Saturday, June 19, 2010

Virtual Art

I've always been on the fence in terms of how I feel towards virtual art. On one hand, I don't see it as "Fine Art," and tend to place a higher value on traditional materials: paint, chalk, ink, clay, plaster, pastels, canvas, etc. I think this is because I recognize the skill, work & cost that's involved in traditional art work, and am more familiar working with traditional supplies.. On the other hand, I can't deny that training and skill are just as important in the digital arena. Besides, let's face it, when it comes to discussing art, creativity trumps it all. Creativity aside, the cost of materials, time and labor do factor in, in terms of value. With virtual art, the artist has to invest in the equipment and software necessary to produce work, however those materials do not deplete with use and results can be infinitely copied. With traditional materials, every work of art is guaranteed to be unique.

There's something to be said for the interaction between an artist and his/her tools of trade. It is a totally different experience when you physically interact with tangible materials, versus simulated versions. The results may be similar, but the artist is missing out on the kinesthetic experience, when he/she creates their artwork through virtual means. As an artist, I love the different smells, textures and feel of working with different materials. Each material has a unique feel to it and reacts differently depending on what you mix it with and what techniques you use.

Being a disabled artist, there are so many things that I miss out on, due to my paralysis. The freedom to use a variety of materials is one of the many things I can no longer do. Although I still paint, there are tons of other materials and tools that are not suited well to be used with my mouth. Plus, the sensations of feeling things with your hands is totally different from the sensations you might feel using your foot or mouth. Even switching from one hand to another can be a new experience. If you've ever tried working with your weaker hand, I'm sure you can relate.

I miss being able to feel the tension of the scissors as they press down on the paper, and the sound the paper makes, as you slice through it. I miss the smoothness of gliding markers across paper and the smells of the ink. I miss being able to fold, crinkle, pinch, pull, glue, cut, tear and tape paper. I was never really good with clay, but miss experimenting with it. Clay can be cold and wet or oily and slimy. You can squish clay through your fingers and mold it with your hands. Building a sculpture might mean chipping away at a stone, welding metal together or sawing pieces of wood. Two materials I don't miss are chalk and charcoal. I hate the feeling of chalk: the dustiness of it, the scratchy sound it makes on paper and the dryness in creates in my hands. Some people love using chalk and charcoal, because it's great for drawing and easy to create values, by rubbing or smearing it. All of the common materials for two dimensional artwork can be simulated with computer software. Many art programs can mimic how materials blend and overlap as well. However, with digital art, you lose out on tactile texture. You can print out a picture that looks rough in texture, but it will only have the smooth surface of the paper.

Most traditional art supplies are messy. Materials like chalk, pastels and crayons are meant to be held, and often times have no covering and you must touch them directly with your skin. Such materials are not suited well for using your mouth. There are many supplies that I'd need to greatly modify or cover to use them. Although I could add coverings to make certain materials safe to put in my mouth, it often makes the materials cumbersome and awkward to grip. Wet materials like paint and ink work best for mouth art, because they are designed to be applied with instruments (brushes and pens) and provide the artist with a much safer distance to the material and work surface. The other challenge to mouth art, is that it is not easy to work in color (other than paint) or erase. Constantly having to switch out markers or color pencils is annoying and the inability to flip the pencil over, or needing a separate eraser is frustrating. There are many materials I avoid, because it is not worth the aggravation. For me, the paintbrush is the easiest to control, correct and use color. Using my mouth is also very different from using my hands and while I'm grateful to be able to at least paint, it's an entirely new experience.

I'll admit, virtual art also takes skill and talent. With most professional grade art software, you still need to start out with good drawing skills and knowledge of color. There's tons of high tech software that requires training. Most computer artists and animators have to know how to translate 3D objects onto a flat surface, mimic lighting effects and textures. Artists that make computer animation need strong understanding of traditional drawing skills (pencil and paper), before they pick up a mouse and a keyboard. I realize that most professional digital artists have fine art backgrounds as part of their training. The thing that irks me about digital art, is that there are a lot of cheaper programs out there that let the average person cut, paste and tweak photos or prefab images and then call it art. It's similar to professional photographers using an SLR 35mm manual camera, versus Joe Shmoe with his point and click, fully automatic, digital camera. It just gets on my nerves when untrained people make cookie cutter art and pass it off as original, fine art. It's totally different if you create original digital art, using your own ideas and skills. Unfortunately, the average person doesn't always know what they're looking at or the work (or lack thereof) involved in creating a work of art. That is why I sometimes get annoyed when I see "art" made from prefab clip art or someone just fooling around with filter effects on Photoshop. I feel that some computer programs make it too easy to create "digital art", which detracts from the validity and skill involved in making true, high quality art (digital or traditional).

