How to Make Drawings Look Less Flat

New artists constantly confront a handful of challenges, no matter what medium they use. For those who like their work to look realistic, the biggest challenge is learning to make drawings look less flat.

That was the subject of a recent reader question.

Carrie, I have attached my drawing of a horse’s head. I am probably my own worst critic as I do strive for perfection. The drawing was done on white paper, Bockingford 120 gsm. It was extremely hard to fill the tooth and put on probably 20 layers in places. I had to burnish very hard to get the fill. I found it difficult to get a clean edge but think this is not keeping the pencil sharp or upright enough. Also found it more difficult than graphite to show the contours. Bill Bayne

Make a Drawing Look Less Flat

How to Make Drawings Look Less Flat

Bill raised several topics worthy of discussion, but since his primary concern was making his lovely horse look more real, let’s address that issue in this post.

Bill provided a drawing of a horse and gave me permission to share them with you. Thank you, Bill!

Following are two suggestions you can put to use immediately.

Contrast is vital to creating realistic drawings or paintings in any medium.

Color is important in realism, but contrast is more important.

Contrast is what happens when you have very light colors and very dark colors in the same drawing. Every drawing should have dark values and light values, and those values should not be limited to a white part (such as the horse’s marking) and a black area (such as the bridle.)

When a drawing has good contrast, each area also has good contrast. Sometimes the transitions from one value to the next are subtle, but there are transitions.

Take a look at this side-by-side comparison. The left image is the original image. I increased the contrast using a photo editor to make the image on the right. I made the light values lighter and the dark values darker. There have been no other changes, yet you can see the difference.

So the first thing to check whenever your drawing looks flat is the contrast. Are your darks dark enough? Are your lights light enough?

It can be intimidating to made dark values darker, so photograph your drawing and play with it in a photo editor. Seeing how it looks with stronger values gives you the confidence to make those changes on the draining.

When you do begin darkening values, do so gradually. One layer at a time. Use light pressure and fade the new, darker color into the other colors. Review your drawing after each layer, so you don’t go too dark.

Shading is important to drawings that look less flat.

Shading is the process of adding shades of color to the shape you’ve drawn. These “shades” are known as modeling.

Modeling represents the way light illuminates the object, and it’s done by drawing a smooth transition of values from light to dark. The lighter the value, the more light on the object it represents. The darker the value, the less light—the deeper the shadows.

When you shade a shape, you make it look like light is striking different parts of it to different degrees, and that creates the illusion that the object has form or mass; that it takes up space.

And that makes it look less flat.

There is no shading on the first circle. It’s just green. The middle circle shows a medium amount of shading. There are lights and darks, but neither is pushed as far as it could go.

(I spent a lot of years doing art that looked like the middle circle!)

Make Drawings Look Less Flat - Shading

The third circle has very dark shadows and very bright highlights. It is no longer a circle; it’s a ball.

The same principle holds true with every subject. Take note of where the shadows are in your reference photo, and make them dark enough on your drawing.

It may be easier to see where you need to darken shadows and lighten highlights by looking at a gray scale version of your artwork next to a gray scale version of the reference photo. You can convert an image to gray scale in a photo editor.

Use modeling and contrast to make drawings look less flat and more life-like.

There are other tips and techniques to make drawings look less flat (things like reflected light and aerial perspective,) but improving contrast and modeling are usually the best places to begin.

And the easiest to implement!

How to Draw Gold in Three Steps

Today, I want to show you how to draw gold.

My subject is the gold cap on a Christmas ornament, but you can draw any type of reflective gold object using this method.

In fact, you can draw any reflective object using this method.

How to Draw Gold in Three Steps

How to Draw Gold in Three Steps

The method is a three-step method starting with an under drawing and finishing up with detailing.

I used Bristol vellum paper because of its smoothness and ability to take color. This three-step method is also suitable for other papers, but the more tooth in the paper, the more layers you need to get full, rich color.

One other note on materials. I used Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils for the first two steps, then switched to Prismacolor Soft Core for the final step.

Polychromos pencils are oil-based, so they’re harder than Prismacolor. They do lay down smooth color on Bristol, but you have to work slowly and carefully.

Prismacolor are wax-based and are much softer. That makes them ideal for the final layers, for burnishing, and for filling in the last paper holes.

NOTE: You can get the same results with any artist grade colored pencils.

Now, for the tutorial.

Step 1: The Under Drawing

The under drawing is not the local color of the gold cap. It’s not gold or even yellow; it’s all the colors reflected in the gold. You have to look deep to see the other colors in each area. Those are the colors for the under drawing.

