The 8 Key Factors for Painting Realism

Updated: 06 Mar 2021

How to draw and paint realism

This guide is an introduction for painting fine art, in a realistic style.

Realism is all about accuracy. The most important factors are accuracy of the structure, and accuracy in brightness values. When you get these two factors right, you will have 100% success rate.

My 8 key factors in achieving realistic results are:

  1. Precision - accurate drawing from observation.
  2. Values - brightness values.
  3. Contrast - contrast range in brightness values.
  4. Edges - sharp or soft.
  5. Transitions - in brightness values, colors, texture, temperature and so on.
  6. Temperature - warm and cool colors.
  7. Colors - the object's fingerprint.
  8. Saturation - how sharp and rich colors are.

Understanding these characteristics applies to ANY medium. I.e. pastels, oil paints, acrylics, watercolor etc.

In addition, it is advisable to understand the laws of nature, perspective (linear & atmospheric), depth, geometry, and to master the craft of color mixing.

Note:

At the end of this tutorial, you will find about how your painting style is determined, useful painting tips and a summary.

1. Precision

Precise drawing is the ability to draw ANYTHING from observation.

Realistic pencil drawings from observation

With knowledge and experience we can paint any style (portraits, still life, landscape, etc.), and any type of texture (glass, metal, hair, fabric, etc.).

Pencil drawing of a giraffe Pencil drawing, giraffe
Considering anatomical structure
Pencil drawing of an origami boat Pencil drawing, origami boat
Using guidelines for drawing

The advantage of learning to draw before (or alongside) learning to paint, is realizing the importance of precision, brightness values, edges and transitions.

Pencil drawing of a great white shark Pencil drawing, great white shark

Important:

Being accurate in the initial sketch is crucial. Accuracy is a synonym with likeness, meaning how credible the result will look like.

Therefore, it is important to pay attention to shapes, proportions and anatomy.

If you struggle with accuracy, visit my tutorial on how to draw from observation.

2. Brightness Values

Brightness value (also value ​​or tone), is how dark or light any part of a painting is.

By using dark and light values, it is possible to create a three-dimensional illusion on a two-dimensional surface, thus creating (illusion of) depth in a painting.

The more accurate the brightness values ​​are, the level of realism increases. Therefore, accuracy in brightness values ​​is critical!

It is less complicated to see the difference in values in a monochromatic drawing or painting. With colors, it is a bit more challenging.

The way to understand and apply values ​​is first to understand their importance.

Then, observation is the key. Meaning, looking at any part of an object or surface, trying to determine how dark or light it is.

One way to determine the value of an object ​​is to blink a little or close the eyes slightly, in order to lose focus.

While out of focus, the texture of an object becomes less noticeable, and it is easier to detect its brightness level.

With your eyes partially closed, you can compare between your painting and the object or image you are trying to paint, and see which is darker or lighter.

A realistic oil painting of the moon Details & depth are variations in brightness values

Tip:

There is only one color (gray) when drawing with graphite pencils, so the focus is on brightness values.

Therefore, drawing is a good foundation for learning to paint.

For more in-depth tutorial on drawing, read my guide for realistic pencil drawing.

3. Contrast

Contrast in brightness values is important. If the dark parts of a painting are not dark enough or the light parts are not light enough, the painting will look flat or dull.

When there is enough contrast, meaning a big range in brightness values, from deep shadows to bright highlights, the painting will have more depth.

Sheep realistic pencil drawings Contrast to add depth

To understand depth, read my 15 methods guide on how to draw depth.

4. Edges

There are no lines in nature!

In the past, when the laws of perspective were still not fully understood, there was extensive use of contour lines to delineate objects and figures.

Unlike cartoon & comics drawing, that is characterized by drawing outlines, when painting realism, painted objects have no lines.

Every part, area or surface on an object ends. Where an object or part of an object ends, is its edge.

Edges can be sharp or soft. When an object or a figure has a soft edge, it will look less sharp and out of focus.

Soft objects such as hair, fur, fabric, etc., will have soft edges.

Shadows will have soft edges. Light moves in waves, so the shadow cannot be perfectly sharp.

In landscape paintings and in accordance with the laws of atmospheric perspective, the more distant an object is, it will be less clear, meaning not in focus, and therefore its edges will be softer.

Realistic oil painting, path in the forest Distant trees have soft edges as opposed to the sharp edges of the nearest trees

5. Transitions

Transitions in a painting are changes that exist in an object or a surface.

