Encounters (2005-2006): Introduction

Encounters is my first digital series that did not start out as a series. Rather, it started off much like my early carved wood reliefs: as the artifacts of playing with materials. Or, since it’s a digital series, playing with media. When I did the first piece I was in Japan and had been there teaching English for about eighteen months. For various reasons I had had little success with studio activity in Japan until that time. One day I was playing with some new-to-me features in the latest version of Adobe Illustrator, my imaging software of choice. The most significant of these new features was transparency. In previous versions of the software, transparency or transparency-like effects had been impossible without excessive busy work. Rather than pursue a labour-intensive method of working against the software in my previous digital work, I had simply routed around the problem, making work that did not require transparency. This decision was based on my attitude of playing to a given medium’s strengths rather than trying to compensate for its weaknesses. In any case, the newly implemented transparency feature gave me expressive freedom that had been previously unavailable. Whereas in my past digital work I had chosen simpler base artwork that would be appropriate for the medium, I was now able to work from much more complex source drawings.

At the time I had no intention of creating a cohesive series or body of work. In Japan I simply continued to explore the software and its new expressive potential, which resulted in three more pieces. The Japan phase of this project (Encounters: 1-4) was followed by one piece completed after moving back to Canada in July 2005 (Encounters: 5) as well as a substantial start on Encounters: 6. I finished number 6 in England, and completed pieces 7 through 48 in England from October 2005 through March 2006. During this time I overcame many of the barriers that had frustrated me in previous digital work.

It was only when I began to write this description that I titled the work.1 Rather than title individual pieces, I’ve decided to give the series-as-a-whole a single title and then number the individual pieces. The title, Encounters, is a thematic extension of the ideas I was exploring in such work as the sculptural Crossroads and The Meeting Place (both from 2002) and my earlier digital series Conversations (1997). In fact, connections can be made between Encounters and most of the other bodies of work in this book because of my ongoing attention to the theme of relationships. The numeric order of the pieces is sequential and mirrors the order in which I completed them though it does not follow an absolutely strict timeline as I occasionally returned to some of the very early pieces to make minor changes. Rather, the sequence is based on the order in which I completed the bulk of the work on a given image. As well, I consider each so-called alternate in this series to be a fully resolved piece. As such I have given them their own individual numbers rather than labelling them as subordinate to a parent piece.

In comparing the earlier and later pieces in Encounters, I briefly considered omitting the earlier pieces from the series because many can be seen as less developed than the later work. But seen independently they are still strong pieces and much stronger than most of my previous work—digital or otherwise—so I soon came to my senses. As well, I find it valuable to look at the body of work as a whole and to see the development of the work over time. I like to compare this to looking at a portfolio of work like Picasso’s Vollard Suite of intaglio prints from the 1930s.2 The individual images in this series of one hundred prints have consistency within a number of themes—as well as images that don’t relate to any particular theme—and also demonstrate the artist’s various approaches to the same medium over time.

In terms of size, technique, and technical specifications, I had wanted to continue with the same cinematic widescreen format as Ghost Trees (2001-2002), a ratio of 2.35:1. Rather than use a document size based on paper sizes as I had with that series, I used simple mathematics. The files are 23.5″ x 10″ (58.75cm x 25cm). I plan to display these pieces at a much larger size—approximately 10 x 4 feet (300cm x 120cm)—and have printed out a few test versions at about half this size using matrices of smaller prints. Space does not permit me to show all of the images at a size that will do them justice so instead I have opted to include two enlarged detail images in the subsection “Close-ups.”

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of this practice is the freedom I’ve given myself to explore multiple iterations or aspects of individual images. This is something I started in my wooden assemblages, especially in The Meeting Place group of sculptural figures from 2002. In that piece I would make multiple base figures simultaneously by using a band saw to cut a stack of blanks. I would then make different pieces from each stock figure. With Encounters this strategy of making more than one version of a piece begins in the collage stage where I start with a group of sketches to make a series of collages. Further permutations arise in the process of finishing the pieces digitally. This is in contrast to my previous practice of making one piece from one sketch. In Encounters, pieces 31 through 45 are from a set of collages I made on 27 February 2006 from thirteen sketchbook drawings. I used some of the sketches more than once in some collages, as well as sharing some sketches between collages. The collage and source sketches for Encounters: 45 are shown in the subsection “Base Artwork and Source Drawings.” The sketches themselves are from the eight thousand or so drawings that I digitized from my sketchbooks, while the collages were created digitally.

It was with Encounters—especially the later pieces—that I really started to embrace the idea of creating more than one version of a given piece, though previous collages had occasionally led to multiple instances. Some of the versions are simply alternate colour treatments (13 and 14) while others are new pieces entirely but have a resemblance to the others in their family (11 and 12, 33-36, 37-39, 9 and 46-48). Yet other pieces are between these two extremes (17-18, 40-44).

Often the alternates start from the same base collage and come about partly because I see more than one way to resolve the image, be it through colour or composition. My rationale for trying alternate colour treatments needs no explanation, but the compositional strategies are worth describing briefly. Images 24-27 were the result of my attempts to resolve the trio of figures— reduced to a pair in 24—in the centre of the composition. With 46-48, which are based on compositional elements from number 9, I had gone back to refine the earlier piece and decided to explore the wealth of potential for further work that I found there.

My approach to the cuttings that don’t fit a piece has also changed. In contrast to being consigned to an existence in hard drive purgatory as was my previous way of dealing with the “spare parts” that didn’t fit into a given piece, I now add these parts as needed to other pieces. Sometimes I will create new pieces around a particular image or group of images that I’ve taken out of a piece-in-progress. For example, number 20 is based on early versions of parts taken out of 4, 5, and possibly others. Number 19 is a much later alternate version of 8.

In my first few series of digital pieces I would often work in a single image document—much as one makes a painting from start to finish on a single canvas. But with Encounters I saved different working versions of each piece as it progressed. I did this frequently as I worked, especially when I was about to try something with the image that would make it inconvenient to restore should the change not work out. Often there are as many as eighteen or twenty files for the different stages a single work passed through, sometimes more. I’ve included images of some of the eighteen stages of Encounters: 45 in the subsections “Intermediate Stages” and “Base Artwork and Source Drawings.” Among these images of the work-in-progress are the previously-noted base collage for this piece and its source sketches. In contrast to number 45 which had a steady progression from start to finish without alternate versions, Encounters: 40 through 44 started from one base collage and branched a great deal. This branching led to forty-two intermediary files which include Encounters: 40 through 44 and the three treatments illustrated in the subsection “Experiments.”

Also of note in this series is my use of photographic reference material for the first time. The background of Encounters: 5 is loosely based on a photo I took of the rock formations at Hiraodai Limestone Plateau in Kitakyushu City, Japan. While this technique opened up possibilities for future work, I haven’t pursued it yet simply because the work that does not require photo reference has been so interesting. I’ve included the reference photo in the subsection “Photographic Reference.”

I don’t consider Encounters to be finished as such. But in contrast to my other digital series, I have not yet become frustrated by the idiosyncrasies of digital methods and am not bored with the process. Nor do I feel that to continue in this vein would be to belabour a theme or force me to “work down” to a technical level I had surpassed. The only change I am contemplating—if any—is a change in format to the vertical.


  1. The challenges of titling this specific body of work led to Essay 5 (From the Nonverbal to the Verbal: Titles as Translation and Interpretation) in my 13 1/2 Essays On Practice. ^
  2. Note that I’m not comparing myself to Picasso. I’m simply comparing methodologies. ^