Thursday 8 September 2022

Restraint, Lack of

Raw material...

When I was a student way back in the 20th century I fell among politicos, and got involved in the production of a left-inclined magazine called "Oxford Strumpet" (hey, don't blame me, we inherited the name). This involved the "laying up" of each weekly issue; that is, sitting up all night with scissors, paste, sticky tape, and Tipp-Ex, assembling typed text, Letraset headlines, and illustrative material (often "borrowed" from elsewhere) onto large sheets of card, each sheet representing an individual page, all for delivery by hand the next morning to a local print shop. Yes, that's right, kids: cut'n'paste and even uploading IRL! My only contribution to the actual content consisted of drawing the odd cartoon and some covers. The one for issue 69 raised some eyebrows, I recall, but that, too, was "borrowed": my ink re-rendering of a Crumb cartoon that someone slapped in front of me in the small hours.

That era of the hand-knitted publication passed long ago: the job was made so much easier and quicker using even the very cheapest desktop publishing software (Serif PagePlus was – still is – brilliant), and with much more professional-looking results. Mind you, even if we'd had computers in 1973 we would probably have stayed up all night, anyway – how I miss not needing sleep – as it added to the sense of urgency and mission: we had to get "all the news that's left" out to the people! Today, if you actually want to imitate that scrappy "punk 'zine" look on a computer, you have to work quite hard at it; perfection comes as standard with DTP, although it's true that not everyone (which is to say virtually no-one) has an eye for typography. Hideously misjudged font combos are not the same thing as that cut-and-pasted ransom-letter look, but may already have acquired a certain retro "parish newsletter" charm of their own.

There has been a similar trajectory with collage as an art medium. Classics of the genre like Max Ernst's Une semaine de bonté or John Heartfield's anti-Nazi photomontages required meticulous cut and paste technique, so that the final printed product did not betray any badly-cut edges, inky fingerprints, glue smears, or whatever other imperfections unsteady human hand-eye coordination could introduce. As with 'zines, some do still admire the scrap-book quality of a handmade collage – perhaps because it reminds them of the sort of thing they used to proudly bring home from primary school  but, again, computers and specialised software packages have introduced a whole new level of sophistication into the medium. Although it's equally true that sophistication of technique does not necessarily mean sophistication of result.

I've already discussed at length the problems the "art world" has with digital work (Original Print 2). But the simple fact is that most digital imaging – certainly the sort I do – is nothing more or less than an evolved form of collage. You take existing bits of visual material – photographs, textures, patterns, and so on – and layer them together to create something new, often something with a degree of trompe l'oeil authenticity that would require prodigious amounts of talent, technique, and time to produce by any other means. It's new, it's powerful, it's fun, and it's available to anyone with a computer; so, inevitably, it is regarded with suspicion by the art-world gatekeepers, just as they once regarded lithography as a dubiously commercial variety of cheating. Of course, as with DTP, some people, presented with such a powerful toolbox, cannot exercise sufficient restraint and plunge headlong into kitsch and comic-book hyperbole. I don't think you need to ask how I know this. Guilty as charged.

So I thought it would be interesting to disassemble and reverse-engineer a lurid but representative example of my recent work and, by giving a little insight into how it was made, perhaps demonstrate how new technologies breed new sorts of talent and technique which are as deserving of admiration in their own right as anything done with a brush or an engraving tool. I wanted to underline that a "digital print" like this is not a substitute for a painting, or a mere reproduction of some other hand-crafted artwork: it is an artwork in its own right, a digital collage created entirely from my own source materials on a blank "canvas", ultimately resulting in a physical print made with archivally-permanent inks and paper. The fact that I don't need to wear an acid-proof apron or have access to a press weighing as much as a small car to make it is, I think, irrelevant.


But then I realised: this image is made up of 28 image layers sandwiched between a white background layer and a "Brightness/Contrast" adjustment layer on top. Each of those image layers has its own blend mode and transparency properties, and its effect in and on the whole is dependent on its position within the stack of layers, best imagined as transparent overlay sheets which affect those beneath in some way, and are affected in turn by those above. This complex stack of image elements and effects is created interactively and experimentally, in a sort of improvisational game guided by precedent, experience, and curiosity. How on earth to account for that?

