How to draw perspective for beginners

by Will Kemp

in drawing

perspective-painting-beginners

Caneletto, Venice, The Grand Canal, about 1740

Perspective techniques for absolute beginners

How to solve a problem like perspective?

Perspective is one of the most common issues beginners have with drawing and painting.

Get it wrong and it can easily ruin a great start, get it right and it can instantly improve your work.

If you’re like most painters you are probably trying to create a sense of depth in your work.

Leading the viewers eye deep into the scene giving the illusion of reality.

But sometimes it just doesn’t look right.

The distant object doesn’t look so distant, your figures look out of proportion, a building looks like it is sliding off the page. And your still life just looks….odd.

You are not alone….

Why is drawing perspective so hard?

This is one of the most common causes of frustration in learning to draw.

You can shade pretty well, you’ve got bold, expressive marks but your row of trees just don’t recede into the background as you would like.

Sometimes the biggest problem with perspective is the word ‘perspective’.

It is too off-putting and brings up memories of vanishing points and technical pencils, but perspective doesn’t have to be rulers and set squares just simple techniques to add depth to your paintings.

In practical terms when sketching you don’t need to know ‘classical linear perspective’  you just need a few pointers.

Simple perspective principles

1. Overlap

This is the easiest way to add perspective, and easily overlooked.

All you need to do is place one object in-front of the other.

Simple.

This helps your viewer to judge the relative size of an object.

In landscape painting this can especially be hard to judge as a view could stretch back in the distance for miles but without the use of overlap it can be hard to judge, just how far.

It doesn’t always have to be as obvious as a tree in front of a fence, overlap can happen everywhere, especially in nature.

Simply overlapping branches on a tree will give help to give the illusion of depth. Now this isn’t going to be Houdini standard illusion but in perspective, every little helps.

Zurbaran_-_Bodegon-still-life-with-pottery-jars

jean-baptiste-simeon-chardin-still-life-of-pipes-and-a-drinking-glass

Pro tip: Length of shadow cast. If you have a jug in-front of a box as in Chardin’s painting above, you can tell the distance by the length of the cast shadow it creates. Although not obvious, it helps our subliminal mind to make sense of the scene before us. Whereas in the first painting by Zurbaran, the perspective is very flat making it harder to judge relative sizes.

This simple positioning of objects can make a great deal of difference in creating the illusion of depth in your paintings.

Why?

It is very hard to judge the sizes and distances of objects if they are placed side by side on a surface.

You have to try and give the viewers clues to understand the relationship between objects.

Action step 1: Step-by-step perspective still life set-up

Step 1: pick two objects for a still life, we want action here so lets pick an apple and a cup.

Step 2: place them side by side on a table and lower your gaze flat on so you’re horizontal with the table and the table top disappears.

Step 3: analyze the view. which one looks further away?…It’s hard to tell.

Step 4: move the apple to the left to overlap the cup.

Step 5: check the negative spaces you have just created. This is key in creating a balanced composition

Step 6:  turn off all lights in the room apart from one single lamp, a torch will also work. This will create a strong cast shadow. Move the apple closer to, or further away from the cup to start to see the effects of a cast shadow when creating the illusion of depth.

Step 7: draw it!

But I can’t draw! ….don’t worry, lets look first at the science behind drawing.

Left Brain Right Brain

As with most things drawing wise, in order to really ‘see’ a subject you have to learn the ability to trick your dominate left brain.

This is the logical, sensible side that likes to label things, order things, and always tries to ‘help’ your more creative right side when your are drawing.

By help, I really mean hinder. It means well but can quickly stop progression in drawing by being too clever for its own good.

Left brain thinking

If you know a chair has 4 legs but can only see 3 your logical brain tries to help you out and will urge you to draw in a fourth leg, even if you can’t see it from the angle you are looking at.

It is very powerful.

If you want to test your left brain/ right brain for drawing have a look at this experiment on the lateral thinking blog, it will mess with your mind!

