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The artists wanted to express/depict real life, to paint straight from nature.

Depict seems more natural, but do we have a better explanation for why one and not the other?

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    Did you consult a dictionary first? The definitions are quite clear... – virolino Mar 19 at 10:15
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I associate depict with painting, drawing or other form of art. This word is a good choice since they are artists, and they are going to paint.

Express is a commonplace word meaning convey emotions/thoughts, and is rarely used when you want to sound sophisticated.

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Depict specifically means to explain something through an art form like drawing, painting etc.

Express is a more general term that means to explain something via your behavior, feelings or words.

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Express is used to express something like feelings, opinions.(something that we cannot see)

e.g I want to express my views on this subject.

Depict is used to show something physically.
Usually living things express and non living depict.

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