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A guide to painting styles

It is astonishing to think that the approximately 15 billion paintings on Earth were created from perhaps less than a dozen styles of painting. Art is a continuing conversation and a baton pass from one generation to the next. More often than not, a new style of painting is simply a reaction against another style of painting. Since everybody paints differently, there are endless interpretations and combinations of painting styles. If you’re anything like me, sometimes it’s challenging to spot all the unique styles present in a painting. In this handy guide, I will use examples from Vancouver Visual Art Foundation’s roster of artists to help understand how some of these styles can work together to create a diversity of personal style. We begin with the two broadest categories of visual art: figurative and abstract.

A rooster standing. Wake Up Call, Jamie Lightfoot

Figurative art has been the dominant style of western painting since the Renaissance. It is any kind of art that attempts to reproduce something in reality. In my example, you can see in Jamie Lightfoot’s oil painting, Wake Up Call, that the painted image is meant to objectively represent a rooster from a given perspective. This style of art often uses imagery to evoke a symbolic or emotional meaning. Figurative art is the opposite of the other kind of visual art, which is abstract art.

A colourful painting. Splish, Lisa Wolfin

Abstract art began just over a century ago in the Western world and has grown into a very diverse and popular style. When an artist paints an abstract painting, they are no longer attempting to reproduce an object in the real world. Abstraction occurs along a sliding scale; the more abstract a painting is, the less it will directly resemble something that exists in reality.

Since abstract art doesn’t reproduce or directly represent reality, it doesn’t use imagery and doesn’t use perspective. Instead, abstract paint purely uses shape, form and colour to evoke emotion or an idea. Lisa Wolfin’s painting, Splish, is a great example of the bright and colourful style that often typifies abstract art.

Boats floating on the water. Love Blue. Carolina Licon

Impressionism is a style of figurative art that uses lighter and looser brush strokes to depict the world as the artist sees it: imperfect and personal. The movement is best understood as a reaction against the precise symmetry and idealised images of mythology and history that dominated western art up until the late 1800s. Impressionism is often painted outside and usually focuses on the effects of light at a given moment in time. Carolina Licon’s painting, Love Blue, illustrates the careful application of abstraction that impressionism relies on.

A woman with red hair in red clothes holding a vase. Evening Renewal, Aryan Abubakr

Expressionism followed Impressionism as an avant-garde style developed before the First World War and is closely related to it. Artists who paint in an expressionist style often distort their painting to better represent their own emotional mood or to better convey an idea. Often these paintings are very personal images that depart from reality. Expressionist artists use elements of abstraction and surrealism to create bright, swirling distortions and strong colours. Aryan Abubakr’s painting, Evening Renewal, uses many of these techniques to create a strong, personal image.

Comprising Personal Freedom, Tori Swanson

Cubism followed Expressionism and pushed figurative art further into abstraction than it ever had before. Although cubist paintings still depict objects in reality, they often use numerous perspectives in a single piece. This means that cubist paintings are multi-faced, angular, geometric reproductions of figures that are often broken down into abstract forms. Tori Swanson’s, Comprising Personal Freedom, typifies cubist painting by heavily distorting the human figure into a highly abstract and evocative form. Cubist paintings finally led to the fully abstract paintings that abandoned figurative art.

Crush, Kevin ‘Freakshow’ O’Quinn

Pop art followed Cubism and first developed in the 1950s as a response to increasingly abstract images that had dominated the earlier part of the 1900s. Pop art is a return to strong, realistic imagery and symmetrical images of mythology. Instead of painting Greek gods, artists like Andy Warhol painted images of modern American mythology: celebrities, advertisements and products. In this way, Pop art demolishes the notion of high and low art and combines them into a new form. Kevin ‘Freakshow’ O’Quinn’s painting, Crush, shows a larger than life image of Conan the Barbarian, a bright depiction of a popular icon that blurs the line between retro advertising and contemporary art.

Lizard Man, Gabriela Hirt’s

Surrealism developed first as a literary movement by leader Andre Breton and then evolved into a broader artistic movement in the 1920s. Influenced by Freud, the surrealist attempts to combine reality with the strange and subconscious reality of dreams. A surrealist painting will diligently attempt to recreate the internal reality of thought onto the canvas. The image that is produced is free from reason or the logic of reality. Gabriela Hirt’s, Lizard Man, bears many of the hallmarks of surrealism; it’s a hazy, dream-like depiction of an internal reality.

By Jakob Schmidt


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