5 Reasons to Love and Hate How-to-Draw Books

Having students follow a prescribed set of steps is seemingly the most un-creative way to teach children art. However, how-to-draw books and follow-the-leader methods continue to be popular among kids and art teachers alike. What’s the deal?

Decide for yourself with this quick look at the pros and cons of each side.

5 Reasons to LOVE How-to-Draw Books 

  1. They inspire confidence in kids to draw something realistic.
  2. They produce a nice looking product.
  3. Students can use them independently without much help.
  4. They make a great early finisher activity.
  5. Kids and parents love them.

5 Reasons to HATE How-to-Draw Books

  1. They don’t teach artistic decision making.
  2. They don’t teach observational drawing from real life.
  3. All the products look the same.
  4. Kids rely on them and won’t draw anything without their help.
  5. Parents view this as the only type of “real art” their kid can do.

My Take

I will admit that I have these books in my classroom. They are in my area for early finishers. I have even recommended them to parents who want to get their kids excited about drawing. That said, I try and avoid the “follow me” way of teaching whenever possible during regular class time.

Once in a while, I will pull these books out to help kids draw something like a better horse or bird for their project, but it’s rare. If I do use a “follow me” method, there is always a reason, and it’s always mixed with opportunities for creative thinking.

For example, I might show students a simple way to draw a complex animal, like a monkey, but then leave the end of the project open so students can make artistic choices about how to finish it. I think it’s all about balance. But, if I had to choose one over the other, I would go without “how to draw” methods forever in my art room.

I value teaching kids how to make art, not how to “do a project” my way or the highway.

On the other hand, how can any art teacher argue with something that has the magic ability to get kids excited about art, talking about art, and making art? The question of whether or not to use these books in your classroom can be a tough one. Consider all of the options carefully and choose what you think will work best for you and your students!

Do you LOVE or HATE how-to-draw books and methods? Why?

Jessica Balsley

Jessica Balsley is the Founder and President at AOE. She is passionate about helping art teachers enhance their lives and careers through relevant professional development.


  • Jill Yanik

    I am very pro how to draw books. They are how I learned as a kid. Telling kids to just go draw from observation, even when you model it, is too confusing for the majority of students. We start learning to draw from “observation” using how to draw books/graphics, then work our way to photography around 4th grade, and then lastly work from observation. I fit some true observation in there, but even as an artist myself it is not the only way to draw something.

    However, I don’t just put them out. We talk about how using how to draw books as a way of practicing drawing, but that they should create their own drawings too to be creative, and we do in class too. I show them ways of using graphics and books to find images that are similar to what they want to draw (aka a runner) but then they change them to a soccor star and add a uniform and change the leg position to kicking. I think that teaches kids how to envision, which is another important part of creativity and planning in art. I also show and model ways of adding more detail or their own textures and patterns to “make it their own”.

    I tend to use way more graphics (black and white illustrations) than how to draw books in the class setting, but they do need more simplified references than just always drawing from observation. All I can say is the majority of my kids feel like they can draw, and are very excited about drawing! They also feel confident in breaking down how to draw something, both which are things I want them to do!

    • Jill,

      Your explanation is so logical, I love it. Finding that balance is key. Getting the students to build confidence and get excited is half the battle, isn’t it? Thank you for your honest response.

  • Mindy Montgomery

    I have used these books quite a bit over the past few years.  One example-last fall my fourth graders were drawing themselves playing in the leaves.  They could be jumping in them, raking them whatever outdoor activity they might do around leaves in the fall.  We made prints of leaves that we included on the paper as a border.  Back to the books though-they were freaked out about drawing themselves.  We spent 3 class periods practicing using different methods of breaking the body down into simple shapes from how to drawing books.  We all drew the same thing on those days together.  Then they had to use what they learned and adapt it to their individual projects.

    • Great way to incorporate something manageable for kids, while still maintaining an element of creativity in each of the student’s projects. Thanks for sharing this example.

      • Ingrid Larson

         Has anyone used the “Monart” system? I am going to be looking at it as I revise my curriculum this summer. I am conflicted about “follow me” or “guided drawing”- I guess I’m not alone in that.
        So I own this book: http://monart.com/about/books-by-mona/
        and will really be dissecting it this summer to get the best out of it. Case in point- I really can dig on this part of the system/idea: http://3.bp.blogspot.com/_xzIRL9jR_CQ/SxB3E_8tYbI/AAAAAAAAAN4/iPm2kfkRxE4/s1600/Monart.jpg
        worry about the results that you might find here: http://www.artteacheramy.com/pb/wp_6896341e/images/img66024afdaf605ce43.JPG Beautiful, obviously learning different techniques, slightly varied…. but when I see compositional similarity like that… it makes me raise one very skeptical eyebrow…..

