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Thinking Like A Realist

by Shawn Sullivan on 9/17/2010 9:08:36 AM

This post is by guest author, Shawn Sullivan.  This article has been edited and published with the author's permission. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

We've promoted this post to feature status because it provides great value to the FineArtViews community.  If you want your blog posts listed in the FineArtViews newsletter with the possibility of being republished to our 12,000+ subscribers,consider blogging with FASO Artist Websites.  This author's views are entirely his own and may not always reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.

What is a painting? Technically it's an object that has paint on it. In the early part of the twentieth century modernist painters attempted to come to terms with that fact by increasingly flattening the illusionistic space within their paintings. The logical conclusion of these efforts was Minimalism - where the object becomes the art. When you have an all white canvas all that can be discussed is the support, how it's mounted to the wall, even the brushstrokes themselves take on this object like quality.

The realist painter can never think of a painting as an object. It is all about the illusion. The painting is a window where things are to be viewed that exist on the other side of the picture plane. What the painting is painted on, the thickness of the brushstrokes, these things are all secondary to the success or failure of the illusion. Has the artist convincingly placed the viewer in the world of the painting?

One of the problems that the modernist critic has in recognizing contemporary realism is that they are unable to see past the picture plane. They want to talk about the realist painting as an object. How is it made? Are the brushstrokes thick or thin? Was it made by a man or a woman, or a person of color? They have lost the ability to enter into the space of a painting. They lack imagination.

Although the illusion of reality is the ultimate goal, it is not achieved in the same way in all paintings. Besides the illusion of depth, all realist paintings have what can be thought of as the artist's atmosphere, the air between the picture plane and the thing depicted. In some paintings this air is very crisp; there is a stillness, a pin dropping would sound like a gunshot. In other paintings the air is very thick. The things depicted are in a state of flux. Molecules are whirling, light is bouncing, nothing is what it seems. Of course there are thousands of variations between these two extremes. That's what the modernist critics are missing when they take a realist painting at face value. To them it's an object denying it's an object; a modernist sin.

Some realist painters think that if they play the modernist game they will be accepted. Their work will be relevant. They believe that adding a non-objective, abstract expressionist like background, or making a painting that comments on current events is a way to appease the modernist critic. The modernist critic will never accept realism because they simply cannot see it. Their way of looking at paintings as objects first is opposed to an illusionistic way of seeing. The realist painter who flattens the space of their paintings to seem avante garde is, in effect, killing the illusion and creating an object. Objects can be decorative. The best realist paintings never are. The realist painter who paints topical subject matter in an attempt to seem current has turned their painting into a document. A document is an object.

One of the differences between looking at a photograph and looking at a painting is that photographs always draw attention to their inherent flatness, even when they depict vast space. This is why paintings that are done from photographs often have that compressed space look to them. The camera does not see things in the same way that a human eye does. The camera does not perceive.

One of the problems that the internet age has caused for realist painters is the huge amount of paintings that are being viewed in a photographic state. When a photograph or digital image of a painting is presented, it also will struggle with that problem of inherent flatness. One can see this effect creeping into the work of contemporary realists where paintings are being made to look internet ready and the "air" of the painting is not being considered because in a reproduction it does not exist.

As realist painters, it is important to hold onto the qualities that make our way of seeing the world unique. It is important to go to museums and galleries and see great paintings firsthand. Stand before a work of art and dive into the space of a painting. Breathe the air that the artist breathed. Feel the warmth of the light as it washes through the painting.

A realist painting is not an object first and a painting second because a great painting is transcendent. It doesn't matter what the subject matter of the painting is because, ultimately, the subject is the artist striving to present their truth of the world and their attempt to come to grips with things that cannot be put into words.


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Judy Crowe
Wow what a great eye opening article. Thanks..

Helen Horn Musser
Judy, I agree, much meat to think on.

