Learning to paint or draw is really learning to see - to observe reality (or ones own imagination). With the risk of sounding pretentious I can sincerely say the world looks more beautiful to me now than before I started to study the concepts I am writing about here. You could experience that beauty too - even without attempting to draw or paint. In this blog post I'll show you how to discover beauty everywhere.
Anything could be beautiful. It is just a question of discovering it. And that becomes much easier when you know where and how to look.
Learning to draw is learning to see
Yes, some people have a talent for drawing, but it is merely a small head start. 90 % of any skill could be taught and learned, and developed by practice. Drawing is hard - but it becomes much easier when knowing what to look for. You don’t have to approach every painting as a checklist of rules to follow, but the old truth still holds: learn the rules before attempting to break them. Or at least, know that there are rules to follow if you feel you don't know where to go.
I'd like to think of these rules like guides. A helping hand to reach for when feeling lost.
Sometimes artists are fearful of learning theory. Somehow they feel that they will lose their "unique voice". (The same phenomenon is common among musicians). This is both ignorant and misguided. As in any subject that requires a lot of effort - more knowledge does not kill creativity, but rather enhances it. The more theory you know the better you’ll be, and with increased skill comes increased inspiration. Your own uniqueness will only shine through much brighter than before.
Too much information at once can feel daunting. But remember you don’t have to learn everything at once. In fact, the more you'll learn the more you'll realise you don't know. There is no set destination, no ultimate goal. Every artist follows her or his own journey. As long as you never settle and always push outside your comfort zone you'll be on the right track.
Paintings I've been very proud of at varying tagents on my learning curve as an artist. From the left: Sketch (2001), Contrabass player (2003), Portrait of Jaco Pastorius (2001), Caricature of Juha Sipilä (2015), Caricature of Johnny Cash (2016), Caricature of Juha Sipilä (2017), "Goodbye to a Friend" (2017). All rights reserved.
The first steps towards realism - the 4 things you need to know
This is the second part in a two-part series of blog-posts about the basic concepts on painting (and seeing) in a realistic way. If you haven’t read the first part, I recommend you do it before reading further, you'll find it here. At the same time this is a summary, or a sort-of review, of what I learned when taking the class The Essentials of Realism by Jonathan Hardesty on Schoolism.
The four core concepts of realism are proportion, value, edges and colour.
Now - look around you - find an object. Try to frame it in your mind, and look at everything within that mental frame that is not the object itself. Try to see it as a shape. This is a negative shape - a great aid in finding the proportions of the object itself when drawing. There is a million other ways to help you get the proportions right, such as imagined lines over the painting, paying close attention to angles and shapes, but negative shape is the one technique I personally find most useful.
Exercise nr 2: Look at anything. Squint your eyes. Note how the colours disappear a bit, and everything becomes desaturated and a little more black and white. Look at the relationships between the values. Ask yourself: what is darkest, what is lightest - what has the same value? Can you simplify the values you see and place them in a 5-value scale from light to dark?
Value is the one thing that truly makes a painting realistic. If you can represent the correct relationships of value of what you are painting, you'll be over halfway to having a successful realistic painting.
After you've gotten the proportions and values just right it is time to move on to edges and colour. And that's what we'll do next.
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: How to make a painting look more realistic than a photograph
Edges are the transition between two values. The quicker the value changes the harder the edge will be. The closer the values are and the smoother the transition is, the softer the edge will appear.
Edges we're a new concept for me when I attended the class. Or rather, I had never really thought much about edges when painting, since I didn't realise I should. But edges have a huge influence on the overall feel of a painting.
Look at the two paintings above. On the one to the left all proportions and values are in place, but it still look very rough compared to the finished one on the right. You might think all I did was to smooth out the transitions a bit. Nope. If I'd just mindlessly had blended the values together at the edges it would look like a blurry photograph.
The edges convey the form, and form is what makes a painting give the impression of 3D. We are accustomed to draw lines and think of symbols which makes us biased against edges. Photographs are also deceptive since everything in the picture (or a big part of it) may be crystal clear - but this is not how a fleeting moment looks to us. In our field of vision just a small part is in focus.
Look at this painting by Anders Zorn - this is a much better representation of how we see the world than a photograph of the same scene would be. A moment in time would look like this. A photograph would be too sharp and detailed. Most of our field of vision is soft edges, and hints of objects rather than objects in high definition. Some edges are completely lost, they melt together. If this is the case, be sure to paint them together as well. Don't aim for distinction, focus on similarity. And as always: simplify.
Find the relationships between the edges
Edges work the same way as values in the sense that the important thing is the relationship between them. Before starting to paint the edges - look at all of them. Find the sharpest edge on your reference, and find the smoothest. Find the in-between edges. Group them together in your mind into a simplified hierarchy. You can manipulate them in the same way as values as long as the relationships stay intact.
Lets look again at the painting of the little girl.
Soft edges made even softer, implying innocence. Monochromatic painting of a little girl, Sebastian Dahlström 2017. (Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).
Edges are a very powerful compositional tool, since you as an artist can choose what to bring into focus and what to leave out of focus.
I painted this girl from a reference photograph. When manipulated correctly edges can convey a feeling, and I tried to make the painting feel dreamlike and innocent. I decided to make the edges softer to achieve this effect. Note that there are still some sharp edges on the painting, in the eyes, around the lips and on the dress. Without them the painting would look sloppy and out of focus. They also help to focus the spectators eye on the important parts of the painting. But those edges are still softened down from the reference photograph.
Edges can also be manipulated the other way. If you choose to make them overall harder than on your reference you'll convey a totally different feeling.
