Realism, Photorealism, and Style in Drawing
“I know the anatomy isn’t correct here, but it’s my style”, “This drawing lacks style”, “I love your style!” We use the word style a lot without actually grasping its meaning. Like “love” or “art”, we know it by heart, but it’s not so easy to define.
In this article I’ll make an attempt to analyze the concept of style: What is it? Can it be judged? Are all styles equally good? Can style mask lack of talent? What makes the style realistic? What’s wrong about copying someone’s style? And, most importantly, how can one develop their own style?
The answers to all these questions lay in the concept of drawing itself. If you’ve never tried to understand what drawing is, the conclusions may be very surprising to you!
Style? What Style? I Can’t Even Draw!
Or can you? Ladies and gentleman, I’m pleased to present you the ultimate tutorial about how to draw!
Grab something that makes marks when pushed.
Push the thing onto a material (something solid like paper, wood, dirt etc).
Shift the thing with the strength needed to leave a mark.
Sounds absurd? But that’s actually what drawing is! There’s nothing about beauty or realism in its basic definition. That being said, everyone can draw—even blind!
However, this fully objective definition of drawing has been fused with something more vague—style. It’s often even more commonly associated with one particular style: realism. Somehow the value of a drawing has been associated with how realistic it is. When a kid hears he’s got talent for drawing, it’s not because his lines are neat, or he manages to finish the picture without using eraser—it’s only because people can recognize things he’s drawing!
Maybe It’s Talent—Maybe It’s Determination
When someone says “I can’t draw” in most cases they’re not talking about their inability to hold a pencil, lack of time or some kind of ban—what they really mean is “I don’t know how to depict reality on a sheet of paper”. If they realized it, their problem would turn out to be easy to solve—if you don’t know how to do something, find someone who knows it and learn from them! But person saying “I can’t draw” doesn’t really use this construction in the same way as in “I can’t swim/speak Chinese/play chess [yet]”. They signal a hopeless inability—”some people can draw, but I can’t”. Where does this despair come from?
As we’ve said, there are two definitions of drawing: creating marks on a material and creating marks resembling something real. Confusion of these two meanings may be fatal for an aspiring artist. You know how easy drawing is (smudging a pencil on a paper), but at the same time you can’t do it (drawing a dragon). How else could you explain it if not by a magical skill some people possess?
You’ve just taken the first step to understand the whole fuss about word “talent”. A talented person isn’t “born with an unlearnable skill learned by default”. Talent is a predisposition of some kind, not as defined as you may think, and not limited to art only.
Let’s make an example. Piloting a plane is easy, right? You only need to sit down, move the controls and push some buttons from time to time… No, actually, nobody will say that. We all can guess there’s a vast knowledge that needs to be gained in order to control a plane. A talented pilot isn’t born with that knowledge—however, he may be born with something smaller, like good reflex or cold blood. These little features can help him in many professions, and if he becomes a pilot, they will serve him well.
Talent in “practical” professions is more commonly associated with learned skills. Even when you say that a pilot or driver has a talent, you only treat it as a cherry on the top, something that makes them stand out between other good pilots and drivers. But for artistic professions… well, it’s a different situation. “Your works are awesome, you’re so talented!” say people to every good artist, implying that talent is actually obligatory to draw well. And if you can’t draw well, it must be because you weren’t gifted with a talent—so you’re doomed as an artist. That’s a good reason to fall in despair, isn’t it?
Let’s say it once again—there’s no such thing as “talent for drawing”. Just like in the pilot example, you can be born (or raised!) with small, general features like patience, sensitivity, curiosity, perfectionism or stubbornness. There may be more, and there’s one thing linking them—they’re not specific, designed for one particular skill, but rather they influence various areas of life. You can use them to become a great artist—but you don’t need to. You may become a programmer, or a watchmaker, and never touch a pencil at all.
