Book Review: The Virtual Art Academy (VAA) Reference Library

I have started publishing art book reviews lately. I was absolutely delighted when Barry John Raybould from the Virtual Art Academy asked me if I was interested in writing a review of the Virtual Art Academy® Reference Library. I have been a member of the Virtual Art Academy for a several months now, dedicatedly following…

I have started publishing art book reviews lately. I was absolutely delighted when Barry John Raybould from the Virtual Art Academy asked me if I was interested in writing a review of the Virtual Art Academy® Reference Library. I have been a member of the Virtual Art Academy for a several months now, dedicatedly following each of the lessons. Even after such a short time my work has improved, a lot of it down to the extremely high-quality content that Barry teaches.

The Virtual Art Academy® Reference Library isn’t a single book; it is in fact a library of closely integrated 58 books that if combined as one would be well over 1200 pages long! The Reference Library is not designed to be read all in one go. It is designed to be used either as a reference source to complement the Virtual Art Academy® Apprentice Program, or as a standalone source of comprehensive information on how to paint for artists.  These 58 books covers all the important aspects on how to paint, taking into consideration different paint mediums that a student may use such as oil, acrylics, watercolor, or even digital media. 

These books can be categorised by Building Blocks. There is the:

  • Brushwork Building Block
  • Color Building Block
  • Composition Building Block
  • Concept Building Block
  • Drawing Building Block
  • Form Building Block
  • Materials Building Block
  • Notan Building Block
  • Observation Building Block
  • Process Building Block

How can you honestly read 1200+ pages? If you also join the Virtual Art Academy® Apprentice Program you will find the content broken down into bite sized chunks to be studied in a logical sequence. In this way the new content in each lesson will not overwhelm the reader as it builds upon previously released material. Members of the Apprentice Program read sections of the Reference Library, watch supplemental training videos, then do a series of practical exercises to build their skills in that area.

There are two ways of buying the Virtual Art Academy® Reference Library.  If you are not a member of the Virtual Art Academy, you can buy the complete library for $960 – which works out to $16.50 per eBook. Or, if you are a Virtual Art Academy member you get the complete library at a substantial discount from the full price – $499 for the complete library, which works out to only $8.60 per eBook. 

The eBooks are only sold as a complete library and not as individual books because there are a lot of internal cross-references that require you to have the other books in the library to look up definitions and pre-requisite concepts. That is how the Reference Library avoids repeating material, and what makes it so easy to find information when you need it. 

Brushwork Building Block

This building Block is broken up into 6 topics; Techniques, Descriptive Brushwork, Focal Areas, Suggestion, Edges, and Optical Mixing.

Brushwork Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library
Brushwork Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library

Brush strokes can establish the mood of the painting, create details and interest when viewed closely, portray perspective and even draw the viewer’s eye towards a focal point. This could be using thick and textured brush strokes or thin and delicate lines and washes. Bold and suggestive brush strokes can portray the exact same subject as detailed brushstrokes, producing very different styles of paintings. Learning to use your brush effectively is of great importance. It is in this Reference Library block that Barry teaches you how to control your brush to create the exact marks that will convey your message. Not only will you learn different types of mark-making, but you will learn why such brush strokes are important and when to use them to the best results.

Color Building Block

The Color Building Block is broken up into 6 parts: Key Concepts, Palettes, Greys, Color Harmonies, Poly-Isochromes and Spectrum Palettes, and Advanced Color Strategies.

Color Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library
Color Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library

The majority of art books mention how colors are warm or cool, how to make color wheels, and mention the importance of color mixing charts, but they often don’t go beyond this. The VAA Reference Library goes into much more depth: in fact all the content that most art books will explore is covered in the entire first part – Key Concepts!

This section of the VAA Reference Library has been designed to help you learn colors faster; both color theory such as biases and the ability to mix the perfect hues. Also explored are topics such as simplifying your palette (great for travelling) and the palettes typically used by the old masters such as John Singer Sargent. You will learn how to create dulled yet colorful greys and importantly how to not mix mud (which is what most artists mix), as well as how to make vivid and lively colors. You can use visual interest in your artworks with multiple types of color harmonies. Finally you will learn techniques to portray luminosity, iridescence and glowing whites – the very color aspects that draws viewers to your paintings.

Composition Building Block

The Composition Building Block is made up of 7 topics: Far Music, Space Division, Organisational Structures, Contrast, Focal Point, Eye Movement and Line.