        • Guest

          I used Monart Method with my students a few years ago. The reason she has such magnificent results is her students draw from greeting cards and other artwork — like Laurel Burch, not from photographs or from life, so it’s easy for them to copy the lines.  That’s why you are suspicious about her method– art teachers don’t teach students to copy drawings. Another issue: Getting students to see the lines & shapes that make up, say a bird, is good, but her family of shapes has a “roundish” shape and then a “roundish shape colored in.”  HUH? I found that “organic shapes” and “geometric shapes” was better.  Last, but most important to this thread, is that young children go thru stages of drawing development that roughly mirrors their intellectual development. Creating a “schema” for how to draw a flower (5 petals instead of seeing that the real flower has 22) is what they are supposed to do at the schematic stage of development. I am surprised when I hear of a 1st grade art teacher who is trying to “get” the students to draw more realistically.  I teach 900 4th graders, and some of them are in Dawning Realism stage and others are solidly in Schematic (lollipop trees, sky at the very top, people floating above the grass, sun in the corner).  Reading up on drawing development is my best advice for art teachers. I have helped identify students with Asperger’s because their intellectual development was right on target but their drawing ability was like a 4 year old.  I have my students draw a still life at the beginning of the year, after showing “realistic vs. imaginative art” so they don’t feel they must draw realistically.  The entire class is displayed together, giving classroom teachers a lot of good information early in the year– who draws really well for their age, who draws like a much younger child, who didn’t get a lot of work done in 2 classes (ADD?). We share the drawing concerns with the school psychologist, the support educators, and the occupational therapist and often this is the evidence that they need to convince the parents that an issue they have pushed under the rug really needs addressing. The power of visuals!

  • Julie

    I totally agree with Jill. I used to get really frustrated because drawing from observation is something that comes totally natural to me. I couldn’t understand how I could put a flower in front of kids that had 12 petals and not one but several would draw one with 5. We would practice contour and blind contour and while the kids were going through the motions most still were not clearly getting the point. Even High School students! Drawing books definitely helped build confidence. My first rule with use in free time is NEVER TRACE! I still get some that will trace and some really ingenious. Ones who will trace then erase and alter so it doesn’t “look like” they traced. It wasn’t until two years ago that I started using the ideas behind how to draw books and “follow the leader” in my art lessons and I have seen HUGE improvements. Now that I teach 6-12 grade rather then elementary I take this approach: my 7th graders do a study on John Jame Audubon. We look at his works, learn about birds and nature conservation and even hunting. Students each choose a bird that they will draw and paint for their project. Before we begin work I use my projector to teach “how to draw methods” to the students. Each student will have a handout with pictures of several birds in various positions. I guide them to used pencil to lightly trace out the “simple shapes” in the bird. Triangles, ovals, circles, squares and rectangles. Learning to see the bird as simple shapes helps them to draw them better. We the focus on the positioning of the shapes and transfer these to paper. We then discuss and practice how to “flesh out” the birds. So we see the bird rather then the shapes. This has wor led wonders. There are always some who are way beyond this point and for those students I say GREAT, just practice drawing on your own while we do thisguided exercise. It doesn’t hold the back or stifle their creativity. After this students are much more confident and when I hand them a “good paper” they feel capable to look t the picture of their bird and recreate it on the final work.

    • Julie,
      I like the way you talked about breaking things down into shapes for kids to draw. I do this, too. My goal is to never follow the leader for ALL parts of my lesson, but perhaps one portion. Too often the art lessons out there today online are 100% follow the leader and that makes me sad. Kids don’t learn to read in a day, and they don’t learn to draw well in a day either, we have to break it down for them in steps, and gradually release that responsibility giving them tools to use in the future (i.e. the shapes) and not just a “one and done”- Thanks for the tips.

  • I’m with you on this. I have some of theses books for free draw and as a last resort when a child is overcome with frustration because they can’t draw something. If I do a “follow the leader” it is also just a tiny aspect of the finished piece. I have real issues with “cookie cutter” art work. Yeah, it looks good, parents like it, and kids feel good when their work looks like the sample, but I can’t stand. I prefer creativity and individuality in student artwork.

