Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Will there always be a place for traditional mediums?

Dan Scott, who runs the website Draw Paint Academy, just published an interview.

One of his questions: With the rise of digital art, do you think there will always be a place for traditional mediums?

First, let's talk about the terminology in your question. I don't use the term "traditional" the way you do. The imagery of physical painters is not necessarily traditional. And even though I respect tradition, there's nothing necessarily traditional about the way I use physical materials (such as painting gouache over casein, or combining watercolor with water-soluble colored pencils).

But I see what you're asking. Some analog methods are probably gone for good, such as paste-up with rubber cement, Craftint, and phototypesetting. But other ways of making art have never gone away or are staging a comeback: gouache, watercolor, fountain pens, sign painting, calligraphy, manual typewriters, and sketchbooks of all kinds. Never in my life have I seen as many kinds of sketchbooks available as there are today. The Internet has fostered a fierce revival for hand skills, and the results are often more satisfying for both the artist and the audience.

I remember when digital techniques were first emerging, physical solutions seemed a little embarrassing and cheap and outdated. Now the situation has reversed. While cutting-edge digital art created by leading artists will always be impressive and ground-breaking, the bottom end of the market—produced by the less able artists and by clients with tight budgets—is now accomplished digitally. As a result, digital methods are associated with work that is cheap and embarrassing.

Physical paintings are the only kind that museums want to exhibit and the only valued originals that collectors want to pay money for. When Frank Frazetta painted his barbarian paperback covers, he was only paid a few hundred dollars for the illustration commission, but now, his originals have sold for over a million dollars. That source of value is lost to digital artists.

One also wonders how long the authoring software will remain accessible. I can open any of my sketchbooks and they're in perfect shape, but I wonder if people can still open their old files in MacPaint or KidPix? If you don't keep paying Adobe, how will you be able to access your .psd files? So you might properly ask: "Will there always be a place in the future for digital mediums?"

In truth the two will always live side by side in some form. I'm inspired in my physical painting by things I've seen digital artists create. Some of the most interesting work being done now is some combination of digital and physical media, and hopefully the two modes of making art will inspire each other.
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17 comments:

Sheridan said...

The problem with digital media ever gaining the value that art created with physical materials attains, in my observation, is that there is no "original" with digital media. The artist can make as many exact duplicates as they want, but none of them are the original. There is a lot of digital art that is amazing, but it is all just pixels on a screen until it's printed. I know it can take as much time to create a digital work as it does a painting with physical materials, so I don't discount the ability required to create it.

Matt said...

Totally agree with Sheridan – there is no "permanence" to digital work.

I'm a designer and animator, but was trained in the classical studio arts and that's my true love. There's definitely an advantage to digital media – quick, easy, polished, etc. – but it's also very soulless. What I create digitally, 500 other people can replicate with ease (in the design and animation realm) – there's a duplicity and transient nature that pervades everything, in my opinion.

Digital painting is a bit different at least, in that you can see the hand of the artist a bit more, but it's still nothing like tactile media, where you witness the artist at work – the dimensionality of the paint, the history sitting just below the surface (underpainting, overpainting, revisions, initial sketches, etc.), the time is took to make the piece (told through the gestures of the strokes and the buildup of material on the plane). Not only is tactile media just that – an actual object that you can smell and touch – but there's a story in the process alone that cannot be told in the same way digitally.

I personally think that tactile media will never go away, and will in fact gain more value the longer we slip into the digital world. People will place more value in it because, if nothing else, fewer and fewer people are trained / skilled in it. I personally think the true "fine artist" is one accomplished in tactile media.

John Pototschnik said...

Such a great response.

DamianJ said...

In a commercial environment where revisions might be required in short time-scales, digital excels because of it’s flexibility to iterate, but the price of this convenience is the tools must behave consistently. This is exactly the opposite of ‘traditional’ methods in that the very act of using the paint/pencil/paper/canvas/clay/wood etc is unique to that moment. Once the mark is made it can never be fully undone, the canvas is stained, the paper is dented, the clay is cracked. But that very unpredictability means that ‘happy accidents’ can occur, the smallest ‘mistake’ can lead to whole avenues of exploration and new techniques, the tool that once seemed untameable suddenly reveals itself to have the ability to express.

I use both digital and traditional, but the sheer joy of an actual pencil lead wearing down as your hand crosses that crisp sheet of flattened fibres is utterly without compare in the digital realm. You could argue that eventually screens will have the exact same feedback as real paper, that the stylus will feel identical to real paint, all of which is welcome, but ultimately the artist will be corralled by the limitations that the computer code imposes. In real life you could draw with mustard on a flagstone. If nothing else the flies will love it.

