The Perils of Being a Self-taught Artist: Books

One in a series of articles I’m writing called “The Perils of Being A Self-taught Artist”. This article is about how-to-draw books.

Being self-taught means you have to play the role of teacher and student. A real life mentor can be hard to come by these days. You can overcome this by hitting the books. I’ll begin at the beginning, by first reviewing books that will teach a self-taught artist the basics. There are thousands of drawing books to choose from. I’m always on the lookout for new ones. You could (and should) spend a lifetime learning new ways of mastering the craft of drawing. With that said, I want to talk about the ones that had an impact on my own journey as an artist.

How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way

I first picked up this book when I was twelve. It belonged to one of my friends, and the copy I have may very well be his. It’s written by Stan Lee, so you get his funky brand of dialogue, which I found to be hilarious at twelve (not so much nowadays). It has art by John Buscema, who I grossly undervalued at the time. That didn’t stop me from tracing just about every page in the book. The Good: It’s a breeze to go through. The drawings are clear and easy to understand. The Bad: It’s very tempting to just copy or trace the drawings (especially for a young artist). I think the problem is that complex topics are brought up, such as figure drawing and perspective, but not enough information is given as to how to go about mastering them. John Buscema is already the master. To a twelve year old kid, well, it’s tracing time! Recommended Use: There’s a lot of great material in this book, but you have to read between the lines. Each page can constitute hours of study and practice. Its easy-going format makes it easy to skim through, but to master the techniques can take years. I would take the basic skills they teach you in the book, and practice it until it becomes second nature.

Drawing on the Right Side of Brain

Ok, so maybe self-taught is a bit of a misnomer, because I did take art classes in high school and even went to art school. What I actually learned in those art classes is a topic for another day, but for the self-taughts out there who haven’t taken many art classes this book can serve as a primer. It has less to do with formulas and more to do with teaching yourself how to see things like an artist. I do many of the things in the book intuitively, but it helps to see it explained. The Good: This book is informative. You learn about the psychology behind creating art and what your brain is doing while you’re in a creative state of mind. The lessons are easy to follow. The Bad: I’m biased, but doing some of the exercises gave me flashbacks to high school art classes. Recommended Use: Go through the lessons. Pretend you’re in art class. If you’re committed to being a self-taught artist, you can learn a lot.

Drawing the Head & Figure aka “The brown book”

What would I do without this book? I may not have traced every page, but I’ve surely copied almost all of it. I was introduced to the brown book during my short time at the Joe Kubert School (Why the short stay? That’s a story for another time). This book entices you with formulas for drawing the figure, dozens upon dozens of formulas that if you could but memorize, would make you THE BEST! This book is great. I’ve spent years looking at it and I still find new things to learn. The Good: Lots of tips and shortcuts. The Bad: Lots of tips and shortcuts. You see, shortcuts are nice in the short-term, but in the long run you’ll have to figure out why things are the way they are. It doesn’t replace true observation of your subject matter. Recommended Use: You’ll get a lot of mileage out of this one. Use it as a reference when you’re stuck. Try out some of the tricks and see if they work for you. Observe and draw from life, and come back and see how the shortcuts help you memorize what the figure looks like.

Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist

Studying anatomy is a lot like doing scales on a musical instrument. You know it’s important, but it can be boring. However, to be a self-taught ninja artist, you must master anatomy! The Good: There are several good anatomy books. This is one of them. The Bad: It reads like a textbook. Recommended Use: This is where I get hard nosed drill sergeant on you. Copy everything in this book. Seriously. Once you’ve done that, you’ll probably retain a third of it. Come back and do more studies when you can. Of course, nothing beats real observation, but it’s not often you’ll be able to study real life muscle tissue and skeletons, so this book will have to do.

All the Andrew Loomis books

These really are the Holy Grail of drawing books. I’ve yet to find anything better. My first introduction to Loomis came from these big, floppy art books they sell at arts & crafts stores. Little did I know that was only the tip of the iceberg. The Good: This is the real deal. Secrets from the Golden Age of Illustration. Of course, even these books only scratch the surface. The dedication it takes to master the craft isn’t something that can be taught in a book. The Bad: First, the books are out of print, so people are asking crazy prices for them. Second, you’ll cry yourself to sleep wondering why you’re not as good as the old-school illustrators. Recommended Use: There are no shortcuts. Dedicate yourself to learning what these books teach. Then you can finally say that your kung-fu is indeed strong.


