I own a lot of art books, like seriously too many. Just the other day I bought a job lot of calligraphy books on eBay. It was cheaper than buying them individually, don’t judge me. You might be surprised considering I’m at art school but I didn’t do art during high school. A lot of what I learned came from books and you can do the same. So today I want to recommend 5 art books for beginners.
I will say right now that these choices are very much based on my personal preferences and the type of art I like. If you’re looking for a book which will teach you how to draw I don’t have anything for you. Mostly because I avoid drawing as much as I can, I got through my portrait module at college and never want to draw another portrait in my life.
But one of the reasons I like these particular books is because you don’t need to be good at art to learn something from them. You can learn how to paint with watercolour or do some simple illustrations without knowing everything which comes from doing a fully rendered drawing. So here are my 5 favourite art books for beginners.
My Favourite Art Books For Beginners
Modern Watercolour Botanicals
Modern Watercolour Botanicals is a book I came across because I follow the author on Instagram. Sarah Simon is a painter and illustrator, she specialises in painting botanicals, as you might have guessed. One of the things I love about this book is how simple she has made these projects for beginners.
The book is well made, it reminds me more of a workbook than a bound book. But I think this works well. It starts with some easy to understand lessons on the best tools to use for painting. It then goes on to explain colour theory. Even if you’re a total beginner Modern Watercolour Botanicals will take you through everything you need to know to get started, this even includes which paints to buy.
I would usually use Winsor and Newton paints. But Sarah recommends starting with Reeves paint. I think this is a really smart idea, she uses the same paint throughout the book and gives the exact paint colours you need for each project. I think this is useful for beginners, choosing the right colours can be tricky, especially when colours can change slightly depending on the brand of paint.
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Once you’ve learned the basics, Sarah starts going through a series of projects. The way these projects have been set up is extremely clever. The first project teaches you some simple watercolour techniques and the different ways paint can be put on the page. But in a way that you will have a nice piece of abstract art at the end. Each subsequent project builds on these skills and teaches you how to apply them to different types of botanical illustration.
I think this is the sort of book which is an ideal art book for beginners. But also, if you’re a more experienced artist you’ll still get something out of it. Even though I’ve been painting for a few years I’ve never really learned botanical illustration and I’ve found this book to be very useful.
You Are An Artist
You Are An Artist teaches you about a different type of art. This book is written by Sarah Urist Green who you might have heard of if you’ve ever watched the Vlogbrothers on YouTube. Sarah is an art curator and presenter on The Art Assignment. A YouTube channel which explores the history of art through modern culture. If you have an interest in art I would highly recommend checking out this channel.
You Are An Artist is a collection of artist interviews collated by Green. She asked these artists to create prompts based on their art to be featured in the book. One of the things I love about this is how it changes your perceptions of art. Most instruction books focus on how to make art, how to draw or how to paint. Sarah’s book is different because it looks at modern art, it makes you question what art is and what it can be.
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I know that one thing I always hear about art is that someone could never be an artist because they can’t draw. This is the exact book for you because it doesn’t ask you to draw a picture. What you have to remember about modern art is that it’s a response to something. So yes, your kid could throw some paint on a page and call it a Jackson Pollock, but it wouldn’t really be the same because Pollock’s work was a response to something. Making the art was almost like a performance, yes we have the canvases now which are sold for a large amount of money, but that wasn’t the point of his art.
The prompts in You Are An Artist work similarly. Each artist created a prompt which relates to their art and way of working. The prompt asks you to work in the same way but by responding to your environment or some other topic. One of my favourite prompts in the book asks you to find something you want to complain about and ‘communicate that message in a creative way‘.
Illustration Workshop is a great book if you want to learn how to create illustrations for specific purposes. If you have zero experience with illustration this is a great place to get started. Just remember that illustration and drawing are two different things. Drawing is simply that, a drawing, but illustration is a drawing which communicates a specific message.
The book starts with some illustration basics before getting into a series of projects. These basic things you need to know are very helpful. They cover a range of topics from finding an illustration style and drawing for a specific audience. To doing research for your illustration projects and how to develop your work by learning from other people. There is also a great little section all about different art materials and computer programs you can use for illustration. This is useful because you’ll find that many illustration styles are depended on the medium and tools used when drawing.
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One of the things I love about Illustration Workshop is how it takes your hand and guides you through the creative process. If you have little experience with illustration you might be tempted to take a project brief and create the first thing which comes to mind. Sometimes these ideas will be good, but other times they won’t. Ideally, you want to work through a process where you come up with lots of ideas, then choose the best out of what you have. So the book walks you through brainstorming ideas, choosing the best, working up those ideas, choosing the best again, doing more detailed sketches. It sounds like a lot of work but it’s a really good way to learn and make your work better.
One of the other things I love about illustration is how you don’t have to be good at drawing. Just like modern art is a personal response, illustration is all about creating something unique to you. If you have an interesting drawing style that’s great. You don’t want to have a style which looks like everything else.
Creative Lettering is a great entry-level book for anyone who wants to learn about lettering. In the past, I have recommended the best calligraphy books for beginners. Lettering is a similar skill, but not so dependent on having specific tools and is easier to get started with. It’s also a great skill to learn if you have a bullet journal, it’s a really easy way to decorate your bullet journal.
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Lettering can either be really complicated or really simple depending on what the lettering will be used for. If you were making a sign to be used in a shop or as a print to see you’d be a little more worried about legibility. But as a beginner, you don’t need to worry quite so much about legibility, and if you use a dotted notebook you’ve already got the perfect place to practise your lettering.
One of the things I love about this book is the variety of projects in it. You have some of the simpler projects which gives examples of different types of cursive script you can try. But it also has more complicated projects which show you how to create letters out of a variety of mediums. One of my favourite projects gets you to make letters using layers of cut vellum. Or if you want to get fancy, Lego.
The Art of Disney
I love the Art of Disney books and think they are the perfect type of art book for beginners. Some books in this range give you a behind-the-scenes look at the art direction of Disney films. I bought the Art of Moana a few years ago and loved it. Pixar also makes art books for their film releases and I would highly recommend checking these out if you are a Pixar fan.
But recently Disney has been releasing art books about some of the famous artists and animators who have worked at Disney. Unlike some of the other books on this list, these aren’t intended as something which you can learn a skill from. But as a reference book, these are extremely useful.
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One of my favourite books I bought was about the art of Eyvind Earle. Earle was a Disney animator in the 50s, he has a very distinctive style of work which can be seen in Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. I’d also highly recommend checking out this short documentary about drawing trees where Earle is featured. I’d especially recommend looking at some of the older Disney animators if you’re wanting to develop your own illustration style. Many modern illustration styles are based on films and cartoons from the 50s.
And there we go, 5 of my favourite art books for beginners. I know these aren’t your typical ‘learn how to draw’ type books. But I hope you’ll get something out of these books no matter how good or bad your art skills are. If you’re interested in conceptual art I would highly recommend checking out You Are An Artist, it will really make you rethink what art is.
Have you read any of the books on this list? Or do you know of any other great art books for beginners? Let me know in the comments.