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Painting the Digital River: How an Artist Learned to Love the Computer

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Painting the Digital River: How an Artist Learned to Love the Computer


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The first book to explore for a general audience the relationship between traditional visual art and digital art

Written in a graceful, literate style, free of both artworld and computer jargon

Will appeal to anyone interested in either traditional or digital art

The author, in addition to being an artist, is also an art critic, editor, and teacher


  • Copyright 2006
  • Dimensions: 6x9
  • Pages: 352
  • Edition: 1st
  • Book
  • ISBN-10: 0-13-173902-6
  • ISBN-13: 978-0-13-173902-4

"This book is as much about painting as it is about the digital world. But beyond both it's really about visual intelligence. What makes it a joy to read is the lovely match between Faure Walker's subject and his style of writing: apparently artless, just making itself up as it goes along, but actually always with a witty spring, and never slack."

-- MATTHEW COLLINGS, artist, critic, author, and television host

"As a painter himself, James Faure Walker opens up a provocative dialogue between painting and digital computing that is essential reading for all painters interested in new technologies."

-- IRVING SANDLER, author, critic, and art historian

"Faure Walker has a distinguished background as both a painter and digital artist. He is an early adopter of digital technology in this regard, so has lived the history of the ever-accelerating embrace of the digital. On top of this, he is a good storyteller and a clear writer who avoids the pitfalls of pretentious art-world jargon."

-- LANE HALL, digital artist and professor

"Using a wide stream of fresh water as a metaphor, Faure Walker depicts a flow of ideas, concepts, and solutions that result in digital art. All the core elements of an art-style-in-making are here: ties with mainstream and traditional art, stages of technological progress, and reflections on the bright and varied personalities of digital artists. With a personal approach, Faure Walker presents vibrant, exciting, emotionally overpowering art works and describes them with empathy and imagination. This entertaining, sensitive, and observant book itself flows like a river."

-- ANNA URSYN, digital artist and professor

"Something like this book is overdue. I am not aware of any comparable work. Lots of 'how to do,' but nothing raising so many interesting and critical questions."

-- HANS DEHLINGER, digital artist and professor

"Here is the intimate narrative of a passionate yet skeptical explorer who unflinchingly records his artistic discoveries and personal reflections. Faure Walker's decades of experience as a practicing painter, art critic, and educator shine through on every page. The book is an essential resource for anyone interested in digital visual culture."

-- ANNE MORGAN SPALTER, digital artist, author, and visual computing researcher

This book is about art, written from an artist's point of view. It also is about computers, written from the perspective of a painter who uses them. Painting the Digital River is James Faure Walker's personal odyssey from the traditional art scene to fresh horizons, from hand to digital painting--and sometimes back again. It is a literate and witty attempt to make sense of the introduction of computer tools into the creation of art, to understand the issues and the fuss, to appreciate the people involved and the work they produce, to know the promise of the new media, as well as the risks. Following his own winding path, Faure Walker tells of learning to paint with the computer, of misunderstandings across the art and science divide, of software limitations, of conversations between the mainstream and digital art worlds, of emerging genres of digital painting, of the medieval digital, of a different role for drawing. As a painter and computer enthusiast, the author recognizes the marvels of digital paint as well as anyone. But he also challenges the assumption that digital somehow means different. The questions he raises matter to artists of every background, style, and disposition, and the answers should reward anyone seeking insight into contemporary art.

