Hyperrealism: What’s the Point? Do You Love or Loathe it?

As an artist who makes both representational and hyperrealistic art, I hear the same old angst-ridden question: “What’s the point of hyperrealism? You might as well take a photo”. I think I’m well placed to answer that question.

Hyperrealism is the illusion of reality. It is both an art form and a craft, and the admirer is in awe of both. A hyperrealist is able to go beyond a photographic likeness by manipulating detail to create an emotion in an otherwise stilted reference. Hyperrealistic art pushes the boundary of what is humanly possible.

Perhaps you disagree? I will use my own experiences to explain my motivation for making hyperrealistic art and reveal my reservations. It might change your stance. Let’s start.

Is There a Difference Between Photorealism and Hyperrealism?

I must confess that until I sat down to write this post, I would’ve said instinctively, that hyperrealism and photorealism are one and the same thing. Well, perhaps there is a subtle difference.

There seems to be a consensus that hyperrealism is an extension of photorealism. The latter is the painstaking copying of a photograph, reproduced as a 2D image, such as drawing, painting, or digital, while the former includes sculpting.

Photorealists can be said to copy any given photograph faithfully, while hyperrealists transcend photography by adding emotion to the subject. The nuance dividing the two is so subjective, it’s meaningless.

Hyperrealistic drawing of an elephant drinking from a bottle
Hyperrealism or Photorealism? You decide.

Is Hyperrealism Art?

Anyone who disparages hyperrealism as ‘only a photograph’ obviously has contempt for photography as an art form too. Hyperrealism is an extension of photography. It exists mainly because cameras have made striking imagery accessible to all.

Photorealism existed well before modern cameras. You only have to look at Vermeer and his use of a camera obscura if you doubt it. Can anyone claim, with any conviction, that his paintings are not art?

The element that was absent, before the invention of film cameras, was movement. When cameras were advanced enough to capture every kind of pose, movement, and composition, hyperrealists could take advantage of it.

We all look for different things in art, indeed art is one of those nebulous words that people define in their own way.

Some people want art to make a statement, others look for emotion. Some want to see a demonstration of craft, while others want abstract color. We all have our own preferences and parameters that guide our opinions.

As for my opinion, of course, hyperrealism is art. It’s another way of seeing, what else can it be? It may not be to everyone’s taste, Tracy Emin’s work is not mine, but everything creative, made by people, and reflecting the life around us, has to be an art form.

Where the confusion lies, is in the sourcing of the image.

An artist who faithfully reproduces someone else’s photograph is not creating much. It’s little more than a tribute or homage to the originator. Yes, it may well be a fine example of technical prowess, but I would argue that the photographer is the artist and the painter is the crafter.

Further Reading: Is Drawing From Photos Bad?

Things change when artists take their own photographs.

A photograph is only one stage in the creative process. The image is as unique, as a fingerprint. It didn’t exist before, and it will never exist again. For the art to have merit, the photo has to be taken by the artist.

The artist captures the moment, chooses the subject, and makes the composition, and then goes on to render that imagery in another medium.

If that is not art, I’m mystified.

Why Do Some Artists and Critics Hate Hyperrealism?

I suspect that some critics despise realistic art mainly because there is less to interpret. How can you be an expert and have great insight if the art is so easily understood?

Realism is easy to grasp. The first question people ask me is a simple one:

“How did you do that?”

Why shouldn’t they? They don’t ask what it means because they couldn’t care less. The appeal lies in the fascination of the process combined with the strength of the image. The impact is visceral, not intellectual.

Critics dismiss realism as merely mindless copying, lacking in imagination or originality. They brush it aside simply because they assume it’s creator is on mechanical autopilot with no input beyond the gimmick of being able to draw.

They despise the very things that the public enjoys most. If something is popular then it can’t be any good. Much of the criticism is nothing more than art snobbery and elitism.

The overwhelming reason some critics dislike hyper or photorealism is that they think it’s just the same as taking a photo. It’s as if photography is so trivial that anything related to it must be equally as shallow.

Hyperrealistic drawing of a giant tortoise by Kevin Hayler
‘Looking Good’ by Kevin Hayler

What critics fail to understand, and fully appreciate, is how highly the public regards those things in life they couldn’t possibly do themselves.

The seemingly impossible adds a sense of wonder and intrigue. Half the fun is figuring out how the hell anyone can do it.

The public is underwhelmed by art they think anyone can do. They don’t see anything unique in it.

Critics, and some artists, like to intellectualize art. They do it with impenetrable art jargon to separate themselves from the ignorant masses. It’s all smoke and mirrors, it gives authority to people whose opinion has no more validity than anyone else.