Diane Donicht Vestin
Relating to Shawn Sullivan's article:"Thinking Like a Realist", finally hit me on the noggin what we realist artists are really trying to say or to portray in a painting. I love to go to galleries and look at the old Rennesance paintings and see how the artist made something flat look 3D. It is something I try to achieve in my paintings. When people ask me "how did you do that?", I just tell them, I paint what I see. I don't have any other answers than that. They accept what I say with somewhat of a half description. I guess they were looking for more. Sorry. It's ALL I know. (for now)

Rhoda J Powers
Shawn, Thank you for your thoughts. At the outset when I read the title of this article I thought to myself it would be one of the few articles FineArtViews published that would not apply or be of interest to me as an abstract mixed media artist and sculptor. I was wrong and I am happy to have hung in there for the entire article.
Very interesting and enlightening!

John Smith
I found this article extremely interesting and compelling and in fact read it three times. I do however have a question, and that is... When you talk of realism do you mean photo-realism or do you include artists such as the Impressionists, because they too tried to create the illusion of space on a two dimensional surface. So did all the artists in between the super-realists and the impressionists and many of us now who do not really consider ourselves 'realists' in the true/original sense of the word?
I was very interested in what you said about 'air' in a painting and was very intrigued when reading of what Andrew Wyeth had to say about that very thing.
I believe it is so important for artists to understand the real nature of the things they are dealing with such as the air in painting, or the ethereal nature of clouds or mist. The nature and wetness of water, the solidity and denseness of rocks. How many painters paint rocks without thinking and understanding the intrinsic nature of for instance rocks, and ending up with objects looking as if they could be potatoes or paper packets. Anything but rocks?
The illusion is so important and I feel in many ways that the Impressionists did us some disservice when they started 'seeing' everything as opaque and dispensing with the very beautiful art of glazing, but did I guess retain the 'illusion' of transparency in some cases.

R Yvonne Colclasure
Thank you Shawn. First of all for putting a name to the kind of art I do, and secondly for explaining why my paintings never look the same when I post them online as they do in real life. This article has liberated me in so many ways. I love to portray (try to portray) nature as I see it and experience it. There is no greater reward for me than to lay colors and shapes on my support and see the landscape come alive before my eyes....on a good if by magic.

Interesting food for thought. I think, however, that the real issue modernists had with representational (I prefer that term over 'realism') was that against the context of two World Wars, they found it difficult to paint traditional subjects in the traditional way with any emotional conviction. I also disagree that the subject doesn't matter; sometimes it does. Too much of representational work that is popular today is lacking is subject matter of real honesty and substance, regardless of how technically brilliant the execution. I don't think putting form over content is a desirable direction for representational art, but that seems to be increasingly prevalent and reinforced.

Daniel Edmondson
Great Post! Thank you I needed that today.

Esther J. Williams
Shawn, you discuss an interesting school of thought in your opinion of realism being addressed by the modernism critics. If by modernism you mean economy, then it is purely the opposite of realism in style. Two schools of thought go into creating these works as I am sure you realize. A modernist critic needs to understand the fundamentals of art in all styles or he/she is being biased. I definitely have seen examples of biased judges, curators, collectors and artists. But, it is possible to have depth in a modernist work with choices of colors, warm to cool or large to small forms in space, even values. I am not a economy or modernist painter, I am an impressionist and in order to abstract from all the details of realism, I have to simplify my imagery into forms or shapes which I know modern artists do. That is the illusion. As you state, we am creating an illusion, not completely being realistic. Still, I have to make the whole painting work and be believable by fusing shapes with either shapes of color values, lines receding, depth of atmosphere, etc... I have painted in the realism style and greatly appreciate it. Since I lived near NYC back in the 70`s and went to the major museums, I came to accept all styles of art. I see what you are talking about when you say a modernist critic who wants complete simplicity and flatness can not see into the picture plane, but it's not all of them. If they studied the organization and fundamentals of art, then those critics will see a great painting if it has unity of line, shape, value, color and texture. I love art in all forms and can straddle the beam that connects it all, the desire to paint and express creativity. I just wish all critics and judges would take the time to read up on styles of art in college level books to learn to familiarize and appreciate the many different styles or expressions of art. Based on reality, we are all defined by different experiences and interests which can color our world or put the blinders on.
I really enjoyed reading this article, food for thought to start my day.

