Tutorial: Realistic Drawing

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April 18th, 2010 5:29 pm


[Reference photo]

A lot of people think they can’t draw. The truth is, nearly everyone can, they just never learned how.

There’s visual drawing and symbolic drawing. Drawings that are like photographs, look real, use shadows to suggest at 3Dness are visual drawings. Simplistic children’s drawings with stick figures and simple outlines are symbolic drawings. Visual drawings are the result of the artist’s mind focusing on outline, color, proportion, how the subject actually looks. Symbolic drawings are the result of focusing on words, meanings, and mental representations of a subject.

To draw realistically, forget what it is you’re drawing, pay no regard to mental representations and ideas, and focus on the reality of the colors and contours of the subject. Visual drawing is like tracing what you’re seeing.

Without turning your head, notice the dark and light areas of this image. If you like, get a piece of paper, relax, and quickly sketch where the dark areas are without paying any attention to what the image is about:


Drawing is about seeing. Things take on interesting qualities when you see them for what they are, instead of what they represent. Pay attention to the subtle curves, angles, proportions of lines. Notice that wrinkles are edges between a shadow and a highlight.  Notice that eyes and liquids are tiny, bright dots of light.  Notice that faces are extremely asymmetrical – light on one side, dark on the other. When you notice these things, you enter a meditative, relaxed, wordless state of mind. This is the artistic mindset.

The artistic mindset is quite at odds with the programming mindset. Programming is largely about manipulating symbols and abstractions. It is no surprise that programmer art is so often like children’s drawings – simplistic and symbolic. This is not a bad thing, it just means the artist was paying attention to words and symbols in his/her thoughts, rather than colors and contours in his/her field of vision. The transition to the drawing mindset can take some time, 5-15 minutes. Above, you can see my progression into this mindset and the improving quality of my chair drawings. If you did the drawing exercise earlier you may have encountered some difficulty noticing the dark areas of the picture. If you keep drawing, this will become easier and easier. Avoid drawing and programming at the same time. Reading, talking, and thinking too much can knock you out of the drawing mindset.

You can think of drawing like copying arrays of pixel values from your vision to the paper, but your vision is infinitely detailed and you have to make choices about which details to transfer and which ones to omit. This choice is your artistic style. More detail is not necessarily better. Know when to stop: watch your drawing, when it looks like the subject, it is complete.

Realistic drawing from the imagination is more advanced than drawing from reference. It comes with practice. If you draw a lot, you will begin to notice patterns in the way that light shines on and interacts with objects, and learn techniques to draw various kinds of objects. Once you’ve had experience drawing from reference, you will be able to apply the skills to drawing from imagination. The other way to draw from imagination is to have a photographic memory that you can use as a reference.

Exercises: 1) Draw the contours of your open palm. At first you may need to look back and forth between your hand and the paper to get the proportions and angles right before you draw a line. Use existing parts of the drawing and the edges of the paper as a size/angle reference. 2) Close your fist, palm up, and draw it by shading the dark areas. 3) Draw any object you like any way you like.

Drawing is relaxing and a powerful way to train your mind and creativity. Nearly everyone can do it if they try.

Questions and feedback are welcome.

2 Responses to “Tutorial: Realistic Drawing”

  1. This looks a lot like the content from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain… great book :)

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