Realistic Painting: Is It Real?

Leo Segedin   |  June 14, 2019 |   Print this essay


For many artists and philosophers over the last 2,000 years, the relation between what we see and inconsistent assumptions about reality has made any kind of realistic representation problematic. For many, the appearance of the world is reality; for others, appearance is ephemeral, that underlying such phenomena there must be some more fundamental reality.

For Plato, true reality is a creation of God. Since the world itself is a copy of true reality, a copy of its appearance is an Imitation of an Imitation. And, since appearance is illusion, it cannot be real. Thus, Images can never represent true reality. For the ancient Greek and Roman sculptors, appearance could be represented, but improved by using standards set by true reality. When Baroque and Rococo artists of the 17th century recognized that perception was a brain process, they transferred their emphasis on the external world to the mental processes of the artist. They believed that images should improve appearance by applying standards of perfection determined mental conceptions of beauty. The Expressionists of the early 20th century thought that images should distort appearance to represent the artist's emotions, the abstractionists of the 20th century, that images should ignore appearance altogether and represent the intangible and theoretical, existing in the realms of mind and spirit, rather than in outer reality.

What is reality to contemporary realistic painters? According to Wikipedia:

Realism, sometimes called naturalism, in the arts is generally the attempt to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions, or implausible, exotic, and supernatural elements.
Also, on the internet:
Mostly, realistic art is the capturing moment through painting, because in early ages they lacked cameras, but still also realistic paintings are made.
The assumption underlying these definitions is that reality is the appearance of things. Realistic painting represents what we see. So true reality is an accurate description of the way things look, rather than the realization of any deeper reality, the artist's style, personal perception or abstract, idealistic principle.

We are most familiar with images based on such ideas of vision. We believe that what we see is real. We believe that what we see on TV and in newspaper photographs is true if it has not been manipulated. Although we accept non-visual representations or distortions such as that in masks, cartoons, maps and diagrams, we are likely to believe that images not based on vision are unskilled, primitive, unsophisticated or crude. The dominant tradition in Western painting between 1400 and 1900 has been based on descriptions of visual phenomena. Even after 1900, when painting began to explore non-visual concepts, photography continued the traditional belief that reality was what we saw. No other culture, with the exception of the Greeks and Romans, has been so interested in describing visual experience.

But perception is intrinsically selective. No artist can see and record all the visual phenomena available to him. He chooses, consciously or unconsciously, what to see and, thus, represents only certain aspects of what is there. An artist's assumptions about what he sees is an important aspect of what his realistic painting will look like.

Artists, starting in the Renaissance, saw a stable world of solid, colored objects in three- dimensional space. Light shone on them. One side of the object was in light the other side, in shadow, thereby revealing their three-dimensional form. Color was on the surface of objects, an icing on the cake and was a secondary quality, not essential to the representation of solid objects. Originally, variations in light and atmosphere were irrelevant. It was taken for granted that in order to represent this reality objectively, neither the objects nor the eye could move.

But Impressionist painters, at the end of the 19th century, saw the world differently. Instead of assuming the solidity of objects, they relied on the sensations of their perception. Their representations were based on the idea that what we know of the outside world is based on sensory experience. What we see are light rays which stimulate the retinas of our eyes. Light rays are of different length, each different length stimulating a different color sensation. Light rays come from everywhere, not just from the light part of the object. Light has color, but so do the shadows. Light conditions constantly change, changing color. The colors we see are not on the objects, but are a result of a mixture of sensations in the retinas of our eyes. Thus, for most Impressionists, the perception of color was the basic condition for seeing reality.

Compare the two visual worlds which result from these two, opposing assumptions. In the first, the world is stable, solid and permanent: in the second, the world is in a constant state of flux. In the first, the world exists independent of man; in the second, it exists in man's perception of it. Color, in the first, is on the object; in the second, it is in the eye. In the first, color is of secondary importance; in the second, it is its essential aspect and reality cannot exist without it.

