by Dieter Carlton from his book, The Science of Art (Copyright, Dieter Carlton, 2009-15)

Secrets, Tools and Techniques of Realist Art

Geometric Perspective

In order to achieve the perception of depth and dimension in art, it is important to understand how to accurately place objects, like trees, buildings and other shapes in space. This is actually done using a simple drafting technique known as geometric perspective drawing. The more technical term for perspective drawing is spatial design.

Perspective drawing begins with what is referred to as the horizon line, a horizontal line drawn somewhere within your composition. This is the most distant end of a plane above, below and/or on which you will position the objects in your composition. The horizon line is actually the limit of your field of view at eye level. Any line which intersects the horizon line creates what is called a vanishing point and refers to the farthest distance in your line of sight. Most of your objects will be created from multiple vanishing points on the horizon line; however, there are instances in which you may use vanishing points that are not on the horizon line. These points, called nomads, are drawn from lines parallel to the horizon line that form sloping planes. Although we won't offer too much discussion on this very complex aspect of perspective drawing, as an introduction, nomads are used merely to draw objects which slope upwards or downwards at various angles above or below your point of view. Nomads are used, for example, to create objects arranged in sloping angles above and/or below the horizon like aircraft on take-off or landing or aquatic species suspended underwater, respectively.

Along your horizon line, you will draw several other lines that radiate out from a single vanishing point like the spokes of a wheel, the vanishing point itself being the hub. These are called tangents or radials, whichever you prefer. The radial drawn exactly perpendicular (at 90%) to your horizon line is what is known as central perspective. If you were standing at the corner of a building and moved your eyes until you are unable to see the vertical exterior wall, this edge represents your central perspective. No matter where you place your vanishing points, radials drawn below the horizon line place objects below your field of view, like looking down from the top of a hill. Otherwise, radials drawn above the horizon line will form objects above your point of view as if you are looking up from the ground. You can draw radials that extend both above and below the horizon line to draw objects that are at eye level as if you are looking straight out to the horizon.

Within the radials or tangent lines, you will draw the subjects in your work.   You do this using darker lines drawn along your radials to begin defining the planes that make up your object. You continue to define your object by drawing lines parallel to your central perspective line. These vertical lines are called boundaries and are used to form vertical planes like the exterior walls of a house.  In some cases you will need to evaluate the angular position of your object by a more precise reference to the horizon line. PerspectiveThis is done using what are called parallels. Although parallels are used mostly as guides, they can also be used to create perfectly horizontal planes. To draw a gabled roof, you would measure half the distance from one boundary of a horizontal plane. Then, using a vertical line as a guide, draw it through this half way point, then draw two sloping lines that meet each other on this guide.  Shadows require special treatment since their length is determined by what is referred to as a beam (See my section on Light and Shadow below for more on this complex subject).

More than one object can be drawn within the radials of a single vanishing point.  The closer your objects are to the vanishing point, the farther away they will be.  You can draw as many radials as you need from a single vanishing point in order to form your object(s). You can also use as many vanishing points as are needed to place objects at different points of view on your plane.  All objects formed from a single vanishing point will be in the same point of view like a column of soldiers marching toward or away from your line of sight.  If you drew columns of soldiers, trees or telephone poles from different vanishing points, these columns would be at different angles from each other.   Multiple vanishing  points are a way of drawing objects that intersect, like roads, or the contiguous walls of a building. 

You may have surmised by this point that perspective drawing is nothing more than a way of creating various polygons since all we are dealing with are intersecting, straight lines. Nevertheless, curves that form circles and ovals can be created from smaller polygons.  For example, a circle (perceived really as a warped oval when viewed across the plane formed by your horizon line) starts with a simple plane formed by four intersecting radials. The intersection of two lines (diameters) drawn across the four corners of this plane will be the exact center of your circle or oval. (go to top)

Color Perspective

Even though you may be very good with geometric perspective and with the placement of objects in space, you can't truly achieve depth without an understanding of how colors are affected by their distance from you out to infinity. You may have noticed how colors seem to turn blue or bleached as they pass into the distance. This phenomenon Color Saturation is caused by many things, the most significant of which is the limitation of our own visual acuity. Haze, light refraction and other minor factors contribute to this phenomenon as well, but, invariably, it must be considered to achieve accuracy in every realist work.