I believe that most of these features can be used in art in one way or other. What’s crucial is that you need to realize drawing must be actively learned—this is not magic, this is skill as hard as learning how to control a plane. I’m serious! You need to gain basic knowledge not only from design, but also fields like medicine, architecture, math, and physics. But once we’ve understood what drawing actually is, let’s go to this part of it you possibly can’t do yet—creating realism.
Basically, realism is a style of creating something that our mind will identify as “real” or “close to real”. We can easily tell a sculpture is realistic, but what about 2D sheet of paper with some smudges on it? How can it resemble something real? I described this in the article about light and shadow, but here I’d like to elaborate this topic.
Our brain creates the reality we perceive out of series of still, 2D pictures created every fraction of second. Depth is made by comparing two snapshots taken at same moment, but in slightly different position (that’s not the only way to create depth, though, as even with one eye we can manage pretty good). Therefore, a drawing can be considered as a “brain snapshot” taken out to be seen by everyone, beyond the moment and place it was taken.
There are several problems coming from this:
- Although all the snapshots are saved in our brain, our consciousness isn’t fast enough to process them like this. Just like we don’t see an individual frame in a movie, we can’t notice a single snapshot—we only see the motion made by changes between them.
- The reality we see is made of so many different snapshots that it constantly changes. One twitch of the head and you realize how large something would be if you came closer (even though it’s seen as small at the moment). Perspective is such an integral part of our reality that we can’t imagine a world without it—even though our perspective doesn’t exist outside of our brain!
- It’s impossible to draw reality—one snapshot doesn’t make it. Hence, every drawing or painting is some kind of compromise and a simulation of reality—usually a few snapshots are merged into one to make the scene complete.
- You can’t move your eyes within a single snapshot. You can’t look at something that’s out of focus—it gets in focus as soon as you lay your eyes on it, changing whole scene. Therefore, a drawing is a frozen snapshot from someone else’s brain—when observing it, you’re not the original observer!
There are many levels of realism. Our brain is well adapted to see patterns, so we can see things that aren’t really there, like a face on Mars or signs made by tea leaves. That’s why it’s relatively easy to achieve the basic level of realism without learning too much—our minds are forgiving. One of signs of “talent for drawing” can be an ability to create these patterns very effectively—but it’s not a skill, it’s just a guesswork. If you pushed some buttons randomly and made a machine work, it doesn’t mean you can operate it!
The difference between talent for creating patterns and a real skill is easy to spot—if you develop strong attachment to every pretty drawing of yours and you’re afraid you’d never draw it again if you lost it, that’s the result of talent. Skill doesn’t use luck as a base!
The levels of realism are created by various elements our brain is looking for something to recognize. Some of them are more important than others, and they can differ among people.
Lines are the meaning of drawing. However, they’re not the same as outlines—an outline is a line meant to be seen individually, defining some “inside” and “outside”. We’re very good at seeing outlines, even though they don’t exist in the world in the form of lines. They’re fully arbitrary—every artist may use a different number of outlines for the same object.
This is the first moment where style appears. If something is arbitrary, everyone can create their own version of it—and none of them will be more or less correct per se. We need to add another standard to judge it by, and that’s what we usually do—we use labels like “realistic” (resembling something real very closely), “cartoon” (thrifty lines, symbolic shapes), or “manga” (characteristic Japanese style).
If the difference between realism and cartoon is so great, why doesn’t every non-realistic style look “correct” and pleasant to eyes?
Every Style Derives From Distortion of Realism
If you want to draw a cat, you can’t create something totally new and say it’s a cat (unless you’re a surrealist—but even then your intention should be not to draw a cat). You need to take all the cat-specific things and modify them to create a new version of the animal. And you need to know the rules to break them. If you’ve never drawn a cat before, and never studied its anatomy and proportions, don’t expect your drawing will look correct—even if you’re aiming for cartoon look. It’s like if you wanted to build an enhanced car—if you can’t build the original one in the first place, there’s no way you do it.
Every Style is Based on Rules
Everything needs to have a purpose—it’s not like you only need to shift the elements randomly. That’s why beginners usually have problems with redrawing their character—the first drawing was a result of guesswork, and even if it looks good, the artist has no idea why!
