Art Goes Hyperrealistic


By Bill Tressler

Image courtesy of Raphaella Spence.

Most people, when confronted with ambiguity, think that they have a firm grasp on reality. They are confident that they can tell the difference between that which is genuine and that which is false. The ability to identify that which is real cements our egos and makes us feel secure in this world.

After viewing a piece of Photorealistic or Hyperealistic art, however, individuals might find themselves questioning their innate ability. Such is the power of art.

The differences between the two styles are minimal, and indeed, many people use the terms synonymously. Others contend that there is a slight difference. Photorealistic painters use a single photograph as a reference and then try to produce a replica of the image. Hyperrealistic painters take things a step further. Hyperrealists, some say, use a series of photographs of the same subject at different exposures in order to see the subject with as many details highlighted as possible. They then use this series of photos as reference when recreating the scene of the photograph, focusing on intense details. In this way, the Hyperrealist painter creates a piece that is almost abstract and larger than life.

Hyperrealist and Photorealist painters challenge the notions of reality by simultaneously imitating and stepping back from that which is real. If a photograph is an imitation that’s removed from reality, then these artists take things one step further. Their works are interpretations of a recreation, and as such, take on a life of their own.

BTR spoke with renowned Hyperrealist painter Raphaella Spence, of the Bernarducci Meisel Gallery in New York City, to further understand the processes and motivations behind this meticulously detailed practice.

Like many of her contemporaries, Spence cites the founders of Photorealism as the biggest influences on her work. Artists Chuck Close and Richard Estes were two early practitioners of the style who left audiences wowed with their technical ability and attention to minute details.

“When I was a kid my family used to take me to see paintings by the great masters and I was always fascinated by how they painted such incredible scenes during a period in which their paint brushes were not very refined, let alone their studio circumstances,” says Spence.

Early Photorealist talents were renowned for their ability to create amazingly realistic and detailed recreations of photos. Their works were, arguably, hyperrealistic. Their emphasis on realism was a direct response to a period in time where realism in art seemed to be all but dead. With their works, these artists were attempting to make a statement of sorts, bringing attention back to the seemingly mundane parts of everyday life and finding the beauty in them.

Bechtle, for example, was known for painting scenes of cars and families–not flashy muscle cars or sexy people, but middle-class families standing in front of their station wagons on a quiet street. While the scene itself may not have been particularly exciting, the amount of technicality required to get these paintings to look like photographs is awe-inspiring.

Image courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker.

Contrary to her predecessors, Spence does not have a particular statement she’s trying too make with her pieces. Her only goal is to create strikingly detailed works of art. She says of herself and her contemporaries: “We are not looking to be provocative as we are looking to arrive at a stunning end result.”

And stunning they are. If the pieces created by the originators of the Photorealist style in the ‘60s were impressive, then the newer creations of artists like Spence, Roberto Bernardi, and Alfonso Fernando Rodriguez are downright otherworldly.

Advancements in both photography and painting utensils allow these artists to achieve a level of detail and technicality never before possible. As Spence details, “What I can see, I can paint,” so having the ability to capture high-resolution photographs has greatly enhanced her ability to highlight the tiniest particles in her beautiful cityscapes.

Like many Hyperrealist painters, however, Spence’s goal is not to simply recreate the photograph, but to create a new and different image altogether.

“A digital photograph is a series of millions of dots which create a very accurate but cold image of reality,” Spence says. “When I photograph on site I capture the image that makes a stunning composition. Through the process of painting this image I incorporate into the painting all the experiences, sensations, and feelings of my personal experience of living this place when capturing the image, so the painting becomes alive.”

Achieving the effect that Spence describes is a demonstration not only in great technical ability, but in intense patience. To begin the process, Hyperrealist artists must first create a composition via a series of photographs of the scene they aim to paint. Because Spence is a city and landscape painter, her first step usually involves flying over a city via helicopter, often taking hundreds of photos in order to capture all of the vast detail of the landscape. Of these photographs, only three or four are chosen as the final reference point for her work.

Utilizing fine linen canvases that are first prepared with Gesso di Bologna and then sandpapered to a smooth finish, Spence employs traditional oil painting techniques. As her works are highly detail-oriented, she usually takes a minimum of a month and a half to complete a 40- x 30-inch piece; a 60- x 40-inch piece takes up to three months. Starting with the outlines of the buildings and windows, she works her way in bit by bit, until the entire city has been recreated.

The amount of skill and patience required of these artists is not to be understated. Each of these works require months of painstaking labor, and the effect is extraordinary. At first glance, the pieces may not be particularly evocative; while Spence paints vast and eye-catching city and landscapes, others (like Roberto Bernardi) may paint something as unassuming as a gumball machine. It is only upon closer inspection, and then the realization that what you’re looking at is not a high-resolution photograph but a painting, that the true wonder of the piece is achieved.

In a world inundated with high-resolution photographs from our ever-present smartphones, witnessing works from artists like Spence may offer a huge breath of fresh air. Contemporary Hyperrealistic art is yet another example of how advancing technologies influence and advance creative forms of expression.