Promise, Paradox and Opportunity

by John Holloway


John Holloway works as a 3d virtual reality modeling specialist at the Research Triangle Institute in North Carolina. He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in painting from the University of Cincinnati in 1981 and practiced as a full-time painter for more than a decade, before returning to school to study scientific visualization and C++ programming . He has applied haptic technology, which investigates the interaction between the computer and touch, to the practice of his art, and says, "I have an avid interest and passion for digital technology but I am first and foremost an artist, and an analog artist at that.

In April 2005 he spoke about his art at a conference on digital content at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke. The following text was developed from notes generated for his presentation there. He advises that the issues presented below deserve much deeper review and analysis, and that it is his intention here only to present an overview of these ideas.

When the personal computer was introduced to our culture, we were promised three things:

  • Greater access to information
  • More control over our lives
  • More free time as a result of higher productivity levels

As it turns out we realized only one out of these three. The remaining two are debatable, I suppose. "More control over our lives" is certainly debatable. Productivity levels have definitely increased but it appears that along with that has come a greater demand for productivity. This demand has served to remove what otherwise would have been "more free time" for the digital worker. "Greater access to information" for the artist has proved to be a mixed blessing. Nonetheless, the result has proven to mean access to mark-making tools (i.e., programs) that will continue to grow in number, variety and quality.

This growing access to tools poses a dilemma for those of us that try to avail ourselves to as many applications as can be found. It is a dynamic and often rewarding search. But this chase takes time away from art creation. Time is finite so at some point the artist must make a choice and focus on the work at hand. At this point one can then begin the study of a chosen tool set.

The value of tool knowledge cannot be understated. The search for tools as well as the investigation of a chosen set opens one to possibilities, options and insights that otherwise could not be known. Help files are of some value but it is exploration and experimentation within the tool that enlightens.

As with the explorer of tools, those of us who have made a choice in tool sets have the pleasure of confronting a paradox within the tool interface.

Our interface with the computer offers an experience too often contrary to the instinctive approach of the creative temperament. Fluid use of computer interfaces for the artist requires a linear and disciplined understanding of the tool. This is completely in opposition to the curvilinear discipline demanded by analog creative tools. This difference in approach is due to the organic nature of analog tool sets versus the synthetic nature of digital tool sets. Here in lies a curious paradox for the digital artist.

At once this paradox presents itself as an encumbrance and obstacle to the artist who simply wants to get on with the work at hand. The immediate desire is to seek out an interface that is transparent to the inner workings of the machine. Digital media is a vast and exciting environment. There are products available that allow the user to jump in immediately without any understanding of "what is under the hood," so to speak. But going down the path of the "transparent interface" denies artists the opportunity for a much richer experience that comes of an understanding of the fundamental medium. An understanding of the digital medium cannot be gained by exclusive involvement in content development for media. I am by no means advocating that artists necessarily should become graphics programmers. Although, a brief introduction to the mysteries of computer science does provide insight into the paradigm of the medium the digital artist is professing to be involved in. At the very least this type of study will make the artist more knowledgeable of the brush chosen, what it is good for and how ones efforts fit into the paradigm of the broader digital medium. This paradox within the interface, the meeting of the curvilinear mindset with the linear toolset is compelling, uniquely frustrating, and a rare opportunity.

View from an analog perspective

One of the persistent criticisms of digital art is its unnaturalness. The apparent sterility and synthetic nature of the final work seems at once unrewarding. It is the nature of the beast so to speak and quite unavoidable. But what is natural really? Are we natural? If we are and we created this technology then does it not qualify as natural by default? By extension is it then possible for us to create something that is not natural? But I digress. This argument is metaphysical and quite possibly irrelevant. The digital medium is after all a purely synthetic development and presentation venue. The artist must accept this effect and work within its natural confines and limitations as one would with analog materials and venues.

Arguments against digital art

Issue #1: Presentation
The digital arts presentation venue poses the first obstacle to the analog perspective. The physical separation of the artist from the image posed by the monitor itself can be difficult to accept. The digital image is perceived as being tangibly flat. This is true and false at once as the effect is an inherent illusion. In truth the image hardly exits at all. The viewer actually is only seeing the result of the decoding of virtual zeros and ones that exist as digital signatures (physical pits) on the synthetic medium of the hard disc. The cold flat surface of the monitor on the other hand is not an illusion.

Issue #2: Color
The digital image is backlit and the colors are additive rather than subtractive. Incidentally this is exactly the kind of vibrant color that the Italian Futurist Carlo Carra is calling for in his paper "The Painting of Sounds, Noises and Smells". Digital technology was made to order for the Futurist movement of the early 1900's. Alas, timing is everything.

Issue #3: Hardware
Monitors vary greatly in their settings and presentation of colors. Video cards and memory capacity influence the viewing experience as well. The hardware issues alone fill volumes of research. In this we are all greatly in the debt to the engineers who pursue these issues.

