Essay 7: Why Did I Go Digital?

While I had done experiments with digitizing my art as early as 1988 or 1989, I didn’t approach the computer as a serious medium for my art practice until 1996.1 I had already been using the computer as a design tool for a number of years, and the necessities of my personal life almost forced me to turn to the computer in order to maintain a practice.

The main catalyst for this was the birth of my son in November 1995. At the time I was working full-time—often more than that—as a graphic designer, so studio time was precious. Since leaving art school I had primarily worked in acrylic on canvas or panels and in pen-and-ink in sketchbooks. To understand how the birth of a child could affect a studio practice, let me explain a bit about acrylic paint. It is water-soluble until it dries—which can happen very quickly, especially in the dessicated environment of an old house during a Canadian prairie winter—and then it is no longer workable. If you have to get up to change a diaper, feed, comfort, or otherwise attend to an infant, it becomes a challenge to work in this medium because sudden interruptions have severe effects on the workability of a surface or the usability of paint left on a palette. It happens that most of my precious studio time was concurrent with time that I was on parent duty. I realized that I needed to switch to a medium that was amenable to interruptions, as well as reasonably safe and quiet in a small home studio with an infant sleeping in a nearby room. The computer seemed to offer solutions to most of these problems. I decided to attempt to create fine art using software I used daily in my commercial work. Having based much of my practice in drawing—especially line drawing—and having little background in photography, I decided to use Adobe Illustrator as my digital medium.

I chose Illustrator because it was software with which I was extremely familiar from my graphic design background.2 This is the program that designers use to create logos and other hard-edged, high-contrast graphic images with areas of flat colour. It’s vector-based, which is one of two methods of storing visual data on a computer. The other method is bitmap, the poster child for which is a program called Photoshop. Without going into technical detail, suffice to say that at the time I started doing digital art, vector-based imaging was more attractive to me than bitmap-based imaging. Computer memory and processing power were so expensive that working in bitmap images with the available equipment and resources would have allowed me to make postage-stamp sized works. Working with vectors allowed me to make works that could be scaled larger as devices, memory, and budgets caught up. So in addition to producing postage-stamps, I can render the same image data from my digital work of the late 1990s big enough to fit billboards or larger, without the loss of image quality that is characteristic of greatly enlarged bitmap artwork. Scaling up the postage stamp-sized bitmap images that would have been possible for me to make ten years ago—to a large size today—would result in an extremely pixellated image of poor quality.3 I would be lying if I claimed that my greater familiarity with Illustrator over Photoshop was not a factor, but my choice of vector imaging over bitmaps was a primarily a technical decision based on my thinking about the extremely large scale I would like to present the work at under ideal conditions then or in the future.

I’ve abandoned—and then returned to—this kind of digital practice a number times since I did my first digital fine art works in 1996. There have been a number of reasons for this: inadequate computers, spending too much time on the computer at day jobs making me avoid computers during my off-work time, not liking the remote-control-ness, being unsure of how to display and/or market the work, and more compelling media and creative projects such as painting and sculpture. While these are all good reasons to not engage in a digital practice, I also have some good reasons for pursuing it. Among these reasons, the most important one is the fact that the practice is independent of physical media and completely portable. As such I can do it anywhere I can take my laptop, and the work has a sort of permanent potentiality even though there’s no physical artifact. These reasons were what convinced me to forgo a material studio practice and focus on creating a body of digital works when I moved to England in the fall of 2005. This decision was not without its worries, however. In conversations with friends in Saskatoon in the summer before coming to England, I talked about frustrations I had often experienced when creating digital works, and how these frustrations had led me to abandon—temporarily—digital practices.

The remote-control aspect of working digitally was a big concern in that drawing on the computer—even with a graphics tablet—lacks tactility. Without a prohibitively expensive integrated tablet/display—or a major technological breakthrough in input devices—I will always be drawing somewhere other than where I see the marks appear. Additionally, there were questions—some yet to be answered, and many of which I discuss in Essay 6 (Materiality and Nonmateriality: Defining the Work of Art in the Digital Age)—about how to turn the digital works into displayable, saleable pieces.

