The Hyperrealistic Portraits of Hyung Koo Kang

Is this real life or just a photograph?

By Google Arts & Culture

Old Monroe (2000) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

It’s a photograph, right? That might be the question that runs through your head when you come across one of Hyung Koo Kang’s artworks, and the answer would be that you’re wrong. Korean artist Hyung Koo Kang is known for his hyper-realistic portraits of historic icons, famous faces, and everyday people, all painstakingly created by hand, down to the smallest detail.

In his unique style, Kang has created portraits of figures from Andy Warhol and Clint Eastwood, to Abraham Lincoln and Joseph Stalin. His work is classified as hyperrealism, as unlike photo-realism, he often uses a photograph as a starting point and then takes it beyond the original image, or even paints from his imagination without a photograph at all. Indeed, photographs of some of his subjects – Van Gogh, Marilyn Monroe in her old age – never existed in the first place.

Kang’s skill lies in his innate understanding of a person's face – the hair, the wrinkles, the facial muscles – and how they all interact with each other. He displays his subjects in a way that will capture their personality and the defining characteristics of their era, sometimes by using a single color for the entire portrait, giving them a cartoon-like edge.

Vincent van Gogh in Blue (2007) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Kang trained at Chung-Ang University in Seoul, South Korea in the 1970s, an institution with a strong tendency towards realism. Raising a family at the time, he was forced to take as many jobs as he could, from an office clerk to an art gallery manager, to support them. It wasn't until he was 38 that he turned back to painting, resuming the style he had originally trained in.

In a month he can create around two to three paintings, which are created on large-scale canvas to ensure that even the most subtle details have a significant impact on the viewer. The works require a high level of dexterity and artistic discipline and he uses a wide range of techniques and tools to create the desired textures for skin, hair, and shadowing, such as air brush, iron scrubber, cotton swab, grinder, sandpaper, and eraser.

Old Man (2002) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Another Expression (2002) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Around half of Kang's works are of famous icons, and the other half consist of self-portraits and anonymous figures. He was heavily influenced by the photorealist works of American painter Chuck Close, who is known for his objectivity and realism, but Kang views his own work differently. He doesn't see himself as a realist, as realism exists in the present moment and often omits finite details, human emotion, and narrative elements, whereas hyperrealism focusses on these.

To be believable, Kang's portraits require a photorealistic approach, but he uses the techniques of hyperrealism to add an element of fiction. This is essential when it comes to painting a photograph-like portrait of a subject who isn't present, or of whom no photographs exist. Hyperrealism creates a false reality, something that seems real but never existed, setting it apart from the illogic of surrealism.

For his portraits of historic figures, such as Da Vinci, Kang works from illustrations, sculptures and written descriptions of the subject's appearance. He then adds in the minutiae, such as wrinkles or the way the hair falls, bringing it further and further away from the original source material. If he works from a photo, he focusses on emphasizing the gaze and aura of his subject, in a way that makes the gaze transcend the original photo, altering it enough for Kang's portrait to be considered as new material.

Take a look at more of his work below:

DaVinci (2008) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Clint (2007) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Warhol (2007) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Old Man (2000) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Callas (2007) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Einstein (2010) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Dali (2007) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Lincoln (1999) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Old Woman (2003) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Super Man (1998) by Kang, Hyung KooKorean Art Museum Association

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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