AGOCG logo
Graphics Multimedia VR Visualisation Contents
Training Reports Workshops Briefings Index
Next Back

Impact of digital imaging on fine art teaching and practice.

Max Davison, Staffordshire University

Impact of digital imaging as a subject within Fine Art .Is it becoming a separate discipline within the subject of Fine Art or has it attached itself to existing practices e.g.painting,photography and mutated them into hybrids .Does computer graphics/digital imaging bridge gaps bet veen design and fine arts or does the very closeness of computer art and design encourage a questioning and reassertion of their respective specificities .In what way does the design of soft vare effect this debate .To what extent does staff research impact on the way the above arguments articulate themselves in teaching practice .

It is doubtful how interesting these questions about how digital imaging is impacting on the traditional disciplines of painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography(photography within Fine Art can now be considered to be situated within a tradition) are to those outside the academic section of the arts community; in a gallery/exhibition context one is supposed to focus on the subject of the work and not how the use of technology is redefining its discipline(I am being purposefully simplistic here) . It is, on the other hand, worthwhile to articulate these arguments in an academic context because, in this country at least, the main provider of this still expensive and esoteric technology for student artists and arts practitioners is the art college and university art department .It is within these enabling institutions, through the teaching of undergraduate, postgraduate, and through the mcreasing number of practice/theory research degrees that these practices are encouraged and their identity sought .There has always been this inextricable link between how a subject is defined by research and how the subject manifests itself (in this case in the art object and theory) in the work of students artists and emergent practitioners .This has become remarkably apparent with the introduction of digital technology within art departments. There has followed an obvious cause and effect relationship between the educational institution and what is eventually produced and exhibited outside of it in the wider cultural sphere .

It would be useful, at this stage, to consider practical and theoretical implications of computer technology on some specific disciplines within the subject of fine art .

Painting; across computing platforms there is software (Fractal design's 'Painter', Adobe's Photoshop' ) which simulates the painted mark, the chemical, physical, gestural changes are simulated algorithmically whilst paint which can be seen as the traditional bearer of illusion is itself given body and physicality through optical illusion (for example, the embossed or raised mark is simulated by repeating a brush stroke, slightly offsetting it in another colour and framing it on one side with shadow of a darker tone).An illusion of the physical substrate of the painting(canvas, textured water colour paper) is similarly arrived at and an infinite variety of 'paint brush' and paint combinations can be miraculously used in an orgy of simulation .Clever tricks can be used in programmes like 'Painter' to convert the tonality of a scanned photographic image into a 'painterly' equivalent, an automated painting of a photograph .Where this whole "joyful simulation" meets its hurdle is the limitation of the final printout.This is especially true for students who can not afford the more luxurious output afforded by processes like 'Scanner chrome' (Ink jet on canvas), 'Iris'(ink jet on a variety of 'art grade' papers) or the dye-sublimation process .The disappointment that is often felt in the difference between what artists see on the screen and what they can get in terms of printout is a frequent barrier to the use of the technology in this traditional interpretation of the activity of painting(the process of artists deliberately trying to simulate the use of paint using a computer).This is obviously also to do with the fact that images on screen depend on light illuminating them from behind rather than reflecting from the front .Another common problem which is bound up in the way that the image is shown on a screen is the difference in colour values experienced between monitor and printout and between monitor and other monitor. This is problematic in an educational environment where multiple use of different equipment means wildly different colour values between monitors (especially with eight bit colour) .Apple Macintosh repeatedly claim that they will soon have a solution which acts at system software level but at the moment the only way to reliably ensure the best colour matching between on screen display and printout is to calibrate a monitor using a test print of process colours on the paper that is going to used .The settings can then be saved. Unfortunately, according to the manuals, it is essential to maintain lighting conditions and monitor brightness and contrast settings;not always possible in a multiuse computer lab .I will tly and describe some different fotms of output at a later point which do not attempt to emulate what is on the screen .The obvious and ideal solution to those wishing to represent the qualities of the on screen display is to use a monitor in the exhibition of the work or have a slides made and then project them.

