Experimenting with How to Draw Books

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Kids Drawing with Ed Emberleys How to Draw BooksI finally gave in and brought home a how to draw book from the library. I just knew Maia would love it and many of you were encouraging about the idea when I asked, even though I was (and still am) ambivalent.

Here’s one comment from Karen that especially hit home for me:

…When your daughter is drawing the same bird over and over, she is practicing, as if it were a song she wanted to know by heart. She is trying to master it.

Introducing your daughter to realistic drawing instruction is not going to limit artistic creativity, but increase confidence and natural ability. What is important is finding out what it is she wants to learn. Perhaps imitating her friends and wanting her own art to be more realistic are two different things? Perhaps let her look at a few of the books you were interested in getting, and get her opinion on what type of instruction she is seeking at this time.

(Emphasis mine)

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So I decided to give it a try. I came home with Ed Emberley’s Drawing Book of Faces and she LOVES it.

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She’s been drawing people and animal faces from it every day for the last week. At bedtime she asks if she can stay up and draw for a little while. And how can I resist that request?

The book offers step-by-step instructions on how to draw each face. Literally. It shows you exactly when and how to add the eyebrows, the silly glasses, the hair… By breaking it down, step by step, into shapes and lines, it helps a beginning drawer to see the parts that make up the whole and then to successfully create the whole without getting overwhelmed.

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Maia is so pleased with her faces and so absorbed in the process.

I should be, too, yet I still have mixed feelings.

I don’t know why. I probably would have thoroughly enjoyed a book like this as a kid! Well, actually, I do know why. It doesn’t feel creative to me. It still feels a bit like cheating.

But! I’m going to listen to you and to Maia.

I’m going to let her explore and learn in a way that works for her.

So guess what Maia is going to get for Christmas this year? One or two drawing books of her own. I’m thinking of these  (by Ed Emberley):

Ed Emberley’s How to Draw Books

Ed Emberleys How to Draw Books

Although if you have any other recommendations, I’d love to hear!

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  1. says

    I think the danger (from an art and creativity education point of view)is when kids start thinking that they can ONLY draw from a book. I think in your home environment she is safe from thinking that!

  2. Emma says

    exactly (what Naomi said) – it’s one thing to give the book & let them do as they wish with it (and allow/encourage them to deviate) and it’s another to say “first you have to draw the head this way, then you have to put this line ‘here’”.. big difference. We have a few Ed Emberly books knocking around the house – I have one very creative/artistic child and another who’s more ‘specific’ about how things have to happen – I wanted to give the latter child permission to try to draw things that were more comlpex (to him); it turned out that the creative one is more curious about the book… (figures!)

  3. says

    There’s a point where some children want more, are ready for more. Mai has reached that point! She’s been filled with art her entire life, and now she’s ready to refine her skills. Combining her open-ended exploration with skills like “how to draw” will expand her ability and her confidence. And her drawings are wonderful!!

  4. says

    You are a great mom Jean. Listening (really listening) to what she wants even if it feels uncomfortable for you — something that is not always easy for me. I can’t remember where I heard that when letting kids pick out books from the library you should let them get some that they really want in addition to the classics that every child should read because you want them reading something THEY love. (Now that I write that out, I think it may have been from Mariah Bruehl’s Playful Learning.)

  5. Nicole says

    That book is cute! My son would really like that. I think he likes how-to books because reality can be overwhelming – like the question what to draw ends up being more of a dilemma than drawing itself. The how-to gives him direction and confidence. Slowly, slowly I see him testing the waters a bit, but it’s teeny tiny steps. Thanks for sharing this book on here.

  6. says

    When we are taught musical instruments, we copy the most rudimentary songs to learn. Those simple first tunes are devoid of all emotion until we embrace them as our own.
    I still remember the first time I sat at a piano and played “C D E made a boat, C D E made it float” over and over……

  7. says

    I think you can’t go wrong with Ed Emberley – I still turn to him when I want to play around but with a little direction! He’s so loose and fun that I think it encourages the same – plus he shows how the “formula” drawings are just a jumping off point for all kinds of things. “Look – he put the eyes close together on this face and farther apart on this one – what will happen if I make them REALLY far apart?” Or – “He changed this rectangle body into an oval. I’m going to try it with a triangle!” That’s exactly the kind of playing my daughter does with his books and I love it!