This history of frustration with digital artmaking was one of my biggest concerns. While I’ve always had a certain level of technical frustration with making art on the computer—either the computer has been too slow to respond to what I was doing, or the screen hasn’t been big enough, or the tactility/remote control issue would rear its ugly head—I found that the first few pieces I’d made in my latest series Encounters (2005-2006) had been extremely challenging, more so than in the past. I did the first four pieces spread out over a couple of months in Japan. The first one started out as an experiment where I was trying out some new features of the software and realized that there was now a great potential for me to create much stronger works than previously. In the two months I was in Canada after leaving Japan, I completed a fifth piece and got about halfway through a sixth. The completion of the rest of this sixth piece, as well as all the others in this body of work was done in England. In any case, I hadn’t known what was causing the challenge and frustration in these new digital pieces. Was it because I was pushing the computer too hard? I didn’t think so. Was it because I was learning new techniques? I didn’t think so. Was it because I was trying to do creative work in Japan in a mental state that wasn’t conducive to such work? I didn’t know, and didn’t have the mental presence to explore it. And by the time I came up with this thought I was in Saskatoon, so the question no longer required an answer. The issue I finally pinpointed as the culprit was that the work was taking me into unexplored territory, and I was going in a direction that was deeper than I had gone in the past. In some ways the frustration and apprehension was simply my reaction to the unfamiliar, and the difficulties came from making much more complex work.

In my past digital work I had made subconscious choices in setting parameters for the work, parameters that would shield me from the frustration and difficulty of creating complex pieces. I hadn’t thought about them that way at the time, but in the new work I found that I was going deeper into the work than I had previously gone in any medium. I think the software catching up to my ideas and technical demands, combined with my commitment to making good art with the tools at hand, broke down any barriers I might have set up that would have made the process any different than if I was to engage in the same work in physical media. While I had never seen my previous digital work as having been compromised due to technical issues, in hindsight I became aware that the parameters I had set up for myself did limit some of my expressive choices.

Coming back to my arrival in England in the fall of 2005, at that time I made a conscious decision to work digitally even though I could have had a material studio practice without too much trouble. This decision was primarily driven by two intercontinental moves in three years, my desire to continue my art practice without generating a lot of “stuff” that needed to be hauled around, and the realization that my digital practice was maturing.

I gave myself the goal of completing forty new pieces within the first six months of coming to England. This goal put my target date at the end of March 2006. I further subdivided the goal into finishing twenty by the end of December. I was going to reward myself at the end of December with the freedom to blog, a practice which I had all but stopped after having posted daily from Japan for over four months. But come the end of the year, I had to scramble to meet my goal—I revisited some of the pieces in 2006 because in hindsight I wasn’t completely happy with them—and then became so interested in the studio practice that I continued to neglect my blog. I had been worried at the beginning of my project that I would get frustrated with the work and abandon it part way through. Or that I’d see it through to completion but be so sick of working this way that I wouldn’t want to put stylus to tablet again for years. As it turned out, I became so excited about the work as I neared my goal, that I didn’t want to stop. I surpassed my target of forty pieces, completing forty-eight. As well, I made three variants of one of the completed pieces that are so dissimilar to the rest of the work that I labelled them as experiments.4 It’s very likely that this fork in the practice will lead to yet another body of work.


  1. Digitizing works is different from creating digital works. I see digitizing as simply making a translation of a work into computer-readable data, such as scanning drawings, slides of artwork, or through use of digital cameras. ^
  2. I’ve done digital illustration for commercial clients on a regular basis since 1994, and also did occasional commercial illustration before that. I first encountered Adobe Illustrator 88, a very early version of the software, in 1989 when I worked part-time on campus while I was a university student. I sometimes used the software to make maps or other graphics for educational materials. Prior to that I had played with various imaging programs on Apple II and early Macintosh computers. ^
  3. Pixellation occurs when a continuous-tone bitmap image is greatly enlarged. What appear at small sizes to be smooth transitions turn into squares of flat colour, giving the image a blocky look. It is common to use the terms “pixellated” and “bitmapped” interchangeably when describing this phenomenon. While my own tastes favour high quality and production values, extremely pixellated images do have their own vocabulary and continue to be an interesting area of practice for some artists. For example, artists such as Robert Silvers—working at the beginning of the twenty-first century, with a great deal more computing power than I could have imagined even five years earlier—create works by writing software that reduces a photographic image to a grid, replacing each single-pixel block of colour with a chromatically-similar small photo. While this work may owe a debt to the grid-based self-portraits of Chuck Close, and has obvious parallels with mosaic art—after all Silvers calls his pieces “photomosaics”—it is perhaps not too great a stretch to suggest that the work is also related to the pointillist work of Georges Seurat. However, regarding the intentional use of pixellated images in the mid- to late 1990s when I was deciding on a direction for a digital art practice, pixellated images by that time were seen as a throwback to the previous decade where such graphics briefly gave a cachet of techno-literacy to whatever they were applied to. This dim view of the technique was especially strong in graphic design, where not only was pixellation often a accidental result of technical incompetence, by then the technique had been so often used intentionally that it was soon ridiculed as a clichéd stylistic gimmick. ^
  4. This body of digital work, which I recently gave the series title of Encounters, is shown in its entirety—along with source artwork and pieces at intermediate stages of completion—in my 8 Bodies in 12 Years companion volume to this book of essays. ^