Basic Principles for Realistic Drawing

Basic Principles for Realistic Drawing

I enjoy answering reader questions, and have been asked questions about all kinds of topics. Sometimes trends develop in the questions I receive, and several readers recently asked for help with realistic drawing.

Despite the differences in what each reader wants to draw, I’ve given pretty much the same answer to each one. So it seems worthwhile to answer the underlying question in a more comprehensive way.

Basic Principles for Realistic Drawing

No matter what you like to draw or how you like to draw it, there are certain steps you should take at the beginning. These steps help you create the best artwork you possibly can as easily as possible.

But one word of caution before I begin. These steps will not:

  • Make you an expert overnight. You still have to practice to improve your skills.
  • Guarantee that every piece turns out as you expect. Every drawing is different. Your next drawing may require skills or techniques you haven’t yet mastered.
  • Enable you to finish every drawing quickly. Colored pencils are a naturally slow medium. Every drawing, large or small, takes time to complete.

But I hope these suggestions will help you complete more drawings successfully and more quickly by laying the groundwork before you start each drawing.

Now for my suggestions.

Start with Excellent Reference Photos

This is especially important if you work in a realistic style. The more realistic you want your artwork to be, the better your reference photos must be. Great work starts with great reference photos.

Remember that reference photos are just the jumping off point for your art, but you should look for photos that have good lighting, clear details, and show as much detail as you need to complete your work.

A Personal Example

Above is the photo I used for an oil painting and, later, a colored pencil piece.

Below is the finished colored pencil piece.

The biggest difference is in color. My drawing isn’t nearly as rich and vibrant as the reference photo. I still had a lot to learn about layering!

But notice I also removed the blue halter and added a bit of movement to the forelock.

I couldn’t have done this piece nearly as well without the reference photo, so choosing the right photo was the first step in creating this piece.

But the reference photo was still only the jumping off point.

Realistic Drawing

Keep in mind that if you work in a less detailed style, you can successfully use reference photos that show less detail. But in most cases, you still want good lighting and good color.

Design Your Composition Before You Start Drawing

Don’t try to figure out the composition as you layer colored pencils. If you’re an intuitive artist, you can get away with that sort of process with oils, acrylics or other opaque mediums. I’ve done that plenty of times with oil paintings.

But most of the time, you can’t wipe off mistakes or easily cover them up with colored pencils. I know this. I’ve tried it! There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but don’t count on them to save every drawing.

You don’t have to go into great detail when you design a composition, but you’ll be many steps ahead if you take the time to decide what major elements you want to include and where you want them in the composition before starting the finished piece.

How much you design will be affected by what you’re drawing.

Another Personal Example

Line drawing for Zipper in Colored Pencil

I do detailed line drawings for portraits and animal drawings. This line drawing is for a basic head study portrait. I make line drawings like this on separate paper, work with them until I like them, then transfer them to the drawing paper.

My landscapes are usually roughed in at the line drawing phase. Most of the time, I sketch directly on the paper without doing a preliminary line drawing.

Below is the rough sketch for a landscape. I start landscapes by sketching directly on the paper because landscapes don’t have to be 100% true to the photo (portraits do).

Realistic Drawing
Line Drawing for Spring Storm

NOTE: I also used Pastelmat for the landscape, so I had a lot more leeway in making changes and corrections as I worked. The horse portrait was on Bristol. It’s very difficult to make corrections on Bristol because it’s so smooth.

Find the design method that works best for you, and use it!

Follow Your Reference Photo

Another important basic principle for realistic drawing is to pay attention to your reference photo.

This one is difficult for me. I too easily settle into the rhythm of drawing and forget to look at the reference photo.

Sometimes, I think I know what my subject looks like and I fill in the details as I work. Sometimes, I just forget to consult the reference photo. In both instances, I sometimes make a mistake or end up with a generic piece of art.

Neither is good.

So spend at least as much time looking at your reference photos as you spend drawing. Even though it sounds like it will take longer to finish a piece by doing this, you will often find it takes less time because you make better color choices and fewer mistakes.

Draw What You See; Not What You Think Should Be There

If you want to create a really realistic drawing, draw what is in the reference photo, not what you think is in it.

This is something else I struggle with. When you’ve drawn horses for forty years and landscapes for ten or fifteen years, you start thinking you know what a horse or landscape should look like.

Treat every subject (and every part of that subject) like it’s the first time you’ve ever drawn it.

Carrie L. Lewis

Study your references and draw what you see in them.

Draw Slowly and Carefully

Nothing is capable of ruining an otherwise good drawing like going too fast or getting careless. This is another “trust me” statement, because I’ve rushed through something or gotten careless way too many times!

Relax and take your time with each step of the drawing process.

If you find yourself getting careless in how you put color on the paper, stop and take a break. Please!

Know when to call it a day. Even if you’ve worked only fifteen or twenty minutes on a piece, if you’re getting frustrated with it, stop. Put your pencil down and walk away before you make a mistake you can’t fix.

You may find that things look a lot better after a ten or twenty-minute break, but you may also need to set the drawing aside until the next day or over the weekend.

I can almost guarantee that you won’t regret that decision.

I can also almost guarantee that you will regret it if you don’t take a break.

Four Basic Principles for Realistic Drawing

I hope these four tips help you create successful artwork more often.

But don’t be discouraged on those occasions when things just don’t work out. Even the most successful and advanced artists create clinkers every now and again. That’s part of the learning process. Learn what you can from those occasional clinkers and move on to the next drawing.

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  1. Patricia+E+Wilson

    I liked your first tip about not making you an expert overnight. When I started cardmaking, I thought because I was already a crafter that they would come out amazing the first time. It was a rude awakening to find that all things take time and practice to accomplish. I loved this article. Thank you.

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