How did you get on?

If you are naturally left brained, it will be harder for your brain to make the leap to a more spatially aware right brain, now I say harder, but not impossible.

If you draw what you see rather than what you ‘think you know‘ your drawings will be more realistic.

“An individual’s ability to draw is… the ability to shift to a different-from-ordinary way of processing visual information – to shift from verbal, analytic processing to spatial, global processing.”
Betty Edwards – author of drawing on the right side of the brain

Think Abstract to create realism

You need to try and forget everything you think you ‘know’ about a subject in order to actually draw it as it appears.

If you are drawing a house in the distance, your left brain tells you a house is big, so even though you see it small, the tendency will still be to draw it slightly bigger.

Only slightly, you try to kid yourself.

It won’t make much of a difference.

However, all these slight alterations effect the overall sense of depth in a painting.

This can cause your drawings or paintings to look wrong or out of perspective very easily, there isn’t a huge margin for error.

Size and space

Tracing gets a bad rep, people think tracing is bad. Now I’m not talking about tracing over things you want to draw, far from it. I’m talking about using tracing as a method to help you learn to see.

To start with it is soooo helpful because you can create simple, in proportion views to work from. There is nothing like getting frustrated and stopping too soon.

So to understand the benefits of tracing we need to understand the picture plane.

What is the picture plane?

picture plane Durer

Albrecht Durer using an actual picture plane to aid his drawing, 1525

When you are learning how to draw,  everything has to be envisaged through a frame, as all paintings and drawings exist within this.

If you imagine a piece of rectangular or square clear glass to be set up vertically between you and the things you are drawing or painting, and imagine that you are actually seeing through the glass and simply tracing on it.

This is essentially all drawing is.

Drawing realistically is “copying” what you see on the picture-plane.

So, the picture plane ‘exists’ in the minds eye, it is not a physical thing. It can be hard to get your head around it.

If your sitting at home, have a look through a window, if you had a non-permanent marker you could draw around objects on the ‘picture plane’ on the window. This is an amazingly useful thing to do. It will highlight some key reasons why your drawings are going wrong.

Movement

If you move your head from a constant position the drawing on the window will not line up with the subject, this is key. Remember the story about the 3 legged chair? This is exactly what happens when you begin to paint. Your left brain tells you to “move round the corner,” so you can see the whole object rather than keeping in one position. You need to try and imagine your head is in a vice and can’t move from your chosen position!

If you ever watch an artist drawing you will see that their eyes are constantly moving but their head stays still. Beginners often move their head and keep their eyes on the paper rather than on the subject.

So lets get back to perspective..

Action step 2: Tracing Scale


Step 1: Find a picture that has a sense of depth, landscapes are perfect but you can watch my example if you want to.
Step 2: Lay a piece of tracing paper or clear plastic over the image
Step 3: Draw over, just with line, the things that are repeated, so in my example the buildings, this could be a row of trees or a row of telegraph poles. Ideally an object that are similar in scale so not a house and a mouse!

This will be the biggest eye opener. Objects get really small, really quickly and  as the distance from the viewer increases the spaces between objects gets progressively smaller.

Scale

In the secret of good composition I talked about the importance of variety in your work to help create a balanced composition and visual interest to your paintings.

When you are first beginning painting this simple trick of changing the size and space variations can help immensely.

So each gap between a row of fence posts will be:

  • A different scale
  • A different shape
  • Get smaller into the distance
  • Get shorter into the distance
  • Appear closer together into the distance

However, even though we know this to be true, when it comes to actually drawing this effect of changes in size, we are often more cautious than we should be.

The actual changes in scale can be HUGE but it is hard for our logical side of our brain to realise this. We can measure them and ‘prove’ to ourselves they get smaller, but still we can be hesitant when trying to draw something in perspective.

How to measure for scale

Have you ever seen an artist holding a pencil out stretched in front of them and squinting their eyes?

