Going DIGITAL

The Practice and Vision of Digital Artists
Going DIGITAL

The Practice and Vision of Digital Artists

By Joseph Nalvern and JD Jarvis

Published by Thomson Course Technology, 2005

ISBN 1-59200-918-2

This is a book that I have actually been loath to review, both because
I know the authors and many of the artists involved and because of the
misunderstandings that this review will likely cause in some circles.
Well, so be it. The role of a review is to make a critical assessment
of a work, whether a book or exhibition, covering both the pros and
cons, and to do so from an objective as well as a personal perspective.
So on with it. I’ll start with the negatives and then finish on the
high parts. It is also worth pointing out that the negatives I will
point out are really mostly in the form of limitations, of missed
opportunities or narrow breadth.

The book attempts to examine the range of digital art practice by
allowing a group of artists to describe their own art process through
both a written and screengrab approach.

Part of the problem for this book is that digital art is such a broad,
and in my view, an abused term. It covers everything from making a few
changes to a photograph to elaborate digital constructions, from
hobbyist to commercial illustration, art and design to high art
circles, depending on the speaker. Digital art is also a medium that,
in delivery form, stretches from the printed image to web sites,
multimedia, video, movie and installation. Plus it can be interactive
or non-interactive. So, from the title of this book you might expect
that it will cover the whole sweep of digital art. It does not.

The approach of this book is, predominantly, to allow the digital
artists to speak for themselves. Seventeen artists were provided with
the same set of starting images and asked to produce a piece using
these images and to document their process. This approach is not new
and has been widely used before. The reason the authors describe for
doing this is to allow the reader to make comparisons between the
working methods of the different artists. This is the first problem
with the book. By imposing a limitation like this on the artists, the
authors have, in fact, interfered with the artist’s processes. For some
of the artists this does not seem to have been such an issue, as their
own process starts with some photographs. For others it seems to have
been a real stretch and been quite different to their normal way of
working. So then you have to ask the value of this from a comparison
perspective if what you are seeing is not their normal way of working
for an artist. It is artificial. In the case of some artists, I think
this lets them down.

Another issue is in the very limited range of artists chosen. Among the
17 there are no new media, video, web or installation digital arts,
only ones who tend to present their work as prints. Now first thought
would say that for a book this is a sensible approach due to
presentation limitations. But that would be a fallacy, since a
screengrab is a screengrab, whether from Photoshop or Final Cut Pro and
the printed book provides a limited presentation anyway of a final
printed work. Besides, many books have been successfully created that
address web, video and installation work processes. In practice it
would have been very easy for the authors to have broadened this and
provided some still images and some video footage, say, as a starting
point, if they had thought of it. Thankfully, one of the artists breaks
beyond the straight print and does some over painting. On the other
hand, if the authors had chosen to deliberately limit artists to the
print media, they should have clearly spelled this out and their
reasons for doing so. To leave it undiscussed creates doubt in the mind
of the knowledgeable reader, and that is not a good thing. An author
either needs to be the authority or to demonstrate that they are smart
and knowledgeable enough to work with and draw from the authorities in
a field.

The other limitation of the book actually lies in the choice of
artists. Not criticizing any of the artists chosen, since they all have
interesting things to say in their work, but at best most can only be
described as emerging artists. I use the term emerging artists in the
true fine art sense, meaning an artist who has had a lot of shows, has
achieved some critical attention and whose fine art career is taking
off in a serious way, in that there is serious attention being given to
their work by MAJOR institutions. I say ‘at most’, because some of the
artists are really better defined as commercial illustrators or
photographers, some as educators and some are hobbyists. That doesn’t
minimize how seriously they take what they do, but I have always felt
that in any book clearly aimed at educating, as this is, that it is
better to spell things out rather than leave them unsaid. So the book
misses out a bit by not having some ‘established’ and ‘late career’
digital artists included for balance.

Personally, I am not one who believes that anyone and anything can be
described as an artist and art. I believe it is better to spell out
that some people are dedicated amateurs, others commercial illustrators
or photographers, others just exploring some form of personal
expression and others career artists. The work of each group needs to
be judged by very different standards, and thus it actually does a
disservice to the people concerned to lump very different people
together and label them all artists. Contemporary fine art practice and
quality criteria are VERY different from those applied to commercial
illustration and photography, for example.

Another limitation of the book is in the quality of the work produced
and how it relates to the artists’ normal output. For some of the
artists, in particular, the work they produced is very different in
style and quality to that which they are known for. In other words it
does not reflect well on the artist. I believe this is a consequence of
forcing a starting point that is not the artists norm or may reflect
other issues of time constraints, etc to which we are not privy. I
think this is more an issue for the artists concerned, but I believe
reflects the artificiality of the constraints placed on the artists.

Another limitation of the book, which individuals will need to
determine whether it is a limitation or advantage, is its predominant
emphasis on practical, technical processes rather than aesthetic and
theoretical matters. Now some artists did touch on some of this but the
clear emphasis is on the technology.

Now to the good points. What the book does do is document the fact that
even with a limited starting point, there are many workflows and
processes that a digital artist can use, even within the limitation of
the print. This is the real strength of the book and in this sense it
works well. The obvious target readership for this book are beginning
digital artists, illustrators and photographers who are looking for
options. It is thus a good book for first year undergraduate (college)
practical classes in digital media and may have some application in
second year practi
cal classes. I will probably use the book with my
first year design and multimedia students for the purpose of broadening
their thinking about technical process.

The other thing that the book does is to show that digital art is not a
push button affair, b
ut is very much a process driven by the artist. In
this sense it will be useful for students to show them that digital is
not an excuse for a quick fix. It may also help to overcome some of the
limited thinking about digital art that afflicts some in the people
organizing art fairs, photo exhibitions, etc.

Another obvious target for this book is the camera club level digital
photographer who is looking to move beyond simple image manipulation.
For such an audience it does an adequate job of showing some of the
possibilities.

So, does the book work? The answer is both yes and no, depending on
where you are coming from. For many people the answer will be yes, it
does work. For me, it is only a limited yes. I will use the book in my
teaching, but more because there is so little out there rather than it
being the definitive book. Frankly I was disappointed, because I
expected more from some of the artists involved and from the authors.

I would like to see the authors do a followup book, that does not
impose the limitation of limited starting images, adds some new media
people and adds a couple of mid to late career digital artists to the
mix. That would exploit the potential the book had, overcome the
limitations that I see and also, I think, allow some of the artists to
better show their talent.

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