Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography

May 06

22 min. to read

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Learn the secrets of classic photorealist artists in this overview.

Simply put, photorealism (sometimes written as ‘photo-realism’) is copying a photo by creating an artwork based on it. A photograph is projected on a canvas where an artist uses an airbrush and creates a painting that looks like a print. Because of that, photorealism is an interesting merger between photography and fine art, making these two types of art friends, not rivals who struggle for the most accurate visual representation of reality.

Viewers are likely to be impressed with photorealistic artworks. Admirers of photorealism acknowledge its tremendous WOW effect on spectators after they realize it’s a painting in front of their eyes, not a photo. By the same token, watching the best representatives of the photorealism art movement is huge fun, especially when you view their artworks alongside the real photographs and try to guess which is which.

Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image1

However, the photorealism movement is not well known among the general public. In this post, we want to attract your attention to this incredible artistic style and inspire you to give it a try.

The history of the photorealism movement

According to arthistory, the two precursors to the photorealism art movement were pop art and minimalism. Both of these trends tried to deconstruct existing hierarchies in choosing subjects and using advertising imagery. Having the same starting point, photorealism steadily evolved into an independent style with its own characteristics.

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The development of the photorealism art movement happened in several stages. It started in the late 1960s in the United States when several artists called for a return to maximum vividness in opposition to the widespread Abstract Expressionism. This ambition was enabled by cheap cameras becoming available to the general public. After becoming able to take photographs, many artists decided to create their artworks with careful pre-planning and by copying of their chosen subject in detail. These principles still are fundamental to either photorealism or realism movement.

At the same time, the thing that differs photorealism from the realism movement is that its proponents kept on depicting ordinary objects. This enabled a new stage in the genre to appear, turning the whole artistic style into a mirror of banal life. In the US, photorealism even gained the subtitle Americana, showing the extinct American life in its wistful details.

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The period of Americana was the peak of this artistic movement, which ended in the 1970s. Today, people with nostalgic sentiments love looking at the artwork of those times.

In the 1990s, interest in photorealism reappeared thanks to the technological revolution, which increased the access to photography and the reach of the photorealism movement. It turned into a global trend that hasn’t lost its popularity today. Since the 1990s, photorealism has held a place among contemporary art.

Is photorealism real art?

Notwithstanding its unique features, the photorealism movement hasn’t managed to attract the professional attention it deserves. Many art specialists not only forget to include it as an important avant-garde trend but also question it as art itself. Let’s redress this injustice here.

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In the opinion of the artists themselves, photorealism is true art. The question of whether it’s art is closely linked to the question of whether photography can be considered art. And to both questions, the answer is the same: the individual perspective matters, turning a mechanical deed into something bigger. In other words, photorealism is art just like photography is art insomuch as the artist puts himself/herself into it.

In this context, the inclusion of artistic imagination is a must in all works of photorealism. From the very definition of photorealism, it’s evident that it supplements the mechanical work of a copying machine with a human touch. And so it goes beyond the limits of technology.

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Moreover, to turn from an amateur preoccupation into a complete photorealism art movement, there appeared the set of process rules that manage artist’s inclusion into a photograph. For example, among representatives of the photorealism movement, it’s common to replicate objects much bigger than they are in reality. In addition, the photorealistic style calls for using special paints (oil or acrylic, specifically) and creating the smoothest surface possible for painting.

Here are five grounding principles determined in photorealism manifesto:

  1. A photorealist uses a camera to gather information.
  2. A photorealist uses technical means to accurately transfer information to the canvas.
  3. A photorealist has technical capacities to make the result look like a photograph.
  4. An artist should have a published photorealistic artwork since 1972 to be a prominent photorealist.
  5. An artist should dedicate at least five years to creating and publishing works in the photorealism genre.
(Meisel, Louis K. Photorealism. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, New York. 1980. p. 13.)

As you can see, the creative approach of an artist is postulated at each stage of this photorealism manifesto.

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In other words, photorealism isn’t just art: it’s a highly sophisticated form of art with its own rules and methods. And with its own quality standards. The more time spectators dedicate to believing that it’s a drawing and not a photograph, the greater mastery a photorealist has demonstrated. To achieve this effect, artists use techniques from other art genres like Verism and Super-Realism to amaze viewers. The tremendous effort put into enhancing these photorealistic practices made it possible for the whole photorealism movement to appear.

Here are the five best photorealists.