There are many types of transitions. Some common types are:

For example, a sharp shift in brightness values ​​will produce sharp edges and a sharp angle. In contrast, a gradual transition in brightness values ​​will produce a soft edge and convex objects:

Pencil drawing of transitions in brightness values Transitions in values

Each part of an object or a surface will have different relationships with any light source.

Therefore, some parts of a tile will be closer to a light source, or in a different angle, meaning there will always be transitions.

Sometimes transitions will be because of a reflection, like reflection of the sky.

Example for transitions in brightness values Transition due to lighting
Example for transitions in values due to reflection Transition due to reflection

When painting, the change in transitions is more significant because, usually, a small part of a canvas represents a much larger area in reality, particularly in landscape paintings.

So, pay attention to transitions in order not to create a flat, unnatural surface.

Realistic seashore oil painting Transition of colors in the sky: from greenish blue in the left, to purplish blue to the right

6. Color Temperature

When using colors, the color temperature has importance.

Temperature is how cool or warm colors are.

A cool or a warm color can be warmer or cooler.

For example, cadmium yellow is a warm yellow because it is an orangey yellow.

Lemon yellow, on the other hand, is a cooler yellow because it is a greenish yellow. It is still a yellow and therefore a warm color, just a bit cooler.

In reality, the lighting issue is complex. For example, the warm light from the sun will produce warm areas, but the shadow areas will be illuminated by the sky, which is the secondary light source.

On a clear day, when the sky is blue, the shadow will be cool, slightly purple or blue.

On the other hand, at a sunset, when the sky is warm, like pink or orange, the shadow will be warm too.

The reason is the role of the sky as a secondary light source that provides diffuse sky radiation, meaning scattered light.

Therefore, on a clear day, due to the influence of atmospheric perspective and the blue sky, the distant areas of a painting will be cooler (because there are more atmosphere particles between them and the observer), and the close areas will have warmer colors.

Oil painting of birch trees in the snow Despite the warm sunlight, the shadow will be cool (purple) because of the sky

In indoor lighting, there can be several artificial light sources (cool, warm or a combination of both), including cool sky light (or warm direct sunlight), and reflections from the surroundings such as the color of the walls, etc.

Can you see the color temperature on the wall?

Apartment wall affected by different light sources

For realistic results, we need to train our eyes to notice color temperature.

In the next example, the top part of the wall has warm color due to warm artificial light and reflections. The bottom part of the wall receives direct cool light from the sky (via the window).

Transition in color temperature on the wall Transition from warm to cool color

7. Colors

Each object is built from specific pigments, thus identified with a unique color.

Color serves as the object's fingerprint.

To be accurate in choosing colors, we need to master the craft of color mixing, and understand the relationships within the color wheel.

Colors change during the day depending on lighting, climate conditions and other factors, yet each object has color characteristics determined by the pigments it is made from.

In some cases, inaccuracy in color mixing may not be critical as long as the values ​​are accurate, but inaccuracy in values ​​will produce unrealistic results.

Realistic flamingo oil painting Flamingo has a unique color that represents it

To define the exact color we want to use, we have to pay attention to 4 color attributes:

To learn more about relationships within the color wheel and to master the color mixing process, check out my guide on how to mix oil paints.

8. Saturation

Saturation is how sharp and rich a certain shade of color is, or how dull and gray it is.

Without any color at all, the hue will be gray. In contrast, pure color, that is, maximum saturation, will be generated by the use of a single wavelength like a laser beam.

Thus, saturation is determined by the variety of wavelengths that make up the hue, and their relative intensity.

Adding white, black, gray or brown to a certain shade will help reduce its saturation as needed.

In nature, colors are somewhat gray. Adding a bit of the opposite color in the color wheel to any color will make it less saturated.

With experience in color mixing, it is easy to notice how saturated any part of an object is.

An example of using less saturated colors:

Realistic bird on a branch oil painting Oil painting, bird

It is a good practice to create color palettes or color charts. As reference, color palettes are a quick solution to mix the correct color.

For each pigment (or mixture of two pigments), we add white gradually.

Color chart palette for green colors Green palette (mixture of blue & yellow)

How is Your Painting Style Determined?

There are 4 major attributes that will determine the level and style of the way you paint:

Learning:

Know your craft, research constantly and always ask why!

