Is This a Painting?

23 04 2010

Is this a painting? It has a frame—in this case the edges of the square. It has color and marks that show deliberate drawing and gesture and which suggest texture and depth. Likewise, it shows evidence of design and aesthetic considerations in its making. However, what you see here was done on a computer. The original exists as pixels, as binary code, as a computer file.

Lap Lavender © 2009 Michael Maurer Smith

It is a common prejudice that digital paintings (if they may be called that) are less legitimate than paintings made using traditional materials and tools. Many people hold that “real” paintings must be made using paint, applied to a surface. They believe paint is only color pigments suspended in a binder which allows it to be spread with a brush, knife, stick, finger or some other tool.

But must paint be a physical substance—something that can drip, glop, gloop, color and stain. Must it have a distinct odor and viscosity? Or is paint whatever permits color to be applied in a painting-like manner—something that will result in an image that can be viewed by the artist and others?

Many people would argue that a real painting must be physical—that it must it be in fixed form on paper, canvas or board—something that can be hung, bought, sold or traded?

Of course a painting done on a computer can be printed. It can even be printed on canvas and have a real varnish applied. The problem is the thorny issue of what is the original? Is it the original file or the first printing of that file? If multiple prints are made of the original file are they all originals?

The fact is today’s computers permit pressure sensitive and gestural applications of line and color. One can draw or paint using one’s finger on a touch screen or using a stylus or mouse. And compositions can be built up using multiple layers and the equivalent of electronic glazes and transparency.

So, is it really painting if the painter doesn’t use paint to make the painting?

What is your opinion?

© 2010 Michael Maurer Smith




4 responses

23 04 2010

In my opinion no, this is not a painting, per se the traditional definition of painting. For lack of another label ( and we are so fond of and confused by labels and labels to be upon which we agree to disagree), I’m tempted to label it a CGI ( computer generated image) the original of which resides in the digital files. For commercial purposes, there exists no common understanding of commercial standard. For, example, digital files printed onto canvas and then covered with a varnish lack a certain authenticity – in attempting to masquerade as paintings. I have seen digital images printed onto aluminum panels which give them a slick and sophisticated feel, but once an image is printed as it exists in digital file into multiples it approaches the printmaker’s territory. Perhaps there will occur some agreement to treat digital images as a contemporary form of print making, for it is that, in my opinion. I am a trained printmaker of the old school and can easily see the extension of that discipline into this digital medium. Lovely image, this one – it would look great in a lightbox, a la Jeff Wall photos. G

24 04 2010

Thanks for your thoughtful comments and the compliment.

I tend to agree that this kind of work is more akin to printmaking and graphic design. Still the question remains, is painting defined by the act or the material, methods and technology used?

In making this piece I worked intuitively and intentionally much like I do when I paint on canvas (which I also do and prefer). I do find working with the computer imposes an emotional and physical distancing due to the the technology. Drawing or painting with a computer stylus simply does not provide the same sensibility and immediacy–the feel–that working with a brush or a stick of charcoal does. Likewise, the interplay between the tautness of the canvas, the weave of the fabric, the degree of viscosity in the paint etc., all serve to impart a very different quality both in the act of painting and the result. However, images made on a computer are typically more calculated and thereby limit the possibility and nuance of accident–the personal signature. That said, computer technology permits some amazing visual options and creative possibilities for the artist.

Perhaps the significant question is whether genuine “art” can be produced using a computer? Or does the computer place too much technology between the artist and the art making? Of course graphite, oil paint, acrylics, charcoal are all technologies too, and so is paper and canvas.

25 04 2010

Hi – this is an ongoing discussion i have with a fellow ppainter and digital artist who lives on the sunshine coast of BC. You might want to look at some of his work at- One wine-soaked evening we even arrived at the idea that a digital image maker could make a series of 10 (or whatever number of images desired) and market a disc with flat screen TVs to stand in for a light box as a form of presentation, or just market the disc for owners of flat screen TVs.
I do agee with you that the immediacy of the mark made by hand and the visceral nature of painters’ materials have a particularly satisfying appeal, and i do prefer to live with those qualities rather than the slickness of digital images.
Genuine art can be made by the computer, for as you point out so smartly, the computer is yet another form of technology, as are other image making materials and tools. I would argue that the possibility of more disposable art is greater with computer made stuff, or that we might not attach the same value to each image because of the possibility of ease in replacement, replication. It is pretty exciting to project our imaginations into the future to see where our constanly evolving technologies will take us – socially, aesthetically. G

25 04 2010

Hello again.

Your observation that the the computer makes possible more easily replicated and disposable stuff is provocative and I think true.
Of course it is not only so with images. It is equally so with the written word.

Consider what blogging has actually done to journalism and the perception of journalism. On the one hand it is devastating and on the other it is liberating. I think what all of us are struggling with is how to discern and cull wisdom, knowledge, meaning and value from the onslaught of words and images we must confront increasingly everyday.

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