Why are humans depicted in paintings from ancient civilizations like different than now? Weren’t there artists who could paint realistic paintings?



Weren’t there artists at that time who could draw humans for what they actually looked like. For instance, look at the paintings of kings from the 17th Century or before.

In: Other

There’s styles people liked throughout the ages, but mostly remember that artists couldn’t have as much time and materials to practise as today.
Lots of the good ones were sponsored most of their lives, before that became a habit the ones available might not be as good.

What you might consider “a realistic picture” is actually fairly divorced from the perceptive experience of seeing a human face or figure in motion. It’s not actually intuitive to imagine and execute an ideally framed and posed static human figure in flat lighting. A *lot* of artistic theory had to be developed to get to a stage where we might consider art as truthful representation as opposed to symbolic shapes. There also had to be technological leaps: devices like the camera obscura and other machinations with mirrors helped early Renaissance artists freeze a frame to preserve fine detail. Even today if you asked an accomplished painter to paint a model human from memory, they’d struggle. We needed to develop artistic traditions like using models or photographic references, and for many human cultures the idea of sitting still and staring into space for a whole day so your face and shape could be accurately recorded would have been farcical.

Can you go draw a hyper realistic depiction of the world? If you’re anything like me, then no you probably can’t. You gotta learn the techniques and practice first right? All these techniques you can just find online nowadays were discovered by someone and perfected by others. Ancient peoples may not have had all the tricks and tools that we modern humans take for granted.

Also a little bit of painting the beauty goal that everyone was trying to reach at the time and lack of knowledge about anatomy.

A picture gives information. The information an artist from a long time ago wanted to transmit might be very different from what we want to transmit now. For example, if you’re using a picture to tell a story (helpful if most people can’t read), and you only have one surface because the equivalent of paper is rare, you’re going to put most of your time and skill into getting the story told in a fixed space.

Because it depends on what the painter is trying to do. Realism may not be the aim – it may be more about projecting an ideal type (typically of monarchy or nobility) or conveying a set of ideas about society and the place of the subject in it – for example the king as a blend of Solomon and Joshua. So what we see as distortions carry meanings according to widely-held archetypes. Often these are lost, but sometimes we can reconstruct the underlying patterns.

Even where realism can be done, it may not be – Romans were realistic in their ancestral portrait-busts, but imperial imagery is more stereotyped.

Basically because of the lack of medium (paper, canvas, etc) and tools (brushes, pens, etc). Ancient civilizations did not have medium and tools readily avalaible for an artist to spend hour and hours practicing till they were able to perfect themselves enough to capture a realistic depiction of a person. This basically changes siginificantly during the Renaissance, where these tools became more common.

The purpose of art isn’t always meant to be accurate and realistic. The Renaissance really saw the growth of art method and the adoption of styles that closer replicate real life, including professional studios and guilds, the use of models, perspective drawing, paints and oils, etc. There’s a huge difference between the work from someone who is a full-time painter who learned his art from a master over many years, and a monk who spent years copying out the Bible and adding caricatures in the margins.

One factor that may have played a part is that artists imitated each other or imitated the art that they saw. If all you ever saw were artworks in which human figures were depicted in a stylized or iconic manner, you might well reproduce that style — particularly if the art was made for religious purposes — rather than experimenting to try to achieve more ‘realistic’ results. This isn’t the whole story by any means, but I bet it played a part.

My history teacher taught me that ancient Egyptians realized how perspective worked, but that the way in which they depicted people, where both eyes, arms, legs, etc. were visible at all times, was because it was necessary to depict all of those parts as a sort of blueprint. Presumably the perceived risks could be that incomplete bodies would be given to those depicted in the afterlife. As such, it could have been a practical choice rather than an artistic one or one of limitation.

Its all about how we pass the technic on. Painting is mostly technic, from proportion, light, perspective, everything a modern painter or illustrator does he learned. If the painter had to “discover” these technics he would die before painting something realistic.
Ancient people had to develop these technics sometimes from scratch. Sometimes the technics developed over centuries just get lost, and people had to develop all over, sometimes with very strict rules (witch could impose less realistic texhnics in favor of a more abstract way of representing)

Let’s take the classic greek statues as a exemple: the Greek had a stable society where artists could explore and develop technics, coming to a high level of realism. When the Greek empire fell, the realist technics gone for good. Until two thousand years latter, when the renascentists artists had resources to dig for greek statues and reverse engineering, and thats why we can withness a lap in realist technic in renascence.

