This is your comprehensive – Beginner guide to drawing realism!
So you are interested in how to draw realism and are looking where to start. You’re probably super excited and have tones of ideas flowing around in your head. But let me guess you don’t feel like you can draw what you want and you may think you’re not as talented as other artists.
Well here is the good news. If you are diligent and work hard you can draw what’s in your head and you are cable of way more than you think!
So glad you found this post. I am going to go over all of the essentials that you will need to begin your studies. Let’s learn something.
First thing first. You will want to get the right materials. If you are really unfamiliar with art materials, here is a link to a guide on drawing materials.
How do you level up Realism Drawings quickly?
To accelerate rapidly you first need to learn what the key skills are. They are:
Timothy Jahn is a painter, draftsman, and teacher who specializes in creating representational artworks. He is known for his highly realistic and detailed oil paintings that often depict still lifes, portraits, and landscapes. Jahn’s paintings are characterized by their use of light and shadow, which creates a strong sense of depth and three-dimensionality.
Skill-building exercises for drawing
To increase this skill there are serval skill-building exercises art students do. These seemingly simple skills will help you get better if you continue to improve at them.
Point and line skill-building exercise.
Let’s start with something simple. To get really good at drawing you will need to do little things correctly.
The first skill you want to work to master is placing your lines down where you intended. I know that sounds too simple but let’s make sure we are really good at our foundation.
Mastery goal: Draw an accurate line with confidence that originates from your shoulder blade.
Exercise: Place two points down and connect them with one confident straight line. No pausing or stopping. Move all the way through the line.
Do’s and don’ts of point and line for realism.
- Avoid coming up short. When this happens your line stops before the intended target. This is a miscalculation that is happening between your hand and eye.
- Another miscalculation is when your line hits the intended target but extends long after it. What you’re working towards is your line starting at the first and ending on the second dot.
Tips for point and line exercise for realism:
To help you gain accuracy with your lines try ghosting over the pathway that your line needs to be placed. Ghosting is similar to a practice golf swing or the swing of the bat before entering the batter’s box.
It allows your brain to connect with the muscles required to make the marks that you’re looking for. Overtime by utilizing ghosting lines you will develop you gain automaticity. In common parlance, this is what people are referring to when they say muscle memory.
When your brain reaches automaticity in drawing a controlled line it allows you to focus your efforts on other tasks. It allows you to think about the emotion or stylistic choices of the images you create.
Often beginner artists don’t have much control over the marks they are making and in an effort to rush their learning begin to focus their efforts on more slightly advanced concepts. But due to the inability to clearly indicate a simple line in the right place the task they are trying to achieve falls short.
For more skill-building express check out this guide here.
A contour line is a line defining the form or an edge. In essence, it is the outline or silhouette of an object. This is commonly what beginners refer to when they talk about drawing.
Personal style can be developed out of how you manipulate the contour of the form of your drawing. Some artists have a tendency toward a very round contour while others have a somewhat deflated effect on their contours, almost as if gravity was smashing all of their forms.
Egon Schiele contour line drawing.
Blind Contour Line
A blind contour line drawing is done by completed your contour line drawing without looking at the paper. Teachers use this to get the students to slow down their observations. They may say try to move your pencil and eye at the same time. Betty Edwards made this drawing exercise popular in her book “Drawing on the right side of the brain”
Betty Edwards blind contour line drawing.
As you complete line drawings the wight of the line can assist you in creating focal points. Heavier lines tend to come forward while thinner lines recede. If you have forms that are overlapping by placing a heavy line on the piece that is closer to the viewer’s perspective can help to create depth in your drawing. A slightly heavier line where your object meets the ground or where one object rest on another will help add weight and substance to your line drawings.
Shapes – 2D for Realism
When we look at 2d shapes we can use these in a few ways.
2D shapes in construction
One of the ways to improve your perception is to build the ability to see and draw abstract shapes that represent the forms you are trying to draw.
Our mind has incredible abilities. It allows us to learn and perform so many vastly different skills. But the way our brains developed causes them to get in the way of seeing the world accurately. This is called conceptual contamination. The world is so complicated that our minds want to create symbols to assure our survival. Basically, we really don’t have to carefully look at everything we just need to know if a predator is coming after us. That darn lizard brain always gets in the way. So to draw realism well we have to trick ourselves to truly see what’s going on in front of us.
Let’s imagine a piece of glass between us and our subject. On the glass, we can draw the contour line shapes as well as their relative placement to one another. In this scenario, the glass is representing the picture plane. If you look up or down or left and right the picture plan follows your view.