When your “style” isn’t based on any rules, it’s not really a style. Style must be describable—and if yours doesn’t have any rules, how would you describe it? “The style of X is characterized by… the fact it was drawn by X”. It doesn’t make much more sense than “a characteristic feature of a car Y is that it looks like car Y”. “Spontaneous”, “random,” or “crazy” aren’t really good descriptions of a style either. There must be some definition—a recipe that you can use again and again—even if you’re the only person that knows it fully.
Rules make the style repeatable; that’s the very base of it. One picture doesn’t make a style, there must be more of it. This brings us right to the next issue:
Style is Intentional
You may think “you said every style derives from realism, but what
about abstract art?”.
First, art isn’t equal to style. It’s far more broad concept and we’re not talking about it here. What’s important for style is it can be described on a many levels of detail. A sample “tree” can look like this: drawing black and white manga [put detailed rules here]. It’s the same with abstract art: painting colorful abstract [put detailed rules here].
Second, it may sound controversial, but I think
abstraction derives from realism too—it’s the negation of it. To
create something abstract, you need to know what is not abstract.
If you want to paint a dark picture, you need to know what colors you
need to avoid—you need to know what isn’t dark. A cat that doesn’t
look like cat because you haven’t learned how to draw one isn’t
“abstract art”—it’s just a mistake. When the final picture is totally different than the one in your head, and you pretend it was your intention, you’re only cheating yourself.
Maybe I’m going out of my
competence here—the definition of art is so elusive that someone may
call a stain made by pigments thrown at a wall an art (just because it’s
so random and unintentional). Still, I wouldn’t call fortuity a style— and even if I were to, the definition of this style would be
“drawing/painting that wasn’t the intention of an artist”. Would you
like to share your style with a 2-year-old?
Golden Ratio is the Measure of Beauty
This is a big topic, but definitely worth studying. Basically, there’s a proportion that will make your elements look good—and conversely, they’ll look bad when out of this proportion. Our brain is somehow set for it—you can’t change it. There’s a pure math behind every flower and leaf, and the same math should be applied to anything you create for your mind to accept it as true, even when it’s not realistic
Of course, there can and should be small deviations (perfect beauty is boring, little defects can be very appealing), but the main “body” of your object should follow this rule at least roughly. So even when you resize a head to create a cartoon shape, there are sizes that will look good and ones that won’t—the ability to see them without measuring can be another sign of “talent”, but it comes with practice too.
There’s one thing that can save your style, no matter how crazy and far from realism it is. It’s called adaptation—when you look at something odd frequently, it becomes normal to you (but not to others). So if you’d shown your art to the same friends for a long time, they may actually start to understand it. Being appreciated by them may lead you to a false assumption you’ve got a style, but it’s only misunderstood by others. Don’t lock yourself in your comfort zone, but instead listen to opinions of people outside of your fan circle. That’s the only way to develop as an artist.
There’s another side of adaptation, too. We tend to consider only things we’re familiar with as “normal”. That’s why even a correctly drawn, but less known dinosaur may be seen as anatomically incorrect, and cat anatomy applied to a lemur may go unnoticed. Funny fact: neither four legs, nor ears placed at the top of the head are more justified than three legs and ears on the butt—they only happen to be seen frequently in our world and thus perceived as natural.
Light and Shadow
The first purpose of vision was to sense light and shadow. We’re still very sensitive to it, and we don’t need any outlines to see shapes when light and shadow are present. This can be another stage of drawing (shading with lines), or the first stage of painting.
We noticed there are a few elements that can submit to “talent for drawing”, like patience, perfectionism, ability to create patterns and to recognize golden ratio. Talent for painting (and shading in general) is much more rare. Its base would be “an eye for observation”. The idea of world made of outlines is so fixed in our mind that it’s very hard to actually see shapes made by light and shadows. You need to make a real effort to visualize the world as it really is—covered with patches of light and shadow. And even then an attempt of painting this way may cause a brain-muscle-ache (that’s how it felt for me, anyway). However, this effort is worth making—a messy art made of light and shadow looks far more realistic to our eyes than a complex, refined masterpiece consisting of outlines only.
