Respect for the pixel

 

While working on the studies featured in my recent post Digital painting I developed, for the first time, a strong attraction towards pixels! Up to then I’d always considered them blemishes to be blended over, or even when I’d descend down there to work amongst them, as building blocks which are meant to disappear within the whole when seen from afar. But with those studies and the others I’ve included here I started to value the distinctive ‘zing’ they could give, and on another level just as much .. their truth to the medium! They are the ‘atoms’ of digital work, and it seems right to make use of their distinctiveness where appropriate rather than always trying to mimic the appearance of those more traditional forms of painting or drawing that have come before.

 

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2017

Small Artefacts No.1

David Neat, digital studies, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Jelly Bears

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2017

Small Artefacts No.4

 

How pixels help to achieve abstraction

Abstraction in art is the departure from the representative dominance of forms and images so that, in its purest form, we can start to appreciate them just for themselves rather than judging them by their qualities of ‘likeness’ or association with familiars in the real world. Abstraction should not be measured according to how less ‘real’ something looks, but rather how more ‘real’ the physical stuff of the work becomes. Music is an example of an art form where this disassociation can be achieved quite comfortably .. but we never think of music as ‘not real’? It is its own real. There will always .. always! .. be association of some kind, especially in visual art, so the purest abstraction possible is not where association does not or cannot occur, rather where it is not needed for a satisfying experience, where it can be put aside. Abstraction can’t be an ‘either is or isn’t’, or a ‘black or white’, or an ‘on or off’ thing .. there are an infinite number of shades in between!

The pixel is fitting, both as medium and symbol, if we are thinking in terms of a departure from visible reality .. whether we’re aiming for the disembodied or disassociated, or towards the material ‘stuff’ which some early abstractionists referred to as more concrete. Pixels themselves don’t possess an inherent size .. the size we see them depends on how we view them! They are outside the realms of size or scale. Do they even have an inherent existence? Where are they when the lights are out?

When they become more visible they break the illusion of representation, they start referring more to medium and surface than anything else they might be representing. As one slowly zooms in to an image the pixels lose their connection to the whole, they become things in their own right.

A single pixel is like a tiny Malevich! Kasimir Malevich was the Russian painter who first proposed that a square canvas painted either black or white could be a valid work of art .. an artistic statement in its own right. Pixels are only one step up in complexity from simple black or white. 

 

David Neat, digital studies using PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Swamp Terrain for Toy Soldiers No.1

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

SkyCluster No.1

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Swamp Terrain for Toy Soldiers No.3

 

What the word ‘pixel’ conjures

The word is light and bright, mainly because of its centre composed of the vowels ‘i’ and ‘e’ with an ‘x’ in between for extra ‘xing’! There is also a sharpness, suggesting it could puncture the skin but not in a serious way, because nearby associative words are ‘pick’ or ‘prick’. It has some likenesses with the word ‘crystal’, which may be significant considering the morphological similarity of the two ( ‘morphology’ is the study of the form of things and the why). But the closest relationship .. and the reason why the word conjures the quaintly magical or ethereal .. is with ‘pixie’, which most people think of as a childlike and very small fantasy being. Despite its connection to ancient folklore ‘pixel’ is also quite a modern-sounding word, akin to a detergent brand name.

The word ‘pixel’ derives from ‘picture element’ describing the smallest controllable element in a digital image. In computing, an image composed of pixels is known as a bitmapped image or a raster image. The number of pixels per inch ‘ppi’ denotes the resolution of the image and determines the size it will be rendered by default on the computer screen ( note that this may have little to do with the ‘dpi’ dots per inch print capability of a printer). An individual pixel can only be either square or rectangular, and it can only have a single ‘colour’ with no shading. The number of colours an individual pixel can become depends on its ‘bpp’ bits per pixel on a scale from 1 (pixel is either on or off, image is monochrome) to 24 (giving over 16million colour possibilities).

