How to Draw Realistically: 11 Expert Tips For Superb Results

Realistic pencil drawing of 3 elephants. A header for How to draw realistically.

It’s not easy to draw realistically. It takes time and dedication. There is a lot to learn. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you have the desire to give it a go, the rewards are worth the effort.

In order to draw realistically, the artist must master proportion and pay close attention to every detail. Realistic drawing requires a keen eye and a super steady hand, along with the ability to concentrate and focus entirely on the subject.

We’ll begin with the basics and go over 11 key points to help you to master realistic drawing. First things first, let’s be clear about what we mean by realism. Ok, let’s start.

What is Realistic Drawing?

Realistic drawing is the accurate depiction of nature, objects, and general life, drawn in a photographic style. The purpose is to deceive the viewer into believing a two-dimensional image is 3 dimensional to the eye.

The artist attempts to make their subject as believable and true to life as possible. Hyper-realism is at the very extreme end of the spectrum, where the artist, in effect, reproduces a photograph. The skill is extraordinary, but beyond the scope of most people to achieve or even desire.

Instead, we will learn how to draw realistically to a level that transcends sketching but achieves a photographic quality. The idea is to reach a level of realism that is representational and, at the same time, retains the charm of an obvious work of art.

It’s not easy.

That said, these are my top tips to help you get there, starting with using the best art supplies.

Essential Drawing Materials For Drawing Realistically

Don’t kid yourself that you can cut corners. You need the right art materials if you are going to draw realistically in the way that you envisage.

Drawing is the cheapest artform out there. There is no excuse. Don’t buy some cheap Chinese crap just to save a dollar or two. Buy the best from well-known brands. What I will say is go easy on buying too much.

Beginners tend to buy everything they could possibly need. All you need is the right pencil grades, the right paper, and a few selected erasers.

All the rest are extras you can live without for now.

Basic art materials needed for drawing realistically
The most essential drawing kit

I will list the most important kit you will need, based on what I use myself.

Drawing Pencils

I use two pencil brands, Derwent Graphic pencils, and Pentel mechanical pencils. They are my choice but not set in stone. If you are familiar with another brand and know how they behave, stick with them.

I chose Derwent because they were homegrown (I live in the UK) and readily available to buy individually. I chose Pentel because they too were stocked locally, and they had a great range of pencil grades.

Further Reading: Can You Draw With Mechanical Pencils?

It is very important if you intend to continue drawing, to use a brand that sells their pencils separately. There is nothing more frustrating than running out of a pencil (or color) and having to buy a whole set just to replace it.

In my experience, it’s becoming progressively more difficult to find off-the-shelf replacements in my local art stores. It’s back to buying online yet again.

If you are unsure about the grades you need, concentrate more on the harder grades and forget the softer ones. Personally, I seldom use a darker grade than a 3B.

I tend to mainly use:

  • Derwent 3B, B, HB, 2H, 4H, and 9H
  • Pentel 2B, B, HB, 2H, 4H

I had reservations about saying Derwent 3B because I use Pentel pencils more these days and my 3B isn’t used much these days. That said, I used it in the past and I still like to have it handy.

I use the 9H to take the white off an area, and on occasion, to score the paper when I’m drawing fur.

Drawing Paper

I’m not very adventurous with my paper. I use an A3 Daler-Rowney heavyweight cartridge pad. it has a fine grain, feels substantial, and has a pleasing off-white tint.

Daler fine grain A3 cartridge drawing pad for realistic drawing
Daler Fine Grain A3 Cartridge Pad

There is no reason to choose Daler. There are other brands that are just as good and arguably better. It all depends on your style and preferred surface.

Many realists draw on Bristol board that’s brilliant white with no tooth at all. If you decide to try it out make sure it’s archival quality. Canson and Strathmore make archival pads.

If I lived in the States I’d use Strathmore paper. They are harder to obtain here in the UK and the inconvenience alone puts me off.

Pencil Erasers

I use 3 varieties of pencil erasers.

  • Kneadable Putty Eraser
  • Tombo-mono Eraser Pen
  • Jakar Battery Eraser

I use the kneadable eraser to remove larger areas and dab the graphite to lower the tone, the eraser pen is used to remove fine lines, and the battery eraser removes the tiniest details.

It’s important to remember that you are drawing with an eraser. It’s not just for repairing mistakes.

Draw Realistically With an Accurate Grid

Let’s get real, drawing photographically from life is way too advanced for a beginner. Besides, there are some subjects that don’t lend themselves to life studies. An animal is not going to sit still long enough for more than a sketch. The same goes for the fleeting light in a landscape.