Despite my misgivings with digital art, I've embraced the future and have begun experimenting with different possibilities. Sharing information on the materials and process I use, with the viewer, is an important part of adding value and validity to my art. I figure, if viewers are informed about the different types of software out there, they can better assess the work for themselves. It's important to me that people know what goes into making each piece and the ideas behind it. As long as I stick to that plan, I feel confident about showing my digital art, alongside my traditional paintings.

Technology has given me back the ability to easily sketch and draw with color. Although I was already familiar with Photoshop and Paint, using the mouse makes it very difficult for me to maintain control or accuracy. The program that works best for me is Sketchbook Pro, which is on my iPad. The iPad is wonderful, because it uses touch and I can draw directly on the screen, as if I were using a paintbrush, or pen. I can easily swap colors, textures (mimicking different materials), erase and store my work. I was pleasantly surprised (and shocked) at how precise you can be on it, using a stylus and at how well it simulates various materials. The other great thing about the iPad is that it's compact and light. There's no mess involved either, so I'm free to draw almost anywhere, including in bed. It has been wonderful being able to draw and sketch again.

So far I've posted a handful of drawings on my Flickr site. I also signed up for "Project Sketchbook", which is through the Arthouse Co-op. I'll be using my iPad to create all the sketches I plan to use in my book. Once the sketchbook is full, it'll get mailed back to the Co-op in Brooklyn. The sketches will ultimately go on tour across the country to several exhibits and finally stored in the Brooklyn Art Library, where people can access the drawings in person or online. I'll be able to keep track of where my book is and who's seen it. It's a great chance to raise awareness for spinal cord injuries and so far it's been fun working on it.

One other digital art venture I recently took part in was an online contest for a game I play, called "Super Poke Pets!" or "SPP" for short. The game is by Slide and available to play on social networking sites, like Facebook and Myspace. In the game you adopt a virtual pet and earn points and virtual coins, by caring for it and by having play dates with your friend's virtual pets. The coins you earn are used to buy items to decorate your pet's habitat. Players can place as many items in their habitats as they like, in an infinite amount of ways. There are millions of people that currently play and they have a rather active online forum, where players can share ideas, trade items and show off their habitats. I fell in love with game for it's cute style and open ended possibilities for creativeness. I enjoy going on the forums and seeing how other people decorate their habitats. The staff chooses a handful of the best habitat entries each week and winners get a special collector's badge and their habitat earns a spot in the game's hall of fame. There are tons and tons of amazing habitats and really creative, innovative ways that players use the in game items to create pictures. I enter my creations from time to time as well.

Back in January, I entered a picture I made, called "Picasso Inspired Habitat," which was inspired by Picasso's painting, " Girl Before a Mirror." In the picture I recreated Picasso's original painting and then added a detail of the girl's face and her reflection on each side. It was really well received and I ended up winning the "Staff Choice Award" badge and it was added to the hall of fame. It was pretty cool getting the recognition and getting to see my habitat pop up on the hall of fame window, every once in a while. They also contacted me about sharing my story with an LA Times reporter. Apparently, they had my habitat hanging in the office and they pitched the idea to the reporter, who was covering something else for Slide. I was happy to talk with them, figuring it'd be more exposure for SCIs on the west coast. We did a phone interview, but the reporter said she couldn't promise that anything would be printed. She was just interested in the story & how I created the picture. So far no word back from them about it.

Then, about a month ago, a staff member from SPP emailed me and I thought it might be regarding the newspaper article. Instead, it was about a new series of items they planned on releasing. They sell gold items, which cost real money and one of the series they do is called the "Masterpiece" series. Each masterpiece is an SPP recreation (which replaces people with SPP pets) of a famous painting and sells for about $50. The masterpieces are rare releases and purchasers get a special badge for buying them. The new series they wrote to me about, is called "Community Classics" and each gold item is a replica of community members' habitats. They are equally as rare as masterpieces, sell for $20 and also grant buyers a badge. To my surprise, they decided to use my Picasso habitat as their first "Community Classic" item! I got a special creator badge, $25 worth of game gold and my own item. It was super exciting getting to see my picture on the Facebook announcement and in the forums. I got to write about the picture (included in the forum post) and it was great exposure for my cause. I've gotten a ton of nice comments and feedback and it's been a good opportunity to promote my website.


  1. Way to go Christina! Your SPP Picasso habitat shows off your exceptional creativity. I always enjoy looking at your pet habitats, but this one is really special. Aunt Mary Ellen

  2. That's so cool about SPP and the LA Times reporter!

    I found your Flickr page and am still amazed at what you're doing with the iPad. Unbelievable.

  3. i saw the flickr photos also. u are truly an amazing artist...those ipad ones were really impressive.