Painting is Not Dead
Joe Rebholz
11 JUNE 2001 ©

For the last 20 or 30 years people have been saying that painting is dead, and some have asserted that photography is the successor. This is a mistake. Painting and photography are being transformed into what might be called digital collage. Or maybe it should be called digital painting. Digital collage takes images from wherever it can get them --- Internet, digital cameras, scanners, --- combines, manipulates, distorts, paints over or under, or whatever, using image processing software, to create an image that can be transmitted electronically anywhere and can be printed from PC printers or on larger scales by commercial printers.

Why is this happening? One reason is because photography is dead. At least photography as we have known it is dead. More precisely, photography is or will become one end of a continuum that is painting. The film camera is as doomed as the slide rule and the analog watch and clock were. Fifty years from now (or maybe 20 or 10 years from now), nobody, nobody, nobody except a very few retro artists will use a film camera. No real people will use them. Film cameras will be antiques, collectors' items, curiosities in the attic, for which the required film will be very hard or impossible to find. Think phonograph. Think vacuum tube amplifier. Try to buy a phonograph needle or vacuum tube now. Yes it can be done, with difficulty, from some obscure moldy shop downtown or over the Internet.

You note the superior resolution of film compared to digital arrays? First superior resolution is only desirable sometimes. Second, and most fundamentally, soon there will be digital cameras with very many more pixels than silver grains in the slowest film. So there goes superior resolution. Digital cameras will be superior to film cameras in every way.

But the main reason film cameras will be replaced by digital cameras is the vastly expanded possibilities and ease of use provided by image processing software. No messy chemicals, no arcane darkroom techniques to be learned, or no worry whether a commercial processor will do it right. Look at how limited are the image manipulating possibilities of film and photographic paper. Dodge and burn, increase or decrease contrast, crop, tone, filter. What can you do with color? Essentially nothing. Or do you want to cut and paste and re-photograph. Yes you could do that. Theoretically you can do anything that way. But with digital image processing, you can do all the things you can do with film and photo paper, and vastly more, vastly more real time, vastly easier.

Photographers will be seduced by the image processing software. First, of course, they will use only the functions they are already used to --- global contrast changes, lightening or darkening, cropping, global color correction --- because they still think they are photographers. But gradually they'll try additional functions, and as they see the results they can get, they will be hooked, and be turned into painters. No one will know or be able to define where photography stops and painting starts. Some photographers are already well down this road, e.g., see Andreas Gursky's Stockholder Meeting in Art in America, June 2001.

You insist that you do not need any new functions, that you are quite competent with film and photo paper, that you will continue using the techniques you know so well till the day you die. That could be right for you. But what about everyone else? Just a few years ago, no one thought they needed caller id or cell phones. All art students are or will be exposed to digital image processing whether they want it or not. Yes surely some people will persist. Some people today still do black and white photography the same ways it was done years ago. Some people make platinum prints, use other hundred year old processes and what not. Some painters studiously use the techniques of the renaissance. And of course much of this is very worthwhile, and some will continue to be. But these are and will be diversions from the main stream, perhaps almost curiosities. So film photography is dead, dead, dead.

Now then, why is digital collage, as defined above, really digital painting? Because nearly everything that can be done in traditional painting can be done with digital painting, and much more can be done besides. This is due, again, to the vast power of digital image processing. As more and more people (painters and photographers) do their own digital image processing, they will begin to use the new functions, new power, because they are easier and just because they are there. People always use new functions, new capabilities, just because they are there, always. But they especially use new tools when they are easier and when they let you do additional things. The digital camera, computer, scanner, Internet, and image processing software allow you to create diverse realistic, nonobjective, rich, poor, complex, simple, overwrought, underwrought (or maybe wrought just right), meaningful, meaningless, ambiguous, unambiguous, beautiful, ugly, shocking, soothing, disturbing, satisfying, etc., images just as you can with a film camera or brush, pigments, etc., on canvas, etc., if you have the corresponding ability, talent, vision, patience, persistence or whatever. But you can do it faster, easier, with worldwide sources for expropriation of images, with the new tools. Actually there are many effects which to all intents and purposes are just not available to film photography or traditional painting.

But what about textures, you shout? No way can you get all the subtle or unsubtle textures you can get with acrylic or oil --- impasto, sand mixed with the paint, sanding, smoothing, gloss, flat, glitter, etc. --- from a computer printer. As with the temporary superiority of film camera resolution, texture is a sometime thing. There are many simulated textures available with the image processing software. And, already in the 1980's there were machines which made 3D objects from a plastic liquid when a computer supplied the 3D coordinates similar to the way 2D images were generated by printers. (The products of such a machine are exhibited now in the show 010101 in San Francisco). Such machines are expensive now, but in time if we really want textures in our images, "texture printers" will be available. And you can be sure that the image processing software will have functions such as "Impasto", "Mix Sand", etc, to produce real rather than simulated textures.

As with ancient film techniques, there will be some people who persist with messy oils and acrylics, but the same comments apply.

Will people still want static 2D images? Most likely yes. People like to decorate the walls of their homes and work places. A flat 2D image is just the thing for the flat 2D walls we have around us. We could buy flat video screens and play art videos on our walls. Bill Gates has some in his home. A video goes in time. A static picture is always there whenever we want a distraction, comfort, etc., however momentary, so we can look at it whenever we want and take up our thoughts where we were when we last looked away. Also, a flat panel for showing videos can just as well display static pictures from our personal library or through some kind of subscription from the Internet, programmed however we might want. So, I don't think pictures will go away soon. Will the small art audience want art images? Who knows! Art fashion is fickle. But, if people won't want art images, then they won't want film photographs or oil paintings either.

In summary then, painting (digital, that is) is alive and well and is doing a corporate takeover of photography. The computer, image processing software, etc., are very powerful new tools of painting. Indeed, photography (digital, that is) is also a tool of painting. Photography is or will be a small subset at the left end of the continuum that is painting.

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