representational art

Representational Art: Definition and Guide

Representational art is an artistic style in which the artist attempts to depict a representation of real-life subject matter, that is recognisable to the viewer. This is opposed to non-representational art, which does not depict subjects, objects or scenes from the real world.

Art described as representational can be realistic, or less realistic. As long as the artist is attempting to capture a true-to-life resemblance of their subject, it can be considered representational.

This art form dates back centuries, with some artworks dating back to ancient times. From early cave paintings to Renaissance depictions of Biblical scenes, representational art has been used to express ideas and communicate stories for thousands of years.

Genres of Representational Art

Joseph Wright: Italian Landscape

Representational art falls into several distinct genres. Landscape painting, for instance, has been popular since the Renaissance and is still widely practised today. Portraiture and figure drawing are other traditional genres and can range from realistic to stylised interpretations depending on the artist’s preference. Still-life paintings are also popular and can depict anything from a simple bowl of fruit to a complex arrangement of objects.

History of Art and Representation

High Renaissance
Michelangelo: The Creation of Adam

The history of art is vast and varied. Ancient cultures used representational art to tell stories and document events, while more recent movements such as the Renaissance saw a greater emphasis on realism in painting and sculpture. In the 20th century, it saw a resurgence with the rise of movements such as Realism and Pop Art.

Art Movements: How Representational Art Has Evolved

Caryatid porch of the Erechtheion in Athens

Art has been a tool of expression for humans since antiquity, with each period of history bringing a new evolution in the approach and perception of representational art. The classical era of Greek sculpture is an ideal example of early representational art, where artists sought an idealised, perfect form rather than an exact reflection of reality. The human body was depicted in harmonious proportions, embodying the cultural values of balance, order and beauty.

Renaissance and the Pursuit of Realism

Michelangelo: David

The High Renaissance brought a shift in perspective, with artists like Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo placing an emphasis on Realism. This was a time of great scientific and cultural advancement, and artists sought to depict the world around them with as much authenticity as possible, meticulously observing and capturing minute details of light, shadow, and anatomy.

Representing Subjective Experience During the Post-Impressionist Movement

Van Gogh: The Starry Night

By the late 19th to early 20th century, the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist movements emerged. Artists like Van Gogh and Gauguin began to move away from faithfully representing the physical world. Instead, they sought to express their inner experiences and emotions through bold colours and distorted forms. Here, art began its journey towards abstraction, and representational art took on a new dimension, serving not just as a mirror to the world but also as a window into the artist’s mind.

Representational vs. Non-Representational Art

Abstract oil painting
Wassily Kandinsky: composition IV Wassily Kandinsky

The difference between representational and non-representational art lies in the way that it is produced. Art that is representational is based on representations of reality, while abstract or non-representational art does not depict anything from the real world. Abstract artists can use geometric shapes, colour schemes, or any combination of shapes and lines that do not form recognisable objects. While representational art can have an emotional or symbolic purpose, it is still rooted in the world of everyday experience. Non-representational art, on the other hand, abstains from any obvious reference to reality or pictorial representation.

How Artists Represent Subjects in Art

Gustave Caillebotte: Rue Halevy, Seen from the Sixth Floor

Artists create representational, or ‘true to life’ art by observing the forms of the subjects and objects they wish to recreate, by drawing shapes, determining accurate proportions or perspective and using colours that emulate that of the reference. This process is often done slowly, in stages. The artist will begin by sketching the basic outline of their subject, to establish the proportions, then add details such as texture and shade to create the impression of the subject’s form.

Representational art is a rewarding endeavour that requires patience and skill. It takes time to learn how to accurately capture the nuances of light and shadow, but with practice, it can be achieved.

Mediums Used for Representational Art

Representational art can be used in any medium, from painting and drawing to sculpture and even digital media. It can be used to create powerful pieces of artwork or simply as a means of documenting an event or moment in time. While realistic art is often thought of as traditional, it can also be used in a more modern context to create unique and interesting pieces of artwork. It is up to the artist how they choose to interpret and use this style of art.