Canned virtuosity


Dear Artist,

My last letter brought in a pile of emails and notes from artists. Janet Badger, for example, wrote, “With computer and scanner I have discovered that it’s possible to completely bypass the artist — from photo to my scanner, through Adobe, to linoleum print.” In the process she’s learned a thing or two and is making intelligent use of the media. Others reported that digital images shook up some of their perceived ideas, and renewed their capability for virtuosity.

Last night I was pushing some of my recent Morocco and Tunis photos through Photoshop. Smart blur, watercolour, movie grain and other choices produce remarkable images with the flick of a mouse. Sometimes less is more. I’ve included some of my efforts and how I made them.

In my recent jurying ventures it seems the fastest growing visual art-form is digitally enhanced photography. It’s popular because there’s obviously a great new potential here, and also it’s relatively easy. All you need is the equipment, curiosity and time. Basically, anyone can do it. Some do it very well. But walking down those walls of pixilated, blurred, combined, and posterized photos, I noticed some of my fellow jurors were yawning: “Ho hum.” “So what?” “Where’s the virtuosity?”

Apparently, “It looks just like a watercolour,” is not enough. It isn’t a watercolour — it’s an ersatz watercolour. It lacks another kind of magic that many of us have worked long and hard to perfect. More than anything these manipulations often lack a personal and particular style — the unique language that time endows on a continued effort. Photoshop work tends to take on the proscribed style that the wizards at Photoshop have worked out for us. Even with the vast number of combinations possible, I notice that Photoshop players entered in juried shows are coming to a lot of the same conclusions.

There’s something to be said for gobs of paint or genuine grainy gradations executed by a human being on a noble support. Like it or not, “hand-made” is still all the rage and the medium where the most applause comes in. I guess people like their artists to sing for their supper. Or maybe it’s just that some artists still enjoy the singing.

Best regards,


PS: “The function of art is to renew our perception. What we are familiar with we cease to see. The artist shakes up the familiar scene, and, as if by magic, we see it anew.” (Anais Nin)

Esoterica: The future of digital, as Janet Badger has found, often lies in what you do with digitalized images after you’ve taken them so far. I call this “second generation” creativity. It’s the imagination that’s brought to an existing miracle that makes significant art. But perhaps that’s the way it always was — imagination brought to an existing miracle.


A need to make art
Cora Jane Glasser, New York City, NY, USA


encaustic, oil & impasto on board
24 x 24 inches
by Cora Jane Glasser

I agree with Anais Nin’s comment, but it is from the viewers’ perspective. From the artist’s perspective, there is a need for the “hands on,” which is why we are still fascinated by those hands on the cave walls. We need to be at one with our materials and our art making. As human beings, we need to make art. A function of art is to satisfy that need.

The computer programs are just more tools for us to make art. What is scary is that everyone, the artist and the viewer, might be satisfied with the options the programs provide and never go further. But think about it, people still make representational art even though there are cameras, but the existence of photography opened the possibilities of abstraction. Now, people are “enhancing” their photography (sometimes photos of the work they have made the old fashioned way!) on computers.

I often wonder what I would do if I lost my arms. I’d have to make art with some other part of my body, as we know people do. If that meant grunting into a computer to make it draw, I’d do it. The need must come from somewhere deep in the DNA and brainwire. My choice of medium? Absolutely not. I’d be happy in that cave spitting charcoal at the wall.


Virtuosity in the product
Julie Rodriguez Jones, San Pablo, CA, USA


“Nevada Skies”
freehand, digital airbrush
19 x 8 inches
by Julie Rodriguez Jones

Digital art is just another style of art just as watercolor is different than oil, even when digital media tends to mimic the traditional. The comments in the letter tend to lead people to think that digital art is all lumped together into a “digital category. ” The words “digital art” do not mean that everyone is doing photo manipulation. In addition to that category there is digital manipulation of one’s own fine art work, there are freehand digital paintings, there is computer generated artwork and a whole variety of other types.

