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Have you ever seen a drawing so realistic it looks like a photograph? That’s the art of photorealistic drawing. Artists who practice this art form study and replicate every detail of a photograph with a pencil or pen—and the results are remarkable. Read on to learn more about photorealistic drawing, including how to try it out yourself. 

What Does Photorealistic Mean? 

Photorealism refers to art that reproduces a subject as realistically as possible—in other words, it looks just like a photograph. This type of art is sometimes referred to as hyperrealism; however, there are differences between photorealism and hyperrealism. 

Photorealism vs. Hyperrealism 

You may find the terms photorealism and hyperrealism used interchangeably, but they are actually notably different. 

Photorealism refers to art that is so detailed that the human eye has a hard time distinguishing it from a photograph. 

Hyperrealism, on the other hand, is a term for a movement of artists who were inspired by photorealism. While their compositions may seem realistic from a distance, they aren’t exact replicas—which you can see when you more closely view the work of art. Hyperrealism artists add emotion and other interpretive elements into their work, while photorealism artists focus on creating near-exact replicas. 

head sculpture
Source: Wikimedia
A sculpture by hyperrealism artist Ron Mueck, titled Mask II. 

History of Photorealism 

The photorealism movement began in the U.S. in the 1960s. At the time, photography was an increasingly popular art form—so popular, in fact, that many artists saw it as a threat to traditional imagery in art. While abstract expressionist and pop artists created art that went against the photography movement, photorealists attempted to recognize and praise the value of these images.  

To create a composition as close to a photo as possible, many pioneer photorealism artists projected a photograph onto a canvas and then used airbrushing techniques to replicate it with paint. Today, artists use other mediums, including pencils and pens, to create photorealistic drawings. 

Examples of Photorealistic Art

  1. Self Portrait by Chuck Close
sketch of man
Source: Chuck close
A self portrait of Chuck Close, an artist known for massive-scale, hyperrealistic portraits. 

Chuck Close, a pioneer of the photorealism movement, is known for creating massive-scale portraits of his family and friends using pencil and acrylic paint. This composition, a self-portrait, stands at nearly nine feet tall by seven feet wide. 

  1. Blue Boy by Oscar Ukono
blue portrait of wet man
Source: https://www.oscarukonu.com/
This photorealistic portrait, created by Oscar Ukono, uses just a ballpoint pen. 

Oscar Ukonu is a self-taught hyperrealist whose work focuses on the exploration of black identity and Afrorealism ideas. This portrait was created with a blue ballpoint pen. 

  1. Alone by Diego Koi 
portrait of wet woman
Source: Diegokoi
Using just pencil, artist Diego Koi expertly captures the effects of water. 

It’s hard to believe that this portrait was created with just pencil, but it’s true. Italian artist Diego Koi mastered the ability to capture the movement of water and other precise details in his photorealistic portraits. 

Well-Known Photorealism Artists

From the beginning of the photorealism movement through today, many notable artists emerged:

  • Richard Estes: Along with Chuck Close, Estes is considered a co-founder of the photorealism movement.
  • Robert Cottingham: Another founding photorealist, Cottingham is known for his depictions of mid-20th-century signs.
  • Ben Weiner: Combining the movements of abstraction and photorealism, Weiner depicts close-ups of consumer products, like hair gel and food additives. 
  • Cath Riley: In addition to portraits, Riley draws realistic renderings of inanimate objects, from shoes to food. 

How to Draw Photorealistic Illustrations 

Want to follow in the footsteps of these well-known artists and create photorealistic drawings yourself? In this guide, we’ll explore the techniques, tools, and tips you need to get started. 

Photorealistic Drawing Techniques 

Replicating a photograph with pencil or pen becomes—not surprisingly—difficult. Want to learn how to draw photorealistic images? Start with the following photorealistic drawing techniques.

Grid Technique 

With the grid technique, you focus on small areas of your reference photo at a time. First, draw a grid on top of your reference photo, and then draw a grid of an equal ratio on your paper. From there, you can look at—and draw—just one square at a time. 

Determining Values 

At first, you may assume you can easily identify the highlights and shadows of your reference photo—but reading values isn’t always as simple as it seems. If you hold up a sheet of white paper next to your reference photo, you’ll be able to see that even highlighted areas (e.g., the tip of the nose) aren’t pure white. With that in mind, examine the photo and note the darkest and lightest areas, so you understand exactly where and how to apply each shade

comparing photo to lightness scale
In most photos, even the lightest areas won’t be pure white. 

Large to Small 

It can also be helpful to focus on the largest shapes of a subject first. In a portrait, for example, you would first draw the general shape of the head and hair. By first establishing correct proportions for the larger areas, you’ll have an easier time accurately developing the details later in the process. 

The Tools You Need to Get Started

Getting started with photorealistic drawing requires just a few tools—most of which you may have already. Here’s what you need: 

  • Reference: In most cases, you will work from a photo, although you can also work from direct observation (i.e., a person in real life). 
  • Pencils: Get a few different pencil grades, which can help you more effectively capture the dark and light areas of your reference photo. Some photorealistic artists prefer to use an architectural pencil (i.e., a lead holder) that doesn’t ever require sharpening. If you choose a traditional pencil, you will also need a good quality sharpener. 
  • Drawing paper: Smooth paper allows for easier blending, which is essential in photorealistic drawing. 
  • Blending tools: Try using a blending stump for small areas and a tissue for larger areas. 

Photorealistic Drawing Tips 

Of course, photorealistic drawing is easier said than done. Here are a few tips to help you get started: 

Use a high-quality reference. Photorealistic drawing is all about the details, so if you use a low-quality photo with poor resolution, you may miss out on the intricacies that allow your drawing to look real. 

Start with a black and white reference. Viewing your reference photo in black and white will enable you to more easily hone in on the shadows and highlights. Generally, value (the lightness or darkness of an image) is more important than color in photorealism.

Avoid harsh lines. If you look at a photograph, you’ll notice that subjects aren’t separated by harsh lines, but rather, changes in value. Rather than drawing stark lines, focus on shading to distinguish different shapes and planes. 

Rest your eyes. Working on such detailed work can get tiring (and sometimes frustrating). Don’t hesitate to take breaks and then revisit your piece later with refreshed eyes. 

Wrap-Up

Is it a drawing? Or is it a photo? With the right tools and techniques, create photorealistic drawings of your own. Grab a reference photo, take your time, and enjoy the process! 

Try It for Yourself! 

Simple Realistic Drawing for Beginners