WordPress allows you to build a stunning website, with no prior technical knowledge. Once you have setup a WordPress website, the first thing you should do is select a ‘theme’. This article explains what a WordPress theme is, how to choose a good one and how to add this to your website. We end with a list of recommended free WordPress themes, as well as provide some customisation suggestions for one of our favourite themes: the illdy theme.

Note: If you are contemplating creating a website, we recommend that you do this as soon as possible. Please read our accompanying guide, published on the Student Art Guide: How to make your own website (and why you need one).

What is a WordPress theme?

A theme is rather like a ‘skin’ that is laid over the top of your website and controls the appearance, style and display of the site, without altering the functionality or content beneath. You can switch quickly between themes, while the articles and images that you have uploaded remain the same. Changing a theme may alter font styles, heading sizes, column layouts, border styles, background colors, page layouts and so on, but it will not change the content of the posts or pages that you have published.

When you first create a WordPress website, it comes with a simple default theme. Most people select a new theme that suits their website purpose. A good theme changes much more than just color and layout; it improves engagement and helps to communicate your brand in a positive light.

How to change your WordPress theme:

Changing a theme is very simple:

  1. Log into your WordPress dashboard / admin panel (the usual login url is in this format: http://www.yourwebsitename.com/wp-login.php, making sure to type in your actual website name)
  2. Click ‘Appearance’ and then ‘Themes’ from the left-hand menu
  3. Click ‘Add New

You will then arrive at the WordPress.org theme directory – a collection of thousands of free WordPress themes that have been carefully vetted, reviewed and tested by the WordPress community. (It is also possible to upload directly a .zip file from a theme that you have purchased elsewhere, however these cost money and are of variable quality. For most new WordPress users, a free theme is all you need).

Each theme in the WordPress directory can be ‘previewed‘ or ‘installed‘. Once installed, you may then ‘live preview’ this to test what it will look like with your existing content, and/or ‘activate’ the theme, to make it appear on your live website.

Important: It is worth noting that when you preview a theme, it often looks nothing like the amazing screenshot promised. This is because you have to add content and adjust the settings, before many of the features appear. If you have not added much content to your website and have not set up menus, text and images, the new theme may initially appear bland and empty. This is why we recommend that you add some sample content to your website (for example, an About page and a sample blog post) before experimenting with different themes.

How to choose a WordPress theme for your website

Once you have reached the WordPress theme directory, it is possible to search the themes using the filter options. You may wish to also view the ‘popular’ and ‘favourites’ menu tabs, as themes that are used frequently may be higher quality, have better reviews and be updated regularly.

We recommend that you choose a theme with:

  • Responsive layout. A responsive layout adjusts and adapt to fit different screen sizes, ensuring that the theme looks great on mobile devices, tablets and desktop. Some websites receive over 50% mobile traffic. As almost all WordPress themes are responsive, there is no excuse for choosing one that is not. Test out how responsive a theme is by resizing your browser screen, to see how the preview adjusts as the screen size changes.
  • Lots of positive reviews and a developer who updates the theme regularly. When you click on a thumbnail to preview a theme, you see a star rating out of 5, number as reviews, as well as version number, indicating how many times a theme has been updated. A theme that is popular and is well maintained is more likely to operate smoothly.
  • Clean, minimal design. A website can be thought of as a blank slate – a clear gallery wall upon which to display your work. Your theme has to look great with multiple images, pages and different types of content. Selecting a theme with minimal color scheme and simple backgrounds is likely to be harmonious with a greater range of content. You should also consider the needs of color blind users (read more about this in our Student Art Guide article: color blindness and how this affects artists and designers), and ensure that text is easily legible, using dark grey or black text on white.
  • Simple features. It can be tempting to want a website with all the bells and whistles, such as fancy sliders, flashy animations and special effects. Added versatility often bloats a theme behind the scenes and makes it load slowly – something that is annoying for your visitors and less likely to rank highly in Google.
  • Easy customisation options. Sometimes you are lucky to stumble upon a theme that is exactly as you want it. Usually, however, you need to tweak a theme to suit your own preferences. The best free WordPress themes for beginners are those that are intuitive and easy to use. 
  • SEO friendly. Search Engine Optimisation is something that we cover in other articles on this website and an important topic to learn about, if you are serious about having your website rank highly in Google. For now, it is ideal to ensure that the theme you choose mentions that it is ‘SEO optimized’ or ‘SEO ready’ in the description (this is not a guarantee that it is, but it is a good sign).

Note: If you find a WordPress website that you like the look of, you can enter the url into whatwpthemeisthat.com and it will tell you what theme it is using!

Special considerations for photographers and artists

Many of the people who arrive at this website come from the Student Art Guide. We have therefore included this section which relates to artist websites in particular.

The best free WordPress themes for photographers and artists are those that, in addition to the requirements listed above, allow images to be displayed in an aesthetically pleasing and user-friendly manner. Many photography WordPress themes have a gallery or online portfolio built in, often with images displayed in a grid format, with thumbnail images that open into another page or pop-up box, displaying the full size image. It is important to note that due, to the high use of smart phones, images opening in pop-up form, or one-by-one, is no longer the recommended way for displaying images digitally. As traditional ‘galleries’ are no longer ideal, you do not necessarily need a specialised ‘artist wordPress theme’; you simply need one that is aesthetically pleasing and meets all of the other requirements above. It is worth noting, also, that if a gallery is built into a theme, any work uploaded to this gallery may be lost later if you decide to move to a new theme.

