Painting with pixels or pigments, is there any real difference?
By Denis Taylor
One or two digital art making practitioners and their supporters are going all out to persuade artists and perhaps exhibition audiences, that the time for making Art using pigments on a flat surface applied by hand may be numbered. Inkjet prints of images of artworks created using the digital assisted software are the way to go for artists of the future, or so they say.
Two very different digital art exhibitions caught my notice recently, one in London at the Whitechapel Gallery. ‘Electronic Super Highway’ 2016-1966 – [Jan 29 to 15 May].
This is an historical, almost celebratory, an exhibition running for five months.
(Left:Copyrights to Douglas Coupland © All rights reserved)
The idea of the show is to take the viewer on a journey through time, in a backward direction, showing how technology, the internet and Digital Art have emerged. It’s a gentle, well considered show introducing the public to how some artists have embraced and dealt with the digital medium of the last 50 years.
(Left: ‘Electronic Super Highway’ Exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery)
One of the works shown in the preview caught my critical attention: ‘Deep Face’ . This is one of a series of work created by Douglas Coupland, [who is perhaps better known as the author of Generation X]. The image is a large format photograph of a human with a little square and oblong acrylic shapes painted over the the net, do we not all shrug our shoulders and accept the cookies from all and sundry? It seems the majority of us couldn’t give a toss who is watching or recording what we like and don’t like, so as long as we are getting our news, info and entertainment for free. Be that a right or a wrong way to think is debatable, but it’s a lot closer to the truth than most us would like to admit. At least Coupland made a salient point about snooping. As far the image is concerned, using a digital medium for this sort of message is ideal. It’s slick, clean and requires no emotional input, as its mission is to be visually linguistic. Creating this kind of series of artwork by hand using pigments would not only be pointless, but would take a great deal of time to physically execute.
Copyrights to Douglas Coupland © All rights reserved
The London exhibition is reporting what has happened in the digital art world over decades, rather than indicating where digital art is heading. The approach it takes is not bias towards ‘digital painting’ which I have to say, is unlike the second exhibition of digital art that I read about on a show in the USA.
‘The future is OW’ – Marlborough Chelsea Art Gallery NYC. [On show until February 6th]
The press release for this show states in it’s introduction paragraph:
“The ‘Future Of Ow’ Title Is Irrational, But It Might Be About People Saying, “ OW! When They Don’t Get To Look At Their Precious Brushstrokes Anymore…”
That got me thinking as to what are the essential differences between painting with pixels and painting with pigments? It became a déjà vu moment to be honest.
I recalled vividly when I went through a period of making Art using my Macintosh 7200 desktop computers -1997. And later with an upgraded Apple clubfoot model running on
a G3- 2005. And later still an iMac with an Intel core dual processor- 2009.
(Copyrights to Douglas Coupland © All rights reserved)
All of them loaded with Adobe Photoshop and Adobe illustrator. Initially the range of the physical creation act was limited, but I enjoyed the luxury of being able to keep every single version of what I was working on at any one time. I was also able to arrange and rearrange my composition at the press of the command copy/paste/ button.
Manipulation of photographs was a walk in the park. The simplicity of creating cool montage type artworks using the Photoshop Layers palette was very cool. Not to mention the vast range of applied filter functions you could play about with.
Digital painting promised me a veritable Revolution in Contemporary Art Practice. And I for one, found it very exciting. Then one day I just stopped pixel painting and returned to pigments for a totally personal and maybe a logical artistic reason.
I’ll explain; It wasn’t that I thought digital painting was ‘cheating’ as some artist friends still like to believe it is. Any dedicated artist can and should be able to use any medium [old or new] that is required to achieve a chosen artistic goal.
The flip-side of my own personal Digital Painting Revolution was to prove to be a turning point in my artistic life. It was brought on from digesting historical documents that were made available on the web [for free]. These were written by painters themselves, both living and dead. They described why they painted what they did and why they did it. In bygone days painters actually thought deeply about what Art was for, i.e. if Art is not just an image? Then what is it? Those thoughts moved them away from being merely imaged makers towards a much broader sense of what an artist is.
When the use of the camera became common, [a technology introduced in 1900] it played a big part in artists reassessment of what art was. Most artists realized the era of ‘image making’ was well and truly over. Wasn’t it Picasso who said…
“If you know what you are going to do before you do it, what’s the point of doing it? Natural artistic talent simply wasn’t enough and serious artists needed to create something that didn’t already exist as part of the visible world.