Use a very sharp Burnt Sienna pencil and light pressure to shade the darker reflections.

Since reflections are usually hard-edged, it’s a good idea to outline each shape then shade it. Since there’s a lot of detail in this area, it’s also a good idea to work slowly. Spend more time studying the reference photo than drawing.

Smooth color is key, so use whatever stroke works best in allowing you to draw smooth color. Add layers to get darker shadows and use only one or two layers in the lighter shadows. Fade Burnt Sienna into the white of the paper where the edges are softer.

The shadows around the bottom of the gold cap should also be under drawn with Burnt Sienna.

The next color is Scarlet red. Layer red in two or more light layers on the left side of the gold cap. Lightly outline the shapes, then lightly fill them in. Use more layers to increase the value and saturation.

Finally, light layer Cream over the remaining parts of the gold cap. Work around the white highlights! Once again, draw the smoothest possible color.

Step 2: Glazing Color

Darken the shadows with Walnut Brown. Use medium or medium-heavy pressure with a very sharp pencil to draw smooth color.

Add gold reflections with Cream and the red reflections with Scarlet Red. Blunt pencils are ideal for this. Use heavy pressure, but don’t burnish.

Then glaze Scarlet Red over the parts of the gold cap that reflect red. Layer Cream over the rest. Work around the bright white highlight.

Step 3: Detailing

Burnish the gold cap with Poppy Red in the areas that reflect red, and with Dark Umber in the areas that reflect a brownish color.

Then burnish both red and brownish reflections with Yellow Ochre.

Also burnish the yellow parts of the gold cap with Yellow Ochre, working around the bright highlights.

This article is excerpted from the new book, Draw a Red Christmas Ornament.

Draw a Red Christmas Ornament Ebook

How to Rework a Background

Can I rework a background? I’ve tried erasing at least a little bit without much success…Thank you so much. Have a beautiful holiday season. Mirian Bertaska

Mirian asks a great question. I’ve wrestled with this very thing many times, so let’s take a look at a few possible answers to Mirian’s question.

How to Rework a Background

Mirian very kindly included her drawing and gave me permission to share it with you, so you could “see” what we’re talking about.

Mirian has good color saturation in her drawing. Her color choices make the bird stand out from the background.

But she is right about the background. It doesn’t convey enough distance. It looks like the bird and the background are all at the same distance.

Kudos to Mirian for seeing that. Knowing what’s not working in your art is key to improving.

Suggestions about How to Rework a Background

Whether or not you can rework a background depends on how much color you already have on the paper, what type of paper you’re using, and whether or not you’ve burnished or blended with solvent.

Mirian’s drawing is on Bristol. Bristol is excellent for colored pencils, but it is limited on the number of layers you can put down. However, it’s also very good for lifting color if the color has been applied in layers with light pressure.

Try lifting color to push the background into the distance.

Scotch tape is probably the best way to lift a little color. Lightly press a small piece of tape to the drawing, then carefully pull it up again.

Mounting putty is another good way to lift color, especially if you want a blurry look.

For small areas or detailing, an eraser may also help lift color. The ideal place for eraser work is around the bird.

Read Two Neat Tricks for Erasing or “Lifting” Color from Colored Pencil Drawings at EmptyEasel.com.

Add lighter colors to lighten the background.

Softening the colors with a light blue or cool gray is a good way to push the background further into the distance. Color can either be added over the existing background, or after the background has been lightened by lifting color, as described above.

Use sharp pencils and light pressure to layer lighter colors. Choose colors that are not only lighter, but cooler (tending toward blues and greens, rather than reds and yellows.) Try combining a couple of colors, too, so the background doesn’t become too uniform in value or color.

Add color one layer at a time, then review the drawing. Keep adding layers until the drawing looks the way you want it to look.

Try a soft blend to dissolve wax binder and “sink” color into the tooth of the paper.

If you’re willing to experiment a little, try a soft blend with odorless mineral spirits. Use a soft brush and blot the brush after you dip it in odorless mineral spirits. You don’t need a lot of solvent for this type of blend.

If you don’t want to try odorless mineral spirits, or don’t have any, but you want to try blending, try rubbing alcohol. Dampen a cotton ball with rubbing alcohol, then rub it on a corner of the piece. That should give you a nice, soft blend that pushes the background further into the background.

Even if that doesn’t work, the rubbing alcohol could break down the binder in the pencils enough to allow you to add a little bit more color.

