Whether it’s to have more fun at art museums, to become a self-taught artist, or something in-between, self-studying art history is a viable way to achieve your goal.
There are countless resources, online courses, and books available to you. As long as you have the curiosity and discipline, you can learn the subject without teachers or expensive programs.
This roadmap is designed to introduce you to these resources, and to give you a systematic, step-by-step approach to teaching yourself art history from scratch.
Below is a preview of the nine steps for self-learning art history:
- Take an Art History 101 Online Course
- Read The Story of Art to Survey the Field
- Take 2-3 Beginner Art History Courses
- Learn How to Analyze and Write About Art
- Study Art History Chronologically (or Backwards)
- Do a Special Artist Project
- Start Attending Art Galleries and Museums
- Use Online Resources like Podcasts and Apps
- Consider Self-Learning a Visual Art
Before getting into the steps, I want to quickly make some recommendations about how to view and use this guide.
A Quick Note on How to Think About This Roadmap
This is by no means the only approach to self-studying art history. It’s how I — a mere beginner in art history with a passion for creating systematic self-education roadmaps — would go about getting a solid foundation in the subject.
You can follow it step-by-step. The steps do build on each other. But you can also do the steps you want to do and exclude the ones you don’t. You can also cherry pick some ideas and put them into your own self-directed learning plan.
That said, I suggest taking what I or anyone else says with a grain of salt when it comes to what you should learn about. In the end, it’s your personal curiosity that should have the final say.
Following it will lead to an exciting life of the mind and consistent growth towards self-actualization.
That said, let’s jump into the steps to self-learning art history as a beginner.
1. Take an Online Art History 101 Course
An Art history 101 class will teach you how to look at, appreciate, and describe a piece of artwork.
It’ll teach you the language of art — lines, shapes, form, color, depth, shadow, contrast, etc., — which you can use to describe and analyze pieces of art.
The best free online course I’ve found for getting your bearings in art history is Khan Academy’s Art History.
The course is broken into five units, each of which contains several lessons, as shown below:
Khan Academy also offers College/AP Art History. It’s longer and discusses hundreds of paintings, sculptures, and architectural works across 3,000 years of history and various cultures.
Both of these courses are great places to start your self-education journey in art history. Either one will give you the basics you need to succeed in the following steps.
2. Grab a Copy of Gombrich’s The Story of Art
The Story of Art is the classic go-to guide for beginners who want to give themselves a strong foundational education in art history.
The book takes you on a journey through 3,000 years of artistry to learn about some of the most influential pieces of art ever created, a category that the books cover definitely doesn’t fall into:
Written by an Art Historian with a knack for popularizing the field, the book contains to-the-point, insightful writing. Gombrich emphasizes plain language over specialized jargon, so it’s easy to understand his analyses.
He outlines the purpose of his book in the preface:
“This book is intended for all who feel in need of some first orientation in a strange and fascinating field. It wants to show the newcomer the lie of the land without confusing him with details; it hopes to bring him some intelligible order into the wealth of names, periods, and styles which crowd the pages of more ambitious works, and so equip him for consulting more specialized books.”— E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art
As a survey text, it’ll help you figure out which periods and movements are most interesting to you, so that you can go off and study them more in-depth.
Pro Tip: Sometimes when viewing fine art I’ll put on a piece of my favorite classical music to really get me in the mood. The combined power of the two art forms rarely fails to move me in some way. If you want to get into classical music alongside art history, check out this classical music self education roadmap.
3. Take a Few Beginner-Level Art History Courses Online
An Art History student, at say Yale (syllabus example shown below), may spend their first year exploring the huge subject of art history by taking a wide range of Art History courses:
As an autodidact, you get to decide what you want to learn about. There are numerous online art history courses to choose from, and you aren’t bound by any requirements set forth by an institution.
Of course, you are confronted with the problem of finding affordable and quality online courses. But the online learning space is growing and more courses are popping up every day.
Below are some of the best free online art history courses I found on Coursera:
- Modern and Contemporary Art & Design: Learn about our time’s major pieces of art and ideas about art.
- In the Studio: Postwar Abstract Painting: Study some of the greatest postwar works of art and learn about the techniques and materials the artists used.
- Roman Art and Archeology: Have a thing for the ancient world? Consider learning about some of the most influential works of art and archeology in ancient Rome.
If you happen to be a big fan of Rembrandt, like my grandmother was — I couldn’t for the life of me get her to leave the museum! — you could take Dutch Masters: The Age of Rembrandt. It does cost $339.95 though.
