Digital Discrimination: Aren’t All Images Created Equal?

Imagine for a second that it’s about 30,000 years ago, and you’re a cave painter in Lascaux, France. You paint on the walls, using pigment that you apply by blowing through a straw, like a primitive airbrush, or with your fingers. You work by torchlight, because of course it’s pitch dark in the cave. And you create images of the animals your people hunt to survive, all from your memory.

You paint horses running, based on what you remember only. Perhaps you paint outdoors, in the daylight, as the herds roam nearby, but those works, if they ever existed, have been lost for thousands of years. It’s almost as though you knew that it was only in these caves that your work would be preserved. And although permanent houses and dwellings weren’t to be invented for a long time yet, still you managed to create art that has lasted for 30,000 years. Paleolithic art is an amazing accomplishment, given the incredible limitations placed on it.

 
Funerary Portrait of a Man. Egypt, Roman Empire, early 2nd century AD. Medium: encaustic on linen. Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

People have been making art for, some archeologists tell us, 100,000 years. For most of that time, art served religious and public functions, commemorating, validating, honoring, and sometimes just decorating. As you can see here, when it was important to capture a likeness, a painting could be quite realistic, even in 200 A.D. Then, styles and needs changed, and for the next 1200 years, religious icons were the only suitable subject for artists. Realism disappeared. That changed with the Renaissance. Oil painting came to Europe, and the portrait as we know it today was born. The state of the art, so to speak, in 1500 A.D. was the oil painting. And, some would argue, this is still true: that only the tools and methods developed 500 years ago should be used by today’s artists. To me, this seems as ridiculous as saying that the methods and materials used by the cave painters is the only valid art form.

Would Leonardo use Corel Painter?

Design for a flying machine, by Leonardo da Vinci.

In the last 500 years, the tools available for creating images, and sharing them, have come a long way. Yet even here in the 21st century, many people still consider the oil painting to be the pinnacle of artistic expression. Even digital artists strive to make their images look like oil paintings (I should know –it’s how I make my living!), and call these images Digital Paintings. The Renaissance casts a long shadow. Even in this digital age, the idea of what constitutes a proper work of art is controlled by men who lived 500 years ago, and the tools they had available to them. We have not caught up to the technology available for creating images, but I hope that’s changing. I’m sure that, if Leonardo were alive today, he’d be using a digital tablet, and not a stick of burnt wood.

These are exciting times to be an artist. Technology allows us the freedom to create any image we can imagine, once we have mastered the tools. That’s exciting. It’s also confusing, these days, to be an artist. Back when the technology was limited to duck canvas and linseed oil, an artist was an oil painter, plain and simple. An artist was just a guy (it was only guys back then–sorry, ladies) with a charcoal stick, an easel, and a sure and steady hand. But today, things are rather muddled. “Digital painting” is really digital image making, but you could say the same thing about digital photography: it creates digital images. On the one hand, “digital painting” is an accurate term for creating traditional works of 2D art using a digital medium. On the other hand, nearly every photograph entered into a juried photography show has been manipulated, at least a little bit, in Photoshop. Yet professional photography associations don’t seem to want to admit this–not really. They acknowledge the computer, and have a separate category for “Electronic Imaging,” as if that will safely contain all those un-photographic images being submitted. “The “real” photographs are over here,” they’ll assure you, “in the main category.” Oh really? And the fact that the photographer used an electronic digital camera, Photoshop Unsharp Mask and altered the hue/satuation a tad doesn’t make it an “Electronic Image”? As you can see, things are not as clear-cut as they might appear at first.

But photography associations aren’t the only ones claiming to know the real thing when they see it. Take the group calling itself the “Art Renewal Center,” whose grand goal is to save Art from the evils of Modern Art. In their view, a work of art can be only that which is created without aid of a camera, and certainly not with a computer. And yet their annual exhibition is judged completely by JPG: electronic images of (purportedly) traditional works of art on canvas and paper. As one reviewer put it, “…some purchased works ended up looking much less wonderful in real life than they did before going through Photoshop.” I wonder how long it will be before an unsuspecting jury awards “Best of Show” to an “oil painting” created in Corel Painter and printed on canvas.

