Lenore used vine charcoal for highlights and shadows that form drapery. On the wall in the background are Laurel's superb form studies of the plaster hand and sphere.

The Magic of Realistic Form

Creating the illusion of three-dimensional form on a flat piece of paper is one of the biggest challenges in observational drawing. If only we could wave a sorcerer’s wand to instantly make our drawings look three-dimensional. Like magicians, we would be able to create dramatically modeled shadows, realistic contours, and brilliant highlights without effort. But even the greatest drawing illusionists in history agree: the true magic of realistic form begins with a keen eye for accuracy and deliberate practice.

Lenore's finished study of drapery.
Above photos: Level 3 student, Lenore, used vine charcoal for highlights and shadows that form drapery.

In the book, Leonardo da Vinci’s Advice to Artists, the great Renaissance artist suggests, “In order to acquire a true notion of the form of anything, study it part by part, never passing to a second till you have well practiced the first, storing it away in your memory. Remember: acquire accuracy before speed.”

Using Prismacolor pencils to layer primary colors, Rachel worked to "acquire the true notion of the form" of apples.
Using Prismacolor pencils to layer primary colors, Rachel worked to “acquire the true notion of the form” of apples.
Illusion of depth is a prime ingredient for depicting form in space. During Thursday's youth Drawing Lab session, Devin referred to an iPad photo while composing a detailed pencil study of Canada's Boreal Forest. It looks like we could step right into this sketch and go for a hike!
Illusion of depth is a prime ingredient for depicting form in space. During Thursday’s youth Drawing Lab session, Devin referred to an iPad photo while composing a detailed pencil study of Canada’s Boreal Forest. It looks like we could step right into this sketch and go for a hike!
Jessica moves to Level 2 after an evening of iterative pencil and charcoal studies in contours and proportions of squash.
Jessica moves to Level 2 after an evening of iterative pencil and charcoal studies in contours and proportions of squash.

The magic wand in the quest to draw believable form is the process of iteration. By repeating study sketches you can work through problems and achieve realistic representation of your subject. To improve accuracy, Leonardo suggests practicing iteration even when you are not at the drawing table.

“I have had no small benefit when in bed in the dark from retracing in my mind the outlines of those forms I had been previously studying, particularly those that seemed to me most difficult to grasp and remember. In this way they become firmly established in the mind and stored in the memory.”

Rachel's iterative contour studies led to exquisite layering of primary colors and representation of the forms of apples.
Rachel’s iterative contour studies led to exquisite layering of primary colors and representation of the forms of apples.

By building an accurate framework of your subject in iterative study sketches, you can then create three-dimensional form through patient modeling of light, shadows, and color. As you work, great pleasure can be found in the experience of realistic drawings magically appearing on paper—right before your very eyes!

Getting squashed! Dotty jumped to Level 2 while doing a number of contour sketches during Friday's private session.
Getting squashed! Dotty jumped to Level 2 while doing a number of contour sketches during Friday’s private session.
As she drew contour lines to form a jaguar, Amma sailed through her Level 1 session. Welcome to the Drawing Lab crew, Amma!
As she drew contour lines to form a jaguar, Amma sailed through her Level 1 session. Welcome to the Drawing Lab crew, Amma!
On Saturday, Level 3 youth student, Nicole, experimented with white pastel and charcoal to form the hand and sphere.
On Saturday, Level 3 youth student, Nicole, experimented with white pastel and charcoal to form the hand and sphere.
Nicole's finished drawing.
Nicole’s finished drawing.

And here are a few Prismacolor pencil impressions by youth and adult students that magically appeared on pieces of paper during last week’s Drawing Lab…

By Scout
By Scout
By Scout
By Scout
By Nicole
By Nicole
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Rob Court

Founder and drawing coach at the Scribbles Institute, Rob helps adults and kids learn basic drawing skills for work, school, and enjoyment. He is the author of a number of how-to-draw books.