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  • Writer's pictureSusan Fellows

For Aspiring Realist Painters

Have you ever seen a boring, badly done piece of artwork? Sure! All of us have. In fact, the world is awash with such images. Truth be told, every artist has a studio closet full of artistic flops, created on the way to doing something better. I even know of one top illustrator who uses a parabolic mirror to dispose of his rejects in a flaming conflagration he calls his “gallery flambeau”. More power to him!

Now, have you also seen the kind of artwork that every artist aspires to, in the way that it grabs your attention, and makes you feel something, and sticks with you long after you've left wherever it was you saw it? Chances are, much of the reason for that lies in the skill set of the artist who produced it. If you have doubts about that, consider the case of what used to be called “underground art”. These were often nasty linear scrawls, but because they were so poorly done, much of the desired emotional impact was lost in the execution.

For artists who want their work to live and not be lost in the dustbin of history, there are no shortcuts. The learning never stops, and the message is the same as it is for musicians. Practice! Always practice! Also, as in music, much of what is essential, is to develop the ability to discern what is needed within the piece the artist is working on. It's amazing, when you look back years, to see the difference and how you've progressed.

For aspiring artists who want to paint realistically, the subject is vast, but here is some advice that can really help you grow. First, absorb as much great art as you can. We are so fortunate today to have so much access to it. Identify your favorites, and learn all you can about them. Copy their techniques, and try new things.

Drawing is the skeleton of painting. It was only in college that I finally got some real drawing instruction. I consider my time in Life Drawing classes and Color (strangely, a graphic design class) to be among the most useful to me in my quest to improve my skills. The book “The Natural Way to Draw” by Nicolaides is also good.

Take responsibility for your progress. When I was in college, realism was considered fine for life drawing and still lifes, but was out of fashion for painting and sculpture. I ended up painting to please my professors, a sure road to burnout. It was later that I got my painting back on track. Both of James Gurney's books, “Color and Light” and “Imaginative Realism”, are very important learning tools for aspiring artists. They were for me.

Why work so hard to master things like perspective, anatomy, light, materials, color, techniques, etc.? It's because an artist must understand this stuff in order to reproduce reality. Your canvas, paper, or whatever, is the place where observation, knowledge, and imagination come together to create a believable, engaging picture.

For instance, you may be working from a photo reference. As you do, you inevitably must simplify to some extent, with the result being less than the photo. If you don't fully understand how to model the forms, your 2D shapes will never gain the volume and depth needed for realism. Therefore, you must ADD into the work the things that are lacking. More reference sources, detailed knowledge of the subject and what you are doing, and your imagination, will ideally create a work that is better than the original photo. I am indebted to illustrator and art educator Clint Cearley for his explanation of how this works, and its importance in learning to make art.

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