Digital state of art

Tradition meets technology as professors integrate computers into MU art classes
Sunday, April 3, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:46 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008

There are more ways to create a masterpiece than stroking a paintbrush across a canvas.

In MU art instructor Sabine Gruffat’s introduction to 3D animation class, students sit in front of desktop computers instead of easels and storyboards, adding color and texture to multi-dimensional images using a software program called MAYA.

“Everything is influenced by technology,” says Gruffat, a visiting new media professor. “You can’t separate it anymore.”

As art professors embrace the uses of technology in art, they are furthering the evolution of the creative process. Gruffat’s animation students, for example, don’t actually have to draw an image by hand — they can use MAYA to create it. The program, which is popular with filmmakers for special effects, can then be used to manipulate and move the image. Gruffat’s computer screen is projected at the front of the room. She instructs students on how to paint on two sides of an object to improve symmetry, among other things. Charles Coleman, a junior majoring in fine arts with an emphasis in graphic design, is taking Gruffat’s class. He

and his classmates have been given a prototype image of a head on which to practice coloring techniques. He moves a pen across a mouse pad to add a goatee to the 3D face. Coleman and his classmates have also created still-life images using Maya. Coleman says his previous art classes have helped him understand the necessary techniques.

“Being in a sculpting class helped me know the structure of the head and is a good resource for the projects I am working on in this class,” Coleman says, as he uses a grab option to move and distort the artificial skin of the face.

Coleman also says working with computers growing up made it easier for him to grasp the program he is using in this class.

Joshua Davis, a senior art major, is at the intermediate stage of Maya. Davis says he is working with the program because it is a growing tool for artists and not knowing how to use it would be a competitive disadvantage.

“Students now entering college have grown up with technology,” says Jean Brueggenjohann, a graphic design professor and chair of MU’s art department. “They feel using technology in the classroom is a given. You still have to know the same basic artistic principles you did 20 years ago, but now students have the option of incorporating new technology into those principles.”

Students’ knowledge of computers helps them feel at ease with the complex software they’ll likely encounter in the workplace. Vaughn Wascovich, an assistant professor of photography, says it is crucial for students to know how to use digital cameras if they want a career in commercial art. Wascovich had problems learning the technology at first, he says, but now he can’t imagine working with film again. In his eyes, it is simply something you need to know.

Digital photography allows the photographer to know immediately if anything needs to be done to improve a photograph. With film, a blurred image isn’t discovered until after it has been developed. Two years ago, Wascovich used MU’s Information and Access Technology Services to teach both himself and his photography students the basics of Adobe Photoshop, a software program used to manipulate images.

“I liked the experience and so did my students,” Wascovich says.

Professors in traditional areas of art also encourage their students to take advantage of Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator, a program used to create illustrations and drawings. William Hawk, an associate art professor at MU, has worked with Information and Access Technology Services to bring computer labs to the fine arts department.

“In reality, most artists are serious and industrious,” Hawk says. “The challenge for art students today is to live life and not settle for proscribed notes. Learning technology allows artists to live a creative life and still have modern conveniences.”

Assistant art professor Lampo Leong says most of his students use Photoshop to learn color theory. Students can mix colors and scan their paintings into a computer, then use Photoshop to change the image however they like.

Some students use a computer image as a base for a painting. They create the images with Photoshop, and then apply paint to an image printed onto canvas with a 44-inch wide inkjet printer.

Paula Kientzel, a graduate student with an emphasis in painting, says she uses Photoshop as a “logging process.”

“I would photograph my painting over periods of time and scan the pictures onto Photoshop,” Kientzel says. “I use the tools in Photoshop to brighten the colors in the painting and then go back and actually brighten the colors by hand.”

“Photoshop gives flexibility,” says Jonny Pez, a senior photography major. “I can build an image right in front of me and can experiment without fear because I know that I can use the ‘undo’ feature and erase something if I don’t like it.”

One of Pez’s paintings began as a page from a furniture catalogue. He made a photocopy and then used chemical lacquer thinner to transfer the image onto paper. He added paint for color and used charcoal to add depth and contrast to the outlines of the furniture in the image. Finally, he scanned the image into his computer and toned it using Photoshop.

“This picture was in a digital photography show,” he says. “It is ultimately a painting, but because it is a digital print, it was in the show.”

Joe Stealey, an associate professor of fibers, says that in the past, students in his classes have worked with floor or table looms. The only mechanized process was the silk screen to print or paint on the fabric. Now, design is increasingly done with a computer.

Next year, the art department hopes to have a computerized loom called a Jacquard CAD. It allows students to generate a design and program a computer to weave it, leading to elaborate designs that would be impossible to do by hand.

Erin Dotson, a senior in Stealey’s advanced fibers class, is working on a two-tone piece of fabric with colorfully layered blocks across its surface. She is planning to place a photograph of a flower on top of the piece, manipulating the image using Photoshop and Illustrator.

Dotson often comes up with a design she likes and draws it by hand or creates it on Illustrator. For this piece she will create silk screens of the flower from the sketches she made on Illustrator. She will iron fabric onto freezer paper and then run the whole thing through a printer allowing the paper to stick to the fabric.

“The work is significantly easier using computers. You don’t have to just do it, you have the ability to not be committed to something,” Dotson says. “There is more room for experimentation, and it is nice to have computers right there as a resource.”

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