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“How to Draw” Drawing Books: The Good and the Bad

As a kid, there was nothing like walking into a bookstore and seeing the shelf of “How to Draw” books. Dragons, horses, cartoons, and castle. There was a How to Draw book on every topic that was fun and exciting to draw. I ended up with a lot of these books and, today as an adult, I still love them. But, even if they’re fun, do drawing books actually help improve drawing skills?

Drawing books can be great resources if they’re used in the right way. In order for them to be the most effective, artists should use drawing books as tools to improve their skills instead of as quick wins and finished products. 

With every positive that comes with a drawing book, there comes a negative as well.

These books are tools and tools have to be used in the right ways for them to work. The problem is that drawing books don’t give you a lot of guidance in learning how to use them. They show you tutorials and send you on your way. This means that a lot of artists end up using these books the wrong way. Then, they wonder what went wrong when they don’t see a lot of benefit as they turn the last page. Let’s talk about the good…and bad…of drawing books and how you can maximize the good and lessen the bad.

Drawing Books Give You Step-By Step Directions….But, Think it Through

Many people choose drawing books because they offer step-by-step directions from start to finish of a project. You only have a few lines when you start out at step 1, but you have a fully finished tiger when you finish at step 10. That’s pretty cool. There’s no question why drawing books are appealing to kids and adults alike.

The Problem

Step-by-step instructions are great if you’re a financial analyst trying to change the oil in your car as a one-off project because your mechanic didn’t have any open appointments. They’re not so great if you’re a mechanic in training who needs to learn everything you could possibly need to know about oil changes through and through. 

By default, step-by-step instructions are action oriented, which means that they give you all of motions without any of the explanations. Every step is laid out like magic. The reader’s job isn’t to think about why each step is there; the artist already did that when they wrote the book. 

If you’re not careful, how to draw books can be mindless and unproductive instead of instructional.

This isn’t necessarily the fault of the books though. Remember that they’re a tool. We don’t blame a nail for not hoping out of the toolbox and nailing itself into the wall. We have to do the work.

The Solution

Do the work. If drawing books are tools that can help you become a better artist, make sure you’re making the most out of them. 

Instead of mindlessly copying each step-by-step instruction, think about how and why the author made the choices that they did.

If you’re following instructions to draw a dog, why did the author choose to curve the snout that way? Why do the ears flop in that direction? What expression is achieved by making the eyes that shape? Put yourself in the artist’s shoes and imagine the thought process they went through to draw the dog you’re now recreating.

A great way to put your knowledge to the test is to draw the dog again without looking at the instructions. Just because you memorize something doesn’t mean that you’ve internalized the skills, but it IS a good signal that you weren’t mindlessly following the instructions.

To take it to the next level, try applying the skills you learned to a new context. Draw another dog nose, but on a German Shepherd instead of a Dachshund this time. Draw another dog body, but laying down instead of sitting. 

It’s important to constantly test the skills you’ve learned. It’s also important to get creative. If you’ve thought through the choices that the author of your drawing book made, how can you use those principles to get creative and think through your own choices? How can you make your art your own? Don’t get stuck in a box copying the drawings from your drawing book. Use what you’ve learned to make creative art that you can call yours.

115 objects to draw when you need artistic inspiration
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Drawing Books Sometimes Only Give You an Overview…But, You Can Dive Deeper

When you scan through drawing books, you’ll see a lot of broad topics. Portraits, landscapes, animals, cartoons, nature. Those are HUGE topics to cover in depth in one book, no matter how long the book is.

The Problem

Many how to draw books only give you what you need to recreate the artist’s image. They don’t dive deeply into the concepts you really need to master in order to improve your drawing skills. We’re not just talking about step-by-step instruction books either. Even advanced drawing books can’t go into as much depth as you would need to REALLY need to take your art to the next level.

This is not a knock on drawing books; it’s simply that there is only show much you can show in a book. Part of the problem is that they dive into huge topics. For example, one of my favorite drawing books is about drawing realistic portraits. I LOVE this book, but it would be crazy to say that you’ll have everything you need to go from beginning to advanced portrait artist in 150 pages.  

I really like this book, but I didn’t go into it with an expectation that it would be my only guru leading me through realistic portraits. Here are some of the skills you’ll need to master to become proficient at realistic portraits:

  • Face composition
  • Face shapes
  • Shading
  • Textures
  • Symmetry
woman with how to draw lifelike portraits from photographs

All of these things could be in depth courses on their own, let alone be put together into a 150 page book. In reality, drawing books aren’t meant to give artists everything they need to know. That would be a HUGE undertaking. Given all of the resources that are available to us these days, we need to think about seeking out the things we need to fill in the gaps in our art skills and our art knowledge. 

The Solution

Don’t expect a drawing book to give you absolutely everything you need to master your drawing skills. Yes, it can be a great guide, but you also need to take some initiative to dig deeper into the concepts that you’re hoping to improve upon.

If you’re struggling with shading, take a course on shading. If you’re struggling to draw eyes, take a course on drawing eyes. Seek out entire courses on the skills you want to work on and DIVE DEEP into them. Every time you run into a challenging skill, put down your drawing book and work on that skill for a bit. Then, return to your drawing book and see if more of the pieces fall together for you.

