7 Major Painting Styles—From Realism to Abstract

Learn More About these Iconic Schools of Art

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

This list outlines seven major styles of art (sometimes referred to as "schools" or "movements"), some much more realistic than others. Although you won't be part of the original movement—the group of artists who generally shared the same painting style and ideas during a specific time in history—you can still paint in the styles they used. By learning about these styles and seeing what the artists working in them created and then experimenting with different approaches yourself, you can begin to develop and nurture your own style.

Realism

Tourists photographing Mona Lisa, The Louvre, Paris, France. Peter Adams / Getty Images

Realism, in which the subject of the painting looks much like the real thing rather than being stylized or abstracted, is the style many people think of as "true art." Only when examined close up do what appear to be solid colors reveal themselves as a series of brushstrokes of many colors and values.

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 "Mona Lisa" is a classic example of the style.

Painterly

Henri Matisse - Dishes and Fruit [1901].

Gandalf's Gallery/Flickr

The 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, however, painters made no effort to hide their technical work.

As its name suggests, the emphasis is on the act of painting: the character of the brushwork and pigments themselves. Artists working in this style don't try to hide what was used to create the painting by smoothing out 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.

Impressionism

Chicago's Art Institute. Scott Olson / Getty Images

Impressionism emerged in the 1880s in Europe, where artists such as 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, however, there's no doubt 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 beloved and revered.

Expressionism and Fauvism

Edvard Munch's Scream, MoMA NY.

Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Expressionism and Fauvism ​are 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 rather, as it feels or appears to the artist. 

The two styles differ in some ways. Expressionists, including Edvard Munch, sought to convey the grotesque and horror in everyday life, often with hyper-stylized brushwork and horrific images, such as he used to great effect in 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.

Abstraction

Georgia O'Keeffe artwork, largest painting in Art Institute of Chicago. Charles Cook / Getty Images

As the first decades of the 20th century unfolded in Europe and 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 who they are.

Or an artist might 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.

Abstract

Sothebys Contemporary Art Sale. Cate Gillon / Getty Images

Purely abstract work, like much of the Abstract Expressionist movement of the 1950s, actively shuns realism, revelling in the embrace of the subjective. The subject or point of the painting is the colors used, the textures in the artwork, and the materials employed to create it.

Jackson Pollock's drip paintings might look like a gigantic mess to some, but there's no denying that murals such as "Number 1 (Lavender Mist)" have a dynamic, kinetic quality that holds your interest. Other abstract artists, such as 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 in which you can lose yourself.

Photorealism

Whitney Museum Of American Art. Spencer Platt / Getty Images

Photorealism developed in the late 1960s and '70s in reaction to Abstract Expressionism, which had dominated art since the 1940s. This style 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 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-size headshots of fellow artists and celebrities are based on snapshots.