Photorealism: Paintings That Look Like Photographs

Yigal Ozeri, Diner Americana

In most instances,  we can differentiate paintings from photographs by discerning visible paint strokes or their lack of minute details. This isn’t to say that Van Gogh-style portraits are not intricate; they involve countless hours of detail that make them the masterpieces we know today. But hyperrealism paintings elevate intricacy to new heights. Seemingly microscopic dots illustrate pores and paper-thin hair strokes to construct the illusion of a photograph. This technique is known as photorealism.

 

Realistic paintings typically use specific paints and brushes to obtain their desired effects. Artists use a select handful of high-quality paints and mix one with another to get the perfect shade. Underpainting, a common technique, helps add and accentuate depth and dimension. This is key when painting a realistic portrait—some makeup artists use the very same technique to highlight a client’s features. This process of underpainting, as Cuong Nguyen illustrates in this step-by-step process, depicts the technique and its stunning final result.

Fabiano Milani, Golden Passion, 2020

Fabiano Millani is famous for his hyper-realistic paintings. Millani’s signature element is painting dripping a honey-like liquid on his portraits. In a world where artists constantly try to separate themselves from one another, Millani’s motif certainly sets him aside from his peers. His paintings are so detailed that you can’t help but zoom in and stare at the painting, searching for a paint stroke to prove it is indeed a painting and not a photograph.

 

However, hard work comes with a price. Photorealistic artwork requires hours of tedious, painstaking work. Diego Fazio, a hyperrealism artist, is known for his black-and-white drawings that resemble photographs. His piece Riflesso is listed at $22,670, while his other listings can range from $1,800 to more than $19,000, depending on the size of the canvas and its level of intricacy.

Robin Eley, Mona Lisa Wrapped, 2017
Robin Eley, Mona Lisa Wrapped, 2017 
Robin Eley, Silent Respiration, 2023
Robin Eley, Silent Respiration, 2023

Having a unique niche in an ever-growing industry is paramount to a successful career. Similar to Millani and Fazio, Robin Eley uses an eccentric theme: plastic wrap. The Australian artist paints portraits, occasionally referencing famous artwork like the Mona Lisa, and wraps the subject in plastic wrap. Eley’s dedication to hyperrealism doesn’t stop at the edge of the canvas. He extends the painting outwards to create different heights surrounding the canvas, maximizing its lifelike effect. He depicts the appearance of plastic wrap around the paintings because it is “something you can see through, but not feel through,” emphasizing the perception of isolation in our world.

Yigal Ozeri, Gyro Stand
Yigal Ozeri, Gyro Stand

While painting portraits is already an incredibly painstaking task, combining landscapes and people is a whole new level of difficulty. Israeli artist Yigal Ozeri’s collection of artwork appears to be a compilation of photographs—but is actually a gallery of exquisite and hyperrealistic oil paintings. Ozeri’s portrayal of common spaces, such as diners and gyro stands, is extremely complex and requires more details than just freckles and smile lines. These paintings incorporate other small elements that transform oil paints into a photograph. Background characters, lights, curtains, letters, focal points, trees, and cars are everyday objects we tend to overlook. But to achieve the level of hyperrealism Ozeri strives for, every little detail must be studied and replicated perfectly.

Daniel Mullen, works on wooden panel
Daniel Mullen, works on wooden panel
Daniel Mullen, works on wooden panel

Photorealism does not always capture portraits or landscapes. Abstract art and photorealism can often overlap, creating a painting that appears to be a digital photo or an AI-generated image. David Mullen is a prime example of combining the look of digital art and traditional painting. His detailed artwork highlights the importance of linework, highlights, and shadows. Mullen’s pieces are reminiscent of art installations and structures you may find in a local park.

 

Artistic talent is undoubtedly impressive in all forms. But when an artist can take one medium and manipulate it to transform it into another form of art is a level of skill that requires years of practice and dedication. Attention to detail is paramount when creating a painting that is categorically photorealism. Without it, viewers may easily discover the work’s true identity: an oil painting. Photorealism is a unique reminder to always double-check what you’re actually looking at, for there is always more information below the surface level.


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