From Realism to Abstract (Art Styles for Absolute Beginners)

Learning about different art styles painters have created, and trying different approaches, are all part of the journey of discovering what you enjoy the most and developing your own painting. This list outlines major art styles from most realistic to least; it is by no means a comprehensive list, but a starting point.

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 world events. Part of the joy of painting in the 21st century is the range of art styles to choose from and the freedom to experiment. We learn by looking, copying, and transforming.

Art Style: Photorealism (“It looks like a photo”)
Photorealism, Super Realism, Sharp Focus Realism, Hyper Realism, call it whichever of these labels you prefer and argue about the minute details between them, but ultimately they’re all art styles where the illusion of reality is created through paint so the result looks more like a large, sharply focused photo than anything else. It’s a style which often seems more real than reality, with detail down to the last grain of sand and wrinkle on someone’s face. Where nothing is left out, nothing is too insignificant or unimportant not to be included in the painting. Though it doesn’t mean an artist painting in this style doesn’t consider the arrangement of things to make a stronger composition.
Find out more: Photorealism from the Scottish National Gallery

Art Style: Realism (“It looks real”)
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. From a little distance everything looks “real” but up close you’ll see it’s an illusion created by skillful use of paint, of color and tone. The artist uses perspective to create an illusion of reality, setting the composition and lighting to make the most of the subject.
Find out more: Realism from the Scottish National Gallery

Art Style: Painterly (“see the hand of the artist”)
Painterly is an art style that is close to realism but celebrates more the use of paint, through evident brushwork and texture in the paint. It doesn’t try to hide what was used to create the painting by smoothing out any texture or marks left in the paint by a brush.

Art Style: Impressionism (“capturing the light of a moment”)
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.
Find out more: Impressionism from the Scottish National Gallery

Art Quote: Monet on Landscape

Art Style: Post-Impressionism/Expressionism / Fauvism (“colour for emotion”)
A broad category of “what happened after Impressionism”. Think Van Gogh and Matisse. 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.
Find out more: Post-Impressionism from the Scottish National Gallery

Art Style: Pop Art
Using the conventions of comic book design, advertising and commercial illustration.
Find out more: Pop Art from the Scottish National Gallery

Art Style: Abstraction
Abstraction is about painting the essence of a subject rather than the detail, but still retaining an echo of whatever it is that prompted the idea (unlike a pure abstract). You might reduce the subject to the dominant colors, shapes, or patterns. Think reduced reality the detail you need to paint the character of the scene.

Art Style: Abstract (“Shape, colour, pattern”)
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 a accidental mess of paint. At its best, it has an impact that strikes you from the moment you see it.
Find out more: Abstract Art from the Scottish National Gallery

2 Replies to “From Realism to Abstract (Art Styles for Absolute Beginners)”

  1. Tell me about the term “Contemporary Art;” I hear it used SO many different ways that it seems meaningless (beyond the obvious ‘art created recently’). I’ve become confused!

    1. I think it is a vague generally meaningless description beyond meaning an artist living and working at the moment. A label related to when it was created rather than style or subject or medium.

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