How to Draw so Things Look Real

How to Draw so Things Look Real

Today, I’d like to share three keys to help you draw so things look real, no matter what you like to draw. Or how you like to draw.

This topic was suggested by a reader who asked about drawing realistic feathers. Here’s the reader question to get us started.

I have been struggling with trying to create the head and chest feathers of Scarlet Macaws and hummingbirds. I have watched several tutorials and I just can’t seem to get It.

I’m starting to get the hang of the wing feathers, but I cannot get the head and chest feathers to look right.

I completely understand if this question remains unanswered. I just thought I would ask, because I have watched and purchased every tutorial I can find and this is the only place I haven’t tried, yet.

This is a very good question. But the answer I’m about to give applies to every subject, not just feathers.

How to Draw so Things Look Real

The keys to drawing so your subject looks real are basic. In short, you need to:

  • Really look at your subject.
  • Disregard what you “think you know” about your subject.
  • Draw what you see, not what you think is there.

I confess that these principles are a lot easier to write about than to do. Yes, even for established artists like me.

So let me go through them one at a time and explain more fully what I mean.

Key #1: Really Look at Your Subject

Studying your subject is just as important if you’re drawing something you’ve drawn many times as it is if you’re drawing something for the first time.

Whether you’re drawing feathers, some other animal, a still life, a landscape, or a portrait, it’s important that you really look at your subject. You need to do more than just take a quick glance and start drawing. Study the subject.

Let me use myself as an example.

I did portraits of horses for over forty years. It would be pretty easy for me to draw a horse in the right pose without studying the reference photos from each client. But when I draw that way, I’m drawing a generic horse.

Drawing a generic horse might turn out as a pretty good portrait, but it will be a portrait of a generic horse; not a portrait of the client’s horse. There is a big difference.

No matter how many times you’ve drawn your favorite subject, it’s vital to study your reference photos every time you begin a new project.

Why? Because every individual is different.

Every horse is unique. Every cat or dog is unique. Let’s face it; every landscape, still life, and piece of fruit is unique in some way. Creating realistic art means finding and drawing those unique qualities and characteristics.

Key #2: Disregard What You Think You Know about Your Subject

This key is most important if you specialize, like I did.

Those of us who have a favorite subject and tend to draw that subject over and over again start thinking we know enough about our subject to draw it blind-folded.

As I pointed out above, you may be able to draw a very nice generic version of your favorite subject. But if you draw only what you know about your subject, your artwork will start looking the same.

Sometimes, you have to ignore what you think you know in order to see each subject as an individual subject. If you have difficulty grasping the importance of this key to drawing realistically, then refer back to Key #1.

Key #3: Draw What You See

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of studying each subject and disregarding what you think you know about that subject, the next step is drawing what you see.

Not what you think you see.

Or what you think should be there.

This means referring to your reference or references often.

Don’t glance at your reference photos and then draw for twenty minutes (or even just five or ten minutes.)

Master artists study their references, then make a mark or two, then look at their references again. If you want to make art that is truly realistic, this is the most important of the three keys I’m describing.

Obviously, the larger your artwork, the more detail you can draw. But even when your artwork is small, it’s very important to draw enough detail to make your subject look real. To do that, you need to see the important details in your references and draw those details to best of your ability.

That means knowing what colors to use, what values to draw, what strokes to make marks with, and so on.

How to Draw so Things Look Real; Yes, Even Feathers

What does all this have to do with the original question about drawing feathers?

Everything.

That reader wants to know how to draw feathers, and the short answer is that he or she can draw realistic feathers the same way they draw any subject so it looks real. By studying the subject, disregarding what they thinks they know, and drawing what they see.

Yes, the techniques might differ as far as making marks on the paper, but everything else is basically the same.

And some subjects are more difficult than others, so patience and persistence are also very, very important.

I recommend a post I wrote on sometime ago, Tips for Drawing Realistic Feathers, that goes into those basics in a little more detail. That post includes a mini-tutorial, so I hope you’ll take a look at it.

But even if you don’t draw birds, and you’re not interested in drawing feathers, I hope the three keys I’ve shared in this post help you draw your next subject so it looks real.

For more basic principles on drawing so things look real, check out Drawing Iridescent Colors: General Principles for more principles that apply to all subjects.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!

4 Comments

  1. Gail Jones

    Greetings to the artist who wanted to know how to draw feathers. First of all, this is a wonderful article and in conjunction with this advice from Carrie, may I suggest a class on drawing birds by Mindy Lighthipe. Mindy Lighthipe works in colored pencil and other mediums too. Periodically each year she has been offering two in depth online video classes for drawing birds, eggs, nests and feathers. Reinforcing what Carrie says here, she has the class studying bird anatomy as we draw, so that we get everything accurate. Just thought I would mention Mindy’s classes in case they are helpful. I just finished her first one and it was very helpful in making feathers look correct.

  2. Carrie, this is just what I tell my drawing students. A helpful way to truly see is to flip the photo and the drawing upside down. Then study the shapes, angles, proportions, soft and hard edges, and values without considering what the subject is.

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