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The Computer, The Painter, The Image and His Brushes

When Dr. Michael Roach asked me if I might consider writing an article for DigitalAppleJuice, I was taken aback. I am a painter, and, one could say, a primitive, when it comes to the making of digital images. At least I used to be. Over the past five years, for a number of very practical reasons, I have become more adept at manipulating images on my Mac, from simply adjusting and organizing photos of my paintings and drawings to using Photoshop to create textile designs using my own images. I’ve also begun to use photographs as ‘research tools’ or sketches for my paintings. Although I am using a Wacom drawing pad for corrections and additions, I do not enjoy the act of drawing or painting on it. Oil paint and canvas or paper and ink seem even more interesting as mediums than before beginning my education in digital imagery. I remain a painter in spirit and actions and have now accepted that approach as an approach to the computer and Photoshop.


A few years ago, as a University Professor of Fine Arts (at The American University of Paris), I began to realize that even for communication purposes with students and colleagues, fluency with the computer was a necessity and since my field dealt with images, so was the manipulation of images. When I took my first computer three-day workshop, I was totally lost. The instructor assumed that most bipeds could move through clicks and double clicks with ease and I quickly became discouraged and was constantly being helped by my more upright neighbor. When I or some other lost soul would ask a question, the instructor would repeat the answer rapidly and then finish by saying "Don’t worry, it’s easy". At one point during a break, a fellow lost soul asked our instructor a question about a previous exercise and received the same lightning response finished by "Don’t worry, it’s easy". However, this girl, being braver than I, happened to be from Mexico and answered the instructor with a barrage of sentences in Spanish. The instructor looked perplexed and said, "I’m sorry, I don’t understand" to which the Mexican student said, "Don’t worry, it’s easy". So, yes, it’s all easy, if you’re already somewhat fluent in the language. 


When I finally got my own version of Photoshop, I dutifully tried to read the manual. Again, not much sank in. Then at night, when I was too tired to concentrate, I began to take various images and began to "mess around" with them in a completely haphazard manner. I would click on ‘Image’ in the bar menu and go down to something called ‘Adjustment’, then to ‘Color Balance’ and turn all of the dials in any way that I could, watch, the image change into something totally different and move on to the next effect, sometimes coming up with something I rather liked but was completely incapable of repeating the process or really understanding what had actually happened. I was becoming hooked on this experimentation, which then also lead to going back and trying to understand what had actually happened. Much more helpful than the books or manuals were the more literate computer friends around me that took the time to answer my questions. Most were very generous and patient and I hereby thank them all.



I slowly began to realize that my intuitive "painterly’ approach to the computer was affecting my own work and not necessarily in a bad way. First of all, I was learning to take better photographs of my paintings and organize them, although, my organization skills are still pretty bad.  (Perhaps someday I’ll be able to write how that has been solved also, but not yet). Since my work is basically figurative, I began to look at imagery in a slightly different way.

I still love to paint and draw from life, perhaps even more so now than before, both the figure and landscape, but I could use the computer as an exploratory instrument and not only as a reproductive tool. And of course, the deeper I got into exploring the ‘tool’, the more I wanted to understand how to manipulate it and make it do what I wanted it to do. In fact, rather than taking away the adventure of painting with oils on canvas, I realized what an incredibly fluid medium it actually was. There is an alchemy that occurs when using a medium such as oil paint that simply cannot be reproduced in another medium. Whew! Liberation! I didn’t have to feel guilty being a painter and exploring Photoshop or any other software. And I could learn from my experiments on the computer without feeling the necessity of ‘copying’ the image discovered in Photoshop in paint. After all, I didn’t want to become a painter simply copying photographs that I had manipulated on the computer. That seems too boring a prospect to me.


But what is exciting is delving deeper into both the visual world on the outside and the imaginative world within. This is an endless quest for me in paint and the results, when successful, are mysterious and often surprising. I try to take a similar approach on the computer. Sometimes I’ll scan one of my drawings and then begin to manipulate it in Photoshop just to see where I can go with it. It’s the reverse process of taking a photograph and seeing what I can do with it in paint. It’s always good to stretch out and stay open to new discoveries. This way of working has lead to making textile designs, which is a whole other story, to be explored in another essay. For now I’d like to stick with my own creative process and search for new imagery. So, taking a drawing and manipulating it in the computer is one way. The other is that I find myself taking more photographs and then exploring and exploiting that image, both on the computer and through paint. I don’t try to copy the image in paint but to use it as a beginning point in the painterly process. I find it interesting to begin from different beginnings and see what kind of result can be achieved. The search for meaningful images is paramount to me and I try not to limit my approach (es).


Since I do not consider myself a ‘photographer’, I feel free in the taking of photographs. And although this may sound strange, sometimes ‘-bad’ photographs can lead to innovative images, at least for me. Not that I wish to make bad photographs. On the contrary, I am trying to improve my photographic craftsmanship all the time. In fact, I am more and more interested in using the camera as a sort of sketchpad, then putting the image through Photoshop to see what can be pulled out. I love painting outside my country home in the Ardeche in southern France for example. It’s a thrill that takes me back to my hunting days as a child in Colorado with my father and brothers. I sit and look and listen and smell and try to open up to let it all these sensations and emotions flow into the paint. But I find myself beginning to photograph the same landscape and, although it’s not the same process, I aim for the same emotional depth when I start to manipulate the image. Sometimes I’ll discover things there that seep into my painting when I’m outside. It’s hard to explain and is not systematic, but I feel that my vision of ‘things’ widens and deepens.


I also love drawing from the nude. In my classes in Paris we draw a lot from the model. It’s a beautiful experience and teaches us the essential elements of drawing. Also, that the human body is magnificent, complex, sensual and sacred.  The structure one learns from figure work can be applied to almost any graphic problem. In my own work, I also use models and draw from life as much as I can. I try to have the same attitude as I do when painting the landscape outside, to open up to the vision in front of me so that the medium and I can work together to create a meaningful image. And, here too, I am starting to use the camera and Photoshop to explore directions that I cannot go in oil or ink. When drawing, one explores each curve almost like skiing over a mountain relief. In photography, capturing the image is instantaneous. Then one can explore that image, in Photoshop for example, to see what lurks hidden beneath. And, again, the discoveries somehow find themselves in the painting process, in perception of the world and in ones own imagination.

So, now, like other bipeds, I click and double click with a little more understanding of where that can lead to in terms of image discovery. But I retain my primitive status also and am ever more fascinated by the simple, more direct mediums. What a marvelous pencil Photoshop has become for me. I feel like I’ve only begun the adventure and just scraped the surface of possibilities. Is painting dead or been replaced? Only for those who don’t speak the language.




By Ralph Petty

From a Colorado ranch to Alaska to the Painting program at the University of California at Davis, Ralph is a well-traveled Renaissance man. An accomplished musician, saxophonist, singer, figurative and landscape painter, he made his way to Paris in 1976 where he worked for Sir Stanley W. Hayter in the Atelier 17 etching studio. He currently lives and works in Montreuil, teaching drawing and painting at The American University of Paris where he is also the Curator of the AUP Combes Gallery and founder of the permanent collection. Last year he cofounded "Flesh and Flora," a textile design company specializing in bed linen.

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[…] Matt wrote an interesting post today onHere’s a quick excerptA few years ago, as a University Professor of Fine Arts (at The American University of Paris), I began to realize that even for communication purposes with students and colleagues, fluency with the computer was a necessity and since my … […]

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