The Hindrance to Realistic Painting

Why Can’t I Paint Realistically?

This is a common cry of would-be painters.  They want what they are painting to actually look like what they are painting, but it doesn’t come out that way.  It may come out looking like something completely different, or it may look like a childish version of what they are trying to portray, but realistic? No.

Here I will insert a disclaimer, I am not the most realistic painter in the world either, but I do feel that if I paint a fox, no one is going to look at it and mistake it for a rat or a possum.  Its also unlikely they will think that a second grader painted the fox.  I am most certainly not photo-realistic, but my paintings, for the most part, also do not look like caricatures of the subject at hand.


The biggest roadblock to realism in art.

Regardless of my own abilities in realistic painting, I do posses the knowledge of what the biggest roadblock to it is, and it is something that some painters do not want to hear.

The biggest roadblock to realistic painting is lack of skill development in drawing.  Yes, I said drawing.  With a pencil.  I also said skill not talent.   That is because, while certain parts of art are talent based, drawing is largely a skill developed through training and practice.

Yes, virtually anybody who can see at all can improve their drawing skill.  We may not all posses the ability to become the next Dirk Dzimirsky, but we all can progress past stick figures and flat looking figures.

We can all learn to draw better than we do on just natural instincts alone.  I would also say that probably 99% of us can learn to draw a more realistic fox than this:

A cartoon-ish, childish fox I drew on MS Paint, in order to demonstrate my point.
A cartoon-ish, childish fox I drew on MS Paint, in order to demonstrate my point.

But I Want to Learn to Paint, Not Draw!

If you made that objection, then I need to let you in a little secret.  While certain types of abstract painting can be done without learning to draw, realistic painting is drawing, for the most part.

It is drawing with paint.  All the rules of regular drawing apply, composition, proportion, perspective, shading… if you want to paint realistically, you must study drawing.  Now by study I don’t mean you need to take a college class, there are many very good “learn to draw books” out there.  A really good one to begin with is also a pretty old one, it is titled Learn to Draw with Jon Gnagy.  As I said, it is a good starting point, after which you could probably learn the rest of what you need by practice and occasionally looking things up on the internet.

Basically in that book you will begin by taking your basic shapes, and learning how to turn them into your basic forms instead.   In other words, if you are trying to draw a ball, you will how to go from this:

Just a circle... not a ball
Just a circle… not a ball

To this:

Not just a circle, a ball, or sphere.
Not just a circle, a ball, or sphere.


Then you learn how to take those basic forms (which are sphere, cone, cube, and cylinder) and find or “see” them in the objects around you.  For example, that ice cream the child is holding.  It is a sphere resting on top of an inverted cone, that dog’s head is basically a modified sphere, with a modified cone coming off of it, the ears are basically half cones… etc.

In the book though, you take this step by step, you learn to turn the cylinder into a bucket, the sphere into an apple, the cube into a stack of books, the cone into a ti-pi.

Then it moves on from there and teaches you the common mistakes in landscapes, you learn to draw a dog (great dane) using the basic forms and shapes already discussed, you learn to combine elements to make well composed drawings.

I did all that, but I still can’t Paint!

If you have learned the basics of drawing, but are having trouble translating them to the medium of paint, don’t despair.  Every new medium has a learning curve.

Start out by going back through your drawing lessons again, this time using paint instead of pencil.  At first, just do them in black and white paint, then later start adding color, make sure premix your colors so that you have a least four or five different values of each color.  In other words, if you are going to be painting something blue, you want a nice dark blue, then one a little lighter, one medium tone, one just a little lighter than medium tone, and one that is almost white, just a slight hint of the blue in it.  You will use these different values to create the shading in your painting.

Keep practicing your drawing skills, because it will translate into your painting in time.  Even after you are painting well, you should still grab your pencil on a regular basis and draw.

Of course, after completing the Jon Gnagy book, and then repeating those lessons in paint,  you’ll still want to learn more.  Learning to draw complex things using a grid can really help you learn to draw what you see.   Instructions on that method can be found HERE.

Of course there are also many other excellent drawing books besides the Jon Gnagy book, the main thing is to get one that will teach you to go from flat shapes to forms, and then turn those forms into realistic objects.

But I don’t care about realism!

If you don’t care to paint realistic objects, than you might not absolutely need to learn how to draw, but it is still good practice.  In drawing you will still learn how to add dimension, which can help in some abstract painting.   Of course, if you like to paint abstractly in a kind of “spatter” or “flow” pattern, and you have no interest in painting anything of a different style than that, you can probably skip the drawing lessons.