The secret to color perspective is in understanding how colors change their intensity the further away they are from our line of sight. Intensity is the term used to describe the actual amount or strength of a given color, usually expressed as a percentage of saturation or fullness as shown in the illustration at left. True blue is 100% saturated, but at 50% saturation it looks sort of bleached or faded, like an old pair of denim jeans. Obviously, the farther out to the horizon your objects are placed the less color saturation they will have. Colors will also lose much of their value or become lighter as they extend out to the vanishing point. Intensity can also describe the characteristics of monochromatic perspective as in black and white (pencil or pen and ink) drawings. In monochromatic works objects drawn at a distance are done so in decreasing intensities of gray (lighter shades of gray). Remember that intensity refers to the strength of a given color and can be translated to the non-color, black. Gray is nothing more than partially unsaturated black and black is the absence of color altogether. (go to top)


Composition is the thing that usually gets art students in trouble with their professors.   You know how it is with professors.  They want you to be organized, to follow scientific method or protocol and so on.  Well, that's what composition is really all about.  In fact, composition is nothing more that the arrangement of objects, color and shadow in your work.  This arrangement must be made in such a way as to prevent the viewer from wandering.  If you are clever enough, you can create an arrangement of elements in your work so that no matter how many times someone views it, he/she is immediately drawn to the same point, preferably the center of your composition, because that's where the viewer gets the optimum look at your work.

Composition does not refer necessarily to the placement of the subject(s) in your work.  In other words, putting your subject in the middle of your work does not always obey the rules of composition, especially if there are other objects in the work that conflict.  As a general rule, composition refers to the way in which all of the elements in your work act in harmony to balance the composition.  Thus, if you have a large tree on one side of your work and nothing on the other, there is no balance and your composition will lean toward the large tree.  In my own works, I very often place subjects, like wildlife, off center, yet the viewer's eye is still drawn to the center of my composition because of my placement of other objects and my use of color, shadow and geometry to sort of move the eye toward the composition's center. In order to better understand the physics of composition one needs to know how the viewers' eyes are drawn to the various elements in a work of art. In general, this is called dynamic visual diversion and derives from the following principles: the eye is drawn ... (1) first to shadow or darker areas, then to light or lighter areas; (2) first to low-frequency colors such as red and yellow, then to the high-frequency colors blue and green; (3) first to sharp angles and then to curves; (4) first to detail or focused images then to obscure or blurred images. Although many chapters can be devoted to this subject alone, a simple example using "The Mona Lisa" painting should suffice as a starting point. You may notice, with this work, how the eye is drawn in immediately by the dark clothes and hair that almost completely surrounds the subject's face then into the lighter areas of subject's face itself and again to the darker areas of her eyes, nose and eventually to the animated smile. No matter how many times you look, this is precisely how the eye will travel. Note also how the sharp angles of the subject's nose and neck to shoulder, as well as the lack of detail in her chest area, tend to keep the eye moving back towards the smile.

Composition also refers to how the subject is framed. In many instances, unseasoned artists and photographers will tend to focus in upon a subject leaving nothing else for the viewer by which to establish a reference to location, time and space. This is basically a subject without a background or without any other objects, even if blurred, dark or color-obscured, by which the viewer can establish a frame of reference. We call this the "keyhole effect". By this principle, we are forced to peep through distractions as if imprisoned by their presence in order to see what may be interesting to us. The "Keyhole Effect" can be either a distraction or an enhancement, depending upon how its principle is applied. If we perceive ourselves as groping through foreground clutter to get a better view of the subject then the "Keyhole Effect" becomes a distraction. On the other hand, if viewing the subject from behind what frames it makes us feel secure then the "Keyhole Effect" can actually be an enhancement.

Composition comes with several important rules. One of these rules refers to the geometry of asymmetry. Asymmetry refers to the random placement of color and geometry (or shapes). If a work of art is composed in which the colors and shapes are symmetrical, this is not art, but design; hence, all true art, including abstract art, must be asymmetrical. Another rule refers to the way in which objects or characters bleed or truncate out of the composition (this is also known as a break-away composition). In this case, if the subject bleeds from one side of the composition, it must also bleed from the opposite or near opposite side or otherwise occupy more than a third of the composition. A bleed should be done so that the composition is cut in two halves, not one quarter and three quarters or one third and two thirds. (go to top)

Medium and Media Technique

Medium in art refers to the material and/or process that is used to achieve an artistic composition. Although the choice of medium is a matter of personal taste or preference, there are advantages and disadvantages inherent with each type of medium that are worthy of instructional note. The most popular or well-known artistic media are discussed briefly as follows:

Oil Paint is considered probably the most flexible and durable medium in the visual arts. Oils are most often used to create colorful compositions on canvas. They are easily mixed on any palette and take weeks to dry, thus offering many opportunities for correction and experimentation. Because of their slow drying time, oils can be used to create huge canvases. Once dried, oils are very durable and long-lasting. They are also water proof.

Water Color is a popular water-based medium that is used to create compositions quickly on rough-textured paper. Unlike oils, water colors dry almost immediately, especially when mixed with lots of water and applied in small amounts; hence, any composition so created, must be executed with extraordinary planning and skill. Unlike with oils, the rapid drying time associated with water colors makes them difficult for creating large compositions.

Acrylic Polymer is a water-based medium much like water color, but comes in the consistency and flexibility of oil paints. Acrylic without water, known as dry-brush acrylic, can be used to create stunning works of art because of the crispness and clarity achievable with this medium. Acrylics take almost 10 times longer to dry than water colors but behave much like the latter, nevertheless, when mixed with water.

