Thursday, January 11, 2007


A nifty computer image from the blog of Disney concept artist Todd Harris

In my last post, I mentioned that art originated in the paleolithic era after our ancestors discovered a type of rock that could be shaped into the first blades, flints and other tools that transformed human life. That special rock (cryptocrystalline siliceous) contained silica-- the same material that, 35,000 years later, we use to make semiconductors for computers. This fateful substance has now intervened twice in our history to alter human destiny.

For that reason alone, it seems to me that computer art-- produced with silicon chips-- has earned a little patience and an open mind.

Computer art has now been with us for over 50 years (if you include the pre-ASCII images created with early Baudot code) For most of that time, computer art has been simply awful.

Jennifer Bartlett wowed the art establishment by using computers to convey platitudes on LEDs

A computer modified image of a nude

Computer generated Op Art

The fundamental problem with the computer as an artistic tool is that computers are exclusively a technology for binary information, but binary information is not often a major ingredient of great art. Most art doesn't need more information-- it needs more wisdom, judgment and taste. One of my favorite thinkers on this subject is the ever insightful Karrie Jacobs, who wote:
Computers have seduced us into thinking about ideas-- the intangible stuff that comprises our culture, our mental universe, our homegrown organic realities-- as information....With information technology, our reach is infinite but our grasp is weak.
Jacobs asserts that information should be our raw material, not our end product, and I agree with her. To the extent that computer art is finally getting interesting, it is where computers serve as a means to an end, and not the end itself. As with any new art tool, it takes time for artists to humanize and gain proficiency with computers (and to modify them to carry out the subtler instructions of the artist). But after fifty years, computers have become integrated into the conception, production and distribution phases of art. Some of this art is quite good. Some-- in my view-- is pretty bad.

Over the next few posts, I hope to engage in a dialogue with readers who know more than I do about computer art. Most of all, I am interested in how computers are changing the nature of the artistic process. Let's explore


Anonymous said...

99% of computer generated art I use to see seems to shout "I'm computer generated!". As you point out, there's some great computer art (the first image you posted is wonderful) but I usually miss the little/big imperfections present in any kind of hand generated art.

Computers create perfect lines, gradients, color and patterns. The results do seem a little cold to me. A good friend of mine, nice artist, uses a lot the computer for his images but he always starts on paper, scanning and adding details on computer afterwards. And boy you can notice the difference!

Also, computers tend to create lazy artists (I can tell that myself) since they allow you to undo/redo as much as you want. I'm thinking right now of Mary Blair. ¿How much did she have to meditate befor puting a single line on the paper?

Last, as a computer designer, I feel sometimes that we've lost in some way the essence of artesanal work. The ability to touch your creation, smell it, feel it. I mean, my job consists in creating something that starts, develop and ends in a computer. It only exists virtually and that scares me somehow.

By the way. First time commenting on your blog. I've been reading you since last year and find it very stimulating. Sorry for my awful english :)

David Apatoff said...

Thanks, Szy, you are addressing one of the things that deeply interests me about the new realities.

As a boy, I used traditional art media. The bite of a line on paper or the smell of turpentine was a large part of my creative dialogue with the medium. As an art collector, I want to hold an original in my hands, an object with the fingerprints and the perspiration and the DNA of the artist. I like to study the physical touch of the artist.

In a world where there is no longer such a thing as an original, this may be obsolete sentiment on my part.

L. A. Stern said...


I agree that the tactile quality of traditional media just can't be beat! And although we are manipulating light in computer art, there is something about physically changing the material world to create a work of art and beauty. The artist becomes a kind of intercessor -- a priest/ess -- between the inanimate world of paint and canvas and the world of thought. I remember working as an archaeologist years ago and finding a potsherd. Part of the potters fingerprint could be seen on the clay. There was something so profound about the 'touch' of humanity on that piece of clay...a touch that existed beyond its maker.

Anonymous said...

The problem with computer art is really not apparent on the surface.

The computer is really just a drawing tool, correct? But how does one become so good at drawing things (people, horses, landscapes, etc)--one draws from life, and the really good artist draws from his imagination after much life study. The computer is really inferior in this regard to a sketchpad and a pencil. So one is left with the computer for painting then, after one can draw. Well, if you really learn how to paint well, alla prima, let's say, you can finish a painting from life in 3-6 hours, the same time it would take, I imagine, on the computer. So why does a very good painter need the computer? Why does a very good draftsman? They don't.

What I have noticed about computer art is that people who do it seem to be cartoonists who use it to color their cartoons, or draw and color backgrounds, or who need the computer to do nice geometric shapes, work ou their perspective, etc. That is why so much computer art looks the same--because the people who use it are the same kind of artists. Ditto with those who use a lot of photography for their paintings and drawings. People who paint from life don't need the computer--it is cumbersome and inefficient, and no faster, less portable.

So I would say that the people who use the computer are more people who tend to draw and paint completely from their imaginations and those who are very dependent upon photography for their art. I guess for some comps, its okay, but why not do some thumbnails and a quick watercolor sketch?