Issue #4: Intellectual Property (IP)
The issue of "Intellectual Property" is the real elephant in the middle of the room that we have only begun to face as an art culture. Witness the turmoil within the audio and movie industry. When we move our work off of our local hard disc we are quite literally putting a drop of ourselves into a massive and you might say, permeable, medium. Our content is immediately absorbed into the world network, which has a life of its own. This medium is global and that is no longer just a catch phrase ... it is a living truth.

Our culture has yet to develop an IP model for digital art that is as universally applicable, effective and accepted as that for the analog arts. Consider the time that we have devoted to the development of a model for the analog arts. I am hopeful that an equally effective model will evolve for the digital realm as well.

Issue #5: Electricity
Finally, what if the electricity goes out? This is perhaps the weakest link for the digital artist. Now where is the art? Wasn't the image essentially just an expression of idea and emotion?

This issue above all others speaks to me of the notion of preciousness of images. The digital medium challenges the very essence of the preciousness and uniqueness of the image.

Willem de Kooning in "What Abstract Art Means to Me" (1951) wrote:

The first man who began to speak, whoever he was, must have intended it. For surely it is talking that has put "Art" into painting. Nothing is positive about art except that it is a word. Right from there to here all art became literary. We are not yet living in a world where everything is self-evident. It is very interesting to notice that a lot of people who want to take the talking out of painting, for instance, do nothing else but talk about it. That is no contradiction, however. The art in it is the forever-mute part you can talk about forever.

Ah, and so we are back to the realm of metaphysics and the philosophy of art. For many in the art world all of this is quite enough to dismiss the validity of the digital arts as art at all. This reaction is quite understandable and yet reminiscent of the welcome received by the Fauves, Impressionists, Cubists, Italian Futurists, Abstract Expressionists, Minimalists and quite nearly every art movement as it has arrived on the threshold of cultural consciousness. The digital medium challenges quite nearly all of the long held precepts of the art world at many different levels.

Marshal McLuhan described this effect in the 1960's through his many works. I would highly recommend the reading of any of his many books to digital artists if only to get a sense of the dynamism and philosophical impact of the medium they are involved in.

Resistance to change is perfectly understandable. The implications of the new threaten what we believe to be true. This agitation in the mind of the thinking artist is very healthy. It provokes introspection, review and questions regarding where one invests time and resources. What one considers valid and essentially art is an abstraction always worth reconsidering.

As for me, these issues only serve to enhance the mystery and uniqueness of digital media and its applications. One of the qualities I find most dynamic about the world of digital art is its propensity for creating new questions, reviving once-thought resolved issues and opening new avenues of inquiry on multiple levels.

The digital medium is unique in this aspect as it is so far ranging in its impact on our lives.

The far reaching implications made by the issues presented to us by the digital medium have revitalized and added an entirely new dynamism to the field of art philosophy, not to mention commerce.

The sacred moment...revelation

It has been suggested by many that, if one is working in a digital environment, it is not possible to lose created visual effects. The marketing departments of corporations that develop software and other members of our corporate and civil cultures support this notion in the main. Individuals seeking quick, easy and cheap solutions to the visualization of ideas and data too often find this notion so irresistible as to believe it as fact. These same folks have fostered the concept that creativity can be had at the simple click of the mouse. The practicing digital artist knows better.

The "undo" function as well as other digital features such as runtime history, and incremental file saving all can be used to support the idea that visual effects cannot be lost. Strictly speaking there is some grain of truth in this. However, this posit is true only to the extent that the "linear discipline" of the developer is engaged.

There is that moment in the creative process when a perceived "perfect balance" is realized (epiphany, revelation). A balance between what is intended and what has been visualized. Anything short of saving the file at this moment will mean a total loss of what currently is. We all know that moment when it presents itself or sadly too soon after it has passed. It is the lucky developer that resists the compulsion to "make it better", stop editing and save to a unique file name.

Backup media is highly recommended in art production. More information than is needed beats not enough every time. An archiving discipline is of inestimable value for artists working in any medium.

Available Undo's are finite to a session. What is more, there is a limit to the linear management skills possessed by artists generally. Having a runtime history available is helpful but the trick is in remembering the point where it happened and what layers were visible at the time. Taking consistent notes on the side and exporting current, uniquely named and time-stamped renderings periodically is an effective strategy as well. Some software also permits the artist to imbed notes and other user data within a file.

The delicate balance of cognition and emotion is a discipline that must be maintained by artists working in the digital or analog realms. The computer demands a level of attention to the management of data quite beyond that of analog mediums. A linear discipline, perspective and sensitivity are required. This requirement works in direct opposition to the curvilinear instincts of the creative mind and process. Too often the patterns through which the creative process takes us are quite irregular and wholly unpredictable. These patterns are not easily managed in a digital and necessarily linear creative tool environment.

