Realistic Painting in a Nutshell *

...or What I've Learned from Copying the Old Masters...

The real measure of a painter’s success is that his or her knowledge can be applied in all cases and not just "randomly or occasionally."

Unfortunately talent alone is not nearly enough.

Knowledge will enable the artist to self-critique accurately and consistently raise the overall level of his or her work.

I think that it is fine to paint what you "see" (if you can see it), but it is much more effective to paint what you "know." The human eye is not always "sophisticated" or "trained" enough to observe reality.

There is a lot of false or misunderstood "knowledge" that "sounds right" but unfortunately cannot consistently be applied to improve the artist’s work.

I have been very fortunate to have been taught by Mr. Numael Pulido, and have had an opportunity to copy the works of some of the Old Masters.

I have found Vermeer to be the best teacher of all the Old Masters. Here are some of the lessons I have learned about realistic painting from the Old Masters in general - and most especially from Vermeer in particular.


1. Build Composition with three values. You must represent a dark tone, a middle tone, and a light tone.

2. Clearly define the silhouettes of both the positive and negative shapes early in the painting and make sure that these shapes are interesting and not repetitive or uniform.

3. Use only a single light source. If possible, have the single light source come from the upper left.


1. Beginning in the under layer, the light and shadow must be clearly defined in thick paint.

2. Light flows across an object in a path from the center of intensity (highlight) and should not be interrupted by dark shadows in its flow. (i.e., shadows appear lighter in the light).

3. Connect shadows into a pattern whenever possible.

4. Separate light in a consistent manner from shadow. No light should appear in a shadow and no dark shadows should appear in the light. (That is, shadows that break light must be lighter than any single shadow in a shadow area).

5. An effective way to add “reflected light” to a shadow is to mix pure color pigments from opposite sides of the color wheel to get a neutralcolor. Then add enough white to match the surrounding value of the shadow.

6. Whenever possible, find and make a pattern of connected light.

7. Utilize shadows as distinct and important design elements.

8. Light is always built with thick opaque paint.

9. Shadows are to be thinly painted.

10. A halftone is formed on an object where the shadow meets the light. The transition between light and shadow may occur very slowly or very quickly and this will determine the character of the halftone.

11. I begin with an imprimatura (aprox. the value of brown wrapping paper) by painting light as it emerges from this cool middle or halftone.

12. A pleasing light/shadow or shadow/light ratio is 1:3.


1. There are no hard edges in nature. Blend and soften your edges!

2. Perspective and anatomy ought to be depicted as true and accurate.

3. Man made objects with a straight edge should be painted with a "ruler" (i.e., tabletop).

4. Distant objects tend to become "bluer/cooler" as they recede. Close objects show more "yellow/warmth."

5. Turn edges of objects away from the viewer by making them cooler.

6. Paint objects in the distance less distinctly than objects that are near the viewer.

7. As highlight transitions into deep shadow, warm and cool tones begin to alternate to create each layer that defines form. The overlapping ofwarm and cool color is essential in building realistic form.

(The terms “warm” and “cool” color is relative to the specific color used…i.e., warm and cool blue…)

Highlight is cool. The lightest coolest value paint on an object.

Light is warm. Light warm value paint - gets lighter as it approaches and surrounds the highlight.

Halftone (where light and shadow meet) is cool. Mid-value paint that is cooler than the shadow and light which it connects.

Shadow is warm. Dark warm value paint.

Deep Shadow (cast shadow at the origin) is hot. Darkest warmest value paint.


1. Some representation of the following five colors should be included in a painting: red, yellow, blue, black, and white. (“Shadows” do not count as black.)

2. Differentiate and define a background, a middle ground and a foreground in each painting. These levels of depth should eventually be integrated with “lost” and “found” edges.


Out of clutter, look for and find simplicity and pattern.

* Excerpts from a talk by Karin Wells - "Building Art Beyond the Image" - at the Portrait Society of America’s Annual Conference in Chicago, April 2001.


Daisy said...

You have been teaching me for some time now without ever meeting face to face. You have helped me expand my skills and techniques. I really appreciate the important and the amusing things you post. Really love your blog. Just wanted to say thank you.
This blog on realism and what you've learned from the old master has some new and old information for me, a great refresher. And the way you present your words are as casual as they are thoroughly interesting. Easy to comprehend. Thank you again.
Truly, Daisy S.

My Painting Studio said...

WOW, thank you Daisy! You made my day.

There is way too much "mystique" about art... first it is a craft and I think that anyone can learn that if they learn the basics.

After the craft is mastered...then you can go for the "art" part of it.

It's taking my forever, I do plan on making an iBook about How to Paint Classical Reality.

It needs to be a book because the blog format does not lend itself to teaching.

Right now I have over 500 photos and am on my 4th edit of the text.

Fingers crossed that I will get it done. :)

Anonymous said...

Muchas gracias por esta información tan preciosa.Thanks