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Digital Art in Digital Spaces.

      Authored by Rachael Cary McMunn - January 4th 2021

Rachael Cary McMunn is a U of G Studio Art BA(H) alumni and a VFX student at Toronto Film School. She assists in the creation of digital shows for Zavitz Gallery and is always happy to chat about digital exhibitions and art. If you’re curious about a digital show, reach out to Rachael!

So you want to take on digital art?

Great! First things first, it’s going to feel like a lot of work. Especially if your comfort zone is in the realm of paper and charcoal pencils. I won’t sugar coat it. Making art digitally can be frustrating and difficult. The jargon that animators and effects artists use can be enough to make any timid interest in digital work disappear right away. But you can absolutely make the leap and have a ton of fun working digitally. I would argue that learning digital skills is just as important as nailing the 30-second gesture drawing. Stay with me now! I’ll give you hand on getting started.

But what counts as digital art?

Honestly, I’m sure there’s a great reading out there on this exact topic somewhere, and I’m even more sure that Nestor Kruger has assigned it to me in the past. Regardless, I’ll tell you what I think. Digital art is pretty much everything. Very few processes exist without modern technology. You may say, “Whatever do you mean Rachael? That’s impossible.” Right? In my opinion, wrong. Technology is so ingrained in the way we work and live that I find it hard to believe it doesn’t change the way we art (yes I meant to use art as a verb). Even if a technological world didn’t fundamentally change art practicum, I’ll give you this example. If I was sitting in a park drawing a sparrow on a tree branch, I would probably put this up on my Instagram or website sometime soon (#artist #bird #sundaysatthearborteum)! Just because I didn’t make it with a computer, or camera, or some sort of tech, doesn’t mean it isn’t or doesn’t in some way become digital art. Even if you made every attempt to consciously avoid digital influence in your art practice, I’d say it’s still in some way digital art. Our choices, what we use as subject matter for our art, or how we collect our materials (thank you Jeff Bezos, but also no thank you Jeff Bezos), are often digitally influenced. Let me know if you’ve got a scenario where the digital world wasn’t at all present in your art process. I’d love to hear it (and make an argument against it)! The point remains, you’re already making digital art.

Okay but you said it would be hard, now you say I’m already making it. Which is it?

Right, you caught me! Let me explain. You are already making digital art, but you can expand your skills. This is where the digital world can get overwhelming. Almost anyone can make an Instagram post. My Nana does bi-weekly. But can you start opening up the possibilities? You might have to dedicate some time.

So get acquainted with the possibilities!

One of my favourite aspects of working digitally is the potential for revisions. Layers baby! Done well, a digital format has the potential to be worked and reworked until you are happy. This is not unlike a painting, but can be unlike processes such as hand-carving a wooden sculpture. Resources for the wooden sculpture are not infinite. At some point, after carving down, you will run out of wood and you won’t be able to add it back. In contrast, it is often very easy to undo past actions in digital work (I see you Monica Tap and Martin Pearce, I hear you in my thoughts right now. Yes, I think painting is uniquely akin to what most people see as digital art. For example, you can layer, change, and even subtract with a rag). If you’re a painter, I bet you’ll quite like the crtl-z (or command-z, for those Mac users) “undo” option in almost any program out there. It’s undoubtedly less effort than wiping with solvents but performs a similar function. If you’re a printmaker, imagine not wasting that sheet of 11$ BFK on flooding your screen like a fool. Push Crtl-z, fresh canvas, fresh sheet of BFK! Of course, you won’t have a print, you’ll have a digital file. I’m not calling them the same. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I’m simply saying that you might like the playfulness of working in layers and find it strangely similar to the ways you are already working.

Layers are not the only possibility a digital workflow provides. Let’s talk wildest art installation dreams. For example, one of my very first sculpture 1 projects would have been a heck of a lot more impactful if I could have just made more. Of course I simply just didn’t have the time or the energy for that. We’ve all been there. But what if I could have copied and pasted my object into a virtual environment? Suddenly I have as many of my objects as feels right, as many as my computer can handle. Now, what if I made them all ten feet tall? Now, what if I put them in the Mojave desert? Did I just make an exhibition I could never have afforded in real life? Yes. Is it the same as the exhibition could have been in real life? No. In fact, it’s completely different.

Lets pause on our art dreams for a second and talk art philosophy because we just touched on something I think is really important.

