How to paint more realistically

green and white leafed plantsPin 2K Share 2K Shares

Realism Painting may mean different things to different people. To some it may mean wanting a painting to look like a photograph. To others it might mean painting that is representational – that is painting that makes ‘things look like things’. However you might define realism, I don’t think anyone can argue that realism has a lot to do with painting what is ‘real’ in the world. In addition, I think all agree that realism painting is hard… So, here are some core practical concepts to help you in creating a realistic painting!


Edges in art, are an important aspect to realism painting. They are what help you make areas go in and out of focus in your painting. Thus, you can make things feel up close or far away. This of course creates a feeling of space and a great sense of realism.

Edwin Dickinson, Self Portrait

So, next time you paint, carefully observe the edges of what you are looking at. Ask yourself which areas are fuzzy and which are sharp. In general, areas in the background are softer, while areas up close are sharper.

However, this all depends on what colors and tones are next to each other as well. For example, when two areas of close or equal value area next to one another the edges will be soft. In contrast, when two very dissimilar values are next to one another the edge will be sharp – as can be seen when a very dark area is next to a bright area.

Look at the above painting by Edwin Dickinson and observe all the varying sharp and soft edges which make the painting realistic.

Look At Things Abstractly

To look at things abstractly might sound counter intuitive to some as the world ‘abstract’ probably conjures up images of paintings made up of splashes of paint, shapes and unrecognizable imagery.

Antonio Lopez Garcia, Irises and Roses

However, looking at the world abstractly is precisely what will make your work appear more real. Lets say you are painting an apple sitting on a table. If you paint the apple with the mindset that you are painting it to look like an apple then it probably will look like a generic apple. However, it will not have the specificity of the apple that is sitting on the table. When you paint with the mindset of seeing things as ‘things’ instead of abstract shapes then you end up painting out of your head and not what you are actually really seeing – thus it is not good realism painting.

Painting abstractly means to paint by observing light and dark, shapes, and colors – these are all the ‘real’ elements that make things look the way they do. So, when focusing on these elements, the core essentials, you end up on the other end with a much more realistic painting than if you would paint with the mindset of painting an ‘apple’. Check out fundamentals of oil painting for more on the core essentials.

Focus On Value

Value is the most important element when it comes to a realistic painting. Light is everything! Even when you consider value next to color, value is more important. If your colors are all off but your values are right on, then your painting will work. However, if your colors are great but your values are not correct, then your painting will not work.

Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, The Bridge at Narni

Simplify the values in what you are painting. It is absolutely impossible to paint all the subtle value shifts in nature. Limit yourself to four values and try to categorize the values you see into the darkest darks, medium, light and brightest bright values. Consider what the value of something is before everything else. Having a clear sense of light is what will make your painting realistic more than anything else.

The above painting is by Corot, a 19th century French landscape painter. He was a master of value. Looking at his paintings is an excellent lesson in learning more about how to simplify value in painting.

Measure (geometry, geometry, geometry…)

Measuring is another important aspect when it comes to realism painting. Measuring is what helps you to achieve the correct proportions of what you are seeing. The best way to approach measuring is to take what I call the ‘relative’ approach. It is impossible to measure something in isolation to itself.

Antonio Lopez Garcia, Jose Maria

For example, when drawing the structure of a building I would constantly be looking at parts in relation to other areas. So, in practical terms this means seeing at which point the roof ends and meets up with another part of the building and being able to determine where the window frame might start. This constant comparing and measuring would continue on in great detail and depth throughout the process of drawing the house. As a result, you would come up with an accurate and proportional drawing. You can see this process at work in the above drawing by Antonio Lopez Garcia. Notice the measuring marks in the drawing as well as the relating parts to other areas to be able to ascertain measurements. Studying artistic masters is always a part of my learning and I find these drawing lessons from Leonardo Da Vinci very helpful.

As you draw more and more in this manner of measuring and comparing you are training and sharpening your eye to naturally be able to measure distance more quickly and accurately.

Though, measuring does extend beyond just line drawing. Measuring can also be used when it comes to value and even color and temperature. The entire process of painting involves continual comparison of different parts to another. In fact, comparison is absolutely essential for realistic painting.

Color and temperature in realism painting

Last, but not least color and temperature are vital elements when it comes to realism painting. I would dare to say that temperature is more important than color. When we paint from nature we can never paint a color exactly the same as we see it in front of us. All we can hope to do is create a representation of that color. However, what we can do is be accurate about the color’s temperature in relation to the other areas around it – this can also be called ‘color harmony’.

Still Life, Giorgio Morandi, 1960

A wonderful example of the power of temperature can be seen in the painting by Morandi above. The entire painting is made up of muted colors and it is the temperature of these muted colors that we see and feel from the painting above all else. For example, the top of the urn in front of the red cylindrical shape has a bluish top that nearly disappears into the background of the painting. The one difference that differentiates both areas is that the top of the urn is cooler while the background is warmer. In addition, the red cylindrical object is able to stand out because of its temperature, not because of its color as it is the warmest part of the painting.

If you haven’t yet – Grab my FREE Color Mixing Guide for help with color mixing techniques for painting!

Temperature is what creates those subtle moments that are absolutely essential in realism painting. Nature is made up subtle color and temperature shifts, so it is important to be able to see these moments and paint them.

A Recommended Resource

The single best book you can get for yourself to learn how to paint from nature is Hawthorne on Painting, which I highly recommend.

Realism painting tips conclusion

If you’re looking for ideas of what to paint that can help you with practicing your realistic painting. How to paint a landscape, or if you’re lucky enough to be near the ocean these seascape painting tips for beginners are both fun ways to get outside. Or if you’re looking for something you can work on at home, here’s a still life painting tutorial. As always, if you have any questions or comments about realism painting please reach out in the comments below!

Leave a Comment