How I’m learning to draw what the eye sees – let me show you step-by-step6 min read

How to paint a swan in Procreate

For me, drawing a lot of detail is the default setting and I have often even gone too far with the amount of detail ruining a perfectly good painting. Learning how to ease off on the details and draw in a more abstract way has been significant in order to be a better artist.

Critical for making good art is to find that perfect balance between what should be in high detail (in focus) and what should be blurry (out of focus).

The human eye sees only one little area in sharp detail at a time, while everything around that narrow area is blurry and out of focus.

We build up a detailed image of something like a puzzle; one little in-focus area at a time as our eyes move around a scene.

Paintings (or any images for that matter) where there is a limited area that is in focus while the rest of it fades into the background are easy for us to look at, and our brain easily comprehends what’s being depicted.

01 Sketching

My process for drawing an abstract swan

I begin with a rough sketch of my subject to figure out what position looks good. I also draw in major areas that are in light/shadow to have a basic idea of where I want the light to be coming from as I move on to colouring.

In the sketch, I also spend more time and add detail to whatever area I want to be more in focus. In this case, the eye & beak are the main focal points.

I also set out a basic colour palette to work with. I include the major colours I’ll be needing and use derivatives of these to create lighter and darker areas.

02 Colour blocking basic colours

Blocking in colours in digital painting

Next, I block in the painting with the basic underlying colours. I try to choose tones that will be somewhere in between the lightest and the darkest colours.

Plotting out the colours like this helps me to avoid mistakes further down the line.

03 Adding shading

Shading a digital drawing

Still using my basic colour palette, I begin colouring in the shaded areas as indicated by my sketch. This gives me an idea of whether the lighting is correct and if it looks good. Once blocked in, I blend the darker areas into the lighter colours.

The eyes help to create the correct focus in an image and I typically do those quite early on. In this painting, setting the pupil, colouring the iris and adding the reflection on the orb starts to bring the painting to life.

04 Adding highlights

Advanced shading on an abstract bird

When I start adding the brightest areas it really starts to bring the painting to life. I add a very bright colour to any areas that are the brightest and leave areas with less light in the basic colour I blocked in step 01. This starts to shape the illusion of a three-dimensional object.

When light curves around something, it gradually becomes fainter until complete shadow takes over. By using a mid-tone colour first, I can focus on adding only shadows and highlights in the subsequent steps.

I try not to use the sketch anymore and let my eye guide me instead. Sometimes something that looks good in the sketch, doesn’t work in the colour painting. When transitioning from one medium (pencil sketch) to another (acrylic paint), I try to use the sketch mostly to help in the initial layout.

05 Adding details

Painting in final details into this abstract bird

Since I want the focal point to be on the face, I try not to over-work the body. Once I’ve got the shadows and highlights in, I add a bit of soft texture for the feathers.

Lastly, I begin working on adding details to the eye and beak. I work as I have so far; first blocking in basic colours and then adding shadows and highlights. To finish it I add some texture to the beak – it isn’t super visible as I turn down the opacity of the layer, but adds a subtle graininess that differentiates the beak from the soft plumage.

I finish the outline of the swan by blending in the edges with the background. To be able to do this better, this is when I add a background colour (if I haven’t already).

06 Refine & design + layering effects

How to paint a swan in Procreate

Final touches include creating some interest in the background and layering effects. I always try to choose colours that will make the subject stand out against the background.

Since this is a more abstract piece, I added some more interest by layering a second colour in the background; in this case, a related colour since the white swan stands out against the blues.

In the end, I layer effects to emphasize the light and shade. I like to use Colour Dodge when adding backlighting around the areas I want to highlight (beak, face, head & some parts of the neck). This helps to draw the eye to the area that is in focus and the ‘main feature’ of the painting.

Colour Burn is handy if I need to deepen a shade without otherwise adding more to the painting.

I know some artists like to use Colour Dodge and Burn exclusively with the airbrush, but I prefer to use the same brush I used to make the painting and blend it out when necessary. If I used several types of brushes, I’ll use the one I made use of the most.

Once everything in the image has come together; composition, colours, shading, highlights and textures, I leave the image for a few days. Sometimes I post an image to social media, but will still go back and tweaking it before considering it finished.

Hopefully, this gave you some insight into my painting process! This way of painting (especially with Procreate) is still new to me and I’m learning with every new painting.


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