Art Styles Explained: From Realism to Abstract

A Look at the Different Types of Art Styles You Can Use When Painting.

Part of the joy of painting in the 21st century is the range of art styles to choose from. The late 19th century and 20th century saw artists make huge leaps in painting styles, influenced by technology, 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.

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Art Style: Photorealism

Photorealism corn dogs
Robotclaw666 / Flickr

Photorealism developed in the late 1960s and 70s out of a reaction to the Abstract Expressionism movement of the 1940s. Artists copy photographs, often by projecting them onto a canvas, in order to accurately capture precise details. Super Realism, Sharp Focus Realism, and Hyper Realism are further developments of photorealism based on advancements in photographic resolution. There are minute differences in details between the styles, but ultimately they are all art styles in which the illusion of reality is created through paint so that the result looks more like a large, sharply focused photograph than anything else.

Photorealism is a style which often seems more real than reality, including detail down to the last grain of sand and wrinkle on someone's face, where nothing is left out, and nothing is too insignificant or unimportant not to be included in the painting. It does not mean, however, that an artist painting in this style doesn't consider the arrangement of things to make a stronger composition.

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Art Style: 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 it appears in real life, rather than being romanticized or glorified. From a little distance everything looks "real" but up close you will see that it is an illusion created by the skillful use of paint, color, and tone. The artist uses perspective to create an illusion of space and depth, setting the composition and lighting such that the subject appears real. 

• Mona Lisa Painting
• Techniques of the Old Masters: Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt

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

Painterly is a style or technique that can be realistic or abstract but celebrates more the use of paint, through evident brushwork and texture in the paint. It does 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.

How to Paint in a Painterly Style

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

Impressionism is an art style that is still much loved today and it's hard to imagine that when it first appeared on the art scene in Paris in the 19th century, most critics hated and ridiculed it. What was then regarded as an unfinished and rough painting style, is now loved as being the impact of light on nature filtered through an artistic eye to show the rest of us just what can be seen if you know how to look properly.

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

Expressionism and Fauvism are characterized by the artist not feeling compelled to use realistic colors or using perspective techniques to recreate an illusion of reality. Rather colors are selected to fit the emotion felt or to create emotional impact. 

In the example of this art style shown, for instance, while we know no-one's face is truly green, nor does anyone have a line around their chin or for a nose, we still recognize it as a painting of a face. But instead of it focusing on being a likeness of someone, it is a painting that conveys a sense of mood and emotion foremost.

 

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Art Style: Abstraction

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

Abstraction is about painting the essence of a subject or your interpretation of the subject rather than the visible realistic details, while still retaining an echo of whatever it is that prompted the initial idea (unlike a pure abstract). You might reduce the subject to the dominant colors, shapes, or patterns. You might remove the subject from its context and enlarge its scale as Georgia O'Keeffe does in her flower paintings. You might simplify your subject, eliminating detail in order to paint just enough to capture the character of the scene. 

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Mark Rothko
Matt Cardy / Getty Images

Pure abstract art  doesn't try to look like anything from the "real world," it is an art style that is intentionally non-representational. The subject or point of the painting is the colors used, the textures in the artwork, the materials used to create it.

At its worst, abstract art looks like an accidental mess of paint. At its best, it has an impact that strikes you from the moment you see it.

How to Interpret Abstract Art
How to Paint a Color-Field
• Painting Without a Road Map
Step-by-Step Demo: Abstract Art

 

Updated by Lisa Marder 7/3/16