Book excerpt by JD Jarvis

Going Digital:
The Practice and Vision of Digital Artists

by Joseph Nalven and JD Jarvis
Published by Thomson Course Technology July, 2005. ISBN #1-59200-918-2

Where is digital art in 2005? In this new book artists and critics Joe Nalven and JD Jarvis tell us just that. They corralled seventeen distinguished practitioners of the art, each working from the same three "seed" images, to produce an original work of art while recording in image, screenshot and text the progress of their creation. What we have is a handsomely produced and illustrated book (with hundreds of images and screenshots in 400 plus pages) that proves a comprehensive study of digital art as it is practiced today. Each artist kept a kind of creative diary or report that records his or her progress over the course of the image creation, from first impressions of the seed images to the final work of art. Although this is mostly a how-to-do-it book, the authors cast a wide net over the history and theory of digital art and provide some thoughtful and useful insight into its current state.

The Velocity of Imagination
An excerpt by JD Jarvis

Digital painting does have its drawbacks. Most random effects that occur with natural media cannot be duplicated in digital media without hard work, attention to detail, and patience. For example, when one splatters paint across a canvas, the results are ultimately a random consequence of gravity, viscosity, and absorption, but the pattern is recognizable and somewhat predictable. Sprinkling salt on wet watercolor has identifiably different results than stippling paint with a toothbrush. These actions are random and happen automatically without much artistic effort or exertion of control, since control is, in the first place, what the artist is trying to relinquish or avoid by using these techniques. Painters have used these random procedures for hundreds of years to add spontaneity and looseness, as well as surprise, to their work.

In the mid í70s, another seminal moment in the development of digital image making occurred when mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot brought to attention what he called "Fractal Geometry." Mandelbrot, who had been working on modeling the fluctuations in cotton futures, was able to show how these infinitely repeatable mathematical forms occur in what was often considered random or free-flowing structures within nature. While working at IBM's Watson Research Center, he had developed some of the first computer programs to print graphics. He used these facilities to demonstrate how his fractal geometry could describe complex natural forms, such as cloud formations, the distribution of leaves and twigs on a tree, the shape of a coastline, or the infinitely self-iterating form of a seashell. In combination, fractal mathematics and digital computing brought a new kind of image to art making. Patently beautiful and seductive, fractal images seem to display the math of the infinite. But beyond this distinctive imagery, fractal algorithms have come to direct the behavior of many of the filters and other image-manipulating subprograms that digital artists regularly employ to generate special visual effects that are then integrated into their artwork. Fractal geometry has made it possible for artists to model their own photorealistic landscapes, architecture, and environments in a virtual three-dimensional space.

In the case of digital painting, filters and fractal generators perform algorithmic image distortions or apply pixels in patterns that provide the sort of random, yet predictable, results analogous to traditional randomized painting techniques. By exploring and piling action upon action, the digital artist can guide the imaging system to present unexpected and beautiful results. As with splattered paint, the resulting forms can suggest meaning to the artist's imagination as well as suggest new directions to the developing composition. As the artist works back and forth between steering the process and relinquishing control to the caprices of the tools, a symbiotic dance is performed and nurtured between maker and what is being made. This visual "jam session" gives rise to imagery that the artist could not have imagined without the spontaneous interface between the artistís psyche, his or her hand, and the work as it evolves in the moment.

Digital technology facilitates and expands the bond between human artist and emerging work. This is due mainly to the speed with which the technology can respond and display the results of what a moment ago was only contained in one's mind. Making digital art in this fashion is very much like having a conversation with something perceived to be infinitely deep and yet intimately personal. The computer supplies the depth of infinite visual variety and possibility while the human mind supplies the imagination, warmth, and the connection to meaning. Many digital artists express the exhilaration of having a tool that works as fast as their imagination.

Digital art has much in common and shares many links with traditional art making. As with any artistic tool, such as a brush or a camera, digital imaging systems can be utilized for expressing any variety of artistic styles or personal statements. Between the 50s and 80s, Pop Art emerged and flourished as a stylistic art movement during a time when many of the major developments in digital computing were being made. Only a few Pop artists made limited use of digital computing, but, as an art movement, Pop Art laid some important groundwork for digital art to follow into the galleries and museums. Pop introduced and made acceptable what had been considered commercial processes, tools, and materials for the creation of fine art. Pop Art reflected on mass media and the immediate culture that formed around it, using that media conceptually and materially in the production of work. Computers, by the same token, are now used pervasively in all sorts of commercial creative endeavors and are themselves a current cultural phenomenon as well as a means of commenting on that phenomenon. Making art digitally is a perfect conceptual fit for most aspects of the Pop aesthetic. And yet, digital art is not Pop Art. Digital art has a much broader scope.

Aesthetics form around both tools and vision. There are aesthetics for the broad field of painting, and there are aesthetics for particular art movements, such as Surrealism or Pop Art. "Digital" is both an all-encompassing set of tools and an emerging cultural aesthetic. It can be many things to many people. So, what is it, really?

JD Jarvis is MOCA's contributing editor.
JD Jarvis website

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