2D Digital Up Close

Q - What do you look for in good digital art?

A - First, I look for good art that holds its own on the wall regardless of genre or medium.  I try to forget the tools used and judge according to my tastes and the factors that I normally consider to be aesthetically good.

When speaking of visual impact and aesthetics, “good” is personal. What I tend to like may well be very different than what you or someone else might prefer. I assume you mean technically good, yes?

Personally, I'm not searching for a definitive “computer look.”  Cartoon-like art, fantasy themes and animated movies seem to be all the rage, but it's not where I fit. Some of the finest digital artists today are designing fantasy sets and making far more money at it than the "fine artists." Same for graphic illustrators, and animated movies aren't doing too bad either!

I tend to concentrate on reality and the human condition so I suppose this also influences my tastes in digital art. But even if I don't prefer specific themes and content, I always appreciate technical excellence. My concern is more about the acceptance of digital work into the big picture of fine art if it is too quickly cast aside as "less serious" due to the nature of the pictures. I don't agree that any of the computer-specific genres should be avoided if the pictures work visually, but I think it happens.

Take a look at Tom Chambers' homage to Malevich's early minimalism. Nothing is more "computery" than the pixel. Chambers uses highly-magnified pixel configurations to emulate Malevich while creating very interesting minimalist pieces that would hang well in any modern/contemporary gallery. Other examples are fractal or polygon-based works as well as the massive digital photo collage field that have been readily accepted in many art circuits.

My viewpoint on this differs from that of many involved in digital arts who believe that the field of computer art will gain importance if and only if it creates a style, genre or "look" that is purely computer-created, an art form that can't be created in any other way. I think that makes an interesting goal for some, but it relies on two things, a) that the fine art world likes the new aesthetic principals put forth by computer-only art and b) that digital art can straddle the line by being both a genre and a medium at the same time. I'm not convinced either are necessary, but that's just me.

The single major technical issue for 2D digital art is print resolution and potential maximum size, especially for artists who plan to be exhibited along with other types of paintings or sculptures in any fine art setting. Many people can create dazzling work with a 1400 x 900 pixel screen-size image, but that might produce only an adequate postcard print. It’s a different ball game to create a similar piece with the giga pixels required for suitable five or six foot prints. Works much smaller than that will usually be dwarfed and possibly under-appreciated in many contemporary art galleries, if accepted at all. Luckily, this is slowly changing as we're beginning to see important shows featuring series of much more humble dimensions.

The production phase is where the digital artist has a real problem. A photograph is modified and then enlarged for printing from a one layer file. Conversely, a digital painting or collage might incorporate 50 or more layers during creation at full resolution. A 40 x 60 inch digital piece at 300 dpi yields a PhotoShop file size uncompressed of over 600Mb for ONE LAYER! Starting adding layers during creation (plus history and snapshot states) and it is difficult for most computers to manage the image.

A considerable amount of technical know-how, patience and planning is required to work with very large files regardless of the power of equipment used. Size is not only a memory issue. Compositional concerns and the visibility of certain details and objects changes radically from what you detect on a small screen compared to the result on a large wall. Working in one size and displaying in another requires a strong sense of scale and careful determination of relative importance within the picture plane, similar to what an architect might face. This is one reason why I respect Julie Mehretu so much since she's designing on a computer for works printed 40 or 50 feet wide!

Enlargement also brings up the importance of elemental integration. When dealing with montages, collage and diverse sources, the artist's ability to mould everything coherently into one plane is critical. Technically, the artist should be able to effectively manipulate unwanted computer residue that comes in various forms: undesired pixel artifacts, color fringing due to misaligned RGB channels on borders or edges, poor contrast / shadow / highlight control leading to bleached or blocked sections, poor layer registration, layer misalignment, etc., etc. Common errors include bad line blends between layers and faulty transparency that forms grey or brown blotching similar to a water color. Another problem is blurriness where sharpness is needed and over sharpness that needs to be blurred.

Careless collages might not seem like an issue since many artists are searching for that haphazard, less-structured, grungy or loosely spontaneous look . . . but beware. . . .it’s tough to retain proper balance and still look haphazard. Planned usage of any or all of the above "mistakes" is common, but one must be especially adept to be able to break the rules and turn negatives into positives. Wade Guyton is an example of a digital artist whose work actually accentuates the printer's errors. Digital art is similar to any art, including writing and music. Perfection isn't necessarily the goal, especially if the results are too static. Nevertheless, those imperfections should never appear to be contrived.

