What is the hardest painting style? A very common question, especially amongst those who are just starting out with painting.
It is a strangely difficult question to answer. On first thought, most people would be quick to say realism or hyper realism are the most challenging (as many people tend to think the primary goal of painting is to create something that looks just like a photograph).
Personally, I think this is a silly question but it does raise an interesting discussion. Every style of painting is challenging in different ways. I am timid to say one style of painting is more difficult than another, especially if I do not practice all styles.
So let's go through some of the major styles and discuss the challenges of each.
At the end I will give my modest thoughts and then we can discuss more in the comment section at the bottom.
In realism, the subject is portrayed with great accuracy and detail. The challenge with realism is hitting a high level of accuracy without the painting appearing overly tight or refined.
The first master that comes to mind when I think of realism is the great John Singer Sargent (though I believe there may be some argument he had a touch of an impressionistic style). He is most famous for his portraits, but his landscapes are equally skilled in my opinion.
The interesting thing about Sargent's painting style is that whilst his paintings appear incredibly realistic and accurate, you can still see very visible strokes and broken colors in his paintings. He had a very painterly style, which resulted in the paintings appearing natural yet incredibility accurate.
Another realism master is Richard Schmid. He is a painter's painter, with incredible talent at rending both portraits and landscapes.
He is easily one of the top painters of our time.
Hyper-realism and photo-realism styles are extremely popular in the current environment due to the “WOW it looks just like a photograph” response it gets from people. These styles garner huge attention and praise from the public, but not necessarily other artists.
For those who do not practice painting, hyper-realism and photo-realism are often considered the most difficult due to the wow factor.
Personally, I am not a huge fan of spending hundreds of tedious hours trying to get the perfect color and perspective in a painting. I have no care if a painting looks exactly a photograph. I paint because I like painting and if I wanted to create photographs, I would pick up photography.
With that said, I do try as accurately as possible to capture the general colors, values and composition without getting bogged down in needless detail. I am trying to capture the essence of the scene rather than perfectly replicate the scene on my canvas.
I am not questioning the skill of hyper and photo-realist painters. If anything I admire the unbelievable accuracy and patience required. But you need to paint to your strengths and interests.
Abstractism is very polarising in the art world as it is often at the centre of ridiculous painting valuations driven by large art conglomerates (i.e. a painting with a red stripe down the middle going for $40 million plus).
However, abstract art is also considered by some to be the most challenging due to the lack of rules and definitions. To me, abstract art is defined by the overall feel achieved by the painting and I certainly appreciate the talent of those able to create great abstract art.
However, it would be difficult to argue many of the abstract paintings are technically challenging, especially the very minimalist abstract paintings.
At the peak, abstract painting can be extremely thought provoking. Just look at some of the great Pablo Picasso's abstract works he created in the later part of his career.
At worst, abstract painting can be nothing more than simplistic designs on canvas selling for exuberant prices on the basis it is something more than it really is.
Impressionism is my personal favorite. Whenever I try to paint realism, I feel unsatisfied by the tedious detail which is required and I slowly progress back into impressionism.
I love the challenge of merely capturing the essentials in a scene and ignoring the needless details. This can be a difficult task, as it is easy simply miss the mark. Too much detail and you will have a confused and tight painting. Too little and you start verging into complete abstract territory.
At best, impressionism combines amazing use of color and value in beautiful harmony, without needless detail. At worst, impressionism could be used as an excuse for sloppy technique (I certainly have been guilty of this in the past).
The issue with impressionism is it can be misunderstood by those who do not practice art (usually the same people who praise hyper and photo-realism). Even when the impressionist movement started it was met with great criticism by a community more accustomed to realist styles.
However, most artists will appreciate the difficulty of impressionism. The great impressionists will use simple techniques to give just hints of form and movement which come together in beautiful harmony. Most of the work is left to the viewer's imagination.
I want you to picture a stormy seascape that you want to paint. Most people will try to paint exactly what they see in the seascape. The dark contours, the bright highlights hitting the tops of the water and the snaking lines of foam on top.
But what if instead you tried to create the feel and emotion of the stormy scene without care for the accurate visual portrayal of the scene. This in my opinion is very difficult to achieve.
Most of the time you will end up with a mess of colors on the canvas with no real harmony. But if you get it right, then people will know what it is just from the overall feel of the painting and the subtle hints left behind. But if you look closely, it would not look exactly like the scene you have painted.
Surrealism is really in a field of its own in terms of creativity. It is completely unbound and challenges conventional wisdom.
Surrealism is not necessarily characterised by technical proficiency, but rather the aim is to be mentally challenging. With that being said, many of the famous surrealist painters were extremely talented in terms of painting technique, such as Salvador Dali.
Does It Matter?
Nope. At the end of the day, you should not be aiming to paint in a certain style and it does not matter which is harder.
If you are just starting out in painting, you should focus on painting with accurate values, colors and perspective. You should learn how to compose your paintings and the many techniques available to communicate your statement through the painting. This is all irrelevant of style.
Once you have learnt these skills, you will have more flexibility with how you paint. Do not be fooled by generalisations that abstract painting is not difficult, or that realism lacks creativity. Just focus on the fundamentals and then you will have the freedom to paint as you feel.
The reason I originally wrote this post was to challenge the common perception that the primary goal of a painting is to create something that looks like a photograph. In my opinion, that should be the last thing you are trying to do.
In my humble opinion, I believe realism and impressionism to be roughly on par as the hardest styles to master. Realism has the edge as far as technical difficulty, but impressionism has the added difficulty of capturing the essence of the scene without over or under doing it. Both styles have an aim of faithfully rendering what you see and are great styles for beginner painters to look towards.
But with that being said, this is just personal opinion and really it does not matter. Just try not to get caught up in painting a particular style. Just focus on the basics and progress from there.
Now over to you. What do you think is the hardest painting style? Or do you think it is just a silly question which does not warrant an answer? Please share in the comment section. (Note: there is no right answer).
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PS. If you have not already, be sure to join the Free Online Painting Course. You can also find more advanced tips in my ebook, 21 Easy Ways To Improve Your Paintings and reference photos in my Reference Photo Library.