  8. says

    I think this looks like a great idea! My girl is 6 going-on 7 and loves drawing people and faces. I just put the book on hold at my library and am going to see what she thinks of it. I know she loves to learn how to do things better and if she doesn’t like it then, well, she just won’t use it. We are facilitators for these kids of ours, providing materials and resources if it works for them.

  9. Susan D. says

    Have you seen the Let’s Draw Cute Animals by Sachiko Umoto? We have it at our library, and it is truly cute! The author also has Let’s Draw Happy People too.

  10. says

    I have three Emberley books and think they’re great. But I was recently sent a new book to review: You Can Draw Anything by Kim Gamble. I like the way it explains and suggests about aspects like shading and perspective, as well as giving examples and activities that kids will understand. Might be more for when Maia gets older though.

  11. says

    ditto, ditto, and ditto…it’s one thing to force feed this sort of thing and discourage the other, and quite another to have a child whose creativity has been nurtured and respected every step of the way, and then to give her some tools and strategies (that she is asking for, no less) to expand her skills and confidence.

  12. says

    I’m not a parent, but I’m an adult with very little talent when it comes to drawing. I enjoy graphic design, and decided that I needed some help visualizing the shapes in different animals, people, objects, etc. so I could draw them. I have Ed Emberley’s book of animals and I love it. It’s really helped me understand how a drawing can be formed. And it’s helped me get more creative. It can only do that or better for a creative child.

  13. says

    Thank you! My daughter (6) has brought home more complex drawing books from her school’s library, and gotten discouraged. I think the big book of faces will be perfect for her, and I was looking for artful things to get her for Xmas! You’re a lifesaver!

  14. Laura says

    My 6yo daughter has enjoyed the Draw, Write, Now book series. She has drawn everything from book one multiple times and put her own twist on the pictures, once she felt she had mastered the idea. She spends hours drawing and coloring. She’s getting books 2 & 3 for the holidays =)
    Laura
    Synergistic Acres – Kansas City Natural Farm

  15. says

    I honestly think that this can be a great jumping off point and can create confidence. I’ve always worked in theatre, but as a “worker bee”…it’s been a wonderful career, but I’ve always described myself as such and said that “I’m not a creative-type but I love being in the center of it”. Anyway, this past year, I’ve gotten more and more into crafting and creating at home with my daughter. I’ve realized that I just have to start with something structured or read instructions down to the letter at first. Once I master a skill or do something enough, I finally feel comfortable to “wing it” and create my own stuff. Some of us just need a little nudge and/or crutch to be able to get over the hump and dive into the creative world.

  16. says

    I think the one of the hardest things to be is genuinely responsive to our children’s wants and needs, especially if they counter our parenting decisions. Taking what must feel like a risk to encourage Maia’s interests is really something to learn from.
    Maia may be learning how to draw by step-by-step instruction, but more importantly she is learning that you trust her to make decisions in her play and learning.

  17. says

    We love Ed Emberley at our house! It has really helped my 6 year old (who is more of the architect/engineering sort) to feel more comfortable drawing freely. Before introducing these books he would draw if I really made him, but he has always been concerned that it wouldn’t turn out precisely as he wanted… and that is his nature in every part of life.
    Since working with those books he is drawing a lot more freely. The key for him really was seeing that there are steps in art, and by having books around that demonstrated that process to him he can now see the steps on his own.
    My 4yo draws constantly and has ever since we handed him a pencil when he was a year old. He likes the drawing books too, but he uses them more as a base and then adds his own ideas. :)

  18. katie says

    what about having maia make a how to draw book of her own. showing off the steps to making her own creations!

  19. says

    I have been very hesitant about this as well. When I think of it I think how when I was in art classes as a high schooler I often studied other peoples art and tried to imitate. I think imitation leads to learning as well as letting them just discover. In fact I think up to a certain age kids should just discover and then as they mature they like to see how to do and try.

  20. Rose says

    I love how-to-draw books. Creativity and technique are not mutually exclusive. My daughter has used various ones, and it has helped her to enjoy drawing more and is less frustrated since she can understand how to make what she is trying to make. But she doesn’t stick to it all the time, and does plenty of creative drawings as well. No worries!

