The 8 Key Factors for Painting Realism
Updated: 10 Apr 2022
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:
- Precision - accurate drawing from observation.
- Values - brightness values.
- Contrast - contrast range in brightness values.
- Edges - sharp or soft.
- Transitions - in brightness values, colors, texture, edges, and temperature.
- Temperature - warm and cool colors.
- Colors - the object's fingerprint.
- Saturation - how sharp and rich colors are.
Understanding these characteristics applies to ANY medium. I.e. pastels, oil paints, acrylics, watercolor, etc.
In addition, you should understand the laws of nature, perspective (linear & atmospheric), depth, geometry, and to master the craft of color mixing.
Precise drawing is the ability to draw ANYTHING from observation.
With knowledge and experience, you can draw any style (portraits, still life, landscape, the animal kingdom, etc.).
And, any type of texture (glass, metal, hair, paper, fabric, etc.).
The advantage of learning to draw before (or alongside) learning to paint, is realizing the importance of precision, brightness values, edges and transitions.
Being accurate in the initial sketch is crucial. Accuracy is a synonym with likeness, meaning a credible result.
Therefore, pay attention to shapes, proportions, and anatomy.
If you struggle with accuracy, visit my guide 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, you can 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.
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.
Contrast in brightness values is important. When the dark parts of a painting are not dark enough, or the light parts are not light enough, the painting looks flat or dull.
When there is enough contrast, meaning a big range in brightness values, from deep shadows to bright highlights, the painting (or drawing) has more depth.
Shiny or reflective objects usually have strong contrast.
To understand depth, read my 15 methods guide on how to draw 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 cartoon & comics drawing, that is characterized by drawing outlines, when painting realism, painted objects have no lines.
Every part, area or surface of 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 looks less sharp and out of focus.
Soft objects such as hair, fur, fabric, etc., have soft edges.
Shadows usually 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 looks less clear, meaning not in focus, and therefore its edges are softer.
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 produces a sharp edge and a sharp angle. In contrast, a gradual transition in brightness values produces a soft edge and convex objects:
Each part of an object or a surface has different relationships with any light source.
Therefore, some parts of a tile are closer to a light source, or in a different angle, meaning there are always transitions.
Sometimes transitions occur due to reflection, like reflection of the sky.
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 painting.
So, pay attention to transitions in order not to create a flat, unnatural surface.
6. Color Temperature
When using colors, the color temperature has importance.
Temperature is how cool or warm 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 produces warm areas, but the shadow areas are illuminated by the sky, which is the secondary light source.
On a clear day, when the sky is blue, the shadow color is cool, slightly purple or blue.
On the other hand, at a sunset, when the sky is warm, like pink or orange, the shadow color is 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 are cooler (because there are more atmosphere particles between them and the observer), and the close areas 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 reflections from the surroundings, such as the color of the walls, etc.
Can you see the color temperature on the wall?
For realistic results, you need to train your 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).
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, you 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.
To define the exact color you want to use, pay attention to 4 color attributes:
- Brightness values
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.
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 is gray. In contrast, pure color, that is, maximum saturation, is 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.
Add white, black, gray, or brown, to a certain shade, to 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, makes 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:
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), add white gradually.
How is Your Painting Style Determined?
There are 4 major attributes that determine the level and style of the way you paint:
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.
Learning a technique to paint a specific object is wrong. If you learn to paint a specific tree, what happens if you want to paint a different type of tree?
Feel free to visit my guide for 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.
The amount of hours you put into your craft is, arguably, the most important factor. The more you 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 learn a lot, sometimes by accident. Or, as Bob Ross used to say: "We don't make mistakes; we just have happy accidents".
When you have a strong desire for painting you find the time to practice, you are eager to learn, and you 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 gives you the appetite to create your own masterpiece. If they can, so can you!
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.
Paint what you see, NOT what you know.
To start with, try to focus on what you see. In the next example, you know that the top of a cylinder is round (circle).
When you look at it from a side view, you do not paint what you know, you paint what you see, meaning an ellipse (foreshortened circle).
With practice and knowledge, the process can be reversed, and you can learn to draw from imagination.
My guide for drawing from imagination is quite advanced, but I did my best to explain it in a simple way, so beginners can understand it too.
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 you draw and paint on a two-dimensional surface, like paper or canvas.
So, you need to get used to look at the world in a two-dimensional way.
For example, you know the top part of a box has depth, but you disregard it and look only for angles, because your surface is two-dimensional:
For MANY painting tips and inspiration by top realistic painters, visit painting tips by fine art painters.
Accuracy in drawing is crucial, and the key when drawing portraits. Each person has a unique facial structure, and any change to 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.
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.
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 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!
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.