The Artistic Merit of Photorealism


Robert Pérez Palou

A photorealism paint of Mother Theresa by Palou

Being generally passionate about the arts, I’ve spent plenty of time studying different art mediums, movements and styles. Throughout history, there have been many artistic movements, some more well known than others but all attempt to achieve something similar: a depiction of life. However, few movements have taken this goal as seriously as photorealism. 

Also referred to as hyperrealism and super realism, photorealism is an art movement whose goal is to produce artwork so realistic that it resembles a photograph. The movement began in the 1960s, with artists like Chuck Close, Richard Estes and Ralph Goings at the front. Unlike other art movements, it doesn’t center around a particular medium, although many photorealists are fond of charcoal or colored pencils. Although the popularity of the movement has somewhat dwindled since its height in the 1960s and 1970s, it still has significant influence today and is a well-known style. 

In my biased opinion, I found it hard to appreciate photorealism. At first glance, it seemed to me that while the technique was undeniably impressive, it lacked creativity and originality. Personally, I love seeing the way that artists will depict scenes or add their own flair to their pieces and I didn’t see that appeal in photorealistic art.

Once I’d become aware of photorealism, it seemed impossible to avoid. All over social media, I would see realistic Prismacolor drawings, people showing off how realistic their art was by comparing it to the real object or photo. I was confused. Much of the art I loved went unnoticed or under appreciated while photorealistic art that often used popular Pinterest photos as references gained traction. 

Additional research and a conversation with Lori Llerandi, who teaches AP Art, Portfolio Arts, and Drawing and Painting solidified my change of heart regarding photorealism. Art is subjective, and while I may have preferences for certain styles, there isn’t any form of art that is lesser than another. “[Art is] self-expression in a visual format,” said Ms. Llerandi. It’s not fair to claim that one art style is more artistic than another. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t differentiating characteristics of different artists and their associated movements. For example, successful photorealism requires an impressive grasp of technique. Llerandi explained,  “Photorealism is all about understanding tools, techniques and having the skill set to pull off impressive proportions, shading and value…you have to understand drawing and painting foundations in order to begin to attempt photorealism. Photorealist artists have high visual IQs, as they have trained their eyes to see in terms of shapes, forms and value scale.” Look at works by the likes of Chuck Close and Hyung Koo Kang and it’s near impossible to not appreciate the sheer accuracy of their depictions of people.

Having this epiphany about realism also made me realize what it was that I really took issue with: plagiarism. While it is universally frowned upon, plagiarism is one of the cardinal sins of the art world. Photorealism is technically impressive and the creativity that I had previously questioned can be found in the artist’s choice of subject and adaptation of their image. Some people choose to portray people close to them or use photos they took as references. This makes their art unique and also creates a connection between the artist and their work. However, recreating other peoples’ photos as photorealistic art without crediting them is plagiarism. This isn’t to say that studies of art or adaptations of famous works are unacceptable; it’s just important to create things that are unique and to credit the artist behind anything that one uses to execute an idea. 

But what is it that has made photorealism so popular? Although it has yet to surpass styles such as impressionism in terms of popularity with the general public, I find myself seeing it more and more, especially among learning artists and on social media. Ms. Llerandi explained one aspect of this phenomenon, saying, “The art world is a high-end society that trades art as a commodity. There is a trickle-down effect on the public.” 

There have been significant shifts in the system in recent years, as new standards emerge and people call for the diversification of art. Art centers such as museums are being curated differently, which has a significant impact on the opinion of the public. The popularity of photorealism can in some part be attributed to art experts and systems that distribute art such as museums and social media but it can also be attributed to personal taste. Although I had my doubts about photorealism, looking into the style has given me a new appreciation for the technique and the artists who specialize in it.