Photorealistic Painting Techniques


Photorealism or "superrealism" was an American art movement that began in the 1960s and peaked in the 1970s. The highly illusionistic genre attempted to reproduce the verisimilitude of photographs. Photorealism arose from the pop art movement and was a reaction to the achievements of minimalism, conceptual art and abstract expressionism, all of which veered away from realism and illusionistic techniques. Like the pop artists, photorealists often used commercial and advertising imagery as their subject matter, as well as scenes from everyday life.

Photorealistic Painting

  • Photorealistic painters employ many traditional techniques to achieve a sense of photographic hyper-realism in their works of art. They use cameras to produce reference images for their paintings. They then use mechanical or semi-mechanical methods to transfer the image onto a canvas. These techniques include the use of a projector, grid or transfer paper. The artists carefully observe the details of their images to create highly finished paintings with no visible brushstrokes or signs of the painting process.

General Techniques

  • Photorealist paintings are executed in steps, by an additive process of laying down layers of paint, one atop another. The painting begins with a highly detailed under-painting that establishes the value structure of the picture. Glazes of thinned transparent paint are smoothly brushed on, building up the colors and defining the three-dimensional forms with a technical precision. Every detail is meticulously painted with small pointed-tip round brushes. Each shadow and accented highlight is faithfully reproduced from the reference photograph.

Richard Estes

  • Richard Estes, along with Chuck Close, was one of the founders of the photorealism movement. He painted in a trompe l'oeil style reminiscent of 15th-century Italian Renaissance perspective painting. He employed the exacting techniques of the 17th-century Dutch Golden Age painters. Estes took color photographs, focusing on the effects of light reflected off glass storefronts and the windows of buildings. He drew the images directly onto the canvas, then carefully recorded the reflections in oil paint.

Chuck Close

  • Chuck Close based his mural-sized paintings on photographs of himself or his friends. He enlarged two of the photographs to an 11-inch by 14-inch size. He used a grid technique to further enlarge the scale of the image and transfer it onto his canvas. On one of the photos he drew a grid, numbering and lettering each square. He then painted each small square of the canvas, using the formal elements of design and color. Using both photographs as references, the artist completed the details of each square with acrylic paint and airbrush.

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