Pastels are a dry medium consisting of very brittle pigmented chalk. Although pastels mix quite well, they are messy and very difficult to use for creating polish and detail in your composition. Moreover, most works created in pastel are exactly that--pastel (pale and light).

Pen and Ink is considered the medium of masters because its successful use requires years of practice with fountain stylus or brush. The medium dries instantly and indelibly and comes in a variety of colors. A popular tool used by pen and ink artists is the highly refined Rapidograph, a pen through which ink can be dispensed to less than one millimeter, thus offering the advantage of extreme detail.

Color Pencil is my personal favorite, although many critics do not consider this a sophisticated art medium. Color pencil is a dry, waxed based medium, but highly flexible and easily mixed or blended. Good color pencil artists can create extremely detailed and colorful compositions with this medium which is manufactured in literally hundreds of color variations. Color pencils are sharpened just like lead pencils; however, the darker colors are often very brittle and can break even from the slightest amount of pressure.

Digital Media encompasses virtually all of the preceding media except that these are manifested, using a pointing device, like a mouse or digital stylus, to create artistic compositions on a computer.

The subject of medium brings to mind among the most important elements of art--media technique. By this, I am referring to the way in which the artist actually uses the medium in rendering a work of art. As with many other aspects of art, there are express rules that apply to media technique. Chief among these is referred to as consistency of pattern. Many amateur artists tend to wander around their works, paying very little, if any, attention to how they use their medium. For example, when doing a pencil drawing, it is not a good practice to show both pencil lines and blended pencil. One either shows lines throughout the work or blends them out, but not both in the same composition. The same is true of paint. In oils, you either show brush strokes or you don't, but not both in the same composition.This rule is also true of mixed media art. Even though the artist will be using different media, the technique used for each must be the same in a given composition. In general, the artist's media technique will eventually define his/her STYLE.(go to top)

Story and Characterization

The real purpose of art is to communicate some sort of message. In fact, without a message, the image is not true art but merely illustration. This is an important notion for those who believe that art is merely a way of stimulating visual perception much like music stimulates auditory senses. Like the pages of a good book, art must convey a message either through visual drama, by characterization or both. Conveyance of visual drama is referred to in art as story. Characterization is a form of communications in which the message is obvious from the expressions and/or actions of the subject(s) in a composition.

Story in art is best described by use of an analogy. Suppose that we undertake to draw or paint a picture of a crucifix. By itself, this object is just that, a portrait of a crucifix, albeit one of inherent symbolism and meaning among Christians. The inherent symbolism of this object is neither a story nor characterization in any form. Instead, it is only a reference to story and, by this distinction, conveys a message in only a relative, but not direct, sense. Now let's draw or paint our crucifix, but this time, rendering it among the rubble of a burned out (or bombed out) ruin with perhaps a little fire and smoke in the background. Now we have story because the crucifix has been given context and its relative meaning now purports an interesting paradox.

Characterization in art can be likened to how we perceive certain behavior simply by observing the body language of humans and animals. A great example of characterization is Leonardo Da Vinci's masterful painting "The Mona Lisa". In this work, we can conjure numerous behavior characteristics from the highly subtle, yet seemingly animated smile of the subject. Some critics believe that it is a sexual smirk while others believe it be a sinister grimace. Still others contend that it is a sign of contentment and resolve. Regardless of what she may have been thinking at the time, suffices to say that the message of characterization was enormously successful. Characterization in art can be grouped into three major classifications: (1) Explicit Characterization, (2) Implicit Characterization and (3) Directed Characterization.

Explicit characterization refers to any expression and/or action that can be readily observed. The painting of "The Mona Lisa" is an example of this. We can actually see her expressions and draw many conclusions hence. Implicit Characterization refers only to the expressions of subjects whose faces we cannot actually see; however, we are readily able to discern them from the evidence available in a well-constructed composition. Directed Characterization refers to expressions that are clearly directed at something we cannot see or someone whose expressions we cannot see like a person looking at something or someone not within view of the beholder's eye. (go to top)

Light and Shadow

Unless you can avoid it through abstract art, understanding light and shadow is paramount to the production of a believable work of realist art. All shadows depend upon the source, angle and intensity of light as well as the characteristics of the objects on which light casts its rays. Sometimes light can come from many directions, casting shadows accordingly.

There are at least three important elements of light that an artist should understand. First is the bearing or source of light--the direction from which it is casting its rays. The source of light includes its position in space (its height), its relative angle and its angle of dispersion. Relative angle refers to the source of light in relation to the subject on which it casts a shadow and angle of dispersion refers to the width and magnitude of its beam (this part is very important as I'll explain later). The second element refers to the intensity or strength of light. This includes whether the source is hot or cold, bright or dull, clear or obscured. The third element refers to the characteristic of any object on which light casts a shadow, including its shape and whether it is opaque, translucent or transparent.