  21. CarinaRdz says

    I am also a big encourager of creativity however, without some lessons in technique creativity can actually be limited.
    The comments from one of the recent interviews you posted reported that not every child is bound to become an artist. From your daughter’s drawings I think that she is not only creative but also artistic, so it’s good that she is starting to learn technique early because it will continue to give her a head start. Copying and follow directions still requires some level of creativity.

  22. kia says

    moderation is the key! moderation in instruction and time to be creative and take it to the next level. we love ed emberlee and these books give kids ideas on how to “draw and elephant” when they might not know where to start, it gives them confidence. i think the fear is that it becomes a crutch (like it is for myself!), but i think it is easier for a kid to use it as a tool or guide…

  23. Emily says

    I loved the previous poster’s analogy to music. I also think it’s kind of like cookbooks – the best way to use them is as a jumping-off point. Figuring out the basics of a recipe and the basic rules (chemistry, complimentary spice combos) of cooking help give you a starting point to to then be creative and think about how you can adapt and build new creations. My engineer husband used to be terrified of changing a recipe but as we’ve tried cookbooks that are more “this is why this worked and here are some ideas for changing it” than “this is the only way to make it taste right” he’s gotten a lot more comfortable with experimenting with spices & flavors.
    The Ed Emberly books I remember from my childhood (he came to our elementary school!) were more like that – encouraging exploration of creativity & variations rather than a strict “this is the best way to draw a person” book. It sounds like Maia gets a lot of open-ended art exploration and that she will probably use this book in that mindset anyway.

  24. says

    Hi Jean! I think you’re doing just the right thing letting Maia have a chance to explore some drawing books after having encouraged such fantastic creativity in your home ever since she was born. My girls have several books like this one that they pull out occasionally. Their favorite is Ed Emberley’s Make a World – lots of little elements like boats, cars, animals that they use to add to their own pictures. Another one I like is Usborne’s I Can Draw Animals.

  25. Grenlla says

    I was considering getting my niece this exact book for Christmas! I was worried it would be too advanced for a 6 year old, being childless myself and not totally sure about such things, but now I am TOTALLY going for it. The only thing is, she’s a twin, so what to get her sister….

  26. Froggie says

    There’s a new book, My Daily Zoo (available at the author’s, Chris Ayers, website and elsewhere), that really allows kids to learn to draw animals and express creativity. I’ve already bought it for all the kids in my life!

  27. Adelle F. says

    I find that these kinds of books (and I love Ed Emberly!) give them an idea of how drawings are constructed and from that they then learn how to draw other things on their own. It shows them that almost anything can be broken down into shapes and pieces. So while it may feel like cheating now, I feel like it gives them a better understanding in the long run.

  28. Winston says

    You can only do the type of super-creative work that breaks all the rules if you know the rules backwards and forwards. You have to know the formula to go beyond the formula.

  29. says

    I think giving her a new way to explore art is wonderful and she is surrounded by other creative things without the step by step process so, she is really well rounded in the art dept! You are a great mom to listen to her and let her lead the way. I love the looks of the faces and animals books and put them our wish list. Thanks for introducing them to me.

  30. says

    You should check out a series called Anti-Coloring Books. I love them, even as a grown up. Instead of coloring in lines, or teaching drawing, they ask the reader to imagine and draw the rest of a picture. Very neat, and it sounds like it might be right up your alley.

  31. says

    Firstly, love you blog! I just discovered it from Etsy.
    I was an uber creative child (My mom says when I was 2.5 and she was pregnant, I drew my brother in her womb, included with an umbilical cord, lol.), I was given how to draw books. Mostly disney characters and other animals, since my mom worked at the Disney store. I do not feel at all that instructional books limited my creativity in any way. I went through the books and finished all the characters, and when I was done, I moved on to my own things. I do not believe my drawing style was influenced by these books.
    I understand why you would be worried, and I see your points, but I think you have a good balance going. It sounds like she is in a house where expressing your creativity freely is encouraged, and that’s the most important thing. I agree with most of the others. And I think Maia is very talented!! You are lucky :)

  32. says

    How adorable your daughter is. I’m glad to hear that you let your daughter explore about things around here that might help her realize her dream. Its important for parents to be supportive of their kids and remain by their side to guide them and explain to them things they don’t understand yet. I’m guessing that your daughter will be an artist someday ;)