Digital print and the pursuit of a perfect image

March 14, 1997

Guillem Ramos-Poqu! answers theorists who decry the use of computers as creative tools while ignoring the cultural crisis which threatens fine art.

Digital art has now been established internationally as a recognised practice within fine art printmaking. Often artists combine digital processes and digital prints with etching, lithography, screenprinting, monotype, collograph or linocut.

With the continuing developments in software, computer printers and the Internet, the possibilities of digital technology within fine art education, particularly within printmaking, photography and interactive media, have given rise to a wave of enthusiasm and optimism.

The new generation of fine art students increasingly expect access to this technology, proper resources and informed tuition in digital practices. Their enthusiasm is shared by many of the younger artists teaching in art colleges. The study of digital techniques within the fine art curriculum, using programs such as Adobe Photoshop, Fractal Design Painter, Quark Xpress, Adobe Premiere and Macromedia Director will not only provide students with tools for experimenting with their own creativity but also equip them with work-related transferable skills.

Objectors often argue that fine art printmaking is only acceptable when done entirely by hand. This is a prejudice of the old establishment against technology, which becomes a paradox when we discover that many artists have their own prints executed and editioned entirely by studio printmaking technicians or have their work printed by means of photolithography, photo-etching, or photo screen printing. Another complaint is that digital art is a dangerous threat to the hands-on practice of painting and threatens to replace it. Negative attitudes may arise because some art colleges can ill afford the computer equipment, and fine art lecturers often are not given the time, resources and support to learn the software. A further problem is that many commercial art galleries are reluctant to show digital prints and confused about how to price them.

Images created with a computer may be printed at high quality by dye sublimation or the Scitex Iris variable drop size inkjet process. The quality of dye sublimation prints from machines like the Tektronix 440 and 480 is like that of a colour photograph and, for some, more difficult to identify with the tradition of fine art printing on hand made paper.

The best method is Iris, which can print up to double imperial size. A colour Iris print on hand made paper (such as Arches or Somerset) looks like a colour lithograph. To take the image to a bureau you need something like a SyQuest or Jaz cartridge or an optical disk. Another colour printer, the Tektronix Phaser 300, can print on 120 or 130 gsm hand made paper. The inks are wax based and claim to be permanent, but compared to dye sublimation the colours seem cruder, and the image is coarser, without the high definition.

For large format the Encad NovaJet Pro colour inkjet printer can print up to A1 or A0 size. The prints are excellent but since the inks are not lightfast they are used mainly for display purposes. Since the inks are water-based the prints need to be laminated for protection.

Some artists use an inexpensive Epson colour inkjet printer with size A3 paper, making their large-format prints in sections and spray-mounting them neatly together on card.

CD-Roms and the Internet will play a crucial role in art education, particularly in the modularisation of certificated courses and degrees, long distance learning, and European and global educational schemes and exchanges. Individual artists are able to reach global networks and international audiences, breaking away from the constraints and limitations of their local art gallery establishment.

Digital images will never replace painting or sculpture. Painting, drawing and sculpture are practices which involve a tactile involvement with the object and with materials, a necessary experience which delivers insights which will not occur to the mere spectator or armchair theorist. These insights relate to the perceptual and creative principles of form, content, and visual language, and must be learned in the studio by combining art practice with appropriate theory.

These skills can be transferred to the new digital technologies and developed with them. For the painter or sculptor the computer can be an art form in its own right, or a sketch book for working out and experimenting with ideas, composition, colour, shape and image manipulation.

The issue of value, quality and judgement in fine art seems to be in disarray. In computer art, sophisticated technical effects are confused with innovations in form and content, and the vital perceptual and creative insights they depend on. Consequently, a serious discussion of artistic quality is disregarded or takes place at a very superficial level.

The high relativism of postmodernist theories has influenced the visual arts and created a boom in the international art gallery market with the promotion of shallow and ephemeral fashions, at the same time generating a crisis of confidence in fine art education. This needs to be addressed if fine art is to survive and regain its academic status and respect in culture and society. It is a common claim that unlike science, art does not make advances and cave paintings are as skilful as those of Vermeer, Turner or Bosch. Such a fallacy is the result of a failure to distinguish between form and content, means and ends, between our capacities for formal skill and their actual utilisation in a culture to represent its accumulated knowledge, ideas and interests. Whether digital art will survive is entirely dependent on how enlightened our culture becomes and whether it recognises the breakthroughs and discoveries made throughout our past traditions. The other option is that society capitulates to the shallow perceptions of mass culture and liberal capitalism which underpin present art fashions.

Guillem Ramos-Poqu! is head of fine art and theoretical studies at Kensington and Chelsea College, London.

The ArCade II touring exhibition of prints "which at some stage of their production involve the use of computers" features the work of 85 artists from 12 countries. It will be at the University of Derby (1-4 April) during the European conference on Computers in Art and Design Education (tel. +44 115 937 51, email 101501.2257@compuserve.com, web www.derby.ac.uk/cade97/). The exhibition reopens at Kensington and Chelsea College, London ( April 18 - May 14) where a symposium entitled Computers and Creativity: New Fields for Fine Art takes place on April 23.

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