A2 Fine Art Project- Realism in Portraiture
Acrylic paint and pencil on 100cm x 150cm canvas.
Close up of detail.
Time lapse, 1 second = roughly 55 minutes of painting - a total of 97 hours over 21 days. 
Apologies for down-scaled quailty. 
Realism in Portraiture

Photorealistic art has always been a major influence on my work. To me, there is something astonishing about looking at a painting or drawing and struggling to distinguish the thin line between a display of artistic craftsmanship, and a photograph. Yet some would argue that a well taken photograph is a statement of photographic craftsmanship. Not that I disagree, however, a photograph does not provide me with the same sense of awe that I would otherwise experience when admiring art evidently created with a high level of skill to produce an image that is hyper-realistic. Although this presents the questions; 'does admiration for photo-realism render abstract artwork purposeless and inaccessible?’, ‘Would we appreciate a photorealistic piece of art in the same way if we did not understand the time and skill that went into creating that image?' and 'Is realism important in portraiture?'.

On embarking on this investigation, I contacted a twenty-three year old, self-taught, hyper-realistic artist from London named Michael Sydney-Moore. Michael studied fine art at Central Saint Martin’s College and is now working out of his studio in London. Michael's work is predominantly based on large scale, high realism portraits painted in oil on canvas. The subjects of his paintings vary; although he tends to frame the sitter from their shoulders upwards ensuring minimal distraction from the focal point which (for him) is the face. I love the way that Michael captures each imperfection and blemish of the person's facial expression in such a delicate and subtle manner, using fine brush strokes to build up an image. I organized an email interview with Michael to discuss his style and techniques, developing an understanding of the thoughts behind his work, and to get his take on the importance of realism in portraiture. Michael's inspiration comes mainly from traditional artists such as Zorn and Sargent - to my surprise, he says that he is "not massively influenced by hyper-realists".


One common theme in hyper-realistic art is the scale of the image, a vast majority of realism paintings are large scale creating a sense of intimacy between the artwork and its viewers giving an instant visceral impact. Michael suggested that "a painting should look at you as much as you look at them", I agree with this and think that there is something quite psychologically powerful about a painting that interacts with you. By increasing the scale of the painting, you are - in effect - decreasing the size of the viewer and allowing a substantial amount of detail to be perceived. This has the same effect as increasing the number of megapixels on a digital camera. Although, just as getting a higher quality camera will not give you better pictures, increasing the detail of a realistic painting does not warrant an aesthetically pleasing image. The artwork is still very much so dependent on the subject. Despite my inclination to hyper-realistic images such as Michael Sydney-Moore's- I would favour a piece of art that is perfectly framed yet abstract and inaccessible, to a photo-perfect painting of a dull subject with bad composition. 

Composition certainly tells half the story in any form of artwork; abstract or realistic. With hyper-realism, the composition almost always comes directly from a photograph. Therefore there is an underlying importance in the quality of the reference image/s taken of a certain subject. Michael Sydney-Moore explained to me how he takes a few hundred photos of his subjects, before narrowing it down to a couple that he feels have a strong composition and adequate lighting. He chooses to light his subjects in a "non-dramatic" way which "emphasises" the eyes. Eyes - more often than not - tend to be the focal point of most portraits. Personally I feel that this is due to the amount of expression that the eyes can portray and therefore as humans we are hard wired (in a sense) to pay close attention to the delicate and subtle changes in someone’s emotions depicted by their eyes. Personally, I think that the pose and expression of the sitter is something that plays a large part in the outcome of the artwork. 

