Realistic painting often gets a bad rap nowadays. The implication seems to be that abstract painting is creative, raw, cool, and trendy; that realistic painting is merely like a copy of a photograph.
Well, realistic painting (the seemingly straightforward representation of objects as they appear in the physical world) can be every bit as CREATIVE as making an abstract image. Good realistic painting has a great deal in common with abstraction. Paintings of each type may assume different positions on a continuum from more realistic to more abstract, but both need to use sound structural designs (that is, well-organized images) to be effective. Good design directs the viewer’s eye through the picture by using shapes, line, color, edges, value, and manipulation of space. Planning and structuring your painting do not stifle your creativity.
Artist Georgia O’Keefe commented on the dispute over realism versus abstraction: “It is surprising to me to see how many people separate the objective from the abstract. Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or a tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they say something.” Even the ideal subject must be shaped and adapted to fit the idea and emotion the artist wants to express.
Copying an image exactly without determining a focal point or eliminating distracting details does not improve that image. Painting ought not involve simply copying what you see; slavishly reproducing an image is not the goal. To create good realistic art, you need to make it PERSONAL. Your art needs to reveal what you want to say and what the image/scene means to you. The goal for most realistic painters should be to combine the realistic image with a distinctive INDIVIDUAL PERCEPTION and expression of the subject. You must select and arrange colors, lines, shapes, and other design elements. You can create an unusual color scheme; use a dramatic value contrast; emphasize texture, pattern, or line. As an artist, you transform the subject by filtering it through unconscious thought processes so that it reflects your past experiences and personal beliefs.
If something intrigues you, it is worthy of your interest and of your audience’s interest. Explore any subject if you feel you have something to say about it. You paint best what you know best. One artist may seem successful at selecting unusual subject matter. Another artist may be a people person and prefer portraits. Yet another may enjoy the refreshing feeling of landscapes.
In the classroom, students often copy the work of other artists. Copying can be useful for practicing skills and techniques – that is, as a way of learning – but a number of pitfalls to copying can emerge. It is difficult, for instance, to capture the emotion expressed by the artist who made the original. You might also simply copy mistakes or poor techniques without being aware of those flaws. Furthermore, copying prevents you from learning to organize a picture on your own; some people become dependent on copying. Since the creative experience is missing when you copy, you need to move beyond copying to become a creative artist.
Much better sources for images to paint are your own photographs. However, you will need to adapt even your own photographs when you use them as source material; remember that even a well-composed photograph needs editing to become an effective, forceful painting. Also try working from life to design your own picture. Observe carefully. Pick and choose, simplify and rearrange until you have transformed a literal image to fit your impression. Leave out distracting or extraneous details. Focus on essentials to turn nature into art. Use your memories to visualize something that isn’t there now, and imagine or invent something if you think it would make a good picture. In any case, strive to be selective and imaginative rather than literal.
In composing your picture, think about what you want to say. You might make a list of descriptive words that characterize your subject; include details about its physical appearance and qualities that make it unique or interesting to you. These could be related to mood or emotion. Brainstorm as many ideas as possible; then narrow these down to one clear meaning – this is your concept, what you want to say. Concentrate on this meaning; you can have only ONE focal point. Start with the real, but enhance it!