They might look like photographs, but these images are paintings – the extraordinary work of hyperreal artist Dru Blair. By Mike Peake
that are picture perfect
Newsflash: the photos you’re looking at are not actually photos, they’re paintings. Once you’ve got your head around that, we’ve another surprise in store: they’re not even copied from photographs – for the most part, the images only ever existed in the mind of the artist until he decided to put them down on canvas.
American Dru Blair is one of the world’s top hyperreal artists, and you’re certainly not alone if you’re still scratching your head and screaming, “But it is a photo!”
Hyperrealism has its roots in the realism movement of the mid 1800s and is a continuation of photorealism, a rather flat artistic fad of the 1960s. Whereas photorealists got a kick out of copying photographs as faithfully as they could, today’s hyperreal artists go one step further. Their aim is to bring the image to life – to make it seem so real that you could almost touch it. And its appeal is fastgrowing, as evidenced by some of the prices the works of the best artists command at auctions.
For Dru, 53, hyperrealism is a way for him to test himself. “I like to attempt paintings which seem impossible to me,” he says. “They become like an adversary, bent on my failure. If I succeed, there is satisfaction in overcoming that adversity; if I fail, I take it as a lesson.”
Based in Sumter National Forest in South Carolina, Dru is your typical, messy artist – by his own admission a long way short of organised in everyday life – even if his paintings suggest the consummate perfectionist. Sitting in his studio for hours at a time, he lovingly crafts images that can take days, weeks, or even months to finish.
“A painting begins with a concept,” he says. “That is the most challenging aspect, because I then have to try to determine how to transform that concept into an image. I think about where I want to position the viewer and which elements I want to include in the painting.”
Dru then starts his relentless research of the subjects – be that an aeroplane, a horse or even a woman – so that he understands their colours, textures and every tiny detail. He will occasionally take photographs for a “more focused study”, but they’re just a guide. What eventually comes through on his canvases are the products of Dru’s imagination.
“Once I decide on a composition, I will make a drawing and when I’m happy with it I mix the acrylic colours I want and begin rendering the main subject, starting with the most important parts,” he explains. “I use various tools to build layers, such as an airbrush, erasers and blades to manipulate the paint. A typical painting takes from five to 40 hours to complete.”
The longest Dru ever took on a piece was 70 hours, when painting a portrait of his friend, Floyd (left). “It took so long because there are so many varied textures to the skin,” says Dru.
Inspiration is everywhere, and Dru thinks that a trip to the Middle East would provide him with especially rich pickings. “I’ve always wanted to visit because of its culture, setting and history, any of which I think would make an excellent subject to paint,” he says.
Dru originally set his sights on a career in medicine, but became hooked on digital art in college and never looked back. Unusually, he doesn’t sell his originals, preferring to keep them and sell only reproductions, starting at $50 (Dh184) a print. “I love to hold on to
all my works but sell the prints,’’ he says. And the market is there – people love Dru’s breathtakingly realistic depictions of space shuttles, helicopters and American Eagles – and he loves the feedback he gets from his buyers.
Donald Eickhoff, one of his fans who bought a print, says on Dru’s Facebook page: “I could fill my house with all your works. They are very inspirational. I bought a copy of Air bridge 2 for my father as a Christmas present he loves it. He spent many years being a crew chief on the KC135 so the print has special meaning for him.’’
Dru’s also happy to give a quick history lesson on his genre of art to anyone who’s interested. “Realism was extremely popular until modernism came into vogue in the late 19th century,” he says. “Modernism discarded the traditional techniques in art, along with the emphasis on beauty and craftsmanship, in favour of innovation. Recently, there seems to have been a resurgence of realism and within that hyperrealism is the most difficult genre of art. It demands accuracy in every visual element, such as proportion, light, shadow, colour, perspective and so on. Without an understanding of traditional methods, it is not possible for an artist to achieve hyperrealism.”
Despite hyperrealism’s technical brilliance, there are people, of course, who think that creating an image that looks rather like a photograph is missing the point.
“Most of my fellow artists have been positive,” shrugs Dru, though he admits that people are sometimes critical when they
assume he has simply copied a photo. “The creativity comes from creating [imaginary] worlds,” he states.
Dru is by no means alone in the world of hyperrealism, and he’s also not the only one to field the occasional criticism that the genre fails to display the emotion you might find with more abstract work. Why not just use photographs? ask critics.
Although there are people in art who reject any technological input, creatives such as Dru argue there are also just as many people, if not more, who embrace it.
It could be said that copying a photograph into paint is lacking expression, but that’s not the aim of a true hyperrealist. They would argue they embrace the photograph, as making what is basically an enlargement of a photo would be mundane and pointless.
“I get a sense of satisfaction from fooling my audience into thinking they’re viewing a photograph, or that I’ve copied one,” says Dru. “And I enjoy the delight they take the moment they realise their eye has been fooled.”
Dru, above, uses various tools to build layers into his work. This painting of his friend Floyd, left, took him 70 hours to complete but usually a work takes from five to 40 hours
Dru’s works of military aircraft find fans amongst those who have worked with them
A low-level fly over by an F-111 captures the attention of a group of scouts