sale.

Throughout the book there are various Do's  and Don'ts. Some are done in sections i.e.
  • Brush Handling
  • Pencil Sharing
  • Coloured Pencils
  • Composition
Others are interspersed around the text and images of individual exercises. Julie is not afraid to reiterate the important ones which I thought was a welcome and refreshing change! It's exactly as a teacher would behave in class.

Drawing a Knot - her most popular exercise ever

It's also got a lot about the psychological factors relating to art and making art and thinking about feelings, wellbeing etc. - but it is not in the least bit prissy.


The book is self-published. Which means Julie has been able to present the content she wanted to deliver without any editorial constraints. It's an excellent first attempt at self publication. It beats an awful lot of others I've seen!

In terms of presentation and publication
  • Its a large hardback book (11" x 9.5") 
  • printed on quality paper which is nice to handle
  • consequently, it's somewhat heavy. 
  • colour reproduction of all the images is excellent - in part because of the quality of the paper.
  • there's a LOT of images and a good mix of image sizes and they demonstrate points made in the text well and/or provide examples of work done by students.
I've got a few reservations - related to design of the book layout and navigation around different topics and the lack of an index.
  • I wish the margins had been somewhat wider. The book is tightly bound and reading some of the text on some of the pages proved a little difficult. A larger gutter margin (along the spine edge) would have made a very significant difference to ease of reading. I'm loath to bend the spines of hardback books, in case I crack it, but might want to do so with this one if feeling very motivated to read every single word - and I think a lot of people will!
  • Some pages have white text on a pale grey background. For me, this doesn't have enough contrast for my old eyes and hence these pages were not an easy read for me. For others it may well not be a problem.
  • There are no clear titles or listing of the focus of the individual exercises
  • There's no index. I'm somebody who loves a good quality index which shows me where I can find that really useful bit of info or tip about whatever that I remember reading about.
I highly recommend you take the slip cover off before you start to use it. I found it a lot easier to handle with no cover.

But for these aspects, I'd have made this a HIGHLY RECOMMENDED book.
That said it's perfectly possible to use this book in a methodical way - from beginning to end - to develop a well informed level of competence in both drawing and painting across a range of media.

I know there's a lot of people out there who like a "beginning to end" type of book, with clear instructions and lots of practical tips which will embed good practice. This book will very much appeal to them.

About the author

Read Julie's account of her background in the "Prologue" section. 
It's very clear, on the basis of her education, achievements and awards that the author is a very well qualified and very experienced artists, illustrator and art teacher who is passionate about the value that drawing and painting can have for ordinary people.

But if you watched the video above, you've probably already sussed that out. 

She makes it very clear she's NOT a teacher for those who want to paint from imagination or copy photographs. Her emphasis is always on observation and developing new habits and competence in being able to see and therefore draw and paint. 

How to buy this book

You can ONLY buy this book direct from Julie Douglas - via this page on her website.
[Note: You can follow Julie on her Facebook Page for her Art Courses]

It costs £35 - which makes it about twice the price of very many other books about drawing and painting. However, you need to bear in mind that 
  • there are 255 pages - which is MUCH longer than most books (eg my book about drawing produced by a UK publisher is 176 pages)
  • self-published books are very often slightly more expensive
  • the quality in terms of the "feel" of the book and its content makes this a fair price.
Postage and packing works as follows:
  • UK = £7
  • Ireland & Europe = £15
  • Rest of the World = £22
Like I said - it's a hardback and heavy!

Although it is listed on Amazon no copies are available. I find this very telling. It means none of the buyers of this book when it was published have put their books up for resale meaning they're satisfied with it and THIS BOOK IS A KEEPER!

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