When manipulating edges keep three things in mind. The areal perspective makes things far away look more soft (think of it as a "fog- effect"). The compositional hierarchy is used to draw the spectators eyes to a certain place in the painting (harder edges create a focal point). And the emotional effect is used to convey a message (like softness and innocence in my example above).
The key is always the relationships. Just as a dark value needs a light counterpart to really appear dark, a sharp edge needs a smooth neighbour to appear sharp. Just like you should limit your values and set a value-range, you should do the same thing with the edges.
Edges refined. Black and white painting of a cloth. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017. (Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).
How to paint colours
Colours could be overwhelming. There are a thousand opinions on what colours work well together, and a million colour schemes and palettes to choose from. Colours have complicated names. Everyone (at least every child) has a favourite colour. So, where to begin?
Let's take some pressure off. Colours are not the most important thing in realism. Far from it. As long as the proportions, values and edges are in shape the painting will look realistic regardless of what colours you choose. Colours is merely the icing on the cake.
Why are the colours not as important as the proportion, values and edges? It is because colour is very subjective. Everybody sees colour a bit differently.
Colour is also deceptive in the sense that they can prevent us from seeing a value. The key is to try to see the value behind the colour. Making a colour picture black and white in Photoshop (or by squinting your eyes) usually has some interesting results. A very bright colour could appear lighter that it really is. Red is always quite dark. Green and yellow can be surprisingly light-valued. Try to find the value behind each colour!
Just like values and edges rely on relationships, so does colour. In values the relationships are measured in light and dark. In edges the scale goes between soft and hard. When comparing colours the distinction is warm and cold.
Sketch painting of some coloured balls and a cloth. Warm colour scheme. Sebastian Dahlström 2017. (Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).
If the light has a warm colour the shadows are generally cool (a typical example would be yellow light and slightly blue shadows). If the light is cold the shadows tend to be warmer (think of a blue light and murky red/brown shadows). Which colours appear warm and cool is always depending on the context, but as a general rule a scale from cool to warm would look like this: black, blue, green, yellow, orange, white.
Every individual colour could also be divided into a cool and a warm variant. Saturation warms, desaturation cools. If you have a green and would like to warm it: make it a bit lighter and a bit more saturated, maybe draw it a bit more towards the yellows. If you want to make it a bit cooler: make it slightly more desaturated (more grey), a bit darker and maybe mix in a little blue. If you compare these two colours they would look warm and cool next to each other.
Example of warming and cooling a green colour.
When planning the color scheme of your painting, start by dividing the colours into warm and cool. Think of them as two families, and keep the warm/cool-relationship in mind all the time. So don't try to copy the exact colours you see on your reference, but rather adjust them according to their warm/cool relationship, and the feeling you want to convey with the painting. Sometimes the surrounding needs to be manipulated. How to make a cheek look warm and red? Make the rest of the face cooler.
When painting colours always think about proportion, value and edges at the same time. Especially value - since every colour has a value and it is much more important than the hue.
Finished painting. Manipulated colour scheme towards the cooler end of the spectrum. Balls and cloth. Sebastian Dahlström, 2017. (Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).
The colour wheel and complementary colours
A colour is very much affected by what colours are around it. On the colour wheel opposite colours make each other pop. Place an orange colour next to a blue and the orange will shine brighter and the blue will look more deep and vibrant. The same effect could be achieved by give a single object an extremely vibrant colour and place it next on a very desaturated area of the painting. Colour need the contrast in order to be effective, and paintings need both areas of vibrant colour and non-colour to play off each other.
As a general rule colours could be represented a little brighter then they are in reality. This won't sacrifice any realistic effect (as long as the values are correct), and it will keep your painting from becoming a grey mesh when you start to blend the colours.
If the colours are vibrant they can do a bit of the same job as a value- or edge-change would do. A transition between warm and cold could help make a 3D effect more strong, when working together with edges and values.
Making a painting from start to finish
Finally I will take you through my thought process when painting the final work in the class on realism. In 2017 my lovely cat Ville died, leaving behind his companion Elmer. I wanted to convey the bittersweet feeling of a life-long companion saying goodbye before passing on. After a bit of looking around I found the perfect photograph of the two cats to use as a reference.
Reference photograph for the painting "Goodbye to a friend". Copyright: Rose-Marie Dahlström, do not use without permission).
Then I collected some more photographs of the cats, just to have as additional ones for getting the features exactly right. Then I started the block in process.
Proportions and value block in. I went with two value scales, since I wanted to make the cat on the left appear lighter and a bit "faded" I deliberately manipulated his value scheme a bit towards the light. Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).
I decided to manipulate the values on Ville (the dying cat to the left) in order to make him "disappear" a bit, and fade into the background. I chose a slightly lighter value scheme, a slightly softer edge-scheme and colour-wise put the emphasis on the more unusual colours I saw (compare the violet on his back on the painting with the original photo, for instance).
I also removed his collar in the painting, to further convey the feeling that he is no longer bound by earthly things. His companion Elmer looks at him intensely with a sense of understanding and acceptance but yet desperate sadness.
Edge-wise I made Elmer (the cat on the right) the focal point. He is here, present, detailed and realistic. The eye moves to him first, and follow his gaze to Ville on the left. Thus communicating his goodbye to his friend. Ville is softer, lighter. He looks away, already turned towards the great green unknown beyond the door. He is ready to move on.
My final piece in the class on realism. Title: "Goodbye to a friend". The painting tells a story of a lifelong companion saying goodbye before moving on to the afterlife. (RIP my lovely cat Ville). Sebastian Dahlström, 2017. (Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).
Paws. Detail of "Goodbye to a Friend". Sebastian Dahlström, 2017. (Copyright: Sebastian Dahlström, do not use without permission).
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