Don’t get your paper too wet or it could buckle.

TIP: Layer color onto a scrap piece of Bristol until you have a similar look, then try blending that first. If it works, great! You can blend your drawing. If it doesn’t work, you haven’t damaged the drawing.

How that Worked for Mirian

I asked Mirian if she would let me know how her experiments turned out. Here’s what she had to say.

Hi Carrie,

The painting wasn’t accepting more color, so I … layered violet blue on a little piece of each, and the alcohol one looks better in my opinion.

Mirian layered Violet Blue on the left side of the illustration below. The rubbing alcohol blend is on the right side.

The portion above the line is the original drawing.

How to Rework a Background - Rubbing Alcohol

Neither solution is ideal, but Mirian was satisfied with the rubbing alcohol blend.

Leave the background alone and work on the bird to bring it forward.

The final possible solution is to leave the background as it is, and increase the values on the bird. Make the highlights brighter and darken the darks.

One of the things that gives a picture “depth” is the value range. The greater the contrast between the lightest lights and the darkest darks, the closer the object looks.

Here’s Mirian’s drawing in black-and-white.

How to Rework a Background - Original Drawing in Gray Scale

As you can see, the value range is fairly close. When the background and the subject have pretty much the same values, the result is a background that’s not in the background.

I used GIMP (free photo editing software) to select the bird, then increased the contrast. The bird now “leaps” forward in the drawing.

How to Rework a Background - Gray Scale with Contrast

This tip doesn’t apply to reworking a background, but sometimes the solution involves the subject, not the background!

Thank you to Mirian, who was willing to share not only her question, but her artwork.

Thanks, Mirian!

Why Use the Umber Under Drawing Method

Today, I want to talk about using the umber under drawing method. This method of drawing is just one of many, and works for any type of subject. I use it most often for landscape drawing, but I hope you’ll find useful information here even if you’ve never drawn a landscape, or don’t want to!

Why Use the Umber Under Drawing Method

Why You Should Use any Under Drawing Method

The first question most people ask (about art or any other subject) is why.

Why that subject instead or another?

Why did you choose those colors?

Why do an under drawing when you draw over it anyway?

You get the idea!

With most aspects of art, the answers are personal. That applies to drawing methods, too. You can use any drawing method you prefer. You can even use a different method for every drawing or based on you mood when you draw.

But no matter what method you use, you begin with an under drawing of some kind. Why? Because in reality, an under drawing is simply the first layers of color you put on the paper.

So the real question becomes, why use a special kind of under drawing?

Most artists start with under drawings to achieve a certain effect. Most colored pencils are translucent, so every color you put on paper influences every other color. (That’s also why it’s so difficult to cover up mistakes.)

The type of under drawing (umber, complementary, monochromatic) affects the look of the finished artwork.

Subject can also be a determining factor. Landscapes benefit from complementary colors and earth tones, if only to tone down the greens.

Atmospheric drawings benefit from monochromatic under drawings that help create the mood or atmosphere the artist wants to create.

There are other reasons, too. For more in-depth answers to this question, read Why Do Every Layer if You Draw Over Them Anyway?.

Why Use the Umber Under Drawing Method?

Answers to this question vary from artist to artist, but here are the biggest reasons I prefer umber under drawings.

1—I do a lot of landscape drawings. For many years, I struggled with greens that were unnaturally bright. The only way to tone down those greens is by adding their compliments. Usually reds, oranges, and earth tones.

You can, of course, add those colors at any time in the process—and I often do. But an umber under drawing has rescued many a drawing. So many that this drawing method has become my favorite.

Why Use the Umber Under Drawing Method - Late Spring in the Flint Hills

2—An umber under drawing is ideal for drawing animals of almost every stripe. It also works for many other subjects.

3—It’s a lot easier for me to work out shapes, values, and details if I’m not also making decisions about colors. When I begin with local colors or with a complementary under drawing, I have to make color choices from the start.

With an umber under drawing, the choice is already made. One light brown, and one dark brown. Sometimes, I even limit myself to one or the other.

4–Quite simply, I like earth tones. There is so much variation in earth tones that I’ve often considered doing sepia studies in nothing but earth tones.

Or those lovely French greys in the Prismacolor line.

So when it comes to choosing under drawing colors, it’s natural to reach for a brown of some kind!

That’s Why I Use the Umber Under Drawing Method

The umber under drawing method isn’t the only method I use, but it is my favorite method.

