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The challenge of computers in art.

Art programs in schools, colleges and universities are now using computers on a regular basis. Art programs must keep in touch with the latest in technology to prepare their students for the professional world. Today, professional artists and designers work with computers as a tool for inquiry and expression. Artist's studios are equipped with modern printing and photography equipment, as well as lasers, high-tech cutting tools, and now the computer - one reads about artists using mice, digitizing tablets, light pens, scanners, hypermedia and image processors. We read about computer art in traditional magazines on sculpture, fibers, ceramics, photography, animation and graphic design.

Artists are no longer confined by the limits of small personal computers. The power and possibilities of huge computers ten years ago - when artists had to learn programming in a computer language to make sophisticated images - now exists in our desktop systems. Today, the range of available software is truly amazing: applications for painting, drawing, three-dimensional modeling, graphic design, architecture and animation. With a well-equipped personal workstation, you can do work in all of the applications listed above. It's like moving from a simple plastic camera to a single-lens reflex with all the bells and whistles. Speaking of photography, digital photography now exists! You can take pictures with a still video camera, transfer it into your computer via a video card, and print it with a color ink jet printer and have photographic prints without the use of traditional silver-based films or chemical processes.

Interactive Computer Graphics

The value of computers as learning tools is in their interactivity. With well-designed programs, the interactive nature of seeing immediate results is very engaging. One of the largest organizations in the world devoted to computer graphics is keenly aware of the importance of interactivity. Special Interest Group Graphics (SIGGRAPH) of the Association of Computer Machinery (ACM), holds an event every August called the International Conference of the Computer. This year the conference meets in Anaheim, California.

Each year, the ACM/SIGGRAPH conference showcases the best and latest work in computer graphics. The five-day event consists of courses, panels, workshops, exhibits, electronic theater and meetings for special interest groups. The range of equipment on exhibit is almost overwhelming. Super computers, desktops and portables, printers, plotters, scanners, film recorders, etc., can be found in the huge exhibition halls. Software for applications in art, design, science, business, government and education can all be found in the elaborate booths. More than 32,000 attended the 1992 conference in Chicago.

In Las Vegas (1991) there were two special exhibitions in addition to the equipment and film video shows - the Art and Design Show and Tomorrow's Realities. The art show had a whole range of art and design work from two-dimensional ink jet prints to artists' books, sculpture and interactive devices that let you change or alter the image as you move by it.

A catalog and set of slides of the art show is available for purchase - a great benefit to teachers. Other slide sets and videos are also made both during and after the conference.

Tomorrow's Realities

The hottest item at last year's conference was virtual reality. Virtual reality utilizes advanced computing technology to create an interactive computer-graphic world. To do this, you put on special headgear with two tiny video monitors (one for each eye), and slip on a glove with wires. The glove is sensitive to hand and finger movements and the headset is sensitive to head motion and movement. By moving your head, you can look around in this virtual environment; and by moving your hand and fingers, you can move virtual objects and place them on virtual tables. There are other ways to interact with the computer aside from the headset and glove. In one program, you stand on a surfboard in front of a large video screen; as you tilt and twist the surfboard, you pass by schools of fish and other sea objects. This technology is still in development; research is being done to use virtual reality in a number of areas - medical imaging, prosthetics, architecture and air traffic control, to name a few.

The Electronic Theater

The most popular of all SIGGRAPH events is the electronic theater, a film and video show held for three evenings. The program is presented on the largest screens available with excellent projection and sound facilities. Computer-animated sequences from major motion pictures, television commercials and independent productions are featured, and special sequences from research laboratories and educational programs demonstrate recent developments in computer animation.

Curriculum Project

In 1990, a small group of artists who teach with computers met to develop a model curriculum to propose for art departments in colleges and universities around the country. They developed a draft of program guidelines; a copy can be obtained by writing to Ken O'Connell at the Fine Arts Department, University of Oregon, Eugene, OR 97403. A new group is forming to do the same thing with high school and community college programs.

