Magic is in the Details: 5 Tips for Drawing in a Realistic Style

 
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This might sound ridiculous, but realistic work isn’t actually all about the details. Realistic illustration is essentially a blending exercise with a sprinkle of carefully placed fine markings.

Before an eyelash or lip detail is drawn on a portrait, first we must nail the shading of our subject. The issue with applying details to a face as the first step, is watching all that hard work and accuracy go to waste when you need to blend in skin tone around and behind that detail.

Bye bye delicate lines, bye bye cute lashes.

Skin is tonal, so there is bound to be some layer of shading behind the facial features. By leaving the details till after we lay down all the tonal blending work, we don’t need to re-do them over and over (which damages the paper), instead the lines will be fresh and delicate.

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Pencil choice is 100% a personal preference thing. Some artists swear by regular graphite pencils and invest in those uber industrial pencil sharpeners that rev up like a Ferrari (they scare me a little). And some people bee-line in the art stores for the ever-sharp and non-fuss mechanical pencils (this is me). I could launch deep into the pros and cons for both but it really just comes down to this:

Are you heavy handed and drop things a lot? Regular pencils are for you because you will snap those poor little leads inside a mechanical pencil.

Do you want to achieve maximum detail wizardry and are willing to be a little careful? Mechanical pencils are for you. Just make sure you get enough leads because they do break… a lot.

Are you both of the above? Oh, well, just get both then.

 
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Ok turns out there is a bit more to it - here’s a closer look as to which pencil is good for what.

Mechanical Pencils: This is your HP wand for creating those itty bitty magical details. Since the refillable leads don’t blunt, you will maintain a continuous, super-fine line as you stay laser focused on drawing. I recommend a 2B lead at 0.5mm thickness. If you’re drawing a really small face, then go for the 0.3mm thickness - but I will warn you, the leads break quite easily so only use this for the tiny deets.

Regular Graphite Pencils: You also want these because you’ll be using them mostly for dropping graphite on the page, and the best way to do this is with an 8B or 7B pencil (some brands do 9B). This is the absolute softest graphite quality you can get, which means you can get plenty of graphite down without damaging the paper, which you’ll use to push around the page to build shadows. In comparison, if you worked with a 2B pencil, you’ll be repetitively scribbling forever just to get enough layers of graphite down to build up a shaded area (like under the jaw, for example).


 
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What’s the first thing you do when someone asks you to draw an eye? You draw an almond shape, right?

Wrong (well, you shouldn’t anyway).

The way we see something in an image is not always exactly how it is drawn. The best example of this is the iris. Inside an eye is the iris, which of course we know is a perfect circle… but you don’t actually draw a perfect circle because that would look super creepy (as if the subject is opening their eyes super wide!). Even though technically, yes, an iris is a circle - when the eye is relaxed, the top and bottom lids of the eyes cover the top and bottom curves of the iris, obstructing our view of its full shape. See this drawing below for example…

 
 

Do you see how really there’s only about 60% of the iris in full view? You may also notice that the top eye lid skims the top of the pupil - this is pretty common too, with that smouldering eyes pose that you typically see from models.

The point here is, try to disregard what you think you see, and look at your image objectively. It’s not an eye that you are drawing - it’s curved lines blending with soft blobs sitting next to feathered line strokes.


 
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This is one of those serendipitous discoveries that happened during a class one day, that I thought was bloody brilliant. I was teaching a large class with everyone gathered around me as I was doing a portrait demo, and I could see that some students were struggling to get a good look… so in order to make it easier for everyone to see, I thought I’d try and draw upside down so that the people in front of me could see better. And holy potatoes it was magical.

It felt bizarre and wrong and uncomfortable… at first. After a few moments however, I could see elements in my subject that I had not seen when drawing right-side-up. I noticed imperfections in my work that were not visible beforehand, until I was looking at it from a different angle. Simply the act of changing my perspective meant that I stopped looking at the subject as a face, but as an arbitrary bunch of blobs and lines and shapes (which are far easier to replicate!).

This ties in with my previous point about viewing your subject matter in an objective way. By turning everything upside down, it becomes easier because we are no longer drawing with bias, but with what we actually see - just a bunch of shapes!


 
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I encourage you to make full use of blending stumps. If you don’t have any, please do yourself a favour and purchase a pack. Stat! Most art stores sell them in packs of 4-6, if they only sell individually then at least get 1 of the thinnest and 1 of the fattest available.

If you’re not familiar with these delightful paper pencils, let me explain. Blending stumps are tightly wound sticks of paper that come in a range of thicknesses. I’m sure there’s a thousand uses for them, but in particular for detailed pencil illustration, they are best used to finely and accurate blend small-medium areas of graphite without adding damaging the page. Let’s use the eye as an example again, because this is where you may use these the most!

The eye area is a dense spot made up of harsh shadows (eyelid folds), soft shadows (under eye), fine-line strokes (eye lashes & wrinkles), dark spots (pupils) etc. It’s a lot going on in a tight area, which means using your finger to blend (please don’t ever use your finger though… I’ll elaborate in another post) will result in blotches and just a huge mess of graphite. By using a blending stump, you can softly blend and push graphite around in tiny areas, creating small shadowing (for eye folds, for example) with the same sharp point like a pencil. Gradually graphite will build on the tip of the blending stump, so you can actually draw with them like a pencil, without adding any harsh pencil lines. Sounds magical? Cos it is.

 
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