Want to see how it works in practice? Read my umber under drawing tutorial featuring a dark horse on this blog. For a landscape tutorial, read my first ever series on EmptyEasel.com. Both contain step-by-step illustrations and instructions.

Then give it a try if you’ve never used it before. It may become your new favorite drawing method!

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows

Knowing how to draw vibrant shadows is key to realistic art. It doesn’t matter what medium you prefer, if your shadows are weak, contrast is weak.

Weak contrast makes for flat artwork, and we all know flat artwork doesn’t usually look very realistic.

So how to do you get strong contrast? Push those dark values as far as you can with strong, vibrant shadows!

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows

Value is the most important thing to get right in your art.  You need to have strong highlights and strong shadows.

But shadows can be so difficult to get right, as a recent reader question proved. There are so many different ways to draw shadows, the reader wanted to know the best way.

There really isn’t a “best way” that works with every drawing. You style of work, your subjects, and the colors you have available all play a role in how you draw shadows.

Five Ways to Draw Vibrant Shadows

There are as many different ways to draw shadows as there are artists. Sooner or later, every artist develops their own way of doing things.

Lets start with five red balls. I’ve drawn them all with the same color (Scarlet Lake) and to the same degree. There’s a decent range of values, but nothing stunning.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - 1

Use darker values of the same colors to draw shadows.

I “finished” the first ball with the same color simply by adding more layers of Scarlet Lake. The darker the values, the more layers.

The darkest values are burnished with Scarlet Lake to fill in the paper tooth and make the shadow darker.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Local Color

Use darker versions of the local colors to draw shadows.

From this point on, there are two important things to remember.

First, don’t add the new colors only to the shadows. Shade them over most of the middle values, too. Fade them out just like you fade the base (local) color, or you may end up with a shadow that looks “stuck on.”

Second, alternate layers of the new color and the local color. You should almost always finish with a layer of local color, too. That gives the shadow the look of being a darker version of the local color, rather than an entirely different color.

The shadow and darker middle values in the second ball are Crimson Lake. Crimson Lake is a darker red with a hint of blue. The resulting shadow is darker than the rest of the red, but still not very vibrant.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Darker Local Color

Add Black to dark versions of the local colors.

Black was layered over the shadow in the third ball. You might think this is the logical choice for darkening shadows, but as you can see, it didn’t really make the shadow very vibrant. Instead, the shadow looks more gray. That may work for some drawings.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Black

Add a complementary color to draw shadows.

I layered Grass Green into the shadow on the fourth ball. Green is the complement of red, so you could add red to the shadow of a green ball. Any complement naturally darkens and tones down the color it’s added to.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Complementary Color

Mix a dark brown and dark blue to draw shadows.

The best way to draw shadows is by mixing other colors. My favorite colors for shadows are dark brown and dark blue. Combined in alternating layers, they create lively dark values that rival black. That combination works with most medium to dark-colored objects and I’ve used them with great success on horses and landscapes.

How to Draw Vibrant Shadows - Indigo and Dark Brown

For lighter colored objects, you’ll want to replace these colors with lighter shades.

Those are five ways to draw vibrant shadows.

There are other ways, too, so the best advice is to experiment. Do like I did with a series of balls or any other shape. The drawings don’t need to be polished pieces of fine art to help you find the best way to draw vibrant shadows in your own work.

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils

It’s a well-known and oft-repeated “rule” that you should always keep your colored pencils sharp. But is that true? Following are a few guidelines to help you know when to use blunt colored pencils.

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils

Like most art “rules,” these are not written in stone. You can follow them or ignore them as you wish.

How Blunt is “Blunt?”

Before we get to my tips, though, let’s talk about the different degrees of bluntness. Believe it or not, I’ve identified three.

Dull

In my book, a pencil is dull when the sharp point has been worn down a little, but there’s still a lot of pigment core showing. The tip is rounded, but not flat.

You gt a dull pencil with regular drawing, especially if you turn your pencil as you work. All sides of the tip touch the paper, so the pencil wears evenly.

If you need a sharp pencil, it’s time to sharpen this one.

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils - Dull

Blunt

The rounded point has been worn down to an angle. The flat edge is not clearly pronounced. There’s no chance of mistaking this pencil for a sharpened pencil.

A pencil becomes blunt when you draw on one side of the pigment core only. That side wears down, but the other sides don’t.

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils - Blunt

Very Blunt

This is a pencil that’s worn totally flat on one side. It has a sharp, very distinct and very flat edge. The pigment core tip is very definitely wedge-shaped. You get a wedge like this either by being very careful not to turn your pencil as you draw or by using heavy pressure on a scrap paper.

