How to Draw and Paint – Seeing as an Artist

Learning to draw and paint begins with copying simple easy-to-follow art lessons, but when you find yourself wondering how to draw realistic people or paint a landscape as beautifully as you envision it, then you have to go beyond the basic step by step drawing tutorials.  You have to learn to see as an artist.

Learning to see as an artist means that you are deciphering what you see through art.  Skills of brushwork, pencil handling, shading, color mixing, etc… all are relatively easy to learn, but useless if you don’t know how to explain what you’re looking at.  Focusing only on copying a drawing to acquire skills makes you an artisan, a person who can replicate what someone else has dreamed up.  The artist is the one who dreams up the image and is able to create it.

Skill is learning the correct words to express yourself, but the expression itself is the art.

To be an artist is to know how to see as an artist.  It means deciphering the world around you and conveying it through whatever material you choose.  While learning the basics, you are becoming an artist, but to make the leap into understanding the visual world, you must quit approaching art as an *artisan.

The Artisan approach to being an Artist-

how to draw realistic people art lesson

This is an Ear.

How to Draw Realistic People

Drawing the Shapes

Here is the problem: most people will try to draw a realistic face and instead of rendering what they actually see before them (the model), they will draw what they think it’s supposed to look like.  This is why it can be so difficult to draw an ear or a hand, among many other things (rose petals, feet, lips, bushes, the list goes on and on).

Drawing an ear, for example, it’s our tendency to draw a symbol of the ear.  Instead of actually looking at the strange folds of the ear, and how they are defined by light and shadow, we’ll hurry through a quick shape that we assume will pass off as good enough.

It’s nothing to be ashamed of.  We’re taught to create symbols for what we see because it makes things easier.  The ubiquitous “stick man” is a symbol of a person.  The happy face hardly looks like a real face, but we accept it.  It would be ridiculous to create a detailed, realistic drawing of a happy face every time we just want to let someone know “good job” or “just kidding.”

The problem with the symbol mentality is when we apply this to a realistic drawing or painting, it looks lame.  We can only get away with it if it applies to the overall style of the artwork.  Otherwise, it’s a weak point and it will stand out, hampering your piece of art.

"Preconceived notions are the locks on the door to wisdom" -Mary Browne

Seeing as an Artist-

Learning how to draw or how to paint realistically requires just a little diligence and patience, but mostly it will require that you step back from preconceived notions.  When you are looking at any given subject, it is being defined by it’s light source.  In the sketch of the ear above (on the right), the shape is created by where the structure of the ear turns away from the light.  There is shading and there are cast shadows.  These areas of shading and highlights have specific shapes.

To begin seeing as an artist, start looking for the shapes of everything.  Squint your eyes down so that the gradual shading breaks apart into pieces of dark and light.

Squinting is especially important.  It will help you see a 3 dimensional subject in a more abstract group of 2 dimensional shapes.

How to Oil Paint Realistic People

Limited Colors in Study Painting

When adding color, no matter what medium, the same applies but you will now be creating these individual shapes with color.  If this is too much to consider at first, then paint monochromatically (one color) or at least a limited palette.

In the painting of the woman at left, you can see the clearly defined shapes of darks and dark mid-tones.  The painting can easily be refined more from this point with blending and more subtle defining.

Putting Together the Puzzle Pieces

One way to imagine this is to think of it as tiling, or mosaic.  Looking at the original image before you, and with squinting down your eyes to reduce the image to broader planes of varying lights and darks, you can begin to see the whole image put together with smaller specific shapes.  Laying in these tiles of color and/or tonal value, you begin putting together the puzzle.

When you are able to see this way, you will no longer rely on step by step drawing instructions that limit you to merely copying someone else’s drawing.  When you see as an artist, you will be limited only by your imagination, and of course your level of skill.

Skill and Talent

Level of skill comes with time and practice.  I will go over many techniques in the future: tips to build up your skills and tools to put in your toolbox.  This is the easy part.

Don’t worry too much about skills.  I’m not saying don’t learn skills.  Learning skills are part of the journey in anything you endeavor.  If making art is part of your life, learning new skills is exciting.

Skills build up your ability as an artisan or artist.

I believe that we are all capable of being an amazing artist.  We all have unique expression and individual perception.  While some of us are not as talented as others, we all still have a sense of identity that is totally our own.  Talent is arbitrary.  Yes, it may come more easily to some over others, but it’s beside the point.  The notion of talent might derail our early efforts and we may never come to realize a truly remarkable life.  Forget talent.  Only consider how to open your perception more and always working at building skills.

Skill is learning the correct words to express yourself, but the expression itself is the art.

I will be sharing more information about creating art every week.  If you wish to be informed when I make a new post or add an instructional video, enter your email and name at the side of this page.

Also, if you have any comments, questions, or just want to banter about my opinions, then do so.

Here’s to creating great art, and being open to a more profound life.

Matt Abraxas Fine Art and Illustration Studio

Matt Abraxas Fine Art Studio-Matt

~Matt Abraxas


*Obviously, I am being liberal with the definition of “artisan.”  The point is to distinguish the difference between trying to merely copy your subject and actually creating an emotional response by understanding what you see.