Really real?

Fence Cat, step 2: closeupI love to do arts and crafts.  I draw and do photography, but also collage, tole painting, calligraphy, and even on occasion make lamps or quilts.  In the last three years or so, however, more and more of my work has been digitally created.  I’ll go into the reasons why in a minute, but first I want to talk about something I noticed recently: when people compliment my work and ask how I did it, they almost invariably seem disappointed when I say that it’s drawn or painted digitally.

It reminds me of the look you get on someone’s face when they praise the cake you brought to the party, and you tell them it’s from a box mix — or Costco.  Somehow, most people reevaluate downward their appreciation of the image; it’s like I’ve cheated them.  Often, they’ll say something like: “Oh, my friend X does the real thing, you know, with paint.”

It irks me a little, of course, but mostly it fascinates me.  I’ve been delighted by the possibilities offered by computer software, often free and open-source or at least really inexpensive, and drawing apps on tablets and smartphones.  I like the idea that more people can dare to do art without the intimidating factor or expense of a lot of material.  I want everyone to have access to art and creative activities with no pressure to produce anything serious, just for love of the thing itself.

Of course I recognize the kinaesthetic quality of physical media — paper, canvas, pastels, charcoal, paints — I know their feel and smell and often sensuous texture, both during the work and as part of the finished piece.  But here are some advantages to working digitally:

  • My paints are never dry and I never run out of the colour I need.
  • I don’t need to spend time preparing my work area beforehand or cleaning it up afterwards; if all I have is ten minutes, then I can take ten minutes and actually accomplish something.
  • The ability to save multiple copies and work on separate layers means I never screw up my pencil work with a spill at the inking stage.
  • I can easily try the same image with several different brush styles (“watercolour”, “pastel”, “oil”, “chalk”, etc.) and compare the results.
  • I can also mix many different virtual brush styles that would be very difficult to combine successfully with physical media.  (Try adding ink on top of oil pastel, for example.)
  • I can change the background “paper” colour and texture and see what effect I like best.
  • My canvas is infinite, I can’t paint myself into a corner.
  • I can try and undo, try and undo, until I get a new technique or a brush stroke just right.
  • I can try techniques that I knew nothing about and learn through experiment without wasting a lot of material or ruining my drawing.

I recognize that working with physical media requires more discipline, and that it produces certain results I can’t duplicate digitally.  Take oil painting, for example; there is a sheen, a thickness, and three-dimensionality to oil painting that I really love, and can’t really duplicate on my computer.

But you know what?  I had not done oil painting in years because I hate the fumes from the paint and turpentine, I hate cleaning up the messes, I don’t have a good work area, it’s expensive, and basically too big a deal to set up for on a whim.  So in short, oil was beyond the investment of time, effort, space and money I’d been willing to put in, and so I did nothing for several years.  Now, thanks to digital tools, I draw frequently and my skills have been steadily improving again, instead of regressing.

So is this “real”?  Am I cheating?  As you might guess, I don’t believe so.  I think it’s a new tool set that mimics some of the physical tools I had used before, but also provides its own new sets of opportunities and benefits.  It reminds me of of the word processor revolution in the 1990s.

Back when I was in high school, I did have a typewriter — and some measure of writing skill.  I got into habits, some learned formally and some just developed without much thinking, for writing long-hand or on a typewriter.  But I was still a teen when I encountered early word processors — in fact, one of the first things I did with my first computer class in junior college was to create my own rudimentary word processor because I rapidly grasped the possibilities.

It’s now decades later, and I never, of course, used a typewriter again.  I still write long-hand sometimes at the conceptual stage or when taking meeting notes, but most of my writing is done on a word processor.  And my writing habits have changed dramatically to take advantage of the unique features of word processing: copy-and-paste, search-and-replace, sort, autonumbering, hierarchical levels, paragraph styles, commenting, track changes, database merge, cross-references, etc.  I never feel like I have to work an entire document from page 1, paragraph 1, line 1 to the end.  I usually set up a structure with levels, tag my references and associate them with each section, and start filling some of the easy stuff to give the text some substance; then I work my way in from easiest to most complex.

So it is with digital art: my workflow — the buzzword, these days — is very different, as I set up different layers to carry different pieces of the image to preserve my full ability to change my mind.  One layer for the background colour or “paper”, one for a quick sketch, one for a detailed pencilling or inking of the foreground, one for the background, one for the foreground colours, one for background colours, maybe one for highlights or shadows, etc.

On a scratchpad file, I build my colour palette so I can be consistent throughout the image — or several images.  I select and save a few specific brushes that will be my most used to give the image the right texture.  I open the reference photo, if I have one, in a side window; I can zoom in and out and move my reference around so I have it right where I need it as I work.  And as I work, I’m careful to switch to the correct layer.

Is it real?  I assure you, I’m using the same skill set as if I use paper, ink, pastel and paint.  But more than that, I’ve developed new habits and ways of working to take advantage of the digital medium’s features.  It makes me proud because I’m drawing much more often again, I’m gratified with the results, and it makes me feel creative and able to succeed at a time in my life when I need such a feeling.  The art is therapeutic, and the medium is supportive.  The effect for me is real.

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