How to Make Realistic Paintings with the 4 Fundamentals of Art

Values, edges, perception, color. These are the four fundamentals we need to create art without limitations. In this Fundamentals series, we've broken down each fundamental separately, defining each one and discovering how they are necessary to recreate the illusion of reality on a two-dimensional surface like a canvas or a computer screen. Now, we're going to talk about bringing them together to make realistic paintings. 

Values, edges, perception and color are the four fundamentals that we need to develop in order to create art without limitations.

Values, edges, perception and color are the four fundamentals that we need to develop in order to create art without limitations.

The Building Blocks of Our Visual Reality

We use our perception to make decisions about these three moving parts that make up our visual reality: value, edges, and color.

We use our perception to make decisions about these three moving parts that make up our visual reality: value, edges, and color.

Let's start by reviewing these fundamentals. Values, edges, and color are the three moving parts that make up our visual reality. Then, we use our perception to make decisions about all three of these things on every inch of our canvas, including where we place them.

When we look around at all the art that has been made, everything we’ve witnessed with our own eyes is just comprised of values, edges, and color. We can use the same building blocks of our visual reality, these ingredients, to bring forth our own creation to make realistic paintings.

The Most Important Element to Make Realistic Paintings

Look around you. There's practically an infinite variety of relationships that can happen between these fundamentals in order to create everything that's around us. There's the relationship of value to value, edge to edge, color to color, but there are also the relationships of values to edges and edges to color and color to values and all the combinations in between.

There is almost an infinite variety of relationships that can happen between the fundamentals in order to create everything that’s around us.

There is almost an infinite variety of relationships that can happen between the fundamentals in order to create everything that’s around us.

With all of these relationships happening and an infinite amount of decisions to make about each one of them, how do we navigate them all? How do we know when to turn left or right or make this shade just a little bit darker or look into that face and see that it's missing just a touch of phthalo blue?

Furthermore, how well do we understand the elements that have the greatest, consistent impact on these fundamentals? What carries the most weight so that we can efficiently and effectively go about creating art?

We need to know which elements have the greatest impact on the fundamentals to make decisions when creating art.

We need to know which elements have the greatest impact on the fundamentals to make decisions when creating art.

If we knew the answer to these questions, we would be able to compose and intertwine these relationships together to create something that feels like it belongs in this world that we live in, whether it's wildly impressionistic or hyper-realistic. 

Brazen Rift’s impressionistic painting First Tears (Part 3) demonstrates the strong understanding and use of the fundamentals of art.

Brazen Rift’s impressionistic painting First Tears (Part 3) demonstrates the strong understanding and use of the fundamentals of art.

What has the greatest influence? How can we navigate through the storm of decisions that we have to make to create relationships that make sense together? 

When we make decisions through the lens of light, we can make realistic paintings.

When we make decisions through the lens of light, we can make realistic paintings.

The answer is the light. The very thing by which we see.

Everything we see is light bouncing around and entering our eyes. When we make decisions about our values, edges, and color, through the lens of light, we will be able to make structurally coherent works of art that depart from the two-dimensional surface we are working on.

How to Make Realistic Paintings: A Walkthrough

1. Values

Values are determined by how light interacts with it. Without light, even a white cube would be black.

Values are determined by how light interacts with it. Without light, even a white cube would be black.

First, we start with values. Values have two determining factors: what it's made out of and how the light interacts with it. That second part is so important because a white cube would be black in a room with no light. 

Reference images must first be broken down into light and shadow in order to determine their values.

Reference images must first be broken down into light and shadow in order to determine their values.

At Evolve Artist, the very first thing we have our students do is break the reference image down into light and shadow before determining their values, making sure that anything that is a shadow is darker than anything that is a light. This reinforces the power and impact that light and shadow have on a painting.

We also properly train our students to recognize things by their light and shadow before anything else. It's that important. 

2. Edges

Form and cast shadows help determine whether edges should be sharp or soft.

Form and cast shadows help determine whether edges should be sharp or soft.

Second, we move on to edges. There are some edges where one object ends and another one begins, but there are also edges that are found where the light and the shadow meet.

These edges are going to be either form shadows or cast shadows. If it's a form shadow, the edge should be relatively soft. If it's a cast shadow, the edge should be relatively sharp. If you don't know the difference between form and cast shadows then check out this earlier post on edges.

3. Color

Because color is light, objects in the light will have more color than those in the shadows.

Because color is light, objects in the light will have more color than those in the shadows.

Color is determined by the different frequencies at which light waves enter our eyes. Because color is light, anything that is in the light is going to have more color than its shadows. Thus, the shadows are going to be relatively gray compared to the lights. 

Color temperature is determined by the warmth or coolness of the light.

Color temperature is determined by the warmth or coolness of the light.

We also have to take color temperature into consideration, which is determined by the degrees of Kelvin that the light source is emitting. Based on that, the light is either going to be warmer or cooler than the shadows.

4. Reflections & Highlights

Reflections and highlights are determined by how the light is bouncing around in the environment.

Reflections and highlights are determined by how the light is bouncing around in the environment.

All that's left is dropping in some subtle reflections and highlights, which are determined by how the light waves are bouncing around in the environment.

At this point, there's not much else to do. All of what has been created here has been because of an understanding of how the light works. Add a little bit of depth using some softer edges in the background, and you've got yourself a pretty realistic work of art. 