I recommend either placing similar images together within a standard web page or blog post, with accompanying text…or having each single artwork on its own page, accompanied by enlarged details and other supporting information (for example: videos showing how the work was made; photos of work in progress; perhaps the finished piece hanging in a gallery or home). This way Google has lots of accompanying information about an image, so they are more likely to show it to those who make relevant search queries in Google. Displaying many images upon a single page is similar to how leading websites in the industry, such as Behance, now display work. Rather than opening page after page to view each new work, as you do in sites such as DeviantArt, users in Behance scroll down a single page, enabling images to be viewed easily and quickly, even when using mobile devices.

Our Top 4 recommended free WordPress themes

Having thousands of free WordPress themes can make you feel overwhelmed and unsure where to begin. To make your job easier, I have narrowed these down to my favourite four themes. Note that these can all be customized with a personal header, graphic images, and different layout options, so two sites using the same theme may end up looking dramatically different. These are all great themes for beginner WordPress users and can be used to create beautiful, professional websites.

illdy by colorlib

illdy WordPress theme
The illdy theme has been used within our video tutorial, where I show to set up your first WordPress website. It comes with a good range of customisation options. To help you with the initial set up, colorlib have provided a plugin that installs the default setup options. There is also a great forum if you need help. The illdy theme is responsive (mobile friendly), with a contemporary home page that allows you to showcase a large image. I use this theme for my personal artist website, as well as on www.websitedreaming.com. Our video tutorial on the create a website page, shows me setting up the illdy theme.

I found the following Additional CSS helpful (this can be cut and pasted into the Additional CSS window in the customisation screen):

#header .top-header .header-logo {
font-size: 25px;
line-height: 1.2 !important;
color: #AB9F7C;
margin-top: 20px;
margin-bottom: 100px;

The above code changes the color and positioning of logo text at the top of the page. You need to change the values to suit your own design. For example, if you want the font size larger, you change 25 to a larger number (px = pixels). If you want the line spacing greater, you change the 1.2 to a larger number. If you want a different color, you change the hex code. Margin-top and margin-bottom affect the spacing above and below your logo text. If you remove a line of code completely, the default settings will be used.

font-size: 50px !important;
line-height: 1.2 !important;

This code changes the size and line spacing of the main headings. As before, you adjust the numbers until the desired size has been achieved.


Decode by Macho Themes

Decode WordPress Theme
Decode is a deceptively great theme. The minimal, centre-aligned layout works well on all devices. A sidebar can be added if desired. As with all other WordPress themes, the front page can be set as a single page, or to show the latest posts. Featured images can be manually added to the homepage – perhaps even in gallery format, to showcase an artist portfolio. This is also one of the best free WordPress themes for writers, with clear, easy to read font. Social icons are positioned prominently, top centre. This is a very easy, straight forward theme to begin with.


Zerif Lite by Themeisle

Zerif Lite: WordPress Theme
Zerif Lite is one of the most popular WordPress themes for good reason. It has an extended ‘one page’ WordPress theme, allowing contact details, featured content to appear on a single scrolling homepage. As with every WordPress site, other blog posts and pages are easily added. Zerif Lite has a large, prominent image on the homepage, making it a perfect photographer or artist WordPress theme. It is responsive, clean and pleasing on the eye, as well as SEO friendly. Zerif Lite is well maintained, with great reviews. There is only one issue with the free theme; you are unable to customize colors, unless you purchase the premium version. It is a highly recommended free WordPress theme.


MH Magazine Lite by MH Themes

MH Magazine WordPress theme
Artists may dismiss magazine WordPress themes out of hand, but these can be a great way to showcase work or for Art teachers to share lessons and resources used within their classes. When aesthetically pleasing images are added, the site can transform from a rather commercial appearance to a stunning, vibrant aesthetic. Using a magazine theme may also make it easier to generate advertising revenue from your website in the future, as these are often designed with ad placement in mind. MH Magazine Lite is a solid theme, with very good reviews (and the option to upgrade to a premium version later if you wish).


Premium WordPress Themes

At some stage, you may decide you want to take your website to the next level. Although I recommend that all new WordPress users use free themes (so that you get the hang of WordPress first), there are sometimes advantages to purchasing a good premium theme, particularly if you hope to turn your website into a business or professional venture (please note that this is not necessary – many enormous websites operate using free themes; a paid theme can simply allow you to achieve a design exactly as you wanted in a shorter period of time). Premium themes typically come with a lot more functionality built in. They have greater flexibility and more options for customisation, as well as dedicated support teams on hand to answer questions. Recommendations for paid themes coming soon.


Selected a theme?

Once you have selected a theme, the next step is add personalized header designs, tweak the layout, color, sidebar graphics and so on. We will cover this in an upcoming article, along with our advice for the best free WordPress plugins.

If you have not yet set up a WordPress site, please read our accompanying article on the Student Art Guide: How to make your own website (and why you need one)!