In Home Studios, Artists Turn High-Tech

No more inspired than Rembrandt's paintbrush, computers, nevertheless, are useful tools

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When artist Richard Lewis decided to ``go digital'' last month, he packed away his palette, his brushes, and his oils. In their place, he put a brand-new, high-speed computer.

Not all artists are quite so bold, but an increasing number of them are moving to computers. They are setting up the digital home studio in all kinds of new ways.

Melinda Camber Porter has set up a replica of her traveling exhibit, ``The Art of Love,'' on the Internet. Users with access to the Internet's graphical World-Wide Web can view her paintings, read the accompanying poetry, and, yes, even buy gifts in the gallery's virtual gift shop. (Web users log into http://adware. com/arts/blake gallery/welcome.htm.)

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``Five hundred people per day browse the `Art of Love' exhibition, and these are people across the world who are not going to be able to go to Miami or New Orleans,'' where her exhibit is touring, she says. ``My dream is to be able to reach people in whatever way I can.''

Ellary Eddy Schalit, an artist who works out of her barn in Chappaqua, N.Y., scans photographs and bits of old postcards into her computer. Then she uses her Macintosh to recolor and resize the images until the effect is just right. That image becomes her sketch, from which she paints large canvases in oils. ``Previously, I worked with my camera and sketches,'' she says. ``This just opens up a whole new set of possibilities.''

For one recent painting, called ``He Discovers the Afterlife,'' Ms. Schalit scanned in an image of green ginger-ale bottles, cropped it into squares, and recopied it, creating a kind of background tile for the work.

In contrast to Schalit, who starts digitally and ends up with an oil painting, freelance illustrator Caty Bartholomew goes the other way around. She starts with sketches and paints and then moves to the computer. ``It's a processing tool, kind of like a whirring mixer,'' she says.

In a recent illustration for Adweek magazine showing the impact of the so-called information highway on television, she scanned in a photo of a TV set and several paintings, including the popular comedian Jerry Seinfeld. Using photo-design software, she merged and manipulated the images to her liking. The software allows far more complex effects than a collage, she says. ``You can make a seamless whole.''

These artists are the leading edge of a growing movement. ``Everybody is sort of finding their way as to how their computer is going to be helpful,'' says Stewart McBride, president of United Digital Artists based in New York. ``The thing that makes all this possible is that the cost ... of computers has come down so much and so rapidly that now you don't need a supercomputer in your garage to create fine digital art.''

Instead, artists use desktop computers, mostly Macintosh machines. Among other things, Mr. McBride's two-year-old agency trains artists how to use computers. The agency already represents more than 400 artists who are creating digital and interactive works. Even photographers are giving up their darkrooms and going completely digital, says Judith Yourman, an art professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., who has had her own digital art studio at home since 1991.

If the current generation of professionals is moving toward digital art, the next generation is already there. ``I'm teaching classes in it,'' says Mr. Lewis, studio art coordinator for Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., ``but we're really learning together.''

The software available in this niche is plentiful and increasingly sophisticated. Fractal Design's Painter 3, for example, allows users to produce synthetic light, twist images a la Dali, or use the brush strokes of Van Gogh. At the end of a watercolor session, the software asks if the paint should stay ``wet'', allowing an artist to continue smearing colors, or ``dry,'' letting an illustrator draw, for example, on top of the watercolor image.

Other popular software titles include Adobe's Photoshop 3.0 (an imaging program), Kai's Power Tools from HSC Software (special effects), Adobe Illustrator 5.5 (a drawing tool), Quark Xpress 3.3 (desktop publishing), and Macromedia Director 4.0 (which mixes text, graphics, animation, sound, and video). One other useful computer tool: Modems allow artists to send their work across the country nearly instantaneously.

THERE are drawbacks to the move into computers, these artists warn. One is that the equipment is expensive, far more so than the paint and canvas of traditional artists. Some painters and illustrators just buy a computer. When they need to print something out, they put their artwork on a computer disk and take it to an art school or service bureau equipped with a high-quality printer.

Ms. Bartholomew even scans in her images at school and then brings them back to her computer on SyQuest removable cartridges (a kind of giant-sized floppy disk).

The other problem is that the digital medium is so easy to use that many people may turn out art that really isn't any good. ``People get giddy with the infinite possibilities of recombinant images,'' Schalit says. ``It becomes empty somehow.''

Adds McBride: ``The computer is no more inspired than Rembrandt's paintbrush.... A lot of new artists think that the tool is going to create something for them.''

What really counts is the artist's vision and talent, he says.

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