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The New Art Market: Contemporary Realism

“The human soul needs beauty more than bread.” – D.H. Lawrence

artist sitting

Realism encourages creating works of art inspired by our own experiences in nature and life.

While learning how to paint, a beginner realist artist produces art which may be called representational. However, as one gains brush mileage and experience, the powers of observation are also deepened. The artist now becomes adept at seeing and catching the mood of the subject; and the colors, form, texture and the light playing on the subject excite the artist’s creativity more than the subject itself. The artist’s compositions grow more “mature”, and these paintings now tell a story, instead of just being a harmonious collection of static forms and shapes.

How is Contemporary Realism different from Classical Realism which flourished in Europe in the 16th century?

artist model

Our notion of what is beautiful varies with time, with culture and is also influenced by the requirements of art patrons. Devotional subjects were much admired. Artists in those times were really passionate about their work and sought to capture genuine beauty using creative stratagems. For example, when painting The Mona Lisa, it is said that Leonardo Da Vinci set up music and performers in his studio for his model which produced her enigmatic smile; and Da Vinci was able to capture a deeper and truer character of the lady. In contrast, some artists, to please their patrons, sought to create paintings which celebrated an idealized form of beauty and falsely glorified their patrons.

While Classical Realism immortalizes the mood of the Middle Ages, Contemporary Realism, examines those subjects in our everyday life which are meaningful for today’s viewers. The compositions and color palette of the contemporary realist are in consonance with the modern concepts of beauty and relate events in our world today.

In the old days, color pigments were hard to find, knowledge was limited to those accepted in the art guilds and techniques were jealously guarded. In contrast, the abundance of art supplies, pigments and educational opportunities available today have resulted in a tremendous number of new art forms and new painting techniques. Paradoxically, the modern artist faces unique challenges in assimilating the plethora of tools and techniques to create true works of art and not just mass production Photoshop templates.

Abstract vs Realism

Inevitably, the proponents of these multiple art styles find themselves in conflict with each other, specially the abstract impressionists who believe their style to be more cerebral such that it is not limited by tools or techniques.

However, artists who are passionate about contemporary realism realize that digital tools and technical skills by themselves would not produce art. However, foundational training has never precluded creativity and a mastery of foundational skills actually liberates the artist. You now have the capability to use your paintbrushes and colors more effectively to reflect the mood of the moment and evoke powerful emotions in your viewers.

Fascinating as these debates might be for the art establishment, art critics and book writers; the artists themselves do not sense this conflict. Many of the contemporary realists are masters of both kinds of expression and have made a conscious “back-to-beauty” choice. Neil Welliver for example, evolved from being an abstract impressionist to painting landscapes in watercolor. Similarly, Philip Pearlstein came to understand and love realism as a vital art form, even though he began his career as an impressionist.

Contemporary Realism vs Photorealism

Though other art movements like photorealism, hyperrealism and surrealism are often thought of as being similar to contemporary realism; this could not be further from truth.

Photorealism paintings are meticulous reproductions of high resolution photographs; in Hyperrealism the lighting and colors are often enhanced to create an illusion of reality more distinct than the actual photographs themselves. Surrealism artists also paint with photographic precision, but their compositions have an element of unexpected surprise, strange creatures; surrealism lies at the intersection of dream and reality.

In contrast to these art forms which strive to be faithful to the photographic reality, contemporary realism artists in their paintings explore the unconscious part of our existence – the small flowers in a corner of our backyard, the rabbits below our deck whom we have stopped paying attention to, and wild berries we never stop to pick on our morning walks.

Contemporary Realism Tools & Books

Contemporary Realists exploit many tools and aids in the creation of paintings. Camera obscura, color wheels, live models and sculptures are just some of the examples of artist’s tools. Many plein air artists use quick ‘studies’ and sketches to capture the fleeting light and colors when they are outside and finish the paintings in their studios. Similarly, the photograph is just another prop to quickly collect a large amount of information that can then serve as an aid for the artist’s memory, together with the sketches and notes made while painting outside.

Lela Stankovic is one such gifted artist whose watercolors exemplify the inventiveness of today’s contemporary realist. It’s not unusual to see Lela coming back from her forays in nature with her arms laden with the twigs, leaves and berries she has collected together with thousands of photographs, drawings, color studies and partially completed paintings. All these artifacts help to bring back recollections of the feelings she had experienced during her trip, and of the environment which inspired those emotions. In her watercolors, Lela paints the light and the atmosphere, the interplay between the forms and the texture as much as her subjects.

watercolor painting book for painting rose flowers by lela Stankovic

The skills and tools simply become an instinctive element of Lela’s creative process. Her process is not about technical jargon; it’s about how to paint the diaphanous rose petals, the beauty of the antique rugs and the twitter of the birds fluttering among the tree limbs. Lela’s book “Painting Glorious Rose Flowers in Watercolor – in 7 Stages” gives an insight into her intriguing style of painting. In her book, Lela shares practical exercises to deepen your observation skills and make you more adept at seeing. Her innovative painting process blends the freshness of the watercolors with the skills of the Great Masters; and her luminous paintings celebrate beauty and excitement of our everyday life.

Contemporary Realism Art Collectors, Galleries, Competitions & Schools

Art patrons who love contemporary realism include Richard Segal of the Seavest Collection, a privately held group of contemporary artworks, which is shared with the public through loans to museums. What attracts a collector to a particular artwork? Segal says on his website that he is drawn to those paintings that offer, in the words of Robert Frost, “a momentary stay against confusion”. He explains that the works which move him are those that fill him with “a peace that comes from understanding”.

Art ateliers – private teaching studios – in North America and Europe give the students an opportunity to learn how to paint in the realistic style. Many of the students in these ateliers are those that have completed a formal MFA program. Maria, a student at one such atelier in New York says,” my MFA program was designed and taught by artists who only knew about abstract art. The practical skills I wanted to learn were only dealt with from a historical and theoretical perspective”. Maria wants to spend some time learning techniques which would give her the freedom to paint in the realist style which she loves.

Art competitions which are specially meant to encourage Contemporary Realism include those organized by “UCIRA San Diego Artist Call” and the “Contemporary Realism Biennial at Fort Wayne.

There are many galleries which represent contemporary realist artists. The Addison Gallery, the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery and the Richard Gandy Gallery of Realist Art are just some of the names which come to mind. Some of these galleries offer a chance for new artists to exhibit their paintings alongside the masters and function as a “gallery within a gallery”.

Contemporary Realism is a strong art movement today, often in conflict with the advocates of the abstract impressionists. In some ways we are reminded of the rise of the impressionists in 18th century despite opposition from the art establishment and art guilds.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “Love of beauty is taste. The creation of beauty is art”; contemporary realism celebrates the beauty and joy of our everyday life with a deep gratitude for all our blessings.