Is Hyperrealism Art or a Skill? What’s the Point?

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

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

Hyperrealism is an art form if the artist uses their own photographic images. It’s a technical skill if the artist relies on 3rd party images. A good hyperrealist is able to go beyond slavishly copying a photograph by knowing how to manipulate the detail and recompose the image, to enhance the emotional impact.

The aim of hyperrealism is to create a totally convincing false reality in the eye of the viewer and to leave them in awe at the high level of skill involved.

Perhaps you disagree? I will use my own experiences to explain my motivation for making hyperrealistic pencil drawings and reveal my reservations too. It might change your stance.

Let’s start.

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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 the hyperreal paintings of the Dutch artist Vermeer if you have any doubts. Can anyone claim, with any conviction, that his paintings are not fine art?

The one 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, hyperrealist artists could take advantage of it.

In my opinion, 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 to mine, but everything creative, made by human beings, 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 craftsperson.

Read this post: Is Drawing From Reference Photos Bad? Are You Cheating?

The 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 matter, makes the composition, and then goes on to render that imagery in another medium.

If that is not art, I’m mystified.

This post might help: Where to Find Wildlife Subjects to Draw, Paint, and Photograph

If you need more help with drawing, then I urge you to check out
Dorian Iten on Proko. His course is reasonably priced and inspiring

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.

Check out these influential artists for inspiration:

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
‘Bottle Fed’ A Pencil Drawing by Kevin Hayler

Wildlife art is the perfect art genre for photorealistic painting. Take a look at these talented artists and be amazed:

Each artist has his own style yet all of them are photographic realists.

If you need an accessible entry into photorealism, have a look at Jason Morgan and watch a few of his videos.

Why Do Some Artists and Critics Hate Hyperrealism?

I suspect that some critics despise hyperrealist paintings and drawings because there is less to interpret. It makes them redundant. How can you be an expert in the world of art if it’s 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 drawing skills combined with the strength of the image. The impact is visceral, not intellectual.

Critics dismiss hyperrealistic paintings and drawings as mindless copying, lacking in imagination or originality. They brush it aside simply because they assume its creator is on autopilot with no input beyond the gimmick of being able to draw in detail.

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 snobbery and elitism.

The overwhelming reason some critics dislike the works of photorealists is the assumption that it’s the same as taking photographs. 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, mystery, and intrigue. Half the fun of photo-realism 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. The supposed meaning is pretentious nonsense.

Critics, and some artists in the art world, like to intellectualize art. They discuss it with impenetrable art jargon in order 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 cut to the chase, 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, it challenges their self-worth, and they prefer to belittle others. It’s sad.

A lot of people have a problem with hyperrealism because it can be judged objectively:

  • Does it look life-like or not?
  • Is the perspective correct or not?
  • Do the shadows fall 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 with realism, that discussion starts from a tangible base. Everyone knows the artist was in full control of their craft and medium. Their use of color and line is deliberate.

Sure there can be an element of grandstanding and showing off when it comes to hyperrealism. The artist is saying ‘look at what I can do.’

Does that matter? Any artist putting themselves out there, on public display, craves attention, and with hyperrealism, you certainly get noticed.

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

The Argument for Hyperrealistic Art

I got into Hyperrealism by accident. It evolved through circumstances. I wasn’t always obsessed with detailed works of art. My drawings became more realistic because I worked in front of the public, in the real world.

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

My drawings were always life-like and representational, in as much as the proportions were correct, but I saw no reason to waste time on pointless detail.

That began to change as people stopped to watch me draw.

Read this post: Is It Okay To Draw in Public? – The Experience of an Artist

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 to attract customers.

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

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 piece of art on display. Some of my ‘works in progress’ were on the drawing board all summer long!

I didn’t set out with the intention 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.

If you want to know exactly how I make a living, I’ll show you step-by-step! All you’ve got to do is copy the idea.

Selling art made simple banner

I drew to impress and it worked. The public was fascinated, not just by the amount of skill involved, but how I could focus for that length of time.

“You’ve got the patience of a saint”

In truth, I hardly drew anything at home. I drew at work. When I got home the last thing I wanted to do was to sit down and draw. It was also far too lonely and boring to stay in all day and draw for hours on end. Why would I do that?

Read about the subject here: Is Being an Artist Lonely? Read The Truth

I could draw in front of people, but not alone. It would drive me mad. The only reason I could draw photographically was because I drew 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.

Read this post if you are stuck: How to Get Back into Drawing Again After a Long Break

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 drawing. 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 foregrounds,
  • 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.

Read how to: How to Plan and Compose Your Art: A Guide for Beginners

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.

Hyperrealistic Drawing: Final Thoughts

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 likes to see it, but I can’t take it any further. It’s time to backtrack.

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.

And this guy does just that. Stephen draws the way I only dream about. Sure he does portraits while I do animals, but just look at his technique. He paints with pencils! Brilliant.

Learn how Stephen manages to capture the atmosphere in pencil, with his course on

Stephen Bauman is a classically trained artist and has a very academic approach to his art. This guy knows his stuff and is a very good tutor

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit

If you want to know exactly how I make a living, I’ll show you step-by-step! All you’ve got to do is copy the idea.

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If You Want to Sell Your Art

Check this out!

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Hyperrealism. What's the Point?
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

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