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Case study: Catherine McIntyre


The photographic artist Catherine McIntyre uses the computer purely as a tool, because it extends her chosen form of photomontage. McIntyre’s principal reason for using the computer is that it can fit into her artistic process rather than being an end in itself.

Her pragmatism centres on the computer’s flexibility when she is making digital collages in Photoshop; in this capacity the computer is a tool and not an aesthetic statement in itself. McIntyre creates her images digitally because the computer happens to be the most expedient way of doing so. In this, she has taken an opposite position to Tom Costello, preferring to expand her art through digital means. Her focus is on their pictorial content, not on the production method, and I do not see this as being somehow less virtuous than using the computer for its own sake. As McIntyre says:

If I could get the same look manually, I probably still would (I did physical collages for years before finding that P’shop did the things I wanted better) because the things that concern me pictorially are those that concern painters.

In line with this, McIntyre does not see the computer’s lack of a “native” graphical form as problematic because it is secondary to the context of the art. She insists that using pre-built software packages involves considerable skill, and using the computer is not completely transparent. Working with it can produce effects previously impossible or unworkable.

McIntyre’s principal reason for using the computer is that it can fit into her artistic process rather than being an end in itself. She distinguishes between those she sees as “true” digital artists – the programmers dealt with later in this thesis – and artists like herself who happen to use computers pragmatically:

For the former, the means of production and the way that this affects and shapes the end result is primary. The latter (myself among them) don’t care that the computer happened to be in the production line; it’s just a good way of getting the sort of images they want to make.

For McIntyre, the creative aspect lies in the idea, not in its production. Using Photoshop frees her from certain technicalities, allowing her mind “to operate in different areas of concentration which are closer to those of painting.” Because McIntyre can operate on layered images in Photoshop rather than on physical masks, collaged photos, etc., the skill is “transferred to the arrangements” she makes. Furthermore, McIntyre sees the computer-artist interface as being of little importance in her method; she also regards elements such as composition and tonal balance as the means for conveying the creative idea rather than being “creative” in themselves:

The technique extends further than the computer-artist interface, which is of little importance in the method. I think these arrangements – composition, tonal balance, all that – aren’t the creative, idea, part either, but also the means of conveying it.

This understanding is greatly enhanced if the artist is also the programmer, yet the serendipitous aspect applies to the user as well. McIntyre uses realtime manipulation when collaging her digital photographs in Photoshop. Having turned to the computer from her previous physical collaging, McIntyre justifies her digital work with reference to Martin Kemp’s definition of skill in art:

I think that Martin’s definition of ‘skill as the alliance of idea and technique to realise something, not simply as handiwork’ is perfect […] the techniques, both computer and traditional, also need an idea outside them  […] before they make something new.[1]

McIntyre most important insight is that, for her at least, the computer is only an element in the overall creation of the art. Her ideas find expression on it rather than being tied to it; they are computer-enabled rather than computer-specific. In this, the Photoshop interface proves useful because it provides a metaphorical link to her previous darkroom and collaging practice, yet allows a great deal of flexibility in the application of filters and the composition of images. Using Photoshop enables McIntyre to utilise the computer’s power through gestures and actions that are not wholly new to her, because they incorporate her past experience and activities.

Yuan-Lin Mao‘s thesis on her experimental paint package also mentions the importance of artist-defined tools. Her intention was to allow the artist great control over the type of mark being placed on the screen, such that by defining these marks the user would be making a personal contribution to the parameters of the resulting image. This compensated for the limitations on digital mark-making (at least at the time of the thesis, c.1985) by allowing for a degree of personalisation.[2]

In physical media, this defining of characteristics occurs spontaneously, as a product of feedback from tool to hand. Variations in line quality, ink flow and colour can be made without breaking the flow of the movement. On the computer, at least before the widespread use of haptic feedback, it has to be done by setting up the tool’s parameters beforehand, so it is a discrete process.

Thus using a paint package is a more involved, and experimental, process than its critics would allow. After all, it is not so straightforward as merely providing virtual paper and brushes. Though the paper surface and pressure can be simulated or sampled, it is the mark on the image – and by extension the brush – that is of paramount importance. Yuan-Lin Mao suggests that the image is produced through an aggregate of marks developed to render an overall appearance through local application of texture, suggested by strokes. In itself, this is not so different from painting on physical materials. The point is that for the computer painter, the tools are all functions of a system that approaches image creation as the result of applying tools, rather than as the action of a line on paper.

Although the digital computer turns all inputs into discrete steps, the speed at which these steps are executed makes them to all intents and purposes (at least to human perception) a continuous process. Continuity is of cardinal importance in Computer Art and the greatest improvements in recent years have been related to speed of processors, and thus to speed of rendering lines and colours in all graphics applications. A continuous process is more artistically satisfying because it involves spending far less time inactive, waiting for the computer to catch up with the speed of one’s actions.[3]

Continuity is also assisted by the relative transparency of the interface, which as far as possible encourages the artist to believe that real physical actions are impacting on a material, not an abstract mathematical space. Conceptually, this is much more direct and thus easier to accommodate into the practice of art.

