The Essentials of Realistic Drawing

A Brief Technical Guide for Beginners

Have you ever wanted to create accurate drawings that look just like photographs? With essential knowledge and continual practice, you may be able to achieve your goal.

In this step-by-step guide, you’ll learn how to:

  • Recognize shapes that make up the basic structure of most drawings
  • Apply standard proportions for lifelike measurements
  • Use the rules of perspective to suggest the appearance of space
  • Incorporate multiple types of shading from dark to light

The Elements of Art

Not sure where to start? There are seven necessary elements of realistic drawings.

  • A line is a mark with greater length than width going in any direction.
  • A shape is a set of closed lines showing length and width.
  • Forms are three-dimensional shapes showing length, width, and depth.
  • Space is the empty area around objects, and may also be used to create depth.
  • Color can be described in terms of hue (pigment), lightness (brightness), and saturation (intensity). To learn more about color, please subscribe to stay up-to-date with future blog posts about the topic.
  • Value refers to lightness or darkness.
  • Texture is the appearance of a surface. An artwork or design may only look textured, or its surface can actually be that way.

Now let’s learn how to draw step-by-step!

Start with Shapes

Whether you are referencing a person, animal, or object, the first step to drawing realistically is finding basic shapes within them, such as circles, ovals, squares, rectangles, or triangles.

Photo of hands
Think about the different types of shapes that can be found within this photo of a pair of hands.
Shapes within hands
This sketch consists of ovals and circles representing the subject’s arms, wrist bone, fingers, and knuckles.
The shirt sleeve was drawn with irregular shapes made of straight and curved lines.

You might also create three-dimensional alternatives, such as spheres, cylinders, rectangular prisms, cones, and pyramids, which you can draw more effectively when using the rules of perspective, a topic to be covered in a future post.

Why is creating shapes a crucial first step? You’re more likely to put an accurate sketch to paper if you focus on the basic structure of a subject before working on the rest of its details. For example, if you heavily outline and start to shade each finger of the above photo one by one before realizing they are distorted or too close together, you would probably need to start again. If you detect that error during your rough sketch of the entire photo, however, you can save yourself plenty of time.

Outline and Shade

When you are satisfied with the shapes you’ve made and the proportions in which you’ve placed them, it’s time to refine what you’ve made by drawing more realistic outlines around them. Some shapes may be combined into single forms with extra space at their intersections, while others might look similar to how they were originally sketched.

Outlined shapes within hands
When outlined, the combined shapes merge into more cohesive forms.

Make sure there is a wide range of values, or shades from dark to light, throughout your entire drawing.

The placement of these values will vary depending on where your light source—which might be the sun, a lamp, or anything else that gives off light—is located.

In many drawings,

  • There is usually a highlight so bright that it is the color of the paper.
  • If its surface is smooth, it will gradually transition into a halftone, or medium gray.
  • The shadow edge is an even darker part of the subject.
  • If drawn along with something else, it may create a cast shadow. The other element may also reflect the light it receives back onto the main subject through reflected light.
  • Hard-edged shadows are very crisp and clearly-defined; soft shadows gradually shift from light to dark.

See if you can identify these aspects of shading within the drawing below!

Shaded sphere

There are many ways to achieve a range of values.

Hatching

Parallel Hatching: many rows of expressive lines

Contour hatching

Contour Hatching: hatch marks that follow the curve of each subject

Crosshatching

Cross Hatching: sets of hatch marks that overlap in different directions

Smudging

Smudging: pencil marks smoothed with cotton balls or tortillions

Stippling

Stippling: small dots

Scumbling

Scumbling: loose, random scribbles

You can more easily achieve very dark or very light pencil strokes with graded pencils. The European pencil grades (often used by professional artists in many countries including the U.S.) range from 9B to 9H; in their grading system, pencils with the label of H beside the highest numbers contain relatively light shades while those with the letter B alongside higher numbers are darker. F and HB pencils are near the middle of the scale.

You are probably familiar with #2 pencils since they’re standard for general purposes. These belong to the U.S. grading system, which ranges from #1 to #4. The following examples show their equivalents to the European scale.

B

#1

HB

#2

F

#21/2

H

#3

2H

#4

Improving your drawing skills may be a challenge, but by discovering exciting and time-saving techniques, you can transform it into a relatively simple and rewarding process! Stay tuned for future posts and other resources that can help you apply the rules of perspective, find perfect proportions, skillfully use color, and more.

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