Photorealism

"Photorealism at the Millennium" by Louis K. Meisel with Linda Chase.

“Photorealism at the Millennium” by Louis K. Meisel with Linda Chase.

There still seems to be an argument about the merits of realism.  Why draw or paint something which looks superreal or photographic?  Some people love it.  The more a work looks photographic, the more it is successful in some people’s eyes.  One gets the amazed comment “It looks JUST like a photo!”  Conversely, other people just shake their heads sadly.  ‘Why would you bother?  Just take a photo; what is the point?’  I can understand both reactions – awe and disdain.   The argument continues in some of the artist forums I participate in.  Recent comments persuaded me to write this post.

I became aware of Photorealism in 1979.  When I was at artschool, my painting tutor, Ted Bracey, saw that I wanted to paint in a realistic way.  He said to me “If you’re going to do realism, you might as well do Photorealism.”  Then he had to show me what it was because I wasn’t aware of it.  (I wasn’t aware of anything when I was 20!)

"Black and White Cow" oil on canvas board, 1979.  My first photorealist attempt.

“Black and White Cow” oil on canvas board, 1979. My first Photorealist attempt.

I dutifully took up the challenge to paint in a Photorealistic way under Ted Bracey’s tutorship.  My “Black and White Cow” and “Coloured Cow” were the results of that year.

"Coloured Cow" oil on canvas, 1979.

“Coloured Cow” oil on canvas, 1979.

The next year, 1980, I had a tutor who hated Photorealism, Don Peebles.  In one of his lectures he derided it, talking of artists who painted in this hyperrealistic way but couldn’t draw a stroke freehand.  Thanks Don!  I remember your words.  He was talking in a general sense but I felt that he was meaning me (persecution complex) as I was the only student working realistically in the group.   That year I painted “Laughing Clowns”.  He gave me a B- and said I took too long over it.  Both Ted and Don have flown to the great art school in the sky since then.

"Laughing Clowns" oil on canvas, 1980.  36 x 48 inches or thereabouts.

“Laughing Clowns” oil on canvas, 1980. 36 x 48 inches or thereabouts.

Maybe I did take too long over “Laughing Clowns”?

I don’t have a philosophical argument for why I draw/paint the way I do though I need to observe and comment on the world I see.  This is the method I have for doing it, with camera as well as pencils or paint.  I love doing it and that is the bottom line.

"Through the Looking Glass" - 2004.  Coloured pencils.  Fascinated with reflections.

“Through the Looking Glass” – 2004. Coloured pencils. Fascinated with reflections.  You can see my ‘shadow reflection’ taking the photo.

In 2005 I found the book “Photorealism at the Millennium” by Louis K. Meisel with Linda Chase.  ISBN 0-8109-3483-3 published 2002, Harry N. Abrams, Inc.  The book reminds me that I have an artistic ‘home base’, though in true Photorealism there is not supposed to be any sign of paint or pencil marks.  The work should betray nothing of the artist’s tools.  My realism, then, while it falls under that general umbrella, is not exactly 100% Photorealism.

Linda Chase writes far better than I can, what the Photorealist artist is about.  Here is part of the conclusion of her essay “The Not-So-Innocent Eye: Photorealism in Context” (text on page 22 of “Photorealism at the Millennium”) :-

“Where does the art lie?  It lies in the artist’s mind and eye and hand.  In a keen and canny perception of the world around us, in a deft choice of subject matter, in the composing and taking of the photograph, and then in the decision to paint one particular image out of the hundreds of photographs taken.  For a photographer, this would be the end of the process, but for the Photorealist it is just the beginning.  It is in the process of then painstakingly transcribing the image, with the myriad decisions this entails, both conscious and intuitive, that the artist’s sensibility inevitably and magically transforms the image into something that is distinctly his or her own: objective yet personal, real yet more than real.”

“Photorealist paintings proclaim unequivocally the value of clear-eyed observation, of sustained effort, and above all of the act of painting itself.  Revealing hidden beauty in even the most mundane aspects of the world around us, they open our eyes to wonder.  Far from purveying cheap thrills for the masses or sleight-of-hand tricks (accusations hurled by disgruntled critics in the early years), the best Photorealist paintings provide us with awe-inspiring beauty and cunning perceptions about our culture and our time.  Rooted in the most concrete loyalty to the here and now, these paintings transcend their own factuality and achieve timelessness”.

I completely relate to the words Linda Chase writes.  When I read them, an internal YES lights up.

Apologies for writing two posts in two days but there won’t be another one for a month now!

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About juliepodstolski

I am a realist artist who works in coloured pencils.
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14 Responses to Photorealism

  1. Susie Tenzer says:

    Thanks, Julie, for the interesting take on photorealism. My favorite line, “Revealing hidden beauty in even the most mundane aspects of the world around us, they open our eyes to wonder.”

