Practical Guide: How to Draw & Paint Realism
Updated: 12 Aug 2018
Drawing & painting are crafts that can be learned.
It is based on two main issues that complement each other:
- Learning the needed techniques, for example, pencil drawing.
- Learning and understanding the theory behind it, for example, understanding atmospheric perspective and its effects on landscape paintings.
Although each painter has a personal style, there are some principles, which understanding them makes the painting process easier and clearer.
Understanding these characteristics applies to any medium or style when painting realism, including watercolors, acrylics, oil paints, pastels, markers for coloring, gouache, crayons and drawing with pencils or technical pens, etc.
The key factors in achieving realistic results are:
- Drawing - precise drawing from observation
- Values - brightness values
- Contrast - contrast range in brightness values
- Edges - sharp or soft
- Transitions - in brightness values, colors, texture, temperature and so on
- Temperature - warm and cool colors
- Colors - the fingerprint of an object
- Saturation - how sharp and rich colors are
Precise drawing is the ability to draw anything from observation.
Experienced painters can paint any style, including portraits, still life, landscape, seascape, animals, etc., and any type of texture, for example, glass, metal, hair, fabric, etc.
One way to learn how to draw is pencil drawing.
Pencil drawing is a technique that can be learned and it is worthwhile to participate in a related course.
After research and planning, for quite a few painters, pencil drawing is the first step of actual drawing.
It can be used as an initial sketch or precise drawing of a figure or scene.
Pencil, pen or brush can be used to draw the basic shapes in the painting.
Considering the anatomical structure
Using guidelines for drawing
The advantage of learning figurative pencil drawing, beyond the ability to be precise in drawing shapes and figures, is realizing the importance of the brightness values, edges, and transitions.
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 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 painting, like a pencil drawing. 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.
With practice and experience, it becomes easier to notice the level of brightness for each part of an object.
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.
Since most objects have a three-dimensional structure, each part of an object has different relationships with the light sources, and as a result, each area of the object produces different brightness values.
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 dull.
When there is enough contrast, meaning a big range of brightness values, from deep shadows to bright highlights, the painting will have more depth.
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 comics drawing, that is characterized by drawing outlines, when painting realism or impressionism, 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 less sharp.
Transitions in a painting are changes that exist in an object or a surface.
There are many types of transitions. Some common types are:
- Transition in value, from dark to light
- Transition in colors or shades, from one hue to another
- Transition in temperature, from warm colors to cool colors
- Transition in texture, from soft to rough surface
- Transition in edges, from sharp to blurry
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:
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 different angle, meaning there will always be transitions.
Sometimes transition will be because of a reflection, like reflection of the sky.
When drawing or 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, one should pay attention to the transitions in order not to create a smooth, unnatural surface.
When using colors, as opposed to a monochromatic drawing like pencil drawing, the color temperature has importance.
Temperature is how cool or warm the colors are.
- Purple, blue and green are cool colors, they bring to mind cold things like the ocean
- Red, orange and yellow are warm colors, they bring to mind hot things like fire or the sun
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 and the close areas will have warmer colors.
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 reflection from the surroundings such as the color of the walls, etc.
Colors are important too.
Each object is built from specific pigments and thus identified with a unique color, which serves as the object's fingerprint.
It is beneficial to learn about the relationships in the color wheel and to master the color mixing process.
Experienced painters are able to mix any color and shade from observation.
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.
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.
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.
An example of using less saturated colors to get a realistic result:
Accuracy in drawing is crucial when drawing a unique object.
For that reason, precision is the key when drawing portraits. Each person has a unique facial structure and any change in the structure will change the likeliness of that figure.
Different animals have different anatomical structure. A horse, for example, has an anatomical structure different from a donkey or a zebra.
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 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.
Each object, area or surface has edges. Experienced painters can use their "artistic license" and, by changing the edges, make an object look closer and in focus or distant and blurry.
It should be remembered 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, one should use "scientific license", meaning, to use the rules of perspective, geometry, climate, etc.
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 determines the overall atmosphere of a painting.
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.
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.
*Everything written in this article is what works for the author.