 

Q - Name a few pros and cons, or advantages and disadvantages between digital and traditional painting if you will.

A - Factors that give oil painting its prestige are the tactile feel and warmth of finished works combined with the ability to accurately determine its historical age and origin.

In other words, oil paintings have a definite place in time. They are respected worldwide and, if proper materials are used, can last for centuries. Additive processes allow the artist to work and rework a piece to perfection . . . whatever that means in the eyes of the artist of course.

On the downside, oil painting is very expensive for many young artists. Canvas, paints, mediums and large studio spaces are not cheap and thus might limit the fledgling artist’s trial and error freedom. This is where digital art fills a niche. Most people have a computer. Upgrading it's power and capacity to near professional levels is not that expensive. As impossible as it sounds, in many third world countries you can buy a relatively sophisticated computer for the same price or less than a couple of rolls of canvas, some brushes and a sufficient supply of average quality oil paints.

The digital artist can work in a very small space, progressing on multiple works at the same time. But the most important advantage of digital art production lies in free exploration, the unleashed creative potential due to the lack of costly materials during the trial and error, testing or learning phases. There are no drawing pads, no paints, no canvas costs until such time as the artist is ready to print. The advantages of this liberation can not be understated.

The other factor working in digital art's favour for the long term is it's freshness and current relevance to younger age groups. We are the generation of technology. Nothing reflects any society or culture better than it's art, literature and music. I firmly believe that today's best digital artists will eventually be recognized as major contributors to the history of fine art.

 

Q - For someone new to digital art, what suggestions would you give?

A - Understanding the characteristics of art is critical, from composition to control of light, colors, form, negative and positive spaces, balance, mood generation through visual effects and solid ideas. Drawing skills are a MAJOR advantage for some forms of art.

From there, you need to master the new hardware technologies, for instance digital cameras & scanners, lighting systems, digital drawing tablets and color calibrators.

And of course you must learn the most important software programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Sketchpad, Corel Painter X or Adobe Illustrator and possibly a 3D package such as Poser, Daz or Studio Max. I recently started working with a fractal generator called Apophysis that is a tremendous tool for creating reusable patterns and forms. Best of all, it's free, as is Daz!

After scaling the steep and ever-changing learning curve, improvement comes mostly from exploratory trial and error. Any technique can be learned in a class or in a group studio. Professional training may significantly reduce the time required to learn the tools but it won't make you a better artist. The most effective method to gain expertise and improve is to work at it, observe, test and work some more. Also, don't be afraid to interact with other artists and teachers, those with trained eyes who can support your work and offer concrete advice.

I recommend visiting physical art galleries and virtual online museums as often as possible to see what others are doing. The amazing quality in the field today will shock you, but don’t be intimidated. I’ve found that viewing the works of others is very inspirational. Likewise, don’t boast that you can do better until you actually can! Some of the simplest-looking forms are actually the hardest to master . . . just ask Jonathan Ive over at Apple! And don’t forget to reserve time to feed and walk the dog thrice per day.

 

Q - Any tips on hardware and tools?

A - The best advice I can give is to explore and test. No purchase is terminal as you will inevitably be replacing equipment on a regular basis when digital art becomes your profession or a serious hobby.

I'm not married to any hardware brand. MACs and PCs both work great. For years I used PCs because I accumulated tons of software and utilities for that platform. I still use an Windows XP computer tethered to my Heidelberg scanner for texture, object and light scanning. I recently converted to a Mac for most of my Photoshop work and am very happy I did. Great platform, especially for graphic work. MAC OSX seems to allow more RAM memory to be allotted to Photoshop although this may have changed with more recent versions of Windows. Either platform is fine and most files are interchangeable between the two formats.

For working with Photoshop and other graphic software, the speed of your hard drives and the amount of RAM memory is more important than the actual processor speed. Any current processor is fine, but 4GB+ of RAM gives Photoshop space to breath with very large files. If your computer can go to 8GB like some of the recent MB Pros, do it! Large image files with multiple layers and various history points can quickly surpass the physical RAM and flow over to disk-based virtual RAM which is much slower.

