Realism vs. Naturalism – what is the difference?

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And what exactly are photo-realism and three-dimensional painting?

Some terms in art often cause confusion and are sometimes used interchangeably. However, they are not the same thing. What, for example, is the difference between realism and naturalism? We are going to explain it to you:

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Realism vs. Naturalism


Realism is an epoch that began in the middle of the nineteenth century and that was mainly characterized by the artworks of the French artist Gustave Courbet. Realism portrays life as it is, without idealizing, flattering or romanticizing it. It doesn´t refer to the technique (see below “realistic painting”), but to an art movement in which the artists want to express their political opinion. The concept of realism is therefore clearly to be seen in the context of this epoch.

2. Realistic painting

Realistic painting and drawing, on the other hand, is a technique in which nature is perfectly represented. With the aid of proportion measurement and the precise examination and transmission of light and shadow, the attempt is made to implement this ratio 1: 1 on the painting surface, to reflect the natural conditions. Realistic painting and drawing were already used by the old masters.

3. Naturalism

Similar to realism, naturalism differs from “naturalistic” representation. Naturalistic means a detailed reproduction of what is seen, of nature. Naturalism is often equated with Realism, but it was only defined some decades later – experiencing its heyday during the 1870-80s – and was more concerned than the older movement with a hyperreal visual compositional precision, rather than with the meaning of the painting.

4. Photorealism

Photorealism is a style that came to America in the early 1970s. The name was coined in reference to those artists, such as John Clem Clarke,  whose work depended heavily on photographs. These artists were more concerned with the accurate portrayal of photographs in painting than with the depiction of reality.

5. Three-dimensional

Three-dimensional drawing means to draw plastically, for instance, to represent objects or bodies as spatially as possible, so that the viewer has the feeling that the painting is actually three-dimensional. Especially the play of light and shadow is decisive. An easy exercise of our teacher Ricky Larsson to draw a ball with 3D effect can be found here.

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