Eli5 How can a modern painted portrait look akin to a photograph, but historical painted portraits never look very realistic.

24 views
0

I recently (this morning) got a push notification from Apple News about the first official portrait of [Prince William and Kate Middleton](https://people.com/royals/kate-middleton-prince-william-visit-namesake-region-cambridge/?amp=true). Now, normally this wouldn’t be something to interest me, but for whatever reason I follow the clickbait. And I’m shocked! Absolutely shocked! I think I’m looking at an actual photograph. I skip reading the article (really just wanted to see the painting) and immediately start [googling historical royal portraits](https://www.thecollector.com/15-exquisite-royal-portraits/amp/). And they’re like… okay, but they don’t look like an actual person. Anytime I’ve ever seen one I never felt it gave me a true sense of what the subject really looked like. I don’t know a lot about art, so perhaps there some connection to the artistic styles of then v. now, or maybe I’m just influenced by the portrait of Will and Kate because I DO know what they really look like, but why a modern painted portrait can look so much like the intended subject, but historical painted portraits of royalty never seem to be very realistic.

In: 1

Actually, paintings tended to be more photo-realistic before the invention of photography, at least in Europe. Once photography was invented, it killed the market for people looking for photo-realistic paintings, so artists started experimenting with things like impressionism. The main market for paintings these days isn’t for preserving an image of what you looked like, it is cheaper and easier to use a photograph for that. Only really rich snooty people still commission portraits of this type, it is a sad tradition of vanity. Most art these days isn’t about depicting a photo-realistic scene, it is about capturing a mood or idea.

Painting tends to be a profession that involves a lot of training, either at an art school or working under a master painter. Styles of painting get passed down this way, you inherit your basic style and techniques from the people you learned to paint from. This is what causes each culture to have different styles of painting. Artists who deviate significantly from their training are few and far between, they are the ones to tend to start whole new types of art.

Learning to paint realistically actually involves unlearning a lot of natural behaviors. The way our brain and eyes work is to create simple outlines of things, which is why the natural way children draw is in simple outlines, and even adults will draw things as outlines or cartoons. To create realistic art, you have to fight these instincts and try to put on paper what is really there, which isn’t simple outlines but complex gradients of color and shape.

If you go back in time a very long way, paintings tend to be a lot cruder. People a long time ago weren’t as good at painting for the same reasons they weren’t as good at math, or building machines; people hadn’t figured out the best way to accomplish things yet. Realistic perspective in paintings wasn’t figured out in Europe until the late middle ages, so things look pretty skewed. Good paints, canvas, and brushes were also relatively recent inventions, even in the late 1800s, a lot of the paint colors they had would fade very quickly from bright colors to dull browns and tans. That said, if you look at enough old art, you will see some real talent shine through the limited techniques. Look at some of the old cave paintings. Even though they depict animals with just a few smudges of charcoal on a wall, some of those depictions really do evoke animals in movement. For instance, check out[ these stone age cave paintings](https://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/horses-4.jpg) of horses, they really do evoke a real horse just as well as a modern artist might when sketching with charcoal.

0 views
0

I recently (this morning) got a push notification from Apple News about the first official portrait of [Prince William and Kate Middleton](https://people.com/royals/kate-middleton-prince-william-visit-namesake-region-cambridge/?amp=true). Now, normally this wouldn’t be something to interest me, but for whatever reason I follow the clickbait. And I’m shocked! Absolutely shocked! I think I’m looking at an actual photograph. I skip reading the article (really just wanted to see the painting) and immediately start [googling historical royal portraits](https://www.thecollector.com/15-exquisite-royal-portraits/amp/). And they’re like… okay, but they don’t look like an actual person. Anytime I’ve ever seen one I never felt it gave me a true sense of what the subject really looked like. I don’t know a lot about art, so perhaps there some connection to the artistic styles of then v. now, or maybe I’m just influenced by the portrait of Will and Kate because I DO know what they really look like, but why a modern painted portrait can look so much like the intended subject, but historical painted portraits of royalty never seem to be very realistic.

In: 1

Actually, paintings tended to be more photo-realistic before the invention of photography, at least in Europe. Once photography was invented, it killed the market for people looking for photo-realistic paintings, so artists started experimenting with things like impressionism. The main market for paintings these days isn’t for preserving an image of what you looked like, it is cheaper and easier to use a photograph for that. Only really rich snooty people still commission portraits of this type, it is a sad tradition of vanity. Most art these days isn’t about depicting a photo-realistic scene, it is about capturing a mood or idea.

Painting tends to be a profession that involves a lot of training, either at an art school or working under a master painter. Styles of painting get passed down this way, you inherit your basic style and techniques from the people you learned to paint from. This is what causes each culture to have different styles of painting. Artists who deviate significantly from their training are few and far between, they are the ones to tend to start whole new types of art.

Learning to paint realistically actually involves unlearning a lot of natural behaviors. The way our brain and eyes work is to create simple outlines of things, which is why the natural way children draw is in simple outlines, and even adults will draw things as outlines or cartoons. To create realistic art, you have to fight these instincts and try to put on paper what is really there, which isn’t simple outlines but complex gradients of color and shape.

If you go back in time a very long way, paintings tend to be a lot cruder. People a long time ago weren’t as good at painting for the same reasons they weren’t as good at math, or building machines; people hadn’t figured out the best way to accomplish things yet. Realistic perspective in paintings wasn’t figured out in Europe until the late middle ages, so things look pretty skewed. Good paints, canvas, and brushes were also relatively recent inventions, even in the late 1800s, a lot of the paint colors they had would fade very quickly from bright colors to dull browns and tans. That said, if you look at enough old art, you will see some real talent shine through the limited techniques. Look at some of the old cave paintings. Even though they depict animals with just a few smudges of charcoal on a wall, some of those depictions really do evoke animals in movement. For instance, check out[ these stone age cave paintings](https://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/inline-images/horses-4.jpg) of horses, they really do evoke a real horse just as well as a modern artist might when sketching with charcoal.