Realism vs. Stylization

Introduction

One of the fundamental properties of visual art is the degree to which it is realistic or stylized. The less a work of art resembles something in the physical world, the more stylized it is.

The Realism-Stylization Spectrum

Realism-Stylization Spectrum

Highly Realistic Sculpture
Highly Realistic Sculpture
Image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen
Significantly Stylized Sculpture
Significantly Stylized Sculpture
Image credit: thebeskouros
Extremely Stylized Sculpture
Extremely Stylized Sculpture
Image credit: J. Crocker

The sculpture on the left is so realistic, it seems as though it might come alive. The lifelike quality of the middle sculpture is much weaker, due to such stylized features as the rigid facial expression, symmetrical posture, and patterned hair. The sculpture on the right is so stylized that it could represent any number of physical things (e.g. a bird, flower, or skeleton) or, arguably, no physical thing.

Realism-Stylization Spectrum

Highly Realistic Painting
Highly Realistic Painting
Image credit: public domain
Significantly Stylized Painting
Significantly Stylized Painting
Image credit: public domain
Extremely Stylized Painting
Extremely Stylized Painting
Image credit: public domain

Again, the artwork on the left is strikingly lifelike. The middle painting employs three of the most common methods of stylization: flatness (lack of three-dimensional depth), simplified shapes, and unrealistically vibrant colours. The painting on the right is extremely stylized; indeed, it is "completely stylized" (since it represents nothing from the physical world).

Related Terminology

Art that resembles nothing in the physical world is called abstract, while art that portrays something recognizable (however distorted) is called representational. One may also distinguish between narrative art (which tells some kind of story) and decorative art (which does not). While a decorative work can be either abstract or representational, a narrative work must be representational.

Categories of Art based on Degree of Stylization
Abstract Art
Abstract Art
Image credit: Mountain
Decorative Representational Art
Decorative Representational Art
Image credit: Wolfgang Sauber
Narrative Representational Art
Narrative Representational Art
Image credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen

As demonstrated by the painting on the left jar, abstract art is inherently decorative. The representational painting on the middle jar is also decorative: the octopus is not doing anything, it is simply "there". The representational painting on the right jar, on the other hand, is narrative: the figures are actually doing something, and thus a story is conveyed.