Art & Computers

The Screen Between

Here's an issue that's been on my mind for many years. It relates to the great chasm that exists between the powerful experience of encountering live art and the muted pleasure of viewing art through the limits of a computer.

First of all, I am so appreciative that you have discovered my creative works through my website amid the countless digital destinations available today. Yet I am very ambivalent that you must view my artwork via this constraining medium of the computer. On one hand, I delight that my images can easily reach you this way. On the other hand, even as I rely on computers to create some of my imagery, I decry the fact that I must display them via a limiting electronic device. This is because I strongly believe that canvas or paper, that you can directly and intimately explore at actual scale, are a far superior means of delivering an image to the viewer's eye and mind. My primary concern is that we are lulled into thinking we are seeing one thing but are actually remotely seeing filtered, glary, fuzzy, glowy, dots that stand in for the real thing.

The deceptive glare, glow, flattening effect and over-hyped, still low pixel resolution of the screen is exacerbated by the limits of a small and continually shrinking electronic display. Lost is the emotional impact that true scale, unsurpassable color fidelity, texture and feel that the real thing can impart. Such limiting factors even begin to imperceptibly influence the aesthetic decisions artists may make when crafting their images. Perhaps more important than this is the subtle changes this may cause in expectations for image quality in the mind of the viewer herself.

he solution? Obviously not everyone can afford to purchase original artworks or even fine reproductions. But I pose as an imperative that we who value the fruits of the creative process, endeavor to find ways to support and contribute to the arts. Not only for the creative people laboring to break through to find an audience, but for our own intellectual and spiritual growth. We can do this in the time honored way by visiting museums, galleries and studios, music, theater and all performing arts. And of course purchasing the occasional painting, print, photograph, sculpture, quilt, etc. Refuse to be seduced by the easy accessibility of the limited computer screen. The real, genuine, actual deal is out there in life every day, though not for long if all we do is passively view the products of the creative arts for free on our computer day after day.

Don't get me wrong, I am an artist of the age and dance with the digital dilemma every day, mostly for work, and too much for pleasure. I warn you as I warn myself. The aesthetic atmosphere is thinning apace with the latest devices.

The screen is, increasingly, between.

Paint or Compute?

In case any of you were curious about why a fine art painter like myself would also make computer art (and how I make it), I thought I'd let you know.

 

I call my current new media works "Computer Assisted Compositions" instead of "Digital Art" for several very important reasons. Primarily because the source imagery does not originate with the computer. I always start with one or more of my original physical artworks, usually two or more paintings (though it may be drawings or sculptures too) and take very high resolution digital photos of them. Through the computer, I then transform this data into a new "digital original" that often barely resembles the physical artifact(s) with which I started. The source imagery is always hand crafted using physical materials. (I also sell these original physical artworks, and although a great deal of time and effort can go into making of the digital images, I value the original physical artworks above them, much as a large oil painting is traditionally valued above a fine etching).

Under my direction, the computer's only function is to take previously physical assets of my making and "assist" me by color shifting, geometrically distorting, re-texturing, or patterning the source imagery. The computer therefore only assists my hands but never fully replaces them or my physical source artworks when generating an image. My process is distinct from the processes used by most digital artists and software developers at movie and media production companies, whereby the computer software itself often both generates and manipulates the data with increasingly less use for either physical artifacts or the virtues and (just as importantly) limitations of the physical dexterity of the human body. As a former art director, developer and software design program manager for Microsoft, I am fully capable of joining the ranks of these more purely digital artistic organizations, however my aesthetic sensibilities lead me elsewhere. I am not opposed to the use of the computer (quite obviously) to produce art, nor to digital advancement in general (and anyway, there would be little power in taking such a position in the world at its current state of digital evolution).

While I believe it is highly relevant and deeply meaningful for a contemporary artist to have a dialog with virtual tools, techniques, and processes, I continue to also paint, draw, and sculpt with physical materials. This is because I am passionate that my personal artistic evolution remain deeply connected to the physical world of human touch, with its infinite potential for a strong connection to the materials and processes of the natural world. Not out of fear of losing this connection but out of love for it.

 

Thinking Machines vs Artists

Beautiful and provocative artifacts of the Material Age. That's what I try to make. There was a time when artists and most people made things out of stuff using head and hands. I and others still do, though we are a dwindling few. Now thinking machines make fast ideas out of stale history and electricity. Now it is robots that make things out of stuff using digital brains and mechanical hands. Because of this, art, like everything else, is dematerializing. Artists and handmade artifacts are not in hot demand. A dwindling few.

This is not all bad. I celebrate this winnowing away of human things-from-stuff-by-hand makers in favor of labor saving, danger saving, boredom saving mechanical helpers. I celebrate these things even as I mourn the loss of the hundred billion endearing flaws produced by the human body and hand with all its frailties, none of which the machines endure. Fatigue, illness, distraction, frustration. These human traits produced the mistakes that have informed and refined objects of epic beauty and wonder throughout the ages. A beauty that the machines will cleverly and blindly mimic, yet never know. Never wonder. Machines are far too busy with re-creation to create anew. And to create anew is to make mistakes. Great but imperfect hand work. That is what we are losing as we all dematerialize into a digital haze. But dematerialize may be the wrong word. The matter is still here. The stuff. And lots of it. It's just that the matter doesn't matter as much as when it was crafted by hand.

