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  • Writer's pictureHannah Ghafary

4 Tips That Will Instantly Make Your Work More Realistic

Hey, friends.

I'm back and this week I've got some game-changing tips that will instantly make your artwork more realistic. For the sake of making this easy to compare and comprehend, I'm going to be using mostly landscape references throughout this post to demonstrate these techniques. However, it's important to know that these rule apply to anything that you will ever paint from real life (i.e. portraits, still life's, etc.). They are applicable to both painting and drawing, and you can use them no matter if you work from photo references or from real life observation.

Establish Light Logic

Light logic is a term we use in art school to refer to creating the visual illusion of a consistent light source in your work.When you're working from real life observation (for example, a still life or a model), you shouldn't really have to worry about light logic. This is because if you are accurately rendering what you're seeing in front of you, then the lighting and shadows should all make sense already. But, if you are painting from your imagination or if you're combining multiple photo references, it is especially important you pay attention light logic while working.

Below is Vikram Malik's Still Life with Four Oranges and Two Earthen Jars on a Table. The light logic in this still life is inaccurate. When looking at this piece, it is not clearly distinguishable where the light in this scene is coming from. For example, the large vase and the orange on the left have shadows that indicate the the light is coming from in front of the table. However, the orange on the right has a shadow that implies that the light is coming from behind these items. And still some areas, such as between the vases, have no shadows at all.

Vikram Malik, "Still Life with Four Oranges and Two Earthen Jars on a Table"

Let's compare Malik's piece with Jorge Paz's Still Life below. Paz's still life has a clear and consistent light source throughout the scene, and it instantly makes this whole work more life-like. The light source, as indicated by the red arrow, appears to be coming from above and to the right. Small details such as the shadows below the knife, the reflection of the bottle on the wall and the shadows of the coffee cup all imply this light source.

Jorge Paz, "Still Life"

Establishing light logic is a subtle technique that will instantly make your painting more realistic. Even if the average person couldn't identify light logic simply due to lack of artistic knowledge, the human eye detects those subtle imperfections that make our brain recognize the difference between a photo and a painting.

Lastly: if you're drawing or painting by observing real life, working at different times of day can also affect your light logic. For example, the lighting, shadows and colors are all going to look different at 10 am vs at 5 pm. So, if you're working from a real still life, you either need to have a controlled light setting (i.e. use lamps in a room or area without windows/natural light), or you need to designate a consistent time that you will always work on it.

Create the Visual Illusion of Depth

This is an especially noteworthy technique if you are painting a landscape or any scene with an established foreground and background. In order to visually imply depth in a painting, any elements in the background should be less saturated than those in the foreground. Additionally, elements of the foreground should gradually become more distinct and detailed.

For example, let's look at the painting below, Kama Near Yelabuga (1895) , by Russian landscape artist, Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (1832-1898). In the foreground, the viewer can easily distinguish beautiful details of the landscape, from the individual leaves on the trees to the tracks along the dirt road. In comparison, the background is far more ambiguous and less saturated. We can clearly see that there are trees and a body of water, but because there are less details and eye-catching colors, this area sinks back visually.

"Kama Near Yelabuga (1895)" by Ivan Ivanovich Shishkin (1832-1898)

Take Note of Subtle Color Changes

When you're painting, including and enhancing subtle color changes can make all the difference in how realistic your work will appear. At first, it can be very difficult to spot these subtle color changes in real life from observation or in photos.

To train your eye to notice these important details, you can increase saturation on your photo references to make it easier to identify these subtle changes in tone and hue. Below, I enhanced the saturation of my still life painting from above. With the increased saturation, one can more easily distinguish subtle color changes I observed in real life when looking at the still life. For example, take note of the subtle reflection of the orange on the shiny, green apple. There are also subtle tones of orange reflected onto the white striped clothe.

Never Use a Color Straight from the Tube

When I took color theory, this was a rule that was hammered into my head from day one. If you want your painting to look highly realistic, it is so important that you never use any pigment straight from the tube. This rule applies to all colors, but it is especially important for white and black. Using black and white (and other colors straight from the tube) will result in your painting looking flat and unrealistic.

I find this rule most easily explained if you look at something that most people would identify as being one solid color. For example, let's take a look at this painting of a black lab by Amy Morrissey. Obviously, most people would identify this dog as black. However, if the artist had painted all of this dog's fur a solid black color, you wouldn't be able to distinguish any depth or form on the shape of his face and body.

When we look closely, we can see all kinds of colors reflected in the dog's fur. In fact, almost nowhere on his fur is a pure, solid black except, perhaps, the very darkest shadows. Like, the last technique, this may require some practice to get good at identifying the true colors of an object. We know from psychology that the human eye is easily manipulated into interpreting a color differently based on the colors surrounding it, and it will take practice break this instinct. I find that uploading the photo into Adobe Photoshop can be a very helpful trick. Using the color dropper tool, one can easily create digital swatches of the all the shades in the dog's fur. Take my word for it: this trick will make it much easier to accurately identify and mix colors!

As you can see above, I've taken the artist's original work and identified the colors by creating digital color swatches in Adobe Photoshop. Now, we can clearly see that this black dog is composed off shades of dark blues and brownish-blacks. Even the white area of his fur beneath his mouth isn't truly white. It's composed of varying shades of beige and off-white.

Now that we have a basic understanding of accurately identifying and mixing realistic colors, let's compare these two landscape below. The painting on the left is Merced River, Yosemite Valley by artist Albert Bierstadt, and the painting on the right, Colourful Landscape, is by Turkish artist, Harun Ayhan. Are both of these landscapes beautiful? Absolutely! But Bierstadt's work is obviously more realistic and life-like than Ayhan's colorful interpretation.

One key difference between these similar scenes is the saturated tones in Ayhan's work. His work has vibrant tones of yellow and green in the foliage that appear to have come directly from a tube of paint. Contrastingly, Bierstadt's work does not have any of these vibrant tones. The green tones in the grass of Bierstadt's work are mixed with earthy tones of brown and yellow. The clouds are not just puffy and white, they have all kinds of shades of blue and purple reflected in them. Bierstadt's catered to these subtle color changes in the landscape by mixing all of his tones from a earthy hues, and it brings his work to life.

I want to close this blog by reminding you that there are no rules in art, and being realistic certainly is not a qualifier of what makes good or bad art. I believe that rules are meant to be broken, and it's great to make unconventional, non-realistic choices if they are intentional to the context of your style and your work. But, I also believe that, in order to successfully break the rules (visually speaking), you have to understand them first. So, with that being said, I hope that this blog provided you with a few techniques to sharpen your artistic skill set and technical knowledge as an artist.

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See you next week ♡

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