 

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Bathroom Glass No.1

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Mirkwood No.1

David Neat, digital study, created with PaintShop Pro and Procreate for iPad, 2018

Bathroom Glass No.2

 

So pixels are not always square?

No not always, under certain circumstances they change. I found this out when I wanted to resize my ‘pixel studies’ which were of course by nature small (i.e. many of them around 240 x 180 pixels) to my usual preferred image size 1280 x 960. I should have guessed that it wouldn’t be a straightforward ‘resize’ click in PaintShop Pro or Photoshop, but seeing the unexpected results was a better learning experience. For example here is the enlargement I wanted of a very small portion using, in the end, PaintShop Pro’s option Pixel Resize. It stands to reason, in retrospect, that the enlargement size (in this case to 600 x 450) would have to be divisible by the original size (20 x 15) for the pixels to remain as they were.

Enlargement of image using PaintShop Pro 'Pixel Resize' option, David Neat 2018

Below on the other hand is the same 20 x 15 portion which I’ve first enlarged to 23 x 17 .. so not divisible .. just to make the point (of course I then had to enlarge the result again using ‘Pixel Resize’ just so that it would appear here at the same size but I checked that it hadn’t altered the effect).

Indivisible enlargement using PaintShop Pro 'Pixel Resize' showing pixel distortion

Now there are 4 variations .. large squares, small squares, flat and upright rectangles! The pixels had to do something to compensate for the indivisible enlargement, but why they chose this way I’ve little idea! The results are much more dynamic though!

Just out of interest here is the same image portion enlarged using two of the more standard ‘smoothing’ options i.e. the ones I didn’t want .. the first Bicubic and the next Bilinear.

 

Enlargement using PaintShop Pro 'Bicubic' option, David Neat 2018

 

Enlargement using PaintShop Pro 'Bilinear' option, David Neat 2018

 

An interesting ‘meander’ can be followed from the word. The word-form itself is known as a portmanteau where two separate words are compressed or ‘packed away’ as one. Lewis Carroll is credited for coining the first use of the word in this way, in his book Through the Looking-Glass and it is something he practiced constantly. The word pixelation refers to the usually unwanted effect of pixels becoming too visible or creating distortions, but it is often confused with pixilation which is actually something separate, namely a form of jerky stop-motion animation where the number of frames describing a movement is purposely reduced. Here the source is not ‘pixel’ at all but ‘pixie’ as it’s meant to convey a sense of ‘possession by spirits’. In that respect ‘pixilation’ whatever the spelling is quite apt to describe the sometimes alarming transformations of newsreader’s faces when there are faults in digital TV transmission .. the images do sometimes look ‘possessed’. But there can also be moments when they appear agreeably evocative or even beautiful! The unwanted visible distortions which occur in digital images are known as artifacts (in this case usually using the American spelling).

Here are two examples of the many images to be found online labelled glitch art ..

example of 'glitch art'

Example of 'glitch art'

The significance of the word ‘artefact’

It was a coincidence that I should start acknowledging visible pixels while working on studies inspired by my Thames Foreshore searching .. but then came this significant word link! The word artefact has surfaced more than once in my pastimes over the years. Anyone serious about identifying their ‘historical’ finds on the Thames Foreshore will know the Portable Antiquities Scheme website, which catalogues finds of particular archaeological relevance. Most of these are referred to as ‘artefacts’, the archaeological definition being ‘an object made by a human being, typically one of cultural or historical interest’. One of my teenager ‘phases’ was studying things under the microscope, although now I wouldn’t be able to call it ‘studying’ more like just obsessively looking at. But I owe much of my artistic output to these hours spent! In microscopy the word ‘artefact’ refers to anything seen that is not supposed to be there but which occurs as a result of human intervention, such as a foreign particle or a distortion arising from slide preparation. The broader scientific definition is ‘something observed in a scientific investigation or experiment that is not naturally present but occurs as a result of the preparative or investigative procedure’. I remember wondering as a child whether this could also be applied .. to ghosts! But now I have been gifted the third meaning, which doesn’t appear so much in the standard dictionaries because the American spelling is commonly used. Like I’ve mentioned, this  refers to ‘anomalies during visual representation of digital graphics or imagery’ according to Wikipedia. It obviously originates from the broader scientific term, but I very much like the implication that these anomalies could also be appreciated as meaningful objects in their own right!