How is one to combat this fading away of hand craft and true beauty? I do so by spending my days making paintings and sculptures. The stuff and subjects I choose are oily paint, inventive structures, novel processes and yes, even machines. One eye always on nature, the other only to see. The tools may be new but this is creativity within an old type of art. Ancient even. In my old-fashioned way, the hand, mind and eye are the master, not the tool. The new way is to make slick artifacts using the idea machines. These new artifacts are always in the latest style but it is a style without character. To be sure, artificial intelligence machines (or as I call them, Digital History-Based Ideation machines) will dominate the new art and the new aesthetic landscape. And their slaves, the robots, will define the new craft. One of speed, precision and faux passion. Why is this inevitable? Because craftmanship without the man (human) is neither craft nor ship, but empty vessel. So naturally machines will build the most pristine objects and architectural spaces on earth. They will fill these with equally pristine smaller artifacts. All of it consummately empty in its perfection.

I believe all of this, yet I am not opposed to using machines as a part of the creative process. I am opposed to intelligent machines attempting to drive the aesthetic direction of our lives. Yes, I sometimes use computers and robots to help me make art. But they do not yet use me. They try. But where they grasp at me, I turn away. I turn away not in retreat but as a redirection of energy. Like a martial artist. I try to redirect the machine's aesthetic away from its own, always crisp yet slightly stale goals, toward my own, more raw aesthetic ends. As the 2015 Digital History-Based Ideation Craftsrobots style rapidly seeps into our products and pores, I seek beauty and truth elsewhere. Through paint and wood and stuff.  Through nature and hands and flaws. Even though machines.

So then, how will we know if the machines have slyly taken over? Not by how many there are or what they do but by what they make. We shall know by our sense of taste. By our personal aesthetic. We will feel it just as good art has always helped us to sense both beauty and malicious intent.

Rising machines. Dwindling artists. Now there's a fair fight. A battle for the ages. A war for our souls. Let the machines endlessly seek their constantly receding goal of perfection while we endlessly trick them into helping us seek the height of our goodness and depth of our greatness. We cannot outsmart the machines but we can out feel them.

It's a fair enough fight. Let it be a friendly one.

 

Creativity

The more effort there is in my work, the further I am from living a truly creative life. I’m not talking about physical effort. I’m talking about psychological frustration, pain or suffering. A tortured artist is not a creative artist but rather a self-obsessed baby throwing tantrums at the universe.

A creative life is a divine life. Not that we’re a puppet for a bearded man in the sky. We are a unique incarnation with a voice all our own. It is when we find our own voice and express it honestly, freely and fully, that we are truly creative and not simply a carbon copy of our artistic inspirations.

When we are creative, we don’t summon some remote divine intelligence, we dance with an always present divinity.

 

Artistic Decisions

Today I was wondering about how it is an artist decides which art form, media, subject matter and style will best express his or her current vision. While I'm fascinated to hear other artists discuss their own answers to this question, I can only speak for myself. For me the ultimate answer is to say that my history, ideas and personality have little to do with it. If I begin with the premise that I am an entity (human, American, man, north westerner, seeker, mystic, political agent, even an artist) that is the originator of my artistic decisions, I am already lost. The work has no chance of ringing true in any great sense. For example, while every choice is a political choice (in that it either supports, opposes or ignores its contribution to the way in which its expression will be interpreted by the world), if I begin with a political intent my quest is imbued with too much personal investment in the outcome. I am already a slave to an idea, a tiny fragment of myself, a painter in service to a goal instead of a simple painter. Of course great truths may be found anywhere, even in a straightjacket but if it lives there too long it transforms into a lie. It's the same if I start out to further the evolution of a particular art historical movement or try to break from history altogether. A template for creativity is worse than snake oil. A decision to set up a target outside of my own process of expression constrains my efforts to achievement without the joy of discovery. And while the result may be fascinating and even produce impressive work, it always leaves me feeling as if God has bestowed upon me a beautiful and cursed table set with delicious food that entertains the senses but leaves the stomach empty.

So for me, all my artistic decisions start at a much deeper yet simpler level. I don't hold a vision of the end result in my mind, judging each decision by its likelihood of taking me closer to or farther from that end. My decisions are simple, dumb and elemental. I decide to feel the connection of my feet to the floor, the tension in the muscles in my hand as it favors the heft of lifting a new canvas to the easel or the ease of fresh paper from the pad. I decide to notice the lightness that arises in my heart as I put down a piece of clay and grasp a tube of paint or vice versa. I decide to watch the anxiety that dissipates as I return to an unfinished piece in order to change its direction or start anew with a medium that is foreign to me. The quality of my decisions, if they may be called decisions, is not judged by whether they "work" but by whether I feel trapped or simply nudged by them.

