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How to paint in a realistic style - 4 things you need to know (part 1)

My journey through Jonathan Hardestys class "The Essentials of Realism"

· illustration,tutorial in english

Realism doesn't equal lots and lots of detail.

While there is nothing wrong with going for photorealism and paint every small speck of dust on a mosquitos wing, details alone will not make a painting look realistic. In fact there is quite a difference between a realistic painting and a photorealistic painting.

Photorealism provides a great technical challenge and an exercise in persistence and patience. And the results could indeed be very impressive. But you don't need to go for photorealism or hyperrealism in order to capture a sense of reality.

Realism is more about capturing something beyond what a camera could capture. Surprisingly often paintings in the style of realism are really messy, blurry and "empty" when examined closely upfront. Look at this favourite of mine by Anders Zorn. This is far from photorealism, but you can really feel like you are present among the dancers. You can almost see them move, hear the fiddlers play and smell the hay and midsummer flowers.

What makes a painting realistic?

So what makes a painting look realistic? Proportion, value, edges and colour!

I'll go through these four concepts within two blog posts. In this first part we will be covering proportion and value. In the second one we'll have a look at edges and colour.

These two posts will also be a sort-of review on the excellent class on the topic that one of my favourite artists Jonathan Hardesty holds at Schoolism.

Digital painting, detail. Paws. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017.

Close up detail of a realistic painting I did in the class. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017. (Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).

I will not make a detailed review on all the concepts in the class and exactly how they are taught. I don't want to copy Jonathan Hardestys method of teaching, but instead discuss the concepts in general. Because the concepts are very general, and have been refined by generations and generations of artists passing down their wisdom. I'll try to give you the artistic journey I embarked on when i spent a couple of months studying under mr Hardesty. Complete with its a-ha-moments and frustrations.

I will say this straight up though: if you are an artist thinking about wether or not to take the class - do it! Jonathan Hardesty is an amazing teacher, and I am certain that you’ll learn more than you’d expect if you put in the time and the hard work the class requires.

And it is a lot of hard work - but still a shortcut in any artists' learning curve.

The four things you need to know when painting in the style of realism

In order to learn to paint in the style of realism you need to internalise the four basic concepts. As mentioned, realism in painting breaks down into four key components: proportion, value, edges and colour. Proportion is the foundation, value is the most important thing, edges are easily overlooked but can be extremely powerful, and color is the icing on the cake.

Learning to paint is really learning to see. Once these concepts truly start to sink in you'll see the world a bit differently than before. I took the class in 2017, and to this day I think of the concepts I learned every time I sit down to paint anything.

In the beginning the picture was without form and void

Balls and cloth. Realistic painting made in Photoshop. Sebastian Dahlström 2017.

Balls and cloth. One of the paintings i did in the class. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017. (Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).

Just like a house needs a solid ground, a painting needs some careful thoughts in the beginning in order to appear realistic (or at all pleasant to look at). It basically comes down to this: look at something and put it down on paper. Sounds easy enough.

The thing is that it really would be if your brains operated like machines. It's no problem for a printer to make a perfect copy. But our brains are no machines, nor is it a bad thing. We have the ability to transfer something more to the painting than plainly copying it. Some sort of meaning, soul, spirit, artistic touch or whatever you want to call it.

Nevertheless the ground needs to be solid. So how do we transfer what we see onto the paper (or the digital drawing tablet)?

1. Proportion: Invisible plumb lines and negative space

Jonathan Hardesty gives a couple techniques on how to really look carefully enough at what we are attempting to draw to get the proportions right. What it really comes down to is not to think to hard about exactly what we are drawing, but rather to pay attention to lines, angles, curves and shapes.

Every realistic painting starts with getting the proportions right. Among the tools Hardesty provides negative space is the one I personally think about most often: What are the shapes within the frame of the paper that are outside of the object I am drawing?

Almost anything could be thought of as a negative space. When trying to capture the shape of the iris and pupil in an eye - draw the white part of the eye instead. When looking for the shape of teeth - draw the darkness of the mouth around them instead.