The direction of light always refers to its bearing from the source to the viewer's perspective, whether from the right, left, rear, front or straight above and all interim variations. The direction of light will determine how it will cast a shadow. Before proceeding, you should review my section on geometric perspective. The three predisposing considerations to creating shadows is to determine their direction, length and intensity. Before learning how to precisely compute the direction and length of a shadow, it's important to understand the difference between natural and artificial light. Natural light, including sunlight and moonlight, consists always of straight parallel rays that form a cylinder (or more accurately, a policylinder) around the object on which the shadow is cast. In this case, every shadow will be cast in the same direction and have the same relative width and the same intensity (darkness) throughout its length. Unlike natural light, artificial light is usually radiated outward like a cone. This can rather complicate things because the direction of the shadow will depend upon the object's position relative to the light source. In this case, the shadow will also radiate out from the object like a cone; and, its strength or intensity will diminish the further its distance from the object.

Using sunlight as our source (it's easier to use as an example), consider the vanishing point you used to create aAngle of Incidencen object in your composition. Now draw a line from your light source so that it intersects your object at the outer most point as shown in the illustration at right. This line, in relation to the horizon line, is called a beam. A vertical line drawn perpendicular to the horizon line will intersect the beam. This line, known as a normal, crosses the beam to form what is known as the angle of incidence. It is the angle of incidence that will determine the precise length of your shadow. The normal is your light source at zenith or straight up above your point of view. If you examine the illustration at right, you will notice that the shadow extends from the bottom of your object to where the beam intersects or touches the ground plane. The boundaries of this shadow are created, just as you would the object itself, using perspective drawing techniques as shown. Although sunlight will cast predictable beams with respect to the time of year and day, we must understand how to visualize shadows also from different points of view. The beam formed by an angle of incidence will intersect the outer most point of your shadow. This point will rest on the perimeter of a precise, circular path the shadow will follow as you move around the object. The angle of incident being constant, viewed from different points of view, the shadow cast by the object will have precisely the same length, but appear to change its length as you move around, depending upon the elevation from which you are viewing the object. Remember that the higher your elevation the more your shadow's path will appear like a perfect circle; however, because we view the horizon primarily from oblique angles (from the eye to the ground plane on which we are standing), this path will form an oval as shown in the illustration at right. Creating shadows using natural light is considerably more complex because the intensity of light will decrease as it extends out from the object, and the magnitude (width) of the shadow will actually increase or decrease the further it is from the light source depending upon the size or distance of the light source in relation to the object on which it casts its shadow.

Light intensity (not color intensity) will effect how dark your shadow will be and also the color value of your shadow. The darker a shadow the more it will diminish the color value of anything on which the shadow is cast. Please don't confuse intensity with value. The former refers to a color's saturation and the latter, it's lightness or darkness.

Finally, shadows will be effected certainly by the characteristic of the objects that cast them. The color or shade value of these shadows will depend upon the objects' rate of opacity. This is the term used to describe the degree by which light will be reflected off the object. Glass has almost zero opacity but can cast shadows through stains, cracks or warping. The other important aspect of glass worth noting is that light will be refracted (bent) as it passes into the glass then straighten back to its original angle, but not the same beam, on the other side. This phenomenon will cause objects that are partially masked by glass to appear split or broken. The rates of opacity between that of glass and that of, say, a solid block of wood is what artists refer to as translucency and is very difficult to manage in a work of art. The challenge of translucency is in correctly calculating the amount of light reflection and refraction and how the translucent object's color will effect the shadow it casts.

Before leaving this exhausting lesson, don't forget that there are actually three kinds of shadows, the one that is cast by the light source on the object, the one on the dark side of the object itself and, if there happens to be other objects in the light path, the shadow cast by those objects. Objects will also cast multiple shadows from several light sources. Imagine a situation in which the sun reflects light onto the back of an object when reflected from a mirror or bright object behind it. With many successful still life paintings, the artist would place objects on an indoor table adjacent to a window. These objects would cast shadows from sunlight through the window and from natural light inside to where the table happens to be sitting.(go to top)


The concept of atmosphere in realist art is among the least understood and most violated of the structural elements. To understand this concept, go and look out of your window. You may see clouds, green grass, trees and water (if you have lake or ocean-front property). Since you're inside, you can only assess the environment by how its atmosphere will make you feel. Does it feel cold, warm, Atmospherehumid, or dry? You do this by the way color and color saturation affect your mood. When we think of color it is usually by its definition; hence, red is red, blue is blue and so on. In art a color is referred to by its hue. The hue is a color at its maximum saturation and value. But, hues can be of varying degree of intensity and value, and it gets even more complicated when you factor in the way objects of one color can influence those of another. The intensity of a hue is determined by its saturation and the value of a hue is determined by its range from light to dark. Saturation refers to the actual amount of color you see. When fully saturated, red is red and when fully de-saturated, it's just gray, so saturation refers to the range from hue to gray. The value of a color is often confused with its rate of saturation. Saturation is simply the way a color fades or bleaches, but value refers to what happens to colors when they are influenced by environmental factors such as shadow and reflection. You may have noticed how the shadow of a tree across green grass makes the grass appear a sort of bluish gray.

