Thursday, September 17, 2015

Digital Art

Technology advances. Inexorably, science informs and spurs the invention of new technology which in its own turn changes life for everyone. In a single lifetime we've seen how the personal computer and now the Internet changed retail marketing, has nearly obliterated bookstores, altered music recording, sharing, and sales forever; intensified and sped communication (and miscommunication, alas). At least some kinds of art have made the transition to the new tech reality, though. Quite a few programs available now can produce excellent images digitally, and of course movies and videos routinely employ computer generated images.

Many artists work using computer programs. Perhaps the best-known art program today is Photoshop, and there are other top of the line programs like Corel Painter being used, too. But simpler, more inutitive (and cheaper) programs now exist (Sketchbook Pro, ArtRage) that allow an individual to explore the digital world. Cartoonists, illustrators, book designers, and other graphic artists make images digitally, but "fine artists" generally do not.

Something like the old and artificial division between fine art and commercial art, there is a division between digital art and traditional art. Some digital artists or graphic designers learned traditional methods in school, but in recent years many did not, prompting at least some critics to decry the trend, suggesting that without exposure to traditional methods and techniques, graphic artists are handicapped unnecessarily. Still, digital methods continue to flourish in commercial applications and settings. In contrast, the traditional art world has had little to say about or to do with digital art. Maybe that's because these works haven't much value as investments.

In the past few years, the "art world" has begun to notice digital art, sort of. David Hockney is a traditional painter and printmaker whose images made on smartphones or tablets prompted a rather large, traveling exhibition. The pictures began as scribbled images emailed to various friends. In interviews, Mr. Hockney has noted that in a short few months he had sent several hundred pictures. At that point, someone decided to exhibit them. They were printed in very large formats and displayed like proper paintings, or shown on iPads or on large monitors hung on gallery walls, achieving great acclaim.
Here are some examples of his digital works:
Examples of David Hockney's digital images

Although it's a great thing that digital work has begun to merit attention from "serious" art critics and writers, in this case their attention is misplaced, in my opinion. Someone without Mr. Hockney's fame would have been hard-pressed to have digital pictures of this quality shown at all, even to family. This isn't to denigrate Mr. Hockney as an artist. His works in tangible paint are interesting for content, style, narrative, and considerably more. The best one can say about his digital work is "interesting." At its best the level of accomplishment here approximates that of a beginning art student who is learning to draw and paint. At worst it looks like the finger paintings of a 10 year old. The pictures are composed well, as one would expect of a good artist but his use of the program(s) in question suggest that a great deal remains to be learned. Still, kudos to Mr. Hockney for his exhibition.

"Sky Kings" by Derek Zabrocki, 2015 (from Deviant Art)
"Study" by Elena Berezina, 2015 (from Deviant Art)
The "art world" may have just noticed digital works in the last few years, but digital painting is hardly new. The computer has been used for a long while to produce images (video and stills) commercially. Drawings and paintings in periodicals and advertising are now mostly made using computers. A few are made the old fashioned way with paint or graphite, but digital pictures are faster to make, easier to edit, and quick to transmit. The old field of commercial art has become graphic design, encompassing everything from digital illustration to website layouts.
"Standing Guard" by Pascal Campion 2015 (from Deviant Art)
Digital painters produce compelling and beautiful pieces, many for reproduction. Here are a few I found in just a few minutes' time, on Deviant Art, an online community of artists of every kind. These first three were in the Digital Art section of the website, under the subcategory of Painting and Drawing. These come close to emulating real paint and in that sense they succeed very well. Further, the pictures have wonderful conceptual and compositional strength. In particular, I enjoy the concepts in "Sky Kings," with its allusion to an old western song as well as an old television series, within the genre of western art. In the second, the artist has produced a digital image that could very easily pass for paint, with the exception that the lightning stroke could only have been made electronically, seems to me. The bottom painting, "Standing Guard" is beautifully composed and executed, showing a man as sentinel while a female (his girlfriend? wife? maybe daughter?) sleeps peacefully. The colors are well done and the image is affecting.

Finally, at the bottom, I've shamelessly included a digital image of my own, done to emulate the technique of ink and wash, which is what I often do at art festivals and sometimes as watercolor postcards to friends and family while I'm on vacation. In this case, I did "Bacchus" for practice while learning to use a program called Sketchbook Pro combined with a pressure-sensitive tablet. Digital sketching is fun because you can change things literally at will while still preserving the best ideas. And it's convenient, quick, and easily used, if you have a tablet or a smartphone. These past couple of years Sketchbook Pro has been my main program, although I've dabbled in a couple others, including Brushes, Art Studio, Gimp, and ArtRage.
"Bacchus," by Gary Hoff 2013
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