Is Photorealistic Drawing Art?


Richard Estes, 1968, Photorealism

Richard Estes, 1968, Photorealism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Traditionally, drawing has been regarded as an imitative art. That is, artists create images based on real things. Naturally, this imitation can range from simply copying entire scenes to creating an original assembly from bits and pieces of real things. Descartes, in his clever painter analogy in his Meditations, makes note of this interesting nature of painting (which also applies to drawing). As he saw it, perhaps dreams are assembled like paintings from bits of real things. At the very least, he argues (before moving on to even greater skepticism), the colors used are real.

Moving away from metaphysics and epistemology back to aesthetics, it seems well established that imitating real things does not disqualify a drawing from being art. In fact, artists are often praised for their ability to accurately imitate reality. Interestingly, though this realism is often praised, there might be a point at which a drawing is too real to be considered art.

One argument for this is easy enough to make. When teaching my aesthetics class, I demonstrate my lack of drawing ability and ask them why my badly drawn capybara is not art. They point out the obvious—it does not look much a capybara because it is badly drawn. I then ask them if it would be art if I could draw better and they tend to agree. I then ask about just photocopying (or scanning and printing) the picture I used as the basis for my capybara drawing. They point out the obvious—that would not be art, just a copy.

Obviously, part of the reason the photocopy or scan would not be art is that it is just a mechanical reproduction (although I am sure that someone clever could argue that it is art and someone even more clever would find a way to sell it as art to people with more money than sense).

Things become considerably more interesting when a photorealistic image is created not by a technological means of duplication, but by hand. For example, Samuel Silva recreated the image of a red haired girl from a photo by Kristina Taraina as well as other photorealistic images. While Silva works with color Bic pens (seriously), Paul Cadden creates his photorealistic works by drawing and also with paints. He, however, uses the term “hyperrealism” rather than “photorealism.”

Clearly, the creation of such realism in imitation requires great technical skill. For example, Silva can create photorealistic colors using Bic pens and this demonstrates an impressive mastery of color. There is also the obvious technical skill required to imitate a photograph with such incredible accuracy.

However, it is clear that technical skill alone does not make the results art. After all, this technical skill can be exceeded by a decent color photocopier or a computer connected to a color scanner and printer.

It might be objected that the technical skill does make it art, despite the fact that a machine can do it better. To use an analogy, the fact that a scooter could beat a champion runner does not prove that the runner is not an athlete. Likewise, the fact that a machine can imitate better than Silva or Cadden does not mean that they are not artists. This leads to a second point about art and imitation.

The problem, it can be argued, is not that a machine can imitate better than Silva or Cadden. Rather, it is that there seems to be a point at which the exactitude of the imitation ceases to be a contribution to the artistry and rather begins to detract from it. While it seems unlikely that an exact tipping point can be specified, it does certainly seem that this is the case. Why this is so can be shown by returning to the reason why a mechanical copy is not art: there is nothing in the copy that is not in the original (laying aside duplication defects). As such, the more exact the copy of the original, the less room there is for whatever it is that makes a work art. As such, to argue that Silva or Cadden is an artist requires showing that they do more than merely copy. That is, they must add something aesthetically significant to their work that is not in the original.

One obvious avenue of approach is to draw an analogy to photography. By its very nature, an unaltered photograph merely captures an image of what is there (photons bouncing of surfaces and all that).  What the photographer adds is her perspective—that is, she selects what she will capture and thus what makes the work art is not that it duplicates reality (which it must by the laws of physics) but that the photographer has added that something extra (which, to steal from Locke’s Indian, I must say is “something I know not what”).

As such, someone who creates photorealistic images of photos could be adding that something extra in a way comparable to what photographers do when they create their art (assuming, safely enough, that a photograph can be art).

The rather obvious reply to this is that a person who is creating a photorealistic re-creation of a photograph does not seem to be adding that something extra. Cadden does, however, claim that he is not engaging in photorealism, but rather in what he calls hyperrealism. He says that

“Hyperreal paintings and sculptures are not strict interpretations of photographs, nor are they literal illustrations of a particular scene or subject. Instead, they utilise additional, often subtle, pictorial elements to create the illusion of a reality which in fact either does not exist or cannot be seen by the human eye” and he adds that “Furthermore, they may incorporate emotional, social, cultural and political thematic elements as an extension of the painted visual illusion; a distinct departure from the older and considerably more literal school of Photorealism.”