So what has all of that got to do with atmosphere? Well, you see, light works in mysterious ways because it bounces around creating different hues of varying intensity and value, a complex and confusing menagerie. Atmosphere, on the other hand, is the one element that is common throughout what you perceive. No matter how many colors you have in nature, atmosphere is perceived based on the one color that dominates the environment, a concept referred to as ambience. An extreme example is the reddish-yellow glow that appears at sunrise or at sunset. You must always bear in mind that color is determined by light and how it is reflected, refracted and/or obscured or masked. For example, a bright yellow object, when reflected on a blue object will make the blue object appear green. If light rays pass through a haze at certain angles, this can create interesting changes in light saturation that is reflected on all objects regardless of their inherent color or hue.

Atmosphere also refers to temperature. Obviously you physically can't feel the temperature in a work of art. Instead, you have to perceive it. Good artists know how to create the illusion of temperature in their works. Cold temperatures are created using various harmonies of colors in the range from blue to green while hot temperatures are created using various color harmonies in the range from red to yellow. Color harmony refers to the way different color hues work together. Extraordinary and interesting compositions can be created through an understanding of temperature in atmosphere. Cozy compositions are done usually by placing warm-colored subjects within a cold-colored environment. You can also create drama through a conflict of color and resulting temperature. Consider for example a storm approaching from the distance on a very hot day. The landscape consists primarily of warm colors like orange and red while the storm consists of clouds that are dark blue and subtle green. (go to top)


In art, texture refers to an object's surface characteristics.  Objects can have textures ranging from smooth like glass to extremely coarse like the surface of a finger of coral.  Texture is often very difficult to produce in a composition without using some sort of overlay technique, brush work or other method for achieving the illusion of texture.  As a genTextureeral rule, the smoother an object the more light it will reflect directly back from its surface, a property known as specular reflection. This is very important since smoother objects will also tend to reflect the color of adjacent objects.  Course objects will reflect light but in so many directions that the surface appears dull, a property known as diffuse reflection. A good example of specular and diffuse reflection can be illustrated distinguishing calm with wavy water, respectively, as shown at right.

The farther an object exists out toward the vanishing point of your horizon line, the more it will appear to reflect light like a mirror. This is the so called "mirage" effect, a phenomenon of optical perception brought on by the refraction of light through warmer air closer to the object's surface than above it.  Another reason objects appear smoother at a distance is that the eye can only see the top most area, like looking at a bed of nails straight across its surface.  At a distance, the eye is unable to see the individual nail points, so the bed's surface actually appears smooth.  This phenomenon is important to remember when painting large bodies of water that are choppy.  Up close, the eye can see waves, but at greater distances, these waves begin to appear flatter and smoother and, hence, more specular reflective. As we shall learn later, even though choppy water may appear specular reflective and smooth at a distance, it will not necessarily reflect distant objects off its surface. You should take note of this on a windy day.  (go to top)


Movement is a very difficult but stimulating and inspiring element of good artistic compositions.  In general, movement refers to how a composition changes the viewer's perception over an extended viewing experience.  In monochrome works, movement is created by the way in which the artist uses geometric shapes.  You may be familiar with "Op Art", a contemporary branch of design that makes use of geometric shapes to create optical illusions.  In color compositions, the geometry of objects is augmented by a precise arrangement of color.  In order to create movement using color, the artist generally places non-harmonious colors in close, relative proximity.  You may have seen what happens when blue is placed over red or vice versa.  This relationship creates the perception of movement because of the sudden change in wave frequency between the two colors. Movement is also created by somehow controlling the viewer's perceptions. Leonardo Da Vinci achieved this with his highly successful Mona Lisa in which the subject's famous smile actually seems to change. Many art historians maintain that this effect was achieved by blurring the corners of subject's mouth. (go to top)

Color and Palette

Color is what gives an artistic composition its soul, but its improper management can render even the best of compositions an abject failure. I have judged many good compositions, those showing polished creativity and technical skill, but passed them over for their lack of proper color management. Either the placement of color was conflicting or inaccurate or the colors themselves were cross-contaminated (what artists refer to as a "muddy" palette). Color conflict can render a composition blurred and unrealistic. This is caused often by the artist's use of adjacent colors when rendering one object upon another or otherwise blending colors that oppose each other like blue with orange or red with green but without any dramatic purpose. Cross-contamination occurs when colors used in one part of a composition somehow wind up mixed with those of another part of the same composition. This is caused simply by palette mismanagement and laziness. For example, suppose the artists paints a foreground with many browns and oranges, then paints a blue sky with the same brush, not thoroughly cleaned. In this case, traces of orange and brown may appear mixed with the blue sky, thus making it appear dull and muddy. The most common cause of muddy compositions is the use of dark neutral colors like black or gray. The addition of black or various shades of gray to color is referred to as color subtraction. Professional artists use color subtraction techniques when they premix colors thoroughly in order to reduce their value or to create metallic or more neutral color effects. On the other hand, in order to decrease color intensity or saturation, the professional will use white. This process is called tinting. Many amateur artists, on the other hand, prefer using black to darken colors or to exacerbate the darkness of shaded areas, by direct application instead of premix. Remember that black is actually the absence of color altogether and, in my opinion, offers nothing but trouble when improperly used in color compColor Wheelositions. Most art professors will tell you not to use black at all because it is the surest way to create a muddy composition.