I think that the really good life painters will never use it either. I wouldn't. Its not bad, just unnecessary. And that's where I see the dividing line.

stefan marjoram said...

Here are my rambling thoughts...

I create animation using a computer but I always design my characters on paper first - often the design is a very small, rough thumbnail - but I'll use that as a template for the computer model - and stick to it very rigidly. The computer is happiest making smooth and perfectly symmetrical objects - by sticking to a rough sketch the character with it's uneven edges and different sized eyes etc. begins to have some warmth and charm.

It's a similar story with the animation - if you leave too much to the computer you get nasty smooth, soul-less animation - that everybody always used to call 'computer animation'. You have to put the hours in and learn the traditional rules of animation first - then force the computer to do make what you want. It's getting easier as the software gets better and more artists are involved in its development. There are a few of my thumbnails here...

As for illustration, I love to draw from life with a pen or pencil but I can't get anywhere with paints - I get in a terrible mess with them, I don't like using too much, they dry too slowly or too fast - I usually end up spoiling a perfectly good drawing. I probably need a lot more practise. But I do enjoy using the computer to paint - because all the things I worry about don't feature. I'm much freer and experiment more on a computer than I would with the real stuff.

I dream of the day when 'electronic paper' is finally widely available. It'll have the look, thickness and texture of paper but could run 'painter' or 'photoshop'. With only a pen and pad in my pocket I'll be able to sketch and paint - with unlimited materials wherever I like.

Meanwhile, here's a chap who does some very nice painting from life using a laptop and tablet...

I suppose what I'm saying is that the computer's just another tool - and it's probably still in it's infancy and therefore a bit limited. But it'll get better and the art made with it will get better too.

Anonymous said...

I see the computer used as a tool like a plane following a road. (stopping in every red light :)) It facilitate a lot the process of creating an image, but the process still the same. In fact we lost the original in exchange of the easiness of the corrections and mixing of photography and such.
Computer used as a means is a new form of art. Programming, games and the internet are presenting new kinds of visualization, immersion and thinking.
But everything seems very blurry when you are in the middle of the history.
*Sorry for my English mistakes. :/

John said...

99% of computer generated art I use to see seems to shout "I'm computer generated!".

It does seem that way right now. But any new tool primarily promotes itself in the beginning.

Anonymous said...

All of the comments treat computers as models of physical mediums, for example using a paint program to simulate a paintbrush. This is a poor starting point.

Where computers excel is in rule based art, that is where the artist works with text to describe actions which they could not make themselves.

Text is of course an extremely expressive medium. By interpreting that text as instructions, a computer can only make text *more* expressive.

Anonymous said...

All of the revolutionary aspects you are talking about are animation, not static images like a Rubens painting. As far as those landscape paintings by the linked artist, they are quite nice. But why not just do them with a brush and paint? So you can diddle around with them later on the computer? Problem is, the image is not unique in any way--it can be infinitely replicated. Things that are infinitely replicatable have no value. Only the original does. And we know it is the original because it was done with natural materials and sold by a reputable artist. But with the computer, there is no original.

What you are arguing for is the destruction of the value of static image by making it infinitely replicatable, or by turning it into some sort of cartoon movie. You'll put almost all of the painters out of business! I guess you could say that there would be the print market left. But that is a mass market which has to make a mass appeal to be successful. Hello Thomas Kinkade! What about the huge market for single buyers of unique objects?

The computer is great for some things. But for others it is a tool that destroys. Unfortunately, most people are so enamored with their toys that they can't see the dangers.

Neal said...

First off, I enjoy this blog immensely. Thanks so much for your continuing conversation and thoughts about Illustration and art.

As regards digital illustration, I thought i'd post a link to Craig Mullins

My understanding is, he has a traditional background but he really strikes me as one of the few guys who can bridge to distance between digital and non digital. His work is definitely more informed by painters like Sargent than any digital luminaries. His moves are loose and often "incomplete" and incredibly gestural and natural in an environment and medium where polish seems king.

A look through his portfolio is inspiring and was instrumental in me seeing digital art as more than a way of life or only a mere tool. It's an expression unto itself, when in the right hands.

Irene Gallo said...

I’ll second Neal’s statements. The best digital art isn't trying to mimic traditional materials. I love the work of Stephan Martiniere. I know he often starts out with drawn sketches but once he moves to the computer he is not trying to replicate an oil painting he is doing something unique to digital medium. And Craig Mullins is just fantastic!

Still, I flip back and forth: As a person that adores seeing original paintings, I am sad to go to exhibits like the Society of Illustrators annuals and see so many print-outs....But as a person that also loves to see wonderful illustration out in the world, digital or traditional doesn’t matter to me.

I find it interesting that most of the digital artists I know regret, to some degree, that they are not painting traditionally. Not all but many want to return to oils at some point.To my mind, this does _not_ diminish their digital accomplishments...but it does testify to the idea that there is just something so deeply personal about being able to stand in front of a hand made painting....something that cannot be duplicated by a machine.

Anonymous said...

For me, I love painting on paper. And I think that Computer can make the perfect line BUT not like the line that my hand created.
See my work in illustrat paint marker here


100% my hand-made art