Light and shadow, and the form they create, are as open for style as outlines. The size and shape of brush strokes alone give you a chance to create a countless number of totally different interpretations of a scene. When you add your own interpretation of light and shadow placement, you don’t need to be afraid of not being recognizable. Read more about light and shadow here—and wonder how you can use these rules to create your own style!
Color is a great enhancement of vision, bringing a whole lot of new information to the scene. Now, besides of value, we get hue, saturation and luminosity. The more elements building the picture, the more possibilities of creating a distinctive style. Thinking with value only was a pain itself—now add three new aspects to this!
You can be realistic—but you don’t need to. I often see artists that get good at drawing realistically (outlines) and then go straight for the most realistic colors possible—everything just as it works in our world. It’s not necessary—more, it brings you closer to boring photorealism! And the problem with photorealism (we’ll talk more about it later) is it’s a style that looks identical, no matter who used it. If you want your style to be distinctive, to be truly yours, experiment with the rules. You need to learn them, of course, study the nature and the objects around you, but then modify what you learned. Create your own rules!
It may be surprising, but details aren’t that important for a realistic painting, nor even drawing. Since we don’t really see the brain-snapshots, and a picture is just a simulation of a perceived scene, we may take various actions to create it. Painting everything as it might have looked during a fraction of second only deprives you of actual meaning of the situation. The meaning is spread over several, or maybe even dozens of snapshots. And if you want to draw a picture, not to create a movie or animation, you need to use some tricks.
That may be another part of talent, the ability to convert motion into motionless scene, while keeping the feeling of it. Sticking to details from the start can unintentionally prevent you from reaching this goal. When we see a scene, the first thing we notice is some intangible sensation—we see motion, fight, light shining on a sword, the red of blood—not single hairs on the warrior’s beard or masterly adornments of his armor.
There a lot of space for style here, between shapeless blobs of shadow and a fully detailed scene. There are countless ways to achieve the “feeling”, and when you sacrifice details, you may very easily find a personal style of yours. There’s only one way to draw details realistically—and an infinite number of ways to create only a sensation of them.
What’s the difference between realism and photorealism? So far we were discussing brain-snapshots. What if someone takes a snapshot with a real camera? Photos have become something completely normal for us. We treat them as a real representation of reality, not realizing a camera doesn’t work exactly as our eyes and brain. We’re so accustomed to photos that sometimes they appear more realistic to us than reality itself!
Photorealism isn’t a higher form of realism. It’s only about creating things so precisely that they can be confused with a photography. But, let’s say it once again, a photo isn’t the same as brain-snapshot—a camera doesn’t catch all the illusions and isn’t as accurate as we tend to think. How many times have you tried to take a photo of something, but it didn’t look as amazing as what you saw with bare eyes (moon, sunset)? With a bit of photographic knowledge you can can fix it, but now it can be tempting to go even further and create an enhanced reality—something better than perceived with bare eyes! And I’m not talking about photomanipulation—a camera itself can be set to “see” the world in many ways. And when you add your own lights, not encountered in nature, you get an appealing, but non-realistic effect. Learning from photos may not bring you any closer to realism then!
You can say “but photos are so realistic that it’s actually the same”. Wrong—you only think they are realistic. Take a photo and then look at the scene with bare eyes—the difference can be striking. There are technical differences, like lens flare (it doesn’t occur in our eyes this way), or the form of out-of-focus area (we see with two eyes, so this area isn’t only blurred, it’s also made of two shifted images), but also more elusive ones—camera catches only what there is, but our brain can make so much more of reality. You won’t take a photo of a scene seen through eyes full of tears, or eyes of a frightened person running through a dark forest in the night. We don’t only see, we also feel—and photos ignore the latter.
