Lines and Colors art blog

Learning to draw: where to go from here

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, The Art SpiritTim, a Lines and Colors reader, wrote me to say that he had recently become inspired to return to the practice of drawing. He had purchased a copy of Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (see my post here), and was looking for other books and resources to pursue his interest from there, hopefully with a classical or Renaissance method.

Edwards’ book is an excellent place to start for someone who has a new or rekindled interest in drawing. I frequently recommend it as the book concentrates of the fundamental and most difficult problem adults face in learning to draw, and that is learning to see what is actually before them, and not what they think they see.

I feel her book, however, is lacking the other “half” of drawing, the art of it, the finesse and artistic choices that separate “art” from “just drawing” and that separate the masters from the ordinary. Though she has attempted to address this somewhat in recent editions, there are better sources for pursuing the art of drawing.

This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, certainly not of drawing books, or even of drawing books and resources that answer the particular question at hand, but a few suggestions drawn (if you’ll excuse the expression) from my personal experience.

A book I will recommend, though it is not specifically related to drawing but to art and art study in general, is Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit.

As for drawing instruction in a classical or Renaissance method, there isn’t a great deal in the way of drawing texts from the Renaissance; techniques were passed down from master to apprentice, rarely committed to writing. Modern representational drawing texts concentrate on Academic teachings, which are derived from principles developed in the Renaissance and subsequent years up to the late 19th Century.


The dedicated path:

Classic drawing textbooks (not necessary “Classical”) These two volumes have been standards in art schools in the U.S. for decades. Look for them used online, in used bookstores or on eBay; they’re overpriced and current printings are apparently of poor quality.

A Guide to Drawing, Art of Responsive DrawingA Guide to Drawing, Daniel M. Mendelowitz

Art of Responsive Drawing, Nathan Goldstein


The study of drawing:

The Natural Way to Draw: A Working Plan for Art Study, The Practice And Science Of DrawingThe Natural Way to Draw: A Working Plan for Art Study, Kimon Nicolaides

If you’re really committed, Kimon Nicolaides has the game plan, but it’s a demanding course of study.

The Practice And Science Of Drawing, Harold Speed

A valuable text, with insights and practical information. There is a full version on Project Gutenberg, though the reproductions leave something to be desired. [Addendum: There is a better Facsimile Edition on the Internet Archive. See my more recent post on The Practice And Science Of Drawing.]


Other titles:

Charles Bargue and Jean-Leon Gerome: Drawing Course, Drawing Lessons from the Great MastersCharles Bargue and Jean-Leon Gerome: Drawing Course, Gerald M. Ackerman

A 19th Century Academic approach, form a student of master Jean-Léon Gerome

Drawing Lessons from the Great Masters, Robert Beverly Hale

I had the good fortune to have Robert Beverly Hale as my artistic anatomy instructor when I was a student at The Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. His teachings have been codified in a series of books, illustrated with selections of old master drawings.


The Artist's Complete Guide to Figure Drawing: A Contemporary Perspective on the Classical Tradition, Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio PracticeThe Artist’s Complete Guide to Figure Drawing: A Contemporary Perspective on the Classical Tradition, Anthony Ryder

See my post on Tony Ryder, and here

Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice, Juliette Aristides

A modern take on Academic techniques


The gentle path

Keys to Drawing, Keys to Drawing with ImaginationKeys to Drawing, Bert Dodson

Keys to Drawing with Imagination: Strategies and Exercises for Gaining Confidence and Enhancing Your Creativity, Bert Dodson

Dodson eases you into some of the same techniques and concerns covered by Mendelowitz and Goldstein, with a friendlier approach and less of a brusque college textbook manner. See my review of Keys to Drawing with Imagination


Bridgman's Complete Guide to Drawing from Life, The Human FigureBridgman’s Complete Guide to Drawing from Life, George Bridgman

The Human Figure, John H. Vanderpoel

Put solidity and an understanding of form into your figure drawing with Bridgeman and Vanderpoel.


Study master drawings

Look for used books of collections of master drawings, study them and copy from the masters (as they did from previous masters) to understand what they have done with line, tone, space and form.

Dover Books has many titles with master drawings that are inexpensive new. Though the reproduction is not superb, they are still very good for study and enjoyment.