Herein lies a necessary pact with the devil, if you will, which the artist must make to work effectively and at some point fluidly through the paradox the computer presents to the creative process. This "pact" is an acceptance on the part of the artist of the limitations of and requirements made by the computer of the artist.

Having accepted the computer and its limitations the artist can begin to find a comfort level with it. Accepting the tool for what it is will go a long way towards removing the distraction of frustration and open one to the possibilities available. This can take some time but once achieved the moment of balance in ones work is more easily recognized, seized upon and managed when it occurs.

Tools - the responsibility of understanding

As with any of the traditional analog art forms, the quality and fidelity of the visualization is dependant upon the artists' ability to manipulate the chosen toolset. For example, the difference of effect between a sable and a bristle brush can be quite dramatic. It is the painter's responsibility to understand the use of the two to adequately express himself or herself. The different tones of expression between oils, watercolor, acrylic, pencil, conte, or combinations of these in a piece are paramount to the quality of the final image and its ability to communicate. The substrate one chooses to work upon has everything to do with the final presentation and interpretation of the completed work. The chosen materials and their manipulation set the tone of the final work and its ability to project the artist's intent. This is no less true with digital media. Having chosen to work through the computer immediately sets a tone to ones works. This choice provides the artist with many options as well as limitations. Ones choice in hardware and operating system has far reaching implications as to how one will approach their work as well as relate to the rest of the digital community.

Within the digital arts the toolsets are varied and often quite complex. The depth of utility in the better applications is such that it is the rare user indeed that truly grasps the extent of possibilities within the tool. This depth of understanding can only come with extensive hands-on experience and experimentation over time. Regular study and reference to provided documentation is an obvious help in this regard.

Irrespective of ones knowledge of a tool, there are multiple parameters that control and influence the final outcome of any one process. By extension, the combination of processes exponentially increase the importance of the attention paid to controlling tool and data management parameters.

This being the case it is the responsibility of the digital artist to know his or her chosen tools to the greatest extent possible. A passing knowledge of parameter manipulation and dependence on basic default settings within a tool can only result in the simplest and most common of results. Default settings can only offer the most basic of images. Of course it can be argued that no image is without value and in many cases it is the most minimal use of elements that can render the most powerful of images. But we will leave this issue for another discussion.

In the end it is the responsibility and obligation of the artist to know the capabilities and appropriateness of the tools selected to execute a project. The varieties of tools available to the digital artist are mind-boggling. The depth and utility of these tools is such that it is unlikely the artist will master even a fraction of what is available.

As a participant in the digital medium the artist can simplify this search for tool knowledge by automating the activity to a degree. Almost all of the digital toolmakers of note offer news releases. The artist need only include himself or herself on a list to receive these notifications. Having listed themselves by providing an email address the artist will periodically receive notifications of tool advancements and tips without having to inquire on their own. Granted much of this information too often proves to be no more than marketing propaganda, but quite often-useful information and leads for further study are provided.

Tool specific user groups are also a great source of information. These groups as with all sources have their limitations in usefulness. User groups deserve attention and quite often prove to be a great resource for information and sometimes inspiration. There is no obligation to participate in these group discussions but I have found that simply monitoring the threads can offer a wealth of information that can be quite valuable.

Nonetheless we do have an obligation to be familiar with the nature of the products available. In doing this we can, to some degree, evaluate and then determine what tools work best for what we want to accomplish. The beauty of this is that through search and investigation activities new uses and applications will make themselves apparent, opening our creative impulses to possibilities we previously did not know existed.

A creative paradox

There is a paradox in the interface between the artist and the computer. It is a paradox that provides for the most intrinsic element in the visualization of the creative process. There is a relational dichotomy that can be found in the necessary cooperation between the linear demands of the computer and the curvilinear approach of the artist towards his or her work. The constant confrontation with this dichotomy the artist experiences is just exactly what can provide for the unplanned and unexpected that is so valuable in ones creative work. I believe that this very contradiction between the curvilinear pattern of the artist's natural mindset and the rigid linear demands of the computer provides just the spiritual tension that can be of inestimable value to the artist.

The recognized "Happy Accident", the "Ah Hah," has been the lynch pin of abstraction in painting since well before the advent of the abstract expressionists. The Dutch masters made regular and disciplined use of this through their glazes. It is not inconceivable that this affect was the spark that set off the Italian renaissance. Perhaps it was this "Ah Hah" moment that was the genesis of painting as a pragmatic form of expression from the start.

Nonetheless, it is this elusive moment of revelation, which marks the relevance of the unexpected in any composition. Fractal artists may believe that this is happening to some degree by default in their work. And perhaps they are right. After all, mathematics is the basic language of the CPU and this language has the ability to describe quite nearly anything, some would say.

