By Jeff Mottle

Realism in Arch Viz (Part One): What is Realism?

Editor's notes

Article brought to you by Deon Liebenberg
Jeff Mottle — Founder at CGarchitect

Image courtesy: Third Aesthetic


Realism as outsider in the history of art

In architectural visualisation realism is something that is generally regarded as a prerequisite for a good marketing image. (I use the term ‘realism’ in the popular sense of optical accuracy – as opposed to the 19th century movement in art and literature called Realism, which had very specific aims – see below). Furthermore, this article deals only with the artistic/creative side of realism, and not the technical). In this image above by Third Aesthetic, photographic realism has been achieved to a supreme degree. But what makes an image realistic, and what makes this one so compelling in its realism, is by no means a straightforward issue. 

Firstly, realism, as we generally understand this term, occupies a remarkably small place in the overall history of art, and can be regarded as something of an outsider when it comes to listing the essential features of art. Most art created by societies all over the world during a history spanning more than 40,000 years makes little or no attempt at being realistic (in the sense that we use the term in arch viz). There are only a few exceptions, such as the art of Classical Antiquity (c. 500 BCE - 330 CE) and European art from the 14th century to the 19th century. This outsider status gives rise to certain problems and challenges that the realistic artist or image-maker must face. To appreciate these challenges, a brief survey of the historical position of realism is needed. 

There are no surviving examples of Greek painting from Classical Antiquity, but, judging from contemporary accounts, it must have equalled or even surpassed the realism of their sculpture from the Classical and Hellenistic periods (see below). Pliny the Elder, for example, tells of a painting competition in which a painting of grapes by the famous Hellenistic Greek painter Zeuxis was so realistic that birds flew down to peck at them.

Laocoon and His Sons. 1st century BCE. Roman copy of a Hellenistic Greek original by Agesander, Athenodoros and Polydorus of Rhodes. Vatican Museums, Rome. Image courtesy: Marie-Lan Nguyen https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Jastrow

The Renaissance (14th to 16th century) saw a revival of realism, inspired, to a very large extent, by the sculpture of classical antiquity such as the Laocoon group (above), which was excavated in Rome in 1506. This striving for realism reached its zenith in the 17th century. The painting below, by Willem Kalf, achieves amazing realism through a carefully observed play of light and shadow – exactly what the ancient Greek artist Zeuxis did, according to contemporary accounts, to fool the birds. 

Willem Kalf. Still life with Silver Ewer, 1656, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.


Strangely enough, the oldest paintings that we know of – the Palaeolithic cave paintings in Spain and France – are often remarkably realistic. When the first of these caves, Altamira, was discovered in 1879, by the 8 year old daughter of an amateur archaeologist, Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, leading experts flatly refused to believe that the paintings were genuine Palaeolithic artworks. Sautuola was accused of forgery and only after his death did the subsequent discovery of similar caves force the experts to acknowledge the truth of his findings.

Horses and bison: Ekain Cave, Spain. Image Courtesy: Xabier Eskisabel http://www.argazkiak.org/photo/ekainberriko-zaldiak-2/



Abstraction as realism in art

But since these paintings were done (some 40,000 – 20,000 years ago), art, from the Palaeolithic to the present, has, in various ways, become more abstract, with very few exceptions. Possibly the main reason for this is that the central focus of most traditional art over this long period has been the depiction of a sacred rather than mundane reality. The Tlingit ceremonial rattle below, from the Pacific Northwest coast of America, is a good example. The artist here clearly had no interest in a realistic portrayal of creatures from our world, even though it portrays what is recognizably a raven, with a human figure and a kingfisher on its back. In fact, in such art it is often important that the creatures depicted are not too realistic, so that they can have a quality of strangeness about them that marks them out as supernatural beings. For this is no ordinary raven – Tlingit myth credits this creature with the creation (or transformation) of the world as it is today. Raven stole the sun, moon and stars and released them into the sky to cast light on a world that, until then, had been cloaked in perpetual darkness – what mythologists call the ‘long night.’ 

Tlingit raven rattle. Image courtesy: Difference Engine, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Difference_engine


It should be emphasised here that the societies that produced such art would not regard it as abstract or fantastical, since it portrays what to them is the ultimate reality. In this sense, their art is more realistic than art that merely copies the appearances of our mundane world. One can take this even further, since, according to some religious and philosophical views, the material world that we live in is mere illusion.

Modernism and the return to abstraction

This has relevance to modern culture. In a previous article in CGArchitect I referred to a major intellectual and spiritual crisis that occurred during the 18th century in Europe. The progress of science called long held religious beliefs into question. In response to this philosophers, poets and artists, during the course of the 19th century, developed the idea that artistic vision can penetrate beyond the reach of the five senses – and therefore also beyond the reach of empirical scientific observation – to reveal the domain of the ultimate realities or spiritual truths. The following example by Caspar David Friedrich is emblematic of this trend. The artist is trying to convey a sense of a deeper reality expressed through a kind of mystical communion with nature.

Caspar David Friedrich. Man and woman contemplating the moon, 1824, Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin


The Western myth of the ‘noble savage’ or bon sauvage (good wild man) had been developed over several centuries, inspired mainly by European contact with indigenous peoples of the Americas and elsewhere since the time of Columbus. Now, in the 19th century, this concept started playing a fundamental role in western art. It was thought that so-called primitive people, as well as children, had direct access to the collective unconscious mind, which enabled them to see and reveal the deeper realities of human existence. In the 20th century this culminated, in various ways, in the primitivist abstraction that characterises most modernist art. This painting by Pablo Picasso exemplifies this trend, although Picasso’s personal approach to primitivism was more complex, being tempered by a French rationalist tradition that he was exposed to in Paris.