This is not to say that I am a slave to my feelings. I am a free artist. My work may be a part of history and even informed by it but as I make creative decisions I am free from its dictates. Free from the trajectory of a life that began with my family of origin. Free from the joy and pain of the world and from art itself. I am not cozy in the company of my contemporaries or those that have come before me. I am at sea, alone. I am not hopelessly but preciously alone. I am ridiculous and unafraid.

I am free from thoughts too as they arise and grasp only to let go or grasp more firmly. A sudden desire to repeat a pleasing result excites my intellect and for a brief moment I have a reason to paint, a manifesto of purpose. When the manifesto threatens to suggest my next serval moves I may be seduced by the idea of having found some infallible new device that will ease the burdens of originality. When this happens I will do something, anything to peer around this shiny new manifesto that is blocking the one true sun. In both hope and desperation, like an eccentric captain, I cast the compass of my plans into the ocean and free myself again from the pretense that I know which shore will yield the most riches. I head out to uncertain seas, trusting the fact that the only riches to be found are on the deck of my boat, the crest of the approaching wave, a chance encounter with a bustling harbor, or the shoals upon which my artistic boat suddenly wrecks. Charts are for actual seaman. For artists, charts are more anchor than guide. Anchors that chain us to our strategies and leave vast oceans of ourselves undiscovered.

In the end it is ideas themselves that wrap the artist in the warm blanket of a signature style and constrain the artist to a restricted notion of Vision where so called heroic quests for truth produce replicas of false gods. Unattached to thoughts and feelings I opt for the much vaster Vision of simply wandering.  I unearth both peace and good work by my willingness to be lost. Thus disoriented I am free to find that which cannot be sought but only discovered.

My artistic decisions are not so much made as calmly noticed, or fiercely shunned as I battle against my own preconceptions. A good artistic decision is the humblest of navigators, charged not with setting course to an idyllic land, but to sail my soul clear of the tyrants of my heart and mind, to parts unknown and unknowable.

The Artistic Process

"Truth is a pathless land." - J. Krishamurti

Materials, working methods, techniques, tools, process. All of these are one in the same to me. What does it mean to make a distinction between the brush, the paint and the hand? Is it useful to understand that one painting gains its power from thick masses of paint thrust onto the canvas via brush moved across the canvas by the large muscle groups of the shoulder, while another soars owing to its delicate layering applied by brush carefully controlled by well practiced finger tips? Perhaps. But an explanation of the technique and method only goes so far.

Many art enthusiasts are keen to understand an artist's working methods. I am often asked how I make my paintings, especially since I rarely use brushes. I understand this interest well because I sometimes seek it for myself when talking with other artists. I welcome such questions. I could go on and on about how I choose colors, what tools I use, how I use them, how many layers of paint it takes to arrive at an interesting image, etc. I find such conversations fun and personally rewarding. However, in the end I find that this information, while it may be of great value to a student of art, is of only superficial value to the viewer who is trying to comprehend what actually went into the creation of a painting they love.

For the viewer, I think asking how the paint got there and by which precise technique is of far less value than simply looking. Most of the time the "how" simply puts a stop to seeing, enjoying or expanding one's awareness. Better to ignore the artist's methods and ask more difficult and interesting questions. Such as why was this vision realized in paint instead of sculpture? How did leaving that large negative space in the composition somehow create space in my mind? Why does that abstract smear of paint remind me of looking at clouds—is it some optical illusion, or is it just my own personal psychology at work? If the artist is unavailable or unwilling to entertain questions beyond his working process, then by all means put such questions to yourself. And then stop and just look again. Just look. Feel your way around the painting. Let the painting answer questions that cannot be answered, even by the artist.

I am eternally grateful to all the teachers and painters whose gift of sharing their working methods has inspired me and eased my growing pains as an artist. However, in the end, to make an honest, personal and authentic painting, as to find one's own way through life, there is no roadmap. No best practice, no singular methodology. The artist, the material, the system of choice, even the extra cup of coffee is all of a single process, the breakdown of which simply causes comprehension itself to break down.

So I say to the viewer once again, simply look. And to the artist I say that someone else's technique may indeed inspired you to grow, and don't be afraid of adopting it and making it your own. But don't become seduced by the methods alone. You must wrestle with your own process fearlessly, tirelessly and privately. I have learned through many lessons and my own trial and error that ultimately I must find my own way of working, and once found (as it must be found with each new image) it cannot be shared, much as I may want to.

So, intrepid artists and devoted art lovers, I implore you. Put process and technique in its valuable but small little place. Set out on your own. Unarmed and unquestioning of others. Find your own techniques for making and seeing.

What is my artistic process? I'll share the mechanics with you if you need me to, perhaps keeping a few little secrets to myself. But to answer your question as fully and honestly as I can: I have no artistic process, apart from me. I am the process.