Making Paintings Look Realistic and Believable

Art is a creative endeavor and as a result, there is a seemingly endless variety of styles out there. Some artists like to paint abstractly, using shape or color to convey their message (Jackson Pollack is one of the most famous artists who never painted actual scenes).

Many artists paint realistic scenes but give them a sense of whimsy or mystery by altering them in some way.

For example, think of Van Gogh’s classic Bedroom in Arles painting. It’s a painting of a real room that actually existed, but in no way looks realistic. But for many artists, the ultimate goal is to paint something that looks almost like a photograph.

And for many average viewers, this is where the most talent lies (whether that’s true or not is surely a matter of opinion though). The ability to paint realistic, believable scenes is the true mark of a technically gifted artist. Two things you’ll need to do this are proper proportions and precise shadow and lighting.


One of the first things you need to master if you want to paint realistically believable scenes is the art of accurate proportions. Unless you want to take a ruler to every part of your scene and do a lot of math, proportions are going to include a bit of guesswork.

But proper proportions are the key to a realistic painting; even if something is only slightly off, the viewer will consciously or subconsciously detect that something is amiss. One of the best ways to estimate proportions is the thumb and pencil method. It requires you to hold up your pencil with your thumb and index finger, horizontally and at arm’s length.

 Slide your thumb down near the point of the pencil and hold it up to your scene. Pick something easy to measure, like the trunk of a tree or the height of a park bench. Using this measurement, you’ll be able to determine the rest of the sizes of the scene (i.e. the tree is ten widths tall). This is a handy method that many artists use to measure things out in their paintings and drawings.

Shadow and Lighting

Other than proper proportions, the additional thing that will make a painting really come to life and seem believable is an accurate portrayal of shadow and lighting. If you’re having trouble telling where the light and dark tones of an object are, try squinting when you look at it. This helps blur the details of the scene so that your brain and eyes can focus more on the spectrum of color rather than form.

Shadow and light are important skills in oil painting techniques because it’s something our eyes hardly register in real life. But when we’re looking at a painting which hasn’t properly depicted this, our eyes will know, and as was the case with improper proportions, we’ll somehow sense something is amiss.

With proper proportions and an accurate depiction of shadow and light, your painting will seem much more realistic and believable. Mastering the techniques will take some practice, but they will eventually become second-nature.

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