Try to see the places where the light hits the object as shapes - and the shadows as well. When drawing a certain feature don't look for its own shape - draw the shape of its immediate surrounding instead.

negative space, example. Sebastian Dahlström, 2019.

When blocking in the shape of the teeth in the example, don't think about what shape the teeth are. Rather think about what shape the rest of the mouth is, minus the teeth. This is the teeths' negative space! The shape is devoid of any connotation or memory - it doesn't mean anything in particular. This makes it easier to truly see the lines, angles and shapes correctly.

Never think about the feature itself - think only about lines and angles, plains and shapes. I touched on this principle already briefly in this blog post. If you are not familiar with negative space do yourself a favour and sit down with a pen and a paper. You'll be surprised!

Imagining invisible plumb lines is another useful tool. Ask yourself: What features line up along an imagined straight vertical line across the reference? Think of a weight hanging from a thread (here is guide if you feel inspired and want to build a real one). The lines in your imagination could also be horisontal. Or you could imagine a whole grid over your reference. The German artist Albrecht Dürer took the idea of plumb lines to its extreme already over 500 years ago.

Block in, proportions. Example. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017.

Block in, proportions. Example. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017. All rights reserved.

No freestyle! Keep yourself together

When blocking in - remember to start with the big lines and general shapes. Focus mainly on the lights and the shadows. What shapes do the lit areas form? What are the shapes of the shadows?

Start big - and then refine the details. Constantly think and analyse. Pull out your mental plumb line from time to time, check out those negative shapes. If you are painting digitally or on a light table: whatever you do - don't trace over your reference. The painting will lose its soul, plus it won't help you in the long run anyway. Yes, I know this could be frustrating, but resist the urge to trace.

If you feel you are heading out on a limb and starting to freestyle, let your inner drill sergeant loose and out yourself back in line.

The temptation to freestyle could be strong, since the concentration and constant analysing is taxing on the brain. Take a break if you need to, do whatever necessary to keep your self discipline intact. Remember that you are building the ground for your painting at this stage. It has to be solid, otherwise the whole painting will fall apart later.

The block-in should be simple but efficient - Jonathan Hardesty

Think of the clock or turn it upside down!

An useful tip, popularised perhaps by Betty Edwards in her groundbreaking book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain is (if possible) to turn your reference picture upside down! If you have not tried this - try it right away. If you are one of those people who constantly tell yourself that you can't draw - try it. I promise you will be amazed. (I can't recommend this book enough to anybody who wants to learn how to draw.) Here is an excellent summary on the upside down-technique.

One thing I came up with myself that greatly improved my ability to judge how sharp or shallow angles are is to think of them as a on a clock. Looking for and drawing a certain angle in a shape is easier if you think about it as a 2 o'clock angle or a 8 o'clock angle than just trying to memorise it and draw it by heart.

Every painting starts with a few simple marks on a paper: indications of shape and form. Start big, then go specific. Think about light and shadow. Hardesty emphasises the importance of blocking in and separating light and shadow right at the beginning. This is indeed very useful in order to truly understand the form. It forces you to think of what you are drawing as a object in 3D.

Monocromatic ear painting in realistic style. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017.

Monochromatic ear painting. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017. (Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).

2. Values: Light and shadow - and five, fifty or fifty billion shades of grey

...or values, as they are called, are the. Most. Important. Factor. In. Realism. Period.

Think of values as everything between light and darkness, everything between pure white and pure black. Every color has a value (or rather every hue has a value), but every value could be represented by many hues. Confusing? No worries. For now, let’s focus only on a monochromatic color scheme - more specifically black and white.

A black and white photograph could look perfectly realistic - despite being devoid of all colours. Why? Because values is the thing that really counts - hues are only the icing on the cake. For true nerds (such as myself) I can highly recommend this article - it encompasses everything anyone could possibly want to know about color and its different components (of which value is one).

