Digital Art's Uphill Battle

Q - Why do you think there is reluctance to accept digital painting or drawing as simply painting or drawing?

A - I honestly don’t feel that the reluctance to accept computer-based painting or drawing is a personal smack at digital artists; some purists simply refuse to accept the idea that anything generated by a printer and a computer could be classified in the same area code as something hand painted or hand drawn.

I actually agree with this, however with so much of the nomenclature borrowed directly from the painting studio and the photography darkroom, direct comparisons and confusion are inevitable. I’ve been a digital art advocate for two decades and am admittedly biased. If you survey the younger generations of under 30’s artists, you’ll find far less reluctance to accept technology, in fact I wouldn’t have enough hours in the day if I agreed to offer lessons to every youth or adult who approaches me with a desire to explore digital imaging.

Through my experience with both digital and traditional art, I can offer my two cents to the argument. I think the root issue is the tradition related to the act of painting and the tactile physical presence of the finished product. Paintings with oils, watercolors or acrylics have distinct qualities that add to the time-honoured nostalgia of creation and their finished appeal; for instance the act of mixing of paints and mediums, the aura of permanence, the varied methods of applying liquids onto a physical surface with one’s own hands and of course the personalized stroking and brushwork themselves that bring a three-dimensional presence and individuality to a painting.

Oil painting is very much a physical act. Digital painting often uses similar hand motions, but the distinction is the technology layer that lies between the artist and the art. The implication is that hand painting is a more intimate, direct and personal skill while digital painting is unjustly characterized as being mechanically detached. Some say the romance is lost in the computer.

 

Q - Digital art isn't as romantic? Can you explain that?

A - I didn't say it is less romantic but many others imply it. In the world of large-ticket consumerism, sophisticated buyers looking for something unique like to see sparks of passion between the producer and the produced. The qualities of a caring touch and handmade uniqueness are very important factors for dozens of elite products from cheese and beverages to furniture and fine art.

Take the case of specialty restaurants or cottage wineries where the chefs and winemakers seem to live and breath the product. They claim to impart a slice of their hearts and souls on every plate or in every bottle. Contrarily, the perception of large, automated producers is one of bland, lifeless, over-processed products that fail to impart any true emotion of the producer. It’s the image of the disengaged assembly line worker churning out products designed in a board room opposed to the skilled artisan hunching over his masterpiece late at night under dim incandescent light to apply the final touches.

In digital art, for the most part the finished product is produced by a printer from a file created by the artist. That artist-file relationship doesn't instil the same passionate romantic imagery as the artist and a painted canvas. And due to the technology juggernaut that has overwhelmed our society, many products even loosely-related to computers are automatically construed as being negative affronts to our cultural tradition of fine craftsmanship. Digital art is often misinterpreted as being programmed or assembled rather than carefully created by a “real” artist.

Some call computer art too automated, too cold and lifeless. Many so-called “real” oil paintings also seem automated, cold and void of any feeling, but it's impossible to convince some people that digital artists put as much of themselves into those digital files as an oil painter. To me, it's simply a case of perception.

At the crux of the issue are the unbalanced apple vs. orange comparisons between the creator and his chosen tools. With oil painters or water colourists, the tools are treated as secondary to the artist. With technology, some wrongly assume that the computer is actually the creator rather than its user. Once educated to understand that the computer artist is developing the work and the machine is only the chosen tool for printing an archival physical product of that creation, naysayers will then be able to compare the creative and technical capabilities between artists, regardless of the methods and tools.

To clarify my point, a great photographer can get by with a photo that is a tad too contrasty or blurry if the piece is otherwise strong. An oil painting may receive praise for excellent detail and composition even if the choice of palette or substrate might be questioned by some. Digital art has no such acceptance buffer because many won’t even both to look at wonderful works once they discover that they were digitally printed. This is just plain wrong. I’d say it’s a tad naïve to marginalize ANY artist simply because of the tools he or she chooses to utilize. I think we’re moving past this, slowly but surely. For instance, I recently saw some sculptural work that was made out of small playdoh cubes representing furniture and bent matchsticks representing people. Although it reminded me a little of Gumby and Pokey's living room, it worked well. No paint, no computer, totally acceptable.

 

Q - You don’t believe that computer art has gained an adequate level of respect in the fine art world?

A - Probably not, but that depends on your definition of “computer “ art and on respect.

On one side you have the purely digital creations of video, image projections or monitor-based presentations that don’t exist without a computer and are exhibited only via the technology. They’ve developed into a New Media genre of their own and are gaining notoriety as something hot and important in most art centers either as headliners or show complements. It is now rare to go to a gallery exposition or art fair without seeing digital video in some form.

