The biggest misconception among non artists and amateurs is that more detail equals more realism in art.
Detail is not congruent with realism
The great artists of the past knew that detail without purpose was often the antithesis of realism. The “artists of today” that you speak of rely on it as a cheap gimmick. Copying pores on a face is not art. Anyone can blend an eye with ten thousand brush strokes. It takes true genius to convey realism with absolute economy of brush work. Art is about making executive decisions about composition, line, and mass
Realism is so much more than detail.
They did. I’d argue to the death that they exceeded it. Forgive me if I come off as brazen, this exact question really hits me passionately!
The biggest misconception among non artists and amateurs is that more detail equals more realism in art.
Detail is not congruent with realism.
Day in and day out, we are inundated with photography and high res videos. We’re conditioned to think that clarity and resolution equal realism, and don’t question all the false visual information that we’re fed from these media. Our attention spans are small, and we don’t spend more than a few seconds with art before deciding if it’s good or bad and moving on. If it passes the 2 second “could be a photo” test, it’s considered good.
Let’s assume that by “realism” you mean “lifelikeness”, like the painting could jump off the wall and breathe. Let’s also assume that you - through no fault of your own- have been conditioned to see those little freckles and cracks in the lips and think “Wow! Detail! So real!”
First and foremost, the great artists of the past worked from life, not from photos. I can tell at first glance that this painting is done from a photograph. The values are blown out and unorganized, the form and anatomy is unconvincing, especially in the helix of the ear and sternomastoid. The planes of the form follow no definitive light source, and the head is grossly distorted. The lips are drastically too dark compared to the rest of the information in the painting. Look at the picture-right temple- notice how poorly the form turns around the plane. I dismiss this and art like it as cheap, sexualized “detail” paintings. A copy of a photograph.
Don’t get me wrong, there is nothing inherently wrong with using photography in your reference. The problem is that today’s artists blindly copy photographs with no understanding of anatomy, perspective, or the laws of light. You have to understand the flaws inherent to photography and know how to work around them.
-Photos distort perspective. The curvature of the lens will distort the relative size of things, as well as warp linear perspective.
Brunelleschi, an accomplished Renaissance architect, discovered linear perspective- that all receding planes converge at one or two vanishing points. Vertical lines remain parallel. Artists of the past knew this, understood this, and implemented it to their advantage. Take Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema:
Look at the perspective of the marble. Believe me when I say that mathematically correct ellipses, especially those that exit the picture plane, are superhumanly possible to do by hand. Alma-Tadema used to work with an architect to achieve the perspective in his work, but he eventually got frustrated and decided he was better off doing it himself. No work from a photograph will ever achieve mathematically correct perspective such as this. It requires years of mastery and working from life. This was painted in the late 19th century.
Photos blow out values.
When a digital photo is exposed for the lights, all of the information in the shadows is lost. Take sunsets for example:
You will never be able to photograph a sunset without blowing out the lights or losing all of the information in the darks.
Value (light and dark) is restricted with pigments between black and white paint. That means that everything must be represented with values that fall somewhere between these two extremes. Next time you photograph a sunset, compare it to what you see. Are the hills really as dark as your photograph? Is the sunset really that blown out?
This is Jules Breton’s The Weeders, painted in 1860. Which appears more real? Breton’s painting radiates warmth. You can still see the information in the foreground that would be lost in a photograph, and likewise any painting copied from a photograph. He intelligently ‘keyed’ the value schema of the painting so that the sunset can feel alive, yet he never uses pure white on the painting.
Furthermore, photographs (and work done from them) reduce the entire value gamut to a harsh contrast of extreme light and dark.
However, this is not how the laws of light operate. In reality, form is described in the beautiful halftones between light and shadow. Light will bounce off of an object at relative intensity depending on the angle of the planes of an object in relation to the light source. In other words, planes on a surface that face a light source will reflect the most light, and as the form turns away from the light, less light will bounce off of the form. This is true, even for black objects. Work done from photographs will never show this. Consider this painting by Emile Friant (French, 19th century)
In the matte black clothing there is still evidence of light and shadow, even under a diffused light source. This is only possible with years of practice painting from life, and an understanding of the laws of light and form.
