Realism is both necessary and overwhelming for beginner artists. Capturing realism seems to be an impossible challenge: the natural world offers an endless level of detail to reproduce. In this post I'll argue a different approach to realism, using the landscape paintings of Robh Ruppel as an example.
Ruppel's paintings, found on Graphic LA and his portfolio site, appear extremely realistic at first glance. They 'read' as photographic, though upon closer inspection are quite graphic and simplified. Let's take a closer look at the principles that allow him to imply realism without spending hundreds of hours painting tiny details.
Tone and Hue
Squint your eyes at this painting of the desert, and you could convincingly be looking at a photo. The detail image proves, however, that the surface textures are anything but photographic. Squinting at a painting allows you to ignore surface and small scale details, focusing only on light and form. This shows that Ruppel is telling most of the story through carefully arranged values and hues. A shadow painted too dark, or a highlight painted too intensely would break this illusion of realism.
These paintings depict real spaces with real light. As such, they are 'observational' images (even if they were based off of photographs). Where they succeed is in their accurate selection of colors -- which is not easy to do. The graphic, simplified, paint strokes leave no room for error. Each color has been carefully tweaked to capture the scene. This careful selection of color and tone creates a strong sense of realism, though it doesn't rely on photographic surface details. It's this sort of painting that is never threatened by the technical achievements of the camera.
Don't be Afraid
If you're intimidated by landscape painting, it's probably due to the density of small details. These paintings from Ruppel prove that realism doesn't need to mean photorealistic.
With this in mind, approach your next landscape painting with simplicity in mind. The image to the above right (Santa Monica Sunset) is a great example of this principle. Large shapes are much more important than tiny details. Focus more on the arrangement of values and colors - and less on the tiny little details. It's not to say your next painting will be as successful as Ruppel's, but it's fun approach to try out. If you've watched many of the Ctrl+Paint videos I run the risk of sounding like a broken record -- but it's all about working on the big picture first, and then adding detail on top. A strong foundation (in this case, value and hue) is three quarters of the battle. And if you haven't checked out the other paintings from Robh Ruppel yet - make sure to do so!