    • Amen, Sister!
      The best feeling is when you have a creative based projects AND the products look amazing. Those are keepers and a very lofty goal. Hope your summer is off to a good start and some baby – mommy pool time is in order!

  • erica

    I have them in my book center too. The way I see it is there are so many different types of artists. This is usually more of a cartoony style in these books (does that make sense?) You can’t really learn to draw cartoons from observation. So for learning cartooning or more graphic art they might have there place.

  • tobie711

    I love drawing  books! Not all are equal though I do have a few favorites. My students love to do follow drawings it helps open their eyes and builds there confidence. On days when I give them photos they jump right in because they can see the shape and movements of the lines. When I was an art student I use to get so frustrated because I though it was wrong to use reference pictures. I personaly have seen it build better artist in my classroom. I always have them color and finish the pictures their way using a variety of materials. I always let them know there are many ways to draw but today we are going to try this way. Even the most creative student is able to learns something new.

  • I also have a few of these kinds of books in my free choice area. Some kids really love them. It’s kind of like following LEGO directions: look to see what’s different in the next picture and then add it. In this way, I think using the books do somewhat build observational skills. That said, I’m NOT a fan of teaching my lessons that way! Follow Me is just not my style. 

  • I like some drawing books–especially those that reiterate a major concept that I teach, which is to break objects down into simple shapes.  There are others, though, that require you to draw curved lines or amorphous shapes with which students are not familiar that I do not like so much.
    On the days that I let kids “free draw” and use the drawing books in my collection, they are so enthusiastic and thrilled with their success–though I must admit that I have to monitor closely so that they do not trace right from the drawing books.

    • I agree, Wendy! Not all drawing books are created equal! I like the ones that break things into shapes, too. 

  • I love drawing books and so do all my students! They are a popular activity in my free draw area.  I teach the kids how to draw using shapes and lines starting in first grade. I have them become “shape detectives “. I do a simple line drawing of a castle scene and lay a large piece of drawing paper over it. The kids have to help find the shapes and lines and then I pull the tracing paper off to show them how all the shapes they found formed the picture. They are always amazed and it gets them looking at pictures/objects around them differently.  When they ask me how to draw something I have them break it down into simple shapes. I will sketch out the shapes to visually show them also on a scrap piece of paper. They take it from there and add their own details. In response to Ingrid’s question about using Mona Brooke’s methods… That is where I got my advice,help,inspiration for how to teach young kids how to draw( 25 years ago!) I was fresh out of college and had just started teaching elementary school and the realization hit me that although I knew how to draw from observation, no one had ever said this is how you explain it to a kid! I had never thought about it! Reading this book helped me greatly and I used it to help form how I now teach young kids how to draw. It works! Back to drawing books… once my students are aware how to see the things around them it helps them when they use the drawing books. There are many pages in my drawing books where I have re-drawn a step in simpler shapes or break it down into more steps so it is easier for my kids to visualize it.  The students that have great visual drawing skills use the books but pump it up a notch, where my kids that need a little(or a lot) of support use the books to help them draw the object and are always very proud when they get the sketch the way they want it.  I always stress that observing and practicing is how they are going to get better at sketching something… and to never be afraid to make mistakes or be imperfect.

  • Sujhess

    I have how-to-draw books available for free-time art (when students finish early).  The students really love them.  However, it took me awhile to make them available to students, as I do not teach this way.  But, seeing how enthusiastic the students are to use them, I have bought more over the years.  They are the most-used books in my art library.

  • McC’s art class

    I teach art to middle school students who mostly have never had art before (we don’t have elementary art, sadly). They are already extremely self-critical and some were placed in my class because of scheduling, not because of choice. We have an “art help” area in my room with some stencils, how to books, regular books, an art morgue, real artifacts of bug collections, shells, hides & furs, maniquins, etc. The majority of my lessons allow the students the freedom of choosing their own subject matter. They know that when they are stumped on how to draw something they are welcome, even expected, to go find help from there.

    For example, I had one young football player who loathed the fact he was made to take art, refused to draw for the first two weeks of school (until he realized it affected his eligibility), and a how to draw book was our ice breaker. He used it as a crutch for another two weeks, at first tracing for every assignment, then just following along. I cringed every time I saw his artwork, but by the end of the quarter, he no longer used the books, but would draw from life or his own imagination, and was pleased with his own work! 

    These books are often the bridge my students need.