Wondered what they were doing?

It was a simple measurement.

Our brain can easily trick us when learning how to draw in perspective so a quick measurement with a pencil is a great tip to easily check your drawing.

You need measurements to notice:

  • How far apart objects are
  • Where there edges lie
  • Relationships between the size of an object
  • Centre line of an object

The simplest thing to use is your thumb and a pencil.

The 3 key points to remember are:

1. Make sure to lock your arm, this will keep the pencil at the same distance from the object. It is easy to forget this and have a slight bend in your arm, this will give a different measurement and may mean you unnecessarily change your drawing.
2. Try to keep your head still and view the subject from one position. It is like taking a really long exposure photo where your eye is the camera lens and can’t move its position.
3. Use a long pencil, with a flat top edge. This will mean you have room for maneuver when measuring a variety of objects.

How to measure subjects in a landscape with a pencil

  • Lock your arm and hold it out in front of you so your arm is horizontal.
  • You can use anything with a straight edge, pencil, ruler, knitting needle
  • Close one eye
  • Linen up the top of the subject you are trying to measure with the top of the pencil( or other straight edge)
  • Move your thumb up the pencil to the bottom of the object you are measuring.

This gives you your first measurement. You now have to keep your thumb in this position so you can compare the length to another area of your drawing.

This can be on the vertical or horizontal, it is just to get a relative size.

Then if one section is the same length you can check this against your own drawing.

What matters is the proportion, not the actual measurement.

If you have a pencil and a window, experiment with doing some relative measurements even without drawing anything. It is best to use objects that recede into the distance that are the same, so a row of cars, the classic fence posts etc, etc.

Another easy tip to help you to see objects in isolation is just to roll up a sheet of A4 paper into a tube and use it as a viewfinder. This way you can judge its size in relationship to the constraints of the tube rather than within a scene.

When viewing a whole scene our brain accepts everything in front of us, this is often why paintings have a flat or disjointed looking perspective.

Work within a frame

Have you ever started to draw in your sketchbook and run out of room? The models feet somewhere off screen? It is because you weren’t being specific about the edges of the image you were working within.

It is a useful trick to draw a frame border within your sketchpad so you have a clear edge to work towards. This will help you with composition, positioning and scale.

Relative Heights

It doesn’t matter if you can’t measure the exact ‘to the millimeter’ size of an object all that matters in a drawing is the objects relative size to each other so they look spatially correct.

In traditional Atelier painting, a knitting needle and plumb line is often used for measurement to create a traditional sight-size portrait.

The plumb line to enable you to judge your verticals as well as to check alignments between objects. For example, the alignment between the middle of an eye with the edge of a mouth.

Drawing and painting realistically is all about checking and rechecking your drawing. As you work longer on a subject you will notice more and more subtleties. Also, as your eye comes back fresh you will notice other areas that need changing.

Putting it all in perspective

Painting is always in a state of flux.

Beginners often get discouraged when they draw an object and say “Oh that’s wrong, I’m rubbish at drawing” whereas altering mistakes and fine tuning details are all part of drawing.

And let’s not forget, these techniques are to create realistic paintings and drawings.

If you prefer a more stylized or naive approach you could have a look at Cornish artist Alfred Wallis who had a unique approach to perspective.

Alfred-Wallis

Alfred Wallis, The Hold House Port Mear Square Island Port Mear Beach, about 1932

He painted the objects at a relative size depending on the size he deemed the most important to him. If a boat was the most important thing, that was painted the largest. One point perspective wasn’t needed as a more emotional response suited his needs. Don’t get hung up on getting everything perfect, just tweak a little at a time.

