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Richard Estes

American Painter

Richard Estes Photo
Movements and Styles: Photorealism, Contemporary Realism

Born: May 14, 1932 - Kewanee, Illinois

"Unfortunately it has been too easy for anybody to take a photograph, trace it, and make a lousy painting. Photorealism, in that sense, has been bastardized. I can sympathize with a lot of people who just reject it outright, because, like anything else, there is so much bad stuff around. I always thought of myself as a Realist painter."

Richard Estes Signature

Summary of Richard Estes

When Richard Estes arrived on the New York art scene, Abstract Expressionism had largely run its course. In contrast to the acutely personal, emotional, unstructured, and (some would contend) self-indulgent aesthetic of The New York School, Estes among others introduced a form of painting that emphasized control and an almost machine-like precision. In part, his style emphasized the craft of painting, which was central to the hard-edged, jaw-dropping verisimilitude of photorealistic art. Artists like Estes, Audrey Flack, Chuck Close, and Ralph Goings abandoned the drama of gestural painting and promoted a kind of hyper-realism that seemed more visually descriptive of the increasingly high-tech, post-war age. For Estes, the appeal of the gleaming, reflective surfaces of New York City were irresistible. His paintings, composites of multiple photographs, suggest that the modern world is a sharply articulated one of clean, intersecting lines: orderly and systematic in presenting information about itself. Rather than humans, every kind of material and object tells its own story in an Estes painting to which the artist has always been reluctant to assign symbolic meaning.

Key Ideas

While Estes' paintings appear to be direct, painted copies of photographs, he actually combined multiple photos, often quite loosely, figuring out his compositions in underpaintings he produced using acrylic paint. He would sometimes move elements as he began working to strengthen his compositions and more closely control visual effect. As a consequence of Estes taking these artistic liberties, when viewers have tried to match his paintings with actual sites in New York City or elsewhere, they often discover surprising inconsistencies.
A major compositional strategy for Estes was often to bisect his paintings, producing a kind of split-screen result. This has the effect of making it seem as though you're looking at two different paintings or even worlds. This tactic probably relates to the often surprising juxtapositions of visual elements in the crowded city or, for instance, in a wilderness setting in which technology intrudes, as with his painting of a boat cutting through the icy water in the Antarctic.
By creating his photorealistic montages that seem convincingly whole, Estes produces works in which there are multiple focal points. He confounds the concept of the mathematical or one-point perspective, the Renaissance invention that provided drawn and painted images with the illusion of depth. Instead, viewing a typical Estes painting feels like one is constantly changing vantage points; it's a bit like the effect of covering one eye, then the other and observing how that alters one's view.
Until the 19th century, the craft aspect of painting was regarded as enormously important. Demonstrating one's skill as a draftsperson and a technically-gifted painter was as important as the subject of an individual work. With the advent of modernism, the technical virtuosity of an artist was challenged, brushstrokes emphasized, and traditional materials and methods were rejected if not dispensed with completely. Estes, among other artists, rejected the bias against craft by creating hyper-realistic paintings that recall the trompe l'oeil paintings that had for centuries provided a means for artists to display their superior technical prowess.
Richard Estes Photo

Estes spent the first few years of his life in the small city of Kewanee, Illinois. He was the first of two children, and had a close relationship with his younger brother, Robert. His father, William, ran an auto repair shop in Kewanee.

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