A painting based on the first will consist primarily of darks and lights with color being a later addition. A painting based on the second would consist of dabs of paint of different colors indicating different color sensations. The first could use black; the second would not. The first could use lines indicating edges; the second wouldn't. An artist embracing the second would likely paint out of doors; an artist painting the first could take as long as he liked to finish it in a studio. The second would have to finish it rapidly before the light conditions changed. An artist painting the first would look for the more permanent aspects of what he saw, ignoring such things as fog, rain, smoke and other atmospheric conditions. An artist painting the second would search out just those transitory phenomena. A spectator viewing the first could stand close to the painting; a spectator viewing the second would have to stand back so that the colors would fuse in his eyes.

Complicating this assumption was the recognition that perception consists of more than color perception; it also records patterns of dark and light. Nineteenth century, black and white photography, which influenced Impressionist painters, recorded only such patterns. Manet based his paintings on such photographic perceptions, and, accordingly, could use black in his paintings.

So, even though a painting is based on observation, different assumptions by painters lead to different kinds of representations. What we call realistic painting, thus, is really a selection from all possible visual experience.

The world does not look the same to everyone. Although both Da Vinci and Thomas Eakins are realistic painters, their works do not look alike because they did not see the same thing. They represented different aspects of their perceptual environment. For example, Whistler and Durer represented what they saw, but Whistler saw the fogs which blurred the appearance of objects and Durer focused on details of objects which could only be seen clearly with close study in clear light.

Western realistic painting has a history in which artists as stylistically different as Lorrain, Ruisdael, Hopper, Constable, Whistler and Turner all represented what they saw, but selected different things to see. While Renaissance artists ignored atmospheric differences, Post Renaissance artists focused on the variables of light, the time of day, whether the day was sunny, cloudy or foggy. Different locations had different qualities of light. They noticed that the light in Spain, Venice and London was different. Some artists preferred the bright, Mediterranean light of the south of France to the grey fogs of London. Some tried to catch the moment when the light was just right.


How realistic is any kind of representation? On a most fundamental level, there is no similarity between a painting and what it represents. A painting is an object made out of paint and canvas or panel. It is two-dimensional, the world is three- dimensional. A painting is smaller or larger than what it represents. It cuts a rectangular shape out of infinite space. And, most important, realistic painting is illusionary in that we look at one thing and see another. We look at paint on canvas and see people, trees, and mountains. Representations, meanings and values are not intrinsic to the painting, but must be projected into it. An observer of a painting brings to it, not only his inherent perceptual skills, modified by experience, but also his acquired ability to see relationships of colored paint as equivalent to relations of colored light in nature. As with Magritte, his painting of a pipe titled This is not a pipe, is not a pipe.

In realistic painting, the illusion of objects in three- dimensional space distorts their true, physical reality. Objects faraway look smaller than those close up, even though they really may be the same size. Parallel lines on the ground appear to converge in the distance, but they really don't. One side of an object appears darker than the other in light, but it isn't. Distant mountains appear to be blue, but they aren't. There are no lines surrounding objects as seen in drawings.

Like most people of their time, realist painters assumed that the camera was an objective recorder of reality, but, like painting, a photograph is not similar to what it represents. It also is flat, can be much larger or smaller than its subject; it can be black and white. It can be a partial image of its subject. The photographer manipulates the image in choosing the film, print paper, lens and lens openings. Now, with modern technologies, all kinds of new things can be done to such images. Photographs can be digitally manipulated, so that what looks real may not reflect anything that actually exists. Photographs look like photographs in the same way that paintings look like paintings. In this sense, also, all realistic painting and photography can be considered to be as conventional as Byzantine painting. All two-dimensional representations of three-dimensional subjects must be conventional.


Reality is more than what we see. The world doesn't disappear when we close our eyes; the world is just as real to a blind person as it is for a person with sight. Underlying the transitory aspects of appearance are the more permanent aspects of objects, what remains when there is no light and no one to see them. Despite our generally unquestioned belief that images based on vision, such as photography, can be accurate representations of reality, we all have many significant experiences which are not derived from what we see. In fact, no culture in history beside that of the Western world has felt that visual experience is especially important. Most have felt that what we see is superficial, more apparent than real. For most, true reality lay beneath the appearance of things. They placed less value on the look of things, and more on their meanings and values. Children also will tend to represent what they find significant in their lives rather than what they see.