I hope you enjoyed this precursory look at some of the books a self-taught artist can use to become the best he or she can be. There are many more out there. Find them and learn from them. Let me know of ones that have helped you grow as an artist.

The Perils of Being a Self-taught Artist: Talent

This is the first in a series of articles I’m writing called “The Perils of Being A Self-taught Artist”. They are my opinions and ruminations on doing art, all subject to change without notice.

I can imagine myself becoming a cranky old man, because I’m set in my ways and I’m a creature of habit. Creating art has taken on a ritualistic quality. The tools become talismans, the subject matter, fetish. It took me a while to have an appreciation for craft. I blame this on my so-called “talent”, which I tend to think of as merely a knack for doing something. Talent is a touchy subject. It’s like talking about someone’s looks. Many people don’t want to be known just for their looks, but we glorify beauty. We worship talent. We even say it’s “god given”.

My point is that talent can be a crutch. Just like beauty, it can only get you so far, until it reveals itself as the shallow trick that it is (truth is, I’m enamored with beauty, but that’s another topic). What I’ve come to realize is that true craftsmanship is difficult. Being excellent is difficult. It takes dedication. Dedication is that first wall you come to as an artist, the one that forces you to decide if you want to climb it, and if you do, there’s no going back.

Next time, drawing book recommendations!

Getting Things Done

You know, I think I’ve found another addictive activity to pursue in this blog writing thing. Which reminds me, I’ve been meaning to change the name of this “journal” section into “blog”, because well, that’s what it is. “Journal” was just my feeble attempt at being different. Actually, I keep a journal and was confusing the two.

For several years I had a lot of projects and goals I wanted to accomplish, but for one reason or another I had trouble really accomplishing them. I’d make some progress here and there, but sustaining that progress was difficult. I began reading about self-improvement on a whim (one thing I’ve learned is that things don’t really happen on a whim, but I may talk about that in a future post). Now here’s another one of those addictive activities. One of the first books I read was the 7 Habits, by Stephen Covey. It helped me figure out my values and purpose (that I’m basically selfish, ha!). Another early read was The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron. That book got me started writing journals (or “morning pages”), which I’ve been doing for a while. There were many other books along the way, which I’ll discuss in the future (ah, the future). Many of them can be found at used book stores at a price even I can afford.

Recently, I’ve been reading Getting Things Done (GTD), by David Allen. I’m putting a lot of effort into following his system, and it’s working. I had a lot of goals already, and this system helps me make progress on them. What I like about GTD is its holistic approach. Allen wants you to look at all of the obligations and commitments in your life and decide what to do about them. He provides a systematic approach to doing this. There are plenty of sites about GTD. 43folders is a popular one.

These books and ways of thinking might help you, as it’s helped me. I don’t believe there’s a single philosophy that’s going to answer all our questions about life. I believe in keeping an open mind, and using our creative powers to form a better understanding of ourselves.

The Writing Ritual

I’m going to try and have a writing ritual everyday, which means this journal will be an eclectic mix of topics. The hard part is not editing my writing while doing this (too late, I’ve already done it). I began keeping journals a few years ago, and write in them everyday. It turned out to be more of a self-help thing, but recently, with Clothian Chronicles (my comic book project), I’ve focused on having some kind of narrative voice/style/what-have-you.

I have this secret notion that writing is the “real deal”, whereas “art” (or drawing pictures, if you will) is this thing I do for fun. In fact, I told my mother I wanted to be a writer long before telling her I wanted to be an artist. She wasn’t impressed by either of those choices.

I have a lot of topics I want to write about; art, life…well, what more is there but art and life? I don’t profess to know anything special about these topics. Quite the opposite, really. The hope is that by writing about it I can clarify my thoughts, and use this electronic medium (wow, I sound like an old man) to communicate with others. And that’s the point of my artistic endeavors anyway; to communicate ideas.