Sample Content

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations xiii

Preface xv

Acknowledgments xxi

Chapter 1: The Mud of the River 1

Dipping into the Digital River 1

Through the Studio Window 4

Charts 9

Pre and Post 11

Good-Bye Futurism 18

Floating 22

Chapter 2: A Bend in the River 25

Beginners 25

Learning How to Move 27

Another Admirable Invention 30

The Road to Extinction? 32

Blinking, Thinking 33

Too Quiet 37

Being on Both Sides 44

Chapter 3: Big Pixels, Small Minds 49

Strange Country 49

Public and Private Views 51

Small Minds 56

Hooked on Pixels 63

Hotel Pixel 69

Ghosts 74

Separate Streams 77

Crossing Points 81

Chapter 4: Gone Fishing 91

The Art of Art 91

Tools, Models, and Minds 98

The Patient Painter 103

The Amphibian 111

Machines and Intellects 118

Blurred Vision 121

Tricks of the Eye 125

Chapter 5: Slack Water 135

Gold Standard 135

Bricks and Definitions 140

Indecisive Taste 148

Special Knowledge 152

Prints and Originals 160

Better Boxes 166

Doing Without the Explanation 171

Chapter 6: Letting the Paint Know About Art 177

Demos and Egos 177

Not Judging the User 182

Reinventing the Palette 186

Novelty Paint 193

How Painters Think 199

Testing the Art as Art 204

Thinking Paint Program 206

Zen Paint 211

Chapter 7: Strange Plants 213

New Planet 213

Departure-Lounge Moments 216

Postcard from a Researcher 220

Carpets and Algorithms 226

Medieval Digital 233

Matter and Spirit 240

Mathematical Flowers 248

Random Flowers 254

Eco Artists 257

Chapter 8: The Silver Thread 269

Choosing the Course 269

Matching the Best 272

Drawing Redefined 278

From Prince to Peer 282

Choosing a Colour 288

Nature Speaks 292

Complex Waters 296

Notes 301

Index 307


Untitled Document

River Gods

Make friends of all the brooks in your neighbourhood, and study them ripple by ripple.1

Not so long ago only a handful of painters knew anything at all about computers. Now, like everyone else, there are few painters without a computer, a web site, and a cell phone. They know about Photoshop even if they do not use it. They know you can 'paint' through the computer. They know there is 'virtual' paint and 'real' paint. What they are less sure about is what all this means for the art of painting itself. What happens when painting goes digital? Something must be gained, but what is lost? Does painting switch over into another art form? Or does it falter on the edge, and somehow remain intact? Or - this is just a hunch - has it always been digital anyway?

It is enough to keep a painter like me in a state of panic, and in need of therapy, or at least something like a comfort blanket. It has all become so strange. That, I suppose, is a good excuse for writing an essay. I first got hooked on digital paint almost twenty years ago. The program was Dazzle Paint, and I was dazzled, not just by the colour I painted on the screen, but by the ideas set loose in my mind. Was I 'converted'? Did I become a digital painter? Yes and no. I blinked, but could not make up my mind. I still paint with both real and digital paint. Gradually, it occurred to me that this is quite an interesting place to be, half in the digital art world, half in the painting world. On one side I hear brave talk of the new media, of net art, interactive art, of highly energetic art forms poised to take over from 'traditional' painting; on the other side I hear - and see - painters thriving, absorbing what they need from the digital, toying with video, with photography, but in no mood to slink away. The paradox is that new technology has come up with the painting tools that renaissance artists dreamed of, yet old-style paints are still preferred by most leading artists. Amazing art is being made with no more than a pencil, a brush and some pigment. But here I go, rushing into the question of what is or isn't significant, advanced, retrograde, brilliant or dismal in art. That would be art criticism, hinting how painting, or digital painting, could flex its muscles in this new landscape. Actually, it is a great time to be a painter, and to be thinking about painting.

If I were to write an essay that was more a meditation than anything else, I needed an image to come back to as a symbol. Why the river? Some ten years ago I was at a private view of the sculptor Eduardo Chillida, and found myself talking with a fellow enthusiast for all things digital. He invited me to visit the small company he worked for, called the Zap Factor. For some reason he didn't show up at the office, but I did not mind waiting there. The office happened to be in an old warehouse on the Thames. In fact I knew this space and its fabulous views already, because since the seventies these warehouses, then semi-derelict, had been co-opted as artists` studios through an organisation called Space, started in 1968 by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgeley. (For the record, I have been in the same Space studio since 1971, and must be about their longest lasting tenant). I forget exactly what Zap Factor did, except it was pre-web, over optimistic, and was started by someone who was inspired by swimming with dolphins. I must have been staring at the grimy greys of the Thames gently ebbing for an hour while the office buzzed behind me, and I kept thinking about the absurdity of us humans scurrying around excited by our toys while the Thames just flowed on as it had done for centuries, unconcerned.

I kept thinking of Turner, and went back to my own studio and within a week had made a moody quite spare painting out of those same greys. Looking back, it epitomised the dilemma of any painter aware of the new 'paints' emerging in software, the dilemma of being part of this new cult at the same time as staying loyal to the old gods of painting. It was only much later that I realised that it also made sense to think of the 'stream' of images, messages that comes to us through TV, mobile phones, the internet, screens here there and everywhere as - metaphorically - a river. In other words, that this 'digital river' could itself be the subject, the phenomenon that a painter attempted to understand - I won't say represent. Turner was not only fascinated by water, waves, storms, but by speed, and was one of the few painters to depict a steam train in the first half of the nineteenth century. I wondered whether the painting would itself be made, so to speak, from this digital material, be itself part of the river.