Choosing a value scheme is important right at the beginning, after the block-in is completed. In the class “Essentials of Realism” Jonathan Hardesty emphasises the importance of light and shadow already in the block-in process. This comes in handy now when it is time to continue the painting with blocking in the values.

The values are obviously all about the lights and the darks. As always in painting one should start with the general and move on to the specific. In order to keep things clean and focused Hardesty advises us to start only with five values. Three for the lights, two for the shadows.

Toy duck, five values. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017.

Look how much only five values can do towards a realistic effect! Toy duck - five values. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017. (Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).

Look at the block in above. It consists only of five values: three for the lights, two for the shadows. Despite being at a very early and unrefined stage the painting already looks somewhat realistic. When the initial five values are established - feel free to flesh out the values you see in between as well.

As you start to look at the reference you will probably see a myriad of different values. Fifty shades of grey, or maybe more.

Feel free to block them in as specifically as you like, but remember to keep yourself within your value scale, and keep the lights and the darks separate. Relationships in key when it comes to values. As you paint from reference don't simply copy the values on your reference - copy the relationships between the values on your reference.

As a general rule the darkest light is always lighter than the lightest dark. The darks and the lights do not overlap in value. Everything that is not directly visible from the light sources viewpoint is considered to be part of the darks, thus reflected light is part of the darks(!).

Values can be a bit tricky to see sometimes. Something may appear darker than it is if it is next to something much lighter, and vice versa. We all have probably seen optical illusions like this one. One simple trick greatly improves our ability to see values.

Squint your eyes!

Try this now - and you'll notice how the colours fade a bit and the lights and darks become more prominent. The brightest colours and distracting details get lost which makes it easier to see the values.

Don't get lost in details when blocking in values. And do keep the shapes in mind all the time. Correct any misstake you made during the block-in process. Work at the whole piece at once in order to keep your eyes fresh. Eventually they will tire. Do take a break from time to time!

How to manipulate values

The values you choose doesn’t even have to perfectly correspond with the values you see on your reference. The picture will maintain its realism even if you choose to make it overall lighter or overall darker. This was new to me when I attended the class and Jonathan Hadestys concept on how to manipulate the values made so much sense for someone like me who like the scientific aspects in painting.

The value scale could move up or down from the one of your reference. You could even compress or expand the value scheme to make it cover only a certain area of the value scale (a small selection of greys, or almost the entire scale from black to white). You could do all this - as long as the relationship between the values stays the same. If your darkest dark is X percent darker than your lightest light - this relationship must stay the same regardless of how you choose to manipulate your value scheme.

A big cred to mr Hardesty for opening my eyes to this subject. He dives much deeper into this topic in the class of course, and I don't want to steal all his thunder. But just I had to make an example of my own below to explain the concept visually.

Values example. Value scale, five value scheme, manipulated five value scheme and compressed five value scheme.

Values example: From left to right: A value scale containing all values. An example of a 5-value scheme. The same 5-value scheme manipulated towards the lights (with the proportions intact). The same value scheme squeezed together towards the lights (still with the proportions intact).  

One thing to keep in mind is never to go completely black or completely white. Always save a bit outside both ends of your value scale, for added flexibility later on in the painting process. In my opinion most realistic paintings look more realistic if there still is still a bit of the values untouched at both ends. Abslolute black looks a bit dead, as does absolute white, at least in big amounts on the canvas.

As soon as the values are laid out on the paper (or digital tablet) beginning with the basic value scheme and moving on to values in between, the painting should look like a myriad of small grey shapes. Because remember: values are always shapes of value.

Now it is time to make the transitions between the shapes smoother - it is time to refine the edges!

Realistic monochromatic painting. Block-in stage to the left, finished painting to the right. Sebastian dahlström, 2017.

The same painting at different stages: To the left the value block in is complete, to the right the edges are refined. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017. (Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).

Edges (as well as colour) is the topic for my next post, as we continue our sort-of review of Jonathan Hardestys class "The Essentials of Realism". If you have any questions or suggestions I'd love to hear your thoughts - please leave a comment!

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