Screenshot from the movie Garden of Words

Why Studying Realism is Still Important

I started drawing with cartoons, like many other artists.

A digital paintings of mine from 2010

What got me to keep drawing was anime. Some people may take it from Disney, other cartoons, realism but my drawing roots came from anime. That’s why you’ll find that my art is very reminiscent of it.

Erik, digital art, 2017

However, this is quite limiting. If you want to be technically good at figure, proportions, colors etc etc with your art, you cannot put aside realism.


“I just want to be an animator! Realistic people are boring! I just want to draw anime! I like stylized art”

Well there you go there’s your answer. It’s stylized art. Anime and cartoons are based off of the same human figure that evolved through the same laws of physics that we did. They must have a balanced center of gravity, have enough muscle to withstand it’s own weight, their limbs can’t spin in certain directions, different materials reflect light in different ways... But most of us aren’t scientists, so how can we create a character that apply to these rules?

The answer is doing realism studies. Many artists and masters never stop studying from real life, because there is so much to learn from it.

When I read manga, it’s actually quite easy to tell which artist has practiced realism and which artist hasn’t.

Screenshots from the manga Yajirobee

This is from the manga Yajirobee, and I really like it’s art because the artist is clearly well versed in realism. Because of that, they’re not limited in their angles and poses. The artist makes it seem so easy!

Another thing is that if you learn how to draw by redrawing other stylized art, you are also unknowingly learning their mistakes. You’ll also find that you don’t have the foundations to draw a pose or character you’ve never seen before. When a person asks “how did you get your super unique style? I’ve never seen it before.” I find that they often occur not because they changed up someone else’s style, rather they were doing realism and then changed it to their liking.

I did a photo study a while back because I was stumped and none of my drawings seemed to come out right.

During this study I realized that all of my art thus far had been waaaaaay too saturated. I lacked the appreciation for greys. When I tried to replicate the color in my reference, I thought it was much more saturated than it actually was:

Comparison of drawing to reference, one is very saturated (left), and the other is much closer to the image (right)

After a lot of tweaking, it was because I didn’t realize that the picture was not as bright as it seemed.

After this revelation, my art became more interesting as I got a better hold of shadows, and my observation skills improved. You know that illusion where you think the apple is red, but because of the lighting, it’s not really red? It’s perceived color is a result of it’s surroundings and it could be orange or purple. You only realize this when you do a study or use a proper reference.

My art before the revelation:

My art after the revelation:

With better understanding of colour, I was able to make dramatic lighting and add emotion without overdoing the neon.

I find that after each study, I discovered at least one new thing that I hadn’t known before. It’s like your eyes open and you suddenly realize what had been going wrong. There are so many ways to study realism, and it’s not just doing the same old boring portrait art of random people you don’t care about. Just look them up though because I don’t know all of them either, I’m still trying to figure it out ha! My most advanced education in art is high school and my post-secondary is entirely unrelated. So I rely on these things to help me self-study and get better.

I don’t think anyone is expected to be able to do photo-realistic art, but you gotta learn the rules before you break them. Perhaps your style becomes even more unique and enhanced after learning the basics. I’m not writing this to trash people who don’t do realism because I only do it when I have to too. However, I hope this gave you some insight or motivation for your art.

Now pick up that pencil/pen/stylus/brush and make some art!

If you liked my art, you can see more on Instagram, YouTube and Artstation

Like what you read? Give Alena Deleña a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.