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

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9780131739024: Painting the Digital River: How an Artist Learned to Love the Computer

"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.



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About the Author:

James Faure Walker studied painting at St. Martin's School of Art and aesthetics at the Royal College of Art, and began exhibiting his work more than thirty years ago. In the 1980s, he was among an early wave of painters who took to using computers in their studios. His recent credits include solo shows in Berlin and London, seven appearances in the ACM SIGGRAPH Art Gallery, and works in the John Moores Painting Competition, the New York Digital Salon, the DAM Gallery Berlin, and the Bloomberg Space "1979" Exhibition. A founder and longtime editor of Artscribe, Faure Walker's writings on art have also been published in Studio International, Modern Painters, Computer Generated Imaging, Wired, and Art Review, as well as in catalogues for the Tate, the Barbican, and SIGGRAPH. In 1998, he won the Golden Plotter prize at Computerkunst in Germany, and in 2002 he was awarded a Senior Research Fellowship by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the U.K. He is currently a research fellow at the University of the Arts, Camberwell, London.



Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

River Gods

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

--John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing

Not so long ago only a handful of painters knew anything at all about computers. Now, like everyone else, most painters have 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 a book. I first got hooked on digital paint in the mid-1980s. The program was Dazzle Draw, and I was dazzled, not just by the color 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, of 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 1970s these warehouses, then semiderelict, 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 its longest-lasting tenant). I forget exactly what Zap Factor did, except that it was pre-Web, overoptimistic, and started by someone inspired by swimming with dolphins. I must have been staring for an hour at the grimy greys of the Thames as it gently ebbed 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. Within a week, I had made a moody, quite spare painting out of those same greys. Looking back, I believe that my experience epitomised the dilemma of any painter aware of the new "paints" emerging in software, the dilemma of being part of this new cult while at the same time 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 come to us through TV, mobile phones, the Internet, screens here there and everywhere as--metaphorically--a river. In other words, this digital river could itself be the subject, the phenomenon, that a painter attempted to understand--I won't say "represent." Turner was fascinated not only by water, waves, and storms, but also by speed, and was one of the few painters in the first half of the nineteenth century to depict a steam train. I speculated about the type of painting that should be made, whether it should itself be made from this digital substance, 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 to 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 and 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 predigital to the postdigital? Or could this be quite the wrong way of thinking?

This is neither 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.1 One side effect 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 relearn 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 book into sections, which 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 the "painting culture," its history, and its technical foundations with the flux of the new thinking. I am tempted to say that the existing conventions of painting amount to a shaggy orthodoxy, and this orthodoxy is 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. In later pages of this book, I have included 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 how 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 and the tools you use shape the sources you look for. After this I sketch out some of the "strange plants" upriver, 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 technobabble and my -name-dropping conference anecdotes. It is also a book about uncertainty, little comfort for students, fellow artists, and 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
September 2005
j.faure-walker@camberwell.arts.ac.uk
www.dam.org/faure-walker



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Walker, James Faure
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James Faure Walker
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