I’m mindful of the fact that when I stand in the Tate Gallery, here in London, in front of a Sargent TateBritain_Sargent or La Thangue TateBritain_Thangue that what I’m looking at is the actual physical marks made by that artist at a real point in time with ground up pigments extracted from the ground after millions of years of being rock. That’s crazy, but I guess no more crazy than electrons zipping around silicon at the speed of light.

It would be very interesting to know if, back in the early 1400’s when the printing press was invented, whether people thought that printed books were somehow less ‘real’ than hand scribed ones.

But, given the choice ( ha) I’d still rather have an original handwritten Shakespeare manuscript than any first printing of it.

CerverGirl said...

Well written, Mr. Gurney. My mind did a "wow" when I read the words "paste-up" because I used to do it, and it just seems like a million miles away. But I still love the existence of rubber cement....and appreciate that I can create a thin-lined box and text digitally and they look and print so perfectly. It is all good. At what a joy to learn about and create paintings and drawings. Thank you for your contribution in this interview.

Susan Krzywicki said...

There is something a bit funky about the photo that accompanies this article - alternating layers of recursive talent: A digital photo taken of a physical act of creation being made which is based on plastic animated characters that were designed using digital media that were originally designed using physical media.

As long as humans have fingers, we will make tools of everything that comes our way, so I think physical media still has a future.

James Gurney said...

Susan, true, the digital tools are vital even to people like me who are committed to hand skills. Digital cameras and non-linear editors make my social media presence possible. In the case of those old Disney characters, actually the digital step only comes at the very end. I painted them from observation with physical paint; they are one-of-a-kind sculptures made by hand based on analog comics and animation from the 1930s.

CerverGirl, I also worked as a paste up artist at a newspaper and an ad agency, but we used waxers instead of rubber cement.

Well said, Damian. The frictionless of creation and ease of undoing are both the gift and the curse of digital tools. Those qualities have not only changed the artist's mindset, but also that of the art buyer. Now any decision can be second-guessed.

Matt, I love your term "tactile media." That's a good way to refer to them. We know what we mean when we say "analog photography" or "acoustic music" or "hand-written text", but none of the terms for art made with paint and pencils are perfect: "analog", "traditional", "actual", "real", and "physical" all have problems when contrasted with "digital". Like it or not, the term "traditional" is probably the one we have to live with, but "digital/traditional" a totally illogical dichotomy.

Loretta said...

I've started painting in egg tempera and the comment I most often hear is, why would you use a technique so labor intensive and out of fashion? Oddly enough, the more I hear the I don't believe it sort of thing the more interested in the medium I become. The pure joy of working on hand made gesso is enough. Talk about a surface! The only thing further from digital would be fresco or cave paintings. The most lovely thing about being an artist, for me, is the choice.

James Gurney said...

Loretta, you're wonderfully quotable: "The only thing further from digital would be fresco or cave paintings."

Chris James said...

It's always funny to me to see digital art where the artist made every effort to make the work look hand painted. Talk about not playing to the aesthetic strengths of your medium. Don't see the point really, there is nothing inherently more artistic or tactile about stroke marks and rough edges by themselves, without real light bouncing off the surface of real materials.

I find 'pixel art', such as seen in older 2D video games circa the mid to late 90s, plays to the strengths of digital rendering better. Pixels create a pleasant texture for a computer screen, more so than any brush preset. In the higher res works, there is a kind of softness and blending in the way of pointilism or stippling in ink drawings. It's a look unique in its origins in computers, shaped by the limitations of the medium. And as in many creative endeavors, limitations prove to be a strength.

Patricia Wafer said...

Many great comments!! RE: Sketchbooks and your mention of the more than ever varieties - There is SO much fun to be had with ink, paint and all the different papers whether you sketch from life or imagination or both. I have a hard time resisting a new kind and have even made my own out of papers not available in sketchbooks. I used to worry that playing around in my sketchbooks would take time away from "serious" painting and I found the opposite is true. I think my drawing and painting skills have improved a lot from all the sketchbook work and play. Sketching our environment from life is the best way to collect visual memories. Love the title of Tommy Kane's new book: "All My Photographs Are Made With Pens".

Luca said...

I wouldn't send a letter to my boss for a work problem, but i write letters to my girlfriend. I know nobody that goes to work by horse, but i know many people that love riding horses in their spare time. Similarly, i use PC as a main medium for commercial things but last week i went sketching with pencils and watercolors in the woods to learn about light and textures of barks and rocks. What i mean is that, while i love the answer you gave, i see it as a false problem and limited to "commercial art". "Fine art" (whatever it is, anyway) will always be almost an exclusive of traditional techniques. "Commercial art" has the time constraint and working digitally makes things easier, faster and cleaner, so computer became the tool by choice, but not the only one. And, besides this, digital artists have huge respect for traditional artists, not only because they use a more difficult technique, but because the mental process is the same: composition, anatomy , color theory, value management and so on are the art fundamentals, not the "traditional" art fundamentals. That's why your books and videos are so famous and respected among digital artists, James: who cares if you use a physical palette instead of a digital one, when we can learn bits of your mental process and see the world through your eyes?