To get it for cheaper, Wondrium does offer a subscription (starting at $6.25 per month) that’ll allow you access to this Rembrandt course and countless others — something worth checking out if high-quality lectures are your thing.
As for how many courses to take before moving on to the next step, that’s totally your choice, but I’d recommend taking at least two.
By watching an art expert describe, analyze, and interpret artwork through various lenses, from thematic to technical, you’ll become better at doing it yourself.
And with those basic skills of art analysis, you’ll get more out of the rest of your self education in art history.
I know that taking a few courses on English Literature helped me become a more attentive and creative reader.
Having learned the descriptive vocabulary and key analytical approaches, I was able to more easily spot and think about symbolism, intertextuality, and other elements that would’ve been invisible to me otherwise.
4. Learn How to Analyze & Write About Art
Speaking of learning how to read artwork like an expert, here’s a great guide I found to help direct your analysis.
It’s a list of questions, divided into categories, that you can ask and answer to better understand the artwork in front of you.
Examples of analysis questions include:
- Is the artwork in an established genre?
- What is this artist typically known for?
- Are parts of the artwork separated physically?
- Are there specific light sources in the depicted scene?
- How does the work make you feel?
- Is there an iconic image in this piece?
Consider using this guide to help you write about the art pieces you study during the next step. Writing is often the best way to practice analyzing and understanding art work.
You don’t have to write about every piece you set your eyes on, but doing it for the ones you love or hate the most would be a good rule of thumb.
For example, I might write about Dali’s The Persistence of Memory (basic, I know) if I were self-studying art history in a serious way. If I was dry on ideas, maybe I’d watch a video like the one below to learn more about the painting:
Writing about art is also the best way to come to terms with what you think of the piece. We rarely know what we think about something until we force ourselves to sit down and think about it deeply and systematically.
Writing will allow you also to create an informed, sophisticated, and critical opinion that you can share with others. You can talk about it with friends or even start a blog or YouTube channel where you discuss artwork (a great side hustle).
5. Study Art History Chronologically (Or Backwards)
Many university students in art history study the subject chronologically, starting in prehistoric times and working their way to the late 20th century.
They do this within one tradition (Western, for example) so as to see that tradition’s technical and thematic development over thousands of years. They also take brief forays into other traditions as well.
A reason for studying art history in this fashion is that it helps you spot influence. Artists are often inspired by artists of the past, and artistic movements are often reactions to an earlier art movement, or to the cultural conditions of the day.
You also gain a profound education in history by working your way through the time periods. You see society change, as well as the art that depicts it.
Art historians typically divide traditions into periods. For example, the Western tradition alone contains over a dozen periods, each of which you can read about in Invaluable’s Art History Timeline.
How to Study Art History Chronologically
To study art history chronologically, I recommend checking out the Art Histories section of SmartHistory’s website.
They have tons of material about the artwork of various time periods and regions:
If you were studying Western art chronologically, you could begin with Ancient Mediterranean + Europe section, read all you can about it, then move on to Medieval Europe + Byzantine, as shown below:
There’s an insane amount of information in each section. Just look at what happens when I expand both the Early Medieval period heading (left hand side of image below) and the England subheading:
The Early Medieval England section alone contains one in-depth article covering the important historical facts of Anglo-Saxon England and 10 other articles detailing famous works, movements, and styles from that place and time, such as the Fibulae or The Utrecht Psalter.
A great part about being an autodidact is that you can skip around to the periods and places that interest you the most.
For example, many people might want to spend less time on Medieval art, reading only a few of the articles, but much more time on Renaissance art.
For the Renaissance period, they might endeavor to read every single article in that section:
Working through the SmartHistory website in this chronological way, down the headings and subheadings of each section, is an incredible way to learn about great works of art and the history of the world.
Of course, studying art history from prehistoric times to modern day is a big commitment and takes a long time. It’s best for the learner who thrives under structure.
Next I’ll cover another approach that might work better for you if this method strikes you as a tad overwhelming.
How to Study Art History Backwards
In Professor Lieu’s extremely helpful video on teaching yourself art history, she and her guest recommend using a backwards approach to studying art history:
The idea is to start with an artist or piece of artwork that you truly love and then to go on an exploration to identify the influences.
In the video Professor Lieu give the example of H.R. Giger, the artist who designed the alien from the film series Alien:
If your starting point was something broader, like the cubism movement, you would study it in-depth.