Another detail by Friant. Notice the form in the dark shapes.
Artists such as the one you reference don’t display an understanding of human anatomy. When an artist relies heavily on photography, they can only copy what they see. If they don’t supplement what they see with what they know, such as a working knowledge of human anatomy, their work will be littered with anatomical errors that a more trained eye will see.
“Ajax and Cassandra” by Solomon J Solomon (1876). Notice the understanding of human anatomy, such as the articulation of serratus anterior muscles as they insert into the ribcage, as well as how he intentionally turned the light across the forms as they roll away from the light.
“Realistic” painters working today are working from quick snapshots of their subjects, trying to capture a fleeting moment of time. How is this realistic or lifelike? This is not how we experience life, through brief fleeting microseconds. They tend to often miss the overall character and likeness of their subjects. I’ve yet to see a single painting done from a photograph that appears to breathe the way portraits from the past did.
Portrait of Cornelis van der Geest by Anthony Van Dyck, 1620.
Van Dyck painted this at 20 years old, nearly 400 years ago. This painting hangs at the National Gallery in London, and I assure you this painting is so realistic that it’s creepy. Cornelis stares you in the eye with such a conscious presence that you feel like you could talk to him. He feels more real than any museum goers in the gallery.
The great artists of the past knew that detail without purpose was often the antithesis of realism. The “artists of today” that you speak of rely on it as a cheap gimmick. Copying pores on a face is not art. Anyone can blend an eye with ten thousand brush strokes. It takes true genius to convey realism with absolute economy of brush work. Art is about making executive decisions about composition, line, and mass. Here are some examples by John Singer Sargent, and Antoine Vollon.
Pretty lifelike, right? Take a closer look at the hand:
And here’s some butter by Vollon:
There are a handful of artists today continuing this classical tradition, and producing truly breathtaking and lifelike art. They are committed to working from life, without the use of photographs. Take this portrait by Joshua Larock:
Josh has a full understanding of form, anatomy, perspective, light, and composition. He works patiently and with integrity, from life.
I strongly, strongly urge you to start appreciating art from two steps back. Realism is so much more than detail.
Thank you for making it all the way through this post! Take a look at my work on Instagram if you’d like, at @tylerberryart. I can’t claim to do work like these artists yet, but it’s a lifelong journey!
For many centuries, there were issues of perspective and light that needed to be discovered. There were also advances in materials that took a very long time. Oil paint was not available to artists until the 15th century, and not in tubes until 1841. Acrylic paints, with their particular gleam and opacity, are a 20th century advance.
Even so, early painters mastered realism quite nicely well before our modern times. However, what they did not do, was paint actual portraits of people in casual poses. No one would have wanted that. Every person desiring a portrait wanted to be elevated in their appearance. As Van Dyck said, portraiture is “the vanity business.” So the example in this question, of a woman with gooey stuff dripping down her face, while bravura painting for an artist, would have been an unthinkable subject for earlier times. Paintings that did depict people in not-so-desirable poses (think Hieronymous Bosch) were often metaphorical or fantasaical and therefore, not so strictly bound by the strictures of realism, also.
But I snapped the below images in the National Gallery, London, on a recent trip. No dripping goo, nor the hyper closeup style of a 20th century photo, but equivalent realism and depiction of character - perhaps even more.
Contemporary painters have no superiority whatsoever in terms of their painting ability over these people.
Doge Leonardo Loredan, by Giovanni Bellini, 1501–02
Portrait of a Lady, from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, approx. 1460
Cornelis Van Der Geest by Anthony Van Dyck, approx. 1620
Hyper-realistic paintings of today look the way they do because they are imitations of photographs. Renaissance masters would never have seen a photograph. So they were not even trying to achieve this look.Why didn’t great painters of the past reached the level of realism achieved today by many artists?
For example, note the blurred shoulders on your example image. That blurring mimics the limited depth of field of camera lenses. That is not how we view live models though, so it would not have occurred to Renaissance era painters to render subjects the way a modern camera lens sees them. To our eyes, it looks realistic because we’re used to seeing photos with limited depth of field.
The level of realism they DID achieve was still remarkable. But it did not and could not have the look of a modern photograph because they didn’t exist.