  2. interesting observations on photorealism… myself am a realist, but my approach is so different, it seems, from almost any other person, namely I work from my mind – I paint themes, and compose in my head, then transcribe to the paper or board – but these are rendered as realistic as desired, sometimes successfully so that it looks as if one could pluck the whatever out of the painting [this usually means am more inspired of what is being painted than other times, so put more effort into it]… now, granted, there are things am not at present able to do – your reflection in the window comes to mind – and the proliferation of objects is far less than what photorealists put in, but the intent of what is wanted to show comes thru, clearly…. does this make me in any way a photorealist? or merely a realist? or what? and this brings up a question – do you simply transcribe all from the photos, or do you re-arrange some, leaving out things re-emphasizing things, or take it as you have the photo, only much larger?

    • Hi Robert, well, I like the title you give yourself on your website ‘romantic realist’. Some of your pieces even look surreal. Regarding your question of my methods, I MOSTLY transcribe from my photos but I do quite often leave objects out e.g rubbish bins in the street, or unwanted figures…then I have to ‘make up’ what I think would be behind. Sometimes I rearrange the odd thing too. It is not uncommon for me to change colours or perhaps soften them – so – a black door which might take away the emphasis from the main subject might be changed to a pale grey so the viewer isn’t distracted or annoyed by it.

  3. This is an area I really had to think about, work out what I felt. And that is, photorealism is a genre of art like any other, in that there are some artists who work in this way who produce work that is original, inspiring and satisfying (like you I must say!) and others who do work that is at best uninspiring. This is a comment that could be made about abstract art, landscape, portrait, anything. Art of all kind is so subjective that I think no-one is justified in criticising another’s choices. But I do think your first teacher, who encouraged you to work in a way that naturally suited you was a much better teacher than the one who tried to impose their own values and prejudices.

    • You know, I don’t think I have ever thought too much about the different attitudes of Don and Ted. But now you mention it, I agree. Don shouldn’t have let his prejudice show. It was unprofessional of him. One just had to try to survive at artschool and hopefully pass. It was a neurosis-filled institution. We were all troubled.

  4. Have always believed your paintings are BETTER than photographs! And also all artists that choose to paint this way. Paint from the heart and all will see! That is my belief! xxx

  5. lilyade says:

    That’s a good subject! I will be honest, sometimes I was also thinking “why bother, if you can just take a photo”. But at the same time I recognize a great talent of people, who can paint/draw in that way! Not everyone must like it, as not everyone will like impressionistic or surrealistic works etc.

    I also think this is an inborn talent, and something that will bring an artist most pleasure. Not every artists working in photorealism will be able to do some “free brush strokes”, but he doesn’t have to! It’s same for everything: someone may be good in portraits – but not being able to paint a landscape, cityscape and vice versa. At the end artists mostly do their art because they enjoy the process on the first place. And secondly, to make others happy seeing it.

    For the rest, I totally agree with anna warren portfolio, especially about teachers! Teacher shouldn’t impose his talent and preferences on his students, he/she must help to reveal real/unique talent of each student, help him find his way, but not to follow way of the teacher. Unfortunately, many “teachers” don’t understand that.

    And how great it is that there are so many different artists each with his style and soul, otherwise we would be bored 🙂

    • Thanks for your considered thoughts, lilyade. I hope Anna sees your comments.
      Ha! I’d be lying if I said I’d never thought ‘why bother?’ – including about my own work. Sometimes I ask myself ‘well, what is the point? What am I trying to communicate with this?’ I have to find the point and be very sure about it…or there IS no point.

  6. I have always wanted to draw and paint things as I see them since I was a very young girl. Now it is call realism or photorealism. I have only recently started to use coloured pencil to draw and have found a medium that I now love.
    Your article here has opened my eyes to why I love photorealism. Since using coloured pencil I have found that I see more in an object than I ever did before, and the closer I look the more I see. This is wonderful as it has opened a new world for me full of inspiration and creative joy.
    Thank you for your wonderful article.

  7. I always remember seeing a great exhibition at the Haywood Gallery, London on the South Bank all about the American Photorealists of the sixties and seventies. I was about 10 but realised these artists transcended the real somehow and many of these were big scale paintings. When you got close up they were as if out of focus, slightly blurred. Recently at the Richter Tate Modern show of his work I saw some very photorealist work of his I didn’t know beforehand. Super or photorealism is valid definitely because the artistic process is transformative, as it always is. Best, Nicholas.

  8. Robyn Varpins says:

    It’s not about the talent, its about the reverence that such focus inspires in the artist….like a monk meditating on the meaning of life….to see something that deeply and clearly is to know the heart of life….even though I cant capture it like you can, I can see it through your eyes….I get it….the talent is a bonus

  9. I saw an article in an airline magazine the other day on hyperrealism. Examples were an enormous hyperreal painting of a fried egg and another of a bowl of breakfast cereal. While they may have both been feats of tremendous skill and patience, they left me stone cold. Perhaps it was a case of all head and no heart – that’s how it seemed to me anyway. So, there we are; sometimes I DO think ‘why do you bother?’ realizing that I may be betraying myself as a philistine. Was the artist trying to say ‘there is nothing that isn’t worth painting?’ Maybe…and who is to say he is wrong?

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