I’ve put more of these digital studies under Digital work 2017-18 in the Gallery section above, and I hope to add more as I complete them.

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‘ Yogiji ‘ on YouTube

The word really needs to be spread about the beautiful and unique work of a friend of mine Marc Steinmetz who creates short, animated pieces where his character Yogiji .. an Indian guru graffiti’d onto a backstreet wall .. gives us his simple wisdom on the most fundamental things in life. You can find him here

https://www.youtube.com/lifewithyogiji

Marc Steinmetz 'Yogiji' still from 'The Pursuit of Happiness'

These pieces are charming (in the fullest sense of the word) in their simplicity and directness, and they are faultlessly created! There’s a very considered balance of humour and seriousness .. with great little touches such as Yogiji talking about the wall ‘I was drawn to it’ or his Third Eye turban disapparating after him. It helps to be relaxed and receptive when seeing these, but I’m convinced that if you accept them as they are, give them time and heed the words .. you’ll not only be entertained and moved, but you’re unlikely to forget Yogiji or what he has to say! One of the remarkable things is that Marc does everything himself; the writing, the graphics, the animation .. even the voice!

Marc Steinmetz 'Life .. with Yogiji' Part1

I would recommend that the best way of experiencing the pieces is to go to the ‘Videos’ page after following the link and look at the short ‘Teaser’ first, which introduces Yogiji and establishes the style. Then look at ‘Part 1’, ‘Part 2’, ‘Yogiji and Mole Man’ and ‘Yogiji Sounds the Alarm’ in that order. All are voiced in English but Marc has included the option of English subtitles if you find the accent a bit difficult, or subtitles in his native German.

Marc Steinmetz, still from 'Yogiji and Mole Man'

Marc Steinmetz, still from 'Yogiji Sounds the Alarm'

I’m not the kind of person who has ever taken to doctrines or life-coaching messages .. but Yogiji is someone I could very happily follow! As Marc writes for Yogiji  ‘Alas – You were never given a handbook for this life. This could be it.’

 

Digital abstracts

 

Digital abstract, 001, iPad finger painting, 2017

001, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 002, iPad finger painting, 2017

                                                                002, 2017

                                                                

Digital abstract, 003, iPad finger painting, 2017

003, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 004, iPad finger painting, 2007

004, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 007, iPad finger painting, 2017

007, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 012, iPad finger painting, 2017

012, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 017, iPad finger painting, 2017

017, 2017

 

Digital abstract, 022, iPad finger painting, 2017

022, 2017

 

Background

I created these painting studies recently using PaintShop Pro and the Procreate painting software for iPad. The forms developed from a combination of two related sources .. impressions received while searching the Thames foreshore, and my collection of used painting palettes.

I feel I might be making some progress in getting more comfortable with working digitally, making the digital manipulation of images actually work for me .. to give me what my mind’s eye wanted .. rather than generating enticing variations which, however interesting, move in other unforeseen and unprepared directions! In traditional image making .. I mean physical painting or drawing, applying real substances onto a physical surface .. there are many limitations in comparison. With continual practise one can extend the range gradually but also become comfortable in working within these limitations, even turning them to advantage. The way one works within limitations defines one’s self .. one’s hand-print, one’s style, one’s visual aesthetic .. with consistency it almost guarantees that what one is doing will be different from another’s. Paradoxically, the infinite range provided by digital image making has led, it seems to me, to a lot of people’s work looking very much the same!

