A Philosopher's Blog

Is Photorealistic Drawing Art?

Posted in Aesthetics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on August 31, 2012
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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12 Responses

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  1. T. J. Babson said, on August 31, 2012 at 8:54 am

    Of course it is art, because one of the things that distinguishes art is that nobody has the authority to say what is and isn’t art.

    • T. J. Babson said, on August 31, 2012 at 8:56 am

      Of course it is not art, because one of the things that distinguishes art is that nobody has the authority to say what is and isn’t art.

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on August 31, 2012 at 9:38 am

      But you just said it was art. :)

  2. abjectbooks said, on September 1, 2012 at 8:15 am

    I judge Art-ness by the presence of commentary. The way I see it, all Art contains some form of commentary — even if it is only “Hey, I thought this looked cool enough to paint/draw/photograph(/etc.) this.” At the very least the artist is making a statement with their taking the time to do it. In photography the statement may just be “I see this, and I think you should see it as well.” I don’t think it’s possible to create meaninglessly.

    Specifically to the Bic pen thing, if nothing else that says “Paint? Paint is for amateurs… I’m good with a couple pens, thanks.” A million years ago (high school), I would draw for hours trying to figure out how to shade with a black ball point pen. At one point I got decent enough at it that it looked like a photocopy of a pencil drawing — I was thrilled!

  3. [...] Is Photorealistic Drawing Art? [...]

    • Erik Brush said, on December 27, 2012 at 3:22 pm

      No it encompasses a huge range of media. There are photo-realistic painters, sketchers, color pencil artists, pyrographers (woodburners), airbrush artists, etc.

  4. Jimmy Macintosh said, on October 16, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    I’m curious as to how Roger Scruton would tackle this- he doesn’t think that photographs are art and as films are just quickly moving frames he extends the argument to that as well.

  5. Erik Brush said, on December 27, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    This is the biggest load of crap that I have ever heard as an excuse by untalented “artists” and I use the term loosely, to justify their inability to create photo-realistic artwork. In fair deference to those who are fans of abstract art, impressionism, art deco, surrealism, and the various media forms that any three year old with functioning hands and a creative urge can produce I will concede that I was once asked my definition of what constitutes art? At the time my response had been, “Art is a visual interpretation of an image or emotion.” So in that broad sense, the people who express their emotions or images in the previously mentioned media are technically able to be called artists. But let me be very clear, the author of this article is like many other art teachers, obviously trying to justify their own inability to compose such masterful work as photo-realistic artists produce by denigrating it and relegating it to being the work of a human “photo-copy machine.” What a crock of crap! I hear this sort of whiny intellectualism applied to attempt to rationalize the woefull lack of skill sets to produce true masterful artwork. In my book the only real art of any merit is photo-realism. An while I will confess to having seen some very pleasant compositions in abstracts and other forms of artwork, there is a difference between enjoying a color pallet and having the skill to actually do something that looks like the world around you regardless of the subject matter chosen. Kudos to sculptors, sketchers, painters, pyrographers, color pencil artists, and anyone else capable of producing “realistsic” image. As for the rest of the pseudo artists and wanna-be artists out there, if it makes you happy to call yourselves artists and if you enjoy what you do then more power to you. But don’t buy into this garbage about photo-realism not being art to make yourselves feel somehow more talented or gifted than you actually are. Seriously! Wake up!

    • Michael LaBossiere said, on December 27, 2012 at 5:52 pm

      You mostly just have ad hominem attacks and insults here.

      Your definition of “art”, “Art is a visual interpretation of an image or emotion”, seems to be too narrow and probably too broad as well. In terms of the narrow part, there are other arts than visual arts (such as music). However, it could be assumed that you were focusing on visual arts in this context.

      Differences of opinion are always welcome, but some civility is expected.

    • biomass2 said, on December 27, 2012 at 7:32 pm

      I’m sure everyone who agrees with your view agrees with you.

      However, anyone who has taken the time to look at the early drawings, etchings, etc. of some of the great 20th century artists can be certain they did not choose their paths “to justify their inability to create photo-realistic artwork”
      I beg to differ with your implications (somewhat rudely presented) that they are “. . .obviously trying to justify their own inability to compose such masterful work as photo-realistic artists produce. . .” and
      “there is a difference between enjoying a color pallet and having the skill to actually do something that looks like the world around you regardless of the subject matter chosen”.

      Indeed, it could be argued that photo-realistic painting is ^a^ path that an artist who fears “going where no other artist has gone before” might choose to take. It’s a different path, yes, but it’s a relatively small step from photography and the works of the Masters , like Da Vinci and Raphael.

      Estes’ work is wonderful. Trompe l’oeil art is mind-blowing. A walk down the street in many French cities will expose you to very impressive paintings of ‘people’ leaning out of ‘windows’ and waving. Is that art better than PIcasso’s work or Van Gogh’s? Because they chose a different path? Seriously.

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