When a ‘mouse’ selects your ‘brush’ from a screen displayed menu of choices. Following which a command assigns a colour, same as dipping a real brush in to paint; the artist simply moves the device across a table, resulting in a swathe of colour on the screen; and an exquisite design gradually emerges; it is time to take a look at the technical possibilities as well as the impossibilities and the latent scope of the highly specialized craft of computerized art.
A feather touch and you can let your fancy bend and dip, soar along to the limits of your ability. And this, without a camel’s hair paintbrush. M.F.Hussain, Manjit Bawa and other well-known painters have done all this and more.
Today we have reached a stage where art and the latest state-of-the-art technology are going hand in-hand. By using a computer, people with no art training can create, manipulate and within reasonable limits perfect the image they have in mind. People with a self-proclaimed ‘lack-of-art talent’ can bring an undreamed of egalitarianism to art.
Computer-aided-art made its entry in the West three decades ago. However, it was only recently that the use of computers in art was seriously taken up in India. The idea behind the use of computers in art in India was the brainchild of Bombay-based Abhay Mangaldas, who, along with Sonal Zaveri, persuaded some well-known artists to use computer graphic software, and to ‘trust’ computers and use them for enhancing their artist talent. The initial reaction of the wary artists who had never been exposed to use of computer in art was that of instant dismissal. It took a long time for Abhay and Sonal in convincing the artists to ‘try out’ the computers for their painting. Soon the artists were working with a fourth generation 16-bit desktop Apple Macintosh II machine with an 8M-byte memory and a combination of various software packages. The end result of this fruitful venture was the exhibition of 24 unique and exquisite paintings by M.F.Hussain, Manjit Bawa, Akbar Padamsee, Laxman Shreshta etc. at the Jehangir Art Gallery, Bombay, in January last.
How does this fusion between art and technology work? As in other application fields, an assembled software package is able to provide the artists with a range of options consequently giving them a considerable freedom in letting their imagination run free. The elements of number of graphic software programmes are combined to create a hard disc program, which in turn helps the artist in tracing his basic pencil sketch to the computer screen.
With an electronic stylus, a mouse or a puck, an artist selects from a screen-displayed menu of choices a command that turns the control device to a brush. At the same time, another command assigns a colour, which is similar to dipping a real brush into paint. Then the artist moves the device across a table, which results in a swathe of colour appearing on the screen.
The computer offers a range of applications, which allow the artist to transfer the figure elsewhere on a canvas, or angle it as he wishes. It is possible to draw, sketch, invert, alter or blend and introduce colours. Paint systems range from elementary to the extraordinary. They can bend, dip, and soar right along with the users’ ability and fancy. The basic colours are usually limited to 16 or fewer colours and in some cases they can be combined to form new hues. In addition, fine detail and smooth unjagged edges elude such systems, which have coarse-grained monitors that display a total of more then 30,000 pixels. A system, which displays more than 40,000 colours on a monitor with a million pixels or more, is also available to suit the needs of commercial artists who need more colours and higher resolutions.
As a result, the painters are then able to create freehand portraits. In addition, commercial artists can use a camera or other digitizing device to scan photographs or videotapes into the computer, employing the paint system’s colour repertoire to combine film seamlessly with artwork. Also a painting system joins other rendering system and modeling programs in the gigantic memory of a mainframe computer. On this scale, paint systems can give the artists a versatility and speed unattainable with paints and inks. As a result the artist can perform such marvelous feats like wrapping a painting around a sphere or adding an airbrushed background to an animated sequence.
To cap it all, the artist has a choice 16 million colour shades and a ‘tool box’ with 32 basic functions combining to produce a seemingly infinite number of permutations and combinations. A technology, which is based on equipment used by Iris, does the work of transferring the digital images on to an acceptable form of presentation with the help of robotic arm controlling fine high resolution ink jets effecting the transfer.