The other large area is more polemic, namely the use of computer equipment to produce two-dimensional wall works from digital painting and drawing to manipulated photography and collage work. As mentioned in the questions above, here is where the purists are dragging their feet a little bit since many feel that using a computer is akin to cheating; they feel that new artists are trying to reduce the learning curve or take shortcuts rather than learn traditional artistic techniques the long way by trial and error and decades of practice in a painting studio or darkroom. Secondly, some intellectuals contend that digital artists are emulating or copying something else rather than adding new aesthetic values to their own unique process. I disagree entirely. Actually, I see the market moving away from two dimensional "painted" works entirely, be they oil or digital. There doesn't seem to be any limit to the materials that can be used these days and I think that's a good thing.

 

Q - Are you implying that some detractors are overwhelmed and paranoid about the technological age?

A - Of course, there always have been and always will be people who are overwhelmed by the latest movements. Hey, it took Picasso over 15 years before he could sell "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon." Apparently, Da Vinci died with the original Mona Lisa still in his studio.

Many traditionalists are reluctant to accept change. Some still don’t understand digital and prefer to continue promoting the known entities that they master and control . . . like regular oil painting. Some are paranoid, others are selfish.

Digital art portends to promise new rules and might even develop new aesthetic boundaries, plus it brings the possibility of creating art to millions of people who otherwise might never have attempted anything if it weren’t for the relatively low cost of a computer compared to the high costs of an adequate studio and art materials.

Losing control via change often scares people, that unfortunately is basic human nature in a troubled society where individualism trumps community spirit. I want to be perfectly clear. I admire and respect all types of artists and art world professionals, even those who choose to marginalize digital art. My only message to them is that one art form does not need to replace another. Each has its place and will continue to have its place in the fine art market. One is not superior or inferior, they are simply different. A Rolls Royce and a Ferrari will both get you from New York to L.A. but the experience will hardly be the same. Different style and tastes, but both are great rides.

 

Q - In other words, you see a potential battle with the brush painters protecting their turf and the digital artists clamoring for acceptance?

A - That might seem a little harsh, but there certainly is plenty of room for more mutual respect and cooperation. All I say is look at the finished products and judge the art for its visual appeal. Appreciate the tremendous stroking ability of a great painter or marvel at the contrast and lighting control of a master photographer. By the same token, I’d like to think that the best digital artists will eventually be recognized for their tremendous work in this field. I don't expect the values of the best digital works to ever approach the prices of the best oil paintings since there are many factors that determine value. But certainly the gap will narrow somewhat so that more young, talented digital artists can make a living through their work rather than just exhibit it for free on the internet!

 

Q - You’ve probably already answered this, but from your experience, does a computer reduce the learning curve for creating art like some critics imply, in essence cheapening the fine art planet by making it possible for almost anybody to participate? Is computer-generated art easier and quicker to produce than say, oil & brush painting?

A - Easier and quicker? Of course not.

During my classes and seminars, I’ve rambled for hours and shed plenty of light on some myths about the differences and similarities of digital versus traditional art. Until any artist or critic has intimate experience with both, he or she simply won’t have the basic criteria to say that one is inherently easier than the other. Like anything in life, the easiest option is usually the one you know the best.

Digital brushwork blending dozens of layers or seamlessly matching disparate elements into one congruent picture plane are not quick skills to master. Nor is it simple to design images using a 17 inch monitor that are destined for printing 6 or 7 feet wide. The talent and skill sets are quite different actually. First, a computer does not reduce any existing learning curve, it creates an additional, unique curve.

Consider this: Those who begin to explore digital art will quickly find that any previous experience with painting, drawing or darkroom photography will aid them immensely in their transition to digital. Many digital art professors say they can gauge the potential of new students simple by reviewing their drawing portfolios long before they touch their first digitizing tablet. Contrarily, computer drawing skills won’t necessarily help someone become a better oil painter because the two physical processes of painting are somewhat different, but it certainly won't hurt. An artist who masters one won’t necessarily be able to master the other, although as always the person who can draw has a distinct advantage.

Second, people are focusing far too much on the tools and methods rather than the creative visions and innovations. Adobe Photoshop or Corel won’t create the next Mona Lisa any sooner than Microsoft Word will create the next Hamlet unless the person sitting in front of the monitor and keyboard has the appropriate master talent. As they’ve said since the invention of the computer . . . Garbage In, Garbage Out. Its very simple . . . a computer does NOT create art.

I once worked for a fine art gallery where we sold a Picasso drawing of an owl comprised of a few simplistic sweeping lines, a beak-like mark and a couple of circles for eyes. Probably took Pablo five minutes to sketch, but the value was not in the time or effort, rather in Picasso’s brilliant control of forms, balance and precise expression. The physical act of drawing the piece would have been roughly the same between a pencil and a mouse, but the perceived difference in value is enormous due to erroneous perceptions of digital versus non-digital art. What some refuse to acknowledge is that there is no button that says, "draw me a Picasso owl."

