7 Quick Tips for Learning How to Paint Realistic Paintings

how to paint realistic paintings

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Want to learn to paint realistic paintings but don’t know where to start?

Well, no matter what kind of subject matter you like to paint. Be it figures, landscapes, portraits, animals, fruits, etc. There are some principle “rules” that can help you improve your skills in realism painting. As for what those tips are and how they are used …

Continue reading the article below to learn more!

How to Make Paintings More Realistic?

  1. Learn to OBSERVE like a painter! Paint what you see, not what you think you should see. Realism in art depends entirely on accuracy.
  2. Get your VALUES right! In order to create depth, learn to identify dark and light values.
  3. Use Hard, Soft, and lost EDGES! Objects in space have hard, soft, and lost edges. Learn to distinguish them to create more realistic paintings.
  4. Create a realistic sense of SPACE! Study linear and atmospheric perspectives in order to create the illusion of depth in your artwork.
  5. Master your TRANSITIONS! Master the different relationships between subject matter, light source, space, and more.
  6. Understand Color TEMPERATURE! Paint a more realistic painting by adjusting color temperature to match your subject matter completely.
  7. Practice Color Mixing to Perfect SATURATION! Inaccurate values when color mixing produces unrealistic results. Pay attention to hue, temperature, brightness and saturation.

Tip #1 Learn to OBSERVE Like a Painter

In order to paint in a realistic style, you must learn to paint what you see and not what you “think” you should see.

Painting realism is all about observation and precision. It’s an exercise that involves transcribing what you observe onto paper. The trouble is, what you think you should see can cloud your mind and have you putting pen to paper before you can clearly observe what’s in front of you.

Alright, all of this is easy to say. But actually comprehending it can be a bit difficult. What’s different from what you see and what you should see?

learn to observe like a painter
How to Paint Portraits FASTER by Stephen Bauman (Outline)

If you’re still confused, take a look at this video breakdown of the ‘Alla Prima’ painting method by YouTuber, Stephen Bauman. He starts out by outlining his subject and then takes his time to truly observe what’s going on in the reference photo. Everything from color shifts to values, to hard and soft edges. He takes it all in before doing anything else.

realistic art
Color Blocking

Only after he’s finished understanding what he sees does he begin to put paint on canvas. Take a look at the image above and you’ll see that the build-up is very gradual. He doesn’t paint based on the outline, but lays out abstract shapes made of blocks of color according to what he actually sees on the reference.

realistic painting
Fine Details

Once all the colors have been laid, he blends and mixes the wet paint to get a very realistic painting that is true to the reference.

Yes, yes, a lot of the process was skipped in this short demo. But the point should hopefully have come across clearly. Learning to observe like a painter and painting what you see is very crucial to realism painting. Only by learning and practicing to observe like a painter will you be able to make more realistic paintings.

Tip #2 Get Your VALUES Right

In order to create an accurate drawing or painting, getting your values correct is of the utmost importance.

By clearly distinguishing the light values and the dark values in a reference image, you can create a three-dimensional illusion on a two-dimensional surface.

get your values right
Pencil Drawing of Young Woman in Profile by John Vanderpoel

Take a look at the drawing of the American illustrator and painter, John Vanderpoel. This is a very simple piece portraying a profile shot of a young woman.

Here, the values are clearly defined to create a very simple, but accurate drawing made up of dark values, middle tones, and the plain paper as the highlights.

easy realism art
The Perplexing Problem by John Vanderpoel

Of course, values are not restricted to black and white as dark and light values. In our next example artwork, we have the figure painting, “The Perplexing Problem” — which was also painted by Vanderpoel.

In this painting done in a realistic style, you can see how the American artist defines the puffy sleeves of the figure’s blouse with bright yellows as highlights and lavender and dark greens as shadows. The layered puffy sleeves are given form by identifying and clearly delineating these values.

Tip #3 Use Hard, Soft, and Lost EDGES

When you paint realistically, most people will start with an outline. This outline is very helpful for getting the proportions of the subject correct. But it can hinder the process of painting realism later if you’re not careful. As for why, it’s all because of edges.

In art, there are hard edges, soft edges, and lost edges. Edges are important if you want to paint realistically because they can make areas go in and out of focus in your painting. This creates an illusion of space, and helps bring form to your subject.

To demonstrate the differences between these three types of edges, let’s take a look at Jean-Baptiste Greuze’s “The Laundress.”

Hard Edges

hard edges
The Laundress by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

In the realism painting, “The Laundress”, one can find hard edges almost everywhere.

Primarily because the objects in this illusionary space are all restricted to a small laundry room. That is, the objects are closer to the viewer, so the hard edges are more prominent — some have been pointed out in the image above for your reference.

Soft Edges

soft edges
The Laundress by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

Of course, in the midst of all the hard edges, there are also softer edges to clearly delineate the form of the objects in question. Where there are hard edges, there are soft edges to define the more distant objects next to it.

The clothes of the laundress are the clearest example of this. The artist was able to render the folds of the clothes very realistically with the use of hard and soft edges.

