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What's the point of making realistic paintings when photography can do the trick? We look at the history of artists recreating the world as we see it and ponder why it's still happening. Show off the world as you see and visit to get started on your website.

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When photography was invented, some people thought painting would inevitably die.  Why, after all, would we continue to painstakingly reproduce the world as we see it by repeatedly daubing small bits of pigment suspended in liquid on to a piece of fabric using a stick with short little hairs attached when a camera could do so incredibly effectively and much, much faster?  We all know that painting persisted and not just the impressionism and abstraction and pop art and what have you that took paintings in directions other than the pursuit of realistic optical effects.  Artists still attempt to recreate what we see in approximately the way we humans see it.  But why?  What's with this tireless obsession, and why is it worth our time to look at it when the world itself is all around us in pure form?  This is the case for realism.

So there's an actual art historical movement called realism and it came about in Western Europe in the mid-19th century, right around, come to think of it, when photography was emerging and getting its fingers into every aspect of our lives.  The French art critic Champfleury used the term realism to describe what Gustave Courbet was doing in the 1840s, whcih was rejecting the stronghold of academic teaching, the dictated subjects be mythological or historical.  Courbet wanted to paint what he saw around him instead, everyday people and places of his own time, more gritty and less idealized than say, Jean-Francois Millet, who painted contemporary rural life, but let's face it, in a sentimental way.

So realism the movement was about depicting the world as we find it rather than as we want it to be, but it wasn't about painting  in a photographically realistic way.  Naturalism was the term for that, although the two approaches were often paired as in the work of John Constable, whose landscape paintings show us the English countryside of the early 1800s and in a manner closer to the way we see it.  

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Neither realism nor naturalism were anything new.  Nothing ever is.  (?~2:05) had been influenced by Velazquez and the painters of the Spanish golden age, who represented their time with astonishingly realistic effects.  (?~2:14) was also wowed by the work of 17th century Dutch painters like Rembrandt and Frans Hans, whose work people of the time claimed looked like life itself.  The Flemish painter Brueghel was a painter of everyday life before that.  Miniature painting of the Mughal Empire drew from many traditions and dazzles with moments of incredible naturalism, as does 18th century Chinese scroll painting, and don't even get me started with the Italian Renaissance.  

Yes, the development and use of linear perspective helped tremendously in crafting the appearance of a three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface, but artists like Leonardo Da Vinci also pioneered painting techniques that yielded faces and figures that are startlingly true to life and Caravaggio's dramatically lit scenes brought well-known Biblical stories into the present day with shocking immediacy and impact, and of course, those artists were looking back to the ancient Greeks and Romans who for sure represented ideal figures but also during the Hellenistic period portrayed old age, peasant life, and physical anomalies.

This reminds us that realism, naturalism, or whatever you want to call this desire to depict life itself has long played out in three dimensions.  Polychromatic wood sculptures like this one made for a church of Jesus laid out for burial were made even more lifelike with glass eyes and fingernails made of bulls horn, and today we experience the wildlly uncanny feeling of three dimensional realism when encountering a Duane Hanson sculpture in an art gallery or Ai Weiwei's exquisitely crafted porcelain sunflower seeds.  

Realism emerges as a strategy among many that's combined with other approaches and employed toward a wide variety of ends.  Even before photography, artists use optical devices as a painter's aid.  It's long been suspected that Vermeer used a mechanism akin to a camera obscura to make his paintings.  

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Contemporary artist David Hockney has argued that artists have long presented us with photographic views and the only thing that happened in the 19th century was that chemicals were invented that allowed these images to become fixed, but even so, photography did change everything.  As soon as it arrived and many scrambled to patent and profit from various processes, artists began to use it in their practice.  We know Courbet worked from photographs of nudes for many of his most famous works.  We know that Nadar made this photograph for the use of artist Jean-Leon Gerome to assist in his process of painting "Phryne Before the Areopagus".  

The new technology was harnessed by landscape painters, including Albert Bierstadt who often worked from stereoscopic photographs taken by his brothers.  Photography eventually became an accepted art form in its own right, but from its outset, it's been in near constant conversation with painting and other media.  Abstraction would hold sway for much of the 20th century, but realism kept playing a part, appearing at different times, in different ways, and for different reasons. 

In the late 1960s, aritsts working primarily in New York and California began making paintings where photographs were clearly and unabashedly the primary visual reference.  In 1969, writer and gallerist Louis K. (?~5:23) gave this work the name 'photorealism'.  It's artists reproducing photographic images with astounding detail, with almost hilariously challenging surfaces to elaborate and describe.  

