“To the best of my knowledge, I don't believe it's possible to learn art without learning realism."

-Kevin Murphy


In this post you'll learn why realism in art is important, how it's different from photographs, and why abstract art requires an education in realistic art. 

The Difference Between Photos and Realistic Paintings

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Daniel Folta working on a realistic painting. See more of his paintings at www.danielfolta.com.

A painting is a reaction of one human being to visual stimulation. A photograph is something very different. Photographs are two dimensional and vary depending on the quality of the camera. If a digital photograph is printed it's degraded even further. 

Photographs are limited to the subject matter in the photo. When you create a painting you have the ability to augment, adjust, and repair - this is what they call artist license. The painter's job is to create a better painting than reality. 

Abstract Art Requires Realism

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A realistic painting containing abstract elements by Abbie Rugg. See more of her work at www.abigailrugg.com.

There is a reason that realism and art education goes hand in hand. To the best of my knowledge, I don't believe it's possible to learn art without learning realism. This doesn't mean that you need to use realism later on. 

So as an example, if you want to create something completely abstract you're going to have an idea in your head of what you want. Let's say you're making a painting. That idea is going to be made up of the components. All paintings are comprised of three moving parts: you have value, color, and edge. 

Even if you're making an abstract piece of art, those three components exist. You have to know how to manipulate them in order to get out of your head what you want on canvas.

Art Is About Intent

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An imaginative painting by Kevin Murphy.

Art is all about intent. Anybody can throw paint at a canvas but the result is random. The artist that throws paint at a canvas just takes what they get and there is no quality control concerning the artist's intent. It's just luck. There's no skill of any kind, and it's not reproducible in any way, shape, or form. 

If you're going to create art, doesn't it make sense that you would want to be able to create the art that you intend? Not to have it be some random result of gravity? You want your work to be based on your intent. And so in order to make art (whether it's hyper-realism or even at the far end of the spectrum, full-blown abstraction) you have to have an intent. This means that you know what you want to produce and then you have to have the skills and the understanding of the components in order to bring that thing to realization in the real world.

Realism As A Starting Point

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A realistic self portrait by Kevin Murphy.

You can have all the intent in the world but you need the critical skills to follow through on your intent. If your intent is to create abstract art, you still have to master the other critical skills because there's no way for somebody to know if you actually learning unless they can see the thing you're working on, and your intent is to match that thing.

There are abstract artists who are educated. They understand the components of making art. And the way that you know is that their work is consistent from painting the painting. It's abstract but it's beautiful. Their control of color and temperature, they can make a painting vibrate, how they play one edge against another. These artists understand exactly what they're doing but they didn't learn that through abstract painting. They learned that through realistic painting, and then they applied that understanding to abstract.

When you're looking for an education, it's important to be able to measure your skills based on what you're doing because the subject matter is easily recognized. It's also important that your teacher can measure your skill set based on being able to see the subject you're working on. That's another reason that we work from direct observation at Evolve; we work from photographs but also from things in the real world. Realism offers our students a starting point from which they can launch themselves into an infinite number of artistic styles. 

Feel free to leave a comment below to add to the conversation!

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