Photorealist Techniques and Methods

An overview

(Click here for An In-Depth Step-by-Step Guide to Photorealist Painting Techniques)

Photorealist painting is marked by thorough attention to detail, in which the artist strives to accurately reproduce every detail in the photo onto the canvas. The completed artworks are usually air-brushed or handpainted in acrylics or oils. Before embarking on a large-scale painting, photorealist artists often create small studies in colored pencils or watercolors, which are generally impressive artworks in their own right. These smaller studies allow the artists to work out the various elements of composition, perspective, form, light and shadow. They can then pinpoint and correct any potential problems before embarking on the creation of an intensive, time-consuming large artwork.

Photorealism Painting by Thaneeya

After selecting a suitable photo, the photorealist painting process involves transferring the photo to the canvas through mechanical means. Artists can use a projector, the grid method, or transfer paper. While some critics of photorealism may consider this to be "mindless copying" or "cheating", let us remember two points:

  1. The term "Photorealism" was first coined by NY art dealer Louis K. Meisel in 1968. His definition of photorealism included not only the necessity of a camera to capture the image or scene, but also identified that the image from the photo must be transferred to the work surface via mechanical or semimechanical means (i.e., through the use of a projector, grid method, or transfer paper). Therefore, mechanical transference of the reference image is essential to the definition of Photorealism.
  2. "Mechanical means" have been used by artists for centuries to transfer images onto their canvas, paper or wood panel. The camera obscura was in common use by Renaissance artists to allow them to render such meticulous detail. Many famous and celebrated artists, such as Dutch Baroque master Vermeer and early Flemish Renaissance master Jan van Eyck used this tool as an aid to create their exceptionally accurate artwork. Therefore, using mechanical means to aid in the creation of artwork is nowhere near a new concept! (There is even a fascinating theory that our Paleolithic ancestors used camera obscuras to create art!)

After the photo has been transferred to the work surface, the artist then proceeds to meticulously recreate in pigment the details of the photograph. This is done though careful observation, as well as in-depth knowledge of the characteristics of the paint. The artist must be well-versed in the combinations and amounts of colors and mediums to mix, which brushes will best achieve the desired effect, and how saturated with water the brush will need to be. All of these elements must be in perfect balance throughout the creation of the painting - a process which takes time and practice.

Photorealist paintings, as with most paintings, are built in many layers. It is an additive process, beginning with the underpainting and continuing through the development of the forms, until they begin to resemble the image in the photograph. Most of the layers in photorealist paintings consist of thin glazes, i.e. paint that is thinned with water or a medium. This allows for the subtle blending effects that are necessary in order to make the flat surface of the canvas appear to contain 3-dimensional objects and scenes.

Photorealistic paintings are renowned for their tight, technical precision, which is achieved through an intensive familiarity with the materials and process. The resulting painting usually has a clean, smooth finish, in which the brushstrokes are not visible. The final layer of varnish seals the painting and adds another layer of smoothness.

This is just a brief overview of what is involved to create a photorealistic painting. If you would like to learn how to paint photorealistically in acrylics, check out my in-depth guide on How to Paint Photorealism: A Step-by-Step Guide on How to Paint Your Own Photorealistic Paintings - a 15-page guide explaining the materials and methods to working in Photorealism. It should be an equally interesting read for art enthusiasts who just want to know more about the process!

You can view my photorealist paintings on my website.

Familiarize yourself with the Photorealist art movement by reading my overview of Photorealism.