From a theoretical standpoint, Cadden is certainly on solid ground. After all, he makes an argument analogous to the one used above, namely that he adds that “aesthetic extra” that makes his work more than a technical achievement in manual duplication. There is, however, the question of whether that “aesthetic extra” is present in his works. Since he works from photographs, it seems easy enough to put the matter to an empirical test by comparing his works to the original and giving due consideration to the difference. As such, if his work differs in aesthetically significant ways from the original image, then it would be safe enough to consider it art and him an artist.

In any case, both Silva and Cadden are remarkably talented and do amazing work.

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  1. First of all, Mike, it sounds like the aesthetics class you teach is vastly superior to the one I took thirty-something years ago. Kudos on that.

    What you’re really exploring is the fringes that reveal the beast. It’s just so damn hard to tell what art is. I love the Estes image you used at the top of the article because you can be quite sure had you stood in the exact spot from which the original photo had been taken the actual phone booths would not have seemed quite as powerful. The artist has intruded on the visual experience.

    Let’s venture that the photographer has taken airbrush (or computer) to the photograph and then the artist has reproduced the photograph. What I as an artist realize I default to is an examination of probable interior states of the artist’s mind. I know that “art” involves conscious choices about what to present and how to present it. Should the artist choose the extreme of fidelity to the photographic image- that a work of art is utterly indistinguishable from a purely photographic image the act of doing so constitutes a statement and is a reflection of an internal series of decisions which demand, paradoxically, extraordinary creative ability.

    How do I apply the colors? What materials will I use? How can I manage the viewer’s visual responses so that the limits of my ability to mimic materials and effects do not provide the signals she needs to detect the subterfuge? All of these and many others are parts of the artist’s cognitive process.

    Art almost certainly started as a process of graphically representing something- ANYTHING. The leap inherent in that from the rest of the animal kingdom is quite astonishing. We are able to set a visual signal that can be received accurately by others of our kind. The power of this can be seen in the fact that more “realistic” images, those that could easily be understood across human cultures, were almost always in ancient times (except in the most remarkably open cultures) hidden away where only a privileged few would be able to see them.

    Seen in this way the extreme case I give above may actually be a high example of the most fundamental drive in visual representation. Humans want to REPRESENT one thing with another thing. At its core that is, I believe, what drives humans to create Art.

  2. Is, say, a classical musician performing someone else’s music really well an artist?

  3. My observation is most people like realism from an artist. It may be a lack of sophistication on their past, but defining what is art is elusive. It’s like trying to define “class.” It’s in the eye of the beholder. Whatever lifts your rocket.

  4. Joe, embedded in your comment there is an interesting hint at the difference between the goals of sending art signals and receiving art signals.

  5. As I recall, the destinction between artist and artisan is modern, arising in the 1700s. The definition is evolving and will likely continue to evolve for the forseeable future. Give up trying to explain it. It’s a consensus.

  6. All of culture is a consensus. Should we stop studying peer pressure or women’s roles or how we educate children?

  7. I think a drawing that is a direct and precise copy of the original is a skill. I think when you bring something of yourself to it, it’s an art.

  8. Art is an aesthetically pleasing (or disturbing) means of expressing or portraying emotion without words. A copy is not art. Almost anything else is debatable.

  9. I suppose you could take a number of characteristics that are recognised as being included in art: skill, imagination, message, and so on; and define measures on these, and the more points a piece gets, according to critics, the more artistic it is. A simple photocopy uses no real skill or imagination, but a photocopy that was representational and not a simple copy might be. For example, office photocopier body art of one’s sex organs might take some skill, have some imaginative input, and might convey a certain message to some recipients.

    Of course this would be too much like trying to make a science out of aesthetics, and that isn’t allowed. It would put an end to many of the philosophical debates about aesthetics, therefore it can’t be done.

  10. Jane,

    Good point. There is also the fact that many musician’s perform music that they did not actually write. This can also be seen as analogous to actors performing scripts they did not write.

    I’d argue that a musician or actor who adds something “extra” to the work can be acting as an artist. In the case of music, a computer could play the notes exactly-which would be analogous to photocopying or scanning a photo. However, if the musician does something other than mechanically reproduce the notes, then this could be seen as a cooperative work involving the performer and the writer. Likewise for acting. A text-to-speech program could read the lines of a script precisely, but it would not be acting.

  11. Art or not, Ive seen photorealistic art of imaginary scenes that is breathtaking and moving.

    A lot more than post modern self indulgent expressionism.

    Time to forget whether its art or not and just ask the question ‘how much would you pay to have it on your wall?’ and if the answer is ‘I’d pay someone to take it away’ you have at least YOUR personal answer.