    • I like the way you put this, and the example really shows that teaching art is not “one size fits all”

  • Julesobart

    I’m in a love/hate relationship.  For the exact reasons you stated.  I keep them in my “free center” cupboard and the kiddos enjoy the treat once in a while.  I like that they show a steps in process drawing, and the students see that all drawings are shapes an lines.  However they can become a crutch.  I keep a stack of discarded library books about animals and other popular subjects that students can refer to without the temptation of the how to draw for most projects. This has helped with the idea of using a picture for reference, but not for tracing/copying or any other “bad habits”

  • Camille Lamesch

    I use drawing books from time to time.  I like Superdoodles I give my students limited choice. I like how it teaches step by step sequencing.  

    The best drawing technique I have found has been drawing partners. Students work in pairs and learn to draw form observation with a buddy guiding them along the way.  My students were thrilled with this strategy.  As a teacher it is wonderful to listen to students explain to each other how to draw. 
    this is the blog spot where I found this technique.


  • cfrobeyinc

    I am not big into “how to draw books” and don’t have any in my art classroom. I really want my students to generate their own “versions” of whatever they are thinking creatively about. I really stress to my students that it isn’t about “drawing something perfectly” but being more imaginative and creative with their art. The ‘creativity’ aspect is what is more important for me. 

    On the other hand, I do want my students to begin to look at the world around them more closely. I want students (even lower elementary) to begin seeing shapes, line, surface planes, etc. when looking at objects. In my classes, I have “quick sessions” where we do simple still life drawings. These sessions are not graded….just gives the students experience and practice in transposing what they see down on paper. I often tell them to just sit and draw something at home in a sketchbook. That is what their sketchbooks are for…..practicing some still life/object drawings. (Their sketchbooks are also used for expanding their creativity and creating whatever comes from their wonderful minds!) Art is all about practice, practice, practice!!

    In one of my 2nd grade lessons we did a project titled “Dragonflies and Fireflies”. I began by showing the students simple shapes used to create each of those insects. Students were then free to create their own masterpieces by incorporating at least 1 dragonfly and firefly into their composition. What I loved about this projects is that the students were able to create their own backgrounds and have as many of the insects that they wanted in their artwork. No two were identical. The students loved this project and loved the freedom to create to their hearts desire!

    Students know that they can come to me anytime and ask me how to draw something. I also keep a pretty good watch on my students during art time and help students when I can see they are frustrated about something they are working on. 


  • Ms. R

    I’m in the boat that I rarely use books, but some of the suggestions listed here for using them are valid.  I think the reason I don’t use them too much is I teach drawing so that kids can accept their own drawing style, appreciate other students drawings (who are less realistic) and learn that not all art is necessarily technically brilliant to be successful. 

    I think if they have nothing to compare it to (the finished book image for example) it is easier for them to accept their style of drawing/painting, etc.

  • DeeAugust

    I like them for my free time centers. I also use “follow-me” projects but solely for the purpose of teaching a technique, i.e., burnishing a characters eyes with colored pencils to demonstrate/teach burnishing. The kids love it. It usually takes us two days to complete a drawing and I only use it as a “break” after a big, difficult project. The kids like that they don’t have to think that much, and it can be an easier day for me too. I feel that any exposure will help my middle school students grow their appreciation of art even if what they learn to appreciate is how difficult it is to create something.

  • Meg

    I love them. My kids love them. But I have emphasized them as being just a place to start. And I am also teaching the kids how to look at things and see shapes in them. The books just back that up. You can’t let them use them too much. but frankly, I know that most of my students are not going to be professional artists or even pursue art as a hobby into adulthood. I always encourage them to use the books as a starting place and that they should make changes if they want to make it their own. Confidence building is a very big deal, and these book certainly help with that. 

  • julie

    I agree with you completely and this is how I use them in my own classroom. I find my truly talented kids may use them as a starting point and by 5th grade they are off of them and on their own.

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  • Nicole Kosek Caulfield

    I was not a big fan of them until I went to a James Gurney talk at the Norman Rockwell Museum. He was praising them and explaining how it is the first step of built upon knowledge. http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/

    They are a precursor to drawing from life and the kids finding the shapes themselves. First learning that objects are made up of a shapes and practice drawing that way, then when developmentally ready they have that insight when looking for shapes in objects. Of course later in development, they tap back into that knowledge when learning shading and use the insight that everything is made up of shapes to find the way the shadows and highlights follow those 3D shapes.

  • ntrlhealth

    I hated all of those books because they are NOT REALISTIC, as you said.

    The ONLY books that teach how to draw for beginners are those that USE GRIDS – like LEONARDO DA VINCIE and other masters did.

    Read why this is important at:

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