Realism has many levels.
You can achieve photographic realism with loads of practice, a good eye, a firm understanding of all the rules of perspective, color theory and, yes, a lot more practice.
Moving it back a notch, most artists that paint realistically take artistic license with their work, and add a painterly appeal to their creations. Most art students refer to this style when they speak of learning to paint.
This is really an illusion. We use many skills and techniques to coax the viewer into perceiving our own vision as true. Artists use foreshortening in perspective; juxtapose complementary colors to create vibrancy and all sorts of other trade secrets to achieve a realism that doesn’t actually exist.
A Reflection Of Reality
When you’re in the planning stages of a painting, you need more than one image from which to work. Don’t think you can take one shot of a rose, a lake, a tree or a child and have enough information to create a compelling and persuasive likeness.
If you’ve ever looked at a painting in which someone has used one photo as a reference, the most you can probably say is that it’s faithful to the image. There’s no insight or depth that goes beyond the accurate recreation of the picture.
Take lots of shots of your chosen subject. Use different angles and distances to set up your shooting positions. Once you have all your photos in your studio, you can study them all for subtle pieces of information that will take your so-so recreation to a level of artistry.
A Compelling Composition
Setting up your composition is a little bit mystery, a little bit jigsaw puzzle, and it all has to end up grabbing the viewer’s attention. Your photos are parts of the puzzle, your attention to detail and knowledge of technique is part of the mystery and putting it all together is like a Rubik’s cube that has many interesting facets with no one correct solution.
Sit with your sketchpad, your photos and try out a number of scenarios. Don’t try to make your composition a direct copy of any one of the pictures. Use the best parts of all of them and extrapolate any details that you need.
As you get closer, keep pushing to make it your best. If you short-change yourself in this preliminary stage of the game, all you do is waste a lot of time and medium creating a second rate painting.
It doesn’t matter how well you understand painting techniques or color theory if you don’t know and follow the rules of perspective. If you’re an impressionist or an abstract artist, you can get away with fudging the rules, and if you’re a surrealist, all bets are off.
However, if you’ve chosen to pursue realism, the pathway of perspective shall be thy guide. Get thee to a bookseller and buy a book on perspective. Take a class in perspective drawing and start practicing and observing. Watch an online video, or buy a DVD. Practice drawing in perspective and painting in perspective. It’s the only way that you’ll ever master this evil-but-necessary skill.
As you are painting, continue to check your perspective. Your enthusiastic brush strokes may inadvertently shift those treacherous lines and angles. Be sure to step away from your painting and look at it from a distance.
Color Is Comparative
A color is what it is because of its relationship to the colors around it, the amount and type of light that shines on it and how reflective it is. Look at a body of water. On a sunny day, it sparkles with beautiful blue hues. On a cloudy, windswept day, that same body of water may appear gray or brown. As the sun sets, it may seem to be a violet tone. You may need a dozen shades and tones to describe it accurately.
Those trees you’re getting ready to paint may not even have a hint of green in them, or they may be such a soft green that you use more yellow than anything else. Look behind the leaves in the front of the tree and what colors do you see in its depths? That’s the beauty of painting realism. The more you observe, the more discoveries you’ll find. Color, upon color, upon color is all there in a few square inches if you really look for the variances.
Shadows are anything but dull or lifeless. Don’t ever take out a tube of black to paint a shadow. In fact, a lot of artists don’t even keep a tube of black paint in their tabouret, although they may keep one hiding in a bottom drawer somewhere for an occasional “art emergency.”
Don’t wait until your painting is almost complete to add your shadows. They are integral to the composition and can be important elements of the painting’s success. Paint them as you are painting the rest of the composition. By including your shadows early on, you can make corrections of color, darkness and size more easily.
Your shadows are probably not one shade or hue. Depending on the reflective qualities of the subject matter, they may have some colors from the object that casts the shadow. Shadows may have local color from the surface on which they are cast, and the colors may vary through different areas of the shadow plane.
Realism Wasn’t Built In A Day
If you’re the kind of artist that creates a painting in one session, then realism may not be for you. Painting realism takes a lot of time. You can spend days or even weeks on a painting to get everything just right.
With this in mind, start simply and small if you want to tackle your first realistic study. Paint a single flower or piece of fruit. If you add a piece of lace or place it on a hardwood table, you’re asking for trouble. That simple object is sitting on a whole lot of detail work.
Once you get the hang of painting those details, and if you haven’t driven yourself crazy, try something a little more complex. You may want to work on other paintings as well, as you might find your concentration is lagging if you work exclusively on one, long-term piece. So, put down the stopwatch, take a deep breath and paint your own version of realism.