Even those doing digital manipulation of their own photos deserve the respect to be viewed for whatever their final product is — not the process. I’m sure the photographers out there do not believe that there is no virtuosity in photography so why not in the manipulation of their own photos? The comments in the letter do a disservice to fine photographers.


Absence of the soul
Louise Corke, Southport, Australia


“Roses A Plenty”
pastel, 63 x 45 centimeters
by Louise Corke

digitalI like to be able to perceive through both the conscious and unconscious mind the evidence of a human having passed across the canvas. This is sometimes seen as a pencil line or squiggle, a less than perfect drawing, a departure from the lines, a slightly muddy colour area, or simply an innate sense that this has been lovingly created by another. When an image is rendered by “machine” alone, there is a sense of the absence of a soul, an emptiness that is felt rather than seen. I have stood before a beautiful painting and been drawn to something beyond the image, something that reaches out and tugs at my heart, something that touches me on the inside. I have never had this experience before a ‘machine’ image. Sure I can appreciate the skill and work that goes into creating these images, however for me I need to feel, sense and experience that ‘human’ element that allows me to participate with the artist in enjoying the creation.


Confidential digital art recipe
Lorna Dockstader, Calgary, AB, Canada


“Tangle falls”
original painting
by Lorna Dockstader

As with anything else there are beginners who would tend to use the Photoshop software using the available filters so that their work and style looks like everyone else’s; and then there are the computer wizards who start without a photo or without using the filters in the initial stages to create works that are uniquely their own. How did she do that? What are the steps she used, questions I’m often asked and choose not to answer, afterall that’s what makes my work unique.





Digital magic
Elsa LaBaw, Manzanita, OR, USA


“Flowers in Ball”
digital image
by Elsa LaBaw

Your letter was forwarded to me by a friend who thought I would be interested in this discussion because I am a digital artist myself.

You imply that you think people who do digital art just snap a photo, pop it into the computer, and voila, it comes out looking like a watercolor. The examples of your digital manipulations, in my mind, lack skill and knowledge of what can be accomplished “with the (mere) flick of the mouse”. You may paint very well, but your expertise in Photoshop appears limited, at best. Photoshop and computer design applications are tools just as valid as brushes, paint and the canvas are tools for painters. I beg to differ with you. It does take creative imagination, a trained eye and a basic understanding of art/design principles to use the tools that a computer affords to make art through this medium. It is not “relatively easy” and contrary to what you may think, NOT EVERYBODY CAN DO IT! Yes, if used right out of the application package, the work does tend to take on a cookie-cutter wizardry, but, if used intelligently and creatively, and more extensively, those tools can take the artist as far as her/his imagination will allow, even to effecting the very highest quality art comparable to paint and brushes.

It’s time for you “artists” to get off your respective high horses and exercise gobs of charity toward those who can create without gobs of paint. Personally, most of the patrons of my digital art are watercolorists and framers who can’t tell that my work is not an original watercolor and would argue otherwise. So, I guess that makes me a magician, rather than an artist.


Tools of the trade
Raymond St. Arnaud, Victoria, BC, Canada


“Model for a Glacial Landscape”
19 x 12 1/8 inches, Epson 3000 print, 2002
by Raymond St. Arnaud

I have to strongly disagree and at the same time strongly agree with your comments on PhotoShop. First a few comments on the samples posted on the web page. I see no indication of personality or sense of individuality in these images. They represent the surface of the PhotoShop language of image manipulation. Like any language, PhotoShop has many aspects and subtleties. You would not expect to write a novel with a vocabulary of 6 nouns and 3 prepositions. The fault in your examples of filters, is they’re used as end products, rather than as components in creating a personal “brush stroke.”

I use PhotoShop to create manipulated images and have been successful in exhibiting them, especially in juried shows open to all art forms. In 1998 I had to choose what kind of computer image to tender to exhibitions and invented a style that echoes traditional art, a cross between etching/engraving and lithography. You will not find a one-stop filter to emulate these images. They would take about 3 weeks to create.

