3 myths about realistic painting

Maybe this happened to you too. For a long time, I have been looking down at realistic painting as inferior to more contemporary streams. Sometimes bored by the subjects or overwhelmed by the narrative, there was a period when I turned away from the highest quality works by Ilya Repin and Karl Brullov and instead spent hours decoding modern art.


After studying at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg earlier this year, I am publicly declaring that I was wrong, very wrong. Perhaps, as a post-soviet child I just wanted to distance myself from the realistic school of art (with all the related political connotations it has in my country) and reiterated some of the common myths to justify that attitude.


Myth #1. Realistic painters cannot do modern art

Have you heard people say that realistic painters are over-trained and lack originality and freshness necessary to do modern art? I have seen some museum curators exaggerating this message when introducing impressionism to neophytes stating that this was the first artistic movement capturing fresh momentary impressions.


Guys, big news! Realistic painters have been doing quasi-impressionist artworks for many years, but they called them "oil sketches". These are preparatory quick studies made before the main artwork to document first emotions from the subject.


To give you an example, few weeks ago I stumbled across some preparatory oil sketches by Ilya Repin and could not believe my eyes - how modern and fresh they were. Perfectly suited for Musee d'Orsay:

Ilya Repin "Portrait of members of State Council Ivan Logginovich Goremykin and Nikolai Nikolayevich Gerard" (1903)

Myth #2. Realistic painters simply copy nature

Nothing could be farther from reality. As a realistic painter (photo realism excluded from this discussion), one draws inspiration from nature but then has to interpret it. How to do it without altering what you see? The toolkit is immense - composition, varying texture and edges, choice of focal point and colour scheme, etc.


Marie Pol "Cream floral" (2018). In realistic painting careful observation and choice of artistic means is required to reveal the subject's beauty

Without the interpretation and prioritization, a painting will simply boil down to a boring enumeration of details.


Myth #3. Realistic painting can be replaced by photography

Whoever says this, probably has never witnessed a process of creation which is almost a sacral affair. The painter observing the model with his/her entire self trying to compete with nature and in few hours (with just a brush and oil tubes) recreate the level of complexity that took millions of years to develop. This is ambitious, this is personal. Not to mention the fact that photography flattens certain colours and looses the finer nuances that human eye can perceive and human hand can capture.


Personally for me, painting from life requires an extremely personal exchange of energy, and I am incapable of painting subjects that don't trigger a loving response. The more I paint something, the more I know it, the more I like it. Once the session is over, I let it go, without attachment, with gratitude and humility.


Marie Pol "Intimate affair" (2018)

This post is dedicated to all my fellow artists practicing representational painting despite any market trends. This is hard work, but to bend the rules (which I am very keen on doing), you should first master them, isn't it?

Kind regards,

Marie Pol


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