Why Art Books Can Be Frustrating and What to Do About It

So you’re browsing your local art supply or book store, when you see it. The book that is finally going to help you break through. This book is going to be different, you think. The exercises look fairly easy. The illustrations are beautiful. You are suddenly filled with a certainty that this book is going to be the one.

You’re finally going to learn to draw those trees, paint beautiful landscapes, or master perspective or the human figure.

A week or two later, you look guiltily at the book lying in the corner collecting dust. What happened?

I’ve repeated the above scenario so many times, I’ve lost count. It got to the point where I wouldn’t allow myself to buy the next book that I saw that I thought might be “the one”. It was just too painful to keep repeating the same ritual over and over again. A ritual that reminded me that I was never going to “get” this art stuff.

But what I’ve come to realize is that it wasn’t my fault these books didn’t work for me. I am not stupid or untalented or lazy or whatever… I just had unrealistic expectations. After I adjusted my mindset, it became much easier for me to continue learning without blaming myself for not “getting it” right away.

If you’ve experienced these same difficulties with art instruction books, here are some reasons you might be struggling and what you can do instead.

1. Authors make assumptions

Authors make assumptions about the skill level of their intended audience. And if you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. No book could possibly cover every art-related topic. Drawing, for example, has many components – learning how to draw lines or make basic shapes,  adding shading or value, perspective etc. Not to mention all the different subject matter from nature and landscapes to portraits and cartoons. This means the book you are using might contain language you don’t quite know yet, if you are a beginner. If you’ve been drawing for awhile, the book may cover ground you’ve already mastered. The author has no way of knowing in advance, so they include what they think is most important. This may or may not be useful to you.

Solution: Realize that not every artist is good at explaining what they do or may realize what you need to make the concepts “click”. Learn what you can and make a note about things you just aren’t getting. Then look for other books, videos or instruction that can help you fill in the gaps.

2. Art books don’t always include all the steps

When breaking down a complex task, many books leave out steps that could be important to someone who is just starting out. For example, one of the most frustrating experiences I came across was in a drawing book that claimed to teach basic drawing skills. The first exercise was drawing a walnut. It started out easily enough, with a simple oval shape. But by the 4th or 5th step, the author had added shading and depth, without explaining how to achieve those effects – at least not in a way that I understood. I became frustrated with my own lack of ability and gave up far too quickly.

I think many authors leave out important information, not because they are lazy or unkind, but simply because they have forgotten what it’s like to be a beginner. Think about all the steps that are involved in doing something you already do well – like driving or cooking a gourmet meal. Then think about what it would take to write down all of those steps so that someone who has never done it could do it easily.

It may also be that many authors grasp art concepts more naturally than others and assume that some steps are simply obvious and not worth mentioning.

Solution: Be prepared to feel a little lost at times when consulting a particular book. Don’t blame yourself if you aren’t able to complete the exercise perfectly on your first try. Take what you can from each exercise and move on.

3. The goal of most books is to copy the artist

Art books don’t teach you how to explore your own creativity because the goal is to show you how to draw or paint something in particular. Most books teach concepts by having you recreate something the author has already created. This can be a great way to learn, but it can also be frustrating for beginners. Artists have likely honed their skills over years of practice. The steps they provide rarely make up for that gap in experience. You’ll likely need to practice the same exercises over and over again to get even close to the results the artist achieved.

What’s more, simply copying what someone else has done is not always satisfying. After all many of us want to express our own unique creativity through our art. It’s difficult to do that when we’re simply copying something that someone else created.

Solution: Make time to practice drawing or doodling without consulting a book. You’ll be surprised at the knowledge you retain and how you can put your own spin on many of the concepts you’ve learned. Use art instruction books to gain experience and find inspiration, but feel free to experiment and explore your own unique way of doing things.

4. It takes time to learn new skills

I touched on this in number 3, but it bears repeating. You can’t expect to do things perfectly right away. You need to give yourself time to practice, practice, practice. Try to remember that it probably took years of focused instruction and practice for the author of a book to acquire the skills needed to create the exercises you are trying to master.

Solution: Be gentle with yourself and expect to make mistakes. Mistakes are part of the learning process. You’ll be surprised at how the act of doing the exercises imperfectly will broaden your skills over time. For example, as I have gotten better at drawing, I have returned to some of the earlier books I purchased to find that I understand many of the concepts much better the 2nd or 3rd time around. I am often amazed at the information I’ve retained even when it didn’t seem like I was making much progress at all.

5. There’s only so much you can learn from a book

It can be difficult to learn everything you need to know from a book. It’s hard to illustrate complex concepts step by step and a lot of information is often left out. For example, it’s difficult to know how to hold your pencil or brush when you can’t see the artist actually doing it. My drawing and painting skills didn’t begin to improve until I started using other forms of education in addition to books.

Solution: Taking online classes or watching YouTube videos can give you an entirely different perspective. You get to see the artist in action, rather than guessing about how they do things. I’ve gained a lot of knowledge by simply watching others create. You might also consider attending beginning art classes or retreats in your own community. Interacting with your instructor and other students can accelerate your learning and help you clear up concepts that are confusing or daunting.

While books can certainly be a great way to learn new skills, find inspiration, and explore the infinite world of art and creativity, they do have limitations. If you find yourself struggling with a particular book, don’t be so quick to blame your lack of skill or talent. Instead, look at art instruction books as one tool in your arsenal to master new concepts and take your skills to new heights. After you gain some experience, you’ll be better able to choose the books most likely to help you along on your journey.

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One Comment

  1. Another great post! I bought a beginner’s drawing book a few years ago and did the first exercise which went “sort of okay” but not impressive. Then the book listed a whole bunch of things I needed to obtain to do the book and I was so overwhelmed about it and the fact that I probably couldn’t learn to draw anyway that I gave up. It is indeed still sitting on a shelf causing me guilt. Thanks for the advice, I need it!

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