Photorealistic art is fascinating and is also complicated subject, because if you are working on a piece of digital art that is attempting to look 100% real and something is just slightly off it will look horrible.
In 1970 robotics professor Masahiro Mori stated his hypothesis “Uncanny Valley.” Basically the closer a robot looks to being human, the more empathetic a human will be towards it until a certain point. At that level of detail a normal person is repulsed by the almost real robot. It gets to a level to where it’s almost perfect, but not quite there. Think about a corpse, or a prosthetic limb, something just looks “off” about them, which causes it to appear “strange.”
The same concept is applied to digital art. If a piece looks almost real, but not quite there it will appear strange to the viewer.
Through proper lighting and texturing techniques some artists hit it. Some come close but don’t cross over into the Uncanny Valley so the work they create is still pleasant to view.
The last move, by Jose Mª Lazaro is a good example of photorealistic art. The artist worked on this portrait of Morgan Freeman for over two years using 3ds max, BodyPaint, mental ray, Photoshop, and ZBrush.
Chimpanzee by Jacques Defontaine in 2001 using the software packages Modo, and Mudbox.
Sad Woman, by Kleber Darcio finished in 2010 is another amazing piece. The only thing that gives this away is the hair strands, and some of the facial features look too perfect, giving away that they were created by an artist.
In order to achieve a photorealistic effect the lighting, modelling, rendering and materials all need to be created just right. If not the effect will be off. Some tips for creating photorealistic art is to remember that nothing is perfect. Everything in the real world is dirty, nothing is perfectly clean. Adding some dirt, scrapes or dents to object/people will greatly enhance the level of detail. It is also important to remember that nothing in nature is perfect symmetrical either. Even when working with man made objects, something that is perfectly symmetrical will appear boring.
Achieving a photorealistic effect is very difficult.
My latest attempt was in September 2012. The image was that of two elephants that I had been working on for a few weeks. I called the end result Ebony and Ivory, due to the colors of the elephants (one darker, one lighter).
Here is a video of the creation process for one elephant, following that will be a series of images showing the progression of the creation process leading up the final image.
Earlier renders were less colorful, while the final was much more vibrant which I felt made it a bit more unrealistic compared to the earlier renders. On saying that however, I preferred the colorful variation, because I felt it was more aesthetically pleasing.