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils - Very Blunt

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils

Following are four ways I use blunt pencils. These aren’t the only times to use blunt pencils, nor are blunt pencils the only ways to get these effects.

Soft Detail or Drawing Distance

Soft detail requires soft, sometimes blurred edges. The perfect use for blunt pencils. Before you sharpen again, look for background areas that could benefit from a blunt pencil.

Smooth Layers of Broken Color

Lay down smooth color layers with blunt colored pencils. The smoother the paper, the smoother the color, but you can get excellent “broken” color that’s a consistent value by using blunt pencils on sanded or toothier papers.

When to Use Blunt Colored Pencils - Even Color

Sanded Art Papers

Speaking of which, blunt pencils are your absolute best bet when you draw on sanded art papers of any kind. That grit wears down sharp points quickly, so skip the sharpening and start with a blunt pencil!

Burnishing

Burnishing is another time for blunt pencils. When you burnish, you use heavy pressure to “grind” layers of color together. That’s no time for a really sharp point. You want a slightly blunted pencil.

Questions about Lightfast Colored Pencils

Just how important is it to use lightfast colored pencils?

There have always been discussions about lightfast colors among serious artists. Artists who create work for sale want their work to last beyond years or decades. They want it to last generations.

So do the collectors who spend big bucks to get original artwork.

No one wants to spend a lot of money on something that’s going to fade away in ten or twenty years (or less.)

Questions about Lightfast Colored Pencils

Given the number of people starting to use colored pencils every day and the number of new products coming to market, it’s not surprising to get questions. Questions like these:

When considering lightfastness in colored pencils, what number is considered light fast?

Is there any difference in the lightfastness of oil pencils in relationship to wax based pencils?

Do I have to use lightfast colored pencils?

Let’s take a look at each of these questions individually.

A Little Basic Information on Lightfastness

If a color does fade over time, it’s also referred to as fugitive. The color “runs away and hides” if exposed to light. Sometimes it may disappear altogether, and sometimes very quickly.

Most companies that produce art supplies for fine art or professional use test their products to see how they hold up under use. That includes tests for fading and durability, among other things.

Oil paints have included lightfast information for many years.

Lightfast Colored Pencils - Oil Paint Rating

Most reputable colored pencil manufacturers also now include such information on each pencil. This basic information is designed to let artists know which colors are lightfast and how lightfast they are.

Answers to Questions about Lightfast Colored Pencils


When considering lightfastness in colored pencils, what number is considered light fast?

Pencils are rated differently in the US than in Europe and other parts of the world, but all brands are tested in some form, and many companies provide color charts that include lightfast ratings.

Let’s look at two examples.

Prismacolor pencils are made by a US-based company, so they’re tested according to US standards. The ASTM D6901 standard, to be precise.

The results are divided into five categories, with the lowest number being the best and the highest being the worst. The categories are labeled with Roman numerals and look like this. I (1,) II (2,) III (3,) IV (4,) and V (5.)

Any color with a I ranking is said to be very lightfast. Colors with a V ranking are very poor. My personal sunlight tests show such colors fade within weeks when exposed to direct sunlight.

Unfortunately, the rating is not printed on the pencils.

Faber-Castell Polychromos pencils are made in Germany and are tested using the Blue Wool Scale, which is the European standard. The results are divided into eight categories, with the lowest numbers being the most likely to fade.

To further complicate matters, Faber-Castell and other companies combine categories into three. They rate their pencils on a star system. A color with one star is more likely to fade than two- or three-star colors.

Lightfast Colored Pencils - Faber-Castell Pencils

So the answer to this question depends on the pencils you use and where they’re made. Look for high numbers in non-US made pencils and low numbers in US-made pencils.

Is there any difference in the lightfastness of oil pencils in relationship to wax based pencils?

The qualities that make a color permanent is in the pigment itself, not in the binder (the substance than  holds the pigment in shape.)

So it doesn’t matter whether you use wax-based pencils (with a primarily wax binder) or oil-based pencils (with a primarily oil binder.) If the pigment fades, then it will fade regardless.

What makes the difference is that some companies replace fading pigments with more expensive pigments that are similar in color, but do not fade or don’t fade as quickly.

Those pencils are more expensive because the pigment itself is more costly. Not because of the binder used in making the pencil.

Do I have to use lightfast colored pencils?

No. You do not have to use lightfast colored pencils all of the time, or for every drawing. You don’t have to use them at all, if you really don’t want to.

