What Is Figurative Art? The Inspiration and Style

5th December 2023 4 minutes read

What Is Figurative Art? The Inspiration and Style

Many modern artists enjoy producing fine art belonging to the figurative category. What is figurative art? Grab a coffee and click to learn more.

Keyword(s): what is figurative art

Love. Language. Tools.

When asked what makes us human, people give many different answers. But one of them stands out above others: art.

There’s sufficient evidence to suggest that humans have been making art for hundreds of thousands of years. Both figurative and abstract images dating back 51,000 years to Neanderthals scrawling in caves and on bone are available to see and touch.

But what is figurative art, exactly? Why is it still relevant? Read on to learn.

What Is Figurative Art?

“Figurative art” is a form of representational art. This means that it shows a picture that represents an actual item, person, animal, or similar subject. It aims to capture something that exists in real life and immortalize it in a realistic piece.

Still life is a notable type of figurative art that almost everyone is familiar with. Paintings and sketches of bowls of fruit are commonplace. Realistic floral paintings are also among the physical subjects that artists try to capture in figurative renditions.

But figurative art is not limited to still life. It also encompasses portraits like Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and anatomically correct Renaissance paintings.

Some figurative art also uses mediums other than oil paint or sketches. Michelangelo’s David is a famous example of a figurative art sculpture. It captures the human form in a realistic way that people can easily identify and appreciate.

The bottom line is that figurative art is realistic and captures physical subjects.

Characteristics of Figurative Artwork

Figurative artwork is compelling for a wide range of reasons.

Many people believe these styles to sound boring because they convey real-world images rather than emotions or abstract innovations. However, this is far from the case since artists capture subjects as they see and perceive them.

This makes interpretation and innovation core characteristics of figurative styles. Artists come up with visual ways to represent what makes objects and people beautiful to them. They highlight the parts of the subject that they interpret as most important and express them in a way that conveys symbolic meanings and heightened emotions.

Figurative artwork is also evocative. Like all art, it aims to create a strong emotional reaction in viewers to the point of visceral symptoms.

As a result, figurative artwork aims to be timeless. It shows us what people in the past valued in physical subjects and what mattered to them. Just look at the Mona Lisa’s eyes – they’re hauntingly beautiful and allow us to connect with a woman who lived in the 1400s.

People in the future will have this experience with those alive today as well.

Variations of Figurative Art

The earliest figurative artworks we can cite are prehistoric cave paintings. These paintings showcased people and animals and aimed to capture their essence and form. Many of them had exaggerated features that tell us what was noticeable to the early humans who created them.

Realistic Classical Sculptures

Over time, though, these cave paintings evolved into some of the most beautiful works of art out there. Greco-Roman sculptures like Michaelangelo’s David, The Thinker,  and the Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata are figurative works that withstood the test of time. They were idealized, geometric, and had realistic proportions for accurate renditions of human and animal figures.


Impressionism is, of course, one of the most recognizable types of figurative artwork today. The 19th-century movement has small and thin brushstrokes that are still visible. Open composition is the objective, as is capturing as realistic a rendition of the object as possible.

This means showcasing colors in a true-to-form manner and illustrating shadows appropriately.

It also evolved into post-impression in the early 20th century. It reacted to naturalistic impressionist depictions of objects and made subjects more imaginative. It didn’t only use realistic colors and lines but also expressed things more boldly and uniquely, utilizing unusual colors and bold lines.

20th-Century Advancements

During the 20th century, figurative art began to take on several new styles. Some popular movements during the 1900s included:

  • Surrealism, which conveyed physical subjects as dreamlike images with abstract properties
  • Expressionism, which shows physical objects as distorted for expressive communication
  • Cubism, which was invented by Pablo Picasso and showed physical objects in fragmented, abstracted, and geometric ways

These variants are all used today in artwork. They’ve been adapted by various artists to showcase their styles and values.

Andy Warhol is a unique example of this. He used portrait and figurative drawings with long brushstrokes, bright colors, and cubism-inspired elements to capture male beauty and unabashed sexuality.

Frida Kahlo did figurative self-portraits to showcase private pain and Mexican heritage values. Alberty Giacometti showcased spindly sculptures to express loneliness and isolation.


Using Figurative Art in Design

Contemporary figurative art comes in many forms. New trends are evolving to incorporate symbolism and abstraction in figurative works.

People are also expanding to show more inclusive identities in figurative paintings. People want to see those of various ethnicities, sexual orientations, and genders. This documents those who would be historically silenced and marginalized to bring us forth into a more loving, caring era of art.

To use figurative art in your interior design, you simply need to decide what you value. If you’re from a specific ethnic background, consider portraits of people with similar identities or objects that remind you of your family’s roots. If you like certain types of animals, consider creating a collection of figurative paintings that show the animals in distinctive lights.

You can hang them on walls in sets or individually. You can also mix and match oil paintings, watercolors, charcoal sketches, and statues. Create a balanced design with bold lines, white space, and multiple textures and styles.

Showcase Physical Subjects in Your Space

So, what is figurative art?

On the most basic level, it’s artwork that shows impressions of real-life objects. But in reality, it’s a reflection of the physical subjects that we value enough to ensure live through the ages.

Now that you know the ins and outs of this art style, it’s time to showcase high-quality artwork in your home or commercial space. Browse our new listings to find a piece that creates the perfect ambiance for your interior design project.

Richard Veal