Technique over Feeling

I’ve realised something, as of late. There is a tendency among digital artists to care more about the tools, the technique and the tricks than the actual painting – the finished result doesn’t seem as important as the path you take to get there.

Instead of comments of, “beautiful painting”, you’ll get “that’s awesome – how did you do it?”

People want to know the precise brushes, the settings, the size of the canvas and the program. They want to know what colours you picked, what settings you used for your brush – and if you can share the brush itself, all the better.

In the end, a lot of people (often myself included) obsessing over how something is created rather than the creation itself. I’m not sure why this is. It might be connected to the curiosity we have for the medium itself – for how the program works, for how the functions function… but there’s a danger in it, painting pictures that are only technically appealing but has little, if anything, to offer beyond that.

I think digital artists need to forget, if only for half their pictures, that they’re not painting with an ordinary brush – and I think that the viewers of the images need to stop asking for tips and tricks as if there’s a magic button that will make everything perfect. Perhaps put a bit more focus on what the picture is, rather than trying to discern how it was done so that they can copy the technique.

There’s no ‘trick’, it’s all hard work.

To use an example, one of the most common questions I get is – what colour is skin? There is no single, simple answer to that. Skin tones vary insanely from person to person, and even if they didn’t – they are deeply affected by the light, the surrounding materials, and other such factors. They vary from picture to picture. The nose isn’t the same colour as the brow. These things aren’t technical issues, they’re not something you can get right by being told how to do it – there is no secret palette that you can use, or a single colour that will change the whole appeal.

This having been said, I love parts of what this focus on the aspect awards us with. We get to learn how to paint, we criticise and we help each other out. We work hard on perfecting our techniques, and I suppose once we’re getting somewhere – once the whole computer-artist thing isn’t so new anymore, maybe people will let go of the tools and focus on the paintings instead.

busy time in the lab

The last one and a half weeks have been very hectic in HUMlab – in a good way. We have had three visitors: Nathan Shedroff (experience design), Nicholas Gessler (simulation, artificial life) and Katherine Hayles (professor of English and much more). Nathan was here almost a week and Nicholas and Katherine stayed for two days. They have all given me (and others) many ideas about this field and the future of the HUMlab.

Katherine Hayles was here in 2002 and she is just one of a kind. I thought her lecture was brilliant (streamed version here, mp3 version here)- a careful construct grounded in science and fiction and delivered in a fluid and thought-provoking way. Abstract here.


About 45 people or so turned up for her seminar I think. A great mix of people (teacher education, physics, informatics, literature, English, ethnology, engineering etc.).

Katherine 1.JPG

This was yesterday and we also staged an whole-day Open house activity the same day. The morning was somewhat slow (but good) and from lunch onwards it was just a blast: a group of media students interested in blogs rushed in during lunch time, at 1 the seminar started and there were a great many people in the lab till about 4:30 pm. We served refreshments, showed projects, talked to people etc. All the graduate students were around and there was a very good feeling to the whole thing.

Open house.JPG

A concrete result of the open house is that quite a few people have registered for a user account. Yesterday was also the deadline for a big EU application we have been working on. A busy day!

upcoming seminars: Gessler and Hayles

This coming week there will be two HUMlab seminars. Both seminars will be live streamed, archived and made available as mp3 files. Should be very interesting. Also, Katherine Hayles is the first seminar speaker to do two seminars in HUMlab. Last time she was here was May 24, 2002. The stream from her 2002 talk “Computing the Human” is available here. We are happy to have her visit HUMlab again! And of course, we are looking forward to hearing Nicholas Gessler talk about artificial life and culture.

September 20, 1.15 pm CET
ALiCE – Artificial Life, Culture and Evolution
Nicholas Gessler, University of California at Los Angeles

The virtual realities of artificial life, artificial culture and evolutionary computation are changing what it means to describe, explain and understand the complex world we live in. The computer on our desktops is emblematic of a much deeper intellectual discovery: the realization that the driving force in nature, from the origin of matter to great cultural accomplishments of science and art, is computational at its core.

According to this view the world evolved from the bottom-up through the process of emergence: the assembly of increasing dynamical hierarchies of self-organization from a multitude of agents adhering to local rules who interact in complex ways to form global patterns of behavior. Simulation is the process of constructing artificial worlds. We simulate in order to imagine how things could be and to reconsider how things really are. Thus simulation can both entertain and educate. In simulation, we can transcend our own individual limited perceptions of our social and physical environments.

We take a look at the epistemology and practice behind these new sciences of complexity through small programming applications written in C++ for Windows PCs. Through this portal we gain a critical and informed perspective on the impact of computation in culture, both popular and academic, scientific and political, artistic and literary.

