Adapting to Online Art

Pygoya, January 2, 2005


     Not unlike the distant past, we walk into galleries and museums with a sense of reverence for the objects we behold. Like statues in a Gothic cathedral, the sculptures command a shared ceremonial appreciation that goes beyond its materialistic constitution.  For many art lovers, formal exhibition space provides a supportive platform to elevate one's spiritual experience in the presence of works of art. 

    For Web based art there is no such ritualistic support for images downloaded unto one's monitor.  No mind set for appreciating art through the portal of some architectural wonder, no fancy frames that define the enclosures of sacred paint.  We instead encounter Web art in the cubicle or at a desktop.  There is no tactile and ornate wooden frame but the sleek flat screen designed more for business than for admiring art. Without a set time for the unveiling of physical exhibiting through a social gathering to congratulate the artist and recognize his efforts, online art display instead is ubiquitous, tends to be anonymous, and also timeless, especially if Web pages are not updated periodically.  At the expense of less social ceremony and ritual, Webism instead capitalizes on perpetual availability in one's private space and at one's convenience.  It's art for the masses without the hype.  It's art that bypasses parochial regionalism and affords artists the democratic opportunity to contribute to cyber-culture of the "global village."

    Much of online based art is created with the compatible digital art tools, graphic software made for fine art production.  What has been the approach of programmers to construct such tools to accommodate the need of 2D artists?

     On a recent trip to my Giclee' printer's workspace (Sterling Editions in Springfield, Oregon), I had the opportunity to inspect a magnificent landscape in the photo realistic style that was being reproduced as a print edition.  It dawned on me that a photograph of the depicted Oregon coastal scene of lighthouse with a shoreline background would be more "realistic" than this artistic depiction of reality.  Yes, I was in awe of the masterful depiction of form, surface, and detail throughout every square inch of the painting.  But this is not the way our eyes see.  When we focus on something in our environment, everything in the retinal foreground and background is blurry.  There is limited visual "depth of field," just as in the operation of camera lenses. However here in this well crafted "photo realistic" painting, distance is suggested by the relative sizes of objects of the landscape captured on canvas. But when shifting attention around the work of art, each and every object, no matter how far it would be in the real scene from the viewer's position, was in complete focus.  As such the whole picture served as an illustration of feature details of objects in the scene, not unlike a catalog documenting the physical description of things in our world.  In this painting there is unrealistic clarity in the blades of grass in the foreground, bathing sunlight romanticizing aging stucco of the lighthouse tower at middle ground, and simultaneously accurate rocky detailing of the distant background mountain range.  Maybe this is how a hawk sees, but definitely not the human eye.

     It seems to me much of 2D digital art has more an affinity towards such photo realistic painting than it does with photography, even if both require a print for physical output.  When one produces graphic marks and color from a scrolling and clicking mouse, there is this sense of working on a visual plane.  This working frame of reference can be enhanced by adding the simulated texture of canvas or paper as a layered background.  The graphic software is designed foremost to lay down shapes and colors, almost with a Modernistic train of thought whereby paint remains paint and not building blocks for creating the illusion of real life objects.  Sharp edges between shapes and negative "space" are "blurred" to appear less crude to the eye.  Colors are "smeared" to de-pixelate any remaining "jaggies" that give away the image's digital origins.  Editing graphic commands are not  labeled "foreground," "middle ground," and "background" for the convenience and needs of the landscape artist.  In short, most 2D software is designed to create graphics that lie apparently on a flat surface, whether simulated artsy paper or simply on the surface of your monitor.

    Along with this bias towards working with graphic software tools that are designed less for depth illusion than for imitation of paint and other traditional art medium, there is the added change of traditional visual distance between spectator and work of art.  Unlike the normal separation between a painting on a museum wall and the viewer, we look at Web art close up on our desk.  This space is further closed with the onset of middle age as we squint and lean forward to discern.  Therefore we are inclined to inspect fine detail of virtual images, forced as if to walk close up to hung artwork, unnaturally discriminating the technical details of the surface, losing total comprehension of the overall statement of the work of art.  The medium of bright monitor light also directs attention to graphic rendering skills at the expense of the more detached aesthetic sense of depth and place. Edges become more contrasting if not refined for the sake of unnaturally close visual inspection dictated by the coupled desk monitor and seated viewer confinement.

     In summary, much of 2D Web digital art displays exacting graphic detail not unlike photo realistic painting.  There is a gravitation towards a sense of surface with universal depiction of detail down to the pixel level as opposed to effort to capture convincing illusory depth.  Social gathering to ritualize the experiencing of art is replaced by private viewing without ceremony.  Effort by 2D digital artists is to be make surrogate images of traditional art media under the scrutinizing overly close eye of the viewer while controlling the glare affect of emitted photons of light disguised as reflected light of paint pigment on paper or canvas.  Yet as we adopt to these new requirements of the presentation of art through the portal of the Internet,  new exciting visual imagery can be discovered by the spectator, more than compensating for departure from a brick and mortar art excursion.