Another, contemporary example, is Henriette Simson who has just won the £25,000 Threadneedle Prize

Henrietta-Simspon-Bad-Government-(After-Lorenzetti)Henrietta Simpson, Bad government, After Lorenzetti

Her landscapes look at ideas around perspective, you can read a review on the winning piece at the Making a Mark blog

You might also like:

The secret of good composition
The rule of thirds in landscape painting

Resources:

1. Caneletto at the National gallery, London
2. Alfred Wallis at the Tate Gallery, St Ives

{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

Dave Carpenter October 6, 2011

I saw the dancer spinning clockwise, I guess because I looked at the left foot when the video came up, it was natural for me which is kind of cool because I usually suck at visual tricks like this.

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Michael De Greef October 8, 2011

Hey,

I’m currently at “Action step 2: Tracing Scale” of this article and I’m trying to watch the video that’s been included but it says that the video is ‘private’.

Good read so far :)

Michael

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Will Kemp October 8, 2011

Hi Micheal,
Thanks for spotting that, it should now be available to view

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Alvina January 3, 2012

Beautifully designed blog. I am no artists but so interested to see of your success as a fellow follower of Andrea and Glen

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Will Kemp January 3, 2012

Hi Alvina, Thanks for your kind comment on the blog design, Glen has been very insightful,
Will

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Jo January 11, 2012

It’s great to discover your brilliant site – not least to remind me of all the great things I have learned in your drawing and painting classes. I will be painting with the laptop at my side! Keep up the good work.
Jo :)

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Will Kemp January 11, 2012

Hi Jo,
Nice to hear from you.
Thanks for your kind words, hope it gives you a creative boost!
Will

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Eelia April 2, 2012

Hi I am so glad I found your website! I had forgotten my golden rule of doing art everyday! I am back on track and so glad that this site is here! Thanks for all of your teachings and I will be on here a lot!

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Will Kemp April 2, 2012

Hi Eelia, Thanks for your kind words, pleased to hear the site is helping your painting,
Will

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Cecilia April 16, 2012

I’ve been looking at the dancer for almost 10 minutes now. At first I saw her only spin clockwise, and I couldn’t get my brain to imagine her spinning counter-clockwise. So I stared at it until I could see it going counter-clockwise. Now I can shift at will between seeing her going clockwise and counter-clockwise!! But the clockwise spin seems to try to be in charge most of the time. This should mean that my right brain should be the ‘one in charge’ right? THEN WHY am I struggling to draw?!?

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Will Kemp April 16, 2012

Hi Cecilia, I can hear your frustration! although having a more creative mind can be a help, you still have to be aware of the tricks your brain can try and pull on you when you are learning. I’m currently writing a post on “The 3 reasons why you can’t draw (and what to do about it)” That should be going on the blog in a week or two.
Thanks,
Will

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Ellen Knolls May 10, 2012

Hi Will,

I recently found your site, and it’s been amazing. I started drawing two years ago after reading Drawing on the right side of the brain, and it has evolved into painting. I struggle with color balance and tend to stick with the same colors for flesh tones, sometimes I end up with very red looking faces. perrspective is more of a struggle. I paint portraits, with a cartoon like flair. I’ve come a long way, but trying to put full bodies or multiple people on a canvas – I am not so good at. I’ve reverted to using my tracer projector to draw the outline of the image onto the canvas. Why do I feel like that is cheating? Any words of advice would be greatly appreciated.
thank you,
Ellen Knolls

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Will Kemp May 10, 2012

Hi Ellen,
Great to hear you have been enjoying the site. Flesh tones can be tricky and we often have the tendency to paint them too pink as our memory system says ‘skin = pink’ the same as ‘sky = blue’ I’ve created a video on matching skin tones using acrylics using your own skin as the guide. It can be a very eye opening experiment.

Using a projector has long been used for complicated compositions, Vermeer used a camera obscura for his interior scenes so I wouldn’t beat yourself up too much!
I often come across this problem from my students before they join my drawing course as perspective is often a big stumbling block, the real trick is to break the seemingly complicated elements of a scene into smaller, more manageable sections.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed with multiple figures, but the same principles apply for any image.
I teach my students to learn to quieten down the left side of their brain so they can look at the objects as simple shapes rather than a complicated composition.

