Acrylic painting looks flat, cartoon-like? How do you make your work look more three-dimensional? I’m going to share the most important thing you can start doing right now to make your paintings look more realistic.

Most people think to correct the problem of flat-looking art you just need to choose the right color or add more detail. While these things can be somewhat important, they aren’t going to solve your problem. It doesn’t matter if you choose the perfect shade of pink for your flowers. All you’ve accomplished then is a cartoon. The secret is in your VALUES. Lights light enough and darks dark enough.

When most artists are learning to paint and draw, they shade everything in a comfortable mid-range. Nothing too bright, nothing too dark. It feels safe. The thing is, safe isn’t going to make your work look more realistic. Safe isn’t going to hold the viewer on your work! You need to be brave and make your darks darker and your lights lighter. You want that high contrast.

If my darks were not dark enough, it wouldn’t matter how detailed the flowers were. It would be flat. Because the darks push areas of these flowers into the shadows it allows the blooms to feel closer to the viewer.

I’m also controlling depth a bit by blurring out some of the flowers in the distance but that is subtle in this painting. Make sure you’re subscribed because I’m going to be talking about creating more depth in your work in another video soon.

I remember when I first started painting I didn’t understand where to put the shadows. I knew I should have them but where do you even put them? For years I dismissed that knowledge as something magical people who are just “that good” know how to do.

No, they learned.

Here’s how: They got a good reference photo.

You can take one yourself if you’re good at photography, or get one from somewhere like Pixabay or Unsplash online. You want to find a photo with great depth, with great contrast. This is how you will learn where to put your shadows, by LOOKING at something. You can also set up a still life and work from life, but the point is, you NEED TO LOOK AT SOMETHING!

If you’re stuck in the elementary headspace often pushed by terrible wanna-be artists that you need to draw from your head or memory to be good, I will let you in on a little secret. It’s NEVER GOING TO HAPPEN. When you’re working in photorealism you will need reference photos or something to look at to get things accurate.

The myth that a good artist only creates from their mind is just not true. The people who spew that nonsense are not good artists. They don’t want to put in the work to better themselves so they spread their own delusions to others about how they think art “should” be done.

Once you’ve got more experience from working with great reference photos, you will reach a point where you can take a not-so-great photo and turn it into something amazing, but you’ve got to work from the great photos with great depth and values to learn those lessons first!

Art is a journey. NO ONE starts magically knowing where to put shadows and highlights on a subject. You’re going to take one step at a time learning more and more with each painting.

The first step is understanding that more detail or choosing the perfect color are not the things that make for a more realistic painting or drawing. It’s ALL about your values!