Sunday, January 15, 2017

Painting in an Age of Apps

A photo with a low pixel count via Tech in everyday life
After reading the recent post about the photograph technique of cross processing, John Tija asks:

"On the subject of cross processing, in addition to Instagram and Photoshop effects, there are also apps on the smart phone. I recently came across Prisma for the iPhone, and have found that the app can transform my ordinary looking photos into some pretty spectacularly different renderings, both in the color scheme and also in the details of the subject itself (e.g., photos become line drawings, or mosaics, or even Mondrian-line canvases, all with color schemes I could not have dreamed up)."

"My question in all this is where the "artist" is in all this. If I paint a scene based on how this app has transformed it, am I "cheating"? I guess it comes down to my starting suspicion of how much I can rely on a photograph (a "ready made" scene) as a start to my painting? And if I start relying on some color scheme produced by an app algorithm, do I then lose more of my originality, since I become, step-by-step, nothing more than a copier?"

"As a funny aside, I used this app to run a photo I took of a painting I did based on another photo I had taken, and I came out with a pared down digital rendition (koi in a pond) that had strangely alluring colors and was pretty good. So what kind of an artist am I in this? This has puzzled me!"

Head painting detail by Frank Brangwyn
John, that's a very thoughtful question. You're right to ask about these powerful tools, including photography, digital processing, and apps. And we're just beginning to arrive in the era of machine-learning algorithms. They all challenge our idea of what makes us an artist.

Let's consider what we do when we paint. You could look at all painting as a form of altered—or even degraded—vision. It's the opposite of the usual way we regard representational painting. Typically people talk about painting as a way of representing exactly what we see, or even enhancing what we see. 

But really, in terms of detail at least, paintings and drawings nearly always reduce the amount of information, and I've found that the more they do, the more they people talk about them as "artistic." Think of monochromatic paintings, notan drawings, limited palettes, and paintings made with big brushes. All images follow processes that reduce information. The Brangwyn at left looks a lot like a low resolution photograph.

Of course there are highly resolved, detailed, color-enhanced styles of painting, too. But even those are usually simplified, flattened, or reduced from our genuine stereoscopic, dynamic visual experience in some way.

So the question is: what aesthetic and practical criteria should guide us in the interpretation of reality, and how should we employ all these new tools in this process?

Photography presents us with another way of seeing, another way of mapping the 3D universe into 2D. There are so many forms of lenses, films, and processes before you even get into digital manipulation. Cameras and computers have expanded our vision. We can see infra-red images, we can stop action, we can see through things with x-rays, we can see wildlife up close. Photography has really given us new eyes. 

That doesn't mean we have to project and copy the random detail of a single given photo, though that's OK, too, if that's what you want to do.

But the more we understand how cameras see, the more we appreciate our eyes, the little "meat cameras" in our heads. The more we know about photography, the more we realize our eyes and our visual brains are not like cameras at all. That's been a big subject on this blog. 

So where does that leave us? How can each of us find the best way to use the tools to make our art? It's going to be different for each person.

In my case I'm usually either trying to interpret my experience of reality directly into a sketchbook, or I'm trying to visualize a scene from the ancient past or from a science fiction future. In some cases I want my paintings to incorporate photographic effects so that they can fit into a magazine presentation that's mostly comprised of nature photos. To get that effect, I try to learn the theory behind photography, and I also surround my easel with a lot of different reference photos, taking a little from one and a little from another to make something new.

For what I do, I find the old-school methods of drawing and painting are the most efficient and they produce the best results. But I'm always open to learn more and to try new things, and if there's any tool that helps me make better art, I'm willing to try it.

As the tools give us new ways of seeing and new ways of producing images, they also challenge us to create things that machines can't create. They make us ask what is truly the human component of our vision. There's no moral right or wrong about what tools you use. No tools can directly bring your dream world to life. That's up to you. As long as your work is original and it communicates your own experience, it's not cheating. It's a gift.
Previous posts about:
Computer Graphics
Visual Perception


Jessica Kirby said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katrine said...

Do you think that software such as akviz and 3D software will make traditional drawing and painting less "valuable" to the average artist?
Imagine a future where a young artist will choose to focus on 3D and painting filters/ generators over traditional skills. Do you think that the work will be more creative and free when the artist is less concerned with traditional problems (like proportions or rendering light manually)?
I think that it would be very interesting to see what happens if these tools became more effecive and available to the average person. Do you think that more people would make art if some of the barriers of technicalities where lessened?

James Gurney said...

Otto, a lot of good questions!
3D software? I think traditional drawing and painting skills are still just as valuable, but those tools open up additional possibilities.
More creative and free? I don't think the "problems" are traditional. In other words you've still got to understand light and proportions, whatever tools you use.
More people make art? Yes, in the same way that more people are making art by doing coloring books. There's a lot of ways to make art, and some tools do reduce the barriers (remember paint by numbers?). But for me, making a picture is still just as hard as it's ever been, and the difficulties of the process are just part of the fun.

marctaro said...