I hope this helps,

Will

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Amy Brier September 13, 2012

Hi
This is a great site! Thanks for putting it together. I am sending my students to it (or rather suggesting that they check it out). You are saying much the same things that I say, so it will be good for them to hear it from another person with a different voice. And, if any of my students get as far as reading this, send me and email and you will get extra credit!
I do an exercise where we put clear film over a window in a covered pedestrian bridge between a building and a parking garage, and they trace the scene of a street in one point perspective. It is good, gives most of them a head ache though. I was inspired by the Durer print that you have on your page.
Amy

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Will Kemp September 13, 2012

Hi Amy,

Thanks for your kind words and sending students this way ( I’ll keep an eye out for them!) Great idea about using the window film,

Thanks again,

Will

Nice work btw

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Donawding November 6, 2012

I am currently drawing a tall, square brick tower. Perspective says it tapers upwards – no problem. But at eye level the sides of the tower are vrtical. How does the sloping perspective lines blend with the vertical eye level lines? I suspect it is a very gradual curve. I’ve taken a series of photographs and blended them in the computer panorama program and this shows a curve but it looks wierd. Any suggestions?

Don R

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Will Kemp November 9, 2012

Hi Don,

The series of photographs may show a curve due to a slight lens distortion from the camera and when you look straight on it will appear vertical. However, in reality the tower will have straight, angled sides that will recede to a vanishing point – no curves.
I think the lens distortion from your camera is making the perspective look weird, google ‘buildings taken with a fish-eye lens’ to see this effect exaggerated.

Hope this helps,

Thanks,

Will

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Mary Holmes December 4, 2012

I have been at art college of and on for 4 years, I taught myself to paint and tried drawing.
My scale is all over the place. I am back again, to try all I have ever wanted to do is draw kids animals.

That’s what means something to me. I like landscapes. but paint not draw, I like working with oils.

I struggle, it is so soul destroying.

I found this site and have put it on my favourites bar. Now I know why they hold pencils up, to draw.

Now I need to practice shading. Faces fascinate me and hands and for the life of me I CAN’T draw them.
Thankyou this has given me a different outlook. Good site.

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Will Kemp December 5, 2012

Thanks Mary, hope the site helps you to gain confidence in your drawing and painting,
Cheers,
Will

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Amr Mohamad January 9, 2013

I’m so happy I found this website it helped me alot in my homework.

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Vivienne Ballson January 15, 2013

Hello, I have been looking for advice on perspective for some time and have just come across your website.

Just what I’ve been looking for.. I’ve bought books, struggled and been so frustrated with my paintings at times, but I think I may have fewer problems in the future.

Thank you…

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Will Kemp January 15, 2013

Cheers Vivienne,

Pleased the article helped!

Will

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David June March 16, 2013

Hi Will,
What great information! The picture-plane is a real epiphany for me. I am 51 and have only been painting about a year and a half. Before that, I never tried to draw, paint, or anything like that. So I need all the help I can get.
Thank you so much for sharing.
David

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Will Kemp March 17, 2013

You’re welcome David, great to hear the article helped, thinking of drawing on one flat picture-plane really is the key to creating a realistic effect.

Cheers,
Will

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Anurag May 30, 2013

just love the way u xplaind each nd every thing…
thnks alot.. man #respect for u..
plzz keep updating the blog..
thnks alot…

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Will Kemp May 31, 2013

Thanks Anurag, pleased you’re enjoying the tutorials,

Will

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Egness February 11, 2014

Thanks for a wonderful article have been trying to do perspective drawing but finding it very difficult . Your article has helped me so much .

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Will Kemp February 11, 2014

Great to hear it Egness, pleased it helped your drawing.

Cheers,

Will

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adiel March 1, 2014

do you have drwaing specific to kids using pencil? i am a female who can not draw and wants to learn how to. do you have any kids based videos that fit my type that are kid related?