Nor do you have to remove every fading color from your new set of pencils if you don’t want to. A lot of those fading colors can’t currently be replaced in any brand. Pinks and purples are notorious for fading, but if you really need to use them in your work, then you should use them.

So is there any time or place for using lightfast pencils?

Sure!

You can safely use fading colors if you don’t plan to sell the original. If it’s a practice piece, just for fun, or if you sell reproductions and keep the originals, it’s perfectly safe to use fading colors.

If you do give those pieces away (or even sell them,) make absolutely sure the new owners fully understand the precautions they need to take. What are those precautions?

  • Use UV resistant glazing with framing
  • Never exhibit the artwork in direct sunlight
  • Be aware of the interior lighting in the exhibit area, since some artificial lighting can also contain ultra-violet light.
Lightfast Colored Pencils - For Crafting

If you’re doing craft work (gift cards, etc.,) adult coloring books, or anything else of that nature, you don’t really need lightfast colors.

Even so, it is important to know enough about lightfast ratings to understand how they work and why they’re important.

That’s the best way by far to avoid potential problems.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop

Knowing how to process digital reference photos is as important to today’s artist as knowing the best art materials. Most of us need at least a basic knowledge to make the best use of our photographs.

A basic explanation is all we have time for today, but there are lots of video tutorials for those who want more in-depth information. The methods I’m about to share are what I’ve been using since before The Cloud. Outdated, perhaps, but still useful!

Today, we’ll look at preparing digital photographs using Photoshop. I use Photoshop 7.0, so there may be some differences in procedure, depending on the version of Photoshop you use.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop

Step 1

Import photos into Photoshop. Since you may be bringing photos in from a variety of sources, I won’t go into detail on this part of the process beyond saying that you can open photos from most devices through Photoshop by clicking on the FILE drop down menu and selecting OPEN. That opens a dialogue box that allows you to select any device or drive connected to the computer.

Choose the photo you want to work with.

Save it with a new name into a new folder before making changes. It’s always prudent to save the original file. That way, if you make mistakes, you can go back to the original and start over. All you will have lost is time.

Step 2

Few photos are perfect. At minimum, most will need a bit of tweaking to be optimal. If you’re planning representational artwork, a few things to consider are:

  • Composition
  • Color Quality
  • Lighting
  • Sharpness

If the artwork you have in mind is less representational, you can also play with filters, color, and screens or many of the graphic tools available on Photoshop. But that’s a post for another time.

The first thing I do is fit the photo to the shape of the painting or drawing I want to do. At the very least, I crop out excess area. The photo I’m using for this demonstration has more foreground than I want in a painting.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 1

So I crop the image by selecting the area I want to use (see dotted line below). Select the drop down menu, IMAGE, and click on CROP.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 2a

Save the new image.

Step 3

You can also change the size of the image. For the purpose of this demonstration, I changed the width of the image to 24 inches, then cropped it so the vertical size was 18 inches. The resulting image is 18×24 inches, a standard canvas size.

To change the size of an photograph, click on the IMAGE drop down menu and click on IMAGE SIZE. The following dialogue box will appear.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 2a

Under “Document Size” type in the numbers you want. The box to the right is for setting the measurement standard. In this case, inches. You can also choose picas, centimeters, and columns, in addition to other options. Choose the measuring standard you prefer and click OK.

You can also change the resolution if you wish. The default is 72, which is shown above. The larger the number, the better the resolution and the larger the overall file.

The numbers at the top of the dialogue box (Pixel Dimensions) will automatically change with each change you make in Document Size. You can also affect the numbers in the Document Size section by changing the numbers in the Pixel Dimensions. Since most standard sizes of paper and canvas are not measured in pixels, I generally don’t do anything with Pixel Dimensions.

The checked boxes Constrain Proportions and Resample Image are default settings. Uncheck Constrain Proportions if you want to change only one side. This will cause the image to distort.

NOTE: Changing the size and cropping the image are interchangeable steps. In some cases, it may be better to crop first, then change the size. In other cases,changing the size first might be better.

Step 4

I next changed the contrast and brightness of the image by using Photoshop’s standard filters. Click IMAGE, then choose ADJUSTMENTS and AUTO LEVELS.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 4a

You can see below how Photoshop adjusted my photograph. The top image is the original color, brightness and contrast settings.

The lower image shows the corrections.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 4b

If you like the changes, save the new image.

Step 5

If you don’t like the changes Photoshop made in Step 4, undo (Control+Z). You can then make individual changes to suit your preferences.

