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8 Ways to Make a Drawing Look More Realistic

Let’s face it; I’m not exactly going to be the next Michelangelo. But as a beginner artist, I was determined to figure out how to make my drawings look more realistic. Spoiler alert: it was a lot trickier than I initially thought.

Early in my art journey, I realized there was a lot more to creating realistic drawings than just carefully mapping out an outline on a drawing grid or splattering tiny details all over the artwork.

So after countless hours of trial and error, I’ve gathered some tips that even beginners like me can use to make their drawings more believable.

How can you make your drawings look more realistic?

1. Define the forms with values rather than outlines.

Okay, confession time: I love to outline my drawings without caring much about shading when I’m drawing something stylized. But as it turns out, outlines don’t really exist in nature (who knew, right?).

So when drawing something realistic, I try to avoid visible outlines and focus on defining the values in a drawing by thinking about tonal shapes. 

It can be challenging to build the values in your drawings at first, but it definitely helps to make your artwork look more believable, which makes the process worth it in the end.

Here are some things that help in drawing the values more accurately:

  • Before you start shading, it is helpful to identify the value scale of your drawing that goes from the darkest shadows to the lightest lights.
  • Study how the reflection of light creates different types of shadows and highlights.
  • Start shading your drawing in three main groups of tonal shapes that indicate the shadows, midtones, and highlights, and build your values further from there.

2. Structure your drawing into simple shapes.

One of the key ingredients in a realistic-looking drawing is its 3Dness. That is a big challenge for beginner artists who want to draw organic forms like the human face, comprised of thousands of planes joined seamlessly without apparent edges.

When I started drawing portraits, I would divide my photo reference into a grid and try to replicate each small square in the grid onto the paper like a jigsaw puzzle. While this technique is excellent for getting the proportions right, it just robs the drawing of its creative energy, and the final drawing tends to look relatively flat (at least for me).

After drawing hundreds of faces, I have found it easier and more effective to draw realistically without grids by first structuring the most prominent shapes and layering smaller details on top of the basic structure.

Learning basic head construction techniques like the Loomis Method has also been really useful in drawing faces using basic 3D shapes like boxes, spheres, and cylinders.

3. Work out the proportions of your drawing accurately by considering perspective and foreshortening.

Fun fact: wonky proportions can ruin even the most skillfully shaded drawings. I learned this the hard way, but thankfully you can do a few things to avoid it. Nothing will crush the believability of a drawing like some wonky proportions and perspective that seems off.

To draw something in the correct proportion, let’s say the human body, there are three things you need to get right:

  1. Start by determining the average proportion of what you’re drawing. For example, the human body is average about seven heads tall. Knowing the average baseline size of your drawing can help a lot in sizing the actual reference correctly.
  2. Figure out how the actual reference compares to the average proportions. For instance, you may observe that the person you’re drawing has a relatively small head relative to its body that is closer to 8 heads tall.
  3. And remember perspective – how the perspective of your drawing subject affects the perception of its size. For example, suppose you’re viewing someone from above. In that case, the size of their head will appear disproportionately larger than the rest of their body due to foreshortening, depending on the extremity of your angle of observation.

Getting the proportions and perspective of what you’re drawing right is crucial early in the drawing process because if you mess this step up, no matter how brilliant your pencil shading skills are, your drawing will lack realism.

4. Find references with good lighting and contrast.

Sometimes finding the perfect reference photo feels like searching for a needle in a haystack. But trust me, finding pictures with good lighting and contrast is worth it because it is one of the simplest ways to increase the realism of your artwork.

One thing to remember when selecting references for drawing is to avoid flashy and overly bright images that lack contrast.

For example, avoid celebrity photos captured on the red carpet under a hundred flashlights if you plan to draw a portrait. That’s because these sorts of images hide the planes of the face, and unless you’re a skilled draftsman who can improvise missing details (which I cannot), your drawing will probably look flat if you use such references.

Try to find references with a good lighting setup that contrasts and balances the illuminated sections with shadowy parts because doing so will result in drawings with more depth.

5. Establish the darkest darks once you’re confident about the basic structure of your drawing.

I used to be afraid to push my pencil too hard, even when shading the darkest shadows. As I got more confident in my drawing abilities, I realized that pushing the values can really make the drawing pop and enhance its three-dimensional quality.

Doing value study exercises is tremendously helpful in expanding your value range if your drawings lack contrast.

One thing to keep in mind if you like to draw traditionally is that it’s best to reserve the darkest darks, such as the occlusion shadows, towards the end of your drawing process when you’re in a good rhythm and confident about the structure and proportions of your artwork because reworking those values can often be a pain.

6. Simplify the complexity of your drawing by doing preliminary studies.

Whenever I try to draw something realistically without first understanding how it works or looks a certain way, I end up with a drawing that lacks believability. Some things are just hard to draw, and that’s where preliminary sketches can help you break down a complex drawing subject into something more manageable.

For example, As someone who struggles with drawing hands (don’t we all?), doing some studies beforehand to understand the structure of the bones, joints, and muscles that allow the hand to do what they do helps me wrap my head around its complexity (to an extent).

The knowledge and confidence you gain from doing these quick practice studies enhance the realism of your subsequent drawings because it removes the pressure of trying to understand your art subject while you’re in the process of drawing it.

7. Apply shading to enhance the texture, contrast, and readability of forms.

Until recently, I had fallen into the habit of blending pencil shading excessively to the point that it made my drawings look bland and lacking texture.

If your shading appears to be super smooth, try experimenting with different styles of hatching and vary the intensity of shading, as this can significantly push the contrast and enhance the sense of texture and volume of your drawings.

8. Instead of outlining everything, combine hard and soft edges in your drawing to add depth.

Strict outlines don’t exist in the real world, so drawing them can take away some of the realism of your artwork. However, marking the complete outline of basic shapes is necessary to draw fluidly too.

One thing I like to do after I have outlined everything and in the process of shading in my drawing is to erase some of the hard edges, particularly those facing away from the foreground. Using soft edges combined with hard edges creates a sense of depth that you observe in everyday life when you focus on something closer to you, and the objects further away become slightly blurred.

And there you have it, folks. Even as a beginner artist, I’ve learned there are ways to make your drawings look more realistic – even if you’re not a master draftsman (yet). Don’t be afraid to make mistakes (I know I’ve made plenty), and keep practicing.


Friday 8th of December 2023

Thanks for the help, I really appreciate it.


Friday 8th of December 2023

You're most welcome! Glad you found the information helpful 😊