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Will Kemp March 3, 2014

Hi Adiel, I’m afraid I don’t currently have any kid specific drawing classes.

Cheers,
Will

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Samantha March 4, 2014

Will,

First, let me join everyone in saying “thank you” for the lessons here. You’ve helped to open my eyes on many details and tricks I had overlooked.

I have a couple of questions. I am currently working on two acrylic paintings. One is of an open, somewhat empty drawer. It is more on the abstract side. I painted the drawer from the perspective of someone opening it while standing. I am trying to give the illusion of depth as the drawer backs closer to the cabinet, and also in it’s actual depth. Could you please give me some pointers as to how I can obtain this perspective without it looking like a mess?

The second painting I am working on is a cityscape, with a water reflection. Also somewhat abstract. I am painting an evening storm above the buildings, and am trying to understand how the shadows from the clouds would stain the buildings, and if the buildings shadows would change… Also, how to differentiate between the buildings’ perspective angles and their shadows. Can you help me?

I know these are very specific questions. I am sorry about that. Thank you for all your help!

Cheers to you,
Samantha

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Will Kemp March 5, 2014

Hi Samantha,

Pleased you’ve been finding the lessons helpful in your painting. When drawing perspective you just need to view each angle as a simple triangle. Concentrate on the angle of the triangle first and your drawing will start to appear more in perspective.

The shadows would reflect the shape of the clouds onto the building, if you have a round object you will get an oval shadow, a triangular object a triangular shadow. Match the shape of the cloud to the shape of your shadow.

Hope this helps,

Will

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Dan March 25, 2014

Hi will I have recently started using pan pastel and I was wondering if it’s worth buying some pastel paper rather than using normal paper ? . The paper that I am using is quite hard to blend with my fingers or sponge and I was wondering if it is down to the paper ? It looks like fine grain so I don’t understand why it’s so hard to blend ? . Thank you .

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Will Kemp March 27, 2014

Hi Dan,

Pan pastel will work on most papers, however, pastel paper always grabs the pastel better than regular paper so is definitely worth a try. Here are a few example of the effects on different papers from the panpastel site.

Hope it helps,

Cheers,
Will

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Dan March 27, 2014

Thank you for the info will

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sadaf May 7, 2014

Hi will.
I’ve started drawing again after long. In my school timings I could draw very good but after that didn’t continue it. Now again I’ve started to draw. My drawing in not that bad. I’ve idea about scaling n framing. But my main prob is that I cant judge the dark part of any object in still life. What could b the reason? N secondly I wanted to know that is that necessary to sketch n give it shades with pencils before jumping to colours? Shall be waiting for your positive response.

thx
Sadaf

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Will Kemp May 7, 2014

Hi Sadaf,

If you try squinting your eyes it will help to see the darkest darks within the scene. Having an understanding of drawing is key in making realistic looking paintings.

Cheers,
Will

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Patricia A. November 15, 2014

Hello, Will,
Recently I discovered your website for artists. I have been painting (and sometimes winning competitions) mainly symbolic acrylic abstract works, for which I have a vast landscape of desire to do–over 30 years. However, about a month ago out of curiosity I peaked into the more realistic side of landscape painting. After I viewed most of your online videos and read your tips, I decided to go for it. Thank you for your generosity in putting yourself and your wisdom out there.
Pat Timbrook, Ridgeley WV

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Will Kemp November 16, 2014

Cheers Pat, really pleased you’re finding the lessons helpful in your venture into landscape painting.
Will

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Julie Linden December 2, 2014

SO impressed with yr teaching style Will! Totally unpretentious, you make it all sound possible. Very encouraging. I’ve been to art classes and in some instances come away totally discouraged and not touched the paints for over a year. So glad Google lead me to you

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Will Kemp December 4, 2014

Thanks Julie, really pleased you’re feeling inspired to give your paintings another go, thanks for your kind comments.
Will

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