Tip: Max out the RAM on your machine regardless of the cost and buy the fastest SCSI or Sata hard drives you can afford for processing. Never work on a hard drive that is almost full to capacity. Set aside a partition of 32GB just for the Photoshop caching/virtual RAM. Stored files and backups can reside on slower internal or external drives. Nowadays, RAM memory and disk storage are inexpensive.

For digital cameras, I worked for Minolta Corp while having close friends working at Nikon, Canon and Olympus. I've owned complete systems from all four at various stages along with cameras from Leica, Pentax and Mamiya. Image quality and resolution are less important to me than they would be to a professional fashion photographer or perhaps a large-scale photo-muralist. I use photographs in my work, but they go through so many transitions that the initial sharpness, contrast or dynamic range are not of prime importance. More important is capturing as much detail as possible in the highlights and shadows, then I let Photoshop help with the rest. More often than not, I'm reducing the quality and range of photos, using only partial images or severely modified filtered images. The needs of others will vary greatly.

I most recently used a Nikon D80/200 DSLR system until it was stolen. I've since converted to Leica-lensed digital cameras primarily for their color fidelity, phenomenal dynamic range and maintenance of highlight/shadow details.

For input, the excellent MAC trackpad or a high resolution mouse is often sufficient for collage work, but you'll want a tablet of some sort for real computer drawing and painting. For more elaborate drawing where a digitizing tablet is needed, the Wacom line is by far the most popular due to their quality and accuracy as well as tightest compatibility with current software. Their Cintiq line of pen-sensitive monitors are to die for. (Are you listening Santa?) Beware of cheap alternatives. Better to save up for a Wacom to avoid jitters and frustration. I'm also experimenting with a 7" Android tablet and a 10" iPad. Both are great for sketching but can't match the file resolutions of a dedicated drawing tablet if you need to incorporate the sketches into larger files for further manipulation.

A great flatbed scanner is also recommended, but there's no need to blow the bank account. I use an old Heidelberg with VueScan software, both provide excellent results in terms of contrast, colour accuracy, shadow and highlight detail. I create many of my own textures by hand and/or by scanning objects at 1:1 scale or above. The scanning of drawn lines or painted washes is what gives my work some of its painterly feel and textural depth. For more flexibility, look for an A3 12x18 scanner rather than A4 8x14inch model.

I've done much of my own printing with Epson17",  24" and 44" wide format printers and archival pigment inks. Epson works well with the thicker, highly-textured hessian, acetate transfer films, sheet aluminum and watercolor papers that I use for some work.  I love the Epson line and they aren't so expensive that you need to sell the house to own one for personal use. When not producing transfers, I prime my surfaces with thin gesso before applying a coating of InkAid to tighten the color and ink spread without which resolutioncan suffer significantly. Recently I've used a very firm double-faced stiff burlap separated into two sheets, then gesso primed. Hessian is firm enough that you don't need a leader to feed it through a Stylus Pro. Easy to use, cheap, and it gives more than enough textural feedback for large works that don't require very high resolutions. For painting on top of the prints, I use acylics for their faster drying time or I prepare a set of water-based inks using combinations of the printer's ink. For retouching areas that are already too dark, I first scrape on a very thin coat of white acrylic paint matched to the canvas substrate colour, then build up again with the printer inks. I often mix the inks with acrylic gels, clear crystal and varnishes for added textural effects. I've used everything from window squeegees and sponges to floor mops, combs and rakes as brushes. Don't limit yourself to what the printer manufacturers recommend! Most substrates can work with a wide range of printers (if thin enough) and there are excellent third party inks from Lyson, MIS and Cone to name a few that work as well but cost a fraction of original manufacturers' ink.

To repeat, trial and error is king. Don't be afraid to print your work since that's when you'll learn plenty about your files and your techniques. By using a printer like the Epson Stylus Pro line that accepts very thick substrates, you can always re-gesso test canvasses, add some Ink-Aid and reprint to save canvas.

 There are plenty of people in the art world who despise giclees. I think they refer to computer printed reproductions of paintings. I don't make giclees. I print, yes, but that's only a part of the process. My work is very hands on, multiple procee, multi-media, and one of a kind. If you see the files of my work, you'll see that the digital portion is only a fraction of the work.

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