It's Like a Painting... Without the Paint

It's been quite some time since I've done any vector work. I've been thinking about what kind of styles work best with which stories a lot lately, and the purpose of styles in digital art in general. Something that I think has really stuck out to me about vector art is the kind of flatness effect I get in the end. I'm not necessarily saying vector art can't have dimension or can't look like a painting, because it definitely can. I guess to me though, vector art isn't painting, so I feel maybe it's not necessary to try so hard to force it to be something else--it is what it is. I prefer the ability to work with broad, flat blocks of solid color since the end result reminds me of papercraft, and I'll often include fine grain textures and drop shadows to further simulate that particular aesthetic. But therein lies a problem.

The kind of look you see in papercrafty vector art could be done with actual nicely cut paper. In that sense, I'm starting to question whether I'm really making the most use out of what we often call the digital medium. Why would I make a picture like that in Photoshop instead of just cutting out the shapes with construction paper?

You could argue a similar point for what we often call digital painting, and I was reading a really good discussion about this on another site recently. It is very similar to painting in that programs like Photoshop do an excellent job of imitating the end result, but in the end it's not really painting (depending on your definition), because, well... there's no paint. There's no surface for the paint to stick to, no glistening specular reflections. We can trick the eye into thinking there's a surface with various texture brushes and Overlaid texture layers, but that illusion is lost if we simply touch the computer screen. Even if we were to print out the file, the texture of the paper is the only real one that comes through, regardless of what the .psd file tricks you into seeing. Maybe we should call ourselves pixelers instead of painters.

So why do we try so hard to make the computer mimic the age old tradition of painting, when they're separate media? The way I see it, part of it has to do with the way we're taught to "draw". From an early age we draw by taking an oblong instrument in hand, nestled between two fingers, and making visible marks on a surface. If you think of it like that, wildly different media share this action though they differ greatly in terms of material and process: paint, charcoal, graphite, markers, and in recent years the digital drawing tablet to name a few examples. Also consider the way that programs like Painter were built; they were, in all likelihood, built with intention of mimicking painting, so naturally we treat the programs as a way to make "paintings". By holding an oblong instrument in hand, making colored marks on a flat surface until we have something recognizable (or at least something that resonates) by the human eye. But that action alone is not all there is to painting--the presence of surface, the way colors are mixed, and the way errors are corrected are just a few key differences between what happens on a canvas and what happens in Photoshop. So it may be a bit of a misnomer to call what we do digital painting.

Another thing to consider is how digital 'painting' is used in the entertainment industry. We use computers to create the final products of video games for instance--they operate on lines of code. While it is perfectly possible to paint character sprites, level backgrounds, and concept art on a stretched canvas, it would take longer to photograph each one and compile them onto a computer, when everything could be 'painted' on a computer from the get-go. And as for getting a clay sculpture into the computer as a 3D model? Yes, 3D scanners do exist, but again, it's taking up more time, and I imagine trying to animate such a thing would be difficult. Time and efficiency are huge factors and digital programs like Photoshop and Maya make the workflow more efficient--and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. In the case of building a game, it seems most efficient (at the moment) to make marks in a way that is likely most familiar to us to create recognizable images, and to have all artwork done in a computer since that is where the bulk of the game mechanics lie anyway. Can't really build a video game with a stack of papers, pulleys, and strings (or can you?).

I can't help but feel recently that we could be doing more to use computers to create art specific to the medium. Something I asked myself recently was, what can pixels and algorithms do that would be impossible (or at least difficult) in an actual painting? Or what can vector art do that would not be feasibly done with well cut construction paper? Or what can animating on a computer do that animating with pencil and paper cannot? I've been looking at Android Jones' work and I think he's far ahead of the curve in figuring this stuff out. Until recently I've been so focused on finding the right textures and brushes to replicate real world surfaces, but now I'm curious about how we can make digital art without trying too hard to do what other media already do better. I do believe that the computer is an art medium with its own identity, but we'll have to do some more digging to understand what makes it more than simply a copycat of the others.

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