4 Tips to Make Your Portraits More Realistic

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

fashion portrait of iris apfel by Dena Cooper

Drawing and painting realistic subject matter can feel like a daunting task but no one starts out with perfect technique.  Everyone has a style and process that works best for them but there are some tricks that have helped me considerably in creating work that looks and feels realistic.  Some of these tips may seem obvious but can be harder to actually put into practice.  Whenever I start to struggle with a piece or feel that burning urge to rip my painting in half and start over, I think about these four helpful tips I’ve learned in art school and beyond as a freelancer in the eleventh hour.

1. Draw what you see, not what you know

This one seems like a no brainer but turns out to be the mantra that I have churning in my head ALL. DAY. LONG.  It’s easy to jump into a routine of painting an eye the way you think it should look based on the countless other eyes you’ve painted in the past but it can be quite rewarding to separate yourself from your subject matter and replicate exactly what you’re seeing instead of the shapes you think are there.  A classic trick of the trade when struggling to get something exactly right is turning your whole painting and reference photo upside down so you are less likely to rely on your own imagination and more likely to stick to what’s actually there.  

2. Contrast is key

Contrast is the difference between the darkest darks and the lightest lights in a composition.  It’s no surprise that the correct amount of shading can make or break a portrait.  Many beginner artists that I’ve worked with are afraid of dark shading and often don’t leave white highlights in their portraits which I see as a huge missed opportunity to create drama and add that pop of realism in their work.  A great trick for correctly establishing your lights and darks in a reference photo is squinting.  You can see all of the highest contrasts by squinting at your reference photo and it can also be a great way to compare your work to your reference side by side.

3. Think of your subject in terms of shapes instead of lines

No one pulls a Michelangelo in the first grade.  We learn to draw using lines and are encouraged to draw even humans in a basic “stick-figure” form as children.  So, when taking higher level art classes, the first habit you have to break is thinking of the world as a series of lines.  Thinking about any object in terms of shape and form can help you see where shading needs to go and how the object is interacting with its light source.  Many artists will start a large composition with a light sketch of the shapes that make up larger objects.  Studying the placement of these shapes within the larger picture can really help lay the foundations for a proportionally correct composition.

4. Complementary tones breed neutrals

Probably the most offensive thing I see other artists do (unknowingly) is use color “straight from the tube”.  Mixing the perfect skin tone is something people ask me about a lot and I have to say it’s easier than you may think.  As a general rule, I mix all of my own colors with the exception of black (even using black from the tube is a huge “don’t” according to many artists - oh well).  For skin tone in watercolor, it’s simple:  Use a base tone of red or a terra-cotta and add water to dilute the hue.  Add the complement of your base tone (green) which will neutralize the red and give you a much more dull peachy tone.  I like to add purple or blue to that mixture to create shadows and I always add color with a very soft hand.  You can always add color but it’s harder to take color away.


Creating realistic artwork takes practice, patience and dedication.  Sometimes it’s necessary to paint one piece three times before getting it exactly right.  Persistence and a critical eye will advance the skill of any artist - I’m a firm believer that art can be a learned skill for those who invest their time and effort into bettering their technique.  I would love to answer any questions you may have about creating realistic portraits - shoot me an email or leave me a comment down below.


2 comments :

  1. Great post. Do you have any tips for drawing realistic hair. Thanks

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    1. Hi Alison,

      That's a great question! I will definitely create a post just for hair but my quick tips would be as follows: I think the hardest part about hair is that it's overwhelming to look at and hard to replicate exactly. I don't try to recreate the EXACT strand of every hair - instead I focus on the highlights and try to follow the general gradient of the shiny areas down to the darkest areas. I think this is another case of using colors that are a little more neutral as I touched on above and also a case of using all the values in your reference photo to create a good contrast of light to dark.

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