  12. It seems to me that it boils down to the intention of the creator of the piece. Hemingway’s shortest story is indistinguishable from a classified ad. If it had been a calssified ad, it would not be art, but since he called it a story, it is art. A urinal in a bathroom isn’t art, but call it “Fountain” and hang it in a gallery and it becomes art. If Samuel Silva thinks of himself as an artist and his bic pen recreations art, then they are. I think the interesting thing about these is that knowledge of the materials and technique is a huge part of the experience. Normally in art, the goal is to make the artist, performer, materials and labor invisible. That’s clearly not the case here since the point is missed if you simply assume you are looking at a photograph.

  13. Leo,

    Good point. If a person creates photorealistic images from imagination rather than copying a photo, then that person is certainly doing what would normally be taken to be art. The fact that s/he is able to do so photo realistically would certainly not seem to diminish its status as art.

    Well, what I would pay for something to be on my wall would probably not be a good indicator-I’d not pay too much for anything.

  14. Gene,

    Intent does seem to be an important factor. As you note, Hemingway’s piece about the baby shoes would not be art if it had been an actual ad. In the case of the urinal, I’d say that hanging it in the museum just makes it a non-functional install and not art at all.

    Thinking oneself an artist does not seem to be sufficient for being an artist. At the very least, thinking oneself a good artist does not make it so. That suggests that thinking oneself an artist would not suffice either.

  15. For art to be Art there has to be, I think, the consent of at least one receiving human being.

    The consensus until about a decade ago, for example, was that there was no “sound” in space. Now we regularly see scientific papers on sound waves on the Sun or the sounds of galaxies , or the literal, but extremely ephemeral sounds that are transmitted in the spaces between the stars. the difference now is that there are people who have a means of perceiving, recording, and processing those sounds.

    Similarly, Art, as a means of communication, needs both senders and receivers.

  16. Fascinating article, thanks.

    By the by, I took the liberty of checking out your author profile. Was your interest in aesthetics sparked by Robert Kraut? When I majored in philosophy at OSU, I very much enjoyed my aesthetics (and other) courses with Professor Kraut and I still think of him often.

  17. Adam,

    I did take classes with Robert, plus we had the same Tae Kwon Do master. Ironically, as a grad student I mocked aesthetics and then ended up being assigned an aesthetics class when I started teaching at FAMU. I assume that was some sort of poetic justice. But, he certainly did influence my views on metaphysics and his guitar skills had some aesthetic impact on me.

    Good to hear from a fellow Buckeye philosopher.

  18. As a photorealist/hyperrealist artist myself I have noticed this ‘tipping point.’ If a work is less real-looking, it’s considered artistic. The artist has only ‘suggested’ certain textures, forms etc rather than to paint every single detail. While on the other hand, a photorealist adds every single detail and it’s considered cold, emotionless and sterile. So in that sense, less is literally more!!
    Many of my contemporaries are trying desperately to steer people’s idea of their art away from any relationship with photographs. As photo-emulation is NOT what we’re trying to do. Nor are we necessarily copying photos in the first place! Our aim is to emulate a NEW reality. A hyper-reality that does not exist as photographs or the real world.
    Some say that the ‘artiness’ is lost in photorealist work by using technical equipment such as cameras, computers and opaque projectors. The main one being the camera because it converts the 3d real world to a 2d arrangement of flat colour when it’s usually the artist’s job.
    Either way – art must evolve as photorealism and hyperrealism is still doing.

  19. “Art”, ultimately, is the expression of a single artist happening over and over again in a population of both artists and consumers. It’s easy to overlook this point. I paint what fascinates me. I contribute to the collective consciousness of the “art world” to the extent people are sufficiently interested in what I do to pay me for it and to invest their own lives in similar fascinations.

  20. Tom,

    It is somewhat ironic that the more skilled an artist is at realism, the less the work is regarded as artistic.

    I’ve read a tiny bit about hyper-realism. As you note, it seems to be in the relatively early stages as an artistic school/movement. Do you know of any theorists who have worked out a substantial account of hyper-realism?

    I visited your site-you do good work. My grandmother had one of the brown pottery “bottles” that is in one of your images, which made me think of her.

  21. So what exactly is Mike’s standpoint? does he think that photorealistic drawing is art? or does he believe that it is not art?