BRIGHTNESS/CONTRAST
To change the brightness or contrast, click on the IMAGE drop down menu and select BRIGHTNESS/CONTRAST.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 5a


A dialogue box with two slider controls will appear. The top one is for brightness. Sliding the control to the right increases brightness. Sliding it to the left decreases brightness.

The lower control is for contrast. Again, sliding it to the right increases contrast and sliding it to the left decreases contrasts.

You can change either brightness or contrast or you can change both. You can also increase one and decrease the other, so you have virtually unlimited choices in changing these two filters through this dialogue box.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 5b

The value of brightness and contrast is most evident when you want to manipulate poorly lighted photographs. Photographs of gray days can be brightened by increasing the brightness levels and contrast levels in Photoshop.

The left half of the image below shows normal settings. The right half shows increases in both brightness and contrast. Note that some details are more clear with the changes, while other details disappear.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 5c


You can’t make a gray day sunny, but you can create the illusion of brighter light, which will aid your painting if you want to paint a particular scene in bright light, but the only photographs you have are of gray days.

Step 6

To adjust COLOR, select IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > COLOR BALANCE.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 6a

A dialogue box will open with a row of three boxes labeled Color Levels at the top and three slider controls below. The slider controls correspond to each of the three non-black printing colors: Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow. The boxes in the top row correspond to the slider controls. In this illustration, I’ve changed the Cyan setting by sliding the control bar to the right. The number in the first box at the top shows the amount of change and indicates that I’ve increased the blue by plus 10.

How to Process Digital Reference Photos in Photoshop Step 6b

At the bottom of the box is the tone balance. This allows you to change specific areas in the photograph. By clicking on Shadows, you can change the color of the shadows without changing mid-tones or highlights. The default setting is mid-tones, which means the change I made in the paragraph above will affect the mid-tones, but not the shadows or highlights.

Preserve Luminosity is also a default setting.

By clicking the Preview box at the right, your changes will appear in the photograph, so you can see what they look like before committing to them. This is always a good idea.

But even if you do commit to the changes, then decide you don’t like them, you can still undo them by typing Control+Z BEFORE saving the image.

It’s advisable to experiment with color settings. How much color change you need to make depends on the type of artwork you want to do. For portrait work, for example, I make color changes only to correct distortions. I usually make those changes only if I took the images myself and know the color is not accurate.

Conclusion

Most of the time, these changes are the only changes necessary. Your photo will now be ready for the next step in your working process, whether it’s printing a copy to work from, creating computer generated compositions, or putting a drawing grid over the photograph.

Welcome back to my month-long series on using photographs to create art. In the first post, I shared a link to an article on composing images so colors pop. Last week we talked about three things to remember when composing through the lens.

Drawing from Life: Get Started The 3-Step Way

Most artists know there’s value in drawing from life. Many understand that value. But there are a lot of us who simply don’t do it for one reason or another.

The apparent complexity of drawing from life is what kept me from practicing this particular art form for so long.

But you know what? It doesn’t have to be difficult or complex. 

Drawing from Life in 3 Steps

In a recent email drawing class, I broke the drawing process down to three basic elements. Elements that apply to every form of drawing, but are especially helpful in life drawing.

Even if you’ve never drawn from life before.

Lines

The most basic element is the mark you make on the paper with each pencil stroke: otherwise known as a line.

When you begin a drawing, you start with lines, which are also known as “strokes.”

Drawing from Life - Lines are the most basic drawing element

Lines can be straight or curved, long or short, thick or thin. No matter what type of line you draw, they all have one thing in common.

They’re one-dimensional. That means they have a beginning and an end. They have only length.

And yet the line is the foundation on which all art is built, especially two dimensional art—also known as flat art. Paintings, sketches, prints, and drawings are all forms of two-dimensional art, and they all begin with a simple line.

“Even the most complex drawings?” you ask.

Yes. Even the most complex drawings. Here’s how it works.

Shapes

Everything around you—living or not, naturally occurring or man-made—can be broken down into one or more of three basic shapes.

Drawing from Life - Lines combine to make shapes

That’s right. Circles, squares, and triangles.

Take a look at the things around you. Chairs. Tables. A cup of coffee or glass of soft drink. An apple, orange, or bunch of grapes. What shapes to do you see?

Even complex things like animals and people can be reduced to these basic
shapes.

Shading

Lines are one-dimensional (they have only length.) Circles, squares and triangles are two dimensional. They have width and height.