In order to achieve proper color management, the artist must have a clear understanding of colors and how they behave on the palette. Colors are best understood by visualizing their arrangement on what artists refer to as the color wheel as shown in the illustration at left. This wheel consists of primary, secondary and intermediate colors arranged according to their position in the light spectrum. The primary colors are red, yellow and blue. Primary colors are so called because they cannot be achieved by mixing any other colors together. Secondary colors are created by any two primary colors. For example, the secondary color orange is created by a combination of red and yellow and green is created by the combination of blue and yellow. Intermediate colors are those created by the combination of any two contiguous or adjacent primary and secondary colors. An adjacent is any one color immediately next to another. An opposite is always the relationship between one color and another color opposite to it on the color wheel. Opposites are known more precisely as complementary colors because, when properly used, can create stunning optical illusions and movement effects. It is important to remember that adjacent colors will harmonize when mixed together while opposites will not. Artists will use opposites if they want to achieve contrast and stimulate movement and adjacents to achieve color continuity, consistency and ambience. The color wheel is also sometimes presented in a range of intensities with concentric color gradients from black in the center of the wheel out to their maximum hue or, in some presentations, out to white on the circle's perimeter. These are intended to demonstrate the effects of color subtraction or de-saturation. (go to top)

Water Effects

Water is my favorite subject; but, it is a very difficult one to manage in a work of art.   To understand how to paint water, we have to get into a bit of physics.  We all know that water is transparent and most of us should know that, because of its density, water can cause light passing through it to actually bend, or refract, a little away from the angle of incidence (see Shadow and Light).  For this reason, anything that you see in the water from above its surface will be offset from where it actually rests.  Although water is indeed transparent, a lot of the light that hits it is reflected off its surface like a mirror.  This has a lot to do with the difference in density and frequency between the water and light.  Ocean and lake water are considerably more dense than raw H2O.  This increased density is caused by the suspension of extraneous forms of matter like bacteria, fungus, waste and, for ocean water, add sodium to this suspension.

Armed with this knowledge we now know that water is both transparent and reflective.  This is the primary reason why we can see waves.  You see, waves are nothing more than areas of water moving over each other.  Waves are extremely complex geometric shapes that move in patterns which are quite symmetrical and predictable.  There are primary waves and also secondary waves (waves on waves) each casting shadows on the other.

Painting waves is a matter of knowing your light source and, hence, which side of the wave is away from this source.  Although waves have their own shadows, these are perceptively non-discernible.  What you are actually seeing on the darker side of the wave is the area underneath its surface.  Of course, the area under the surface is darker in deeper water.  That's often why ocean waves appear much darker than waves on a shallow lake.  On the light side of the wave is merely the reflection of light from its source onto whatever is on that side of the wave, usually the sky. In practice, the creation of a body of water begins with the lighter colors, usually a darker reflection of the sky, then builds with increasingly darker colors for wave effects.

A perfectly still body of water will reflect objects directly, like a mirror image.  The reflected object is usually darker and its color saturation much less than the object being reflected (see Texture).  The reason for this is as mention above, that not all of the light is reflected off the service of water and instead actually penetrates into the water.  When water is moving and unstable, it will still reflect images off its surface, but they will be broken by that side of the wave that is facing away from the image being reflected.  Very choppy water will reflect light in so many directions that its surface will appear opaque and non-reflective especially at a distance.  To accurately reflect objects in water, you would use the same perspective drawing technique as with the object being reflected (see Geometric Perspective).   In this case, using the original vanishing point of the object you want reflected in the water, you would extend a tangent line down below the object by the distance of the object's height.  If the object sits in the water, it will reflect everything from the surface up to the top of the object.  In most cases, however, the object will be masked by a shore or bank.  Banks will only be reflected by the extent to which they slope or rise above the water from your point of view. It is important to remember that water will actually extend out to the horizon line; therefore, the base of any objects, such as boats and landforms, will always be below the horizon line and closer to the horizon line at greater distances. (go to top)   

Trees and Grass  

Trees and grass are very challenging subjects, even for seasoned professional artists.  It is clearly impractical to draw every leaf on a tree or every blade of grass, but there are clever ways to fool the eye into believing that that's exactly what you did.  Let's start with trees. The secret to drawing trees is in recognizing how they cast shadows. It is this aspect of trees that makes drawing them very tricky. You see, there are several different shadows:  the one cast by the tree on the ground, the shadow cast by one leaf onto another and one branch onto another, shadows cast by leaves on branches and branches on leaves and so on. Another challenge with drawing trees is to make sure that you are working with the right species, oak, pine, poplar, hickory and so on. Then there are also the seasons, most trees (unless they are evergreens) have fewer or no leaves in Winter, bright green in the Spring, darker green in the Summer and varying shades of red, brown and yellow in the Fall.

