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Thoughts About Realism ... (from a Realist!)

Updated: Jan 23, 2023


"Three Stinking Roses" (6.5" x 8.5" on Arches 140#), 2018

I will begin this blog post by stating right away, this is not meant to offend anyone. That said, it most likely will.

I know many artists who have shared their opinions about realistic art with me, letting me know their opinion: “REALISM IS NOT ART.” Whatever happened to the idea that you can’t confine art to a box?

I've always had a fascination with amazingly beautiful paintings that capture reality. I can’t find the quote anymore, but I believe, to paraphrase Da Vinci, the highest form of praise one can give the Creator is imitation in art. This resonates with my own ideas related to my form of artistic expression. I am so committed to the idea that my ability is God-given, that my goal is to depict, in fact, to copy, the natural beauty of the world God created … it’s the only way I will ever choose to paint. This is not to say I don’t appreciate modern, post-modern, contemporary, “loose,” impressionist, or expressionist art forms — quite the contrary! I do! I mean, Monet’s Water Lilies… what’s not to love?! I just wish (in a “perfect world”) that people would appreciate those of us who attempt to paint realistically, and leave us to it!

 

A bit of background here: My first semester of college, I was new to the Midwest. My parents had moved us to Missouri from our California home shortly after my high-school graduation. I began attending a small church-owned college right on the Missouri River, called Park College. The campus was gorgeous, especially in autumn, but I was miserable. The only faculty art professor was a strange, quirky little man who was pretty renowned in Missouri, a former student and then faculty member of the Kansas City Art Institute. He had once long ago worked side-by-side the famous Thomas Hart Benton (who was a “shirt-tail” cousin to my maternal grandmother, descended from John Hart, the Signer). This art professor scared me. (I even had nightmares about him on occasion!) We who had registered for his art class that Fall had been requested to provide him with a few samples of our work, on slides. I had been learning to paint trompe l’oeil still-life pieces in high school in California — received the Bank of America Fine Arts Award for my school — as well as the Hoover High School Art Departmental Award — and many accolades. I knew my art was not bad. I had been told so by those in the know, yet, on the first day of the packed art class at Park College, when our instructor got to the few slides of my best work, he openly laughed. “This is not art!” he loudly ridiculed. “If you want a realistic photo of something, go grab a damn camera!” He then addressed me personally and told me he was going to “mold and shape me” into the artist I ought to be! (Yeah … a “mini-him” I said in my head. No thank you! His art was extreme and "out there." A far cry away from the style I was obsessed with perfecting.)

I left the classroom humiliated and in tears, as I walked down the campus sidewalks, right into the Administration building ... where I dropped my art class. (I still had to see that art professor, often, as he was also my English professor! Yes, he did apologize to me … in his own quirky way. He scared me less and less, the more I got to know him, but I was so sad not to be in an art class of any kind, for the first time in years.) So, at semester break, I transferred to our “other church college” in the tiny little community of Lamoni, Iowa, to Graceland College, now a university. Its claim to fame was Olympic medalist Bruce Jenner who had attended there a few years before.

My Graceland College art professor had known the Park College art instructor well — and pretty much despised him. He was kind to me, and we shared a bond, having undergone a similar experience. This man loved all forms of art, and he loved my art, and was greatly encouraging of my artistic growth, no matter what style I pursued.

 

"Tiny Dancer" (20" x 15" on Arches 300#), 2014 (Sold)

Let’s talk about realism, shall we? Back in 2014, I heard a certain very expressionistic art judge give a speech at a big local show in which I had pieces, wherein he stated he refused to give a top award to any painting for which he could tell a photo reference was used. What?

I had never heard such a brazen, biased remark! It really stung, and I was more than a bit upset, along with many other artists in the show. Happily, my realistic portrait of a little ballerina, which sold in the show, was awarded the “People’s Choice” ribbon in the final hours of the exhibition, after this judge had ignored it. The people spoke — they always do— when an art judge makes a mean-spirited decision based entirely on his or her own bias.

 

So why this misinformation regarding the use of photo-references as guides for great paintings? The way I see it, a photo is just that — a guide. I believe it’s little understood by those of a “looser bent” to their artistic style, that we who attempt and achieve realism, think of our cameras as a wonderful artistic tool. I am a passionate, part-time, amateur photographer. For example, after three weeks in Italy in 2015, I came home with over 15,000 photos! Most often when I press the shutter-button on my SLR Canon EOS, I have taken the time to select my F-stop, shutter-speed, and ISO-speed for optimum light effects, whether that be “blown out” or stopped-down for more dramatic shadows, or saturated color. I am framing my shot for optimal composition, and I am using the “Bokeh” effect of my long lens to blur the background, creatively optimizing the depth of field. Often all of these decisions have to take place in mere seconds, so it’s common to end up with 20 or more shots of the same scene, in order to get that one special, perfect shot that inspires a great painting.

I will then remove components of the background, or foreground, or pattern (on clothing, for example), or I will add more light, shadow, color ... or diminish the color saturation in a given area; therefore, my camera has been used as an amazing initial tool in my long process, but my painting no longer resembles my photo-reference in many important ways. I, as the artist have the ability to enhance every desirable feature of my photo reference in order to make the painting much better than the photo ever could be. It’s never a situation of “copying exact” … yet, that is the accusation by those opposed to realism, by people who never even saw my photo reference.

 

A few years ago a fellow artist who paints very expressionistically told me they really loved what I was doing with my portraits … but could not wait to see what I was going to do ten years down the road, when I “loosened up!” I didn’t even know how to respond to that, so I remember just walking away.

Why is it that many contemporary artists feel that to display “growth” or “maturity” in an artist’s work, they must become “looser”? Why? Can I not express growth by continuing to pursue the perfection of realism? Can I not stay “in my lane” and just be happy? I have another artist friend who can paint anyone under the table … and her realism is amazing! However, she grew weary of the realistic style several years ago, and said she was becoming bored. Realism no longer challenged her … or excited her, so she “ turned around mid-stream” and began painting in a completely different style. She now creates wonderfully fun, whimsical characters, and there is little to no realism in her paintings. I applaud her because she is having fun, and she has found her passion for art again. It's taken her a while to pave her new artistic path, and find acceptance away from her old style of realism, but she’s there now and so happy! So I will restate my very opinionated opinion: I am happy with the path I’m on too!

All I ask is that my chosen style of Realism is respected, not put down as antiquated, uneducated, or artistically immature. Realism is an art-form just as worthy of respect and admiration in the art community as any other creative style. Oh, how I wish more art judges felt this way … but sadly, they do not.

 

Oh well, I’ve had my say now, so thank you for hanging in there for this one! (Can you tell this is a sort of "hot spot" for me?!) At least I find myself in very good company. When the 19th-century French oil-painting master, William A. Bouguereau, won the “Prix de Rome” and became one of the best selling artists in Europe, the age of Impressionism/

Expressionism had dawned around him, and he was looked down on and shunned by most of his peers for stubbornly refusing to “join the movement and loosen his style." His name was actually used as a curse-word for labeling something as “inferior art.” It was said that a piece of bad art had been “bouguereau’d” -- a word that was spit out of the mouth with great sarcasm and disdain, yet he never wavered in his realistic approach to painting the human ideal. He lived and died a Realist.

Bouguereau and I would have been great friends, I think.

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