Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 135 / NOVEMBER 1991 / PAGE 16

The new renaissance: the computer in fine art. (computer graphics art)
by Lee Noel Jr.

A striking vision is poised in the artist's mind, ready to amaze the world. What tools will the artist use to bring this vision to reality? Increasingly, artists are turning to the personal computer and workstation as tools for producing fine art.

This fact shouldn't be surprising. Art and technology have walked hand in hand through most of human history. It isn't unusual for an artist to be using--or even developing--cutting-edge technology. To understand this, you must know something about the history of art and artists. Let's take a brief trip back in time.

It's now fairly clear that humankind began producing art as soon as it realized it could. You might even say that art produced humankind. Art is the uniquely human ability to synthesize the outer, real world and the inner world of thought and emotion into meaningful works. It might have been the ability and the need to express such things that led mankind away from its primitive roots.

Among the earliest preserved pieces of art we know about are the 20,000-year-old cave paintings of France and Spain. Many scholars think these had religious purposes. Highly realistic and beautifully executed, these cave paintings indicate that the artists who created them already had a well-established artistic tradition. Creating the paints for these renderings must have been the result of much experimentation and study--the rudiments of chemistry.

Moving ahead a few centuries, the Sumerians developed the first written language as a derivation of artistic drawings used in commerce. Another Sumerian example of art driving technology was when the potter's wheel took a 90-degree turn and became a chariot wheel.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) created prophetic designs of flying machines and other undreamed-of marvels. Michaelangelo (1475-1564) was a master architect, responsible for the design of the dome of St. Peter's in Rome. Extraordinary, these men were not at all unique among artists. Artistic projects from prehistoric times to our own have required precise observational skills coupled with a systematic approach to solving problems. Since artists were among the first regular practitioners of scientific methods, it's not surprising that many of their discoveries had technological ramifications.

For Art's Sake

If solving problems is the artist's stock in trade, it should be no surprise that artists would turn to the computer--the most multitalented problem-solving device since the human brain.

A computer is a single device that is paint, brush, and canvas. Modern VGA monitors can display millions of colors, supposedly more than the eye can perceive. Perfect gradations from one color to another are a snap for these machines. Over the years, artists have developed an automated paint box with a range of abilities from drawing perfectly straight lines of any thickness to rapidly painting the inside of a closed figure with an intricate repeating pattern.

Computers can also simulate imperfection. There are computer tools that render the variable weights of calligraphic pen or brush strokes. Through fractal programs, computers have painted everything from fractured planetary surfaces to gnarled vegetable life forms. You can even find clip art of irregular stone surfaces for use in desktop publishing projects.

Preparing the Canvas

When it comes to three-dimensional work, CAD (Computer-Aided Design) applications can aid in the development of sculpture. And CAM (Computer-Aided Manufacturing) computers can directly create 3-D objects. Some are used to drive milling machines that can carve out parts of structures with incredible precision. There are even a couple of prototyping devices that will fit on a large desktop, in which the computer directly forms an object from liquid wax or plastic.

The computer is an electronic matrix embedded with modules of human thought. Putting the right modules in the right machine can result in producing virtually anything that can be thought of. An artistic feast.

New Ideas: Traditional Resistance

In fact, there has been resistance to the use of the computer in art from both the public and a certain portion of the art community itself. Some artists have an instinctive disdain for technology of any kind--some still argue that photography is not an art form.

This resistance is particularly odd, considering the fact that much of modern abstract art seems to have presaged computer art. With their geometric forms, many of the works of Klee, Kandinsky, Duchamp, Mondrian, or the cubists might have been created through the use of a computer.

The Soul of the Machine

Michael Gosney, whose VERBUM magazine has long been a beacon for computer art and aesthetics, is due to open an Electronic Art Gallery in New York soon. Exhibitors are likely to include some of our featured artists, as well as Amiga artists Sandra Filippucci and Roz Dimon and Macintosh wizards Barbara Nessim and Burt Monroy.

Silicon is the most common element in the earth's crust. With their reliance on silicon and the phosphors that glow on monitor screens, computer artists paint with the very bones of the earth. It would be difficult to think of a clear connection with the cavern galleries of the ancestral hunt painters. Great artists in every era use all the tools they can find. In the computer, artists find them all in one place.

In the Tradition of the Masters

Lillian Schwartz is the artist who used computers to analyze Leonardo's most famous painting. Commonly called the Mona Liza, this work has long been an enigma. Leonardo seemed to have a special regard for the picture. He never sold it.

