Arts, Farts and Applecarts - Blog #7 by John Leben

Lots of artists work digitally these days. More all the time. But, what is digital art? A broad definition is, art that is created, all or in part, using computers. It could be a painting, or a movie, or a song, or a performance, or even a sculpture. It could be a NFT (non fungible token), which, remarkably, is anything that exists in digital form that you can own the copyright for (kind of). NFTs are hot in the art world these days, and you can only buy them using digital currency called Ethereum, which is a blockchain cryptocurrency like bitcoin or dogecoin. HUH?

Yeah, I know. Millions are being spent on NFTs, but I don’t get it either. In my sheltered, naive world, digital art is simply a printmaking medium, just like lithography or etching, or serigraphs. An artist working on an etching is scratching lines into a copper plate from which he or she pulls multiple copies. As a digital artist, I am doing much the same thing. I’m scratching lines into a computer screen, from which I will be pulling multiple copies. The medium an artist uses, whether it be etching or computer or any other media helps to define the “look” of a work of art, and the computer is no exception. The limitations and the capabilities of the medium itself contributes to the art. As the philosopher, Marshall McLuhan says, “The medium is the message.” 

There are lots of fine artists like me who use the computer as a creative tool. The possibilities for creative expression are enormous. The tools used by the fine art, digital artist/printmaker… the computers, the software, the printers… are the same tools used by commercial artists. That’s the industry that these tools were originally developed for. Almost all advertising, whether it be an ad in a magazine, a brochure, a billboard, a banner on the Internet, or a TV commercial, was created using digital tools. Adobe Photoshop is probably the most popular tool commercial artists use, and they most often use it on an Apple computer. I use Photoshop (among other computer programs) and I use an Apple computer. Of course there are hundreds of other digital tools that artists use, but most of them were developed, initially, for commercial purposes, including today’s high resolution inkjet printers.

Fifteen years ago, when I first started printing my digital paintings, the only printers available for us digital artists were printers made for the office, or for engineers and architects printing large scale schematics and blueprints. These printers were limited in their color gamut and used dye-based inks. Much to my embarrassment, my prints began to fade after a few months. In fact, this “color fading” issue dogged the legitimacy of digital printmaking for years.

Since then, there has been a steady improvement in printer technology spurred by the commercial printing industry looking for accurate proofing for their jobs, and by the revolution of digital photography. Today the darkroom, where photographs were printed using film negatives, is a rarity. Most photographers these days use high resolution inkjet printers that use pigment-based inks that do not fade with time. Us digital artists use the same printers.

I use an Epson 7890 Inkjet Printer. It prints a maximum width of 24 inches and, as it stands in my studio, it is almost as big as an upright piano. This printer is made for artists and photographers producing prints that rival traditional print media for longevity. It prints in ultra high resolution on rolls of high quality paper or canvas made specifically for inkjet printing using eight color-fast, permanent, pigment-based colors. I am limited by a width of 24 inches, but there is no limit to the length of my prints. Epson and other manufacturers of similar inkjet printers make larger format printers as well. The most common are 12-inch, 17-inch, 24-inch, 44-inch and 60-inch. My 24-inch printer is mostly sufficient for my needs, but when I need a bigger print I use a service in Grand Rapids that I trust.

You’ve probably heard about Giclees, right? It’s a French word for “spray of ink.” Giclees are made using high resolution inkjet printers like the kind I use for my digital paintings. A giclee is a copy of a painting made with conventional means… like an oil painting. So, are my prints Giclees? No, they are not. Although printed using the same process, mine are prints of “digital” paintings that I created in the computer. Giclees are prints of paintings made in some other medium like oils or acrylics. Giclees are not digital paintings.

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