The suggested program is only a guideline, and each location will need to develop and modify to accommodate specific hardware, software and expertise at a particular school. Many art teachers are learning new technologies through summer workshops or on their own. The problems they run up against are many, including finding support for the cost of equipment, repairs, software, security, etc. The hardware is changing at a fairly rapid pace and systems often need to be changed or upgraded every few years, making constant software development a necessity. Many desktop computers of today have much more capability in graphics, color and animation than those of just a few years ago.

Looking Toward the Future

Will future artists continue to smear paint on a canvas, and rub charcoal onto soft surfaced rag paper? The answer is yes, but the art studio is changing. Artists in fibers, print-making, animation, jewelry and sculpture have all found interesting ways to use the computer. Perhaps the most dramatic changes the computer has brought to any field is in graphic design. Old methods involved sending copy to a typesetter, and doing the layout by hand with tape, paste and rulers - a long, painstaking process that often took days to go through the many mechanical stages. Now text need only be electronically poured into a page-layout program. Formatting and page numbers can be done automatically. All elements, including headlines, footnotes and images can be moved freely and laser printed for proofing. This is only the beginning of the transformation of the graphics industry. Illustrators are also rapidly using computers in their work. Many of these new artists call themselves Digital Illustrators.


Interaction, animation, sound and video are all elements of the next generation of software. The phrase usually used when two or more of these features are brought together is multimedia. This new generation of software allows users to create storyboards, live presentations on screen or through a video projector that includes voice, music, drawing, painting, text, live video and animation without additional hardware - a long-time goal of the artist/user. In the past, this type of integration led to a great deal of frustration. Incompatible equipment or the need for cables and technical help were necessary to complete the simplest tasks.

Painting with Sound

An interesting recent educational development is the award-winning new paint program developed for children called Kid Pix, published by Broderbund Software. Artist/programmer Craig Hickman noticed that his three-year-old son was frustrated with a conventional paint program, so he decided to write a paint program that would not frustrate his son, and would be full of surprises. The result was a program that stimulates imagination and creativity. Marketed for children, Kid Pix is also appropriate for adults. It uses tremendous imagination in giving the user choices not available in previous packages. Features like dripping paint, dot-to-dot lines, and fractal trees provide all sorts of possibilities. Kid Pix is a very playful program; all the brushes have sounds and a special characteristic as Hickman says, "I wanted to give each tool some limited intelligence."


The power of presenting information and ideas visually has come of age. The computer graphics community is finding many connections with the art and design

world as they explore the best way to display and examine vast amounts of information and research data using visual images. Bridges between art and science are many-the computer has the potential to bring us together in shared ways that we have not yet imagined.

The SIGGRAPH 1993 conference in Anaheim has the theme "The Eye of Technology" and should be a spectacular event. For an amazing conference experience this summer, be sure to write to the SIGGRAPH conference office: 8401 Arlington Blvd., Fairfax, VA 22031 for further information and the advance program.


Franke, H.W. Computer Graphics, Computer Art. New York: Springer-Verlag, 1985. Gerkin, J.E. CLICK 1. Cincinnati, OH: North Light Books, 1990. Greenberg, D. and A. Marcus. The Computer Image. Redding, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982. Greh, Deborah. Computers in the Artroom. Worcester, MA: Davis Publications, Inc., 1990. Kerlow, I. and J. Rosebush. Computer Graphics for Designers and Artists. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1986. Prueitt, Melvin. Art and the Computer. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1984. Truckenbrod, J. Creative Computer Imaging. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1988. Computer Graphics Career Handbook. Baltimore, MD: ACM Press.

Kenneth O'Connell is Professor and Head of the Fine and Applied Art Department at the University of Oregon in Eugene. He is a computer animator, and has co-curated two exhibitions on the theme of Computers and the Creative Process.
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Author:O'Connell, Kenneth
Publication:School Arts
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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