Digital painting with a mouse or drawing tablet can emulate many “physical” qualities electronically, including the precise mixing of colours on a monitor-based palette and near infinite control of “paint” application devices, but the application itself is not directly physical since the artist’s moves must be translated through a layer of technology. Although the act of conceiving and developing a digital painting is similar, the digital piece is not produced directly. That’s why I say these are two different methods to communicate visually even though much of the terminology is shared.

Perhaps printed digital art should be compared more closely with artists who make the plates for serigraphs or lithographs rather than oil painters. In oil painting, the work comes to life as the artist proceeds to apply paint. In producing any form of limited editions, the design and artistry comes before the actual work is brought to life through a secondary process. It is still the work of the hands of the artist, but indirect. Serigraphs or lithographs are not less valuable than originals because they are easier to produce. They cost less because the artist is apportioning his development costs over the quantity of the edition. The same applies to digital work. Supply and demand, the less there are the more they cost. Simply economics.

To anyone with knowledge of the field, a digital artist can be just as quickly identified by both the style of the finished works and by the techniques used to arrive at a work’s conclusion. You don't say, "oh that was done by a Mac," or "that was done with Photoshop on a PC" any more than you say that a particular painting was done with a sablebrush with Winsor & Newton paint! It's just not that important. People new to the digital arts might not be able to recognize the leaders in the field, much less determine good from bad technique, hence their reluctance to legitimize the field to date.

To answer your question, a highly-skilled digital artist might produce some types of intricate work quicker, but a computer neither shortens the artistic learning curve nor is easier, especially in the hands of a novice with no artistic background. Learning is similarly long and arduous but results in unique skills.

 

Q - “Effort taken” is a concept working against digital art in that people assume that hand painting is much more time consuming, a factor that is still valued extremely high in many current cultures. What is your opinion?

A - Time is a difficult question. Digital art has certain advantages but they don’t relate to the physical act of applying strokes to complete a work. Making a line takes the same amount of time in both methods.

The time advantages of digital painting relate to some very useful commands such as “undo” and "snapshots" that can instantly remove mistakes. This allows the artist to proceed quicker with creation rather than wasting time patching a mistake with paint, or worse still, starting over after a serious mistake. Multiple current states of an image file allow for more efficient trial and error on the fly. Instant previews of possible options is a great time saver. And repetitive actions, once captured, can simplify some procedures.

Perhaps the most important digital time saver is that the artist doesn’t have to wait hours or even days for layers of paint to dry. And he or she can work on dozens of pieces simultaneously without the need for a huge studio. As for effort itself, I disagree that one form of painting takes less effort than another. I also think that the art collector is sophisticated enough to understand that fine art is not valued by the number of brush strokes. That's why Picasso's owl drawings easily fetched five or six figures and Tamayo's naive symbols sell for huge sums.

 

Q - In other words, you think that the art market places too much value on hour-worked?

A - Not the well-versed for sure. But a review of the prices being commanded by relatively unknown hyper-realists with only average talent might certainly lead to that assumption.

Can you think back to your days in school when, after receiving an unexpected poor grade on a paper, you pleaded for leniency with the professor since “you admit your answer was wrong but you put so much time and effort into the paper you feel you deserve a good grade anyway?” Many teachers would up your grade a touch solely for the effort.

We’ve all felt this way in one situation or another. This definitely applies in many cases to artwork where intricate detail often trumps quality and vision. Not always of course, but we must remain cognizant of the difference between artistry and craftsmanship. I don’t think “time” should be a major factor in the valuation of fine art, but it certainly plays a role in the valuation of some craftwork, just like the production of wicker baskets or ornate ceiling plastering. Some forget that it is often just as hard to achieve simplicity or minimalism.

There is no doubt in my mind that many art buyers are willing to pay extra for a piece that seems to be more heavily worked. I have no problem with this as it is a somewhat legitimate criteria for some genres. Personally though, I would pay more for advanced artistry than for detailed craftsmanship. My beef lies with the purists’ rejection of digital art due to the misguided concepts of “cheating” or “shortcuts.” Both play an ominous role in the downgrading of perceived value and ultimately the values obtainable for digital art. For example, an oil painting by a mid-career artist might fetch $15,000 though a retail gallery. A visually-similar digital painting by the same artist might not surpass $1,000. Misconceptions of less time & effort, lower quality or skill and less long-term archival value remain markedly different from one media to another even though most are pure myth.

 

Q - The concepts of “cheating” or “lack of purity” keep coming back in this conversation. We’ve all seen the cold shoulder given to digital art as well as the vaunted status afforded traditional brush painting. Can you cite some examples of mediums, techniques or genres that you feel might be over or under-rated.

