Monday, May 3, 2010

Is Realism dead? Or just really ill?

Within the last year, I have had conversations with several different artists about realism in art. Most of them have been painters, although I’m not sure that fact is relevant. What strikes me is that every single one of them tells me that they are making a conscious effort to move away from realism. I find that odd. Not odd that artists I know want to move away from realism, but that every damn one of them does! Perhaps people are more swayed by trends than even they realize. I suppose that’s how art ‘movements’ get started. One guy gets a good idea, and everyone jumps on the bandwagon. Although, I’m such an ornery cuss that I will buck a trend just for spite. Might explain why I languish in obscurity. But whatever the explanation for it, everyone is talking about becoming “more painterly.”

Don’t get me wrong – I’m actually on that bandwagon. I don’t really see the point of producing art that is photographic in it’s realism unless you’re using a camera. It’s just that when everyone says “go this way” I tend to hike off in the other direction. ‘You’re not the boss of me’ sort of thing. But this time I don’t want to and that puts me in a difficult position!

So…American Artist magazine to the rescue! An article in the June 2010 issue is titled “Getting to the Truth of a Subject” about artist Nancy MacDonald. Most of the images that go along with the article are figurative pastels, and although they are dreamy and indistinct, you feel as if you have really seen the subject of the painting. I think this is missing in a lot of what I hear called “painterly.”

But here is what has settled into my brain and taken hold:

When we look at a flower, hillside, or face, only a small part of the subject is really in sharp focus. The peripheral areas beyond the focal point of our vision are blurred, and the details remain largely unnoticed….So why would we want to paint photographically detailed pictures of those people, places, and objects when we only remember a few essential aspects of what we observed?

Ah hah! There, I think, is the key to a successful work. That the part of subject that you focus on when you look at it is the part that should be the most distinctly rendered (not that even that must be realistic, just that it be relatively so).

Discuss amongst yourselves.


  1. I think painterly artists just simply get over-shadowed. I see this type of work everywhere in New England but then again its not the type of work people talk about in art circles. Nor is it the kind of thing art sites or mags like to focus on. Then again, all genres of art become temporarily overshadowed by something more "popular". Realism still has its crowd, its setting and its place.

  2. I think you're right, Ted, about the "painterly" stuff not being what's talked about in art circles or featured online and in magazines. But that makes it even more strange to me that all the artists I know are gravitating to it - it seems that instinct would pull at least some of them toward whatever IS getting the attention. And I probably gave the impression that I don't have as much respect for realism, which is really not true. I will always be fascinated when I do a double take to see if an image is a painting or a photo. I'm just a little baffled - sort of like watching an entire school of fish change direction at the exact same moment.

  3. Hi Lee Ann, Over here in Australia, anything goes! If you walk into contemporary galleries, realist works are hung beside abstract works, and many artists work in different mediums. There are some young realist artists, such as Sam Leach and Michael Zavro, who are doing exciting things with realism. But the focus here is on what you're saying rather than which genre an artist uses. I'm interested that it's different in U.S.

  4. Where I'm finding photorealism popular is in Surrealism. Surrealist artists, see below for some links, who are in fact Realist artists but they places their figures, objects into absurd relationships, dream-like configurations, seem to make good livings as artists nowadays. They are in demand... perhaps not in museum shows, but certainly with the general public.

    Michael Cheval, my favourite:

    Mike Worrall is a new discovery:

    Gallery after gallery at the Surreal Visionary Art group at Facebook:

    Galleries galore at The Masters of the Surrealism and Magic Realism at Facebook:

  5. Love, Love Love Cheval!!! Thank you for bringing that to my attention! I find that I like the realism in the surreal art - what a funny thing to say! LOL!

  6. Hello

    Sorry I'm late but I just saw this post.

    I'd have to disagree. As an artist I have been slowly progressing into being more and more real, and now bordering on Photorealism.

    I have found that a lot of people prefer my more realistic paintings. Occasionally I'll come across someone who likes my more abstract works and they are mostly women.

    I think that most people are still very impressed with photorealism, they always look really close and then stand back. It seems to me that tricking the eye is the impressive factor.

    Thanks for the post.



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