Helen Horn Musser
Hi Easther I am thinking about modernist or modernity. We must all be modernist because we paint in present times. Even though our styles may differ in many ways we live in a modern age. Artist such as Monet lived in the impressionistic age. Picasso helped usher in modernity.

Helen, I agree totally: Art produced now is modern by the fact that is a product of this present time. My work is representation, it always has been and probably mostly always will be. Nevertheless, I have done some reading from a modernist perspective because I wanted to try and understand what that perspective was. What I took away from it was that modernists wanted not to present the illusion of reality, but to transcend reality, to get to levels beyond an illusion of reality. Was this a worthwhile pursuit? I sure don't know, but I can't help but admire their desire to try.

Sophie Ploeg
A great article. I agree with all of it, except what is said about photography. I don”™t think photos always draws attention to its flatness.....there are some amazing photographers out there.
I do believe galleries these days are full of these artists that ”?play the modernist”™ game. All very decorative and ”?soulless”™. And then the talk about brushstrokes....oh yes. “how did you do that”....that question pops up a if this is some sort of craft you can learn from a book.
Great article.

Esther J. Williams
Helen, I studied Picasso for years and have been inspired by his art. Picasso borrowed the expression of form from Cezanne who was an impressionist. There are many modern artists we can learn from but we have to look back at the masters in addition to going forward. Hindsight is 20/20 in art styles. Today we are changing styles as we create each painting. Just look at all the art on the internet in every museum, gallery and juried exhibition, we are evolving. Just the same, traditional art will never go away just like the church, it is embedded in humanity. Modern art is what changes with the times and it does enhance traditional art in newly learned techniques. Art is form and as artists, we see form as art. The individual ways we express that desire to make art is what makes life so full of variety and passion. Modern art can be looked upon as a divorce from nature which representational artists love to render. There is a combination of both on the current market that seems to be trendy.
I am off to deliver some of my latest impressionist works of art to a gallery. One is more French impressionist and the next one is my latest take on impressionism for the future. It is a new birth!

Helen Horn Musser
Kim, thank you for your comment and I am not sure about the pursuit; Broque's work, for me, transcends reality.When I think about it I'm not sure about others who in one way or another followed his lead but, failed to do the same. I believe realism or representationalism can transcend reality,too. It is in the spirit of the artist to put more in the painting than the subject. But, the illusion is still there.

Helen Horn Musser
Easther, Congratulations on your new works!

Tuva Stephens
Interesting article and comments on this subject! Everyone sounds so intellectual!!! Love it!

John Smith
My view on photography versus painting is that people are generally very forgiving of s photograph no matter how well or badly its taken. 'It's a photo and therefore its 'fine' just the way it is".
When its a painting people become critical and everyone becomes an authority and a critic. So in a photo 'flat and opaque'is fine but not necessarily the case with painting.
The other thing about a photo print is that it is not as things really are in nature.(WE overlook that) The photo print unlike a slide is always opaque. However nature is a mix of opaque and transparent as is the case with pigment. If we are trying in some way to emulate nature as in realism we need to understand how nature works before we can paint it accurately. What is happening now, even with realists, is that they are copying opaque prints exactly, (The non en-situ painters that is)as they are, and not copying nature. Am I correct or not?
Pictures taken on digitals and shown on a monitor are far better than the old photo print to work from. However many artists are printing them off and using the opaque copy and making print like pictures. That is my thinking for what it's worth

Helen Horn Musser
John, enjoyed your assessment of this post. I too was taken by it's very interesting content. Thank you for throwing more light on the issues.

Jo Allebach
Thank you ever so much. I knew what I was wanting to express in my representational art and now I feel even more confident that I am on the right track. I truly have an aversion to the flat look and now I know why. Thanks again, I loved the article.