If after a long time of being a painter you notice that your art still looks the same, and you do not feel it is at the level you wish for it to be, the answer lies in learning.

Find a good mentor, research online, buy books and join a class or a course that is highly regarded.

Recommended books for learning to draw Recommended drawing books

Learning a technique to paint a specific object is wrong. If you learn to paint a specific tree, what will happen if you want to paint a different type of tree?

Feel free to visit my guide for drawing trees.

Examples from my guide on drawing trees

When learning the right way, you learn to paint EVERYTHING.

To start with, focus on accuracy of the form AND correct brightness values. When doing it right, you will have a satisfying result.

Do not forget to leave lines out of your painting; use them only as guidelines to draw your form.

Practice:

The amount of hours you put into your craft is, arguably, the most important factor. The more you will practice the better your art will be.

Usually, it takes years to master any craft. There are no shortcuts, but if not combined with learning, the process will be longer.

In addition, while practicing, you will learn a lot, sometimes even by accident. Or, as Bob Ross used to say: "We don't make mistakes; we just have happy accidents".

A pencil sketch of Bob Ross Bob Ross graphite sketch

Passion:

When you have a strong desire for painting you will find the time to practice, you will be eager to learn, and you will start looking at the world in a painter's eye.

Check out other accomplished painters for inspiration. Find artists you like online, or follow them on your favorite social network.

Looking at beautiful art will give you the appetite to create your own masterpiece. If they can, so can you!

Personality:

Your Personality determines your style.

Some people have the character to draw or paint for hours and hours daily, and pay attention to every little detail.

Others are more interested in the big picture (for example, composition) or in a loose style.

If you are a beginner, you might want to read my guide for still life composition drawing.

We all have our own personality and a lifetime of influences. Since each one of us is unique, the way we paint and the subjects we choose to paint are unique to us.

Painting Tips

Paint what you see, NOT what you know.

To start with, try to focus on what you see. In the next example, we know that the top of a cylinder is round.

When we look at it from a side view, we do not paint what we know, we paint what we see, meaning an ellipse (foreshortened circle).

Foreshortened circle when painting from observation

With practice and knowledge, the process can be reversed, and we can learn how to draw from imagination.

Examples from my guide on drawing from imagination

If it is hard for you to see accurately, try to close one eye when observing an object or a scene.

The world is two-dimensional.

Actually, the world is three-dimensional, but we draw and paint on a two-dimensional surface like paper or canvas.

So, we need to get used to look at the world in a two-dimensional way.

For example, we know the top part of a box has depth, but we disregard it and look only for angles, because our surface is two-dimensional:

How to look at 3D object in a 2D way

For MANY painting tips and inspiration by top realistic painters, visit painting tips by fine art painters.

Summary

Precision:

Accuracy in drawing is crucial, and the key when drawing portraits. Each person has a unique facial structure and any change in the structure will change the likeness of that figure.

Different animals have different anatomical structure. A horse, for example, has an anatomical structure different from a donkey or a zebra.

Values:

Correct brightness values are critical in achieving a realistic result.

The way to get the values right is to observe by asking if the painted object is darker or lighter than the reference object, and then to correct the value accordingly.

Contrast:

Contrast range, between dark and light, should be large enough in order to create an intense, rich painting.

Contrast in temperature (warm and cool colors), complementary colors, edges, texture, or any other factor, is important too.

Edges:

Pay attention to soft and hard edges.

You can use your "artistic license" by changing the edges, making an object look closer and in focus, or distant and blurry.

Remember that "artistic license" is, in a sense, a distortion of reality and should be used sparingly when painting realism.

In order to add an object to a painting, use "scientific license", meaning, your knowledge in perspective, geometry, climate, etc.

Transitions:

Transitions of different types exist in every area of ​​the painting.

Sometimes, it is difficult to see them when there are so many distractions such as objects, textures, shadows, reflections, colors, etc.

Temperature:

Temperature determines the overall atmosphere of a painting.

Colors:

Any object is identified by its colors.

An olive tree, for example, has a unique green color that is different from other trees and therefore, it is important to be precise when mixing colors.

Saturation:

Nature is somewhat gray. The level of saturation should be inspected carefully.

For ALL factors that are part of a realistic painting, OBSERVATION is the key!

Where to Go Next?

To learn perspective, visit my beginners guide to linear and atmospheric perspective.

For learning to draw and paint online, check out my list of recommended YouTube channels for learning to paint.