With an understanding of light, we can master how to make realistic paintings.

With an understanding of light, we can master how to make realistic paintings.

The Impact of Light and Shadow

Light can evoke strong feelings as evident in this painting Sunrise by Albert Bierstadt.

Light can evoke strong feelings as evident in this painting Sunrise by Albert Bierstadt.

After all this technical talk, let's step back for a moment and think about light and shadow, how it feels when the sun comes up on a cold, blurry morning.

Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent van Gogh captures how light can capture movement in a painting.

Starry Night Over the Rhone by Vincent van Gogh captures how light can capture movement and playfulness in a painting.

Think about how it spills through a window of a musty attic, flecks of dust waking up in its warmth, dancing, flirting with water, I could go on.

Light can symbolize life, warmth, and truth as suggested in Jean II Restout’s painting, Pentecost.

Light can symbolize life, warmth, and truth as suggested in Jean II Restout’s painting, Pentecost.

In literature, light is used to convey themes of life, warmth, truth. It exposes. It opens. 

The absence of light, or shadows, can symbolize ambiguity, emptiness, even death as captured in Nocturne in Black and Gold by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

The absence of light, or shadows, can symbolize ambiguity, emptiness, even death as captured in Nocturne in Black and Gold by James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Shadows, on the other hand, conjure up gray images of mystery and formless ambiguity, emptiness, and death.

Don't confuse light and shadow for just "shading" or just "values," which is simply how light or how dark something is. Not only are the lights lighter than the shadows (values), but the details are clearer (edges), and the colors are richer (color).

We need to use all three of the moving parts to properly capture the essence of light and shadow, these polar opposites that work together to form our beautiful world.

Using the Fundamentals to Create Depth

Now that we’ve used all the fundamentals to create this still life, how can we use them together to add depth to the image?
Combining the four fundamentals together can create depth.

Combining the four fundamentals together can create depth.

Let's say that I'm putting in a city skyline behind these two objects and I want it to be in the distance. I can use values, edges, or color to push it back. 
Values can become more muted by making the buildings closer in value to the background in order to add depth to an image.

Values can become more muted by making the buildings closer in value to the background in order to add depth to an image.

For values, I can make its values muted and become closer in value to the background that it's in. 
Depth can be added to make realistic paintings by making the edges in the background softer than those in the foreground.

Depth can be added to make realistic paintings by making the edges in the background softer than those in the foreground.

For edges, I could make the edges soft or blurry in relation to what's in front of it. 
To add depth, you can make the colors of the buildings closer to the color of the background.

To add depth, you can make the colors of the buildings closer to the color of the background.

And for color, I can make the colors closer in color to the background, or the sky. 
The various combinations of values and edges and color can be used to create the impression of your choice as an artist.

The various combinations of values and edges and color can be used to create the impression of your choice as an artist.

I could use a combination of two or all three and mentally toggle how far I push each one to create the impression that I want. How far I push them is going to be dependent on what I do with the other two.

This is a really simple image because we've got these objects up front and then the skyline in the back, but maybe you don't want to have all of your edges blurred out in the same way across the buildings. Maybe you want it to be blurrier in the center and the edges can get a little bit sharper as you go out. 
Artistry is revealed in the choices made by the artist of which of these fundamentals are accentuated and emphasized.

Artistry is revealed in the choices made by the artist of which of these fundamentals are accentuated and emphasized.

As you can see, you've got a lot of options. Hopefully this simple example is giving you a sense of how these fundamentals are not only working together but just so effective in creating whatever kind of impression that you want to convey. 

Using the Fundamentals to Make Your Own Original Art

This is where your artistry really comes out because there are multiple destinations that can create that depth you're looking for. It’s up to the artist to selectively choose what they want to bring out, what they want people to focus on, or what they want to just pull back slightly and accentuate using any one of these fundamentals.

That destination is yours to choose. It's the fulfillment of the intent that you set from the very beginning of your work. 

Conclusion

The four fundamentals of art help to pave the road for artists to make realistic paintings on their journey of learning.

The four fundamentals of art help to pave the road for artists to make realistic paintings on their journey of learning.

The road to taking what's in here and getting it out into the world and sharing it with others is paved by these fundamentals. However, to gain a command over these fundamentals and to realize your intentions, it's not enough just to read these posts. You have to go and earn the experience for yourself.

Hopefully, this is giving you a frame of mind to approach your work, but in the same way that the light guides us in the decisions that we make for our paintings, we need to have a guide, someone who's experienced, who's been there before, and who can keep us on the correct course in our growth and journey in unlocking and unleashing the creativity that's inside of us.

That's our goal at Evolve Artist. It's to create a path that is direct and efficient and to provide a guide every step of the way, including materials, feedback, and guaranteeing results. It's designed for someone who wants to take their art to a whole other level, getting to a place where you can fulfill your intentions and create art without limitations.

Find out more about Evolve Artist by subscribing to our newsletter or check us out on YouTube and follow us on Instagram. And if you are serious about wanting pro-level art skills, Evolve Artist has a program that is designed for you. Our program can give you the knowledge, guided experience, and the focus you need to get to artistic excellence.

I wish you all happy, happy painting.


This post is Part 4 of our Fundamentals of Art series. Click HERE to read about values, HERE to read about edges, HERE to read about perception, and HERE to read about color.


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