Some years ago, I was surprised by a comment about my first instructional book, something like, "This book doesn't teach you how to make anything." I was puzzled because the book was full of instructions for forty different bindings. I pondered the comment awhile and looked at other books of its type. They showed a book with say, butterflies in it, then showed how to painstakingly recreate the book in the picture. Some books had templates in the back you could photocopy and put together. If I were doing origami, yes, that is what I would want to know: here's a frog, here's how you make the frog. That is one distinction between art books and certain kinds of craft books. Please note that I said "certain kinds" of craft books. Each is good for what it does.
The purpose is usually to acquire a skill. I have an instructional book on my shelf of Japanese brush painting. It shows, step-by-step, how to make the bird, the branch, the clouds. Making the bird, the branch, the clouds is not the end. It is assumed that once you familiarize yourself and perfect your skills, you will create pictures with your own content. If you want to get serious about it, copying can be a jumping off point for your own work. I took this into consideration for my fourth book, Painted Paper. It is technique-based also, but shows exactly how to paint what is in the picture, including the colors I used. It seemed that this would be the best way to get acquainted with the materials and to see what they could do.
For your own work, it is often difficult, even painful, to figure out what you want to say. It takes quiet moments and a willingness to look inside. It takes emotional energy. Right now, right here, what am I happy about? Irritated? Angry? Joyful? Sad? Grieving about? Amused? Curious? What makes me feel one, just one, of these things? What's the story behind it? That's where the art has to come from. You don't even have to put the story into words: you can just begin choosing colors, shapes, patterns, or the book structure that feels right. In the third book, Expressive Handmade Books, I added a section called "Preparation," that might serve as a starting point for the content.
For me, the most useful template comes from when I have to do something multiple times. I need to align a circle to cut out, I need to cut out a window, draw a box, create a recess in a hard cover. The template, in this case, is a shortcut so I don't have to measure or think every single time as I make 20 or 30 or 40 copies. A template of a project in someone else's book or online can make it easier to make something pretty or fun without thinking too hard, and sometimes that's all you want or are able to do. There is a whole continuum for making things, (I've written about it before, here) and all have their place.
My intent is to teach skills, and, it is to be hoped, provide inspiration. But again, for me, in order for the art to be truly satisfying, the content—although it may be a response to an outside source—is not dictated by an outside source; it comes from inside. That is making something, making art.