Pablo Picasso. Girl Before a Mirror, 1932, Museum of Modern Art, New York


Picasso’s work played a major role in the development of the American Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock. Pollock believed that his totally abstract paintings, consisting of dribbles of paint thrown at the canvas, were the product of a mystical process that revealed the hidden truths of the collective unconscious (as theorised by Carl Gustav Jung) – just as ‘primitive’ art revealed the same mystical truths. What to the uninitiated might seem to be to be an incomprehensible mess of dribbles and smears is, according to the artist’s own belief, and according to the modernist tradition that he was part of, a representation of a deeper reality. Some people might argue that this is true realism, while the optical truth that we see in CGI’s is mere surface appearances, or just an illusion of a reality that in itself is mere illusion (according to some notable philosophers and religious systems).

Jackson Pollock. Blue Poles, 1952. The National Gallery of Australia


The problem of Realism

The achievement of true realism in an artistic image is therefore an unexpectedly complex thing. The matter is even more perplexing when considering the aims of 19th century art movement known as Realism. Reacting against the spiritual aspirations of Romanticism and embracing the rising scientific paradigm of the modern age, the Realists strove to achieve true factual, scientific vision in their art. This entailed far more than just optical realism – they tried to strip painting of all pictorial conventions that imposed a worldview or value system, religious or otherwise, on the subject-matter, thereby distorting visual truth, as they believed. The painting below, by Gustave Courbet, exemplifies this striving and is one of the most famous and iconic examples of Realism. Instead of mythical heroes, divine personages or heads of state engaging in some noble endeavour, he gives us two humble stone breakers engaged in what was regarded as the lowliest form of physical labour at the time.

Gustave Courbet. The Stone Breakers 1849. Destroyed in a World War II bombing raid 1945


Architectural visualisation as the opposite of Realism

But what does this have to do with architectural visualisation? Quite a lot. Firstly, Realism (the art movement) shows us how far removed most arch viz images are from proper realism. In fact, scientific realism, in conceptual and stylistic terms, is diametrically opposed to the aims of the vast majority of arch viz images. Architectural visualisation is all about selling a dream. It is deliberately laden with value systems, aspirations, beliefs and desires. Realism is about telling it as it is. Arch viz, on the other hand, tends to present a highly idealised vision of a projected reality. In fact, arch viz generally strives to imbue an image with precisely those things that Realism strove to strip away. The following image by Third Aesthetic consciously imposes a world view, a value system, on the scene, as part of a carefully considered marketing strategy. This image is much closer, in this respect, to traditional religious imagery that presents a vision of an ideal world or existence. The main difference is that the ideal existence portrayed here is in this life, expressed in material terms, rather than in a spiritual afterlife. In this sense, the Baroque still life by Willem Kalf, above, is quite similar in its aims to the Third Aesthetic image. Although stunningly realistic, this painting portrays the value system of the client – it is a showpiece of his or her wealth and luxurious lifestyle.

Image Courtesy: Third Aesthetic


Furthermore, all the pictorial elements have been arranged in a hierarchical fashion – there are dominant, intermediate and subordinate areas (in terms of strength or contrast of tone, hue, saturation, shape, texture, detail) that are expertly composed to create a dream world of perfect equilibrium. The same aesthetic principles that were used by Vermeer (below) to create his masterpiece of classical balance – in which every detail, every pictorial element, has been carefully orchestrated to this end – are at work here. And Third Aesthetic have mastered these principles to create an image that warrants consideration as an exceptional work of art in its own right, regardless of marketing considerations. But this has little to do with everyday reality. An aesthetic system of order, a human abstraction, has been imposed on an ostensibly realistic scene.

Johannes Vermeer. Woman Reading a Letter, c. 1663, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam


Realism, as presented by Courbet, deliberately strives to avoid this type of visual hierarchy – instead of the figures in the painting being arranged according to their perceived importance in terms of some imposed value system, they are quite pointedly placed on equal terms. Neither one dominates the other as far as their roles in the composition go.

In marketing terms, it is therefore very important that an architectural visualization should not be realistic, as far as the art-historical definition of Realism goes. But this required lack of realism goes much further. Realism (Courbet and company) studiously avoids any attempt at engaging the emotions, beliefs and values of the viewer. It aims for a dispassionate state of scientific disinterestedness in which a value-free viewing of the subject can take place. Obviously, this will not work for architectural marketing images. CG artists generally try to pull out all the stops to engage the emotions of the viewer, ranging from very subtly, as in the above example, to quite blatantly. Successful marketing depends on this. But this is a big issue that will be discussed in the second part of this article.

Written by Deon Liebenberg   

After a stint as art director, Deon Liebenberg has gone back into teaching. In collaboration with Construct Media, a Cape Town based architectural visualisation studio, he is currently developing a training programme to equip design and visualisation students for the challenges of the near future when computers will replace many people in the job market.


You must be logged in to post a comment. Login here.
Great article!
Great sharing! Good to learn!
Great article. Waiting the second part! Thanks.

About this article

Deon Liebenberg on realism in Arch Viz.

visibility12.6 k
Report Abuse

About the author

Jeff Mottle

Founder at CGarchitect

placeCalgary, CA