The paper you draw on is also two-dimensional.

Almost everything you draw is three-dimensional. It not only has
width and height, but it has depth. It takes up space.

How do you draw something that looks three-dimensional on something with only two dimensions? The answer is shading.

Shading is the process of adding shades of gray (or any color if you’re working with color) to the shape you’ve drawn. These “shades” are known as values.

Shading is what turns this…

Drawing from Life - A line drawing without shading

…into this.

Drawing from Life - A line drawing with shading

When you shade a shape, you make it look like light is striking different parts of it to different degrees, and that creates the illusion that the object has form or mass; that it takes up space.

About Life Drawing in Three Steps

Parts of this tutorial are excerpted from the ebook, Life Drawing in Three Steps.

Life Drawing in Three Steps expands on these three drawing elements in greater detail. If you’ve ever struggled with life drawing (or drawing in any form,) this book will help you break the process down to lines, shapes, and shading.

The book also includes end-of-chapter exercises, and two complete, step-by-step tutorials.

Life Drawing in Three Steps ebook banner

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt, Ground & Soil

I know what you’re thinking: Who cares about drawing realistic dirt? What possible difference does it make?

For many artists, dirt is. . . well, just dirt, and not nearly as interesting as water or as monumental as mountains. A few swipes of color and a little bit of shading is all you really need. Right?

For most subjects, that’s probably true. But if you enjoy making landscapes or other outdoor scenes, it’s important to know how to draw dirt in a manner that fits your subject and style.

That’s I’m sharing a few basic tips for drawing realistic dirt.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt, Ground & Soil

Maybe you’ve never thought about how you draw dirt before! If so, that’s OK. It’s not the most glamorous subject and the most notice it gets is either in the form of rocks, or as an unimportant part of the overall composition.

That’s a shame.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt, Ground & Soil

It isn’t that difficult to draw almost any kind of soil so it looks believable and fits into the overall composition as though it’s meant to be there, rather than an afterthought.

Let’s look at a few of them.

A Few of My Favorite Methods

Watercolor Pencils

Here’s a portrait I drew sometime ago. I used watercolor pencils with watercolor paper to lay down the foundation, then finished with regular colored pencils.

The setting was a specific racetrack with a distinctive color of sand. There were also specific types of soil and cover on the winner’s circle, which is visible in the middle ground on the left. Since this was a “moment in time” portrait, all those things had to be correct.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt - Water Soluble Colored Pencils

Here’s a detail of the track and winner’s circle. As you can see, there isn’t much detail. The portrait was just too small for that (only 8 x 10.)

But there is still a distinct difference between the sand on the track and the ground in the winner’s circle.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt - Water Soluble Colored Pencils Detail

How I Did It

I laid down washes of color in several layers, letting each wash dry completely before adding the next.

The initial wash was a red-gold base color that covered everything. Next came layers of darker, cooler browns in the shadows and to add details. Final details were added with traditional pencils.

I worked on four versions of this portrait before getting it right. One of them was entirely traditional colored pencils, and I documented that process for an EmptyEasel article. Read How to Draw Realistic Dirt, Ground, & Soil with Colored Pencil on EmptyEasel for more tips.

Traditional Colored Pencils

The Sentinel, shown below, was drawn entirely with traditional colored pencils.

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt - Traditional Colored Pencil

How I Did It

This path is a little outside the ordinary because it didn’t appear in the original composition. I finished the entire piece, then decided it needed something to more clearly direct the eye to the trees. What could be better than a path?

So I had to first lift as much color as possible with an eraser. Next, I added the path by layering fresh color over the areas that had been erased. The end result was much more satisfactory.

The same method—without the erasing of course—can be used for any drawing. For step-by-step instructions, read How to Correct Mistakes or Rework a Finished Colored Pencil Drawing on EmptyEasel.

Interesting Drawing Surfaces

Sometimes all you need to do is find the right support. A colored paper or unique surface texture, and you’re halfway there.

That was the case with this miniature drawing. I used a piece of cured Silver Maple for the support. The drawing was an experiment. I wanted to see how well colored pencil worked on wood (it works beautifully).

Tips for Drawing Realistic Dirt - Support

How I Did It

Ironically, this one was the easiest of all. I simply used the wood grain for the exposed soil along the bottom of the composition. A few accents and details made the wood look like dirt for this miniature drawing.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that it isn’t that difficult to make any patch of ground in your composition look like it belongs there. Any one of these tips will help you do it, or you can think outside the box and find your own ideas!