Alongside the illusionistic side of this practice, there is the expressive with its privileging of the auto graphic mark .The notion of expressivity makes the assumption that the mark is unique in itself corresponding exactly to the intentionality of the unique being, the artist. Digital painting obviously upsets these assumptions; marks and gestures are no longer unique they become both reproducible and, more problematic, constituted by a complex set of factors like the capabilities of hardware and the possibilities and limits of software which are, in turn, determined byother people; the auto graphic mark becomes a "team effort."

I have so far talked about a very obvious notion of computer art, one which attempts to simulate an existing practice .The frustrations inherent in this have been mentioned and there have been very few artists who have worked in this way with any sense of satisfaction .A notable exception would be the artist Rosalind Kunath ,research fellow at the Royal College of Art,whose work is outputted as ink jets on canvass via the Scanner chrome process .Her work has managed to discover for itself painterly specificities particular to "painting" using a computer; a diaphanous multi layering of space with peculiar smoke-like trails which would be impossible to produce in any other way.Many others find the process useful to speculate and make decisions about their work, manifesting their ideas in more traditional means sometimes using elements of the computer generated ( e .g. Simon Lewandowski has large woodcuts automatically cut with a C.N.C . router, these are printed on paper or canvass and then worked over) Colourists find the computers capabilities particularly useful(but infinitely frustrating) due the speed and ease with which areas and even the whole colour balances of entire image can be changed.

Where the impact of digital imaging has been more apparent has been at the other side of the discipline of painting .The practice which is not so much defined as being bound up in the process of applying paint but is more adequately described as a concern with picturing and representation and which includes working with the photographic ,collage ,text,etc.It is at this point that computer imaging scores highly .Programmes which were designed initially for photographic retouching have been extremely useful for artists .I am thinking specifically of Adobe's 'Photoshop' and 'Live picture' .Used in conjunction with the right hardware 'Photoshop' allows artists to manipulate and subvert photographic information extremely quickly and convincingly .It is extremely easy learn and to teach with and its capabilities seem to allow possibilities rather than limit them .Unfortunately ,the ease with which images can be manipulated often leads to volumes of gratuitous work in which images are subjected to a catalogue of processes, effects and filters .Students are often seduced by this novelty value and those lacking the self critical reflex tend to end up with an unfocused glut of "test pieces" This has been particularly true for first level undergraduate students who tend to be introduced to digital imaging as a discreet sub ject within the modular scheme .Very often work is produced to satisfy distinct assessment demands rather than to augment or contribute to a developing practice. Using the technology in a speculative way, allowing its possibilities to suggestlinspire outcomes and constitute meaning can, if the self critical reflex is engaged, be constructive and even liberating; again this needs to be encouraged through teaching which has a theoretical and contextual content rather than just being purely to do with the acquisition of manipulation skills .To do this satisfactorily is luxurious as it involves having staff who have active engagement with the issues surrounding the use w of digital imaging deal with the somewhat repetitious task of the dissemination of the basic skills .The best solution seems to be the workshop situation which demonstrates possibilities whilst talking about them from a critical perspective . This approach really relies on intensive , practical teaching to consolidate the demonstration and it takes a constant effort of will to remember to frame this practical teaching within a wider context. Manuals and interactive learning materials only solve part of the problem .

Software like "Adobe Photoshop", "Fractal Design Painter" and "Infini-D" really can hybridise existing practices like painting, printmaking,sculpture and photography allowing mixing of working methods and formal particularities both between elements of fine art practice and outside of what is thought of as fine art practice(for example combinations of images and music).It is now easy to 'paint' with photographic information, impregnate photographs with the 'hand drawn', create and collage sculpture into different 'photographic' contexts ,wrap photographs around 'virtual' sculptures, reproduce a manipulated photograph using an anachronistic print process . It would be useful to describe some cases where these sorts of cross disciplinary links are used to show how they activate discourses .

A number of artists have been working with digitised photograph subtly changing them and outputting them back them onto photographic material engaging the assumption that the photographic is real .On one hand this has lead to an amount of 'spoof' photography (most notably was a faked air crash which was fed to Reuters and printed the next day on front pages all over the world) and on the other hand to bodies of work which make subtle changes which activate a sense of disquiet and encourage a questioning on the part of the viewer as to why something is constituted as being real .A recent third year fine art student took a set of stock "clip art" photographs of objects like a gun, a syringe and a shot gun cartridge and very convincingly mapped the logo of a well known multinational entertainment corporation onto them .This seemingly simple idea engages elements of the post modern discourse to do with the trans- mission of corporate power and identity through commodification .It was successful in doing so precisely because of its seamless ability to convince . Other students have used the software's ability to multi layer images and collage to make comparisons between physiognomies, make composites and engage in the psychologically loaded area of participatory fantasy, where the artist places them self in some sort of other context either by changing the way that they look within an existing representation or placing them self within an other space ( in a similar way to the way Cindy Sherman projected film backdrops into rooms and then occupied them) .This area of possibility positively encourages speculation and research about how identity is con- stucted, about questions of authenticity of the photographic and, as such, can be argued to be dle result of the deterministic and enabling capacity of the computer .However without the input, discrimination and intentionality on the part of the artist the work would not transcend its basic novelty value .

The criticism that it becomes impossible to apply objective criteria of quality to computer art because of the assumed tendency to homogenise all work which goes through its mechanisms is augmented by the more general problems of subjectivity in assessment of quality in art practice. The criticism about the computers tendency to homogenise which is not usually just argued as being a product of the uniformity of the output but as being bound up in criticisms about the general ease at which goals can be achieved can be countered, on one level, by examples of good practice which embody appropriateness of output and appropriateness of drawing skills used .In this case the term "drawing skills" means something quite different to a traditional understanding of the term; it means the ability to convincingly carry out intentions; for example, the grafting of a picture of a face onto a historical figure involves consideration of size, three dimensional mapping, similarity of colour, light and surface .An appropriate 'output' or resolution might be used to create a photo-etching of the image's printout through a "mezzo-tint" screen on an image setter Discussions of quality become centred around the appropriateness of means of production of the image and how well that encourages or allows dis- course .This illustration would seem to suggest a model of self consciousness about the image or artifact being produced, a controlled manipulation of commonly understood signifiers .This sort of methodology does, in fact, allow propositional testings of juxtapositions of objects / surfaces / representations and can go on to allow an almost "expressive" way of working with images which leads to gluts and pictorial voids as incessant overlay, juxtaposition, disruption of images achieve semantic disjuncture and loss of conscious meaning.

The impact of three dimensional modelling programmes like "Swivel 3D", "Hmi-D" has been less widespread amongst Fine Art students (partly because they are harder to learn and partly because their results are less immediately gratifying ) .Uses have ranged from artists mapping their work into 'virtual 'spaces and using it as a design tool to arrange exhibitions and installations, to work which exposes the arid, generic world that is typical of synthetic three dimensional modelling, producing spaces and objects which do not exist but which have that outward signs of occupying space and reflecting light . This type of activity does have the psychologically attractive appeal of allowing construction of private worlds and universes over which the artist has (almost)complete control .Worlds can be constructed which operate like the microcosm of the Metaphysical poets .The courtyard or the empty street of Giorgio De Chirico can be created and then entered into, travelled around and lit . Obviously this immersion in a private symbolic labyrinth can lead to an impenetrability but can also touch on some psycho logically penetrating image structures which, in this case, through their reference to technology and the almost mythic arenas of 'cyberspace' and lhe arcade game have a contemporary significance. Some considerable formal issues are engaged with this sort of work . Firstly work becomes possible which is interdisciplinary in its use of two and three dimensional concerns (images mapped into spaces or around objects / images made of three dimensional scenes and objects).Aligned to the new forms of formal enquiry activated by this hybridity is a rebirth (sic) of Renaissance methods of depicting space . This is seen both in the perspective and the 'plastieity' with which objects are rendered in three dimensional modelling . One of the uses for which ffie three dimensional modelling programmes is written is for the analytical design of objects for manufacture .

Personal research includes several areas which use three dimensional modelling technologies . Initially I used three dimensional programmes to generate wire frame diagrams of architectural spaces which removed particularities of time and space from the drawing .These drawings were drawn onto a large sheet of tracing paper by a plotting machine .The drawings were then exposed onto a sensitised silk screen .A 'stop out' varnish was then printed onto thin sheets of zinc or copper and the sheets immersed in an etchant so that the sheet of metal was etched away to leave the lines of the drawing constituted out of metal .A more recent use of the technology has been the creation of virtual sculptures which become photographically rendered and mapped into existing public spaces; a kind of propositional public sculpture .