You will need a reference photo and grid it up. Follow the giraffe link below and see how to make a grid easily

Further Reading: How to Draw a Realistic Giraffe

For this method to work your grid must be spot-on. I like to layer a grid on top of the photograph using Photoshop. You can use Pixlr as a free alternative.

Long before Photoshop, I used to photocopy my references and enlarge them to the size I wanted to draw. I’d draw parallel lines using both sides of a ruler to get an accurate grid. I used a 1-inch wide ruler for drawing easy subjects and a 1 cm wide ruler for the difficult ones

I drew another light-touch grid on my drawing paper and copied my image size for size.

Choosing Reference Photos for Realistic Drawing

We all want to jump right in and draw the most amazing image from the outset. That’s understandable, but a few wise words of caution before you take on too much.

The best way to learn is to start simple and progress as you gain confidence. It’s far better to build on small wins than to set yourself up for defeat from the outset.

I draw animals, mostly wildlife, and elephants are one of my favorite subjects. Now there is no way I’d ever have attempted to draw every crease, fold, and wrinkle when I first began. That came later and only after pushing myself to improve on the drawings that came before.

Think about the amount of detail you are attempting to draw. Maybe avoid close-ups for now, if not, draw less complicated forms. If I was drawing a cat, for example, it would be easier to draw plain fur, without the spots or stripes.

Realistic zebra drawing and the original photo reference

I use my own references but you don’t have to go that far at the beginning. You can take screenshots of photos that interest you. There is nothing illegal about that if you are just practicing.

Choose a subject that inspires you. Something that won’t bore you to death halfway through, and do make sure that there is no lens distortion.

I see it so many times. Someone does a cracking drawing but is such a slave to the reference photo that they ignore that it was shot with a wide-angle lens. Unless it’s your intention to draw a distorted image, be aware of the proportions and angles. Are they true to life?

I usually see this mistake with pet portraits. It’s a lovely drawing or painting, with a huge nose and short legs.

Further Reading: Is Drawing From Photos Bad?

Your brain can sometimes play tricks and it’s not always apparent that the image is wrong. Look at the uprights. If the vertical lines curve towards the center, they need correcting.

If you take your own shots, and I think that’s best, use a 50mm lens and that is near enough the same as the human eye. In reality, it makes little difference if the focal length is longer. It affects the depth of field, but the subject will appear without distortion.

Draw The Focal Point First

I’m always asked where I start first, and as I draw animals, I always start with the eyes. Why? because they are the main focus of the picture. The eyes must be right. There is no room for error.

I start with the most important feature because if that goes wrong there is no way I can save the picture. You may as well do the hardest part first, and if you screw up, you can start again without investing too much time in the project.

I also like to start with the most interesting part. The eyes are the heart and soul of the subject and in a way, the rest is padding. The best bit is always the face. You can go wrong at the peripherals or fade it out and leave it as a sketch.

Drawing Realistic Proportions

It is essential that your proportions are accurate. If you use the grid system there should be no reason, apart from lens distortion, that your proportions are wrong.

All you are doing is laying in the contour lines, one box at a time. What could be simpler than that? In many ways, you might ask yourself why not trace the photo and cut out the work?

Many do. If you look at most of the tutorials on Instagram you’ll see an initial tracing without any gridlines.

I’m not critical. I understand why a fantastic draftsman/woman, can’t be bothered to draw a grid and decide to cut out hours of needless labor. The end results will be identical. And they are professional, so time really is money.

For the rest of us, we have two options. Draw everything by eye, or use a grid.

If you decide that drawing by eye is the only way for you, then you can still do yourself a favor and use proportional dividers.

There is no doubt that drawing by freehand will give you much more satisfaction than using a grid. If it works. And your pencil lines will have more life and fluidity. You will also go wrong constantly.

That’s not such a bad thing if you know how to correct your lines and you can do that with dividers.

Further Reading: Can Anyone Learn to Draw?

The easiest way to make an accurate copy is to layer a simple cross over your photo or draw one over your photocopy. They are your only guidelines. Every feature is a set distance away from those lines.

The guidelines help you to center the image properly on your page and to get started quickly.

Now you can measure and mark out all the most relevant parts of the image. The spacing between the eyes, their size, and level in relation to each other. Where the nose goes and the corners of the mouth.

Then it’s a matter of joining the dots. You should be able to draw the lines freehand knowing where the boundaries are. If you get stuck, use the dividers again, and see where you went wrong.