Some years later when wondering how I could find a shape for my meandering thoughts I realised the river was just the right image. I recalled this episode. As a painter I am still ambivalent. Do I jump in and try and become part of this digital river? Or do I linger on the side watching it flow by? Rivers are fecund symbols: they change all the time, and remain the same; they divide territories, have bridges, provide frontier crossing points between old and new worlds; they have pure sources and muddy deltas, main currents and tributaries; from a plane they look like veins of silver threading their way round obstacles; they have secrets, histories, and invite journeys into the unknown. I should not overdo this symbolism, but this just might work out as an essay plan. Painting has always had some connection with water, either as the medium for pigment, or as a subject - lake, river, sea. The challenge of digital paint is whether painting can swap pigments for electronic colour and still be painting. Can it cross from the pre-digital to the post-digital? Or could this be quite the wrong way of thinking?

This is not a how-to-paint-digital book, nor a survey of a dozen 'digital masters', but a book about painting written from the inside, from the inside looking out. I may already have 'digital eyes'. Ruskin famously spoke not of teaching to draw, but of teaching to see . One of the side effects of using the new technology is that your eyes adjust to seeing in a different way, and - in my case - a whole period of medieval art becomes vivid and accessible. It looks digital. This also works in reverse. Professionals in computer graphics, even video game addicts, here and there turn to painting, they re-learn how to draw. They realise how drastically we underrate the sensitivity, the sheer intelligence of the human eye. I want to speak to the experts about the details of software. No, no, they say, painting is much more interesting.

I have arranged the essay into sections, and the sections roughly follow the river theme. I begin by posing the problem of how a painter copes with the blinding confidence of the 'high tech art' hypothesis. I recount some of my own difficulties in reconciling the solid ground of 'painting culture' and its history, its technical foundations, with the flux of the new thinking. I am tempted to say it is a shaggy orthodoxy under siege from born-again zealots, but that is not quite how it is. The new does not stay new forever. I have felt the pressure from both sides, have seen the 'establishment' entirely miss the point of painting with the computer; and have also seen the digital fraternity missing the point, or rather missing out on the pleasure of painting. There are then sections that are more about inaction than action, about how as an artist you fish for ideas, and one way or another learn to make something of them, and even the fastest computer only helps you so much. So there are limits, and when it comes to how you rate what you do, how you reflect critically, then again the software is not where you will find the answer. I allow myself to dream about how software might be different and more in tune with the way painters actually think, or don't think in some cases. Certainly the way you work, the tools you use shape the sources you look for. After this I sketch out some of the 'strange plants' up river, suggesting some elementary classifications for types of digital drawing, and digital painting. The final section returns to the initial questions. What are the fundamentals, the elements of digital painting? What should students study to become the artists of the future? Software principles as well as art history? Could it be drawing? Can painting remain painting, a blend of old and new?

My motivation throughout has been to throw some light on a subject that has been unfairly left out of the reckoning - why has so little been said about computers and painting? I hope it is a tolerable read for computer people, who will forgive my amateurish grasp of computer science; and I hope aesthetes will tolerate my lapses into techno-babble, and name-dropping conference anecdotes. It is also a book about uncertainty, little comfort for students, fellow artists and for friends of art who are expecting some weighty conclusions. I am trying to work out what I think, but in the process - on my river journey - the encounters make it less easy for me to settle down in one or other 'position'. I remain an agnostic. Perhaps that is the point of the metaphor: the river changes, and if it is the Thames it is tidal. It flows first this way, then that way. Whatever. If one or two artists stop complaining about the lack of essays on 'digital painting' with any awareness at all of 'the art scene' - of what makes painters tick, groupies crowd out art fairs, and critics scream in pleasure or pain - then I shall consider my mission half accomplished.

James Faure Walker

1. John Ruskin The Elements of Drawing, in Three Letters to Beginners, Smith, Elder & Co, London 1857. Preface p. 154.

2. E.g. I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at Nature that they may learn to draw. Op.cit. Preface p.xii. See also Rupert Shepherd http://www.oxfordtoday.ox.ac.uk/features/07.shtml and http://ruskin.oucs.ox.ac.uk/


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