This is about your role as an artist. In making work, we make choices. These choices, then change the work. Working digitally as a replacement for real life is not possible since working digitally is both already real-life and a fundamental shift in working. Recall that I told you you’re already working digitally. Your work is already digital, but the conscious choice to plunge a sculpture you once moulded with clay by hand and instead 3D model it in Blender is something else entirely. The decision between the two mediums fundamentally changes the work. Furthermore, now exhibit this work in digital Zavitz Gallery. This too fundamentally changes the work. As close to reality as we can come with digital spaces, they are still a different type of reality. The virtual space can and does defy the logic of reality however we want it to. It is manipulatable in a way that our everyday world is not. It’s important to acknowledge and understand that virtual spaces and digital art exhibitions are not simply meant to imitate what can be done in reality. I hope you followed me on that. Here’s a quick summary of that little philosophy. Yes, you are making digital work already, since the context of our world is inevitably digital, however, the decision to make in one way versus another inherently changes the work. Using a digital medium over a classic painting changes the work fundamentally, in the same way that running a print versus making a drawing fundamentally changes a work. Exhibiting work in a virtual space has the same effect. The context of the work is fundamentally changed, and the work is different. Consider the choices you are making with your work.

You want the visuals, I know. My essay is almost over. I’ll tell you how to get started now and then throw in the pictures for good measure.

If you really want to get into it, there are essentially two parts to creating digitally for me. I want to specify that you can actually do whatever the heck you want. But this is how I work and how most visual effects artists work.

The first is 3D modelling, so you can create things (I don’t know what they are because they can be anything. They are things. Apples, unicorns, people, planes… just things okay?) and the other part is compositing, where you put those things into place and apply makeup. It was once described to me like this: animation is like drawing and modelling from clay, visual effects and compositing is like applying makeup. Compositing is a part of visual effects where we put things together and make them look good. (Hold on, I’m hearing Monica and Martin again). It’s the same as composition guys. Compositing and composition sound the same because they are. The laws of composition physics will apply to compositing too.

So what the heck do you use to do this modelling and compositing?

Step one, Adobe. Step two Blender. Step three, stir. Use Adobe at the University for free, or get yourself a creative cloud subscription and use Blender at home also for free (#notsponsored).

Adobe is full of stuff you want. Full. I mean it. Full. If you can, I recommend spending the money on Adobe and I highly recommend getting the whole Creative Cloud, not just one program. Photoshop is invaluable, but when it comes to composting video and basic animation, After Effects is the key to making great work. If you are an artist who makes video work, or who is interested in starting, I highly recommend getting started with After Effects and, of course, your choice of editing software. Conveniently, Creative Cloud will also come with Premiere Pro.

Click here to go to blender’s website and download blender, a free and widely used 3D modelling software. Check out BlenderGuru on YouTube to get started building cool sculptures (or really anything you can think of). Anything you make here can be brought into our virtual Zavitz Gallery. Even better, anything you make here can be brought into almost any space you can think of, build, or take a picture of. They can also be composited into an environment using After Effects or Photoshop. Even cooler, 3D models can often be 3D printed!

One last little resource! If you need a quick 3D model for a project but can’t build one, check out Turbo Squid and Pixel Squid. These are both great resources for working with 3D models that are free or low cost and don’t require you to build models yourself. I use both of these resources all of the time and worse case they provide lots of reference material.

Alright, now for the pictures! Here are some visuals to show you what all this means.

Don’t forget to check out some of the archived exhibitions we’ve created in the past! Click here to find them.

Mary Kroestch’s – Recuperare exhibited in F20. We were able to really increase the scale of Mary’s images and bring them into the digital version of Zavitz Gallery. Click here too see more shots from the show.
Emil White’s digital exhibition – Find Your Breath – in Zavitz Gallery for Photo III in F20! This was composited using After Effects and a rendering of the digital gallery while it was empty.
This a little video work from the author herself – Rachael McMunn – Made in After Effects during 2020 called – Alternate.
This was 3D modelled in programs very similar to Blender (Autodesk Maya and Zbrush) and surfaced in a program called substance painter. Very similar work can be done in Blender and brought into Zavitz Gallery. Also done by Rachael McMunn.
Melanie Leader’s F20 exhibition – The Wedge – A digitally recreated (3D modelled) version of her sculpture. Click here to see more renders.
Some Photoshop work by Rachael McMunn in 2020 titled – Pixel
Early concept work by Nestor Kruger in the digital Zavitz Gallery. Constructed from 3D models rendered to create images.
An installation shot from Emma Ongman’s installation “irl” from Specialized Studio, F20. This is a 3D print of a Commodore 64 computer monitor in front of a real C64. The image being produced on the screen is being generated by a video synthesizer, interfered with by using magnets. Click here to visit “Thingiverse”, a website that consists of digital designs for physical objects, including this one.