Introduction for The Complete Guide to Digital Illustration
From my introduction to The Complete Guide to Digital Illustration, Ilex Press, England, 2003
Until a few years ago, computer-generated art was not much more than a collection of slick, machine-made images. They were images that lacked any human interest. Everything looked pretty much the same–it was the look that the available programs could produce. At first the novelty of this new form of image-making was intriguing, but it soured into cliché. When I saw my twentieth checkerboard grid stretching far away into the Dali-like landscape, reflecting the realistic clouds floating above it, I was sure that this medium was stuck in some kind of art hole, where imagination doesn’t get much play.
But the fascination with easy effects went away as the technology grew up. Technology started to listen to artists and designers; it invited them into software development discussions alongside the amazing engineers and programmers who previously held sway over what a computer application of this sort could do.
In time, artists passed into a second era of image-making: simply put, we made computers do what we wanted them to do, not what programmers suggested we do.
Now we’ve progressed to another stage of digital illustration. An era that I would not have thought possible those few years back at the clichéd dawn. This one’s a revolution.
Throughout history, advances in technology have made complicated tasks easier to do, and in some cases they have enabled whole new areas to exist. When small metal tubes for holding artists’ colors were invented in the 19th century, the Impressionists could go outdoors to complete whole canvases. Before this, they made sketches outside but had to return to their studios to do the actual painting because the amount of paint needed for a day’s work dried up in the open air. And they had to mix a new batch every day.
Now computers–often derided as no more than a clever tool, especially in the context of art and design–are giving artists and designers actual ideas as well as new ways to draw them, and that’s a very different order of change from the way painting changed in the 1870s.
Many of us have clung fiercely to the notion that the content of an illustration, or a diagram, a painting, or an animation is the most important part of it, and that the way the content gets onto paper, electrons, or film is secondary. Craft is good, and style is good, and balance and aesthetics are good, but they pale next to the idea behind the work. I think we’re finding out that a “mere tool” is making more of a contribution than we thought, and there’s some rethinking to do. And some respect to dole out, too.
Why do we want to create images that are, say, indistinguishable from photographs? Forget the “photograph.” Nowadays it’s just another word for an image. All images are images, however they are produced. The documentary nature of photography–the camera never lies–was debunked long before digital manipulation was possible. (It was just clumsier manipulation.) From cave painting on, image-making has followed technological advances and will continue to do so. Digital illustration is a way to make pictures. But this time technology does more than simply enable the artist to create startling, funny, informative, beautiful, images. This time the power of computing itself–the speed of the machine together with the sophistication of the software–is making more than a “mere tool” contribution.
Have you ever been working at your computer and realized that you never would have thought of drawing such-and-such a thing before? Do you begin to realize that the very means of producing the piece suggests answers to design and illustration problems inherent in it? It’s not the same as having an idea in mind but not knowing how to execute it. And it’s not the same as finding a cute filter or effect that will dress up your idea, or make it shine brighter. At what point can you say that the computer is contributing to the art? Yes, you are operating the machine, but it in turn is working with you. It’s the tip of artificial intelligence.