An un-comprehensive list of books about the how and why of art making

Color and Light
Imaginative Realism

by James Gurney

These two books belong on every artist’s bookshelf! I have had to re-buy mine so many times I have lost count – in fact I’m reviewing them from memory now because, yet again, I’ve loaned them to someone starting out and doubt I’ll get them back…

They go way beyond the ‘this is a brush’ level of instruction, but would not confuse a beginner. For the more experienced artist, no matter how one works, they point the way to other possibilities. Both books are divided into a series of articles, rather than long chapters, each with plenty of pictures to illustrate their ideas. There’s science to back up what is taught about colour, light, composition and research skills without ever becoming heavy going. They’re practical books that teach to a decent depth, yet are easy to read.

Highly recommended.

Sketching. From Square One…to Trafalgar Square

by Richard E. Scott.

The no BS guide to drawing from life for the beginner (which many a more experienced artist could benefit from too). It’s a confidence boosting book about getting outside, learning to use comparative measuring, sketching accurately and ignoring what doesn’t matter. Whether ultimately interested in urban sketching, the life drawing class or an atelier this is a good start. (It takes the place of ALL the other ‘How to draw’ books.)

Vanishing Point: Perspective for Comics from the Ground Up

by Jason Cheeseman-Meyer

Ignore what it says about comics, this book on perspective is useful for anyone wanting to get their head around the maths. It’s easy to follow without being light-weight. It is also the only book I’ve come across that covers the 90° rule and how that affects where the vanishing points can go (nope, it ain’t arbitrary…). Fair enough if you WANT your perspective to look distorted, but at least know how to do it properly and how to avoid it if you don’t.

Five Minute Sketching: Architecture : Super-Quick Techniques for Amazing Drawing

by Liz Steel

This one covers perspective too, with a difference. Liz, a Sydney-based architect and well-known urban sketcher, is also a great teacher because she is very good at breaking down complex ideas into manageable  lessons. Her book does just that with complex built scenes. Rather than getting bogged down with detail and theory Liz almost suggests we ignore perspective and draw what we see, but with just enough structure to end up with a satisfying sketch. It is much smaller book than I was expecting, but that just makes it easy to fit in a bag alongside a sketchbook! It’s written in a way that can be dipped into in the odd 5-minutes to spare and be left encouraged to find another five minutes to get out and give it a go.

The Creative License

by Danny Gregory

The Creative Licence by Danny GregoryThe Creative Licence by Danny Gregory is as much a memoir as an ode to sketching and a slightly bossy order to begin at once. There’s plenty of how-to – but also why – which makes it feel different to a normal how-to-draw book. The thing that’s made clear is that everyone can already draw and everyone gets better with practice. You just have to forget the fear and get on with it. It’s also not just sketching but journaling, or diary-keeping, with pictures. The thing I took to heart was Danny’s description of years of pouring angst into written journals before realising that it wasn’t making him feel any better. What he needed was a journal that “could become a place of contemplation rather than catharsis”. And there’s no contemplation quite so thorough as that of drawing. To draw something you have to look. And see. Really see. I think he’s right – I too have a decade of Morning Pages and not much positive to show for it.  Journalling with pictures “makes you less self-absorbed, more connected to things that fill your life”. And you get better at drawing which improves your self-esteem!

Artists Journal Workshop

by Cathy Johnson

Johnson Artist's Journal WorkshopI have a shelf full of visual diaries – probably about 50 of them – kept over the last decade. Full of ramblings, research, doodles and the occasional drawing. I planned projects and paintings in them. They not journals. They not really personal. They chart an artistic journey rather than a personal one. It seems odd, looking back, to think that I might have used them so much better if I hadn’t had to open them for the assorted art teachers who insisted they be kept… After art school I continued to amass them because the habit was ingrained, but it took the wake up from this book and Danny’s Gregory’s Creative License to suggest that maybe I was missing the point. This book is a how-to with lots of inspiring examples from other artists’ journals – many of the pages look like the pages I have made but with a dash of personal reflection. They’re artist’s journals not visual diaries.  There’s a difference.

Sketches from a Nameless Land : The Art of The Arrival

by Shaun Tan

Sketches from a nameless land by Shaun TanThe companion to his wonderful wordless story book The Arrival, this one is the how and why. I don’t think any artist could be unmoved or uninspired by Shaun’s work which is usually, rightly or wrongly, to be found in the children’s section of the bookstore. His stories really do cross all generations, tackling tough ideas that read on many levels. If you haven’t seen The Arrival, you should. And if you’re an artist you probably need Sketches from a Nameless Land, with his working notes and drawings, to go with it. After that you might just enjoy a lifetime collecting and following Shaun’s work: you won’t regret it. (Another work of his is The Lost Thing, a book which became an Academy Award winning animated film. )