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Saturday, March 9, 2013

Painting Machines

The Painting Machine as
visualized by artist, Jon Arthur
On several occasions, I've expounded on the inexorable march of technology and how it changes our lives; and more importantly, how it changes art. Oils made painting images easier and better. The camera did the same for drawing. The computer has made using a camera easier and better, allowing us to correct mistakes, merge images, distort images, scan images, re-color images, or just plain draw new images. Until now, however, it was limited in its output to illuminated images on what is essentially a gussied up TV screen, or to squirting non-archival dyes onto non-archival typing paper. For several years I've been predicting that art in the future would be delivered via a computer in one way or another. Well, guess what? It's happening. As with so many other bursts of technology, it didn't happen the way I figured, but that's par for the course. Now, tied to a computer, we have the "painting machine."

Early painting machines were robotic in nature, often taking their inspiration from sound
inputs in turning out abstract works. This early painter was computer driven,
designed to deliver archival digital images in oils.
 
Actually, there has developed several of them over the years. One of the earliest versions (above), dating from the 1990s, was a deceptively simply looking contraption that hung on a wall and could reproduced computer images in oil paint up to eight foot square. The best I could say is it looked as if someone took the guts from your family ink jet printer, enlarged them about ten times, and switched the ink cartridge for five thingamajigs that zipped back and forth across your canvas and squirted out paint while the canvas passed slowly in front of it like paper through a printer. The workings were very similar to the standard, five-color printing process now used to make reproductions of artwork except this baby did it in oils. When finished, the painting was, of course, still wet, which allowed the artists to add details, brush strokes, additional paint, and presumably, once it was dry, still more paint and details. More recent painting machines are smaller, more compact, and resemble over-sized ink jet printers. Current models have largely deserted the vagaries oil paints in favor of archival dyes and a process called dye sublimation. They have thus sacrificed "touch-up" capabilities for speed, accuracy, and the economies of scale that come with such compromises.


A modern "painting machine," the Mutoh Series
made by Dongguan Xiangyu Digital Tech, a
Chinese firm.
As fascinating as the machines are, what's more interesting is the reactions to them among artists. From what I've seen, it's been pretty much predictable. There's the usual, and probably unwarranted angst, "Ohh, dear, there goes my livelihood (unless I buy one of the damned things)." Another has been (in so many words), "I'd sooner give my work away before I'd touch one of those contraptions." Others have been holding their breath, hoping they won't work, or if they do, they won't catch on. (Breathe, people breathe, they do, and they have.) Others, and I guess I'd have to include myself in this group, seem to be saying, "Hmm, cool, what will they think of next?" I don't expect to run out and buy one tomorrow afternoon, assuming I could afford one (which I can't). They start at around $12,000. That would likely explain why they haven't had more of an impact. However, I wouldn't object to having my digital art created or reproduced in such a manner.


A French firm, Illico, makes this
painter
Will painting machines put painters out of work? No, provided they will adapt somewhat. Will they change the way artist create? Probably, if they want them to, though they haven't seemed to have had much effect so far. Will they cheapen painting? Well, that's the hard one. It all comes down to money, doesn't it? The computer (with desktop publishing) cheapened printing. If painting machines deliver a product largely indiscernible from traditional painting methods, economically speaking, they probably will. Technology tends to do that. But do they cheapen "art"? No way. Art involves creativity (basically, try it, see if it works). Such machines simply take the guesswork from the brushwork and make it "mousework." Wake up, people, the future is here!

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