Esther J. Williams
Helen, thanks so much. John, I paint sometimes in my art studio from a monitor, never from a printed photo, but I would not be opposed to it. Especially if it is printed from my camera, I own a dSLR Cannon EOS 500D with a $1,500 lens that is knock-down fantastic. The images I get to take with this camera and lens give me an exact image of what I see in depth perspective, the values, the colors, etc.. I upgraded to the best and it pays off in the studio and for archival prints of my originals. The infrared beams in this camera shoot out and take into account the 3 dimensional scenery. Depending on the lens attachments, one can achieve all types of atmosphere, wide angles, fish eye views. Then you have Photoshop, I can reduce values in the background to create more depth and perspective. If I was not an artist, I would be selling my photos, I have before. A professional photographer doesn`t just take a photo and print it out, they do many alterations and adjustments to make that scene pop like it`s 3D. I have been to seminars on how to print like a pro and learned many tricks, it`s a fascinating trade.
An artist can achieve transparency in oils by painting thin in the dark shadows or dragging the end of a brush through the dark values to scrape away some of the thicker paint. Watercolors are the best for transparency. Tuva , you know that. I love botanical florals and herbs in watercolor.
Now, I am going off to paint in the wilderness, bye!

Nancy Pingree Hoover
Shawn, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! Your words are exactly what so many people need to hear. I'm so tired of "artsy" people (including other artists) who keep saying that realism is nothing more than illustration. It's not "real" art, like abstract art or impressionism at least that's what some have said to me). The words in your article are exactly what I have tried to say to people for years now, but you said it so much better! Bravo!


Tuva Stephens
Watercolors are great for creating the illusion of realism and can be manipulated to create expressive and emotional qualities. Sometimes when using a photo I manipulate the image to see into the dark shadows that may look flat. I saw my name Esther and thought I had to comment!! I just had a great time creating the variety of texture on my new realist painting, Tiggy (an iguana, a museum mascot in Clarksivlle's Custom House Museum) that challenged me to go beyond what I thought I could ever do with watercolor.

Helen Horn Musser
Nancy, Kudos for you; I agree completely

Donna Robillard
I loved reading this article. I am a realist artist, and I try to paint beyond flat - to make it seem real to the touch. This was very encouraging. Thank you.

John Smith
Thanks Helen. It is an interesting post, but then so are most of them and they really stretch ones thinking -great stuff! :}

Jo Allebach
yes, this article really says what I could not put into words before. Now I can explain how I feel about my representational art as opposed to the abstract or sign/statement art.

Marcel Franquelin
Thank you for putting into words such truth! I will make sure my students read this.

max hulse
Shawn What a compelling column. You have
given me answers to questions I had never thought
to ask.

Good work.

Max Hulse

Joanne Benson
Hi Shawn,
Thanks for your great insights. I had never thought of the word illusion when referencing my representational paintings but it certainly does apply!

Maureen Sharkey
Scrumpdidilyishous article!

After viewing your artwork, I can see the illusion of depth and breath the air---yes, too bad it flattens in cyberspace--but I could imagine the depth your paintings must have-- hoping to see them sometime in person.

I don't understand why paintings with depth would flatten when reproduced---for the artist painted flat, but created depth on flat suface.

Thanks so much for the deep and cool words. Great material for defending our paintings against the critics.

One other thing--I think if us artists painted what we would like to see up on our walls in our living rooms--that we would be paintings works that would appeal to a mass market. But alas, many paint just ideas. Not good ideas. Just ideas.

Donna Robillard
Very good reading! I love trying to make the painting look as if you could just jump into it. That's what realism is to me.

Carole Rodrigue
I paint realism and each painting is a learning process. This article is very timely. Just last week I was finally understanding how some realism doesn't translate well into reproductions, like your article describes. I finally came to understand on another level the importance of painting the air and how this just isn't always captured. Thank you for the great insight!

Keith Bond
Beautifully written.

Spencer Meagher
"This is why paintings that are done from photographs often have that compressed space look to them. The camera does not see things in the same way that a human eye does. The camera does not perceive."

What a great analogy. I had considered this but not to the degree stated here. Thanks for the insight. It is a caution about relying to heavily on photographs.

Sophie Ploeg
I don”™t think my paintings have a compressed space look to them.....;-)

Sharon Weaver
Mastering Photoshop or Gimp is now a necessity for every artist. The internet and art competitions require a fantastic jpeg image. I sometimes wonder if the best painting wins or the photo by the artist who has mastered the ins and outs of Photoshop. We really have to be on top of all the technical stuff too in order to survive.


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