Realism in painting – why and how

What is it that makes a painting good? How realistic should it be or should it be realistic at all? Why?

Observe these two images and decide which one describes the mood of the scene better:

[Here is a link to where I got the image from and the artist that created it (Username Revidescent from Concept art . org): Link]

The main thing about the scene and what makes it worth contemplating is its mood: serenity; tranquil enjoyment.

Which one of those images communicates that state of mind more clearly? To me there is no question that the digital drawing does better. It eliminates irrelevant small details such as the details of the grass, sharp transitions between light parts of the grass and dark parts, it eliminates the details of the background and instead presents the background as distant and glowing. In other words it sends it where it belongs: To the background, instead of having it take away our visual attention. It is only detailed enough to communicate the mood of the environment: a soft glowing day.
Likewise the features of the woman that reinforce the mood are emphasized: her hair is pulled higher up and back, the light on her skin is brighter, small details of her skin and dress are smoothed out. These all communicate the mood much better.

However, consider what would happen if the artist further blurred away her face, or made it less human somehow (like making it into a stick figure): The mood would no longer be communicable in such a form.

This can be perfectly summarized by this quote from “The Romantic Manifesto” By Ayn Rand (Page 47, chapter “Art and Cognition”):

The visual arts do not deal with with the sensory field of awareness as such, but with the sensory field as perceived b a conceptual consciousness.
The sensory-perceptual awareness of an adult does not consist of mere sense data (as it did in his infancy), but of automatized integrations that combine sense data with a vast context of conceptual knowledge. The visual arts refine and direct the sensory elements of these integrations. By means of selectivity, of emphasis and omission, these arts lead man’s sight to the conceptual context intended by the artist. They teach man to see more precisely and to find deeper meaning in the field of his vision.
It is a common experience to observe that a particular painting – for example, a still life of apples – makes its subject “more real than it is in reality”. The apples seem brighter and firmer, they seem to possess an almost self-assertive character, a kind of heightened reality which neither their real-life models nor any color photograph can match. Yet if one examines tham closely, one sees that no real-life apple ever looked like that. What is it, then, that the artist has done? He has created a visual abstraction.
He has performed the process of concept-formation – of isolating and integrating – but in exclusively visual terms. He has isolated the essential, distinguishing characteristics of apples, and integrated them into a single visual unit. He has brought the conceptual method of functioning

My conclusion is that realism in art serves a secondary purpose: It is a necessary tool to enhance the abstract message of a painting but does not serve the nature of our mind if we carry that realism into every detail of a painting striving to make it into a photograph.

2 thoughts on “Realism in painting – why and how

  1. I had been thinking alot about this as well when I was taking classes. One of my favorite teachers would paint entire big pieces in just a couple of days, and they clearly gave certain ideas.

    I went to the Frick museum in Manhattan, and they carry tons of art at the height of the naturalist period. It’s just tons and tons of portraits that took a crazy amount of skill. But I was bored through most of it, because nothing expressed any idea.

    That’s when I started thinking about how to best formulate my idea on realism, which is basically: The only point of drawing/painting something to look real is to better express an idea since ideas are real. That’s why I actually like more than

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