There's an inside joke among digital artists, the "what (digital) brushes did you use for this illustration?".

James Gurney said...

Luca, that's very well said, and I agree. As long as we're looking at art on a computer screen, it really doesn't matter to the viewer how it was produced ( though it may matter to the experience of the person creating it). The same might be true of a movie soundtrack. It can carry us away with its spirit and emotion, and we don't really care if the sounds were made by the London Symphony Orchestra or synthesized on a keyboard. In commercial artwork, such as concept art, illustration, or graphic design, digital tools have greatly boosted efficiency. And even the most traditional easel painters uses digital cameras and other modern tools.

Looking ahead, I wonder if how people who use Photoshop and other "traditional digital" tools feel about the newer technologies of high end and expensive 3D tools, where you can buy assets off the shelf and generate virtual spaces and lighting arrangements that would have taken a long time to create from scratch in 2D. And also I wonder how the 1990s-2010s era of digital artists will feel about machine-learning methods that can more efficiently create art solutions without any direct human intervention.

Luca said...

I agree with you! sometimes it's almost impossibile to understand if an illustration is traditional or digital and it's fun when artists that use both ask to guess the technique they used.

About 3D , it's getting so relevant in illustration and concept art (the majority of concept artworks for movies and games are actually collages of photos or paint overs on 3D models) that knowing something about modelling will become almost mandatory even for 2D artists.
I don't like to use 3D for illustrations but i used it for concepts and i have to say it helps a lot (i use Blender for it, which is completeley free to use). And if in my very little experience i felt the need to learn something about 3D modelling, i think it's getting very common in the industry.

Perhaps the real problem with digital illustration is that the border between a smart saving time techniques (painting over a 3D model, for example) and real cheating (merging photos and claiming it's a photorealistic painting - and it happens a lot) is getting every day thinner. But it's happening in music too (with autotunes and those kind of things): computers are great tools, but they offer too many possibilities to cheat to mediocre artists that don't want to obtain results investing time and effort in study, dealing with frustration, pain, doubts, delusions, etc etc.

About machines creating artworks and other things, it's a bit scary but everytime a machine does something creative we find it scary (think to Hal 9000). But i don't think human artists will compete with machines: perhaps computers will be used to automatically create cheap logos, small illustrations and those small jobs freelances do at their beginnings (let's say, everything that doesn't involve a professional art director). But there will always be request for human creations, since it's the "human" part that matters. And perhaps that's why people think that digital art is not real art: there's no smell of paint, no stains, no fingerprints on canvas. Digital art seems less "human", i guess.

Peter Drubetskoy said...

One thing to keep in mind is that one of the determinants of value of a piece of art is the difficulty in creating it. It is by no means the only determinant but one of them. That means that while some digital tools make some steps or techniques easier, they at the same moment devalue them. Let me explain a bit more what I mean in order not to be misunderstood.
Before I started drawing and painting, I channeled my creativity into photography. At that time it seemed natural to me to use a dSLR as my tool and Photoshop my images as much as I wanted to achieve the artistic effect I desired. I spent a lot of time editing my images and felt justified in doing so since the final result was what mattered. But at the same time I was aware that some of the results were cheaply achieved with a Photoshop action where before an analogue photographer would have to resort to laborious dodging and burning in the dark room, and other manipulations. So, my efforts, even very satisfying ones, always came with a bit of asterisk attached because they were too easy (although still requiring artistic vision). But the problem with photography is that even traditional analog photography is in general too easy. The most impressive print from Ansel Adams would never cost as much as a Picasso - just because the collective human art valuation engine recognizes exactly the inherent difficulty of each art form.
Nowadays, amazing photographs are a dime a dozen because digital cameras - and phone cameras in particular - are everywhere and are so good at producing brilliant images out of the box. The only skill required is some basic composition which turns out to be widely available. But what is too abundant cannot be too valuable (supply and demand). By the same token, whenever digital art makes something too easy and abundant, it devalues it in the process.

Luca said...

I understand what you mean and in part i agree with you, Peter, even if i'm a digital artist i acknowledge that it's easier and this takes away part of the value of the image, somehow.

But even the most expensive phone or camera won't turn automatically everybody in a great photographer: the "eye" is not something you can buy, you have to train it. In the same way, you can't create good art without knowing the fundamentals, no matter what you use (traditional techniques or digital one). And even with knowledge of the theory, you need experience (errors, failures, experiments, etc) to level up. That's why you'll find amazing digital art everywhere but also horrible digital art everywhere.

Editor IP Carriço; said...

I love it!Beauty!

Isaias/Brasil