Lost Edges

lost edges
The Laundress by Jean-Baptiste Greuze

For the last type of edge, you only need to look at the subject’s knees to see the best example. Because the right knee is the furthest thing away in the painting, the edges have been ‘lost’ to distinguish the fact that it is out-of-focus.

Another object with a lost edge and is considered out-of-focus is the furthest corner of the cabinet behind the laundress. The soft edge lines can still be seen because it is a straight structure, but if you compare the value of those lines to the lines of the side of the drawer closer to the viewer, you can see that there is a clear difference.

Tip #4 Create a Realistic Sense of SPACE

If you like painting landscapes, you’ll need to improve your realism painting techniques and master the art of creating a realistic sense of space.

We’ve already talked about values and edges to give form, but for landscape paintings, these two things are not as crucial as perspective. If you’re not familiar with the subject, study the basics of linear perspective and atmospheric perspective to ease your understanding.

Only by knowing the principles of these painting techniques can you improve your realism painting style and paint better landscapes.

create a realistic sense of space
Bonjour, Monsieur Courbet by Gustave Courbet

To give you an example of a landscape realism painting done right, have a look at the realistic painting “Bonjour Monsieur Courbet”. In the foreground, there are three figures in focus and drawn in crisp colors and a mixture of hard and soft edges.

realism art ideas

Meanwhile, in the background, you have a carriage and a scene of mountains comprised mostly of soft and lost edges. This creates a sense of space and makes it seem as if you, the viewer, are looking at this scenery personally with your own eyes.

PRO TIP! The bluish tint in the mountains in the distance was done according to the rules of atmospheric perspective, which dictates that distant particles tend to go out of focus and contain more blue light waves.

Tip #5 Master Your TRANSITIONS

In realism painting, transitions are the key to making everything look more natural.

It can be a little difficult to grasp at first, but transitioning values, texture, color, edges, etc. are crucial to making the whole painting fit together as a whole and blend more naturally.

master your transitions
Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer

Have a look at the famous realism painting, “Girl with a Pearl Earring” by Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. The bright yellows and blues used in the painting are opposite of each other on the color wheel. And yet, the painting manages to remain harmonious with soft transitioning colors between the two shades.

The softness of the young girl’s face, which hints at her young age, also relies heavily on soft transitions of color temperature in order to look more rounded and true to real life. Whilst the glaring highlight on the pearl earring brings it to focus and makes it stand out.

Tip #6 Understand Color TEMPERATURE

In realism painting, color temperature is very important. If you’ve never heard of the term before, the ‘temperature’ of a color is decided by how cool or warm it is. In art …

  • Reds, oranges, and yellows are generally considered warm colors.
  • Purples, blues, and greens are generally considered cool colors.

Of course, there are variations in this generality. There are cool yellows and warm yellows, just like there are warm purples and cool purples. The key is that any shade that brings to mind cool things like ice is considered cool in color temperature. Whilst colors that bring to mind hot things like fire are considered warm in color temperature.

Why is this so important? Well, it’s because, in nature, it’s difficult to find surfaces with a completely flat color.

understand color temperature
Whistler’s Mother by James McNeill Whistler

Take a look at the famous classic oil painting, “Whistler’s Mother”. As a painting made up almost entirely of neutral shades, it’s an extreme example of how, in realism painting, one must pay attention to color temperature in order to get the desired effect.

More specifically, take a look at the wall behind the seated figure. You have greys mixed with warm green and greys mixed with cool blue. It gives the wall texture and makes it look more natural.

photorealistic paint
The Good Education by Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin
PRO TIPs! First! If you’re having a difficult time applying color temperature when you paint realism, a general rule of thumb is that a warm light source means that the shadows in the painting will be cool. And, just like in the painting, “The Good Education”, when the light source is cool, the shadows will be warm.
paintings that look real
The Luxembourg Gardens, Paris by Albert Edelfelt

Second! Another general rule is that warm colors tend to advance or come forward. Whilst cool colors tend to recede back in space. That’s what happens in the painting, “The Luxembourg Gardens, Paris”. The warm colors are kept in the foreground, whilst cooler colors are kept in the background to create depth.

Tip #7 Practice Color Mixing to Perfect SATURATION

Color saturation, next to color temperature, is just as important when trying out realism painting. Again, if you’re not already aware of what the term means, the saturation of a color describes how a shade varies in hue and value.

Although it sounds simple to say that adding black or white to a color will change each value, and adding another color — say red with green — will change its hue. Applying such theories to an actual realism painting is another matter altogether.

One of the most common mistakes beginners make when trying out realism painting for the first time is that their colors are too highly saturated, making everything seem fake and almost cartoonish.

practice color mixing to perfect saturation
“Iron and Coal” by William Bell Scott

Have a look at “Iron and Coal” by William Bell Scott and you should understand what we mean. At the foreground of this realistic painting, you can see the boldest and brightest colors. The saturation of colors is at an all-time high, which makes these items appear closer to the viewer and attracts their attention at the same time.