On a personal level, we know much about the world by non-visual experiences. What blind people know is no less true or real than what sighted people know. For example, we can tell the shape of things by manipulating them in our hands, by running our fingers over them. We can know space by moving our hands and bodies through it. We have loves, hates, passions. We experience the passage of time. We can know of several events occurring at the same time in different places and imagine events which occurred in the past. We can know about the inside of things, even though we can't see it. We can know about the spatial relationship between New York and Moscow, the population of Chicago in 1962 as compared to 1972 and the layout of a school building. This information is real, but none of it is visual. It is rather conceptual, tactile, kinesthetic or emotional. This kind of realistic information can be represented in images.

In everyday experiences, consider what we know about the shapes of familiar things. For example, what is the shape of your hand? You can look at it from an infinite number of viewpoints, but when you come to deciding what its shape really is, you will always think of it as the shape of your palm. When you think of the shape of an eye, you will always think of it as an almond shape, its front view, whereas when you think of a nose, you will think of it as a triangle, its side view. Shoulders are thought of from their front view and feet their side view. Think of the shapes of fish, swans, peacocks, cups and saucers, buildings and streets, nuts and bolts and you will find that regardless of the number of angles from which you view these objects, the aspects which stay in your mind are the ones you may see less often, but are easiest to recognize, remember and represent. We can never see a human figure in all of its significant aspects at one time from any one single viewpoint. We know the most characteristic shapes of things even when we cannot see them.

We generally associate size with importance even though the real size may be average or insignificant. We may know of big politicians who are five feet tall with pee-wee brains. In image-making, this size exaggeration is used to indicate significance. Images of Christ, kings, emperors and pharaohs or important characters in a story will be made larger than servants, followers or ordinary people.

We know we are standing on the ground without having to look down and see. We can feel it through our feet and are aware that it extends in any direction we walk. Most children, and non-Western people will represent that experience of the ground rather than Its visual appearance from a viewpoint. They will do this by describing the ground as a line and representing everything on the ground as perpendicular to it. Most objects represented by their significant profiles will have such baselines. A significant contour line can sometimes be used as a baseline as in a case where people are standing on a mountainside or around a pool. Baselines can be stacked one above another to indicate some objects behind the others or at different times or places.

We can know of several events occurring simultaneously in different places or sequentially at different times as in a narrative. These kinds of events can also be represented by arranging them on baselines. Baselines were used by such cultures as the Medieval and Egyptian. Children also use them.

Ordinary perspective assumes that the viewer's eyes don't move, but this is not the normal way we experience space. We usually move through space and around objects. Our perception constantly shifts and refocuses. We conceive of objects, especially geometric ones, better from some positions than others. When we try to represent such experience of objects, we find that we cannot do so by describing their appearance from a single viewpoint as we do from ordinary perspective. Thus, several different viewpoints can be used in one picture. Such mixed perspective can be found in Medieval, Byzantine, Persian and Cubist art.


Although people often respond to representations as if they were what they represent, a representation is not what it represents. It is a man-made object, reflecting the artist's intentions and the characteristics of materials out of which it is made. The artist's intentions include creating illusions of appearance. A realistic painting describing appearance is a two-dimensional object with paint patterns corresponding to selected, natural, light patterns, either directly observed or remembered. Appearance offers the artist an unlimited variety of possible visual experiences: a realistic representation of appearance, therefore, contains limited, but sufficiently recognizable signs of visual observations. Such signs can be manipulated according to the artist's intentions.

Our awareness of reality also consists of non-visual experiences, which can be represented. But, because it is a theoretical issue, not based on physical observation, the nature of reality and its representations remains an unresolvable problem. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, reality is in his head.