…the key to photo-realistic drawings

I am a self-taught artist, I learned everything from videos and books. And, of course, with the thousands of hours of practice. In this post, I want to write about the details.

Boris Vallejo wrote in his book: “The secret to realistic drawings, is to learn to see”. When I read this as a teenager, I was completely amazed by this idea. He explained that drawing begins with noticing what is in front of us, carefully observing the details and mapping it. This is the best drawing advice I’ve ever heard. It is only worth starting by studying it thoroughly. What is the surface like? What colours do we see? What are the ratios? You can draw lifelike by depicting reality. Seeing the details is half the battle. The rest is just copying.

From a distance, each drawing or painting may look like a photograph, but up close, there are many details, many points and shapes that make up the final result. The many layers, noticing the small scratches and putting them on paper, this is what gives the beauty. The details are always revealing.

Let’s take a drawing of mine as an example. My glass bear. How would you describe it? It has a smooth surface and it’s shiny. But on closer view, there are many lines, dots, spots. Black, green, yellow and white. Before I start drawing, I study the photo and just look at the picture in its small details. I don’t think that it’s a glass teddy bear, or what it should look like. I literally get lost in the details. This is not a glass teddy bear, but a collection of forms and shapes. And if we always map the small details, it just comes together. And what about the colours? Green. Yes, but let’s take a closer look. What shades? Cold? Warm? Is it bluish? Besides, what else is there? Yellows, blues, purples. How can you deepen the green? For example, with dark blue if we are talking about a cold shade, and with brown if we are talking about a warm shade. In case of light, it is similar, only the depth differs. Dark blue becomes light blue, and brown becomes light yellow.

Don’t want to draw realistically right away. First, just look around, grab objects and pay attention to details. How does the light touches? What colours do you see? What is the surface like? Does it have scratches? Grooved? Glossy or matte? This exercise is not only good for improving your drawing. It helps us notice how many beautiful things there are around us. For example, I often stare at the sky. If I look up, I see millions of colours and shades, especially in the morning and evening. Because nothing is just blue and orange. It is made beautiful by the many nuances that you wouldn’t say are in it, but if it weren’t there, you’d miss it.


My Cormorant drawing is a good example of this. A black bird. Now let’s just look at the colours. What do you notice? I will help: yellow, blue, green, purple, gray, brown, pink. Besides black, of course. In thin layers, but they all contributed to make the end result rich, without them it would be flat and lifeless. Now you ask, but how do I notice this? Just watch the colours, watch the world, the details, and tell yourself what you see, what colours. It works for me naturally, but till this day, no matter what I look at, I imagine what colour pencils I would use if I wanted to draw it. Over the years it became automatic, but in the beginning I watched a lot of videos on colour theory, studied the paintings of old masters and the world in general. I’ve always loved the long car journeys because I could spend hours just looking out the window and admiring the many colors and details.

However, there is a great method, the colour picking tool in any photo editing program. I use Photoshop to design my work and edit photos, but there are several other opportunities. All you have to do is load the photo you’re drawing from, go through the larger surfaces with the colour picker, and then choose a pencil that similar to it. It often produces surprising results. While you’re learning, you can make your work easier with this tool. You will learn, and maybe won’t need that in a long term, but if you do, that’s not a problem either.

But let’s return to the study of paintings. By the way, this is a good trick because the colours are more visible here, if you look closely, you can see that the shadow of a winter landscape is full of blue and purple. Snow is never white, it is full of pink, blue, purple, yellow. However, just in light shades. Shadows are never just grey, but deep blue, dark purple. In paintings, the brush strokes, the use of colours is clearly visible.

 The secret lies in the details. Start learning to draw by carefully examining and naming the details in your environment. What is the texture of your car seat? What shades do your palms have? Is a yellow rose really just plain yellow? Or are there other shades? What texture does your kitchen counter have? What texture have a knitted pullover? Have you ever seen a rusty object up close? What exactly does it look like? A thousand colours and textures define even a rusty nail. Until you can’t see them, you can’t even draw them. It’s similar to learning a language. Many people do not dare to speak in a foreign language, saying that they do not know what to say. Often the problem is that they don’t even know what they want to say in their mother language. When I was preparing for the language exam, I first worked out the themes in Hungarian, collected what I could say about the topic, and then translated it. First you need to know what you want to say in order to translate it into another language. This is exactly the case with the drawing. You need to know exactly what you see in order to put it on paper.

Another thing about details. Two out of three people always ask if I draw based on a photo or from my head. Well, no one can draw photo realistically from the head. This is not a matter of talent and practice, you can already see it: you can only draw things if you understand the details. Now close your eyes and imagine a bird. Do you see the pattern of its feathers? The tangled threads? The position of the feathers? Do you see the colours? Are the shades of the feathers warm or cool? Do you see the light reflected in his eyes? No. Impossible. You just see a bird. Me too. That’s why we need photos. With their help, we can zoom in on the details and translate into paper. You just have to learn how to notice them.

They say in artistic circles that the real thing is to draw from a live model. In fact, it is true that better to see the shapes, why the shadow falls like that. And what if I want to draw a shark? Or a pair of cuddling elephants? If I don’t have the opportunity to see them, I shouldn’t draw them? If I live here in Hungary, then I can’t draw ocean and desert? If you like a photo, write to the photographer asking if you can draw his work, of course with crediting them. Or use royalty-free photos. There are free (Pixabay, Pexels) and paid sites (Shutterstock, Istock, other Stock photo sites). The opportunity was given. For this blog post, I used reference photos from Pixabay.

Observe photographs and paintings, hold objects in your hands and notice how rich and beautiful everything is. And once you see the details, the whole world will be honest with you.