150 Masterpieces of Drawing, Drawing ideas of the masters150 Masterpieces of Drawing by Anthony Toney

Look for other inexpensive collections like Drawing ideas of the masters: Improve your drawings by studying the masters by Frederick Malins



Look to your local library for everything mentioned here and more. If you live near a state university, you may find their library open to residents, including borrowing privileges.


Line by Line is an introductory drawing course running in weekly installments on the New York Times (see my post here). There are many other online resources that should be the subject of a separate post.

Studying the real thing: master drawings

Seeing old master, Baroque and 19th Century drawing in person is a treat, inspiring and very instructive. Drawings reveal their subtleties in person even more than paintings. They can’t be kept on display because of light damage, so you have to look for shows.

On the East Coast of the U.S. The Met in NY and the National Gallery in D.C rotate out selections from their collections of works on paper in small dedicated galleries. Look for other major museums to have similar small spaces devoted to works on paper. The Morgan Library in NY often has great drawing shows.

Studying the real thing: life drawing

This is a directory of life drawing (figure model) open sessions, workshops and other easily accessible classes: Figure Drawing Open Studios, Workshops, and Continuing Education Classes, see my post on the Directory of Figure Drawing Sessions.

Fake it from home: life drawing

Pose Maniacs, Virtual Pose and Figure Drawing training Tool let you practice life drawing from home, the former with computer generated figures, the latter two with photographs.

The most important things

The most important thing: keep drawing. If it’s not a dedicated course of study, make it a hobby, a habit, a coffee break, a meditation. A quick sketch once a day is better than an elaborate plan of study that you can’t maintain.

Zen of Seeing: Seeing/Drawing as Meditation by Frederick Franck

This is an essay on drawing, and the special kind of seeing associated with drawing (that I think is at the core of the techniques in Drawing on the Right side of the Brain and other texts) as a form of meditation.

More importantly, it is instructive in drawing as a practice, an activity, something you do, rather than something you are trying to accomplish. It’s hard to overstate what a dramatic difference in frame of mind this seemingly small shift can make.

Drawing for Pleasure, Valerie C. Douet

I mention this title, not because the drawings within are treasures of old master accomplishment — they’re not, but because of the attitude and approach expressed by the book and its title.

Unless you mess it up by trying too hard, hanging all kinds of expectations and self-measurement on it or make the gross mistake of comparing your current level of ability with others, drawing is, after all, fun.

So my best word of advice? Draw and have fun drawing. The rest will follow.


[Addendum: On rereading this post, I wanted to add one of my favorite quotes.

From Howard Ikemoto:
When my daughter was about seven years old, she asked me one day what I did at work. I told her I worked at the college — that my job was to teach people how to draw. She stared back at me, incredulous, and said, “You mean they forget?” ]


29 responses to “Learning to draw: where to go from here”

  1. Let me add one more source that can add to the fun.

    It is a blog in the New York Times by James McMullan, titled, Line by Line. It is according to the Times: “A series on learning the basics of drawing, presented by the artist and author James McMullan. Line By Line begins with installments on line, perspective, proportion and structure, and continues from there, using examples from art history to illuminate specific issues. Pencil and paper recommended.”

    The blog can be found at

  2. I have The Natural Way to Draw by Niccolaides, give to me by my father in 1973. Y9ou are correct about committed, because that’s what you have to do to use this book. He wanted my time in three hour chunks, but I couldn’t afford to spend 3 hours on the first exercise. I stuck with it as long as I could, but the actual EXERCISE experience was excellent while it lasted.

  3. The Kimon Nicolaides book has to be the worst creature out there. We had that book for Art school class, it is just ridiculous to say the least. Total dabble, dribble the artist cant draw for waffles his ideas are sporadic they don’t make any sense. Worst of all if your just getting into drawing this book will kill any instinct you might have to draw. Stay away from it.

  4. Any book is worth considering that stay close to classical ideas of form. Try Bridgemans.

  5. Anything by Bridgeman and the Zen of seeing would definitely be high on my list. The others I would add as really worth while are Fast Sketching Techniques by David Rankin, this really changed my approach to sketching out and about, and Drawn to Life by Walt Stanchfield. Drawn to life was aimed at Disney animators but is really about getting the right mindset to make drawings with life and energy. Superb.

  6. And of course the The Bargue book is fantastic. The plates alone are phenomenal. This is serious discipline and not for the faint at heart. If I may add another suggestion would be William Morris Hunt/On painting and drawing. Out of print of course, but if you can get your hands on a copy it’s a real gem. That man breaks down life and drawing into one.

