Friday, July 4, 2008

Realism and its Synonyms

We’re living in the midst of a resurgence of realism in painting. At the same time there’s a revolution in realistic CGI animation and digital effects. I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at the various words that we use to describe art that looks real.

Trompe l'œil
Art whose purpose is to deceive the viewer into believing he or she is looking at an actual, dimensional scene. Above, museum diorama backdrop by James Perry Wilson.

The close resemblance between the object or scene and its portrayal. Also, illusionism. Above, detail by Ludwig Deutsch.

Art whose goal is to represent the real world truthfully and objectively, based on close observation of commonplace details and contemporary life. Above, portrait of a peasant by Ivan Kramskoy.

A movement in art to represent the world according to objective scientific principles.

The resemblance of a work of art to particular qualities of photographic representation. Above, a simulation from CryEngine 2.

The quality of conforming to the observer’s experience or understanding of the world.

Versimilitude is the narrowest word, meaning simply holding a mirror up to reality. Trompe l'œil is a special kind of verisimilitude found in museum dioramas, sidewalk art, and still life. It always requires a specific viewing angle, size, position, and lighting to achieve its ideal effect.

Naturalism could be present in any kind of painting, including a fantasy image, but it depends on the adherance to rational rules of light and color found in nature, rather than contrived or artificial effects.

Photorealism, (used here in the broad sense, not just the art movement), refers to a kind of realism that borrows specific effects from photography, rather than simulating human perception. As blog reader Denis Loubet has pointed out on the recent GJ post on HDR photography, video games deliberately use photographic effects.

Believability is a subjective quality. A work is believable if it “feels right,” even if it’s not realistic in a photographic sense. The way cars explode in movies doesn’t happen that way in real life, but it’s more convincing than a film of the real event. Animators and caricaturists are primarily interested in this kind of non-literal truthfulness.

The word “realism” has the broadest, richest, and most contradictory meaning. Historically it includes Courbet and the Impressionists because of their insistence on painting the humdrum world around them. Ironically, despite their expressed intention to be scientific, the realism of the Impressionists departed more and more from verisimilitude and became increasingly subjective. The quality of realism that seeks out commonplace subjects lives on in contemporary paintings of telephone poles and fast food signs.

Central to the realist tradition is the reaction to Romanticism and Classicism and the resistance to schemata, conventionalism, and idealization. Instead, artists are encouraged to base their art on concrete, direct observations of the world around them.
Sidewalk Illusion drawings, link.
Recommended reading: Realism by Linda Nochlin, link.
Lines and Colors post on sidewalk illusions, link.
CryEngine gallery of digital photorealistic effects, link.


Erik Bongers said...

I had to re-read the last paragraph because initially I interpreted 'Realism is based on observation' just technically.
Of course, if you place Romanticism and Classicism in opposition to Realism that didn't make sense to me, as Romanticism and Classicism are quite realisticly rendered (to use a CG term) in comparison to say, Impressionism.

But indeed, in a broader interpretation of Realism (e.g. Social Realism) this makes perfect sense. In fact, that's the way I learned it at school!

My initial confusion shows that the word 'Realism' is indeed subject to broad, narrow and even contradictory interpretations.
I guess many other art classifications show similar limits and contradictions.

Dianne Mize said...

Good discussion. I couldn't help but grin at your concluding sentence because in art school in the 60's we were taught that realism was over, dead, a thing of the past. We were put in front of a nude model and instructed to draw his/her essence, form, possibilities. We were taught to be inventive. But verisimilitude was forbidden.

Nowadays, surrounded by plein air painters and devotees to painting what they see, I'm still in a state of total disbelief.

Oh, and in the 60's they told us God is Dead. Wonder if there's any parallel?

James Gurney said...

Erik, yes, from our post-modernist perspective, Realism, Classicism and Romanticism all seem like bedfellows, and we can see the overlaps, but in the mid-19th century, the lines were more sharply drawn. It wasn't so much an issue of degrees of verisimilitude as what subjects were considered fitting for the artist.

Dianne, you are so right, and your comment reminds me of an old saying: "When art is in trouble, realism comes to the rescue."

Unknown said...

My favorite photo-realist is Chuck Close. He painted from photos and deliberately included the distortions that photography brings. His first great work is below, a self-portrait about 7 foot tall

He later made paintings using a process similar to color photo developing. He would paint an entire portrait in yellow, then go over it with blue, then magenta. The resulting image was breathtaking in its photo-realism. I have a video of him and it's amazing to watch him work.

His recent work is abstract, but still based on the photo. Each square of the grid he paints on is a miniature abstract painting, but viewed from a distance, it looks like a color photo.

On top of that, he works from a wheelchair now, with the brushes strapped to his wrists, due to a health incident in his life 20 years ago.

Unknown said...

I'd always understood naturalism to mean fairly true to nature as opposed to strict realism. Looking up your terms I see I was wrong. I have such trouble untangling 19th and 20th century styles from ideologies.

wargolth said...

Really good pictures but I don't still know if it is your artwork or it was simply a show of others to explain the different tendencies.

Mr Atrocity said...

You might imagine that in CG, especially for film visual effects (how I earn my bread and butter) a very "simulated" approach to rendering would apply but actually that's often not the case. More often than not we tweak, or completely dis-obey the laws of lighting reality to create a more pleasing aesthetic effect. It still looks believable of course, but it's amazing how far into deviating from simulated reality you can go before it looks wrong. Quite often it is "painting with light", albeit CG lights.

Garrett said...

Even though this is an old post....

This is a great article Mr Gurney!

I've always thought 'Realism' should refer more to the ideology of the work. For example what binds 'Social realism' together is not the style of painting, which varies, but the content (the struggle of the everyman or something pertaining to actual, lived experience). If we go by this definition we aren't limited to painting- Damien Hirst and Duchamp are 'realists' in this sense.

I would add the term 'illusionism' to this list to specifically refer to the simulation of visual experience (light, color, and linear perspective). I suppose this term is covered by naturalism, but since it isn't bound to a particular time-period it can be helpful and can cross a broad number of mediums- 3D films, dioramas, paintings, sculpture and some photography.

Also perhaps 'mannerism' could be said refer to modern animated films like shrek, ect..