DIGITAL ART INTERVIEW WITH BUFFY SAINTE MARIE

How did you get into digital art?

When I was little, I was a piano and crayons kind of kid, for solace and for fun. As a teenager I started painting and playing guitar. In the Sixties, I wrote songs and made lots of records, and painted whenever I could. Although I had used various electronic instruments in the Sixties and Seventies, for movie scoring and songwriting, in the Eighties I saw my first Fairlight, which is a computer intended for music, and I really loved it. It got me ready for the Macintosh, which was absolutely perfect for me (and every other artist lucky enough to have one).

My first Macintosh was a 128k machine which I upgraded to 512k the minute it became possible. I used it for music, word processing, and digital art. It was a black and white only computer at the time, but it kept me fascinated. When the Mac II came out in color, and I discovered PixelPaint, I began spending most of my time making digital paintings. I still like PixelPaint, although now I most often use Adobe Photoshop.

How does an artist make a digital painting?

The artistic process in digital art is very much the same as for making other kinds of paintings. We choose tools; we choose paints; we choose paper or canvas or other media; we have an idea; we start painting; the idea grows as we paint; we work on the painting until at some point we decide the painting is done.

Digital artists can use a mouse, but a lot of us also use a stylus (pen) with a pressure sensitive Wacom tablet. This tablet is attatched to the computer. When we draw on the tablet, the drawing shows up on the computer screen. If we have chosen to tell the computer that the stylus is to behave like a piece of chalk, or a pen, or a wet brush, it will. We can choose the shape of the brush, how wet or gooey the ‘paint’ is, whether the canvas is bumpy or smooth… whatever we want. We have 16 million colors to choose from, many of which are so luminescent they can’t be accurately printed by traditional CMYK print methods. Painting on a computer monitor screen, is literally painting with light.

We also have the option of scanning in an image from outside the computer… a photo, or a sketch done with traditional tools; and we can then paint, manipulate, process, change, and further develop the image within the computer, watching our progress on the monitor.

If we later on decide to make reproductions of the original, we enter a new stage in the life of the painting whereby we make prints. Traditional painters may choose to go to a printer and come home with lithographs, color zeroxes, posters, or 35mm slides etc.. Digital painters have lots of choices available too, and printing devices range from real economical to very expensive. The paintings are transferred from my computer to a disk, and I can hand it to the printer this way; or I can modem the painting to the printer over the phone lines from my house in Hawaii. I work closely with the printer to get the final print the way I want it.

How long does it take to create a digital painting?

It takes about the same length of time as it takes to create any other kind of painting. That is, an artist who creates lots of work probably experiences prolific days and slower days. Inspiration and energy fluctuations aside, in my own case I’m now faster on my computer than I am with my traditional water-and-brushes set up, partly because of enthusiasm.

As in traditional artwork, sometimes I stop and then come back to a painting later and make changes I never would have thought of the first day. Sometimes I work on an image for months. Generally I work for about 6 hours, but I usually quit only because I have to go do something else, not because I want to. The key is in remaining just aloof enough from a painting so that you know when to stop.

Another time factor is output: proofing and printing. That is, getting your work out of the computer and onto paper and having it satisfy you. It can be time consuming and expensive. But that’s true of anything about which an artist is particular. The time I save setting up and cleaning up probably balances out by the time I spend on output.

What attracts artists to the computer as a tool?

Sixteen million colors in your palette are hard for any artist, especially a beginner, to turn down. Once an artist explores the vast variety of tools and features available on the great programs, we’re hooked. It’s like owning your own art supply store. Extremely tantalizing to any artist’s imagination. You never misplace or run out of brushes, paints, papers etc..

Another great convenience is certainly the setup-cleanup factor. When I am inspired to paint on my Mac, I walk over to the computer, sit down, turn on three switches, and I’m ready to paint. It takes me two minutes to go from doing something else to actually painting. If I’m interrupted, it’s just a minor inconvenience, but not a disaster, because it’s easy to get back where I was: that is, the paint has not changed consistency; the light has not moved. When I’m done, I click SAVE and I’m ready to quit and go back to doing something else. No cleaning up, washing brushes, protecting half-wet paintings from accidents.

Another attraction is the relationship between photography and painting. In an artist’s mind these elements have always been able to merge. But in the old days, visual artists used to fall into two distinct categories: those of us who created images with cameras and those of us who applied stuff onto other stuff, with brushes or other tools. Few people did both. Digital art software has empowered both the painterly side of photographers, and the photographer side of painters. Digital imaging allows both groups to rise above the limitations of mess and clutter and mechanics, and apply our talents to creating images limited only by our imaginations.


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