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5 classic masters of photorealism

In Britannica, the list of masters of photorealism includes Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Audrey Flack, Robert Bechtle, and Chuck Close. Let’s look closer at what beauty they created and why they left such a huge footprint on this artistic movement.

#1 Richard Estes

As one of the most appraised artists of photorealism, Richard Estes believed that a photograph couldn’t be considered complete without the touch of a brush. We agree with Estes and highly recommend using post-editing software to beautify your images!

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Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image8Estes, R. Telephone Booths. Acrylic on masonite. Collection of Museo Thyssen, 1967

In his artworks, Estes depicted the big city life of New York. His contribution to photorealism was inventing the genre as we know it. In his famous Telephone Booths, Estes achieved an outstanding meditating effect in the depiction of urban scenery. Moreover, a closer look at the image reveals a rich bouquet of colors: probably even too rich to believe something like that could have been caught by a low-quality color camera in the 1960s.

Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image9Estes, R. People’s Flowers. Oil on canvas. Collection of Museo Thyssen, 1971.

At the same time, the works of Estes managed to capture the aesthetic heritage of New York City on the threshold of an economic crisis. As in the image above, his choice of colors and manner of representation resemble fine art from Medieval times and is aesthetically beautiful. However, all his plots were taken from ordinary life, which makes Estes a realist. And the mix of aesthetics and and key principles of realism art movement happened because he didn’t aim at showing the world exactly as it was in the photograph. He beautified reality.

Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image10Estes, R. Supreme Hardware. Oil on canvas. High Museum of Art, 1974.

If we closely consider his photorealistic technique, Estes is not a typical artist of the movement. Even though he used a camera to gather information, he never supplemented copying an image with technological means, using neither a grid nor a projector. In addition, he avoided showing areas of photographic blur or focus. In fact, that was a great invention in an era when cameras were incapable of catching all details without distortion.

#2 Ralph Goings

Another top representative of the photorealism artists, Goings showed a willingness to crisp a veneer of photographed landscapes. Inspired by the interiors of diners, gas stations, and pickup trucks, he created outstanding artworks by copying photographs with watercolor and acrylic paints.

Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image11Goings, R. Black Ford. Watercolor on paper. Plus One Gallery, 1975As one of the pioneers in the photorealism movement, Goings faced heavy criticism for working from photographs. To defend his approach, he dedicated significant attention to painting the play of light and changing the shapes and colors of the objects he depicted. Goings is considered a photorealistic artist who was highly attentive to the details of working-class life in California.

Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image12Goings, R. Donut. Oil on canvas. USEUM, 1995

Since the peak of his artistic career happened during the 1973–1975 recession, the works of Goings gained social meaning. He objectively showed elements of everyday life and gained a reputation as one of the best photorealists of his time. In the 1990s, Goings published a series of outstanding still life paintings of tables in diners that still impress spectators.

#3 Audrey Flack

Audrey Flack is the only woman among the well-known photorealism artists, and this fact adds unusual emotional and social layers to her artworks. Commonly, the works of Flack are viewed through the lens of their feminism and kitsch, as this is how she showed the essence of pop culture. Flack was so influential that some people call her the Mother of Photorealism.

Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image13Flack, A. The Art Muse #1. Digital print with hand drawing and glitter. Artist’s Collection, 2004

Flack started down her path by creating sculptures, self-portraits, and general abstractions. But after getting acquainted with photorealism, she turned to making large-scale painted copies of historical events. In addition, she revealed her feminist ideas in sculpture: starting in the 1980s, she turned to this art completely.

Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image14Flack, A. Royal Jello. Oil on canvas. Gary Snyder Gallery, 1962

In her photorealistic drawings, Flack worked mostly with still life photos, dreaming to revive the old culture of vanitas. With the help of this style, she aimed to reveal the fugitive essence of the materialistic world, an idea that went back to the front burner with the appearance of consumption culture. To achieve this effect, she supplemented ordinary objects with symbolic meaning. That was her mission in painting photographs: to add a hyperreal dimension to seemingly banal things.

#4 Robert Bechtle

Like Goings, Bechtle preferred working in photorealism as a way to deepen the perception of an image with several layers. In his peaceful, sunny artworks, he became the master of revealing the mystery behind emptiness. This secret knowledge makes his artworks attractive to spectators of any time and place.

Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image15Bechtle, R. Chrysler ‘64. Soft ground etching. Alpha 137 Gallery, 1971

For inspiration, Bechtle used the common scenery of his neighborhood in California, with its typical families, cars, houses, and nature. Cars were his secret passion – most of his suburban works contain them.

Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image16Bechtle, R. 73‘ Malibu - NFS. Oil on canvas. Meisel Gallery, 1971

Bechtle explains his willingness to paint photographs by the need to move the emphasis from how something is depicted to the objects themselves. That’s probably why his whole creative work is considered melancholic: things in their extreme ordinality are rather boring.

#5 Chuck Close

Close was one of the most innovative photorealism artists. Working with portraits captured by his friends, he made gigantic images and introduced a brand-new technique. In his photorealistic approach, he used a light pencil grid for scaling, then made a sketch with an airbrush and added the final details with paint.

Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image17Close, C. Keith/Random Fingerprint. Stamp-pad ink and pencil on paper. American Art, 1979

Being an ideologist of photorealistic portraits, Close started his career by creating a series of eight heads painted in black-and-white with an airbrush. In his approach, a grid was important for him. With this tool, he believed to add wider analytical layer into a detail-oriented camera focus. The success of this first attempt inspired him to dedicate all of his artistic energy to painting portraits.

Photorealism 101: An Art Form Invented to Enrich Photography Image18Close, C. Maggie. Oil on canvas. Pace Gallery, 2005–2006
While gaining mastery in painting photography, Close revealed his ability to introduce philosophical concepts to an image. Having dyslexia and facial blindness, he raised the subject of human vulnerability in each artwork he created. In particular, he believed that he added timelessness and hardiness to fragile photographed subjects.

Techniques used in photorealistic art

Photorealism artists (don’t mistake them with realism artists!) tend to become skilled at watercolor sketches before turning to monumental photorealistic painting. Thus, the watercolor technique won’t go amiss in photorealism attempts of any scale.

Once you have the necessary skill in drawing, it’s time to make an accurate photograph that will serve as the basis for a painting. Here, you’ll need all your attention and talent for capturing the reality on the streets. Before starting a photo session, get basic knowledge of how to take street photography and candid photography. Pay special attention to these street photography tips - it contains all the information needed for non-invasive photographers. In any case, photorealism doesn’t possess strict rules for photography. Consider the photograph as a draft for your painting.

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Once they have a photograph, all modern photorealism artists use technology to copy the image. The available photorealistic tools are a projector and a grid system: these are two common ways to transfer an image from one medium to another. In contrast to copying paper, these instruments allow the artist to catch all the tiniest details in the painted image.

You can draw the image by using different approaches. For example, you can follow the technique of Richard Estes and beautify the low-grade parts of a photograph while strictly following the image in other sections. Another way is to add a mystical dimension to reality, as Audrey Flack did. No matter which approach you choose, remember to reveal your artistic style. It should be natural for you to draw in the style you’ve chosen. At the same time, attention to detail is a must in photorealism, so carefully select colors, brushes, and drawing techniques for different parts of the painting.

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For your convenience, here’s a checklist of the grounding principles of photorealism. Use it to practice and become a professional in this style:

  • The drawing stage has the aim of introducing an unreal dimension into reality. (Otherwise, why not leave it as a photograph? Why complicate your life with a purposeless photorealistic painting?)
  • All objects you’ve chosen are free of social labeling. Even though they’re recognizable elements of ordinary life, they should talk by themselves and be free of any commentary from the artist.
  • Don’t deny the link with the photograph: choose photorealistic paint and a technique that depicts the image you’ve taken with the camera in the most accurate way. Don’t hesitate to use the most accurate copying instrument.
  • Carefully plan how you’ll draw the photograph and make sure all details are depicted in the final artwork.

If you feel inspired to try your hand at photorealism, remember that it’s a process that shouldn’t be stressful! Precise attention to detail is a meditation practice, not torture. Have fun!

Editing and post-processing for photorealism

As is evident from this overview, photorealism can’t be done without a photograph. And the quality of that photo is a very important element. In other words, you should get the most out of your photo, meaning you can’t skip the post-processing stage.

As top-rated photo editing software, Luminar allows you to introduce adjustments that either fix photography mistakes or put emphasis on the details you’ll draw in the next stage. In addition to basic editing features like straighten photo and apply filters, Luminar helps professionals with changing exposure, noise level, white balance, and other nuances. Try it by clicking the button below!

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