It has been the criticism of the analog world for some time that digital art is too clean, too precise...too linear to be considered other than contrived. The linear nature of the tool seems to enforce a precision that at once is compelling and yet sterile for many. Artists have gone to great lengths to overcome this through careful planning and elaborate techniques, many with great success. I propose that this problem can be overcome very simply by giving in to the paradoxical relationship between the Linear machine process and the Curvilinear approach of the user.

The key element in this paradox is "us" actually. Sounds pretty familiar. The same situation exists in analog creative processes as well. Working in the analog mediums is more akin to breathing. We share a visceral and quite nearly symbiotic relationship with the materials and venue of the analog realm.

What is unique in this digital situation is evidenced in the enforced linear nature of a synthetic medium versus the default organic and curvilinear nature of the artist's mindset. This is the paradox that makes the initial approach to digital work so awkward for the analog purist. Instinctively we want the fluidity of interface we have in the analog dimension but are frustrated at the outset with a seemingly unnatural, purely synthetic, and less than rewarding tactile experience with the computer. We are at once set apart from the work. Our only contact is with the keyboard and the mouse or stylus. This is an abstraction that simply must be accepted. It is the nature of the digital toolset.

For some this can prove to be more repulsive or intimidating than for others. Obviously there are many of us now who have been working with this type of interface for the greater part of our careers if not from the very beginning. For these people the acceptance of this abstraction is a non-issue.

The fact that there is a significant population if not a generation of artists that have little to no experience with the creation of art in the analog dimension is a real curiosity in our time. This is an issue of great importance but is beyond the scope of my intentions here.

Complete acceptance of what amounts to a synthetic abstraction of analog processes is the first step to working with the paradox of the digital interface. Having accepted this working environment it is now just a matter of becoming well informed and practiced with the chosen tool set. This can only come with experience and study

Understanding and comfort with the toolset comes as a result of extended hands on experience, exploration and experimentation. As the artist approaches a comfort zone with the toolset the paradox of the interface will begin to work more in ones favor. The recognition of balance of color and the tension of compositional elements soon becomes much easier to recognize and more fluid in its execution.

The tool makers

Next to tool usage and exploration, tool development is an equally dynamic endeavor. We all have our wish lists but imagine having the expertise to realize those wishes. Unfortunately the discipline of tool development requires a tremendous investment of ones time. This study pretty much precludes significant creative usage of the tools one might develop. The craft of graphics programming is equally as time consuming and compelling as image creation. We are greatly in the debt of those who have chosen this path and continue to provide and advance the magnificent software that is available today. Not to mention those that are doing the basic research that provides the groundwork for the tools we will use tomorrow. I cannot speak highly enough of the "tool makers".

The guild of tool makers has a long and rich history. From the makers of brushes and the grinders of pigment to the programmers and QA engineers of software and hardware (specifically the CPU and GPU developers) we are greatly indebted. Our current endeavors as digital artists are now possible as a result of their efforts.

Artificial Intelligence

Soon Artificial Intelligence (AI) technology will be employed in many of our tool sets. Actually to varying degrees this has already begun. The advent of AI in our tool sets will be a mixed blessing. I suspect that the loss of human control in the interface that this will represent may quite possibly drive many of us back to the analog arts.

There is a digital culture in the creative world even now that has promoted the transparency of the operating system (OS) to the user for years quite successfully. This culture has lulled many digital artists into a blissful lack of knowledge (granted not in all cases but certainly in new users) of the basic nature of the computer and by extension the digital medium generally. The general effect of this has been the development of an art culture with a finely-tuned awareness of specific media at the expense of an understanding of the overall medium and the interrelationship between the two. The advent of AI on digital culture may only serve to enhance this phenomenon. These developers as well as those new to techno culture will succumb to the convenience of AI quite easily and willingly, as they will not know nor care that it had been or could be otherwise

The imposition of AI on creative digital tools will have a dramatic impact on the human aesthetic. This technology may very well realize the corporate dream of synthetic creativity at the click of a mouse. It certainly will be intriguing to watch this come about, if indeed it does.


The paradox of the computer interface for the creative temperament offers obstacles as well as unique opportunities.

The challenges I see for the artist are to accept the limitations, become knowledgeable of and finally comfortable with the linear discipline demanded by the computer. Having done this, the benefit is the resultant ability to manage linear data and then bend it to creative purposes.

Having successfully made this bargain and resisted the temptations of the transparent interface the artist is no longer bound to the media that ones content is created for. Having opened ones understanding to the nature of the OS through study and experience the artist will no longer be limited to the software interface but will be open to the possibilities of the broader digital medium at large.

Depending upon the digital path chosen by the artist, the learning curve can be daunting. Nonetheless the rewards that can be gained by disciplined and persistent digital pursuits can vastly exceed the effort expended getting there, by magnitudes.

June 2005

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