Sunday, November 29, 2009

The creative vocabulary

Seascape - M Charlton
Oil painting, using only my fingers

My post yesterday was about images; it concluded with the opinion that computers are not equal the possibilities of traditional drawing and painting. The response from followers was largely in agreement, but one of the comments made me think: Elizabeth asked, 'are we just old gits?'

I don't think so. But first I should say some positive things about computers - or more correctly, digital media - lest I seem too much of a Luddite.

Digital media has brought with it a vast range of new and immensely creative possibilities, many of which we now take for granted. It's capacity to incorporate images (moving and static) with sound, words and interactive components is unsurpassed. What's more, you can create digital media at home, production is quick and cheap, and distribution to millions of people is near instant.

In a more direct comparison to drawing, programmes like Paint or Draw offer a simple and intuitive means to create images - even young children can find their way within minutes. There is barely a PC without a similar programme and printing, even from a cheap home printer, creates good quality images.

So why, with all this possibility, why do we not have more iconic images produced by computers? (I'm not talking about cartoons and moving images here - but plain images that would compare to a painting or drawing) And of those we do, why do they concentrate into the sphere of graphics rather than fine art? Accepting it is a huge generalisation, what is it about these images that makes them so much less interesting than 'proper drawing'?

I put it to you that they are flat! And that in using pixels rather than 'marks' to produce the image, they lack the creative vocabulary of drawing and painting. To extend the metaphor, computer images converse with the minimum of words - at best, this limited vocabulary encourages direct speech, easily understood and immediate on the senses (such as most graphic art); more often it is limited, crude and uninteresting. Drawing and painting, in comparison, has a vocabulary that is unbounded.

For many years I painted with a group of artists. We would meet six times a year, taking over a studio for the weekend. Always, at the start of our meetings we would begin with an exercise called mark making. I will describe it in detail, because in doing so I think it might explains what I'm struggling to say - it is also a fun exercise to try, by yourself of with your children.

Mark making

Start with a large piece of paper on an easel or a table. Take a pen, charcoal, pencil - whatever - and draw a line. Look at it. Then make a different mark: some shading perhaps, or a thinner line. Repeat the process, always making a different mark: dot, dash, smudge, splatter, wide, immense, longer, shorter...

When you've exhausted the possibility of one item - say charcoal - move onto another: pastels, acrylic paints, pencils... Try different colours, different textures - always you are trying to make a different type mark.

Gradually all your art equipment should be unpacked- oil paints, chalks, rollers, brushes, palate knives - nothing should be left unused. Remember, you are NOT trying to make a picture - you making as many different marks as you can.

And when your equipment is all laid out and you've exhausted your ideas, think again. What about complex marks (one colour or line drawn over another) or negative marks (scratching away at what is already there) - maybe you want to spit on the paper, or add some earth, or stick on a toffee wrapper, or print with potato, or your hands, fingers, nails.

Keep going - how many more can you make? Is there a mark somewhere else in the room that you can steal? How about taking a tube of paint and squeezing it thickly onto the paper - then smudging some of it, adding some sand - building an impasto for more variety. Or perhaps use a domestic paint brush and swipe it across the paper.

Don't be precious. Remember, you're not making a picture. And now I think of it, why not rip it in half and stick it back together like a collage. Or pass the whole thing through a mangle, walk on it, cry over it, kiss it.... We usually stopped after twenty minutes but I reckon I could have gone on for hours. My record was over five hundred marks.

And ultimately, this is why paintings and drawings are more interesting than graphics and computer images. Of course, this isn't universally so - there are excellent graphics just as there are dreadful drawings; there are superb books written with limited vocabulary (Runt by Niall Griffiths uses only 700 words) and iconic pictures with minimal marks (Andy Warhol). But I am talking in general terms not absolutes - and I haven't even touched on the question of feel and the physical response that you cannot have with a computer.

Digital media has undoubtedly added to our creative possibilities, as did photography before it. I am glad it has arrived in my lifetime, but I am equally glad that new media seldom kills the old. And when it comes to drawing and the images we hang on our walls, I believe the 'old gits' still have the upper hand.


  1. I completely agree!!

    My friend is a very talented artist who does very dark, comic type work. He always used to draw and paint everything by hand but now he draws the image and 'paints' it using the computer and I think his work has lost something.....

    C x

  2. I think that computers are just another medium.

    Photography has until very recently been limited in its textures, even to just black and white, but there is some excellent photographic art.

  3. I wrote at the weekend that I feel like I cheat when I use photoshop. Maybe it's because it's missing that bit of your soul that leaks out from your hands!
    Thanks for popping by. Nice to meet you!

  4. I can't paint by hand and when I've tried those online paint things I can't paint with them either. I've got to face it - I just can't paint. I don't mind too much though - I do things that others can't do.

    I do like that painting.

  5. I agree. Digital media is like the air-brushing craze of the eighties. It has it's place but is one small tool in the artist's tool box and shouldn't be relied upon as a do-all / fix-all creative outlet.

  6. I am really glad to have found your blog. You have some great ideas going on. This particular post has reminded me of mark marking at art school. Thanks.

    I believe digital media is only a baby (compared to painting). Yes, a computer is just a tool, and it has big limitations on how we interact with it. The way we maniputate a computer image is more than likely to change as technology changes. One day you might be about to lick your screen and leave an impression.

    Currently the internet only searches and classifies words. (Power to writers) but that may also change when images can be read.

    Anything that is a masterpiece in its field, art, writing, film, graphic design - has an idea behind it. Thanks for the thinking.