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Photo Realistic Painting

ELI5: Why are artists now able to create "photo realistic" paintings and pencil drawing that totally blow classic painters, like Rembrandt and Da Vinci, out of the water in terms of detail and realism?

Contemporary artists have a lot of advantages over classical artists. They have a better variety of tools and media, like airbrush, and higher quality paint. They have an additional 500 years of art history to work from, during which other artists have done a lot of work and developed a lot of new techniques. Also, they have photos to work from, and aren't constrained to live subjects. So, they can spend a lot of time looking at that reflection up close and seeing exactly what the shapes and colors are.

I think the photos are the most important aspect of this list.

The camera obscura was around in 400BC. If anybody would like a good example of this, watch the movie Tim's Vermeer. I'm not super into art but that movie blew me away. More importantly, a photo is already flat. The hardest part of painting is transforming the real 3D subject into a flat 2D image; the photo does that for you. Also, it doesn't move and the lighting doesn't change.

Also, a lot of types of paint didn't even exist until relatively recently. Cobalt and Cadmium based paints, which offer a great deal of saturation and brilliance, weren't invented until the 1800s'. All of those super bright impressionistic paintings that popped up in the 1800's and 1900's? Most of those weren't possible until this type of pigment was invented. Da Vinci and Caravaggio didn't have them.

Keep in mind, what sets picasso (and the other great masters) apart from the rest isn't their ability to paint. Art-Forgers today have better technique than picasso, rembrandt or anybody from the past for that matter. But why aren't they famous? Why do they not become famous and instead have to resort to forging/copying paintings? The answer is the answer what sets the great masters apart: Their style. Copying art, or painting an eye of which you have a photo, is FAR less difficult than having your own style. Something that is genuinely you. A way only you can see the world, and to represent that in your paintings. That is why Picassos quote "It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child." hits the nail on the head here; It's about having your own style, and conveying a different view of the world. Learning to copy or to draw in high detail with a photo doesn't take much talent (still some), but rather just training. Most people can achieve high results in drawing if they try over the course of a few years.

I was just at the Museo Del Prado in Madrid. This Picasso painting blew me away. From across the hall, it looks exactly like a Renaissance style painting. As you move closer you notice sketch/print like quality to it. It really blew my mind. Anyway, trick not working on a computer screen, I suggest you go to Spain ASAP.

From what I remember of my art history class, it took centuries for painters to make small discoveries, like that mountains in a landscape look blurrier and blurrier the further away they are, and that shadowing can be used to create the impression of three dimensions. For some reason the things that seem ridiculously obvious to us now were simply not obvious back then.

Working from a photograph gives such a huge advantage over working from life (and how that strongly connects with your entire point). A very popular tool to use for photorealistic drawings is a grid - you can't exactly do that with a live model. Additionally, like you said about mountains - artists working from life are not only dealing with the deceptiveness of the human eye+mind, but they are also dealing with a 3-dimensional plane and transferring that into 2-dimensions. A camera does the work for you in terms of capturing exactly what is there (instead of what you think is there, one of the most fundamental hurdles an artist has to overcome) and also reduces it to a 2-D image for you - no prior understanding of how objects/light works in 3 dimensions work or how to effectively convey that on paper required. From there it's only about copying.