Meanwhile, looking back, you can see a bridge that is mostly comprised of neutral grays. AKA, the colors are almost completely all low-saturated.

To summarize what can be seen in this example: strongly saturated colors push forward and weakly saturated colors fall back. When mixing colors for your own realistic painting, this is key to creating more depth and structure.

How to Paint Realistically | In-Depth Tutorial

Next, we’ll be applying everything that has been learned so far in a step-by-step breakdown of the realism painting process. For this tutorial, we’ll be referencing YouTuber Stephen Brauman’s “A Master Study of SARGENT’S Lady Agnew”:

Materials Needed for Realistic Paintings

Before we get to learning to paint realistic portraits with Brauman, let’s first talk about the materials used by realism artists:

    • Medium: Oil paint, acrylic paint, tempera paint, inks, watercolors, and even pencils or charcoal. Any kind of high-quality paint will work for realism. It’s just that the techniques used are different.
    • Painting Surface: It depends on what medium you use. It’s best to choose a high-quality canvas or paper that can take a beating though. After all, realistic painting requires a lot of time and effort spent.
    • Brushes: There’s no need to be picky about the types of brushes you have, but it would be best to have a variety. Large, medium, small, extra large, extra small, etc. There are also soft brushes, hard brushes, fan-brush, liner brush, mop brush, etc.
    • Reference Image: Some beginners think that using references to study art is uncreative and thus avoid using reference images. Don’t make the same mistake! Have a reference photograph prepared when learning to paint realism. Otherwise, you can pick a subject in your room and paint a still-life directly.

Step 1. Sketch Your Subject

sketch your subject
A Master Study of SARGENT’s Lady Agnew by Stephen Bauman

Any good realistic painting starts with a solid sketch. At this stage, it’s best to work light to dark, minimizing the need for constant erasing later.

Also, pay attention to your proportions and perspective! After all, this sketch will be the basis on which your painting will stand. The more accurate it is, the better the result will be.

realistic oil painting
Lady Agnew of Lochnaw by John Singer Sargent

To make things easier, you can use the grid method — by applying a grid on your reference photo and canvas — in order to get a more accurate drawing. You can also skip the grid method and find some transfer paper or charcoal paper to copy the figure of your subject quickly.

This is best if you want to practice mixing colors and painting more than drawing. Though it’s also best that you don’t rely on such support tools too heavily. Practice makes everything perfect. The more you do it, the better you understand and the more accurate your drawings become.

Step 2. Refine Your Drawing

refine your drawing

The next step involves further sketching. More specifically, it’s time to sketch in a little more detail. The more, the better! You should also pay attention to value at this stage. Mark the shadows appropriately and note the light areas to make sure that your proportions are accurate.

realism in painting

PRO TIP! You can create another copy of your reference and turn it into grayscale to get accurate shading. This can also be set aside for color mixing later.

Step 3. Work on Your Underpainting

work on your under painting

Once your sketch is complete, you can get started painting! Pick up a big brush and start by painting large blocks of color. This is not the time to focus on color saturation or color temperature. It’s just an underpainting, details should wait until later.

For now, just make sure the values are correct. Also, remember our first tip for realism painting! Try not to focus too much on what you think you should see and paint what you see directly. Focus on the big picture — or the big shapes, just like the ones shown in the image above.

Step 5. Mix Colors Accurately

mix colors accurately

Once you’ve painted your flat colors for the underpainting, it’s time to start thinking about the next step. This step is all about mixing colors, and for that, you need to study what kind of colors you need.

It’s best to prepare a scrap of paper or canvas to test out your colors!

Step 6. Render Details

render details

Now is the time to apply the other tips we mentioned. Whether it be about edges, color temperature, color saturation, transition, etc.

Paint slowly, take your time, and work from big shapes to finer details. Accordingly, you can begin to replace your big brush with a medium brush and, finally, with a small or thin liner brush.

Step 7. Review and Refine

review and refine

When you feel that you’re almost done, it’s time to take a step back and be sure that it is so. Look at your painting from afar, flip it over a couple of times, or stand in front of a mirror holding the painting in your hands. These are just some of the ways you can review your painting with fresh eyes — which is a must for realism!

The best realistic paintings can only be completed after repeated review and refinement. Don’t rush it, this is the time when you should take things slow and truly perfect your current masterpiece.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Paint Is Best for Realism?

There is no ‘best’ paint for realism. However, a lot of artists prefer to paint with oil paints when painting in a realistic style because the paint remains workable for a long time. In this way, you have more opportunity to adjust the details.

How Do You Paint Realistically With Acrylic Paint?

For realistic acrylic painting, you’ll need to master the art of translucency. It’s best to start with thin, translucent paint layers before working over them later to get accurate color values.

Practice How to Paint Realistic Paintings Quickly!

In the end, if you want to learn how to paint more realistic paintings, it’s all about practice.

The more you practice, the more you understand, and the better you draw. Of course, if you think that what you’re lacking is understanding and not hand-skills, check out online drawing classes according to your preferred painting subjects. That way, you can more accurately render the things you love to draw or paint.

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