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Serious Anomalies © Bruce Price
Bruce Price : What's all this talk about Digital?

What's all this talk about Digital?

By Bruce Price

First thing to know: digital is here for the long haul. It's big and will get bigger. And it's interesting, intrinsically interesting, even if you don't "digital" yourself.

Here's the micro version. For every tool we know in the real world — a ruler, a brush, a glob of paint — there's now a digital twin based on math and capable of infinite manipulation. The real or analog world is relatively static; things want to remain the way they are. In the digital world, as I often say: "The paint never dries." An image can be 3 by 4 inches or — in an instant — it can be 3 by 6 inches, or 18 by 99 inches. You can make the whole image redder or eliminate all the reds. You can place filters (a term from photography) over the image and make it look radically different. Etc. Etc. Etc.

So, you're wondering, what's the big good things and big bad things?

First, two bad things. In digital you give up the unique, hard-to-counterfeit object, e.g., real oil paint on real canvas that the artist actually touched. Consider photographs and lithographs, the world of multiple copies — digital is part of that world. Many artists don't number their prints; I've settled on editions of 10 as a compromise (there's some scarcity but I don't have to charge much for the first numbers). A few artists paint on the digital print and call the result mixed media. Then you are back to the unique object but it won't have the permanence of oil or some other media.

Dark Angel © Bruce PriceAnother bad thing is that computers are so powerful and perform so many neat tricks so quickly, people get two wrong impressions: the machine is making the art; and any child can do it. Everybody knows that word processors won't write a word for you — they merely let you reformat your manuscript in lots of ways. A computer used for art is basically an image processor — and lets you reformat an image in many different ways. The best analogy is with a digital keyboard. There's a lot of tricks in that thing, and the cost might be only $100. But if you're not a musician, you won't get music out of it. Ditto with an image processor. As always, artists make art, and digital won't change that.

Here's some good things. Computers are fast; you can try lots of ideas quickly. It's like having a dozen eager assistants, mixing paints, priming canvas, painting backgrounds. Second, digital can do tricks that have no equivalent in the analog world. And digital is very clean. Personally, I love working with sprays and dangerous chemicals; but you need a lot of space and a good exhaust system. With digital you need a big desk.

Here's the main caveat I would throw up to people thinking about digital. Are you comfortable with machines? I've always loved science, technology and machinery. So it was easy for me — a lifelong fine artist and experimental artist — to segue into digital. But if you hate machines, forget digital. If you prefer a brush in the hand and real paints on a palette, ignore digital.

Going ahead anyway? Here's the main advice I would give. Start with a small program or the beginner's version of a famous program (such as Photoshop Elements 3). Play with the software. Max it out.

To close, I'll mention the most surprising thing about digital. To people on the outside it's a weird new art form. But people in the field know it's already a huge sprawling frontier with dozens of outposts, many of which don't speak to each other. There's photo manipulation, conceptual art, programming art, installations, video, computer-generated art (where the goal is to announce the computer's role), and several other varieties.

My theory (not widely accepted) is that the future of digital art is fine art as traditionally defined. My work is aimed at exploring what that can look like. I see that my work is becoming more "painterly" but I don't want to replicate oil painting — what's the point? I want to create new kinds of beauty that can be made only with a computer. •

© Bruce Price 2005. All rights reserved.

Bruce Deitrick Price is an author, artist, poet, and education activist. More »

2/14/05