One more thing: I said before that it’s impossible to draw reality. At
the same time, camera attempts to take a perfect snapshot of reality. It
doesn’t make photos more real than what we see—they’re actually too objective and stripped of very important part of our reality. Just like going to a restaurant isn’t only a journey to an expensive location to satiate hunger, reality isn’t only a set of visual signals.
Of course, that doesn’t mean photorealism is wrong. I just want to confront the belief that a realistic artist should get as close as possible to photo-quality. These are two different styles, and none of them is “better” or “higher”. It’s also important to observe the world with bare eyes and not rely on photos only. I know they’re easier to obtain, but sometimes grabbing a leaf and creating the subsurface scattering effect by yourself will teach you much, much more. By learning from both reality and photo-reality you can create a completely new, unique style.
Drawing From Imagination
What about things that don’t really
exist? Is it possible to draw them realistically, or in any style
deriving from realism? Yes, but you need to draw them in a form they’d
take in our world if they were real. You may say “but I want to
use a non-realistic style, for example a dragon with legs thin like
matches and with a huge round head”. All right, but notice what you just
said: “legs”, “head”. These are things from our world, with certain
form they take here. This is a starting point for your creations. You
need to know what head is to draw it, even if you want to create some
new kind of head.
By the way, I’d like to clarify one matter:
why can’t you draw something realistically, even though you know how it
looks? You can imagine a horse very clearly in your mind, but then on
the paper it looks totally wrong. Isn’t that, again, lack of talent?
it’s rather a confusion of two different processes again—
identification and creation. Let’s take a good look at them with a
if (legs="long, thin, hoofed" AND body="big, strong" AND head="oblong" AND tail="long, hairy) then animal=horse
When you see an animal with a set of features
that in your mind are saved as horse-like, you recognize it as a horse.
Simple as that. You don’t need to know every single feature of a horse
to recognize it—just a few of them and you know what you see. The same
happens when you visualize a horse in your mind—you don’t see the
features you don’t know, and your mind cleverly conceals the lack of
if (animal=horse) then legs=x if (x="hoofed") then hoof_width=? hoof_height=? hoof_roundness=? leg_length=? leg_width=? leg_height=? body_length=? body_width=? body_height=? head_length=? head_width=? head_height=? ...
The situation is totally different when you want to create a
horse yourself. Suddenly you need to know all these variables, and more!
You start to draw a hoof and suddenly you realize you don’t know what
it looks like—even though you can recognize it when you see one.
That’s why multiple-choice tests are usually easier!
All the problems with creation come from poor database of information about reality in our head. Too often we only think we know what something looks like, but when it comes to details, they just aren’t there. When you read a book, you don’t see every blade of grass under the character’s feet, actually, sometimes you don’t even know how his face looks like (until you see him in a movie and compare your elusive idea with reality). You’re under impression your vision of the book’s world is complete, but if someone painted it and showed to you, it would be full of gaps. If you want to create your own style, start with learning about realism—build a database of everything you see.
Style and Judgment
- Commenter: “I think these legs shouldn’t be so long, the animal is so muscular that it looks as if it were to fall down in any moment”.
- Artist: “I like drawing it this way, it’s my style, you can’t judge it!”
- Commenter: “I love it! These flimsy legs are so cute!”
- Artist: “Thank you!”
Don’t you see something odd here? Judgment isn’t only about negative opinions or positive opinions—it’s about both. At the very moment you post your picture online (or present it in any other way for people to see), you set it up for judgment. When you do it, but expect only positive opinions, it’s like this situation:
- Artist (cooks a dish and puts it on the table): Here you go!
- Guest 1: Mm, it tastes nice!
- Artist: Thank you! And what do you think about it, Guest 2?
- Guest 2: Honestly, I don’t like it, it’s too salty
- Artist: But it’s my personal recipe! You can’t tell if you like it or not!
Illogical? Yes, but when you post your picture to hear praises only, you don’t really think logically. Everyone can judge you, you can’t deprive them of this right. The thing is their judgment doesn’t change anything about the object.
