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How to Draw so Things Look Real

How to Draw so Things Look Real

Today, I’d like to share three keys to help you draw so things look real, no matter what you like to draw.

This topic was suggested by a reader who asked about drawing realistic feathers. Here’s the reader question to get us started.

I have been struggling with trying to create the head and chest feathers of Scarlet Macaws and hummingbirds. I have watched several tutorials and I just can’t seem to get It.

I’m starting to get the hang of the wing feathers, but I cannot get the head and chest feathers to look right.

I completely understand if this question remains unanswered. I just thought I would ask, because I have watched and purchased every tutorial I can find and this is the only place I haven’t tried, yet.


Dustin asks a very good question. But the answer I’m about to give applies to every subject, not just feathers.

How to Draw so Things Look Real

The keys to drawing so your subject looks real are basic. In short, you need to:

Really look at your subject.

Disregard what you “think you know” about your subject.

Draw what you see, not what you think is there.

I confess that these principles are a lot easier to write about than to do. Yes, even for established artists like me.

So let me go through them one at a time and explain more fully what I mean.

Key #1: Really Look at Your Subject

Whether you’re drawing feathers like Dustin, some other animal, a still life, a landscape, or a portrait, it’s important that you really look at your subject. You need to do more than just take a quick glance and start drawing. Study the subject.

Studying your subject is just as important if you’re drawing something you’ve drawn many times as it is if you’re drawing something for the first time.

Let me use myself as an example.

I did portraits of horses for over forty years. It would be pretty easy for me to draw a horse in the right pose without studying the reference photos from each client. But when I draw that way, I’m drawing a generic horse.

Drawing a generic horse might turn out as a pretty good portrait, but it will be a portrait of a generic horse; not a portrait of the client’s horse. There is a big difference.

No matter how many times you’ve drawn your favorite subject, it’s vital to study your reference photos every time you begin a new project.

Why? Because every individual is different.

Every horse is unique. Every cat or dog is unique. Let’s face it; every landscape, still life, and piece of fruit is unique in some way. Creating realistic art means finding and drawing those unique qualities and characteristics.

Key #2: Disregard What You Think You Know about Your Subject

This key is most important if you specialize, like I did.

Those of us who have a favorite subject and tend to draw that subject over and over again start thinking we know enough about our subject to draw it blind-folded.

As I pointed out above, you may be able to draw a very nice generic version of your favorite subject. But if you draw only what you know about your subject, your artwork will start looking the same.

Sometimes, you have to ignore what you think you know in order to see each subject as an individual subject. If you have difficulty grasping the importance of this key to drawing realistically, then refer back to Key #1.

Key #3: Draw What You See

Once you’ve gotten into the habit of studying each subject and disregarding what you think you know about that subject, the next step is drawing what you see.

Not what you think you see.

Or what you think should be there.

This means referring to your reference or references often.

Don’t glance at your reference photos and then draw for twenty minutes (or even just five or ten minutes.)

Master artists study their references, then make a mark or two, then look at their references again. If you want to make art that is truly realistic, this is the most important of the three keys I’m describing.

Obviously, the larger your artwork, the more detail you can draw. But even when your artwork is small, it’s very important to draw enough detail to make your subject look real. To do that, you need to see the important details in your references and draw those details to best of your ability.

That means knowing what colors to use, what values to draw, what strokes to make marks with, and so on.

How to Draw so Things Look Real; Yes, Even Feathers

What does all this have to do with Dustin’s original question about drawing feathers?


Dustin wants to know how to draw feathers, and the short answer is that he can draw realistic feathers the same way he draws any subject so it looks real. By studying the subject, disregarding what he thinks he knows, and drawing what he sees.

Yes, the techniques might differ as far as making marks on the paper, but everything else is basically the same.

And some subjects are more difficult than others, so patience and persistence are also very, very important.

I recommend a post I wrote on my art blog, Tips for Drawing Realistic Feathers, that goes into those basics in a little more detail. That post includes a mini-tutorial, so I hope you’ll take a look at it.

But even if you don’t draw birds, and you’re not interested in drawing feathers, I hope the three keys I’ve shared in this post help you draw your next subject so it looks real.

For more basic principles on drawing so things look real, check out Drawing Iridescent Colors: General Principles for more principles that apply to all subjects.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!

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Drawing Iridescent Colors: General Principles

Drawing Iridescent Colors General Principles

Today, let’s talk about drawing iridescent colors. The reader question comes from a bird watcher who loves drawing birds, but the basic principles that will help him draw more accurate iridescence on birds will also help you draw iridescence on other objects.