To make this information useful as well as to gain greater control and overall speed in the drawing. We can practice placing 2d shapes accurately in a defined area.
In this example, the shapes are drawn in a 2” box.
This is an old technique and has been taught in several different ways. In the 19th century, Gerome and Charles Barugue created the Bargue drawing course. In this course, students would copy the plates that they created from drawing plaster casts. Students would learn how to accurately replicate shapes as well as refine their taste. This is a great set of coursework. But before we get lost in trying to draw idealized people accurately, what if we could simplify down what these exercises are trying to accomplish into a few key points.
When you put three or more lines together you can create a shape. A shape can be a square, circle, or triangle. But they also can be organic. Organic shapes and forms are typically irregular or asymmetrical. They are associated with things from the natural world, like plants and animals. The human figure is covered with dynamic irregular shapes.
Let’s simplify this complex problem. We can improve at this by practicing with some shape replications contained in a box. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity. Doing this with clean accuracy can be a real challenge.
You first want to assess where the object falls.
As you look at the placement of the objects, how can you divide the distance? Does your object fall near half or a quarter? Is it closer to ⅓ or ⅕ of the distance? Note if you struggle to estimate these distances you can practice this in the margins of your drawing or on some scrap paper.
If you don’t have access to a teacher. Make the best attempt you can and use a divider to check your accuracy. But remember you have to draw first then check. Avoid just measuring and coping as this will give you a false illusion of your overall accuracy and will not apply to drawing from 3d objects.
Plum lines will help you align and orient to other objects. For more on plum, lines check here.
You also can use an angle to help you find the orientation of a line segment.
Looking at the object in various combinations of shapes can also give you a chance to see the object objectively.
Mastering Notan: A Technique for Improving Your Portrait Drawing Skills
Drawing the human figure can be a challenging task, but fortunately, there are many strategies and techniques that can help you improve. One of the most effective ways to level up your portrait drawing skills is to tackle what’s called “conceptual contamination”. This term refers to the tendency of our minds to see symbols rather than what is actually in front of us when we observe an object.
To overcome this challenge, you need to simplify the object in a way that focuses on the shape of the light and the shadow. While this approach may seem simple, mastering it can be difficult in the beginning. Some students may be hesitant to try it, as the resulting drawings may not look finished. However, this exercise is designed to help you truly see the shapes in front of you, and ultimately to design them for aesthetic reasons.
To learn this technique, you will need to practice it consistently. When you squint your eyes, the details will blur and the larger shapes will become more pronounced, making it easier to see the shapes you are looking for. Drawing with closed shapes and straight lines can also be very helpful. Pay attention to the silhouette of each shape and try to represent the angles that make it up.
The resulting posterized geometric shapes you create will fall within your own design sense, and while you may need to interpret some areas of the drawing, the exercise is ultimately about developing your understanding of shape and proportion.
Incorporating this technique into your drawing practice may seem challenging at first, but it can be incredibly rewarding. Combining it with structural or form drawing can help you achieve a balance between observation and design, and ultimately improve your portrait drawing skills. So don’t be afraid to give it a try and dedicate some time to practicing this technique.
Proportion is a key element in the accuracy and believability of your drawings. Proportion refers to the relation of the height with and depth of a subject. Objects need to be in proportion to one another.
You can break the rules and make an object larger or smaller than it should be if you’re looking for a surrealistic image. Ultimately way in which, you manipulate proportion affects the style of your works.
One way of seeing proportion is in the human form.
Artists have manipulated proportion for various reasons throughout art history. Some manipulation is done for purely aesthetic reasons and other times changes are made to make the subject more or less heroic.
Heroic quality of the figure in Renaissance paintings vs. the exaggeration of the figure in Mannerism.
If we look at William-Adolphe Bouguereau there is an elegant distribution to the proportion.
You can use measurement techniques to assist you in controlling your proportion. One of the more effective ways to utilize this is to identify and indicate the half way mark and quarter marks on your subject.
When taking a measurement you want to visually align the top of your pencil with one end and you’re thumbnail with the other.
Your arm needs to be straight out. This is key.
Avoid tilting the pencil forward or backward. This will lead to major distortion.
As you interrelate the scales avoid bending your elbow.
When this is done correctly the relationship you’re observing tends to be accurate. But at times issue arise. Let’s try and determine why.
When drawing observationally there is a triad you have to be aware of.