I stopped creating these kind of images about 2 years ago, because of my strongly shared perception with your point of view, that there was a vast movement to the “quick and dirty” filter tricks in PhotoShop, so I created another new image style that would distance me further from quick and dirty images.

You shouldn’t blame the PhotoShop designers for the results you are seeing, any more than the maker of pencils for bad drawings. PhotoShop is just a tool, and like all tools, you have to be willing to spend the time and energy to learn its language and eventually create original results. It’s a case where knowledge substitutes for craft, so you can still sing for your supper.


Re-discovering the gobs of paint
Ivan Kelly, Toledo, OR, USA


“Red and Grey on Yaquina Bay”
original painting, 24 x 36 inches
by Ivan Kelly

I predict in our lifetime painting as we know it will become extinct. All art will derive from programs developed by computer wizards at Photoshop and similar enterprises. However, sometime in the far off keyboard and plastic future an inquisitive and highly inventive individual will pick up a stick, attach some fibers to one end, dip them into whatever attractive looking liquid is at hand and discover that amazing, unique and very personal marks can be made. Best of all it will be fun and even the ‘ accidents ‘ will add variety and interest. Hey presto, a whole new method of personal expression will open up that’s no longer slave to the keyboard and disc.

Could it be that that the trend toward art made by computer programs will only serve to highlight the differences to that made by the truly infinite capability of the human brain and limb? One is not or will ever be a substitute for the other and no amount of programmer genius will ever make it so. Anything else is wishful thinking just like the prediction that computers would eliminate paper, book publishing and create unlimited leisure time. We are all working smarter now, not harder. Yeah, right.


Musical perspective
Paul Klemperer, Austin, TX, USA


“Texas Tenure”
Listen to Track 10: Remembrance (mp3 format)

Reading about the relation of computer-enhanced photography to painting, I was struck by the analogous dynamic between rap music and performed musical instruments. For years music purists have called rap and scratch artists non-musicians, or less “creative” artists. But the idea of “second generation” creativity opens up new artistic and philosophical terrain. Samplers, loop machines, digital recorders have become modern musical instruments, which use chunks of sound rather than individual notes.

In my jazz history class I argue that the principles of improvisation, commentary and innovation can apply in the manipulation of prerecorded chunks of sound, particularly where these chunks have historical context. Common examples are James Brown’s signature cries, as well as his basslines and horn riffs. Artists remix these chunks not only to create new combinations of sound, but to reinsert identifiable musical motifs from one era into another. Perhaps what is lacking in digital photographic art is this element of commentary, the art of play. How one plays with computer technology is the defining criterion of our 21st century techno-culture. It is all too easy to become a glorified computer programmer, since we all increasingly need to become computer literate. The question is: Where is the dividing line? When is the machine an extension of our humanity, and when are we an extension of its mechanization? Are we headed toward a symbiotic future, where we perceive art partly as dream and partly as algorithm? Perhaps the human brain was always wired that way.


Unique pottery
Cindy Clarke, Edmonton, AB, Canada


“Northern Lights teapot”
by Cindy Clarke

Being potters we face the same situations when we compare our work to others. Pottery has been around for thousands of years and through many mechanical means a single design can be reproduced hundreds of times through moulds or jiggering. To paraphrase, “It looks just like pottery.”

To date each of our pieces remains hand made, and so “unique” (one of the most abused words in the English language!). Our challenge then is producing functional pottery which somehow stands out in the crowd. For a current competition for example we have expanded on our basket handled teapot design to create a two and a half litre teapot, which is very dramatic yet functional. We are convinced it is the only one like it in the world, and that is the value of an original hand made watercolour over a computer generated water colour (or oil, etc.) It is and always will be the only one that the artist creates that is exactly like that. At the point where the artist or potter said it is finished, something was created which will never be exactly recreated again. To hold or own that piece is to truly have something unique.


Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, TX, USA


henna limestone, one of a kind
12 h x 23 w x 6 d inches
by Kelly Borsheim

As much as I love photography, its widespread accessibility is saturating the market with less personal images. Take out the tactile quality and things lose their appeal for me. It seems the photographers I love best truly understand their medium — and still enjoy printing and manipulating their images in a darkroom, waving their hands between light source and paper to work the light. In the case of sculpture, if Michelangelo had created his masterpieces in bronze, he would still be an amazing sculptor. But the fact that he carved them out of stone with his own hands (vs. today’s digital cutting of stone) makes his works so much more stunning. Use of medium is important. Art has more power when there is more of a person’s soul in it.



Digital art test lab
Janet Toney, Peoria, AZ, USA


“Tina” altered figure Tina — digital photo of my pencil sketch, altered with photo editing program — many many steps — changing hue, saturation, light, dark, and more.

I agree, nothing will ever take the place of hand made, original idea, artwork. I do think the computer can be just as creative. I have been “playing” with mine, and my art for some time now. It is just as satisfying to me as painting, and drawing, because actually I am doing these things. The difference is I’m using my digital camera and computer.

Usually I begin with my own hand drawing, or a digital photo I took, so it is actually my art and not something borrowed from someone else. I then use my photo editing program and/or drawing programs to alter the image. I never stop at one small alteration, but continue to work until I have an image I think is interesting, and pleases me.





Artist’s signature
Cherie Hanson


“2 neon eggs” With the introduction of filters the actual shape and tension of the angle of the eggs comes through more clearly. I have gone in with a virtual brush to highlight certain areas and I was able to really recreate the “burn” from the light coming in the window.

I am a digital artist who is moving into my fourth year with the technical experience of taking original photographs uploading them to my computer, using paint shop pro to alter, to layer, to manipulate the final image so that I can “inform” it with the emotional context within which the photo was taken. What I have discovered is that as with all forms of expression, the early stages are about completing the two goals of developing technical skills, and developing a decided voice or vision. Yes, there are many ways to alter an image. Just as there are many ways to manipulate the reading surface of a piece of paper, or canvas. The manipulation itself feels artificial to those who have just begun. In the same way that picking up any tool is self-conscious in the early stages, so is using filters. After persistence, after thousands of hours of utilizing the tool there is no distance between expression and technique.

I have shown my work in many venues and what people always say is, “I knew it was you.” They see the message, the style, the world view that I delude myself into thinking is reality coming through the work. There is a playing with planes of vision, intensification of color, contrast, playing with shapes. There is a beauty which upon further investigation has elements of the bizarre or uncomfortable in it. There is a demand to examine what appears to be a “true” image and ask what is that? Where did that come from?

Creativity is not reliant on limiting access to media. Neither is the use of media, of new techniques just to “see” what they can do as a form of art. It is the artist’s vision, commitment and self knowledge that ultimately is the path. Is the artist saying something we can hear… no matter what the language.




Philip H. Williams
Narberth, PA, USA


“Is it blood or wine spilt…”
digital illustration




You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2003.

That includes Alcina Nolley who wrote, “There are other programs besides Photoshop. Corel Painter has tools that allow the artist to maintain and express her/his own personal style. With Painter you can produce the magic.”

Karen Goodfellow who wrote, “On a consciousness level using Kinesiology as a barometer, the more the final product is removed from the direct human hand the less people are attracted to it or feel a connection (ie photography calibrates less than paint, digital art watercolor less than watercolor, and giclee less than originals). THis is from an amazing book called Power vs Fore by Dr David Hawken (or it could be from his next 2 books in the trilogy on human consciousness-can’t remember which book).”

Carol Cain of Florida, USA who wrote, “I enjoy manipulating images of my paintings with computer software. I feel one step removed from actually manipulating the real life photo and this eases my creative conscious (somewhat).


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