Imagine you have a rock that you love, maybe a reminder of some
important event in your life. You post a million of photos of this rock
on your social profile and when friends start to grumble, you answer
aggressively: “but it’s my rock! You can’t judge it, you don’t
know how important it is for me!”. All right, they don’t and will never
know—so why do you post these photos? If it’s a rock/style only you can understand, why do you post it for others
to see? Don’t you actually want them to judge it, but only positively?
You can’t force it into their minds. If you want your style to be
accepted and seen as true, make it understandable (use the tips from
previous paragraphs). If you don’t—well, why post it then?
Style, as everything, can be judged. When a person says she doesn’t like the style of Lion King, it doesn’t mean she’s wrong, because so many other people love it—it’s just an opinion! The excuse “it’s my style, you can’t judge it!” is actually desperate entreaty “don’t say it’s wrong don’t say it’s wrong”.
To answer the question raised in the introduction, objectively there’s no “better” or “worse” style, until you add another standard. A style isn’t “ugly”, it’s “not realistic enough for me“. However, there may be more or less developed styles, so beware not to use “style” as a shield from critique.
Copying a Style
I guess most of the artists start this way, right after leaving
childish-scribbles phase. They feel comfortable with a pencil (they’re
“good at drawing” in the most basic meaning), but at the same time their progress isn’t as fast as they wish.
So instead of learning from others, they start to copy them wholly.
Suddenly their pictures look perfect, and everyone loves them too. It
usually starts with tracing a picture, then copying it with your eyes, and finally learning the rules of the style to create own characters and get a bit of independence. Is it really that wrong? Let’s find out:
- You’re getting comfortable with a pencil and flow of lines;
- You’re practicing eye-hand coordination;
- Subconsciously, you’re learning about golden ratio;
- You’re learning how to have fun with drawing;
- You’re drawing without pressure to be better, because you’re already good;
- You’re learning how it feels to be praised because of your skills.
- You feel you’re good at drawing and you don’t need to learn anything else, because you’re already praised—so you stop your artistic development;
- Your creativity may be hurt;
- You treat artistic stylization as something normal and true, something real;
- Unlike the original artist, you ignore all the rules that led to creation of the style, so you’ll never make the best of it;
- The style becomes a part of you and you can’t get rid of it even when you try to develop your own style (that’s a serious threat!);
- You’re not able to judge your art objectively, you—and others—see it only in terms of how close it is to the original;
- You’re building a comfort zone that’s very hard to leave;
- You’re getting addicted to the praises and you’re afraid of trying something new, because it may not be as good.
What about manga? Isn’t drawing manga “copying a style”? Not exactly. Manga (or “the style of Japanese comics”) is rather a set of similar styles. Just like “Disney style” it may give you guidelines, a whole lot of helpful hints about proportions, but there’s still space for developing something on your own. It’s a different situation than focusing on one particular style (of certain comics/animation), but it still limits you to the rules created by someone else.
If the previous paragraph sounded encouraging to you, here’s some bad news: every good manga artist with a personal style is a good artist in general too. You can be sure they’ve got a lot of experience in realistic drawing, and they just chose to use manga as a base for their style. If you’ve got no choice but drawing in someone else’s style, can you really draw? Until you understand what the style was based on (realism), you’ll never
be able to modify it freely. You just won’t know how to change
something without breaking it all!
Drawing is more complicated thing that we tend to think. So simple in its basics and so unimaginably hard when it comes to dragons and warriors. I think most of the problems of a beginner come from misunderstanding of their hobby—it’s not about putting lines on the paper according to some mysterious processes in our mind. When you understand how many aspects drawing has, it becomes obvious that every single one of them can be modified to create a new style. And since all styles derive from realism, start with understanding it—observe, stay alert, make reality the only style you copy.
Watch other artists—search for traces of realism in their art, see what they changed, decide how you can use this knowledge. You’re not developing as an artist only when holding a pencil—everytime you make an effort to actively see and understand something, your experience bar is growing!
Observe, wonder, ask questions—and then do what you want with lines, colors and light to present your observations to others.