September 21, 1.15 pm CET
My Mother Was a Computer: Digital Subjects and Literary Texts
Katherine Hayles, University of California at Los Angeles

Mathematician Stephan Wolfram has recently proposed that many different kinds of complex systems, including human thought and action, can be modeled using cellular automata. These very simple computational systems have demonstrated that they are capable of generating complex patterns using simple rules. According to physicist Ed Fredkin, cellular automata underlie physical reality on a subatomic level; in his view, nature itself is software running on a Universal Computer. This presentation will look critically at these claims, asking whether we should consider them as physical models or as over-determined metaphors that would inevitably emerge in a historical period when computation is pervasive. This issue, and its proliferating implications, will be explored through Greg Egan’s print novel Permutation City, which imagines a world in which it is possible to simulate a person’s consciousness inside a computer, creating a Copy that has all the personality and memories of the original.

response: podcasting and education

This is supposed to be a comment on this entry, but I keep getting errors, so I will post it here 🙂

Interesting points so far. Is podcasting reinventing radio? This reminds me of the same discussion that surrounded blogging in it’s beginnings…is blogging journalism. To me, the point is not whether or not podcasting is reinventing radio, but who is doing the podcasting and why or what are they using the medium for. Like blogging, podcasting is giving a voice to those without big money contracts…although due to companies like <a href=””>Sirius</a>, many unique shows are getting paid to podcast….but I digress 😛 Yes, podcasting is very similar to radio, just as blogging is similar to journalism. What makes both mediums interesting is the creativity factor. There (in theory) is not an editor telling one what to say. The creator is given free artistic license. And yes, there are valid arguments about blogs and podcasts being a worthless source of mainstream information; one must remember, however, their purpose has never been to be mainstream. Podcasts and blogs are guerilla news. They are individuals that burn with a passion for something…they must be because the time that they invest into their podcast or blog is very rarely compensated for. I think this is especially true of podcasts. Editing the audio for a podcast is extremely time consuming. Most that I have listened to are passionate about either a topic or about the act of communicating.

As for podcasting in education…I believe that are endless possibilities…in language learning you can work with authentic examples, collect samples from the native culture, practice your new language and share with others, create a corpus of language learning which may help new learners hear ‘mistakes’ in pronunciation, etc. In art, you can work with sound samples, create soundscapes, etc. And even to get a bit farfetched, beyond listening to podcasts on a particular subject, you can do practical ‘word problems’ using bit rate speeds versus upload/download times and sizes.

Blogs and podcasts are a tool which I believe can be used in classrooms both creatively and effectively. They are low cost, authentic and can challenge the student to think outside of the proverbial box of the paper and pen assignment.

2D and 3D

I’ve never been able to model in 3D, myself.

When I mention to someone that I do digital art, that is what they assume that I do. It often seems as if though they are disappointed when I say, no, I can’t spin the characters in my paintings around and show what they look from behind. 3D is something else entirely from what I do. I find it absolutely entrancing, but I just can’t seem to grasp the techniques, myself.

It is a little bit too logic for my confused, illogical mind. Instead of merely painting the way light falls, for instance, you have to actually figure out the exact angle of the spotlight or the precise colour of the sunlight. Not to mention the fact that instead of painting a nose from a specific point of view, I have to somehow model it so that the nose is ‘there’, existing in some kind of imaginary space.

What can I say? There’s just too much thinking involved. Modeling in normal clay, for instance, is another matter altogether… to me, a lot more intuitive than computer modeling, and easy enough for me to get into.

I have nothing but utmost respect for the people who actually know how to model in 3D. Even the ones that do little but model simple square boxes with a touch of texture – it is still beyond what I could pull off in a program like that.

And the people who create such great beauty… who use this relatively new medium to make images that I can’t help but gasp and gawk at – they have my most sincere admiration and envy.

Some interesting articles on creating 3D images (by some of my favourite artists)

I know a thing or two about the programs now. I am fascinated by Maya, amazed by Zbrush and intrigued by the rest – but trying them out for myself? I think not. I feel as if though I am stubbornly stuck in my old ways, where 3D art is concerned. I might love watching it and trying to figure it out, but I’m too much of a chicken to attempt it for myself (oh, I did once, but it was frustratingly difficult, my result was awful, and I ended up disliking the process. The day modeling in 3D is as easy as sculpting in traditional media – count me in! Until that day, I leave it to the awesome people already hard at it, producing incredible results.).

Anyway. Digital art does not equal 3D art, but 3D is definitely a part of it. What I’m into, people refer to as 2D – which always strikes me as a little funny. The definition is true enough though, I suppose.

Podcasting and Education

AUTHOR: geoffrey

As with every new technology, my inner teacher asks if the technology can be used in my teaching. Podcasts, with the new version of Apple’s iTunes, have become easy to download and listen to (if you have an iPod), and many of my students now have iPods, but can we use podcasting as an educational aide? Is anyone trying it or thinking about it? One source of educational channels is the The Education Podcast Network. A source of articles on podcasting and education can be found at, e-Learning Centre: Podcasting.

I can’t helf worrying that we are reinventing radio.