Let’s assume that you’re working from a fixed light that is not changing. For this example will use a static object.
Now. There is the artist. They are working from what’s referred to as the viewing point. This point is a fixed spot that is in constant relation to the other two points.
An easy way to remember this is if you place a tripod down for a photo this would be where the sensor of the camera would be sitting. From your viewing point all of your measurements take place.
Now this brings us to a key point.
The measurements you’re taking are happening on what is known as the picture plane.
Between you and the object you’re observing the 2d projection of its contours exist. You’re drawing is a representation of the picture plane.
When you’re observing the object, If you move Left, right, forward or backwards this will change all of the relationships.
So to avoid this. Take careful note of where you’re standing or sitting. A piece of tape on the floor usually sorts this out. After a while you will begin to more consistently set yourself in consistent relation to your subject.
Tip. Lateral movement tends to really trip students up. Make a mental note of a shape you’re observing. If you’re moving too far to one side or another, it changes dramatically.
When drawing sight size, artists set up their subject and easel so that they both be seen one to one. The easel can be in front, behind, or parallel to the subject.
Be careful that the drawing surface is not sitting on an angle from the viewing point as all measurements will be distorted. Success in site size has a lot to do with the setup. Impatience in the setup will ruin any attempt.
- Drawing must be parallel to the subject.
- All observations must take place from the observation point.
To start working in sight size you need to establish a Plum-line. For a more in-depth look at this check out this video.
Hold your pencil or brush up to observe and check all horizontals.
From your viewing point, the lateral distances outward from the plumb line can be measured and then placed on the drawing.
Harrington Mann’s diagram of the Sight-Size portraiture setup.
For more on this checkout sightsize.com Or the last section of the Charles Barge drawing Course has an explanation by Gerald M. Ackerman
The comparative measurement technique was developed to allow artists to see how the objects in their images relate to one another.
Attempting to draw a subject realistically, beginners often make these common mistakes. The object will grow or shrink out of proportion. This definitely happened to me.
To counteract this we teach students to begin to internally relate proportions within their image.
We are attempting to get them to see the part in relation to the whole. Not observing the image in isolated parts.
The tomato does not have a castle protecting it from the evil Huns from the apple region.
When using comparative measuring you will identify an area in the image that you want to know.
What is the length of area X?
Now. We need to find an area in the object that we can relate it to.
We can see here that area Y appears to be the same length as area X.
Now. Your drawing indicates what you believe the length of area X is.
Then measure area Y on your drawing and check the length of area X.
For the boobos in the back of the class with me, Basically to check yourself and do the process in reverse. Nailed it.
Another way of using comparative measurement is to determine how long is area A compared to area B? Or how many A’s fit into B. In this example 2 and 1/2.
How many of the lengths of area C fit into area D?
We intuitively use comparative measurement when we ask ourselves what is in the center of an object or space.
Drawing Measurement techniques
This video covers picture plane, comparative measurement and sight size.
Value is one of the most key fundamentals in art. Value is one of seven elements of art, line, shape, space, form, texture, and color. It will have a far greater effect to your art work than color. The more clear and skilled you build this fundamental skill the easier it will be for you to learn painting concepts in any medium.
The word Value can be looked at two ways.
We are going to go over the technical question of value as it relates to color and to light. The other use of Value refers to the sentimental, cultural, or ritualistic importance of the work. This is completely subjective and not something I am going to discuss here.
The value in art is a quality or a value of light and dark of a certain shade or tone. This art element is best understood if visualized as a scale or a gradient. For many, value in art is more important than color. It’s the one element of art that when you gain control over it your artworks make the biggest jump forward in quality and competence.
Value in art helps to create the illusion of mass and volume. It is also crucial for the creation of a dramatic effect and of the focal point within an artwork.
One of the best exercises you can do to improve your value is a pressure scale. The objective of this exercise is to understand pressure and value and their interaction.
A pressure scale is a seamless gradation of value in one contiguous motion. You can devolve this skill with some effort. Once your able to develop muscle memory with this skill you will have a vary powerful tool in you tool box.
Tips and advise for Pressure Scales for drawing
- Starting with the darkest value that your pencil or charcoal can make, work your way continuously down the scale without removing the pencil from the page.
- Don’t remove the pencil from the paper.
- Avoid stopping or going back to fix mistakes.
- The objective of this exercise is to understand pressure and value and their interaction.
Scales can be done in both directions. This white scale is build from the darkest value the white chalk can make and end at the lightest value the chalk can produce.