And then, once you had learned all you wanted to know, you could identify two of its greatest artists (Picasso and Braque) and find their main influences with a quick Google search.
Whatever their influences are — in this case Cezanne, African art, and Iberian sculpture — those are your next focuses of study.
You’ll often be stunned at the overlap between the influences and your starting point.
You can continue like this for some time, until you inevitably reach cave drawings. In your journey down one line of influence you’ll develop a deep understanding of not just your starting point artwork but also all the others that led to its production.
As you go through this journey to the roots of your starting point, be on the lookout for various types of influence: iconic images, technical influence, and thematic influence.
I highly recommend watching Professor Lieu’s video to learn more about each of these types of inspiration and how to spot them.
She also discusses comparing and contrasting artwork to learn more about each respective piece.
6. Pick an Artist to Study In-Depth
Consider doing a special artist project with one of the greats. For this project you’ll explore and appreciate their entire body of work.
For example, you could pick Frida Kahlo (creator of one of my favorite paintings):
You could view, read about, and perhaps even write about each of her paintings in chronological order, thus forming a deep understanding of her development as an artist.
If you really wanted to make this a fun adventure, you could cap off this special artist project with a trip to the Frida Khalo museum in Mexico City.
Doing a special artist project is an amazing way to become an expert on one of your favorite artists. Here’s a list of the greatest painters of all time if you need some ideas.
By the end of the project you’ll know a ton about the artist’s life, culture, influences, style, contributions, and most of all, works of art.
As your understanding of the artist and their body of work sharpens, so will your analytical faculty when it’s directed at any specific piece of their work.
Background knowledge will enable you to notice more about each piece, and say creative and accurate things about them.
7. Attend Art Galleries and Museums
I know some people who can stand in front of paintings for what feels like hours on my end. They always happen to know a lot about art, or the type that wants to look like they know a lot about art.
With this in mind, one might say that a key performance indicator for your art knowledge is the level of frustration the average person feels towards you when accompanying you to an art museum. If your date hates you by the end of it, you’re probably on the right path.
In all seriousness, going to an art museum and finding that you enjoy yourself is a satisfying revelation because it implies that you’ve learned a whole lot about art.
It also happens to be a great way to support the arts!
Check online to see if there are any local galleries and head over to one. Most cities have an art museum, so check that out as well.
Remember that you don’t have to see the whole museum in one visit — a mistake I used to make. You can do it in bits and pieces, one exhibit or floor at a time.
There are also online galleries and museum tours.
8. Leverage Online Art History Learning Resources
This is less of a step and more of an ongoing background study activity that supports your main studies.
There are great podcasts, YouTube videos, and apps that can help you learn about art, and it’s worth including a few in your self-directed learning plan.
You can fit these resources into the nooks and crannies of your day.
For example, you could check the Daily Art app once a day, which teaches you about one piece of fine art per day:
And then you could listen to The Lonely Palette podcast on your drive to work, and watch a Great Art Explained video at lunch, where an expert does a deep dive of one famous piece of art:
I do something similar when self-studying English literature. I read a poem from an anthology every night (unless I’m too tired, which happens too often), and a piece of literary criticism every morning. I also try to listen to one literary podcast per week.
9. Consider Taking up a Visual Art Form
Consider learning an art form. Whether it’s painting, drawing, sculpture, animation, or some other visual art, practicing it will encourage you to learn more about it. You’ll have the drive to improve.
Plus, participating in art can be a great way to have a lot of fun and to explore your creative side. We all benefit from a creative outlet, through which we can deal with troubling emotions or the need to express ourselves.
There are plenty of online courses and platforms that’ll help you learn your chosen art form. You can find a ton of classes on the skill-learning platform Skillshare.
For example, here are some painting and drawing classes:
Skillshare offers a free one-month trial. After that, it costs $168 per year. With that subscription, you’ll gain access to over their 27,000 high-quality courses that’ll help you build creative skills.
Follow Your Curiosity & Keep Learning
Art history is a huge subject, one that you could easily spend the rest of your life exploring in some capacity. I implore you to continue studying it if that’s what your curiosity tells you to do.
And if you want to learn some other subjects on the side, consider checking out my self-education roadmaps part of the blog. You can find guides for teaching yourself Buddhism, philosophy, and sociology.
Thanks for reading! I hope this gave you some ideas for how to get into art history without relying on school.