Probably the only way would be to record and explain every move made over the course of the week or so it took to arrive at the final image, including the false steps and serendipitous discoveries made along the way. Which I didn't do at the time, obviously, would be impossible to recreate, and would anyway be about as interesting to most people as one of those interminable amateur YouTube videos explaining how to replace the clutch in a Ford Fiesta. "Heh, now here's, um, an interesting thing about the, ah, so-called Soft Light blend mode, one of me fav'rites... See? Sorry, that may have been a bit too quick... Didya see that? Sorry, um, I'll do it again... See that now? Now, what the bleep was I just saying? Oh, yes..."

A digression: these digital images may not clutter up an actual studio like abandoned canvases or framed prints, but their size can nonetheless be an issue, too. This one, with its 30 layers (actually quite a modest tally by some standards) is 524 MB in size as a Photoshop PSD file with its dimensions set at 40cm x 52cm and a resolution of 300 ppi. I couldn't actually print it that large myself – my printer is "A3+", i.e. 32.9cm wide  but it makes sense to create a print at the largest desirable printable size, as it's always possible to outsource printing and, besides, an unresampled reduction of a large file always gives far better results than a resampled enlargement of a small one [1].

Typically, I'll save versions that I like along the way to the final image, something painters can't do, but quite similar to the idea of "states" in printmaking. The fact that this file is named "kingfisher6c4" shows there have been at least 12 previous stages in its development and refinement, and actually nearer 50, if one follows the evolutionary tree all the way back to to the ur-kingfisher file made five years ago. That's a lot of disk space to be occupied by just one idea, even when superseded versions have been "flattened" into a single layer and saved as a high-quality JPEG file (this image, for example, is still 15 MB in size as a JPEG). So it's not surprising that I constantly feel the need for more storage space in my virtual studio [2].

Now, what the bleep was I about to say? No idea... Oh well, I'm sure it will re-surface later.

More raw material...

1. I have always found that the crucial concept of "resampling" vs. "not resampling" when resizing an image file is strangely difficult to explain to even quite experienced users of imaging software. I'm not even going to try here... But maybe there's another post there? For now, if this is a mystery to you, just accept that it's one of the most important things to understand in image editing.

2. I was surprised to discover that 2 TB is the biggest hard drive any of the usual suspect desktop computer suppliers can offer. This, as I understand it, is because 2 TB is the largest partition a Windows computer can address. Needless to say, I already have a 2 TB hard drive, plus several external backup drives, plus numerous portable USB sticks and SSDs, and am rapidly running out of space. Some housekeeping may be required...


author said...

2TB max? Even on my 9 year old Dell PC running Windows 10 (64 bit) I was using a number of 2TB, 4TB, and 5TB Western Digital external USB drives with no problems at all. Perhaps your informants were thinking of the 32-bit versions of Windows? --Pat Cooney

Mike C. said...


The key word there is "external": I'm talking about the internal C:\ drive. If you google Windows 10 and internal drive size you'll see there is still an issue there, quite a technical one about formatting, partitions, etc. I presume this is why Dell, for example, don't sell desktops with internal drives greater than 2TB.


Stephen said...

Mike: "I've already discussed at length the problems the "art world" has with digital work" — I read your linked post on this Mike. [Well I skimmed it — I'm half-awake and I probably have to take my mum to the hospital shortly. Apologies.]

A few months ago I posted a question on a photography forum asking why big-name 'Fine Art' photographers invariably use film [And analogue print]. The replies to my question were slightly illuminating but I think your 'Genuine Imitation Leather' idea is as close to the nub of it as anything I got from the people on the forum.

Personally I prefer film to digital because I like the way it looks, though digital is handier for recording family events and so forth.



Mike C. said...


"big-name 'Fine Art' photographers invariably use film" -- I doubt that's true any more, TBH. Certainly there are hold-outs like Thomas Joshua Cooper, but even the likes of Martin Parr or Jem Southam use digital now.


Stephen said...


Fair point — 'Invariably' was maybe too strong a word.

It's also possible I'm unconsciously screening out digital photographers when I browse and

[As an aside, I saw some Joshua Cooper prints at an exhibition a few years ago. I liked them. Bought the book.]