You can increase the difficulty by placing the scales in persist placement in relation to a value scale.
There are several common mistakes to avoid. Primarily capping. This is caused when you come out of the heaven presser too quickly. The other common error to watch for is the tornado. This can happen when you assioata smaller strokes with lighter value. You can correct this with some effort and attention to keeping the with of the scale consistent from top to bottom.
The common exercise artists learn in art school is a value chart. In this demo of a value chart I am attempting laying the charcoal down consistently and evenly across the area of each box. Each box will get pervasively light tor darker as they move across the chart.
Value charted rang in total number of values. Commonly we see charts in pencils that range from as small as 2 to 3 values all the way to 10 values. The values in the chart should represent the full range your pencil or charcoal can make.
If you have never done a chart like this I would strongly recommend you take some time to try one. Cleanliness matters. When you attempt simple exercises like this, use them as an opportunity to develop and build good working habits. Avoid fluxes in the values, changes in the application process and fingerprints.
Value and Planes
As a form turns in space the plane shift in value in relation to the angle of the light.
Value in drawing and drawing techniques
This value drawing lesson covers value scales for drawing as well as drawing techniques. If you want your drawing to improve quickly, getting control over your values is key.
Shading Techniques In this video I am going to show you several techniques, drills and variations that you can try to help accelerate you’re learning.
What pencil techniques do you cover?
- pencil shading
- rendering techniques
- traditional graphite hatching
- chiseled tip
Intro to 3d Forms
Often to get more complex and refined in our work we need to improve at simple skills.
When we were young we were introduced to simple shapes.
When you simplify the core shapes down they all build out from the basic shapes.
5 core shapes
With an understanding of the 5 core shapes, you should be able to draw anything from observation or imagination. Listed below are the basic or core shapes. You can further dissect each one from these links.
To get a fuller underling of what you can do with the core shapes read on.
In this video I am going to teach you an exercise to improve the shading in your drawings. You will learn how to render the geometric solids and allow your drawings to have a greater dimension and illusion of form.
One of the fastest ways to improve your drawings is to increase your ability to represent form. This skill is a huge stumbling block for many beginner artists. This was one of the major obstacles I had when learning.
If you’re anything like me these seaming simple skills don’t happen naturally. With a little time and effort your ability to shade and render sphere, cubes, cylinders, cones and pyramids with greatly improve your drawings.
Rotating planes in perspective.
With a rectangle indicated we can indicate where our horizon line would exist.
If we turn this plane the angles on the X-axis will diminish as they go bake to a vanishing point.
Now we also can tilt the plane on the Y-axis. As the plane approaches the horizon line less of the area A will be visible.
Now that we can rotate a plane in 3d space let increase the complexity and rotate a polygon.
Rotating Polygons from an orthographic perspective.
By placing our polygon in a plane in an orthographic view. We can determine its proportion and control its scale in 3d space.
You can indicate on the plane where half or quarter is to assist you in your proportions.
As you gain some confidence with this you can rotate the plane on the minor axis of a cylinder.
Combining core shapes or simple forms
The core shapes or simple forms are
You can combine the shaper or what sometimes referred to as welding the simple shapes to create more complex shapes. By doing this you are reaching complex shapes from simple forms.
The advantage of this is you as you learn how to light simple shapes you will be very confident dissecting complex objects and scenarios.
Check out my video on form which I will link at the end of this video to help you with this.
Manipulating core shapes
Subtraction of simple shapes
As you’re gaining more confidence, drawing the simple shapes you can begging to subtract from the simple shape.
Half of a sphere
¼ of a sphere
Addition to simple forms
Once you have an understanding of the spatial relations of the core shapes you can build out from them. A simple way to build off of them is adding a core shape to a core shape.
Shearing simple forms
Beveling simple forms
Changing a square edge of an object to a sloped one.
Extrusion to simple forms
Pulling out from an object.
Rounding of simple forms
Bending simple forms
To enhance your understanding of core forms you can bend the internal line and then draw them with a gesture. Place a flowy line down on your paper and use it to build core shapes around.
Putting it all together
Now that we have acquired this new information, let’s apply it to a shape.
Here I am going to break this three wheeler into simple forms.
Let’s place a cube for the seating area. In front of that is a subtracted egg shape.
The roof is a rectangle that is diminishing to the rear.
Let’s place the wheels in rectangles.
With the object completely pulled apart, let’s place it together and do a little sketch in our sketchbooks.
