Thursday, 28 October 2010

My Oil Painting Looks Childish with no Realism

The artist who strives for realism may feel dissatisfied if a painting of a dog or portrait looks cartoonish. Mountains or rivers appear look cut out, shadows resemble dark smudges and flowers idealised. How does the artist create paintings that look convincing?

How to Make Paintings Look Real

Oil Painting with Realism
Rachel Shirley
The reason why a painting lacks realism is often down to one thing: the dictatorial part of the brain that overrides what the eye actually sees. This dictatorial part of the brain may insist upon illustrating symbolic versions of objects regarding lines, shapes, colours and tone, which could be some or part of the following:

The sky is blue, all chairs have four legs, all fingers are long, children are scaled-down versions of adults, all shadows are dark, snow is white, the grass is green and all eyes are almond shaped.

When it comes to what the eyes sees, the above is often not true: Skies can be silver or indigo, chairs can appear to have three or two legs, fingers may appear stubby in foreshortening, children have different proportions to adults, snow can appear blue, shadows can be orange, grass can be violet and eyes can be lots of shapes.

These are simplified examples, but the dictatorial part of the brain may interfere with the painting process in very subtle ways which the artist may not always be aware of, such as how a line curves or the chromatic shift of the sky.

Why Paintings Look Disappointing

What is the solution to this dilemma? The theory is simple, the practice is more difficult: Shut off the dictatorial part of the brain. This will help not only the painting process, but the whole business of creating realistic art, including drawing, pastels and watercolours.

Illustrating the world how it actually is can be done by the following strategies:

View the subject matter in front as abstract shapes and lines rather than what it is. A cup is no longer a cup, but a jigsaw of colour and tone. Half-closing the eyes will help simplify this jigsaw. Ensure also that the photograph is good quality. Lack of visual information will force the artist to fill in the gaps.
  • Keep looking at the photograph or subject matter in front. Not doing so means relying upon memory and the memory is the enemy of realistic art. Memory is where the dictatorial part of the brain takes over.
  • If copying from a photograph, turn the photograph and painting upside down.
  • Stand at least ten feet from the painting periodically. This will help the artist appreciate the painting as a whole rather than in its parts.
  • View the painting through a mirror. This will reveal hidden errors in the painting.
  • Take half an hour’s break from the painting and return with a fresh view.
Creating Realistic Tones in a Painting

Radiant Oils: Glazing Techniques for Paintings that Glow
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Working on a white surface will mislead the artist on the true tonal values of colours. Pale blue for instance will appear dark by comparison. Work on a toned ground. This entails the application of a thin wash of oil or acrylic paint over the painting surface, which could be grey or brown. This will kill the off-putting white and give a more accurate indication of the colour’s tonal value. I always include all tonal values in my paintings from pale to very dark to prevent the artwork from looking insipid or washed out.

Oil Painting Techniques for Realism

Overriding the dictatorial part of the brain will take the artist a long way towards creating realism. However, the artist may use art techniques to achieve a high finish. A combination of oil painting glazing and fine detail will create a photographic painting. Smooth effects can be achieved by applying two or three translucent layers of oil paint for skies or backgrounds for instance. A broken glaze can be applied for skin tones and dog fur. A few touches with a fine sable will create realistic hair and highlights.

Art Materials for Realism

The following are vital if the artist hopes to achieve photographic realism in paintings:
  • Good quality photos.
  • A good range of oil colours that include the primaries. Cadmium yellow (pale), permanent rose and pthalo blue are close to the mark. Other essential pigments are: titanium, ultramarine, cadmium red, burnt sienna, burnt umber, lemon yellow and viridian.
  • Good quality fine sables such as Kolinsky. Winsor & Newton or Daler Rowney are good manufacturers of sable brushes.
  • Linseed oil for thinning the oil paint to glazes.
  • An alert artist.
There is more to achieving a high finish to oil painting than this article can cover, but the links below will explore glazing techniques and producing high detail in painting, as well as articles on this blog.

External Links on Creating Realism in Oil Painting


Dagoelius said...

This was such a great insight for me. I have been struggling with this for ages and haven't been able to find a reason (or get advice from teachers) WHY my work always appears 'cartoon like'. Much appreciated.

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