“Artist’s extraordinary detailed works of ‘hyper-realistic’ paintings that look like photographs”; “Look again! super realistic paintings that look like photographs”; “These aren’t photos: hyper-realistic paintings”. We have all probably seen these kinds of headlines for a news article about an artist. It is great publicity for an artist hungry for recognition. But if my paintings were described as looking like photographs, I would feel that I have failed as a painter.

One fine warm evening, my husband and I were strolling in the North Beach area of San Francisco, when we happened to pass by an art gallery that was still open. Through the open door, we could see an artist seated at his easel painting a copy of an enlarged photograph suspended next to the canvas. Despite doing this public live demonstration, the artist was very focused and intent on copying the fine details that would result in a photo-realistic painting; much like the paintings hung on the walls of the gallery. I could not help but think: this is supposed to be art?

It is ironic, and a little sad, that the photograph, which was once thought as a rival replacement for painting, is now the basis for a lot of artists’ “hyper-realistic” or “photo-realistic” work.  They are meticulously copying photographs or emulating photos to obtain a photo-realistic image. Why bother? There are millions of amateur or professional photographers, as well as ordinary people, who could Photoshop their way to stardom in the art world if “photo-realism” is the new standard.

This is not to say that using a photograph as a basis for a painting is a bad thing. Photographs have been used by artists for reference since the media was invented. Even Vermeer was thought to have used a camera obscura to create his realistic paintings. There are many representational artists today who are horrified at the thought of painting from photos, and adamantly refuse to use any photographic reference, preferring to paint only from life. That is the “purist” extreme, which has its merits as an argument for maintaining painting as a solely human wrought work of art.

Then there is the more centrist position, of which I am a member, that uses some photographic reference as well as painting directly from life.  I try to create paintings with dimension, volume, and detail that look realistic, but are still identifiable as a painting.  Certainly, I use photos as reference at times and make no excuses for it. I take a lot of my own photos to use as reference, which saves a model the pain of holding a pose for days or captures a still life without racing to paint before the flowers wilt or the fruit rots. Photos can be very useful tool for artists. But using a photograph as a basic reference for a painting, vs. slavishly copying every detail of a photograph to produce an exact copy, are two very different things.

If you study the images of many photo-realistic paintings, you will quickly see that they tend to be flat, shallow in perspective, and sometimes a bit stiff with sharp or blurry edges, just like a photo. When using photos as a reference, there are ways to compensate for what the camera produces and paint a more realistic image with natural depth and ‘life’. Certainly, using painterly brushstrokes in an expressive style also adds to a painting by demonstrating the artist’s mastery. Yet some of  these painters slavishly copy the images from photographs – regardless of how creative the photo – resulting in a rather flat or poster-like image.  Not to take away from these artists’ mechanical skills, but where is their creativity and artistic truth?

“Wow, it looks like a photograph”, has become the highest compliment for some painters. Sadly, the public has come to see these kinds of photo-realistic paintings as the standard for “real art” or what is a good painting. Our society is bombarded with digital images every day, so people have come to recognize only photo-realistic images as valid, even in art. Really?  So, artists like Rembrandt, Velasquez, Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Sargent,  Carriera, etc., were just talented amateurs that might have been really great artists if they had worked from or copied photographs?  In this digital and technologically enhanced age, it would be really unfortunate for our culture to lose the humanity and true artistic value of creating realistic paintings to the tedious mechanical reproduction of photographic images as fine art.