Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Is It Art or Is It Digital?

Is it Art or is it Digital?

Part II:  From Pixels to PIXAR

In my last post I discussed my late son Scott's pixel magic in creating art and animation for the 1992 computer game, "The Last Files of Sherlock Holmes".  Here I will show a progression of my own digital experimentation using the medium that has exploded from 256 colors and a 320 x 200 screen resolution to 16.8 million colors and the screen resolution I am currently using on my old 32-bit machine, 1024 x 768.  I am about to set up my new 64-bit computer and am ready for the next level!

While I was still working with 320 x 200 I perfected my abilities learned from son Scott for other projects, a scene from one pictured at the top of this post and others directly below.  I was lucky to have a deeper frame to work with for these illustrations.  The Sherlock Holmes game required about a third of the area below the scene to be reserved for game buttons. 

What we artists have today at our fingertips for digital expression is light years ahead of what we had in the early 90s.  And even now when we have arrived at this point, I continue to sense some hesitation when talking with traditional painters about digital artwork, or especially digital "painting".  I understand their loyalty to a medium that will always be in a very special class by itself, but for me, the digital world is more exciting because it has dramatically expanded the box of artistic tools available in the form of the scanner and  exquisite paint programs.  It also can be a liberation from the limits, expense and clutter of paint, brushes and canvas.  Before I had a scanner I simply drew right into the computer on an early version of a Wacom Tablet using a beautifully intuitive program called Fractal Design Painter.  I now own the newest incarnation of this program in Corel's Painter 10.  The original was much simpler and easier to use, but that's the way things are and I have to accept that.  *Sigh*.  Here are a couple of illustrations done with that earlier program at a 640 x 480 screen resolution.  The scene with children was for a book illustration and the one below that was for an animated computer storybook background.

At this point I am experimenting with all kinds of digital manipulation and painting programs to achieve various effects.  To begin, I either scan in my sketches or my own photographs to establish the basis for the new piece of artwork.  Digital illustration can look essentially the same as traditionally produced work, or, it can look quite different.  Examples below include a portrait that appears as if it been done at a conventional drawing board.  I used my own brushes created in PaintShop Pro to virtually sculpt and "paint" these portraits, about 30 of them done for book illustrations.  Compare the portrait to the kaleidoscopic horse which was done using special effect digital  brushes, and would not be easily concocted with ordinary paints or inks.  Using large and small program brushes along with special settings, I rolled over the contours of the horse until I had the colors and effect I wanted.

A few years ago I took a huge number of digital photos back East and lately have been turning them into digital "paintings".  The Harbormaster below captures a watercolor effect and more mood than the original photo.


While visiting Washington DC, I snapped quite a few interesting shots including the Little Street Cafe below.  Directly below the photo is my rendering of the scene as a colored drawing, looking a little like an etching.  Interesting textures and softer colors add charm to the image.

All of my experimentation has brought me to the point where I am ready to begin some very complex digital illustrations for an already published novel: Lee Hogan's "Belarus" which will be an online audio/visual presentation; a very new way to tell a story.  Other individuals and companys have explored and triumphed at other higher levels of this medium.  So in a journey of artistic digital evolution the computer world has come from lowly pixels to the heights of spectacular PIXAR Animation.  Is it Art? Some people may not readily embrace the new artform, but I think the many amazing examples from simple illustrations to animated masterpieces speak for themselves. 



Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Is it Art or is it Digital?

Is it Art or is it Digital?

Part 1:  Scott Mavor, Pixel Master

There still seems to be some prejudice out there against "Digital" Art.  But it just continues to proliferate in spite of the fact that like all new media it has had to deal with the usual biases in its bid for acceptance.  Digital Art is sort of like the Rock and Roll of the art world.  And like Rock and Roll, it could not be stopped;  it was inevitable that the amazing software designed for the computer would be used by imaginative artists in countless innovative and distinctive ways, leaving detractors in the dust.

Here's a little story for you about how it all began: I jumped into the medium back in 1991 when my son Scott (pictured top, above his scene of the notorious "alley" where a murder takes place) presented me with a 40-megabyte Electronic Arts computer, courtesy of his employer, Mythos Software, so that I could participate in creating illustrations with him for a pioneering computer game called "The Lost Files of Sherlock Holmes".  Scott, who was a self-taught master of VGA art and animation, did the majority of the work, but because of a deadline crunch he  called on me to to help create some of the character portraits and a few of the 23 or so Victorian street scenes and interior rooms that comprised the backgrounds for the game.

What we are talking about here is artwork that was literally created pixel by pixel in a 320- x 200-pixel frame.  Teeny-tiny stuff.  Eyeball scrambling work. Very low resolution.  After hours of brain-crunching study, I figured out (almost) how my son did some of it and developed my own techniques for how to do the rest.  Working with just 256 colors, Scott showed me how he created graduating palettes of each one, which allowed him to do what he called "getting rid of the dots" in each scene.  To further mute the pixels, he kept the colors on the darker side which also enhanced the Victorian mood.  Way beyond the flat graphics of PacMan, Scott invented what one exec at Electronic Arts called "The Mavor Glow".   A great compliment for low resolution computer game artwork back in the day.  Of course, right after the game was published, the industry went to high resolution graphics and his pixel mastery became obsolete.

Weaving the illusion of continuous tone artwork with all those little "dots" made us buggy-eyed after a long day's work.  One night, I woke up, went into the bathroom, turned on the light and the world just pixilated in front of me.  Scary imprints on my retinas had followed me away from the computer monitor,  rendering my vision as a pointillistic painting a la George Seurat.  Comparing notes with my son, I found out this was a natural, if disconcerting, side effect of the job.  That and maybe a few carpal tunnel symptoms.

Along with all the backdrop scenes, Scott added animated figures, character head shots with animated mouths and in some scenes, explosions, raindrops and so on.  He worked with writers, programmers, sound engineers and others who put it all together like an exquisite little film production.  In those days, despite the pixel problem, things were pretty simple for computer artists ... no Windows, no convoluted programs to figure out, no crashes, just Deluxe Paint and Deluxe Animate, easy enough for a kid to use and accessed via MS-DOS (Microsoft Disc Operating System).  The Good Ol' Days, indeed, but no one would really want to go back to them.

I have the boxed game but you can't play it on any modern computer.  Fortunately, a few gamers have preserved some of it on YouTube (this clip from crozzoverDE), and I was especially happy to see again the Intro scene with the dark and foggy London street where tiny people stroll with umbrellas and an animated horse and carriage trot along the rain-slicked cobblestone street.  The scenes may not look as good as they appeared in the original game, but it is very heartwarming to be able to take a nostalgic look at Scott's pixel-spinning Victorian scenes whenever I feel like it.  Take a look for yourself on YouTube

We lost Scott to lung cancer in 2008 and he is dearly loved and sorely missed.  Certainly one of my fondest and most comforting memories is the joy of working with him on this innovative project. 

Is it Art or is it Digital? to be continued ...