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There’s no such thing as computer generated art

[Originally published April 27, 2014]

It’s an entirely misleading term, computer generated art. Digital art, or even just art would be more accurate in most cases.

Computer generated art conjures an image of someone sitting back with their arms folded watching while a computer auto-generates a painting. This couldn’t be further from the truth for most artists working digitally. It’s certainly not true for my digital paintings and illustrations. It’s like saying that my oil on canvas paintings are “canvas-generated”.

Admittedly, there are “artists” who use their computers to scan photos and then apply canned filters in Photoshop to add a watercolor effect, or something similar. I would agree that for the most part, I would not call that “artist-generated art”, because anyone with a computer and Photoshop can manipulate an image and call themselves an artist. The fact that I can drive a nail with a hammer doesn’t make me a carpenter. Carpentry takes skill, a whole lot of practice, and an aptitude for carpentry. The same is true of art. It takes skill, practice, a sense of design… practice, and more practice.

Two examples of digital artwork (not computer generated art) I have done using my Mac are Red Planet and Cosi fan tutte.

Red Planet

Red Planet

Cosi fan Tutte

Cosi fan Tutte

Neither of these pieces is “computer generated”. Both pieces started as a series of conceptual pencil sketches on paper. The final sketches were refined, scanned and placed on a white background in Photoshop. This is akin to transferring a rough sketch to a blank canvas. Same process, different tools.

The Red Planet painting (done for Full Cast Audio) was completed entirely on my Mac using a scanned pencil sketch as a starting point. Color was blocked in using Adobe Photoshop and Corel Painter, a graphics tablet (Wacom) and stylus. In about 30 hours, using brushes of various sizes and types that mimic traditional tools, I refined the image until I was satisfied with the painting.

Cosi fan tutte also started out as a lot of conceptual pencil sketches to work out the idea and composition. The final sketch was the basis for the final art. For this piece, I used Photoshop to create the patterns and textures which were used on the cups, tablecloth, napkin, pecans, etc. I used 3D modeling software (Strata3D) to build a scene containing the props (cups and saucers, bowl, glass, etc.) a camera and several primary and fill lights. This is precisely the same method that a photographer would use to set up a still life in a photo studio—except that the photographer doesn’t have to build all of the pieces of the still life from scratch— and then create all of the colors, patterns and textures that go on those elements—and then work out the physical and surface properties of all of the elements, such as gloss, reflectivity, texture, transparency, translucency, iridescence, gravity… Some might glance at this image and pass it off as “computer generated”. If they sat with me during the 40 or so hours that it took to create the image, they’d have a much better appreciation for it.

So why not just use paint?

One big reason is that these images go to print, and having them already in digital format greatly simplifies the process, removing the need to scan, retouch and color-balance a physical painting. It also eliminates any color shift that process may introduce to the artwork. Also, it’s an efficient (and fun) way to work. Working traditionally does not afford the on-the-fly ability to move or re-scale an element, globally change colors, expand the background … any number of time saving (and image improving) methods that are invaluable on the tight deadline that is always part of a commercial project. In the case of the cose fan tutte piece, I would have to have (make) the props in the scene and photograph them, or do an ultra-photorealistic panting, which is not something I do.

My computer is just another tool. Period. If anything, it makes me more creative because it allows me to explore more possibilities in less time, because I don’t have to wait for paint to dry, or substitute another color because I’ve run out of cadmium red, or spend 3 hours repainting a sky from cerulean blue to cobalt.

There was a time when watercolors were considered a medium for children or amateurs. Dürer, Eakins and Wyeth might disagree. –J. Russell

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1987 State Route 31
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