  7. Thanks a lot for this! I wonder, where do I fit on the commitment spectrum, if I can reliably devote an hour a day to practice?

  8. Charley, great list and a good compendium of books. I’m sorry to say that the more I work on computers, the lazier my hand gets. My sketchbooks are more a place to rough out ideas than do comprehensive drawing. This post makes me want to start changing that.

    1. Thanks, Gerry. As someone who works digitally a lot myself, I find the occasional drawing in traditional media is not only a nice break, but gives me a different awareness when I return to the tablet.

  9. I can only admire the capability of others to draw and paint, though I will say that trying my own feeble hand at it proved a wonderful education. I also started with Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, and it was a great corrective about seeing in just the way you state. I also enjoyed being reminded of the book 150 Masterpieces of Drawing. While my attempts at copying are rightfully shut away, I loved spending that kind of focused time with master drawings–even if the reproductions were less than perfect. The recollection of it stays with me today.

  10. Awesome, thanks for the extensive list of great resources.

  11. THis was exactly the kind of information i’ve been looking for for some time now. Recommendations by someone i “know” and trust, instead of some random person.
    Thank you very much.

  12. I teach drawing courses at a community college.
    The bit of wisdom I most often impart to my students came from my teacher, William Bailey:
    “All artist’s are self-taught.” The intense and solitary pleasure of learning from the Masters through museums, reproductions, books and contact with accomplished artists culminates in the admission to a pedigree that goes back to the cave artists and the pride of one day realizing “I can draw!”

    1. Thanks, John. Well said.

  13. Francisco Avatar

    Please include this book

    Figure Drawing: Design and Invention

    in your list, it is a really really good one.

  14. I have to defend the Nicolaides. Yes, he demands a lot of time, and he does not show where exactly his exercises will lead, but just working through the first three and a half weeks of his schedule has changed dramatically not just my drawings, but my relation to the act of drawing as well. And given me the ability (and speed!) to sketch people in public that I was entirely lacking before. If I had half a year to devote to drawing practice alone, I would spend it completing his course. But I guess his is a very specific book, either it clicks with you or it doesn’t.

  15. I got my grubby hands on a copy of Art of Responsive Drawing at the library yesterday. Thanks for this post, especially since I had no idea which text were being used in college courses. This book has an actual plan, not something I am used to in an art book. At any rate Charley, your site has broadened my world. I receive a treat every few days from having L&C book marked!

  16. An excellent post, Charley, and thank you especially for including “The Zen of Seeing.”

    Here is a last (or almost last) word, a shameless plug for a drawing book in which one of my own drawings appears. The book is unusual among the many others available in that it shows historical drawings from the last century as well as drawings by contemporary instructors and students at the Art Students League of New York. Quite a continuum.

  17. Great list of resources. Thanks for the effort in putting this together.

  18. Bill Marshall Avatar
    Bill Marshall

    Thank you for the book list and thoughts on learning to draw.

    Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain and similar books all seem to me to teach drawing in just the opposite way, that is, from the left side of the brain. That is to say they are so analytical and mechanical in their approach to altering one’s perception of the world, that the “right side” is completely abandoned. This idea reinforces the concept that anyone can learn to draw, since so many who may be unfamiliar with sketchbook, pencil, and close observation would need such “left brain” guidance to get started. Hopefully, and after much practice and discipline, such practioners of these methods of “seeing” will have the “right side” kick in and start being truly creative. I find the balance between the two “sides” to be very elusive.


    1. Interesting thoughts. Thanks, Bill.

  19. Anyone know of a good list of books on learning how to draw or paint abstractly? I did find this list great! Thanks.

  20. CapnMarrrrk Avatar

    About 3 years ago I started teaching myself to draw and I used many of these books. I really didn’t finish the Betty Edwards book, and I did a lot of lessons in the Nicolaides book. The secret is this: Break it down into 1/2 chunks. I learned a great deal from it.

    What’s most important of all of it is that you are an art student. Make no bones about it, you are learning a skill and a craft, and the best thing you can do is get involved with a local drawing group. I joined about a year in and that’s when I really took off. It doesn’t matter if other people are more skilled than you, don’t be afraid to produce shitty drawings, and draw draw draw (paint etc). In these groups you will learn (for free!) new styles, techniques and methods of seeing, composing, working.