The artistic challenge of the transferal of ‘the human condition’ from internal emotions or sensations to a static work of 2 dimensional Art may never have been expounded upon by Pollock and Rothko, had it not been for the technological advance
that the camera represented, ironically.
“Painting Is Not About Experience, It Is The Experience..“ -Rothko
I really wanted to know why pigment painting by hand, gave me much more satisfaction than when I painted with pixels and a computer. Painters used to whine that machine creation [using software] restricted creative expression. Mainly because of the initial steep learning curve of the software and the button pressing or mouse clicks needed to change the brush or color. In other words, it was far less intuitive. But that was in the early days. Today, with finger touch control on slates and the new ‘sensitive-pen direct to screen’ gadgets that are around, all the technical knowledge issues no longer exist.
(“Unnatural Surroundings” Digital painting ©Denis Taylor 1999-2002)
Does that make creating digital art is easy or more challenging?
For me, it all came down to a ‘state-of-being’ – A state that I was able to acquire when painting by hand, but not by pixel and computer. That discovery tipped the scales in favor of hand & pigment creation. This state, a sort of a ‘nowhere’ space that I go to, allows me to think about everything in life & beyond and not what I actually paint as such.
That applies to figurative or non-figurative works, abstract or realistic subject matter. All I need is to be convinced of is that whatever stroke, and whatever color the brush is loaded with before the stroke is made, is the correct one.
There is no requirement to look at the painting to make sure I am doing it right or control it. Becoming one with the work was and still is very important to me.
With digital painting this ‘state-of-being’ is unlikely to be maintained for very long, if it is attained at all. Perhaps it’s because the processor is always looking over your shoulder? Metaphorically speaking, anyway. Or maybe the static position of head to screen prevents emotional involvement? I guess I also made a choice of what kind of artist I was and what kind of Art I wanted to make. Pure digital painting left me wanting something more than a very cool and impressive image to show as a JPEG on the world wide web.
So, it’s not so much the “precious brush strokes” that the OW exhibition organizers think is important to non- digital artists, I believe it’s what is behind the exact moment before the brush stroke is made, that makes the difference between the two mediums, at least it is for me. Digital painting on a computer or slate requires you look constantly on the screen (no matter how proficient one is with the short cut key strokes). It’s still a constructive cerebral medium by its very nature. Therefore, I found the ‘creative-subconscious-state-of-being is constantly interrupted by having this controlling piece of software hovering about and that breaks the flow of the artist and restricts the magic from happening.
The other big caveat with digital painting that bothers me is one of viewing the work when exhibiting it. Large ink jet printers have been around for years and the cost of printing out digital repro’s were and are relatively affordable for all artists. Unfortunately, no matter how engaging the image looks on a screen, the print is always a let down [to the artist]. No matter how big, it’s printed. A big work of art is not always necessarily great.
An ink jet print is flat. Almost motionless, because of what it will always be condemned to be. That is a reproduction of the original. It relies on tonal contrasts, clean colors or specific emotive images impress the viewer. It tries far too hard to be accepted. I guess it’s this removal from the original wherein lies the main problem of its lack of natural vitality. It’s like viewing a work of art on the web, then going to see the original in a real life exhibition. There is always a palpable difference between the two.
When you view a painting in real life [and not on the web or as a print] the artist hand comes into play. The artist hand, retains the tension of when the painting was created, which is probably one of the connections the viewer feels first. With hand made art there seems to be an invisible force that comes from an original painting. A force which can captivate & enthrall, but can also communicate on many levels, visually, emotionally, sometimes even spiritually. There again, these reactions to original art take time to infuse into a painting and most certainly demand time to look and be felt by the viewer of it. In todays world, time is at a premium for most people when looking at static visual art.
Maybe we have just forgotten how to look at Art per se, unlike music that is allowed much more space and time because of its mobility. Maybe we should rediscover how to listen to Art with our eyes? Sounds like a great idea to me.
I’m not suggesting that painting with pixels is not a good thing. I believe it is. Some of the work I’ve viewed on the web is visually really interesting. Unfortunately, with Photoshopped images abundant, they are becoming so universal that the effects are starting to look jaded. As are all those overpainted black and white photographic prints with splashes of color on them, are looking a bit too trendy for my personal liking.