6 Realistic Styles in Modern Art

Photorealism, Hyperrealism, Metarealism, and More

Hands reach torward a realistic sculpture of a miniature sleeping couple
"Spooning Couple" (2005), a Hyperrealistic Minature Sculpture Ron Mueck (Cropped). Photo by Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

Realism is back. Realistic, or representational, art fell out of favor with the advent of photography, but today's painters and sculptors are reviving old techniques and giving reality a whole new spin. Check out these six dynamic approaches to realistic art. 

Photorealism

Realistic painting with old photos, lipstick, candle, rose, and portrait of artist Audrey Flack.
Artist Audrey Flack With Her Photorealistic Painting, "Marilyn," from her "Vanitas" Series, 1977 (Cropped). Photo by Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images

Artists have used photography for centuries. In the 1600s, the Old Masters may have experimented with optical devices. During the 1800s, the development of photography influenced the Impressionist Movement. As photography became more sophisticated, artists explored ways modern technologies could help create ultra-realistic paintings.

The Photorealism Movement evolved during the late 1960s. Artists tried to produce exact copies of photographed images. Some artists projected photographs onto their canvases and used airbrushes to replicate details. 

Early Photorealists like Robert Bechtle, Charles Bell, and John Salt painted photographic images of cars, trucks, billboards, and household items. In many ways, these works resemble the Pop Art of painters like Andy Warhol, who famously replicated supersized versions of Campbell's soup cans. However, Pop Art has a clearly artificial two-dimensional appearance, whereas Photorealism leaves the viewer gasping, "I can't believe that's a painting!"

Contemporary artists use photorealistic techniques to explore an unlimited range of subjects. Bryan Drury paints breathtakingly realistic portraits. Jason de Graaf paints irreverent still lifes of objects like melting ice cream cones. Gregory Thielker captures landscapes and settings with high-resolution detail.

Photorealist Audrey Flack (shown above) moves beyond the limitations of literal representation. Her painting Marilyn is a monumental composition of super-sized images inspired by the life and death of Marilyn Monroe. The unexpected juxtaposition of unrelated objects—a pear, a candle, a tube of lipstick—creates a narrative.

Flack describes her work as Photorealist, but because she distorts scale and introduces deeper meanings, she might also be classified as a Hyperrealist

Hyperrealism

A man sits beside an enormous sculpture of a dying woman
"In Bed," a Mega-sized, Hyper-real Sculpture by Ron Mueck, 2005. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell via Getty Images

Photorealists of the 1960s and '70s did not usually alter scenes or interject hidden meanings, but as technologies evolved, so did the artists who drew inspiration from photography. Hyperrealism is Photorealism on hyperdrive. Colors are crisp, details more precise, and subjects more controversial.

Hyperrealism—also known as Super-realism, Mega-realism, or Hyper-realism—employs many of the techniques of trompe l'oeil. Unlike trompe l'oeil, however, the goal is not to fool the eye. Instead, hyperrealistic art calls attention to its own artifice. Features are exaggerated, scale is altered, and objects are placed in startling, unnatural settings.

In paintings and in sculpture, Hyperrealism aspires to do more than impress viewers with the artist's technical finesse. By challenging our perceptions of reality, Hyperrealists comment on social concerns, political issues, or philosophical ideas.

For example, Hyperrealist sculptor Ron Mueck (1958- ) celebrates the human body and the pathos of birth and death. He uses resin, fiberglass, silicone, and other materials to construct figures with soft, chillingly life-like skin. Veined, wrinkled, pockmarked, and stubbled, the bodies are disturbingly believable.

Yet, at the same time, Mueck's sculptures are unbelievable. The lifelike figures are never life-sized. Some are enormous, while others are miniatures. Viewers often find the effect disorienting, shocking, and provocative.

Surrealism

Surrealistic painting of a man with one eye visible behind a mask.
Detail of "Autoretrato," Surrealistic Painting by Juan Carlos Liberti, 1981 (Cropped). Photo by SuperStock via GettyImages

Composed of dream-like images, Surrealism strives to capture the flotsam of the subconscious mind. Surrealistic paintings and sculpture may defy the laws of nature. Images are disconnected from the rational world, yet they remain recognizable.

There's nothing intrinsically modern about surrealistic art. Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) painted fantastic scenes of demons and symbolic figures. Giuseppe Arcimboldo (1527–1593) painted human faces made of fruit and flowers. In the 20th century, however, Surrealism flourished as a formal movement. Inspired by the psychological teachings of Freud and by Dada artists who rebelled against convention, Surrealists looked for ways to explore nonrational thought.

Painters like Max Ernst (1891-1976), René Magritte (1898-1967), and Salvadore Dalí (1904-1989) are called Surrealists because they used precise details and other techniques of realism to capture the terrors, longings, and absurdities of the human psyche. Their bizarre scenes contained psychological, if not literal, truths.

Surrealism expanded into the world of sculpture, photography, film, and, eventually, the digital arts. For contemporary examples of surrealistic art, explore the work of Kris Lewis or Mike Worrall, and also check out the paintings, sculptures, collages, and digital renderings by artists who classify themselves as Magic Realists and Metarealists.