With abstract artwork painted from either memory or an expression of the artist’s feelings and emotions, one can easily change the shape, colour and form of the subject - whilst maintaining the quality and style of the overall image to an extent. This gives the artist a sense of freedom in their work, providing an organic, unrestricted outcome that has a personal and emotional meaning with no particular right or wrong set in stone. However, with realism, once the outline of your image is on the canvas, you are under lock and key; bound by that selected reference photo/s. Perhaps you could alter the angle of the subject's finger or shoulder line slightly, but ultimately, if you alter the image too much it will become obvious in the final result. This is a key drawback with photorealism, the image is relatable to the viewer and therefore the painting is involuntarily judged on a set of unwritten rules in the eye of said observer. It would be clear if a certain section of the subject's face was out of proportion or if a line down the neck was not a natural looking colour or exactly in the correct position. However, many artists experiment in this way and therefore the question is asked; is it possible that this so called 'imperfection' was a deliberate action of the artist in order to provoke an evocative reaction - or to exaggerate a body part in a way that presents a distorted take on reality? In my opinion that would not devalue the painting in any way, suggesting that realism is not a principal factor in portraiture. Perhaps the importance of realism lies with how you label your portrait. If an image is labeled hyper-realistic but has a flaw - such as a slightly stylized body part- is that piece of artwork unsuccessful or is it simply a step away from hyper-realism but a step forwards in the abstract direction? 

Do hyper-realistic pieces of art have to be identical to an image in order to be appreciated? I think not. It was brought to my attention after experiencing my Mum's response to hyper-realism that some individuals may be of the opposite opinion and, in actual fact, think that photo-realistic paintings are almost too similar to photos and too familiar to be valued as a piece of art. For example, upon asking my Mum what she thought of Michael Sydney-Moore's photos; her response at first was not one of amazement and my Mum stated that she would "not call it art". I realised that the image had flown straight over my Mum's head as a regular photograph on my computer screen, so I told her that this was in fact a photograph of a painting - at this point my mum was astonished by the talent displayed in Michael's painting and decided to take a closer look at it. Despite being overwhelmed by the sheer talent, my Mum stated that Michael was a "phenomenal painter" but she "would not call it art" because "art is expressive" and she did not think that the uncanny resemblance to a photograph let the artist express himself in any way. I understand that many people may also feel this way about hyper-realism. However, if someone is a phenomenal pianist, are they not playing music just because the song has been played before? Even if they can relate to that certain song? Contrary to my opinion this made me question, what is deemed as 'art'? Does something have to express feelings and emotions in a personal, stylized manner to be considered art? To me, portraying the emotions of your subject in a hyper-realistic manner through the medium that is almost a snapshot of real life on a canvas is undoubtedly art.

In my opinion, hyper-realists demonstrate expression in their own way. Each artist has a deeply individual and selective voice that displays a piece of their personality in their paintings. If two hyper-realist artists were given the same materials and the same reference photo to paint, would the outcomes be identical? Of course not because unlike a printer, which has machine built electronic motorised parts which can duplicate an image over and over again, the human body is living and organic. Each artist perceives an image or situation from a different point of view to another individual and both artists will have their own style which seeps through into their painting technique. Even if they have the same reference image and both paint it in a hyper-realistic style. Michael Sydney-Moore told me that he has confidence in the idea that "an almost perfect rendition of the human form can also be intensely expressive". What hue an artist decides to use and how they decide to apply that colour, is as essential for their expression through the painting technique as the selection of a certain word is to a poet. In poetry, the selection of words is not as important as their ability to work together harmoniously to successfully illustrate the poet's thoughts in an expressive way. Likewise, in art, the colours and brush strokes are not as important as their ability to work harmoniously as one, in order to piece together an expressive yet accessible painting. Therefore, from close range, a particular painting may resemble a chaotic colour palette but from a distance the colours may work as one to produce a lifelike image in a style that originates from pointillism.

When considering the importance of realism, you have to take into account the purpose of the artwork. I think that the purpose of a certain image varies according to the creator - many artists will strive for undetectable photo-realism in an attempt to produce a bold statement of skill, whereas others may try to fit as many colours into one portrait painting as possible in a creative, abstract way. Perhaps for some artists, the process of creating the painting is a more personal journey which- for them- is the main purpose behind their art. In contrast, hyper-realists may discipline themselves in order to improve their painting ability over many years- and constantly work towards the goal which is perfection of their craft. Hyper-realistic pieces (especially large scale ones) take a lot of dedication and time to produce. Michael Sydney-Moore's paintings usually take from "four to eight weeks" however in the past, he has spent "as long as nine months" on a painting. I asked him if he thought this was an important factor and found his response insightful. He said "time is not something" he focuses on, "a painting will take as long as it wants to take". Having said that, he suggests that I remember the maxim "a painting is never finished only left alone".