To help improve your drawings you want to understand how light works. All of the objects you see in a drawing are being lighted by at least one light souce. While there are many facets to how light works gaining a little understanding of the fundamentals will help you tremendously.
Properties of light
Once the light is created it travels in a straight line until it hits something else. The particles continue until they diminish in strength.
As an artist, it’s helpful to understand that there are light shapes and shadow shapes. they operate on two separate but related effects.
To show the illusion of form you will need to show the illusion of light hitting the object. If we direct a single light source at a sphere we can isolate the properties of light.
The form will be split into a light shape and a shadow shape.
This separation is indicated by the terminator or attached shadow accent. Within the light shape, we find the: High light… light…. and middle-tone sometimes referred to as half-tone.
I know this is super technical but with a little bit of understanding how the world works the easier it is for you to create your ideas. The terminology or nomenclature for art terms varies quite a bit. I studied at 6 art schools and the terms were never consistent. Super frustrating!!
Artists are trying to describe a visual effect they see in their vision. Unlike music and dance, there is far less uniformity over the language. Whenever you start with a teacher, make every effort you can for clarity on the terms being used. This will help in misunderstanding and overall confusion.
Within the area we identified as the shadow, we find the attached shadow accent, form shadow, cast shadow, reflected light, and the cast shadow accent.
Perspective is the art of representing three-dimensional objects on a two-dimensional surface so as to give the right impression of their height, width, depth, and position in relation to each other.
One of the fastest ways for you to improve your observation in life is to gain an understanding of perspective.
- Horizon line
- Vanishing points
- Station Point
- Cone of vision
- 1. point
- 2. Point
- 3. Point
The first stage in understanding perspective is to examine the 1pt perpective. If we establish a horizon line we can draw the front plane of a box in the foreground.
Hard and soft edges
Hard edges are areas in a drawing where there is a clear and distinct transition between two different values or colors. These edges are sharp and precise, giving the drawing a clean and defined appearance. Hard edges can be used to create emphasis or draw attention to a specific area of the drawing. They are especially useful when developing the focal points in your drawing.
On the other hand, soft edges are areas in a drawing where there is a gradual transition between two different values or colors. These edges are smooth and gentle, giving the drawing a more organic and natural appearance. Soft edges can be used to create depth and dimensionality, as well as to suggest movement or atmosphere. They are especially useful when you want the area to appear less important.
Both hard and soft edges are important tools in the artist’s toolbox, and knowing how to use them effectively can greatly enhance the visual impact of a drawing. With practice and skill, artists can use these techniques to create stunning and dynamic drawings that capture the imagination and inspire awe.
Edges and composition
For more information on this check out an article that I worked on with Anthony Waichulis “Focusing on the EDGE”
Three modes of thinking in drawing
Visual Perceptual Drawing
At the core visual perception is rooted around getting rid of Conceptual contamination. Our minds have to filter out a tremendous amount of information to survive every day. To do this our minds naturally create symbols for objects it sees.
When drawing these symbols become an obstacle to clearly seeing the observed object. As you are drawing this obstacle gets in the way you are experiencing conceptual contamination. So the drawing will start to go in a different direction than you intended.
Strategies and techniques have developed over time to correct this issue. Teachers may encourage their students to turn their reference upside down or place a grid on the reference to force the student to look more objectively at the information.
More advanced techniques teach the young artist to draw the objects in angles. This block in the method of drawing teaches the artist to build the drawing on solid a solid foundation of carefully observed proportion.
Yet another technique would be to utilize negative shapes or buy grouping shapes together and align the grouped shapes in relation to one another.
Structural drawing has a very different starting point than perceptual drawing. Drawings done in this manner are built out from core forms or geometric solids.
By combining spheres, cylinders, cones, cubes, and pyramids together in various arrangements you can represent any object you’re seeing.
The advantage of this is that you’re strengthening your spatial awareness. This is your ability to understand depth in a drawing or painting.
Artists that have internalized this concept have images that show mass. They look solid or full when observed. The ability to draw from these solids also creates the foundation to draw more from your imagination. As you can build your drawing out from a solid structural basis.
To counteract drawing done in this method from becoming too stiff when learning structure drawing students are also taught how to draw organic forms. These organic forms are still built off of a volume and structure.
Visual memory or Visual library
An alternative or addendum to these two methods is drawing from visual memory. By studying and underlying multiple forms in nature an artist can reference back mentally to shapes and forms previously studied and drawn.
From a creative standpoint, this skill is extremely useful. The more you’re able to draw and experience the more you can pull from when designing and putting pictures together.