Aligned to the criticism or observation of the perceived "homogenising" tendency of computer imaging is the related perception that as well as homogenising quality it homogenises differences between fine art and design .This is an obvious observation given that much of the software and hardware used within Fine Art departments came into being as a result of the economic imperative of the graphics and design industry (This has obviously changed as hardware capable of running graphics has been marketed for home consumption).The practices of Fine Art and Design do start to at least look as if they occupy the same territory; again well worn but not inappropriate arguments about different sorts of intentionality and function can be engaged along with their respective sets of cultural values; because of its assumed philosophical engagement with the world and its assumed disengagement with the business of making money art occupies the privileged cultural institutions where as design is assumed to occupy the everyday and functional . Simplistic distinctions like this become harder to make when the 'design' object is reproduced through the same medium as the 'art' object .Ultimately questions about respective qualities and specificities are forced rather than glossed over by the homogenising tendency of similar forma methods of output . Quality image manipulation software and high quality printouts like Rainbow dye sublimation, Kodak XLS 8600 allows student work to have the patina and sophistication of professionally produced work . This is simultaneously educationally valuable and problematic; valuable as it circumvents the often painful]y slow progress of development as students practical work lags behind its theoretical ambitions . In other words the works' conceptual aspirations can be talked without deference to future development of skills and methodologies, without the need to talk about skills. This facility becomes problem- atic because of its ease; if image manipulation skills are not acquired alongside the more traditional skills associated with fine art then there is an obvious danger of a limited understanding of the potential usefulness and relevance of traditional perceptual and making skills as well as a lack of understanding of their formal and historical status

Within Fine Art departments computer technology was very often initially brought in to printmaking departments .There seems to be an historical appropriateness to this given the relationship that the subject of printmaking has had to the technology of the dissemination of information in the past . Now, again, technology which was originally designed for the commercial print industry ( which as we all know uses technological advances made by the military) is subsequently reintroduced into the subject of printmaking .The proximity of means of exploiting the computer generated imagery which include photo-etching, silk screen has been another governing and useful interaction . 'Photoshop' is particularly useful in that it can take a colour image and separate it into grey scale versions of the constituent CYMK channels.Practically speaking, good silk screened results are possible even from laser printed output .Prior to the introduction of the desk top, scanner, computer and laser printer a separation would have been prohibitively expensive and time consuming to produce; the desk top computer system can replace many of the repro graphics camera functions like the separation, the posterisation, the creation of custom half tone screens and reversals from positive to negative . At the other end of the scale professional drum scanners and image setters can be used in a professional context to entirely supplant the function of the repro camera .Artists and fine art editioning establishments have been quick to exploit the ability to reproduce the hand drawn through the media of silk screen, photoetching and photolitho and are now able to exactly reproduce the hand drawn image .This is a clear example of hybridisation which neatly uses old and new printing technologies . I have seen this technique used to particularly good effect by Lowick House Print Workshop in their collaborative work with artists like Sarah Mulhall and Anthony Davies both of whom were able to use existing drawings on paper as the basis of prints . Technology in this case does not constitute in any way the image but is used to make a new process from an anachronistic process . Opposite stances have been taken by artists such as Eric Great-rex who have scanned antique engravings, worked within their style sampling the texture and tonality of the 'original' and using it to historicise more contemporary additions . The finished image is printed out using an 'Iris" printer and heavy, rag, printmaking paper at Cone Editions Press, Vermont . The quality of the output is extremely convincing as all of the signs of age (like mottled paper) and original drawing method were transmitted through the process to the final print .

What has often happened to this neat model of the digital technology slotting in to the existing practice of printmaking is that its own development has shifted it from a technology who's reason for being was to assist existing practices to a technology which has increasingly spawned its own formal modes of communication (e.g. interactive-multimedia) and its own potential for cross disciplinary working . An obvious correlation to make here is a tracing of digital imaging's relationship to the print media and a gradual advent of publishing in a digital form on either C.D.Rom or 'online' form .