Composition Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library
Composition Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library

This Building Block explores the various ways to make a composition from nature or imagination. You learn how to use negative spaces and division to your advantage. Contours will give the landscape depth, and when designed correctly you can leave “walk room” in the foregrounds (that’s an actual composition theory). You can take many of these basic principles and unify them with organisational structures that will lead the eye in and around the painting in a pleasing manner. To keep the eye at the focal point you can use compositional contrast, which is far more than just using lights and darks together. Of course you can also have more than one focal point; the Focal Point section will cover staccato focal points and focal areas, teaching you all the ways to draw attention to certain areas of your paintings.

Concept Building Block

The Concept Building Block is the smallest of all the blocks; it is only 2 books, covering the topics Types of Concepts and Creating Concepts.

Concept Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library
Concept Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library

Learn to convey your message by evoking emotions and telling narratives through aesthetics and descriptive design. You will explore using multiple subjects in your paintings without losing focus by using relationships, as well as when and how to simplify, emphasise and exaggerate your subject. By following these lessons you can learn how to create your own painting style.

Drawing Building Block

The Drawing Building Block is comprised of 6 books; Gesture, Accuracy, Contour, Putting It Together, Basic Perspective, and Advanced Perspective.

Drawing Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library
Drawing Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library

These books begin with the basics; the equipment that you need and how to hold your tools. It might sound simple enough, but its surprising how many people haven’t learnt the most efficient techniques. The first book – Gesture – takes you through how to draw quickly to capture information and scenes quickly. The next two books will teach you various ways to make accurate drawings, including ways to transfer your designs to your canvas. The Putting It Together book takes the techniques you have learnt one step further (than most books) by teaching you to combine them in one singular drawing. The final books teach how to draw in perspective which is an essential skill no matter what your subject matter.

Form Building Block

The Form Building Block has three books; Two Value Statements, Planes of the Light and Shade, and Hue Changes On The Form.

Form Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library
Form Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library

This Building Block teaches you how to make your subjects appear three-dimensional and solid. The books begin by breaking down the concept of form into its absolute basics, before expanding into more realistic representation of form by including various planes of light and shade. Finally more advanced topics such as warm and cool shadows and how hue and saturation changes in light are explored.

Materials Building Block

The Materials Building Block consists of 13 books; Beginner Materials, Paints and Pigments, Mediums and Varnishes, Oil and Acrylic Painting Supports For Studios, Oil and Acrylic Painting Supports for Plein Air, Watercolor Painting Supports, Oil and Acrylic Easels for Studios, Oil and Acrylic Easels for Plein Air, Watercolor Easels, Organising Your Studio and finally Organising Plein Air Painting.

Materials Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library
Materials Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library

This is is a treasure trove of product suggestions, covering almost any product that you could possibly want or need to buy. This makes it great for beginners looking at what to purchase to get started as well as for advanced artists looking at complementing or upgrading their tools.

Notan Building Block

Notan Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library
Notan Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library

Notans are considered fundamentally important to an artwork; it is used to define the core underlying design. Yet so many artists skip this design step all-together. The Notan Building Block has 6 books; What Is Notan, Basic Notan Design, Advanced Notan Design, Contour Notan, Gradation and Edge Notan, and Gallery of Notan From Sketchbooks. Learning how to create notans are one of the first things you will learn in the Virtual Art Academy course. You will learn what a notan is and how to make one, with each book increasingly teaching more advanced notan designs; from a few simple shapes to more complex gradations and vignette effects.

Observation Building Block

The Observation Building Block has 6 books in it: Seeing Values, Colors, Atmospheric Perspective, Land and Sky, Water and Itness.

Observation Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library
Observation Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library

These books build upon the other Building Blocks by reinforcing how you see subjects in real life and transpose the information to the canvas. I found many of these books as ideal introductions to the other Building Blocks by explaining the importance of the topics and how they can be used to correctly portray our subjects and message.

Process Building Block

Process Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library
Process Building Block Thumbnail in the VAA Reference Library

The Process Building Block has 3 books: Alla Prima Painting Approach, Watercolor Step-by-Step, and Working From A Photographic Reference. These books will help you explore the various approaches to painting from start to finish; everything from planning your artwork through sketches to the finishing detailed brushstrokes.

Overall Summary

Virtual Art Academy Logo
Virtual Art Academy Logo

I want to include a short disclaimer: I am a paid subscriber to the Virtual Art Academy and writing from the perspective of a paid-student. I did not have access to all the lessons at the time of writing this review so Barry temporary unlocked the content so I could write a thorough review.

It was so hard to write a review on the Reference Library given how many pages the content truely covers; honestly how can I fit so much information into a single short review?

The content covered in the course is pure gold – it will be hard to find such high quality material elsewhere gathered in one place. It is succinctly written to speed up your learning, yet is comprehensive. The VAA Reference Library is suited for both absolute beginners and those who have been practicing art (even professionally) for a number of years. I highly recommend exploring this vast library as you will definitely learn something new and see the benefits in your work.

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