Now the mystery is uncovered. According to the Schwartz's analysis, the Mona Lisa is actually an image of Leonardo da Vinci himself.

Much of Schwartz's corroborating evidence, wrought from rigorous analysis of facial structure, followed an instant of discovery on the computer screen. While testing a new program with one of her colleagues at the AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, she slid a digitized image of half the Mona Lisa's face alongside a similar section of da Vinci's only known self-portrait. The result: virtually a perfect match.

Schwartz was not only a pioneer in using the computer to analyze other artists' work, but she was also among the first to use it in creating her own artistic efforts. Her recent book, The Computer Artist's Handbook, written in collaboration with her son, Laurens, is replete with examples. From an early effort in computer-controlled kinetic (moving) sculpture at the 1964 New York World's Fair to her current paintings, her career encapsulates the history of computer art.

Her interest in the computer followed a decades-long career in art. With her background in Western European tradition art and exposure to Japanese calligraphy (undertaken as therapy to break the grip of polio-induced paralysis), Schwartz has built her electronic work on a rock-solid foundation.

Lillian Schwartz says, "What's wonderful about the computer is that you're creating your own medium."

Computer as Chisel

Viewer as Stone

Sculptor George Shortess is a longtime subscriber of COMPUTE. Indeed, he still sometimes uses the Commodore VIC-20, an early mainstay of this magazine, in his work. Shortess is both a professor of perceptual psychology and an adjunct professor of art at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. He prizes the freedom Lehigh gives him to mix disciplines and considers it a factor in the advancement of his art.

Shortess's sculpture, based on traditional art training and including familiar 3-D elements, has won wide recognition. He doesn't stop, however, with merely creating an intrusion into three-dimensional space. He uses computers to enhance the viewer's perception of the piece--and to highlight perception in general.

Mayfair Network is a Shortess sculpture you walk through. Its framework is a living willow tree. An array of photocells responds to your location, sending signals to a computer, which triggers assorted sounds.

This is not a typical art museum experience, but Shortess says he must show most of his work indoors to protect the electronic components and few galleries show computer art regularly. Happily, he does find exceptions.

In his interactive book, What Is (shown in Canada and at ARts Electronica in Austria), a desktop PC system runs a complex program that scans a photocell array and generates interrogative screen displays. The viewer responds by typing and by changing the ligh levels on the photocells. Once the process is completed, the sculpture prepares, prints, and delivers a personalized page to the viewer.

Since Shortess's sculpture is not tied to any particular display system, processor, or other device, he uses any coputer that seems appropriate for a given project. That's why he is still actively using VIC-20s. He's also used samplers, sequences, and desktop PCs. As always in art, part of mastery is the judicious selection of tools.

Some people don't reach positively to Shortess's work. Some don't see it as art at all, and other question the use of a computer--and especially this use--because sculpture should be separate form the beholder.

"We're still exploring the potential of the computer, and it's not clear what the best way to use a computer is at this point," Shortess work is serious. But the intent of Shortess's work is serious. He's extending the definition of sculpture into a mysterious territory. He won't allow the viewer to be passive. Instead, the perceiver becomes a participant; the sculpture becomes a process rather than an object.

With Mouse and Macaw

Art is not just the domain of the traditionaly trained or widely accepted. Entirely self-taught, Ed Stephens, at 25, is the youngest and least prominent of our artists. Like the others, however, he is well versed in traditional media, having painted both in oils and in acrylics.

The road to artistic fulfillment and success is always a difficult one, but Stephens has additional impediments. A diving accident in the 11th grade left Stephens a quadriplegic. With a considerable range of movement in one hand, however, he can handle a mouse comfortably. It's important to keep in mind that the tough-natured Stephens has, like all the other artists featured here, adopted the computer because it suits his artistic temperament. It may be a self-contained studio, but it's merely his current tool of choice. His handicaps are another matter entirely.

As in the case of Joni Carter (see next section), Stephens has, for the time being, fairly well settled on a choice of hardware platform. All the images shown here were created on a 20-MHz 386 PC using ColoRIX VGA Paint software in 256 (8-bit) VGA mode. This relatively new art program has enabled Stephens to explore his love of animals with few restrictions. He has a special affection for birds and will admit with a little prompting that he'd be happy to see an "autofeather" tool built into the program.

Working from photographs and rendering his images entirely freehand, Stephens achieves a high degree of realism even with limited palette and resolution. He is forced to render images by intermixing pixels of a few basic colors in areas where other colors are needed. He describes the process as "just sitting down, editing pixel-by-pixel to get the gradations."