As for the Thames foreshore, I think I’ve written elsewhere that much of the experience is about tuning in to the special ‘otherness’ amongst all the sameness, or looking for the natural or man-made signs of ‘life’ amongst  the stones. But the interesting thing is that while doing that I think I’ve acquired a heightened sympathy for it ALL .. the whole range of same, similar, other or distinctive .. because nothing is identical, and everything however simple has a character of its own! In particular, there are the flints with their strong contrasts of dark and light, and their lifeform-like suggestiveness. I have a theory that it was stones such as these, the very same ones around at the dawn of humankind, which assisted the first inklings of the idea that we could both imitate other things and create shapes of our own.  

The other aspect of my Thames foreshore experience which seems to be soaking into my work more and more is .. trusting the ready-made, accepting the found object or, in other words, having faith in serendipity .. and this leads in to my second source of inspiration. For some years now I’ve been collecting up the painting palettes used in my courses, letting them dry and scanning them before soaking and scraping them clean. Have you ever stood in front of a ‘non-representational’ painting and been almost literally struck by an overwhelming feeling of ‘rightness’, a feeling .. that the balance is so sensibly poised between harmony and conflict, that the colours are so carefully considered, or that it can suggest a number of ideas but doesn’t need to be any of them? The thing is, on a number of occasions I’ve been hit by a very similar feeling while looking at a used painting palette! Is it possible that a few minutes worth of unfocused paint mixing can inspire the same feelings as weeks of painstaking work? Why not? Isn’t a painting palette a perfect example of form and colour for it’s own sake .. because it can’t be anything else? Isn’t it on the one hand pure and untainted by thought and on the other an honest embodiment of natural forces? When a painter composes an evocative abstraction, i.e. one which elicits agreement on an emotional rather than an intellectual level, aren’t they just painstakingly recreating in their own terms those same instances of rhythm and interruption, sameness and otherness, the individual and the whole, determinism and randomness .. the same that occur in a littered street, a stony foreshore or a painting palette?

While working on these studies I have become very interested again in the questions surrounding abstraction and in particular its relationship with music. This relationship is not about painting that strives to be ‘like’ music, to imitate it, certainly not painting that seeks to evoke musical or auditory sensations. It’s painting that attempts to parallel the way music is experienced.

Why is this so terribly hard? The urge to create paintings that could be experienced like music was introduced into the Fine Art forum about 100 years ago, but that means it’s still a fairly recent notion in the timespan of cultural history. Many recently past or contemporary artists may have evidenced how it could be achieved but that remains only one side of the deal that needs to be struck between creators and public perceptions. It may just be impossible; it may even go against the way we perceive things?

For me the fundamental is ‘Can we appreciate something without feeling the need to recognize what it is, where it comes from or what is meant by it?’ Yes, that’s possible with music! Of course if music appeals to us we become curious about where it comes from, and we may begin to formulate other questions, but those and other thoughts hardly affect its appeal while listening to it .. and I’m sure that most people would agree that the question ‘what is meant by it’ is unlikely to be in their minds while enjoying it? It does its job without the need for meaning! To put it another way, music can work on us without the need to reference anything other than itself.

Why can’t we do that with painting? For the moment I’m fairly convinced that we can’t .. but I don’t know why yet. Is it simply because vision is our primary means of reading, interpreting or in other words ‘making sense’ of our world, so we just can’t let go of that basic directive when it comes to processing anything visual? Or is it linked to the very different way we receive the two i.e. music can only ever be one note at a time, as it were, whereas a painting is commonly taken in all at once, then re-examined in detail? So the brain has to process the input in a different way? In a sense, music is never there, it can’t be ‘frozen’, our perception of it is a combination of the memory of what has been and the anticipation of what is to come. Maybe it’s just this disembodiment which is the key to understanding why music can work on us so ‘abstractly’ whereas painting cannot?