Let’s begin with the question.

I am a bird watcher and my main subject to paint are birds. Being relatively new to colored pencil painting, I am still feeling my way.

Many birds: ducks, hummingbirds, and even black birds in bright light , may show an iridescent glow. I have tried to replicate that but my result is usually mud.

Could you suggest how I can proceed to obtain that iridescent glow in birds. (or any other subject)
Thank you,


I want to thank Joe for asking such a challenging question. This is the first time I’ve ever thought about drawing iridescent colors. Mostly, I suppose, because they don’t appear often on horses or in landscapes, which are my favorite subjects.

Drawing Iridescent Colors in Colored Pencil

The first step in answering Joe was research. I wanted to see what other artists were doing and recommending. It was surprising to find so few videos or articles on the subject.

Amie Howard, who draws a lot of birds, had a couple of videos on drawing feathers that included iridescent colors. Since many insects are iridescent, I looked for videos on that topic. That was no more successful.

So I finally resorted to my old stand-by principles for drawing anything. Are you ready? Here they are.

Four Stand-By Principles

Study Your Reference Photo

The first step is using a good reference photo. Your own reference photos are preferable, but you can also use photos from websites like Pixabay.

Just make sure you have permission to use the photo before you put a lot of time into your artwork.

Drawing Iridescent Colors General Principles

Create an Accurate Line Drawing

Colored pencils aren’t always very forgiving. If you start with an inaccurate line drawing, you usually end up with an inaccurate finished piece. It’s not like oil painting, where you can paint over mistakes or correct inaccuracies in drawing.

Whatever method you use to make a line drawing, make sure it’s as accurate as you can make it.

Think of Your Subject as an Abstract

Stop looking at your subject as a bird, an insect or a soap bubble. Instead, look at it as a collection of abstract shapes, values, and colors. This is especially helpful with complex subjects like water or clouds, but it’s also helpful with simpler subjects.

Along with this, you can also break your subject down into sections and work on one section at a time.

More than once, I’ve masked a drawing so I could see only a small part of it. Why? Because being able to see the entire drawing was distracting and sometimes confusing.

With a subject like this hummingbird, seeing the entire composition can also become overwhelming, as well as distracting. Do your drawing one section at a time to avoid being distracted or overwhelmed.

Draw what You See

Here’s the hard part. Draw.




Don’t draw what you think you see. Don’t draw what you think should be there. Draw what you see in the reference photo.

In order to do this, you have to look at the reference photo a lot as you draw. I’ve watched many painters who spend more time looking at their subject (whether a live model or a reference photo) than they spend drawing. One fellow I know and follow usually makes a mark or two, then studies his subject, then makes another mark or two. His oil paintings are absolutely breathtaking.

Three Specific Tips for Drawing Iridescent Colors

Draw Saturated Color

Take a look at these iridescent feathers. There are a couple of color shifts from vivid purple to purple-blue.

Draw vibrant color like this by using only the colors in the color family. Don’t mix complementary colors or earth tones because they tone down colors. When drawing iridescent colors, toned down color is the last thing you want.

Include Lots of Light Values

Start with a very light (in value) base layer, then make sure you have lots of light values in the iridescent area.

Iridescence is the result of light striking the surface of the feather, bubble, insect, shell or other surface. There should be no dark values or shadows in that area.

Yes, there are shadows, but they are in the openings between the feathers. When you draw an actual bird, like the hummingbird above, there will be even fewer shadows.

The iridescent “glow” happens when you shift colors without shifting value. All light. No shadows.

So start with a light color, then add the slightly darker values in the yellow-green feathers by starting with a very light yellow-green base layer, then adding yellow-greens that are a little bit darker.

Watch the Color Transitions

Here’s another iridescent object, a sea shell. The iridescent colors include yellow, pink, green and blue.

In some places, one color transitions into another color. That’s part of the beauty (and difficulty) of drawing iridescence.

But if you blend some of those colors together, you’ll end up with muddy color. That’s because complementary colors make each other less vivid.

So keep the edges soft and the transitions rather abrupt. You don’t want hard edges most of the time, but you also don’t want muddy color.

I hope these principles and tips for drawing iridescent colors have been helpful.

As you can see from the samples in this post (all from Pixabay, by the way,) iridescent colors appear on many different objects and in many different forms. It’s impossible to give specific instructions for every type of iridescent color, even if I limited myself to feathers.

But the general principles for drawing iridescent color that I’ve described here should give you a good start.

Do you have a question about colored pencils? Ask Carrie!