Very interesting topic! Always fun to think about. And then there is VR painting where we can walk around inside our drawings. I'm excited for that.

But at the end of the day, I think the question is WHY we make art. If you are making it to create the most impressive object possible. A great product that you can hang in a museum or sell to collectors - well then, that is a product, it's your livelihood, and I think people will use any trick or tool they can lay their hands on - and why not?

But if you create art for the experience of doing it. To enjoy being creative, or - as many of us do - to be in a place and totally immerse yourself in recording it - well then, all these digital tools that might help you 'be better' are only taking yourself out of the real world experience. Sometimes just because there's a better tool, does not mean you need to use that tool.

Also - we can do both right! It doesn't have to be all or nothing :)

Sesco said...

Some other interesting questions: (1) Who is the artist, the one who uses the software to create visual effects and then copies them with oil paint, or the one who coded the software that allows this to happen? (2) Who is the better artist, those who used the duller pigments of an earlier time, or those who had access to advanced formulas for more brilliant compounds? (3) Who is the artist, the one who uses computers to create new visual effects to copy and paint on canvas, or Andy Goldsworthy who rearranges the natural world into geometric beauty and then photographs the work to preserve it and to sell as images in a book? I think that when I feel as if I'm merely a copier I usually am, and this spurs me to think and create with more abandon guided by my personal sense of taste and beauty.

James Gurney said...

Marc, I'm glad you drew that distinction, because it elevates the discussion above pragmatics. The experience of drawing itself can be as valuable as the resulting artwork. Urban Sketching is a good example of that. The payoff is not just great sketches, but also camaraderie and unforgettable experiences.

Sesco, those are all thought provoking questions. I like the idea that people who write the code should share some of the credit in the artistry. I would like to add that there's nothing wrong with the quest to paint Nature faithfully. There's no such thing as being a "Slave to Nature." Nature doesn't make a slave of anyone, but rather, the practice is liberating. Regardless of the tools, any art made using a person's personal skills is inevitably shaped by that individual's experience. I agree with what Shawn Geabhart said over on Facebook, says: "As long as it is somehow filtered through human experience and interpretation then the tools really don't matter."

Allen Garns said...

Milton Glaser told a wonderful story. His wife brought home a gift for him, a new turntable for his classical LP collection. Glaser looked at it and all it was was a slab of wood, the turn table and the arm and an on/off switch and volume control. No extras, no auto return of the arm. A totally stripped down basic model. "How much did this cost?" "Well it was $1000.00. The store owner said it was the best one you could get." Glaser goes back to the store and says What up! The store owner asks "Did you listen to it?" "No". "Go listen and then come back". So of course he goes home and listens and it's the most beautiful pure sound he's ever heard from his records. He goes back, "So why does this turn table make such beautiful sound?" "Every time you add another knob, a spring for the arm etc, you're adding a little interference between the initial signal and the final sound. The less interference, the purer the sound." Glaser went on to say that in art, every time you add another piece of technology, you're adding a little interference between your perception and vision and the final expression. Truth be told, I think technology can be a wonderful tool to be used by an artist and can augment not only his facility but also his vision. But I like the story and I think there's some validity to it.

Daulat Neupane said...

I think, it all depends on our involvement in the process of making art, or rather the "quality" of our involvement in it. I've always found that the experiences I have during the process of painting eventually alter the result that I get. And depending on what I intend to paint and which tools I pick, there are some "essential" experiences that I look forward to gain from the process itself. Those experiences may or may not always alter the final result, but that's not the point I guess.

I think we cannot separate the artwork from the tools that the artist uses to make that. Though as artists we tend to share some common traits, the means and the tools play an essential role in what we do, and they impart different experiences which again affects not just the result but also our growth as an artist.

The key I think is to remain true (doesn't mean rigid) to the tools that we use. If I want to make an oil painting, I would want to wrestle with the medium itself, as that's the "essential" experience of painting in oil medium. I may replicate the result by using a Photoshop filter on a photo, but I will never replicate the experience itself. So in a way, the result I get through filters suggests a "process of painting" that never took place. I don't understand why would I want to do that. Experiences can't be emulated, even if results might seem like they can be.

And the fun thing is that whichever medium we use, it provides a unique experience of its own, as digital painting (painting with a digital brush I mean) provides. Now I can slap together some images, apply some filters and whatnot and make an engrossing picture, with remarkable content and subject matter, but it will not be a painting, though it can be a valid piece of original artwork. And of-course that process would have unique avenues for experiences and artistic growth, so I see no problems in the new technologies and mediums that are available to us now. When it comes to photography in particular, it makes things faster rather than easier imo in painting. And as James have mentioned in the post, it provides us with a new set of eyes, and I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that the more we understand photography, the more we appreciate our eyes. And that last quote by James actually nails it down. Spot on.

marctaro said...

Apropos of this: Jon Foster, a painter I have always thought of as super traditional, just showed his excellent 3D maquettes. No reason I should be surprised he's doing this - but here you go!

(hope a facebook link works):