A - Absolutely, based only on my experiences and opinions of course. Let’s start positive by looking at a couple I feel are under-rated.

  • Here I’d nominate the subtractive arts, any process where you start from a whole and reduce it to a finished piece. Go too far and you’ve screwed the piece. Examples are stone or marble sculptors that work by chipping away what they don’t want as opposed to additive forms of sculpting where clay or other substances are added , smoothed and worked to produce the form or mould for a bronze.
  • Another under-valued medium is watercolor. Although it’s an additive process, due to the transparency of the paint it is easy to go too far and produce grey or brown blobs rather than colourful detail. Watercolors are perceived to be less valuable due to their paper substrates that are far less archival than canvas, plus they are harder to frame and more susceptible to humidity and yellowing. Personally, I think watercolor painters by sheer necessity must exhibit a higher level of concentration, organization and planning compared to oil or acrylic painters since they must plan ahead of time which colours to lay down first. Add the difficulty of creating detail with any thin, watery substance and I'd have to say that watercolor work is vastly under-rated.

  As for the negatives, I have a few qualms about certain methods that irk me. Of course, if digital art wasn’t being attacked I’d probably disregard all of these, but all’s fair in love and war. Consider the following short-cuts or cheating, from the traditional arts:

  • Artists that put their favorite slide or magazine photo into a wall projector, crank up the scaffold and proceed to produce humongous hyper-realist paintings that are nothing more than large format paint-by-numbers. Heck, there is a very renowned abstract artist from NY who sketches on little pieces of paper and projects them for painting huge pieces . . . perhaps an admission of scaling shortcomings? Another I know personally earns mid five figure sums for painting projections of fashion magazines. He's never conceived a composition in his life. At the very least, projected “realist” painting can be tricky and disingenuous.
  • Any piece of art that requires an accompanying 50-page manifesto to explain what the work doesn't visually express. I say “Write a book, leave the visual arts to those that can actually communicate through the medium! ”
  • Fashionable palettes that change with the season. I’ve always believed that color was an integral part of any artwork utilized for expressive mood, not for designing sofa backdrops.
  • Monster installations that serve to pump egos, line museum coffers and shock innocent bystanders rather than advance the state of art. How's this, "I hereby claim to have created the largest outdoor piece of art in the world. It’s entitled Planet Earth. Free admission, just open your eyes, look around and marvel at my claimed work. But if you see something you don't like, blame your government or god of choice." That's how ridiculous it has become.
  • Cheap Bastards. Oh the irony. Painting purists rant that digital works with water-based pigments don’t last anywhere near as long as oil paintings. 100 to 200 years when printed on canvas with archival materials seems long enough for most . . .and certainly much longer than most photographs and serigraphs. But for some reason it’s digital work that continuously gets the bad rap as being short-lived. Good quality oil paints last centuries longer, but what about users of shitty grade canvas? Or master artists who added biodegradable food products to their paints, or blood, or semen, or those who use horrific, unstable industrial paints? Not long ago, a renowned contemporary artist walked into a local art supply store and bought virtually every container of paint in the joint in order to prepare for an upcoming show. Most brands he purchased were considered student or beginner grades with their typically unstable pigments. Can’t an artist who regularly receives high five figures for a single work afford to buy some quality paints? If not, at least they should lay off the digital longevity rants.

  One exception is the work of Julie Mehretu. She creates intricate compositions of shapes and patterns on a computer, then projects them on huge surfaces where she and her team of assistants use tape and rulers and other non-brush aides to help paint the work on huge panels. You might think I would object to the use of teams, or projections, or drawing aides more suitable for architects, but no. I find her work to be extraordinary and the big difference is that she is actually creating the designs rather than simply superimposing a photo onto a larger surface. Julie is involved with every facet of the work and thus deserves her 6 figure sums for pictures that simply couldn't be achieved in any other way, and definitely not alone.

Q - Great observations pro and con, so you think that oil painting is overrated?

A - Of course not. Many of the new generation want you to believe that oil painting and 2D art are dead, as if their creativity and attempts to push the envelope are somehow hampered if we look backward. I still think that oil painting is the highest, purest, and most respected form of visual art. I sincerely wish I had the time to watch paint dry while trying to master the craft. I yearn for adequate studio space, a stronger back and a larger bank account to be able to work with expansive and expensive oils. I do however think that oil painters are given the benefit of the doubt more often by unwary viewers. On viewing a mediocre oil piece, the viewer might give it some leeway due to ingrained appreciation of the medium, however that same viewer looking at a good digital piece will just say it sucks! Personally, I don't believe a mediocre oil painting is better than a great digital piece just because it is made with oil paint. I hope that makes sense.

 

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