True to the Eye: Techniques in Photorealistic Painting

Photorealistic painting strikes a stark contrast to what we have grown to know as modernism, the umbrella term referring to styles such as cubism, Dadaism and surrealism. Modernism has often sought to filter the world through the mind of the artist, producing symbolic, often strange depictions of reality.

Photorealistic painting, on the other hand, is a technique which seeks to depict the world as a mirror image, down to the smallest fibre, so that the painting is indistinguishable from life.


Brightening later (Dorset-Hampshire border)

There is something strangely beautiful about a photorealistic painting. The knowledge that each perfect contour and mirror glow has been painstakingly added by layers of paint gives one a deep sense of awe. While the focus in modernism has often been the concept, the focus of photorealism is the creation. These priorities are not mutually exclusive, but, in this case, they do require different techniques.

The term ‘photorealism’ was first used in New York in 1968 by art dealer Louis K. Melsel. His definition followed the logic that the image must be transferred on to the canvas using a mechanical means, such as a projector, transfer paper or grid. Using a projector is a popular method because it is simple to adjust the size to fix the canvas surface.


Boats moored at Cowes

The artist will then be able to painstakingly recreate the image using the outline. Establishing the correct proportions is extremely important, so first a sketch is drawn of the image to be painted over later. This is followed by a rough under-painting, at first ignoring the detail to block out particular areas of colour.

The painting is then built in layers of glazes. Acrylic or oil paints are popular for this. It is essential that the artist selects the correct paints to match the hue and tone of the image projected or traced. This requires a profound knowledge of the paints being used to produce a picture-perfect tone.

With the correct proportions, paints, brushes and, most importantly, stores of stoic patience, the artist can produce a photo which is true to the eye, rather than the camera.

About Mark Mitchell

Dealers in 19th-20th Century British and Continental Works of Art
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