    If you just hang out by yourself you’ll eventually become frustrated. So take a gander at these books but get out there and meet people.

  21. Capn, I believe this is true for you, but for me it was quite the opposite – after drawing a lot, and following some exercises in some of those books, and basically drawing every day for a year or two I took part in a local figure drawing workshop, and then a private figure drawing group which met once a week. I went there every week for 1 1/2 years, and although I love figure drawing, I didn’t ever feel as if I learned much from either the instructor in the workshop or the other participants in the group. Rather, most of them were still stuck in the intro section of the books… It was still nice going there, talking about art events and socializing, but strictly for my progress in drawing I could just as well have been there alone with the model.

  22. All i can say is thank you. I am currently studying Nicolaides and without a doubt rigorous and challenging but exactly what i was looking for. It really challenges you to open your mind and really see, touch, taste, memorize and understand what you are drawing. It is a wonderful, meditative process for me!

    1. Thanks for the comment, Renise. Sounds to me like you’re on the right track.

  23. Glenn Simmons Avatar
    Glenn Simmons

    I was a student at Cal State Long Beach when Betty Edwards was doing her research. She taught beginners and non-majors, mostly. I did take one workshop with her and I was and am impressed with her results with those stsarting out, I do have some disagreements with her and her legions of followers ( yes, followers). Drawing is not solely a “right brain process” as Dr. Edwards would have us believe. Drawing is a whole brain process. To illusrtate this I’ll go back to something I heard her say, and something that was in the first edition of her book. The idea, said with the force of dogma, was that one cannot draw and talk at the same time. I have seen this disproved over and over again. In the early eighties, I spent a year studying with Burne Hogarth. I noticed that , during his ever-present drawing demos, Hogarth would talk and draw at thew same time. He did not draw, then talk, then draw, as he would have had to do if Edwards’ right-brain theory was correct. Years later, at the American Animation Institute, I took classes with Glenn Vilppu, an artist who has trained a great number of people in the animation industry. The same was true of him. During his demonstrations, Vilppu would talk and draw at the same time. Needless to say, both Hogarth and Vilppu had the same reaction at the mention of Betty Edwards, a little chuckle, and a wave of the hand in dismissal. Don Lagerberg, a professer emeritus at Cal State Fullerton and someone who should be designated a living treasure (if we did that sort of thing in America), was even stronger in his dismissal. He once told me, jokingly yet no less sincere for all of that, that he thought that followers of Betty Edwards were members of a cult, and that she was a cult leader, because of her dogmatism regarding the right brain. When I started teaching drawing, I also found myself talking and drawing at the same time. So the statement that one can’t talk and draw at the same time is demonsratbly false My second complaint with her book is this; it only teaches people to copy, and she does not go beyond that. There is no acknowledgement of the ability to draw from imagination. I’m only basing this on my use of her first book, she could have covered this elsewhere, but I doubt it. Now my own opinion of her work is that it is useful for teaching one to draw what one sees. I have gone though the book and its excersises as have many others, but in my own teaching of beginners, I quickly move away from Betty Edwards and her ideas. One more thing; Betty Edwards has registered her methods and the phrase “right brain drawing,” with the US Patent Office and she has trained people to teach her specific method. Only those trained can use the phrase “right brain drawing.” I’m wondering if anyone has encountered an Edwards fanatic. I have, and their defense of the method as some kind of “true way” is disturbing to me. Anyway, for me the methods of Betty Edwards are just one more set of tools in drawing. Glenn Vilppu has a saying about drawing which I have taken to heart ever since i heard it; “In drawing, there are no rules, just tools.

    for teaching one to draw what one sees

    1. Thanks for the personal insight, Glenn.

      I wasn’t aware of the avid “followers” and dogmatic aspect of those who take Edwards’ work so seriously. As I’ve pointed out, I think her techniques (most of which are not new, just codified a bit differently) are particularly useful in getting adults who think they can’t draw past the barriers to seeing what is in front of them, allowing them to draw what they see instead of drawing symbols for what they identify. Once that hurdle is passed, I usually suggest supplementing her book with a more traditional text on drawing, such as Mendelowitz or Goldstein.

      I can also talk and draw, but I agree with her in principle in that I find it difficult, and I do think that drawing either produces or comes from a shift in thinking processes (whatever name you would like to assign to it) that de-emphasizes verbalization (pleasantly so).