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Where technology ends and artistry begins 

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David Hockney, one of the most renown artists of the 20th century, ruffled a lot of feathers in the art world when he published his book, Secret Knowledge, in 2001. Hockney makes a convincing case that the reason the look of European paintings changed drastically starting in the early 16th century, going from one dimensional to more lifelike, three-dimensional images, is because painters used a camera obscura, a dark room with a small hole with an inserted lens, that projected images on the wall opposite the hole. Artist used this technology to trace and paint their subjects with a high degree of accurately.

Hockney believes these methods continued until the invention of the camera, when chemicals took the place of paintings — for the most part — in the mid 19th century. And using the camera obscura was part of the artist tools, as well as the camera lucida, concave mirrors and the like. This practice, Hockney says, was used in Holland and by artists all over Europe during that time, including by masters like Johannes Vermeer. It is no coincidence that the optical lens was also being developed and perfected in Holland at the same time.

Though he believes early master painters used technology, Hockney is not criticizing them, but his arguent immediately drew fire from artists, art historians and critics from all over the world. Greg Kreutz, a painter and author of “Problem Solving for Oil Painters”  in an article for his Website, The Case Against Hockney, calls Hockney’s idea “kooky,” and compares it with Bigfoot fanatics and UFO truthers. Kreutz goes beyond just refuting and tears down all of Hockney’s reasons for his camera obscura theory, noting that there is no independent verification that optic aids were used by master painters. Kreutz also says it's highly unlikely that such a secret can be held for hundreds of years without physical evidence or significant literature that covers the subject.

Regardless if technology was used in early artwork or not, the idea brings to mind a particular question, especially in the modern digital age, one posed by David Pogue in his Scientific American article: How much should an artist reveal about the technology they use?

Pogue points out that professional photographers use Photoshop and other editing software to enhance their photographs, and some professional musicians use GarageBand software to compose songs. Like Hockney, it's not that Pogue believes artists shouldn't use the tools available to them, but he believes they should reveal the technology that aids them in creating their art. I agree with both.

In an art class during college, a visitor came to speak with my classmates and me about making a career in art. He was an illustrator whose niche was renderings of homes for real estate companies. His technique was this: take a photograph of a house, project it on a wall, trace it on a piece of paper hanging on the wall, paint it using watercolor paint, then embellish the highlights to make the home look better for buyers. He admitted that some people called this “cheating,” but he cared little about that — he was making a decent living.

He called himeself an illustrator, but did he consider himself an "artist"? That question was left unanswered.

I respected the speaker for a couple of reasons. First, he revealed his technique and didn’t try to hide behind the technology — that says a lot. Second, regardless of what anyone thought of his techniques, he is a person that actually makes a living by drawing and coloring. That's something that many talented people — who do call themselves artists — cannot claim.

There have been many times I've walked into local art galleries and wondered about a certain artist's techniques. I've stood before paintings that didn't seem to have a single brush stroke though they were actually painted. Often, I'm not wondering who painted it, but what painted it? And have had a strong suspicion that some are actually photographs, manipulated in Photoshop, and printed out using the giclee method. (Giclee method spray paints on canvas like an inkjet printer without any brushstrokes.) Of course it's still art, but my problem is when artists don't attribute the technological techniques they use.

I knew of a book illustrator whose work seemed to be traced — I've always had an eye for that — and my suspicions were validated when I had a chance to watch him draw freehand. His freehand piece didn't come close to matching his earlier works in style or quality. But it's not that he traced something or had something generated by a computer and painted by an inkjet printer, it's that he did not reveal what aids his technique, and therefore, seems to be purposely misleading the viewer.

If in fact the Dutch painters used the available technology of their day, I don’t think this would diminish their greatness at all. The act of painting itself was what really separated those painters above all others. For the critics who think the master's work would be diminished if they used camera obscura, I would say to them that even if the master did use available tools, they still had to paint it. Painting is an extraordinary skill. Critics should try to use a camera obscura to trace and paint something that would be comparable to a Vermeer. Try to paint the light, shadows, paint the difference in texture such as silk, glass, wood and metal. Paint details and come up with something that is extraordinary to look at. They would not come within a country mile of a master painting.The skill of the artist is not diminished.

Let’s continue to admire the Dutch painters. Using the technology at your disposal is not a crime. In our digital technology age there are more opportunities to create and innovate then ever before. To shun those that use the technology is being, well, sort of an art snob. But on the other hand, those artists using those technologies should openly share the creative credit with Photoshop, GarageBand or any other technology that played a major role in their creativity. Since robots can now compose music and paint portraits, it's important that artist reveal the technology they use to create their art.


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