It reminds me of a job I once had in a tree nursery. I could hoodwink a customer into thinking I was an expert just by dropping in a few Latin names. It’s all BS of course.

And let’s be honest, some artists feel threatened by those who can draw very well. Many artists are insecure and jealousy is commonplace. Instead of just getting on with what they enjoy doing, they prefer to belittle and dismiss others. It challenges their self-worth.

The problem some people have with realism is it can be judged objectively.

  • Does it look real or not?
  • Is the perspective right?
  • Are the shadows in the right place?
  • Does the portrait look like the sitter?
  • Are the colors correct?

Only the image is subjective. Anyone can debate what the artist was trying to say, it’s fun and it’s all conjecture, but that discussion starts from a tangible base. Everyone knows the artist was in full control and intended to draw that particular line or paint that colour.

Sure there can be an element of grandstanding and showing off when it comes to hyperrealists. It does say ‘look at what I can do.’ So what?

Any artist putting themselves out there, on public display, wants the same thing. We all crave attention and hyperrealism gets you noticed.

Stylized or abstract art relies much more on serendipity and happenstance. No one will ever know what the artist was ever intending to do. Probably nothing. If everything is subjective there’s only flights of fancy to talk about.

Further Reading: Is Art Subjective?

The Argument for Hyperrealistic art

I got into Hyperrealism by accident. It evolved through circumstances. I wasn’t always so obsessed with detail. I gradually got ‘better’ at drawing because I worked in front of the public.

Each day I would sit down at a market stall and draw in order to entice my customers over to have a look and sell them my prints.

My first portfolio of drawings were life-like and representational. All the proportions were correct, but I saw no reason to waste time on pointless detail.

That began to change as I people stopped to watch me draw. I got more reaction when I added detail. It didn’t matter how long a drawing took because I was using it as a sales prop.

Hyperrealistic Drawing of a Dolphin swimming in shallow water by Kevin Hayler
Hyperrealistic Drawing of a Dolphin

In fact, there came a point where there was a disincentive to finish a drawing. It was like throwing money away. I could gain more sales by having a half completed hyperrealistic drawing on display. Some of my ‘works in progress’ were on the drawing board all summer long.

I didn’t set out with the intension of taking weeks to complete a drawing. The very thought of it would’ve made my younger self shudder. When I first started selling art I would curse myself if I took longer than a day to do anything.

I drew to impress and it worked. The public were fascinated, not just by the skill, but the personality type that can focus for that long.

You’ve got the patience of a saint”

In truth, I hardly did anything at home. I drew at work, because it was work. When I got home the last thing I wanted to do was to sit down and draw.

It was also far too lonely to stay in all day and draw for hours. Why would I do that? I could do it in front of people but not alone. It would drive me mad. The only reason I could draw photographically was because I was drawing to please an audience.

Is that not a great reason to do anything? I like pleasing people and I like selling pictures I’ve created to people who get something out of it. There is no better reason to do art than that.

Not only that. I used the cash I made every summer to travel in the winter to photograph the wildlife I would draw the following summer.

And don’t think I take brilliant photos. Finding wildlife and getting great photos takes patience, luck, and skill. I can manage 2 out of 3. My camera skills are limited. It would help if I could afford the right kit, but I can’t. I make do with what I have.

I mix and match my imagery and improvise.

photorealistic drawing of a white rhino with the original reference photo
The Reference Photo and the Drawing

I’ll take several elements and recompose the image entirely. If my photos lack definition, I’ll sharpen them in the dawing. If my reference photo is bleached or cropped badly, I’ll reconstruct the missing detail.

  • I’ll add personality,
  • Change the expression,
  • Change the direction of the eyes,
  • Flip images around,
  • Add or subtract backgrounds,
  • Blur out forgrounds,
  • Make day into night.

I make sure any additions are accurate. If I add foliage or birds to the scene, I want them to be authentic and to scale.

Further Reading: How to Plan and Compose Your Art

I’ll notice one good element of a useless photo and draw just that one small part.

I’ll add detail and contrast that was never present in the reference.

What I don’t do is blindly copy a photo

So when critics dismiss my art, and some do, as meaningless copying, I find it quite ill-informed.

Conclusion

Now just to throw a spanner in the works, I think I’m done with hyperrealism. I’ve proved to myself that I can get to that level and I know the public like to see it, but it’s time to back-track.

I developed my style through circumstances, not so much by choice. What hyperrealism lacks is the painterly feel of art. There is a lot to be said for ‘less is more’ in art, and it’s not something I’m good at. Besides, hyperrealism takes so much time.

I’ve learned how to add everything, now I have to learn how to subtract it.


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