The World Inside the Computer
Fred D'lgnazio, Associate Editor
Snowflakes, Quilts, And Stained Glass Windows
Recently I reviewed the new Amiga from Commodore on public TV's Educational Computing. Afterward, I hoped to have a few days to play with the machine before returning it. But I hadn't reckoned with my kids.
They were hooked on the Amiga's mouse, windows, and brilliant colors the first time I turned on the computer. They played with it constantly. The only time I got on the machine was after their bedtime.
My children's favorite program was Electronic Arts' Deluxe Paint. It is the most spectacular microcomputer paint program I have ever seen. With its animated, cycling colors and its dozens of drawing and painting tools, it even surpasses the MacPaint program on the Macintosh. It is so seductive and so much fun to use that it qualifies as "computer popcorn" (see my column on "Computer Popcorn," COMPUTE!, January 1984). Once you start using it, it's almost impossible to stop.
Like my children, I quickly fell in love with the program. But I still had a nagging doubt. Computer popcorn is scrumptious. But is it also nutritious? How could my children and I use the program to feed our minds and imaginations? Could the program teach us to be artists?
Just A Doodler
So many computer art programs are of the easy-draw variety, like easy-cook microwave ovens and easy-play organs. They get you started drawing, playing, and having fun in no time at all. Then, bonk!, you bump into the limitations of your own skills, abilities, and imagination. You've become a super doodler, but you aren't any closer to making professional drawings, pictures, or art. That's because creativity programs, in general, are tools, not teachers. They are enormously enticing tools, but they can never replace a certain amount of training or skill.
Like many people whose artistic aspirations far exceed their abilities, I found this situation extremely frustrating. And I wondered how my children could acquire the skills to use this program properly. I couldn't teach them the skills, and neither could the program.
Then, suddenly, a solution appeared. One night my six-year-old son Eric was scribbling away on the Amiga with Deluxe Paint. "Do you like my picture?" he said, turning toward us. My wife and I looked up. We were astounded. From across the room, Eric's glowing picture resembled a stained-glass window. It could have adorned a medieval cathedral. It was beautiful!
Later, as I was falling asleep, I realized Eric had helped me stumble onto a way out of my dilemma. What we needed were images— images drawn from the real world and from works of art. We could study these images, copy them, and use them as inspiration to build new pictures of our own.
The Butterfly Maiden
The next day I went to the local library and checked out books on embroidery, quilting, needlepoint, and nature. The books were filled with images—colorful pictures of the diverse designs and patterns that man and nature can devise. These were to be our teachers.
When I showed these images to my children, I concentrated on patterns and shapes that were symmetrical and geometric. Eric and my daughter Catie could draw these images effortlessly with the tools in Deluxe Paint. Catie especially liked the totem-pole faces on blankets woven by the Chilkat Indians of the Pacific Northwest; the brilliant colors and intricate geometric patterns found in nineteenth-century American pieced quilts; and pictures of the Butterfly Maiden, a Hopi kachina doll from northeastern Arizona.
I liked a tapestry, Nightsun, by the German artist Dirk Holger. Eric liked the Resurrection angels, saints, and serpents he found on stained-glass windows from South Africa, the French Loire, and Dublin, Ireland.
As we tried to copy these pictures, and those of Persian lions, helix-shelled snails, and the swirling atmosphere of Jupiter, we found that some images were easier to work with than others. Anything made with needlework, stitching, or embroidery was especially nice because the graph-paper patterns resembled pixels on the computer screen. Pure colors were easier than complex shadings and color blends. The blocky nature of many images was easy to reproduce on the computer, and big patterns made by endlessly repeating little patterns were easy to build using copy and paintbrush commands.
The next day, we went outdoors to look for images on our own. Our field trip turned up all sorts of new shapes: water spurting from the garden hose, wedding cakes at a local bakery, pine cones, and wildflowers. We carried many of these objects to the computer and tried copying their basic patterns. And at night we went back outdoors and looked up at the stars. When we grew cold, we came inside and drew dot-to-dot constellations.
We had found a solution to our problem. We had taken a first step toward becoming computer artists. And we did it by feeding our imagination fresh images, and by studying and copying these images to uncover their underlying patterns and designs.