Why not just toss the paints into the dumpster and do this in the computer?

That flu has returned with a vengeance, beating me up with a fever, coughing headaches and so forth, so I’ve spent the day at home, with only a brief trip to take my little girl to the dentist. However, yesterday night I ignored the thing and went to the studio to paint, getting another couple of skulls complete. These are merging well with the earlier ones, but obviously I will need to do some colour work to make things right: those skulls that I painted in December got a dash of Ultramarine Blue and some Raw Sienna from when I was figuring out what was to happen with the landscape while these are made with Van Dyke Brown alone (depending on who you believe, Van Dyke Brown is a mixture of Bone Black and an Iron Oxide). I’ve quite content with the decision to make the plain a skull covered expanse, because I think it’s going to look absolutely terrific.

Slightly weird lighting here because I shot the picture at night with my spotlight on.

While painting these repetitive forms I’ve been reflecting on the difference between painting and computer graphics. It would be a fairly simple matter to create a three dimensional skull model in the computer, clone it endlessly, spin and diminish it in size, light them and thereby create a skull covered landscape. So why bother painting this?

The finished product of a computer generated image (or any mechanically reproduced image) is endlessly repeatable – as every college art student should know from reading that equally endlessly re-printed text by Walter Benjamin. But paintings and sculptures themselves are not endlessly repeatable: they may be molded, copied, photographed and reproduced, but the original work of the artist remains unique.

I think that great art transcends the everyday human experience – we love to see people do amazing things and make them our heroes. Art that is technically masterful and transcendent can cause ecstatic states in people who are moved by it. It seems absurd that I hesitate to use the word “beauty” here, for it has become regarded as inappropriate in the critical art world, but for a multitude of people who are moved by graceful portrayals of the wonders of the natural world this is a matter of beauty; I’m referring to those of us who allow ourselves to be emotionally affected by a painting or sculpture – these select people who are moved by the ability of artists to create an illusion so well made that for a short time they may suspend their disbelief and accept that the image is real –  that the world within it is a better place, that somewhere there is a world within which they can breathe freely the air of romance, mysticism or simple grace. (Or in this case, enjoy the fear of a visit from the angel of death!)

A computer image can’t do that, for it lacks the labor of a painting or a sculpture. The work itself matters; that an artist can hack away at brutal stone, or a painter can take ground up dirt and mix it upon a canvas to create something from the stuff of the earth itself, mastering our elemental world while simultaneously in homage to it, for by creating a well composed painting doesn’t an artist perfect and control the wildness of the natural world?

About pearce

Michael Pearce is an artist, writer, and professor of art. He is the author of "Art in the Age of Emergence."
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