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What Is Photorealism?

By G. Wiesen
Updated May 23, 2024
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Photorealism refers to artwork that is created through means other than photography, which seeks a realistic appearance similar to a photograph. This can be done through paint and pencil, usually on paper or on canvas with attention paid to highlights and shadows to create incredibly realistic work. Some artists have utilized two-dimensional (2D) computer software to create still images that are completely artificial but look like photographs in terms of realism. Photorealism is also a major goal for many artists who work with three-dimensional (3D) software, to create objects and scenes that appear in films and advertisements.

There are many different ways in which an artist can strive for and create photorealism, though it often depends on visual details like reflections, highlights, and shadows. These are all elements of an image that a person naturally perceives in an unconscious way that can quickly indicate that something is “wrong” or “off” in an image. A painter working on canvas, for example, has to be very aware of how lights naturally create highlights and shadows on various objects. The reflectivity of surfaces is also essential to photorealism in a painting or similar work, since objects naturally reflect a certain amount of light in ways that can be very subtle.

Artists working in ink or with a pencil can strive for photorealism, even if the medium they work with adds artificiality to the image. Someone can see a drawing created in blue ink, for example, that may resemble a photograph that has been manipulated through the exquisite use of detail. Charcoal and pencil drawings can achieve a level of photorealism that makes the image appear much like a black and white photograph, and use of intense shadows and highlights often help achieve this effect.

Various digital mediums are often used to strive for photorealism, which can be achieved in different ways. Two-dimensional or 2D illustration programs can be used to create images that are remarkably detailed and realistic. This is often done through software that creates vector images, which are based on geometry and shapes rather than pixels and points of light or color.

There are also 3D or three-dimensional computer graphics (CG) programs that are used in film, television, and for video games. Artists can use this type of software to create various shapes, objects, and scenes within a virtual environment that can be animated. Extreme care and effort is often put into these scenes to achieve a remarkable level of photorealism. Shadows from lighting, reflections across multiple surfaces, and other elements are all studied carefully and used to create a scene that appears like a real moment captured on film.

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