The artist interacts with the computer at the level of input hardware. The rendering of the visual results of these actions informs the artist’s further actions. The whole issue of screen display is vitally important, since the artist might intend the finished work to be displayed directly from the computer, to be recorded on analogue or digital video tape for broadcast or playback, to be printed on paper or executed as sculpture.

In this way one can develop a ‘feel’ for a particular system – a tactile metaphor – which amounts to expert knowledge. In the case of many branches of computer use, this is simply a matter of executing various procedures in accordance with those defined by the software package, but in the case of computer graphics (as with computer music) there is a very certain type of skill associated with it. Philosopher Max Bense even believed that the randomising effects of computer graphics could be analogous to artistic intuition because they make the end result far less predictable.[4]

Reichardt regarded this theory as “questionable” – certainly there is no direct correlation between the randomised graphics of 1960s computer programs and the intangible aspects of intuition. However, the later development of the GUI and the high degree of simulated, pseudo-random processes built into the effects of paint packages bring computer usage closer to a “craft” in McCullough’s terminology.

Based on my own experience across a range of graphics software on at least three entirely different computer systems, I would say that the ‘feel’ one acquires is on several levels:

Firstly, there are the fundamentals of the software itself, especially the method of creating graphical elements. Lines can be drawn with strokes of the mouse, as with a paint package; or by precise pointing and clicking, as with a vector-based package; or an object can be lathed and extruded as a piece of three-dimensional material. These actions are all visually directed and mediated through the hands. Much of the skill here derives from applying what one has learnt from more traditional artforms (in my case drawing and drafting) to the movement of the mouse.

Secondly, there are the limitations of the program, both in-built and unintentional. One such is the command “snap to grid” which can constrain drawing elements to the predefined grid on the page. Lunenfeld considers the command “snap to grid”, which ties all lines to a grid on the page, is symptomatic of artistic interaction with the GUI:

It instructs the computer to take hand-drawn lines and plot them precisely in Cartesian space. Snap a freehand sketch of a rectangular shape to a grid and it immediately becomes a flawless, Euclidean rectangle.[5]

As Lunenfeld wryly points out, this constraining features is regularly disabled by artists who prefer the effect of freehand lines instead. Nevertheless, the ability to cancel certain features and activate others is itself a feature of computer imaging software.

Other knowledge comes into play when using this software. For instance, with experience one realises that certain colours on the monitor will not be reproduced accurately through a printer, or that a particular effect may be created by following certain steps. These also constitute part of the ‘feel’ in that the experienced user will have picked up and absorbed their workings and the means to execute them. In the case of graphical effects or functions, they can also have a negative effect, in the sense that they can become clichés and the discerning user should try to avoid such pitfalls, but that in itself constitutes a higher level of feel.

Thirdly, the outcome of practiced skill is fluency. This constitutes a deep familiarity with a procedure or concept that allows one to go beyond mere production and become something of a virtuoso. It is the stage at which one executes the basics with ease and starts taking liberties, complex tasks that will defy explanation and which even the practitioner may be unable to articulate, because they are not so much intellectual executions as expressions of the kind of ‘tacit knowledge’ to which McCullough referred.

At this point that one must consider the disjuncture between the digital information that underpins the computer image and the visual qualities of the image itself. After Tim Binkley, it could be said that because the computer imposes no visual form in and of itself, it is not so much a medium as an instrument, albeit one that can “play” of its own accord. So the artistry lies in guiding the instrument’s movement. In this sense, the computer artist can achieve a similar position to a composer, who relies on others to perform his work. The legal arguments surrounding the computer artist should recognise this fact. At present, copyright law recognises the outcomes of

[…] overt behaviour manifesting substantial skill and/or labour which results in some form of detectable notation […] For example, in the case of dance the copyright law will recognize choreographic notation; in the case of architecture, architectural plans. Even for the visual arts such as painting, there is no reason to deny legal protection […] for the plans alone.[6]

Thus Computer Art may be regarded in a similar light to other artforms that cross the boundary between physical and symbolic, like dance and music. The instructions making up the computer image can only be executed by the computer, unless realised in material form in which case they have departed the computer’s realm and now exist independently of it, in the physical world. This section has mainly examined the actions of artists using the graphical interface, but the activities of artist-programmers are equally skilful, in a very different way.

[1] Correspondence with Catherine McIntyre and Martin Kemp, Nov 2000

[2] Yuan-Lin Mao, “Computer Art and Creative Tool Making” MIT Master of Science in Visual Studies Thesis, 1985, p4

[3] Malcolm McCullough, Abstracting Craft, p24

[4] The Computer in Art Jasia Reichardt (London 1971) p89

[5] Snap to Grid: A User’s guide to digital arts, media and cultures  Peter Lunenfeld (Cambridge, Mass.  2000) pxvi

[6] Peter H. Karlen, “Art in the Law”, Leonardo, Vol.14, p.51