Without worrying about species and seasons, let's focus on a typical tree with lots of leaves.  First decide on your light source and compute the relative location and distance of the shadow that will be cast by the tree and its various elements (see Shadow and Light). Be certain to take into account the shadow on the tree itself (its side opposite the light source).  In color art, you paint trees in graduating color values from lighter to darker, the latter being areas of shade cast by leaves on other leaves.  You may have noticed at a distance how trees are just blobs of color with the really dark areas being the open spaces looking inside toward the tree trunk itself.  In monochrome art, trees are relatively simple to draw with blobs of varying shades from light gray to black.  Most trees will show portions of their trunk and branches through the leaves, so these are generally painted in broken sections over the top of your blotches of varying shades of color.  When all of your blotches and branches are done, you now want to consider the areas behind the tree which can be seen through various spaces.  If there is nothing behind a tree but more trees, don't worry about this, but if the tree masks an area of sky, you would paint blotches of the color of your sky over the varying layers of color you used to paint your leaves.  You should always use a slightly darker shade of the sky color for these see-through spaces of your tree.  The reason for this is that dark colors become perceptually darker when placed against lighter colors (it's like looking at something in a dark room in front of a window).  

Grass is not that hard to paint if you remember that the values of its color will darken to represent dips, bumps, slopes and hills.  The darker values are painted in the same direction away from your light source.  Individual grass blades are generally only visible to the naked eye at distances of less than 10 or 15 feet.  You can also see grass blades of darker shades against those of lighter shades, but blades of equal shade or value will be generally invisible to the naked eye at a distance.  (go to top)


Like any other objects that cast shadows, mountains will do so according to their height, shape and distance from your point of view.  To paint mountains, unless you can visualize the entire three-dimensional surface thereof, it is sometimes helpful to create models from clay, mounds of dirt or computer-digital mesh.  Well-known artist Maxfield Parrish used mounds of mud to create his awesome, very haunting mountains.  Once you understand the geometry of your mountain, shadow placement should be no problem.  Shadows notwithstanding, the hard part about creating mountains is in understanding their magnitude.

The magnitude of a mountain refers to the distance from its nearest base to you, its height and its size.  It should be obvious that the various peaks of a mountain are further away from you that its base, hence the saturation of color decreases as you move from the base to the peaks.  Colors will usually be warmer at the base than at a peak, obviously since it's colder up there.  Furthermore, the peaks of mountains, even in the summer, will usually be covered with snow.   In order to make a mountain look huge and distant, its colors will be highly saturated, more so at the peaks than at the base.  Mountains at the base are usually grassy or covered with trees.  At the higher altitudes will be grayish-brown stone.  Green appears blue when saturated, while brown appears more washed out or faded green at a distance.  At sunset, the grayish-brown stone appears a yellowish-orange which is less saturated or beige at a distance.  The farther the mountain is from you the more it will begin to appear bluish-green or light blue gray like a faded pair of denim jeans, again, more so at its peaks than at its base.  (go to top)


The important thing to remember about clouds is that they are translucent, hence, quite a bit of light will pass through them, more so around their edges than in their center.  This is why clouds appear fuzzy or faded around their edges.  Just remember that when you are traveling through fog, that's just a cloud close to the ground.  The thicker a cloud, the more moisture it contains and, of course, the more light will be diffused therein and thus the darker it will be.  

Like any other object, clouds will cast their own shadows that often create interesting illusions of movement on the ground at mid-afternoon.  Backlit clouds will be darker at center with bright lines around their edges (the so call "silver lining").  Front-lit clouds will appear lighter at the center with darker areas around the edges.  Remember that clouds will also cast shadows on other clouds depending upon the light source.  This notion is very important in the creation of dramatic, late afternoon cumulus clouds in the early development of thunderstorms.

The base or bottom sides of clouds are usually distributed along the same horizontal plane and can exist on several such planes, one on top of another.  With this in mind, it is easy to create, for example, many cumulus cloud forms extending out to the horizon using perspective drawing techniques.  Another plane drawn above the plane on which the bases of your cumulus clouds were created can be used to draw an overcast of stratus clouds.  Under certain lighting conditions, this can produce very interesting and dramatic color effects. (go to top)

Realist Art  

Realist art is still the most popular form, but not necessarily among art critics.  Its popularity is based purely upon the fact that it is presented from a known frame of reference and, therefore, more easily recognized.  With realist art, you can generally understand and easily interpret what you see.  Realist art is also the purist, yet most difficult art form because its successful execution requires a thorough understanding of all of the structural elements of spatial geometry, the physics of light, shadow, color and so on.