When you’re holding a juried exhibition, you do want to be comparing apples to apples, photographs to photographs, paintings to paintings. But I wonder if that’s really possible anymore. There is so much overlap now, in this digital age. Just because I write from the perspective of a digital artist doesn’t mean I share the same sort of “media chauvinism” shown by the Art Renewal Center. I believe all images are created equally, so to speak. My passion is for beautiful pictures, no matter how they were generated. To say that one image is superior to another based solely on the method of creation is just silly. The image is everything. How it was created is secondary.

The Work of a Master

Take a look at the following two images. The first one was executed recently, as an homage to the second, which was painted in the 17th century, by the great Flemish master Pieter Claesz.

Homage to Master Claesz, by Kornel Ravadits
Still Life, by Pieter Claesz, 1633. Oil on oak. Staatliche Museen, Kassel, Germany

You may be surprised to learn that the first image was created using 3D software, and is not an oil painting. In my opinion, it is at least as good as the painting it pays tribute to. It manages to capture the style of Claesz, and even some of his technique, yet it goes beyond. It’s cleaner, more light-filled, more pleasing to the eye, better drawn…in fact, it may be much more what Claesz had in mind when he painted the original. But he was hampered by primitive tools and methods. He used oils–not because he liked them or thought they worked particularly well–but because they were the best option available in 1633.

Hand made, using digital tools

Unless you’re familiar with 3D software, such as Maya, Lightwave, 3DS Max, or Cinema 4D, you probably have no idea how Kornel Radavits created his digital homage to Claesz. You may dismiss it as simply “computer generated,” meaning that the computer did the actual work, and the artist just pushed a few buttons. I wish I could explain just how wrong that perception is. There’s nothing automatic or easy about this technology. To help explain what’s involved, read this “making-of” article, showing how the following image was made. It really takes at least a short article to give you an idea as to what 3D is all about, so I hope you’ll check it out.

Classical Girl (detail), by Shiyong Wang. http://wangshiyong.com

As the article shows, what a 3D artist does is define a virtual area of space, filled with virtual objects. She does this with software that represents this 3D space on the flat 2D computer screen. Virtual lights are added, and then the artist “renders” the image. This is like snapping a photo of the 3D “set.” So, the final result is a 2D image, which can then be printed as any other image file.

Let’s take a look at a few more portraits created with 3D software.

Kathryn, by Richard Turic
Portrait of a Bishop (detail), by Bruno Melo

This next work is done in the style of a Northern Renaissance master. It appears to be a long-lost portrait of Dante, and that the model was Robert DeNiro. Quite a tour de force.

Dante Alighieri, by Marco Menco

This last portrait is beyond photographic. In this portrait, we begin to see the potential that this new medium holds. The details, such as the hairs in the fabric, are just mind-boggling.

The Last Elf, by Piotr Wisocki

Landscapes, built by hand

Next we have a selection of my favorite landscapes, each created completely in 3D (though I imagine most have had some Photoshop tweaking, as well).

Wet Bird, by Gilles Tran
Once Upon a Time, by Serkan Celik
Route 66, by Mauro Scardini
Street 13-26, by Grzegorz Wisniewski

Interiors and Still Lifes

Rebirth, by Jason Godbey
Story of Time, by Hao Aiqiang
Workbench, by Anders Kjellberg
Vermeers Window, by Carles Piles
Metaltio, by David Ancira

Conclusion

In the future, probably within the lifetimes of my children, 3D art will no longer be the poor stepchild of the art world. That’s because the new kid in town, virtual reality, will be here, redefining once more what it means to be an artist, and what it means to be a viewer. The boundary between artist and viewer will blur. Computer games are already leading this revolution. Artists and designers create whole worlds from scratch, and players explore that world, add content to it, and new areas of it. 3D tools will be right in the middle of it. There will still be a place for traditional media. But the idea that the only serious art form is one where you push greasy pigment around with hairs stuck to a stick will seem very, very silly indeed.

Acknowledgments

My great thanks and admiration go out to the artists whose works grace this post. Here are links to each of their sites.

There are a few great sources for excellent 3D work on the Web. They are: