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Art Styles Explained: From Realism to Abstract

A look at the different types of art styles you can use when painting.


Part of the joy of painting in the 21st century is the range of art styles to choose from. The late 19th century and 20th century saw artists make huge leaps in painting styles, influenced by technology, such as the invention of the metal paint tube and photography, as well as world events.

This list outlines major art styles from most realistic to least. Learning about different art styles, seeing what painters have created, and trying different approaches is all part of the journey of developing your own painting style.

Art Style: Photorealism

Photorealistic art style self-portrait painting by Chuck Close
Photo © Joe Raedle / Getty Images
Photorealism, Super Realism, Sharp Focus Realism, Hyper Realism, you can call it whichever of these labels you prefer and argue about the minute details between the styles, but ultimately they're all art styles where the illusion of reality is created through paint so the result looks more like a large, sharply focused photo than anything else.

Photorealism is a style which often seems more real than reality, with detail down to the last grain of sand and wrinkle on someone's face. Where nothing is left out, nothing is too insignificant or unimportant not to be included in the painting. Though it doesn't mean an artist painting in this style doesn't consider the arrangement of things to make a stronger composition.

Art Style: Realism

Mona Lisa painting by Leonardo da Vinci
Image © Stuart Gregory / Getty Images
Realism is the art style most people regard as "real art", where the subject of the painting looks very much like it appears in real life. From a little distance everything looks "real" but up close you'll see it's an illusion created by skillful use of paint, of color and tone. The artist uses perspective to create an illusion of reality, setting the composition and lighting to make the most of the subject.

Mona Lisa Painting
• Techniques of the Old Masters: Leonardo da Vinci and Rembrandt

Art Style: Painterly

Rooster painting
Painting © Jeff Watts
Painterly is an art style that is close to realism but celebrates more the use of paint, through evident brushwork and texture in the paint. It doesn't try to hide what was used to create the painting by smoothing out any texture or marks left in the paint by a brush.

How to Paint in a Painterly Style

Art Style: Impressionism

Waterlily painting by Monet
Photo © Bruno Vincent / Getty Images
Impressionism is an art style that is still much loved today and it's hard to imagine that when it first appeared on the art scene in Paris in the 19th century, most critics hated and ridiculed it. What was then regarded as an unfinished and rough painting style, is now loved as being the impact of light on nature filtered through an artistic eye to show the rest of us just what can be seen if you know how to look properly.

How to Paint like Monet
What Colors Did the Impressionists Use for Shadows?
Techniques of the Impressionists: Broken Color

Art Style: Expressionism / Fauvism

"Schokko With Wide Brimmed Hat" by the German Expressionist painter Alexej von Jawlensky
Photo © Peter Macdiarmid / Getty Images
Expressionism and Fauvism are characterized by the artist not feeling compelled to use realistic colors or using perspective techniques to recreate an illusion of reality. Rather colors are selected to fit the emotion felt or to create emotional impact.

In the example of this art style shown, for instance, while we know no-one's face is truly green, nor does anyone have a line around their chin or for a nose, we still recognize it as a painting of a face. But instead of it focusing on being a likeness of someone, it's a painting that conveys a sense of mood and emotion foremost.

How to Paint Like an Expressionist
Palettes and Techniques of the Masters: Vincent van Gogh
Photos: Vincent van Gogh and Expressionism

Art Style: Abstraction

Photo © John Houston
Abstraction is about painting the essence of a subject rather than the detail, but still retaining an echo of whatever it is that prompted the idea (unlike a pure abstract). You might reduce the subject to the dominant colors, shapes, or patterns. Think reduced reality the detail you need to paint the character of the scene.

How to Paint Abstract Art from Photos
Using Nature as a Source for Inspiration for Abstract Art
• Painting Photo Galleries: Urban Abstractions, City Abstractions, Abstracting Nature

Art Style: Abstract

Art styles -- a colorfield painting by Mark Rothko
Photo © Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Abstract art doesn't try to look like anything from the "real world", it is an art style that is intentionally non-representational. The subject or point of the painting is the colors used, the textures in the artwork, the materials used to create it.

At its worst, abstract art looks like a accidental mess of paint. At its best, it has an impact that strikes you from the moment you see it.

How to Interpret Abstract Art
How to Paint a Color-Field
Painting Without a Road Map
Step-by-Step Demo: Abstract Art

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