Critics rail upon realist art, citing that it is no longer useful in modern times where digital photography and computer imagery prevails. They also maintain that realist art is too confining in that it must rely upon prevailing references to reality.  Advocates believe that the one thing which cannot be captured by digital cameras or SLR-T's (single-lens reflex, traditional cameras) is one's own imagination.  A true realist artist can not only create real world places in dramatic ways but also places that do not exist in reality at all, but look like they do nevertheless.  Science fiction and fantasy art are cases in point. 

Realist art has its place in the modern world and will likely outlast any other art form.  Even computer digital art provides a home for realism.  Realism is necessary in many forms to express ideas, genre's, themes or concepts.  Realist art is commonly used to illustrate the content of books, to present advertisements, to provide instructional examples, to illustrate architectural and engineering concepts  and so on.  There is really no way for an inventor to describe a design without first drawing a picture of it.  Many inventors call upon artist to do exactly that.  Everything that we touch and see that was created by humans began with a simple drawing. (go to top)

Surrealist Art  

Surrealist art is nothing more that the aberration, distortion or exaggeration of reality.  Subjects in surrealist art are easily recognized, but their points of reference are vastly skewed and distorted like the things we perceive in dreams.  Surrealists tend to reflect reality in terms of the various ways it can be interpreted.  Consider, for example, the difference in perception between a child and an adult when either looks out at an oncoming storm.  To a child, this may be the most awesome thing ever beheld and be totally oblivious to its threatening implications.  The adult, on the other hand, will conjure memories of its destructive power and immediately contemplate the value of shelter.

Surrealists will sort of bend or skew reality as a way of projecting a feeling about something--like how the id interprets environmental reality as in our dreams.  In other words, the way we feel about something is often far removed from the way we actually see it.  I have always maintained that nothing is ever what it may seem.  Surrealists embrace this notion in their attempts to prove it through complex and often bazaar compositions.  (go to top)


Impressionism is an early art form in which real subjects are painted without any discernible detail.  Many believe that impressionism was discovered quite by accident by artists, prior to the advent of reading glasses, who were suffering from failing vision.  Its popularity grew rapidly after the Renaissance because of its simplicity.  Many advocates viewed impressionism as the soul or spirit of realism.  What you see with impressionism is only the form of the subject, including its shadows, not the sordid and often ugly details.  Critics argue that impressionism is a way of masking truth and reality to form a political or editorial point of view.  They continue by citing that impressionism hides or excludes elements which could more readily describe the intentions of the artist.  Advocates believe that impressionism transcends reality as a means of drawing attention more to concept and design than to description and consciousness.  (go to top)

Abstract Art

The least understood and most controversial branch of artistic expression is abstract art.  Advocates of this form believe that those who practice and understand it are on a higher intellectual plane than the rest of us.  Critics argue that abstract art is practiced by those who simply can't draw or by those who want us to really believe they are on a higher intellectual plane.  Whatever the case, one thing is clear--there is definitely money in this form; and, it has withstood the test of time.

There is indeed some "substance" to abstract art when you recognize that its practitioners are concerned usually with only one structural element of art--composition.  By composition, I mean the relative placement of shapes and choice of colors, no matter how random they may appear.  The abstract artist composes a work in order to move the viewer's attention to feeling rather than to form or subject.  For example, let's consider the word "abstract."  A realist would read and write it literally and define it in clear terms, perhaps using different fonts and colors in so doing.  The abstract artist will interpret the word by its context, that is, by how the term relates to its use in communicating an idea.  Thus, the abstract artist is not interested in the word itself nor even its meaning, only the way in which its presentation influences thought, feeling and behavior.

Abstract art can be more easily understood if defined in relation to the other major art forms.  Consider, for example, the face of a young, female model.  The realist will paint her literally, hopefully omitting any unwanted blemishes and creating a close likeness.  The surrealist may distort the nose, eyes and ears like a cartoon caricature, still attempting in the process to achieve a likeness.  The impressionist doesn't worry about blemishes since this artist will only paint the shape of her face, shadow and color to the point where only the form is discernible and the person's likeness, scarcely recognizable.  Now the abstract artist really doesn't care about the model's appearance, just her character and personality and will paint, in some random way, whatever best represents these attributes. A harsh personality might be represented by varying, dark-colored squares and sharp angles that somewhat resemble the model's face, while a pleasing, saintly personality might be depicted with brightly-colored, curved shapes that resemble the model's face. (go to top)

Primitive Art

While the name may not imply it, Primitive Art is actually a popular and historically significant art form. Primitive art is particularly noted for its childlike simplicity and is thus referred to often by its colloquial name--Naive Art.