A Bright Future
Once the artist has finished his work on the computer, all the effects are stored on a diskette. At present, the technology to transfer the work on canvas is unavailable in India. Abroad, a machine reads the digital information and computer -controlled inkjet sprays containing water-based acrylic inks transfer the colours on to the canvas. The spray jet contains four primary colours, which combine according to the electronically coded data on the diskette to create a variety of shades, with the guarantee that the acrylic colours would fade for the century!
However, not everything is hunky-dory in the recent ‘marriage’ of computers and art. For one thing, the transferring of art on canvas is possible only abroad as the technology is not available in India. This and other constraints have pushed up the prices, alienating some of the painters who were initially attracted to the concept due to its mass and popular appeal. Computer aided art will sell at prices even higher than what the artists’ normal canvases fetch. Well-known works, which were already out of common person’s reach, will now skyrocket. Also, at times the acrylic canvases may lack the variations in texture, typical of traditional paintings, resulting in wary artists refusing to use in the sacred realm of art.
Whatever its technical drawbacks or achievements, it does leave a few nagging questions open. Is the use of computers some great quantum leap forward? Is it an actual change in the way we handle art? Or is it just an enabler? And finally, the most important of all: do computerization free people to do what they otherwise wouldn’t have the tools to do?
A mouse (it is named for its small size and tall of cable leading to the computer) is also very useful. It has most of the digitizing tablet’s advantages, but is available at a much lower cost. It is capable of working on any tabletop, thereby saving the expense of the special tablet. The mouse permits an artist to take advantage of various features of workstation software and to draw free hand. At the same time, it is at a disadvantage compared to the puck. Since the mouse does not work on the same principle as a puck, it is rather deficient at tracing as compared to the puck. An artist can copy drawing without distorting it, by holding the mouse vertical while following the outline, which is rather a difficult proposition, considering the absence of cross hairs or other aid to accuracy. As an artist moves a mouse across a flat surface, a large ball inside rotates toe friction wheels. Moving the mouse forward or backward causes one wheel to turn; side-to-side movement rotates the other. Diagonal movements turn both wheels, as the wheels revolve; counters near the axles called the shaft encode register fractions of a revolution and pass the information to the computer, which uses it to move a cursor around the screen. The buttons on the mouse are used to issue programmed commands to the computer.
A digitizing tablet is used in conjunction with either a pen-like stylus or a flat-held device called a puck, which may be small as a sketchpad or as large as a drawing table. With it, an artist can impose images by calling up the shapes provided by the software, by drawing free hand on the tablet or by tracing another image, following the outline with a pair of cross hairs mounted in the puck’s window. With a digitizing tablet, a small independent computer sends regular electrical impulses through the tablet’s underlying grid of wires. When a pulse passes under the cross hairs of the puck, it triggers a signal that in turn is picked by a tablets computer. When two such signals have -been received-one from the horizontal wire and one from a vertical wire- the tablet’s computer converts them to coordinate and sends this information to the workstation computer. There they are translated in to monitor coordinates for displaying the position of the puck. Buttons on the puck issue commands to the graphics software in the workstation computer.
One of the tools an artist or a designer can use for computerized drawing is a light pen. It helps in issuing instructions to graphic software by, in effect, drawing on the screen. The pen then senses patterns of light on the computer screen rather then beaming rays towards it. Light pens can also be used to draw directly on the monitor, move a drawing from one place on the screen to another and selecting software functions from a menu that appears on the screen as well. A light pen contains a lens that focuses light from the computer monitor on to a photoelectric cell. As the monitor’s electron beam passes through the lens, the cells emit an electrical pulse. Strengthened by an amplifier, the pulse is sent to the workstation computer as digital signal. At the instant the signal arrives from the light pen, it can determine the location of the pen on the screen. A touch of the light pen’s control button tells the computer to note this position for selecting a software function from the menu, be it drawing on the screen or erasing a line, or moving an image from one place to another.