Some people may ask, what is the justifiable motive behind committing yourself to a painting for countless hours, when the final result is almost identical to that of a high quality modern camera - which can take a picture in a split-second. Why not simply frame your subject accordingly through a piece of glass, and digitally capture every fine detail with a camera in a fraction of the time? For me, there are many advantages to a hyper-realistic painting over a photograph. When painting an image, the artist has a great sense of control over the medium and therefore the subject’s appearance. One advantage to physically painting an image is the texture that you can achieve by intricately layering up areas of paint. In order to make the "highlights really pop" Michael Sydney-Moore uses a "trick" whereby he paints the highlighted areas thicker than the rest of the image. He says this makes the light "take longer to pass through the paint" and therefore "longer to re-enter your cornea giving a greater sense of depth". In effect, this technique adds a physical dimension of depth to Michael's paintings which could not be replicated by simply printing a photograph.  In addition to this, although a photograph may have a personal value to the individual behind the camera, this could never compete with the personal connection between an artist and his subject. Which he has painted pore by pore. There is a sense of emotional attachment and meaning behind a painting that -in my opinion- can never be matched by a photograph of an individual. 

Having said this, most artists do not get a chance to exhibit their work in a gallery. Something that, in the past, may have been a major restriction to artists being able to express their talent. But in today's modern era in which we live, the process by which artwork is displayed in galleries is fast becoming outdated. Most people have a smart phone with a high quality camera in their pocket and due to these technological advances, perhaps social media is becoming the new 'online-gallery' through which artists are able to post and share their work. Surely as the purpose of hyper-realism is to produce an image that perfectly resembles a photograph in a different medium, the action of transferring that artwork back to a photographic medium seems counter-intuitive in effect undoing all of the hard work and craftsmanship put into that painting. Perhaps people will glaze over the picture of the painting as a photograph, in which case I believe - in the twentieth century- it is important for artists to share their journey to the outcome with the observers of their art. In my opinion, the art is in demonstrating the effort that went into a particular painting, as opposed to the skill displayed in the final outcome.

It is a shame to hear that hyper-realism is still too often stamped with a redundant sense of purpose . Personally, I appreciate the demonstration of skill in hyper-realistic art more than any other form of art - despite the sceptics that say it would be easier to take a photograph. In the words of Michael Sydney-Moore, "it is similar to why we appreciate Bolt running the hundred metres in nine seconds, when we could get in a car and do it in half the time". I think that this comparison superbly illustrates the arguments surrounding hyper-realism, demonstrating that those who favour this form of art are admiring a display of talent as opposed to an expression of feelings.

Taking all of this into account, I would argue that a photo-realistic painting displays more craftsmanship than a photograph as it is more expressive and personal. For me, hyper-realism is a scenic walk home from college along the river, ultimately the destination is my house - however, in taking a bus and shortcutting that walk, you take away everything that was special about that journey. I understand that some people may struggle to see the purpose in a hyper-realistic painting, which is why I think it is important to share that journey with them - to extend the metaphor; in effect, taking them off of that bus and down the same scenic path that you took to the finish. I believe that I value hyper-realistic art because I appreciate its pure demonstration of skill. In addition to this, I think that this demonstration of skill brings a slight relief to the dystopia of a twentieth century saturated in technology can begin to feel. We cannot multiply as quickly as a calculator, yet we can paint better than a camera can see; perhaps that provides us with some form of comfort. Even so, I would not say that realism is necessary in portraiture, as in my opinion, a photorealistic image falls under a different category to an abstract image - both are expressive and accessible and ultimately, it is down to the individual appreciating it in their own way. 
 
 
Through exploring various degrees of realism on my canvas, my final piece depicts a family friend against a bold, contrasting black background. I have chosen to leave some partially finished areas visible in order to maintain an essence of my journey. The time lapse video is sped up so that 1 second = 55minutes of painting. A total of 97 hours of work on my final piece.
 
 
 
 
A2 Fine Art Project- Realism in Portraiture
172
6,271
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Published:

A2 Fine Art Project- Realism in Portraiture

My A2 Fine Art personal investigation and final piece on "Realism in portraiture"
172
6,271
10
Published:

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