Important: Your question is misleading, because there are realistic paintings from ancient civilizations, from Egypt to Greece. Also, painting is related to a more eurocentric tradition, sculpture was the most desired form of picturalization in most cultures. “Why paint your wall with a ugly 2d face (lets remember, a canva is a very specific medium) if you could have a 3d model?” I guess: from cave man the carving was more present than the painting, as a way to represent the world around. And we have A LOT of really technical and realistic sculptures in ancient cultures from all around the world.

What they are trying represent is different. Frequently, The largesst person in a picture was the most important, not because they were tall.

Is it not possible that the really good ones just didn’t survive as they were done on perishable materials? Thinking about rare survivors like the Portrait of the Boy Eutyches [https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547951](https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/547951) which look like 17th century paintings as well as other ‘Fayum’ portraits [https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-oldest-modernist-paintings-20169750/](https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-oldest-modernist-paintings-20169750/)

It all matters what the intent of the image is. Romans painted highly actuate images of people, but few of them survive. There are some Egyptian funeral portraits that do survive and are very accurate. During the middle ages, images of people were used in many cases for story telling, such as the Bayeux tapestry, accuracy wasn’t the point. During the Renaissance, accurate depictions of humans and nature were highly prized, and so were created. Today in art there’s a big shift away from realism again. So it’s not that people couldn’t paint realistic art, it’s just that there wasn’t much societal need or want for such realistic art.

Depending on the era, it’s intentional. In the medieval period, the influence of Christian religion affected the way artists painted. The physical body was sinful, so artists did not 1) study anatomy nor 2) make any effort to paint realistic human figures. That’s why you see highly realistic depictions before and after, but then you have a block of time when skilled artists painted like kindergartners.

One way you can look at it is that realistic drawing and painting is a language that needed to be developed over centuries to reach the current level of sophistication. The rules of good grammar seem obvious once you’ve learned how to speak fluently, so children who make grammar mistakes seem quaint or unsophisticated, as their mistakes seem obvious to the more fluent speakers. Simply learning the rules of an already existing language when you are surrounded by fluent speakers is relatively easy and almost every child does this eventually.

That is a totally different thing than reverse engineering a visual language from scratch, which was what the process of discovery of the rules of realism was. As mentioned by others here, humans didn’t have mirrors for a long time, photographs are a relatively recent development technologically. Translating a 3D scene to a 2D surface is incredibly challenging and not obvious at all. How many kids draw in correct perspective innately, using vanishing points and foreshortening? Probably zero. If left to their own devices, how many kids would spontaneously develop those techniques on their own if they were never exposed to more sophisticated art?

I’m a professional artist and it took me years of practice to be able to draw and paint fairly photorealistically and I had the benefit of the entire history of artists before me, as well as patient art teachers. All the techniques are easy available to study online these days, but what percentage of the population can draw a recognizable portrait? Probably a low percentage. That’s because drawing realistically is hard even if you know the rules!

I think it really just depends on the cultural context. Nothing fundamentally changed about human abilities (although as someone mentioned things like mirrors and the camera obscura during the renaissance did help). For an example, search for “Fayum Portraits” from Ptolemaic Egypt about 2000 years ago. Many of them are nearly photorealistic.

There are many theories as to why. But the one JI subscribe to is it was a stylistic choice of the time. Notice, for example, in Greek paintings that buildings have angles that almost always draw a line to a single point, creating a skewed perspective that differs from the otherwise realistic humans.


There was a period when the popular style lacked perspective. They could do it, but they chose not to because that’s what people of the period liked in their art.

One potential answer is lenses.

The technology to make high quality lenses first emerges in Holland and Italy during the 15th century. These allowed artists to project images of a sitter onto a canvas and to sketch the main lines and shades, giving the hyperrealistic paintings the renaissance became famous for. (It’s also worth noting that many of the paintings involve subjects where this technique would be particularly effective, like shiny armour in a darkened room with a single ‘spot’ source of light. A renaissance artist’s studio would have resembled a photographer’s studio today)

On the other hand, Classical Art (and some [Egyptian Art](https://images.app.goo.gl/UBSvomimxSBWgb2J7)) made sculptures that are near perfect, and their mosaics are also close to realism, and that can’t be explained with lenses.

I think it’s clear that stylisation played a significant role: it wasn’t just that people *couldn’t* do ‘realistic’ (that is, as we know from photographs) portraits, it was that they weren’t trying to. They were often aspiring to something else: to show the power of a ruler, to represent the Gods, to communicate something or exhibit a particular aesthetic sensibility. The Greek philosophy of art (Plato and Aristotle) *did* expressly see mimeticism (looking-like-the-thing) as being the purpose or measure of good art though, which explains why Greek and Roman mosaics, sculptures, and [sarcophagi paintings](https://images.app.goo.gl/nRjmXVgYTeoiaWLo9) are as realistic as they are.