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6 Secrets to Painting Realism

The "secrets" you need to know if you wish to painting realism successfully.


What many people mean when they say they'd like to learn to paint, is they'd like to learn to paint realism. To create a painting where the subject looks like it does in real life, or "real". It's only when you're up close you see the skillful manipulation of color, tone, and perspective to create the illusion of reality.

Realism Takes Days Not Hours

Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci
Image © Stuart Gregory / Getty Images
Painting realism takes time. Expect to spend days and weeks, not merely a few hours on a painting. You can't paint detailed realism and also want to knock off a painting every afternoon unless you're painting a small canvas with something simple like a single apple.
How to Create Time for Painting
How Long Should It Take to Finish a Painting?

Accurate Perspective is Crucial

If the perspective is wrong, the painting won't look right not matter how beautifully it is. Get the perspective accurate before getting into the fine detail. Check the perspective regularly as you're painting to ensure it remains accurate.

Shadows Aren't Black

Shadows aren't solid black. Shadows aren't shapes of darker color painted right at the end after you've done everything else. Shadows aren't the identical color or tone in all areas of the composition. Shadows are integral parts of the composition and should be painted at the same time as everything else. Spend as much time observing the subtle shifts in color in shadow areas as you do in the non-shadow parts.
How to Paint Shadows

Eyesight Realism Not Camera Realism

Don't take a single photo and turn it into a painting. Not because it's "cheating" but because your eye doesn't see the same as a camera. Your eye sees more detailed color, your eye doesn't frame the scene in standard proportions, your eye doesn't have a depth of field that's dependent on a setting. A realistic landscape will be "in focus" all the way to the horizon, not blur out of focus as a photo with a narrow depth of field will.

Color is Relative

Color isn't a set thing. It's relative to what's next to it, what kind of light is shining on it, whether the surface if reflective or matte. Depending on the light and time of day "green" grass can be quite yellow or blue; it's never a simple match to a single tube of green paint.

Compelling Composition

A subject painted with great technical skill isn't enough to make a good painting. The choice of subject needs to speak to the viewer, to grab their attention and compel them to keep looking. Spend time considering the composition of your painting, what you're going to include and how you're going to arrange it. Work it out before you start painting and you'll save yourself anguish in the long run.

Painting realism isn't about copying the world as it is. It's about selecting and composing a slice of reality. Canaletto's paintings of Venice, for instance, may look real but in fact various buildings are painted from different points of view to make a stronger composition.

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