By Joanne Robinson, Little Art School Online Course Creator

Are you looking for a book to get you started drawing? Or are you starting out painting and wondering where you are going wrong? Searching ‘art books’ online will pull up hundreds of titles; some good, some not so good. I’ve taken the pain out of the search with my ‘tried and tested’ top 5 books for beginners learning to draw and paint.

My bookshelves are sagging under the weight of two decades worth of art book buying. Every bookshop I go to I make a beeline for the Art Section, bypassing the many, many tomes on art history ( I have enough) and hunker down for a good study of every single book in the ‘Learning to Draw and Paint’ Section. Although my shelves may be groaning, I never think I’ll have enough of these books. There is always something new, something fascinating or beautifully produced or with a new angle. Here, just for you, I’ve narrowed it down to just 5. It’s been hard, but if you are looking for a book to get you started drawing and painting then I am confident that these five books will set you off on the right track.

Drawing on the right side of the brain

1. The New Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain Workbook, Betty Edwards (2002, original book 1979)

The original Betty Edward’s ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ book was published in 1979. It was revolutionary in its time and is still, even so many years on, simply ground-breaking. Edward’s original work was quite academic and can read as a little dry. The first publication of the ‘Workbook’ in 2002 was perfect for people like me who were starting out and trying to improve their drawing. Rather than the textbook feel of the original (which I will confess, I found initially quite confusing) the Workbook breaks down each theory with an exercise and space to try drawing. It is a fantastic place to start for anyone wanting to pick up a pencil and improve their drawing skills.

2. Compendium of Acrylic Painting Techniques, Gill Baron (2014)

I have an entire shelf of Acrylic Painting books but this one is streets ahead of everything else. It has 300 tips and techniques for using acrylics; from little tricks to full step-by step lessons. There is so much packed into these pages that I think the author could have stretched it to at least two books! The book is organised into 3 parts: Setting Up, Designing and Techniques. There is so much covered here that it’s an absolute must for anyone starting out with acrylics. This is the book I wish I’d had 20 years ago when I was starting out, I would have saved myself time, money and a lot of mistakes!

watercolour rescue

3. Watercolour Rescue, Charles Evans (2023)

If I could go back to starting out, as well as the Acrylics Compendium, I’d have this handy little book on my art desk within reach at all times. Published in 2023, I came upon this treasure when I was doing my regular perusal of the local Waterstones Art Section. There are masses of books on watercolour and I will write a blog soon just covering some of the best books for watercolour students. In the meantime, this one is the one I’d go for. The subtitle is ‘Top Tips for correcting your mistakes and preventing them in the first place’ and it does exactly what it says. There are 75 Top Tips and I found pretty much all of them to be really useful. Many artists start off learning to paint using watercolour. There are good reasons for that; it’s relatively cheap and it isn’t too messy. But I would argue that it is probably one of the hardest mediums to get to grips with. There’s something very unforgiving about watercolour and once you’ve made a mistake it’s really hard to correct it. This wonderful little book will firstly help to prevent mistakes and secondly helps to correct them if you do. I’d recommend it to anyone battling with, or planning to battle with, watercolours.

color choices

4. Color Choices, Stephen Quiller (1989)

The American spelling here is intentional as Quiller is an American artist who has achieved international fame with this fantastic book. When I first read it 15 years ago it blew my mind. I had just started to think about colour theory and how I can apply it to my work. At the time I was fascinated by the idea of using sources in monochrome and then building tonal paintings by applying very basic colour theory. Quiller’s book helped me to take this to the next level. It’s an extraordinary book  which has aged really well and still feels surprisingly modern given that it’s over 3 decades since publication. Whatever medium you want to paint in, I’d advise having this book on your shelf and opening up to some exciting use of colour theory. And the paintings are lovely too!

how to draw what you see

5. How to Draw What You See, Rudy de Raynor (1970)

Another oldie here! I credit this book with really helping me to overcome a conviction that I couldn’t draw. I bought it many years ago and worked through each chapter, step by step. It’s brilliantly methodical and very easy to follow. I can’t actually count how many people I’ve bought this book for, such is my devotion to it! I am a fast reader but a slow ‘worker through’ of books like this so I took many months to work through the exercises and to slowly understand the simple truth that de Reyna advocates; that everything goes back to shapes. This is a philosophy which lies at the heart of what we do at the Little Art School.

I’d recommend Abe books for second hand and always, always an independent bookshop if you have one nearby to support; small businesses stick together!! Some of my favourites are The Mainstreet Trading Company in Melrose, Aberfeldy Watermill Bookshop and for those outside Scotland, One Tree Books in Petersfield (Hants) and Blackwells in Oxford for a fantastically extensive selection. And any of the Toppings Bookshops, which are just an absolute joy.

I often wander into charity shops and pick up a brilliant out of print art book for pennies and second hand bookshops are treasure trove for drawing and painting books that have so much in them. These fill my shelves now and if I tried to buy online would cost a fortune. In defence my excessive art book buying, I think it might be a pretty valuable collection now! It certainly is to me. These books have formed the backbone of my learning and helped me to create the Little Art School Online Drawing and Painting Course. I’m still learning and will never stop searching out the new books. I have the perfect excuse as every month on our Online Art Course ‘Live Support Chat’ I find a new ‘Book of the Month’. I might need to search out some new bookshelves before the overflow becomes dangerous!

Joanne teaches the Little Art School Online Drawing and Painting Course. If you’ve always wanted to learn to draw and paint but didn’t know where to start, click the link to find out more about our wonderful course which comes with all the art materials you need to complete every lesson.