A lot of the experts that write drawing books are, well, experts. They have spent a lot of time honing their skills and improving their craft. Don’t expect to learn everything they know after reading their book. You need to take the time to take the initiative to work on your skills yourself.

Drawing Books Show You an Insider’s View…But, Be Sure to Look For Yourself

One of the coolest things about drawing books is that you get an insider’s view into the artist’s process. Step-by-step, you get to see how your favorite artists bring their work to life.

The Problem

When you see something through an expert’s point of view, you don’t learn to see it for yourself. “An expert drew a picture of that dog, why would I have to study a dog for myself? Surely, the results of that wouldn’t be as good as the ones that this expert has already laid out for me.”

A huge part of art is learning how to see. As we go through our day to day lives, our brains automatically make sense of the world and everything we’re seeing. Of course, this is really great. It causes a lot of problems for our art though. In order to be good at art, we need to see everything as a series of parts, not just as a whole. That dog isn’t just a dog; it’s a series of lines that come together to form different shapes that end up looking like a dog.

If we’re not practicing our abilities to see the world as artists, we won’t gain the skills necessary to do so. This means that we’ll always need drawing books as a crutch, relying on the abilities of other artists to see the world around them from an artistic point of view.

The Solution

Once you’ve used the drawing book to help you draw something, put it away and find that same object in real life. If you were drawing an animal or a person, find a household pet or convince a family member to model for you. If you can’t do that (or if you were drawing a picture of a shark or something) find a reference photo of it in real life. 

You’ve already drawn this object, animal, or person step-by-step in your drawing book, so you know you can do it. Now, it’s time for you to go out on your own and see it for yourself. This will be A LOT Harder than following your drawing book step-by step. This time around, you’ll have to figure out how all of the shapes and lines come together for yourself. This can be quite a problem to solve.

dog with tennis ball
Isn’t this pup the best little model you’ve ever seen? I’m a bit biased.
drawing of dog with tennis ball

There’s a lot of value that comes from solving a problem yourself. Not only do you learn a lot as you go, but you may also stumble into new techniques that make your art your own. No one ever developed creative and unique art by copying and copying and copying without ever branching out. Copying has its place, but going beyond that is where your unique art will come from.

Drawing Books Boost Confidence…But, You Need to Transfer These Skills

It can feel really good to draw something from start to finish and have it be successful. A lot of how to draw books are designed for you to be successful with, which can be a huge confidence boost. 

The Problem

It’s really neat to complete a complex drawing that you never thought you could do before. Step-by-step, you feel like you’re on your way to improving your art skills and have an awesome drawing to show for it. This can be a huge confidence builder. But, what happens the next time you draw something but don’t have those step-by-step instructions as a crutch?

Unless you want to draw that same step-by-step picture over and over again, the skills you learn from your drawing book are no good if you don’t transfer them to your other art projects. Sure, you can draw the dog face that you saw in your drawing book, but what have you learned about composing a dog face in general that you can use the next time you draw a different dog?

Drawing books don’t always do a good job of helping artists learn how to transfer the skills they’ve learned to other types of projects. There just isn’t enough time! It’s also that these drawing books can’t hold everyone’s hands forever. A lot of that responsibility of making sure that drawing skills stick falls on each artist’s discipline and willingness to practice.

learning to draw through copying. Is it bad?
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The Solution

Take what you’ve learned and try it out in new contexts. If you’ve learned how to draw dogs, draw a bunch of different dogs. Grab that reference photo or your household dog and figure out how to shade different types of snouts and shape different types of ears. 

If your drawing book taught you how to crosshatch, stipple, blend, or color, use those skills everywhere you can. Make for gosh darn sure that those skills you learned in your drawing book transfer to your other types of artwork and really stick in your brain.

Even though it feels great to finish a drawing from a drawing book, it feels REALLY great to take those skills and make your own art with them. Talk about a confidence booster to be able to master certain art skills and be able to use them at a moment’s notice.

Drawing Books Are Relaxing and Fun….No “But” Here

There’s a reason why drawing books are so popular. They’re a really fun way to draw and do art. Grab a drawing book on one of your favorite topics, put on a favorite movie or album, and enjoy drawing.

It’s ok to say that you only want to use drawing books as a way to relax and enjoy drawing, stress free. A lot of the issues we’ve talked about relating to drawing books are due to how easy and mindless they make drawing. If you aren’t careful, you won’t actually gain any skills after using them because you were so nicely led step-by-step through the process. Sometimes, this is a welcome thing. It can be nice just to draw something nice without having to think too hard about it.

Grab a drawing book and just enjoy drawing. 

If you want your skills to “stick” though, follow the tips we’ve outlined in this post and you’ll start to see that you improve the amount of benefit you get from your drawing books. What’s great is that you can choose which path you want to go down on any given day.

Maybe one day you want to use your drawing book to be mindlessly led through a drawing project.

On another day, maybe you want to focus on improving your art skills and put in the elbow grease and mental strain to make long-term progress. Whichever path you choose, have fun drawing. That’s why we draw in the first place anyways, right?

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