Keep the rough lines and draw the correct ones. Your drawing will look much better. The result will be realistic, not so photographic, and far easier to leave out unnecessary detail where it’s unimportant.

Drawing Realistic Detail

The difference between a sketch and a fine drawing is in the detail. A sketch is like taking notes, and the drawing is the finished piece. A detailed drawing is not always the best, a sketch is often better.

Detail takes a great deal of time and the longer you study your subject the more you see. And if you see more, you tend to want to draw it. I sometimes use a magnifying glass to see the detail and get stuck drawing insane amounts of detail as a consequence. I can’t unsee it.

That’s the major drawback of using photo references. It’s very difficult to edit the drawing. What do you leave out when you have so much information? And once you’ve started along a path of obsessive detail, how can you break away and add a flourish? It’s almost impossible.

I use 0.3mm Pentel mechanical pencils for drawing detail. I can draw the finest lines imaginable.

When I discovered them they transformed my ability to draw detail.

Realistic Pencil Shading

There are many ways to shade in pencil, but realistic drawing requires the artist to have complete control. Random lines and multi-directional hatching might look very arty but unconvincing as realism.

Most representational realists will attempt to shade without visible lines. Some will use a blender and others, like me, will draw precision hatching lines that are so fine and precise that they merge seamlessly.

The key to convincing pencil shading is cross-hatching in layers

Dark areas are laid down in progressive layers, one on top of the other. The first layer is formed with parallel diagonal one-directional hatching. The next layer is laid in the same way but in the opposite direction.

This cross-hatching will darken the tone and eliminate any inconsistencies in the first layer.

Repeat this process until you achieve the desired tone. If you apply several layers and the tone is still too light, do not press harder. Choose a darker grade of pencil and continue as before.

The advantages of this deliberate and controlled approach are twofold. Any gross errors can be erased without damaging the surface of the paper, and the paper grain can be retained for artistic effect.

Darker pencil tones can be enriched if the grain of the paper is retained. Those tiny white speckles make the darks sparkle. If however, the same pencil tone is blended with a stump, the tone becomes matt and flattens.

Fine pencil drawing of a cockatoo showing the shading technique that highlights the paper grain
The speckling is the grain of the paper

Both techniques are perfectly valid. There are no rights and wrongs. it’s up to the artist to assess which method will work best, given their subject and drawing style.

Further Reading: How to Draw Realistic Shadows

It is far easier to control your shading with mechanical pencils. The line stays more consistent. I like to retain a fine grainy effect as I shade and that is best achieved with 0.3mm leads.

I hold the pencil at a fixed angle and try to maintain that hold throughout the shading. If the lead breaks or my hold shifts, the hatching lines sharpen and the hatching alters for the worse.

When this happens I swipe the nib over some fine emery paper and re-establish the chamfer. The hatching can be continued where you left off.

There are times when there are noticeable joins where two patches of pencil shading overlap. These dark edges can be erased by lightly touching the join with a super-thin twist of Blu-Tak.

Brush a long strand of Blu-Tak over the mark lightly. Don’t rub or dab the surface. A gentle stroke will lift just enough graphite to merge the two patches perfectly. You can do the same with a kneadable eraser if it’s soft enough.

Blending Pencil Properly

If you decide to blend with a paper stump or tortillon, there is a temptation to blend everything. I’ve seen amateurs fall into that trap so many times. The result is a smudged mess.

Blending stumps help with transitions but must be foiled with harder edges or the resulting drawing will lack definition. Those edges can dark or light, it doesn’t matter. It’s the contrast that works.

A good drawing has a mixture of hard and soft edges. It creates an interesting dynamic and retains the interest of the viewer. I’m not saying that I always get it right, but it is an aspiration.

Using a blender allows the artist to be less obsessed with precision hatching. That said, the tone should still be applied in layers. Heavy-handed marks will stain the paper and ruin the surface.

Whatever you do, resist the urge to use your fingers. your skin is oily and if that transfers to your paper you will never remove the smudge. Use a blender or your pencils.

Used blenders can be kept to add tone instantly and new blenders can be used to lift graphite and lighten an area.

simple paper pencil blenders

You are not limited to paper blenders. Plenty of artists use make-up brushes, tissue, or cotton buds to blend graphite.

Others like to use graphite powder in its pure form. I have never found it that useful, and it’s very messy, but plenty of artists use it.

You can make your own powder by sanding a graphite stump. The advantage is that you can make darker tones.

Keep Your Drawing Balanced

Ideally, you make a rough outline first, making sure that the focal point is drawn accurately, and blocking in the major shapes and shadows.