Stephen's pictures contain echoes of nineteenth-century French artist Henri Rousseau. Vibrant, even violent, jungle colors are a hallmark of Rousseau's work, as they are in Stephens's.

Even though he dropped out of high school after his accident, Stephens has proved himself in many ways the master of the computer. He explains it simply: "I've always painted and sketched, and it just makes sense that I'd start doing art with the computer. That's mainly why I got interested in it." In addition to his computer-based artistic endeavors, Stephens works as a PC specialist at a major bottled-water producer in California, where he keeps a macaw at the office.

An Explosion of Talent and Energy

Here's a paradox: Joni Carter has achieved many firsts or near firsts in her wildly successful 16-year career as a computer artist, yet in 1975 when she started painting in her late 20s, she'd never touched a brush before.

Her first pictures reflected her love of sports. She made rapid progress, selling everything she painted, almost always on a sports theme. Although she did not have a conventional art education, she spent the next few years working intensively in the most traditional of media--paint, brush, and canvas.

In the early 1980s she heard about art on computers and moved decisively to adopt the new medium. Once she'd achieved mastery, she found a great advantage in the environment. She could take a computer on the road and set it up at the sites of the sports events she wanted to portray. With marketing savvy to match her artistic flair, she began to appear on television, producing live art on the computer that matched the compelling immediacy of the events taking place on the course, field, or racetrack behind her.

"After my first brush with technology, I never went back to the conventional method," she says. Something must have clicked because the business grew so fast that she soon had her whole family, including her mother, father, and sister Kate, working with her.

Recently, Carter created a set of commemorative Olympic track and field stamps, released by the U.S. Postal Service in the tens of millions. She is among the first women ever commissioned to paint stamps, and she is the first artist ever to create a series of stamps entirely on computer.

In the process of creating the stamps, Carter has invented a new twin-computer, mobile art studio. Running paired IBM PS/2s, she's developed an ingenious working method. One computer acts as a video controller. This is her "model." She uses it to zero in on a desired frame of sports videotape, which is then blown up and used as the basis for the sketching and painting she does on the other machine. There, she has 24-bit paint software called Lumena that enables her to create images of the highest quality. Of course, since the images are computer based, they're easy to resize and recolor--a process the postal service had her go through again and again in the making of the stamps.

Carter sticks to a fairly settled hardware/software mix for lengthy periods of time. And she's unstinting in her praise for and devotion to IBM. That very first computer she took on the road was a genuine IBM AT. She believes that this machine's reliability was a major factor in making her touring art show a success.

She's also adamant that new computer art possibilities will open vast numbers of careers. Carter's own career is an example without parallel. As she puts it, "I want artists out there to know that there's this huge chance now that hasn't been there $(before$)."

Ambassador of Light and Space

Now in his late 30s, David Em creates works that glow with the emotional power and technical mastery of the mature artist in his prime. He is also gifted with a unique perspective and philosophy on his place in the brief history of computer art, and on art in general.

In the mid 1970s and early 1980s, Em's works were among the most frequently seen computer art images. He was working with Dr. James Blinn at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. Blinn was the pilot who created software spaceships that gave us highly realistic simulated views of the planets being surveyed by space probes like Voyager and the Viking Mars lander. Blinn's programs and JPL's success became Em's studio and inspiration. Not surprisingly, Em's work from that phase has something of a science fiction flavor.

In a typical picture of the period, structures rise from a vast plain unfolding under the watchful eye of a satellite. For all their power to strike awe and wonderment into viewers, images from this period may seem a little cold, almost as if the vacuum of space is insulating the observer from direct contact.

Although he occasionally refreshes himself through refuge in traditional painting or plastic sculpture, Em has always returned to the computer.

He's pleased that things are moving "to a hardware-independent zone." Although the time at JPL gave Em access to the leading technology in the world, he's happier to be a little behind the leading edge, concentrating on his art rather than the tools used to produce it. He works with a number of systems and programs but is quite impressed with Adobe's PhotoShop for the Macintosh, finding the finish of commercial software a welcome change from fighting with undocumented experimental programs and devices.

As for the question of whether the computer is an appropriate tool for art, his viewpoint is straightforward. "The device is an extension of sensibility, so . . . whether it's a medium or not has always seemed a nonissue."

Em is modest about his achievement. As he puts it, "We're all standing on the shoulders of people who were really putting it on the line." He says that children growing up today with ready access to powerful computers with high resolution graphics have enormous potential. "Now is when we're really going to see the Leonardos and the Michealgelos come out."