Magic Realism

Tall buildings line a city street filled with trees
"Factories" by Magic Realist Painter Arnau Alemany (Cropped). Photo by DEA / G. DAGLI ORTI via Getty Images

Somewhere between Surrealism and Photorealism lies the mystical landscape of Magic Realism, or Magical Realism. In literature and in the visual arts, Magic Realists draw upon the techniques of Traditional Realism to depict quiet, everyday scenes. Yet beneath the ordinary, there's always something mysterious and extraordinary.

Andrew Wyeth (1917-2009) might be called a Magic Realist because he used light, shadow, and desolate settings to suggest wonder and lyrical beauty. Wyeth's famous Christina's World (1948) shows what seems to be a young woman reclined in a vast field. We see only the back of her head as she gazes at a distant house. There's something unnatural about the woman's pose and the asymmetrical composition. Perspective is oddly distorted. "Christina's World" is real and unreal, simultaneously. 

Contemporary Magic Realists move beyond the mysterious into the fabulist. Their works can be considered Surrealist, but the surreal elements are subtle and might not be immediately apparent. For example, artist Arnau Alemany (1948- ) merged two ordinary scenes in "Factories." At first, the painting appears to be a mundane illustration of tall buildings and smokestacks. However, instead of a city street, Alemany painted a lush forest. Both the buildings and the forest are familiar and credible. Placed together, they become strange and magical.

Metarealism

Painting of a wizard with the head of a fish
"Necromancer with Box," Oil on Canvas by Ignacio Auzike, 2006. Image by Ignacio Auzike via GettyImages

Art in the Metarealism tradition doesn't look real. Although there might be recognizable images, the scenes depict alternate realities, alien worlds, or spiritual dimensions. 

Metarealism evolved from the work of early 20th century painters who believed that art could explore existence beyond human consciousness. Italian painter and writer Giorgio de Chirico (1888–1978) founded Pittura Metafisica (Metaphysical Art), a movement that combined art with philosophy. Metaphysical artists were known for painting faceless figures, eerie lighting, impossible perspective, and stark, dreamlike vistas.

Pittura Metafisica was short-lived, but during the 1920s and 1930s, the movement influenced contemplative paintings by Surrealists and Magic Realists. A half century later, artists began using the abbreviated term Metarealism, or Meta-realism, to describe brooding, enigmatic art with a spiritual, supernatural, or futuristic aura.

Metarealism is not a formal movement, and the distinction between Metarealism and Surrealism is nebulous. Surrealists aspire to capture the subconscious mind—the fragmented memories and impulses that lie below the level of consciousness. Metarealists are interested in the superconscious mind—a higher level of awareness that perceives many dimensions. Surrealists describe absurdity, while Metarealists describe their vision of possible realities.

Artists Kay Sage (1898–1963) and Yves Tanguy (1900-1955) are usually described as Surrealists, but the scenes they painted have the eerie, other-worldly aura of Metarealism. For 21st century examples of Metarealism, explore the work of Victor Bregeda, Joe Joubert, and Naoto Hattori.

Expanding computer technologies have given a new generation of artists enhanced ways to represent visionary ideas. Digital painting, digital collage, photo manipulation, animation, 3D rendering, and other digital art forms lend themselves to Metarealism. Digital artists often use these computer tools to create hyper-real images for posters, advertisements, book covers, and magazine illustrations.

Traditional Realism

Realistic pastel illustration of grazing sheep
"All the Sheep Came to the Party," Pastel on Board, 1997, by Helen J. Vaughn (Cropped). Photo by Helen J. Vaughn / GettyImages

While modern-day ideas and technologies have infused energy into the Realism movement, traditional approaches never went away. In the mid-20th century, followers of scholar and painter Jacques Maroger (1884-1962) experimented with historic paint mediums to replicate the trompe l'oeil realism of the Old Masters.

Maroger's movement was just one of many that promoted traditional aesthetics and techniques. Various ateliers, or private workshops, continue to emphasize mastery and an age-old vision of beauty. Through teaching and scholarship, organizations like the Art Renewal Center and the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art steer clear of modernism and advocate for historic values.

Traditional Realism is straightforward and detached.The painter or sculptor exercises artistic skill without experimentation, exaggeration, or hidden meanings. Abstraction, absurdity, irony, and wit do not play a role because Traditional Realism values beauty and precision above personal expression. 

Encompassing Classical Realism, Academic Realism, and Contemporary Realism, the movement has been called reactionary and retro. However, Traditional Realism is widely represented in fine art galleries as well as commercial outlets such as advertising and book illustration. Traditional Realism is also the favored approach for presidential portraits, commemorative statues, and similar types of public art.

Among the many notable artists who paint in a traditional representational style are Douglas Hofmann, Juan Lascano, Jeremy Lipkin, Adam Miller, Gregory Mortenson, Helen J. Vaughn, Evan Wilson, and David Zuccarini

Sculptors to watch for include Nina Akamu, Nilda Maria Comas, James Earl Reid, and Lei Yixin.

What's Your Reality?

For more trends in representational art, check out Social Realism, Nouveau Réalisme (New Realism), and Cynical Realism.

Resources and Further Reading