  22. Jane, good point, but consider this: a musician is an interpreter and his quality is determined by how close is to the original piece; a true visual artist is not equivalent to the musician, but to the composer; because he must CREATE. Imagine a composer copying other´s stuff; I would consider him a fraud if he tried to convince us that he is a great master while stealing others´ ideas. Now, imagine a musician playing perfectly a composer´s track. He would be praised for that, because he is conscient that he is just playing music made by another person.
    I also have two other examples, more connected to the visual arts:
    1) the ancient Greek sculptures. Most of them are known to us thanks to Roman sculptors who copied the original ones. We know, p.ex., Myron´s Discobolus only as a copy of the original statue which is lost. However, that Roman copyist will never be considered for art as important as the creator of the original work (Myron, or Praxiteles, or Polycletus), and the Discobolus will never be considered a Roman statue, but a Greek one. Roman is just the copy (in any Art History book, you´ll see ´´Myron´s Discobolus; Roman copy´´).
    In this connection, the copyist could be as important as Myron in historical and educational terms: because he was the person who preserved the image of a great original statue and made us know that, effectively, it existed. So, despite he is not important for the art itself, because he was just a copyist, for Art History he was important because through his copy he let us know about the existence of an artist who was greater than himself.
    2) is easier to measure the value of photorrealism if applicate it on works of art. So, imagine a Photorrealist artist copying perfectly a Van Gogh´s painting instead of a photo of people or objects; now, imagine this copy as amazingly perfect (there are some amazingly skilled counterfeiters; they can copy a work of art so well that some critics are confused about which is the original one); how would you define that work? Do you consider that as superior or equal than Van Gogh´s original? In my point of view, this couldn´t be possible, because Van Gogh or any other artist put some of his personality in his works, while a copyist is just put his skills (a person who has copied all his life thinking that he is making Art, he can never feel and imagine the psychical and emotional implication which are required to make an original work of Art). So, coming back to Painting-Music equivalence, Van Gogh would be more alike to the composer while the copyist to the musician. Also, if you have notions of music, then you perfectly know that most musicians are totally inept for composing: they can play perfectly a Mozart´s concerto, p.ex., but they cannot compose anything decent.

  23. First of all, let me say, I too enjoy producing realistic artwork, but at a certain point I stop and begin to incorporate part of myself within the painting. What is art, but an extention of who you are as an individual. Computer technolgy today can reproduce anything, and most photorealistic artists depend on this technology to achieve those realistic results. Artistic skill is not entirely needed when producing photorealistic art. The computer and drafting equiptment does most of the work. This is why schools are being opened up to train people how to produce realistic artwork. It may soon become like an assembly line job, and instead of painting by the numbers, they simply paint with the aid of computer equipment. Is this where art is headed? What about all of the fantastic artists who put their soul into their abstract, or impressionistic artwork? Are they now obsolete? Google a photorealistic artist; their paintings are amazing, but their hand drawings look like a eighth grader’s artwork. Anyone with a computer can reproduce photorealistic paintings, but Leonardo taught us long ago…the true test of a painter is with the pen and pencil.

  24. What I have realised is that a lot of people are afraid of what they don’t understand or what they can’t comprehend. Therefore , when someone does a realistic painting or drawing, the image is already explained to them so they don’t have to think about the meaning, all they think is “oh look its a horse” for example. this is why I think it is appealing for people who don’t have a completely open mind to art. I think that some of us don’t really fully understand how broad it can really be, this is why it’s all in the eye of the beholder.

    I think some people misunderstand the idea of photo realism, you cant just take a photo and copy it, that’s a waste of time. There is not much thought processing going on or creativity, how about changing the colour to reflect a certain mood or giving different textures to show depth? yeah, you have proved you can paint ,now what are you going to do with that skill?

  25. Nice article! But whether they put that ‘something extra’ or not it is still art. It is climbing a Mount Everest by either helicopter (modern printing) or by trekking (drawing, much more interesting) !

    We still have Olympics and award medals (and a lot of money, of course) to people in running, swimming, jumping and what not when all these can be done much effectively by any normal modern means of transport. So the question is why only single out realistic drawing? Its a skill which really deserves to be respected akin to running, swimming etc.
    And just because there are Ferraris which can zoom at 200 km/hr doesnt make Usain Bolt (Max speed : 36 km/hr) less of a runner similarly modern cameras which can take ultra resolution photos doesnt make artists like Paul Cadden less of an artist whether he adds ‘something extra’ or not. Its a reminiscent of the great Renaissance art and it must be respected equally as any other art movement (impressionism, modernism, dadaism…).

  26. Reading Set 2 | MAP Art & Design - pingback on January 28, 2017 at 11:41 pm

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