The next stage is to refine your drawing whilst adjusting each area as you go to ensure that your tonal values are consistent.

It’s very easy to get engrossed in one part of your drawing and neglect the rest. I do that all the time and the result is a disjointed unbalanced drawing. It’s far better to step back more often and continually adjust the picture as a whole.

This is my failing. I find that I concentrate and focus on one particular section of the drawing. When it looks OK, I switch to another detail without stepping back. Before I know it, I have multiple areas, all drawn well, but totally disconnected.

All the areas are fine in their own right, but it’s as if they are stand-alone studies sitting side-by-side. I then have the task of readjusting the tonal values of each until they sit comfortably together.

That’s the problem with photo-realism. you get obsessed with tiny areas to the detriment of the whole drawing.

That is where my 9H pencil comes in handy. This is a pencil grade few artists use, but it comes into its own when unifying disparate areas of a drawing.

A 9H is so hard and faint that it glides over a drawing with apparently little effect. Use the side of the pencil, not the point, of course.

The effect is subtle. It removes the whitest whites without removing the finesse of the drawing beneath. It’s adding another non-destructive tonal layer. This unifies all the lightest areas of the drawing and they blend together more naturally.

Of course, you will lose the highlights, but that’s no problem. A battery eraser will restore the paper to its original state. You can rescue the sparkle in an eye with one dot of the eraser.

Creating Strong Contrast in Pencil

Perhaps the greatest drawback of using graphite is the shine. Soft graphite reflects light and that distracts the eye.

It doesn’t worry me too much, but only because that shine doesn’t appear in the final print reproduction, and that is my prime concern as a professional artist. However, I don’t like the shine in my original drawings and it does diminish some of my earlier work.

The shine is the result of burnishing the surface. Overworked areas and heavy pressure will increase the sheen. Indeed the softest grades burnish themselves on application. It means that anything over 3B is never going to be truly dark. The shine cancels the effect.

Drawing of a mallard on a duckpond highlighting the problem with graphite shine
Pencil drawing with graphite shine on the left

I get around the problem by drawing with lighter grades. That presents one problem. Without an extreme difference between lights and darks, the contrast is less effective.

One solution for creating greater contrast is to use toned paper. The darks will appear darker and the highlights can be added with chalk or white Pentel leads.

Another solution is to use Mars Lumagraph Black pencils. They are made by Staedtler, a notable German brand. They vary from standard graphite pencils with the addition of carbon. This eliminates the shine and delivers a rich matt black.

Another option is to apply some fixative to a lighter drawing. Some brands will noticeably darken the tonal values. This can be both good and bad. If you are aware of this effect, you can use it to your advantage and darken a pale drawing or pastel.

If you are unaware and spray a perfectly good drawing, you can irreversibly alter your image. I use Windsor and Newton professional fixative, branded as ‘workable fixative’ in the US. I use it to alter the tone, I don’t really use it to fix the drawing itself.

The Importance of Time and Patience

There is more to realistic drawing than the skill alone. You may have the ability to draw realistically but have you got the temperament?

That’s quite an important aspect of the art. Can you see yourself sitting for hours on end drawing detail? It’s not for everyone.

Realistic Pencil drawing of a jaguar.

I draw while I sell my work, and people approach me and express their frustration that they would love to draw the way I do. Almost all of those people walk away almost immediately, in other words, they didn’t have the patience to even stop and take a look or even ask a question.

There is no way someone with a brief attention span can master realism. It takes a great deal of time and concentration. You may have one, but have you got the other?

We live life at frightening speed and most people have no free time to devote to drawing. If we do, we prioritize other things. I understand. I can’t multi-task myself. It’s all or nothing. Even writing about art means I’m not doing it.

I’ve been blogging about drawing throughout the lock-down and now my headspace is so far removed from drawing, I haven’t drawn anything the whole time.

Realism attracts a personality type. I’d guess it attracts people like me, perfectionists. That might be simplistic, but it does figure. I like to get things just right and I’ll spend hours slaving over an inconsequential part of a drawing that doesn’t matter and no one will ever notice. Why?

If you don’t mind being half-mad, be a realist

If that doesn’t put you off, welcome to the club.

Conclusion

If you reached the end of this post you must have some staying power. I think you have what it takes – stamina!

Realistic drawing can be both meditative and frustrating in equal measure. Expectations have a lot to do with it. If you are drawing for pleasure, there is no pressure to get things right all of the time. You have the luxury of pleasing yourself and experimenting.

Start your journey with small steps and build upon small successes. Draw little and often and you’ll progress.

I hope this post helps you along the way.


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