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  • Writer's pictureDanny McShane

Just how realist?

Updated: Aug 26, 2023

My attention isn't usually held for long by abstract art, but I've been surprised to find I quickly lose interest in hyper-realism as well.

Shepherds Close Elgin, 15x22"
Possibly my favourite painting.

I was looking at some photorealistic paintings and marvelling at the skill involved when it struck me that I wasn't enjoying looking at the images so much as I was in awe of how they were produced. I mean, photos are photorealistic, but not all photos are attractive or interesting. And I've found some of the most realistic paintings to be quite forgettable -I'd have to look at them again to remind myself of their contents. That got me thinking about what it is I like most in painting.


I came to painting late, a few years ago, from zero artistic background or history (if you don't count O grade Engineering Drawing in 1976). I'd been very impressed by some paintings I'd seen by Andrew Pitt, the Suffolk watercolorist, and was tempted to try to it for myself. As soon as I saw watercolour doing its thing on paper in real timeI was hooked.


But there's 'a look' I particularly like and it is variously described as 'fresh' or 'loose' or 'näive' or even 'unfinished', or perhaps best and most inscrutably of all as"painterly". What it is, I think, is paintings that look like paintings.


If a painting looks extremely realistic I find I stop enjoying the image for what it is and start seeking the clues that really is a painting. I start "error hunting" and the spell of the work is broken. A less realistic painting can evoke a mood much more effectively than a photograph - possibly because there are idealisations and shortcuts involved -missing information if you like -and our minds and memories supply what's missing to greater effect than a mundane photo does.


More attractive colours and shadows and shapes can subtly enhance aspects of a painted scene over a real one. Evocations can be made with a choice of hue, and unfortunate coincidences can be altered. Reality can do what it likes of course, but when painting it there are rules to follow and coincidences to avoid if the painting is to look good. Think of poor photographic compositions - the painter has to avoid these as much as the photographer, despite them being 'true' representations of the real world through a particular lens at a particular time. In paintings, odd numbers tend to look better than even numbers; shadows and reflections follow rules; complex objects are simplified or suggested; outlines have to make sense. You can stretch some of the rules, but go too far and the image suddenly fails.


More than this though -since you could get this far by photoshopping a photograph to lower resolution and filtering colours and textures -there's an accessibility to the kind of watercolour I like best. Part of its attraction is saying to the viewer, "You could do this". It's not elitist or off-putting or challenging in a "See what I can do and you can't" way. It looks like a painter had so much fun painting it he's inviting others to join in.


I came across the saying once, "The difference between the artist and the "non-artist" isn't that one can paint, it's that one does paint". And again "There aren't creative people and non-creative people, but rather people who use their creativity and people who don't". Not all art is creative of course, but that's another discussion. For now I'm looking at the joy there is in exercising creativity -in making all the choices along the way to producing something enjoyable to produce and to look at. Something that in a small way makes the painter and the viewer just a little bit happier. I find fresh watercolour does this more than any other medium I know.


So, 'just how realist?' was the question I started with. The answer will be personal, of course. My own answer for now is a level that allows the painting to be its own object of attention as a painting, not just as a reference for its subject. I want to hang a watercolour painting on the wall, not just the scene it shows. I enjoy the look of fresh watercolour on paper so much that that's what I want to see when I look at it :o)


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Guest
Dec 29, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Thanks for that Danny. It's such a liberating point of view and comes across clearly in your paintings and sketches. I'm always trying to paint realistic details and yet I find I don't like detailed paintings nearly as much as I like yours. You've unlocked something for me with your comment about liking the look of the paint on the paper and not just the subject.

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Danny McShane
Danny McShane
Dec 29, 2023
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Thanks! I do vary the amount of detail to suit the subject, but mostly it's the suggestion of detail that carries the day. I just paint hints of how objects catch the light and create shadows. I'm always surprised how I can then see things in the painting that didn't actually paint, so it works even on the painter! I tend to use a soft but pointy mop (synthetic squirrel) most of the time and find it suits concentrating on bigger shapes and allows a little calligraphic work. Once I pick up a rigger I have to be really on my guard! 😂

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Guest
Aug 26, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

You've made some interesting observations, Danny 🙂. I hadn't really thought about this but Ido see what you're saying. The purpose of the artwork surely comes into it, whether as record, demonstration of skill, or purely aesthetic, and there's the simple freedom of artists to do what they want to to do or are commissioned to do , of course. But I can recognise that I've felt the same around some photorealistic works, though where I draw the line I'm not sure. Maybe some subjects suit it better than others? But figuring out our own preferences and articulating them can be interesting. Keep doing what you're doing! All the best, Jim P.

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Danny McShane
Danny McShane
Dec 29, 2023
Replying to

Cheers, Jim. Not that long ago I found myself wondering what the term "Fine Art" actually meant. I'd always assumed it meant 'the good stuff' 🤣. But I was delighted to read that it meant art without any other purpose... not commmercial art or design work or illustration or propaganda. That may or may not be correct, of course, but it struck me as the least cluttered way of thinking about painting. Painting without worrying about anything outside or after the painting -not sales, or marks, or client approval- is such an absorbing, satisfying, joyful experience . It might be a bit anti-establishment, and you might not make a living from it, but if you're doing it because you lo…

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