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Q&A OCTOBER 17 , 2001
Digital Abstract Expressionism
[Page 2 of 7]

The location, he says, does not impact his work so much as the "now"—even if the "now" is dictated by the fact that he has to go out and dig potatoes before the next rain.

"My work has always been, in one way or another, digital or not, about 'now,'" Detheux says, "and that means that I basically always do the same thing, no matter where (when?) I happen to be. Even though I have found ways of doing that in most circumstances, I nevertheless am very happy to live in an environment where the sound of a fridge compressor starting can be a major "noise," or where I have caught myself thinking "shut up!" to the birds living just below my studio window. Living in a lot of different places and doing many different things, I seem to have come to a connection with daily life that is at once a lot more 'involved' and a lot more 'fragmented.'"

Not that Jean doesn't get back to civilization occasionally. Next Sunday he will be presenting a workshop on the topic entitled "Animated Abstract Expressionism: A Digital Jam Session." He will demonstrate live animation, while his two co-presenters—Scott Lahteine and Sharon Katz—will compose music and edit the work they produce. All of it on three networked Macs. The presentation, part of SAFO 2001, will be held in Ottawa, Ontario. (More information can be found at http://www.awn.com/ottawa/safo01/index.html.)

Owing to his locale and my unwillingness to fly, Jean and I have never met in person. But we have been communicating for some time on the topics of technology and art, and I had the opportunity in the last week to conduct a more formal interview with him on the occasion of his upcoming workshop. We so often focus on commercial production and design in this publication that I thought we were due to discuss issues that are relevant to all creative professionals but that often get overlooked here—process versus product. It is the process, after all, that spurs all art. And while an artist might have a product in mind when he or she starts off on a project, it is usually fortuitous accidents of the process that result in the most appealing work for both the artist and the audience.

But where does digital fit into the process? All tools are technologies, to be sure, and digital is a powerful, expansive mix of media that can (and does) take art to places it has never been before. It's certainly no less "natural" than any "natural" media you might make or buy at the store. Paint and brushes are manufactured. Chemicals are synthesized. All tools are technologies, certainly, and digital is a powerful, expansive mix of media that can (and does) take art to places it has never been before. But where does it "fit?"

From the animation "Dilemma 1 Part 1." Click image
to see the animation. Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

This and other questions about digital media I put to Jean Detheux, whom I consider to be one of the leaders in advancing not only digital art, but art as a whole. By "advancing," I don't mean to imply any particular end, but opening up possibilities. This, to me, is what Detheux's work represents. Well, that and imagery I happen to enjoy viewing.

David Nagel You became involved in digital art as a result of chemical allergies resulting from years of exposure to traditional art media, correct?

Jean Detheux Yes, about 10 to 11 years ago, I began to show violent reactions to all sorts of "things," and it took a while before narrowing the cause to severe allergies to, amongst other things, many of the chemicals present in paints, thinners and the like. I must say I sort of asked for it; I used to work on large canvases (6' x 8' and larger) and regularly poured pure turpentine on them to wash out the image when it had become too defined. I often went through a gallon of turps per week.

Nagel Natural media chemicals can be rough—not just harsh, but highly carcinogenic as well. I don't think people realize the diversity of media used in art production.

Detheux I used natural media for well over 30 years and was only marginally aware of how toxic they are (most of them anyway).

I even lived under the delusion that acrylics were less toxic than oils, a far cry from the truth. (I don't like acrylics much anyway.)

I used lead white to prime my canvases; I even remember eating sandwiches while doing so, not cleaning my hands before eating! I have a friend who is a well known Canadian print maker (Jennifer Dickson), and she nearly died from what the acid bath fumes did to her lungs. Lots of dangerous substances used in making beautiful pictures!

Nagel Had you dabbled in digital before then?

Detheux Never. I had absolutely no interest whatsoever in "that stuff," even had a serious dislike of what I thought it was about. My first ever contact with a computer was a little over 5 years ago when a friend sat me down at a Mac and got me to try Painter. Within five minutes, I was in the "bubble" I knew so well when working with natural media. I vowed I would go home and get a Mac and Painter. The 7600/120 just came out that week, and we got one, along with Painter 4 (then by Fractal Design). We replaced the 7600/120 with the 8500/180 a year later. It since has been upgraded with a G3 card and much more.

For many years now, my work, both natural media and digital, has been a way to investigate the world of preverbal perception. One way to put it is to use the title I gave to one of my many lectures when I was still teaching: "What do I see before knowing what it is that I am looking at?" That means, amongst many things, that the work constantly feeds on something much closer to a "feeling" than a concept. In other words, and to be succinct, I need to draw/paint what I see in order to be able to see it. The work itself is necessary for the "comprehension" (if any) to take place.

By the way, I feel that much too much of present day art work, digital or not, is trapped in stating the already known, no longer being a tool of discovery and growth.

From the animation "Bénin." Click image
to see the animation. Or visit http://www.vudici.net.

With a bit of practice, Painter, and especially Studio Artist, are fabulous tools that can push one's imagination beyond the realm of the habitual, making the artist see things he/she has never seen before. This plays right into what makes me tick, to find the extraordinary in the heart of the most common, and art fulfilling what I think is its most important role, being "that which makes us see."

Painter was the application that made it possible for me to make a transition from natural media to the digital, and it still has an important place in my daily work environment, but Studio Artist is the most revolutionary tool I have ever set my hands on. Painter continued, in the digital world, what I had been doing for decades with natural media. It also added several important twists (from "save as" to being able to mix medium that could not live together if in the natural media limitations). Studio Artist introduces so many new parameters, it makes my head spin. From its "intelligent painting actions" to its remarkable animation tools, it is so vast and so relevant to what I feel art needs, if I am to continue the work that has been done by our predecessors and go to where natural media can't go. Studio Artist is the one tool that enabled me to venture beyond the "still picture" stage and into "painting in time." This "painting in time" had been on my mind even long before I had to go digital, but the way Studio Artist enables me to explore it is so very intuitive, so similar to what I would consider "normal" when working in my traditional way; it is really amazing. (I often hit moments working with it when I feel intense gratitude to its author, John Dalton.)

Nagel Did you instantly go out and get a tablet, or were you mouse painting back then?

Detheux For the first few months, we could not afford a tablet, so I drew with a mouse. I actually grew to like it; it was yet another way to remove immediate and obvious control from my grip (pun intended) so that I was forced a bit more to pay attention to what "it" was doing, rather than slavishly follow my original intention.

I think drawing with a mouse is a good exercise for learning to connect with what is beyond, or rather beneath, one's "skills."

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Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications.

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