Like pop art, photorealism disrupted many peoples' expectations about what art should be, showing us the often-aggressively unartful stuff of everyday life and acknowledging the invasiveness of advertising and consumer culture in so many parts of American life after World War II.  While the subjects of photorealist paintings aren't usually that remarkable, the skill involved in their reproduction often is, but like many artists throughout history, photorealists aren't afraid of using tools to enhance realistic effects, like using a grid system to tranpose an image or enlarging and transcribing slides or photos with a projector.  

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Photography can be a helpful source for artists, not just because it fixes a moment in time with its particular play of light, but also because it shows us how an expansive and dimensional world can be organized unto a defined and 2D dimensional surface, but that's also a criticism of some realism.  Is it all technical expertise and no substance?  Just a feat of robot-like precision on display?  

Robot lady: I have achieved verisimilitude.

Sarah: A detached, deadpan feeling can exude from photorealism, which we can credit to the degree of remove the camera lens provides, the consistent treatment of subject matter across the composition, and the flat application of paint.  People are there, but these are not necessarily portraits, as much a part of the scene as a parked car or less.  Photographer Garry Winogrand once said, "There is nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described," and that mystery is part of the ongoing allure of these pictures, but while photorealist paintings are for sure clearly described, their relationship to fact is more tenuous.  

Photographs as we well know crop, omit, and mislead.  They have selective focus, adjustable depth of field, different kinds of cameras and film create different effects, paintings made from an (?~7:25) slide tend to have a bluer cast, while (?~7:28) skews warmer, and digital photography can magnify saturated tones, and of course, source images can be manipulated.  

Photorealist painters often edit and combine images with others to overcome the limitations of conventional photography.  Dramatic shifts in scale diverge wildly from real life and as technology has advanced and made possible digital images of unprecedented resolution and size, painters who use them as sources offer us views that are hyper-real, far surpassing the capabilities of our human eyes.  

When we look at realist art, within and outside of the photorealist tradition, we know it's not real.  

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The illusion is almost never lasting, but that's exactly why we like it.  It feels miraculous that mere Earthly art supplies can be transformed into images and sculptures that can even begin to pass as photos or actual objects in the world.  The finesse of these works can be virtuosic and the time, oh the time and patience it can take to achieve, is worthy of our admiration, but time plays a more complicated role as well. 

Contrasted with the long and arduous process that brings the paintings to life is the near instantaneousness of the source photo's capture.  Then there's the moment in time when the photo was taken vs when it was that the image was translated to a new medium, and there's the time of now, when the works are being experienced and evaluated.  What's everyday in 1971 is exotic in 2018.  What looks like real life in 1987 looks nostalgic, even alien, today.  What seems neutral and inconsequential now becomes in the future emblematic of a time, place, and moment in technological history.  

Realist art has a trace relationship to the objects and people and places it describes, but an indirect one.  The realness to which it strives isn't necessary the realness of lived experience but the realness of a physical photograph.  In the process, these artists have constructed a new reality, one we must remember is not a window but an intricate web we can explore of images and moments and acts of translation.

The spread of technology into so many parts of our lives has unleashed a torrent of visual information that we're left to navigate and add to.  Images float past our eyes, some directly from friends, filtered, doctored, throwback, some from credentialed sources and some completely untethered from identifying information, and then there are the images we capture and release into the torrent.  Many of us now see life and anticipate it through photography.  As artist Tom Blackwell put it back in 1972, "Photographic images, movies, TV, magazines, etc. are as important a part of our reality as actual phenomena.

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They strongly affect our perception of actual phenomena."  So this torrent of images is affecting how we see and realism helps remind us of that, demonstrating that vision is a process and one vulnerable to many influences.  This kind of art invites us to take a closer look, to appreciate how images (?~10:29) to life and how they diverge from it.  Realism reminds us that we don't see in two dimensions and challenges us to distinguish real from virtual in increasingly advanced environments.

Even when it's really good, realism prompts us to remember that there's no way to perfectly recreate any moment, person, place, or thing, and yet we still derive pleasure in this attempt to fix some bit of our world in time as artists and appreciators.  We look closely.  We think in layers, of the opacity and translucency and adaptability of images and of vision.  Realism asks each of us how we process reality, how we organize it, and perhaps most importantly, how we share our reality with others.  

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