How To Use Art Instruction Books

2016 Artwork How To Use An Art Instruction Book Article Sketch

Well, since I was given a copy of Philip Patenall’s “Learn To Draw People” by a family friend a few days before writing this article, I thought that I’d talk about how to use art instruction books again. Although I talked about this topic sometime last year, I’ll try to add some new stuff here.

One of the first things that I will say about art instruction books is that, before I started making art regularly in 2012, they often seemed slightly confusing to me. Sure, I’d pick up the occasional technique here and there, but a lot of the stuff in these books may as well have been written in another language.

In fact, it wasn’t until I’d got into the habit of practicing art every day (eg: making small simple cartoon drawings in my own style and gradually getting better at this) and, through pure curiosity and experimentation, had learnt to copy by sight (and learnt how to simplify pictures in order to be able to copy them from sight) that art instruction books really became useful to me in any way.

I think that one of the problems with art instruction books, which can put off a lot of people, is the fact that they’re often focused on a range of very “traditional” drawing materials (eg: pencil, charcoal etc…) and the fact that they often all teach a very “realistic” drawing style. If you’re totally new to making art, it is very easy look at the very advanced illustrations in these books and conclude that you’ll never be able to produce anything as good.

So, one way to make art instruction books work for you is to build up your own artistic confidence before you start reading them. Sketch and scribble every day (regardless of how cartoonish, childish or simple your art looks) until you’re totally and utterly used to drawing. Keep drawing randomly and regularly until drawing isn’t a “new” thing to you.

If you see a cool-looking picture on the internet or in a magazine, then try to copy it from sight alone just for the fun of doing so. Yes, your early attempts at this will look terrible. But keep going and you’ll gradually get better at it (and learn a bit about art in the process).

Not only that, copying things for enjoyment will also teach you how to analyse and study images in detail, which is a skill that you’ll need before you even open an art instruction book.

The reason why you should do your own practice before you look at an art book is because every artist has their own methods. A book will often only teach you how the author of that book constructs and plans their art. Often, since they’ve had a lot of practice, their techniques can often look a lot more complicated than they actually are, and they can seem intimidatingly difficult to learn.

However, if you’ve built up your own confidence through regular random practice before even opening the book, then you’ll be approaching the book on a very slightly more equal footing. What this means is that you can look at another artist’s techniques as just that, one possible set of techniques.

Once you think of it this way, then it changes how you see the book. Instead of feeling that you have to learn all of the techniques, you can study them carefully and – if you see one that you like – you can try it out and, after some practice, you’ll be able to add it to your own art style.

Another thing to remember with art instruction books is that you should use art supplies that you enjoy using and are confident with. Personally, I prefer drawing with rollerball pens (and planning using pencil) and I’m not that interested in things like charcoal drawing or traditional pencil drawing. If I learnt those skills, I probably wouldn’t actually use them that much. So, when I practice exercises in drawing books, I use the tools that I am familiar with – regardless of what the book suggests that I use.

This also adds an additional element of education and challenge to my practice. Since I have to work out how to “translate” a picture from one medium to another, it forces me to focus on the essential elements of the picture.

In other words, copying a practice picture using different materials is a great way to learn how to simplify things since it forces you to carefully study a picture and focus on only the most essential parts of it (that you can actually reproduce using different materials).

Another thing that art instruction books are really useful for is teaching you what you do know and what you don’t know. For example, a couple of days after getting a copy of Patenall’s “Learn To Draw People”, I decided to try out some of the practice exercises/ practice illustrations in the book. Here’s what some of my practice looked like:

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE]  I've digitally edited out the mess of erased pencil lines for the sake of clarity. But here are some of my attempts at the practice exercises from Philip Patenall's "Learn To Draw People".

[CLICK FOR LARGER IMAGE] I’ve digitally edited out the mess of erased pencil lines for the sake of clarity. But here are some of my attempts at the practice exercises from Philip Patenall’s “Learn To Draw People”.

I started by making studies of a couple of very simple illustrations from page 58 (the two women in bathing suits). These looked easy to draw and they had a cool art deco-style look to them. So, I just had to try drawing them.

Next, I tried to draw a smiling man from page 32 – this was a slight failure and it taught me that I don’t know as much as I thought I did about drawing wrinkles, lips, eyelids and facial proportions.

Then I tried to draw a picture of a woman in profile from page 33. I really liked the original pastel picture in the book and wanted to see if I could draw it in pen (using pencil for planning).

My first pencilled attempt at this was terrible. Then I remembered that I needed to draw the outline of her head (heads look like a squashed/ diagonal oval shape in profile) first to get the proportions right. Then I tried again just using a pencil and then once again using a pen and pencil. I failed again. In fact, you can even see my scribbled-out third attempt at practicing this picture.

So, I tried again. This time I paid even closer attention to the shape of the woman’s head. I also paid much closer attention to the proportion of her facial features in relation to each other. The top of her ear is level with her eye, the edges of her lips are level with the end of her nose etc… And, after a few more pencil sketches, I was finally able to produce an ink reproduction of this image that vaguely resembles the original pastel drawing.

Finally, I went for an easier illustration (from page 32) of a woman looking sideways slightly. This was mostly just as a way to relax after my more complicated attempt at drawing someone in profile. Although my practice picture looks vaguely similar to the original drawing, it’s hardly accurate. For starters, I accidentally drew her chin slightly more prominently than it should be.

So, yes, art books are most useful for teaching you what you don’t know. Not only that, be sure to build up your confidence (through random regular practice) before you even open an art instruction book.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂


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