Art Styles Explained: From Realism to Abstract

Part of the joy of painting in the 21st century is the range of art styles to choose from. The late 19th and 20th centuries saw artists make huge leaps in painting styles. Many of these changes were influenced by technological advances, such as the invention of the metal paint tube and photography, as well as changes in social conventions, politics, and philosophy, along with major world events.

This list outlines many of the major art styles from the most realistic to the least. Learning about different art styles, seeing what painters have created, and trying different approaches is all part of the journey of developing your own painting style. Although you won't be part of the original movement—a group of artists who generally shared the same painting style and ideas during a specific time in history—you can still paint in the style they used as you experiment with and nurture your own.

Realism

Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci
Wikimedia Commons

Realism is the art style most people regard as "real art," where the subject of the painting looks very much like the real thing, rather than being stylized or abstracted. Only when examined up close will what appear to be solid color reveal itself as a series of brush strokes of many colors and hues.

Realism has been the dominant style of painting since the Renaissance. The artist uses perspective to create an illusion of space and depth, setting the composition and lighting such that the subject appears real. Leonardo da Vinci's portrait of the Mona Lisa is a classic example of realism.

Henri Matisse, "Vase of Sunflowers," 1898–1899
Henri Matisse, "Vase of Sunflowers," 1898–1899. State Hermitige Museum

Painterly style appeared as the Industrial Revolution swept Europe in the first half of the 19th century. Liberated by the invention of the metal paint tube, which allowed artists to step outside the studio, painters began to focus on painting itself. Subjects were rendered realistically, but made no effort to hide their technical work.

As its name suggests, the emphasis is on the act of painting itself: the character of the brushwork and pigments themselves. Artists working in this style do not try to hide what was used to create the painting by smoothing out any texture or marks left in the paint by a brush or other tool such as a palette knife. The paintings of Henri Matisse are excellent examples of this style. More »

Monet Waterlily
Some of Monet's waterlily paintings are enormous, almost larger than life. Bruno Vincent / Getty Images

Impressionism emerged in the 1880s in Europe, where artists like Claude Monet sought to capture light not through the detail of realism but with gesture and illusion. You don't need to get too close to Monet's water lilies or Vincent Van Gogh's sunflowers to see the bold strokes of color.

And yet there's no doubt of what you're looking at. Objects retain their realistic appearance, yet have a vibrancy about them that's unique to this style. It's hard to believe that when the Impressionists were first showing their works most critics hated and ridiculed it. What was then regarded as an unfinished and rough painting style, is now loved. More »

Detail of "Schokko With Wide Brimmed Hat" by the German Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky
Detail of "Schokko With Wide Brimmed Hat" by the German Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky. Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images

Expressionism and Fauvism two similar styles that began to appear in studios and galleries at the turn of the 20th century. Both are characterized by their use of bold, unrealistic colors chosen not to depict life as it is but as it feels or appears to the artist. 

The two styles differ in some ways. Expressionists like Edvard Munch sought to convey the grotesque and horror in everyday life, often with hyper-stylized brushwork and horrific images like his painting "The Scream." Fauvists, despite their novel use of color, sought to create compositions that depicted life in an idealized or exotic nature. Think of Henri Matisse's frolicking dancers or George Braque's pastoral scenes. More »

Abstraction

Blue and Green Music by Georgia O'Keeffe, 1921
Detail of Blue and Green Music by Georgia O'Keeffe (1921). Wikimedia Commons

As the first decades of the 20th century unfolded in Europe and in America, painting grew less realistic. Abstraction is about painting the essence of a subject as the artist interprets it, rather than the visible details.

A painter may reduce the subject to its dominant colors, shapes, or patterns, as Pablo Picasso did with his famous mural of three musicians. The performers, all sharp lines and angles, don't look the least bit real, yet there's no doubt of who they are.

Or, an artist may remove the subject from its context or enlarge its scale as Georgia O'Keeffe did in her work. Her flowers and shells, stripped of their fine detail and floating against abstract backgrounds, can resemble dreamy landscapes.

Mark Rothko
Matt Cardy / Getty Images

Purely abstract work, like much of the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s, doesn't try to look like anything realistic. It is the ultimate rejection of realism and the complete embrace of the subjective. The subject or point of the painting is the colors used, the textures in the artwork, the materials used to create it.

Jackson Pollock's drip paintings may look like a gigantic mess to some, but there's no denying that murals like "Number 1 (Lavender Mist)" have a dynamic, kinetic quality that holds your interest. Other abstract artists, like Mark Rothko, simplified their subject to colors themselves. Color-field works like his 1961 masterwork "Orange, Red, and Yellow" are just that: three blocks of pigment that you can lose yourself in. More »

Photorealism

Photorealism corn dogs
Robotclaw666 / Flickr

Photorealism developed in the late 1960s and '70s in reaction to Abstract Expressionism, which had dominated art since the 1940s. It is a style that often seems more real than reality, where no detail is left out, and no flaw is insignificant.

Some artists copy photographs by projecting them onto a canvas in order to accurately capture precise details. Others do it freehand or use a grid system to enlarge a print or photo. One of the best-known photorealistic painters is Chuck Close, whose mural-sized headshots of fellow artists and celebrities are based on snapshots.