|I felt the simplicity and rawness of the common source images helped give the artists the opportunity to get creative and decide where they wanted to take the composition.|
Pathway to Creativity: Iron Artist 2006
The Iron Artist Competition began in San Diego in 2003. The idea was to create a framework for discussing creativity in digital media. Arguably, such a discussion would be more substantial if the audience first saw the artists engaged in creating their art from common source images. How could one meaningfully compare art if the artists had different starting and ending points?
Iron Artist 2006
The annual Iron Artist competition was held on May 4th at the San Diego County Office of Education. The event founder and one of this year’s commentators, Joe Nalven, set the stage -- giving the audience and artist competitors the competition guidelines. Each artist had a computer, monitor and tablet with a screen behind each of them so the audience could track their step-by-step process. To the side was a larger screen that projected the four common source images that the audience could refer back to as the artists began to construct very different imagery. The other commentator was Vladimir Konečni, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego who has conducted experiments in various aspects of aesthetics. The moderator for the competition was Stephen Burns, a digital artist and author of several books on special effects in Photoshop. The moderator’s job was to ask questions of the artists, perhaps disrupting them in their creative zone, but getting them to talk about their creative process. The artist competitors were Vanessa Lemen and Greg Klamt, both of whom have backgrounds working with traditional and digital media. Vanessa teaches art at at Studio 2nd Street in Encinitas. Her art can be seen at Vanessa Lemen . Greg’s fantasy art can be found at his website, Greg Klamt: Possible Moments in Improbable Worlds.
The artists had a 45-minute time frame and they were encouraged to use all 4 common source images, photographs that served as the starting point for their compositions, after that everything else was free game. There were few limitations and the time frame for the artists to work was very short, but the idea of any competition is to challenge the participants. And the real conversation begins after the competition is over and the panel discussion begins.
The anticipation was brewing at the start of the evening. Both competitors, Vanessa Lemen and Greg Klamt, took their seats behind laptop computers and the timer began. Moderator, Stephen Burns, started narrating many of the artists’ moves. The artists located the common source images (the four reference pictures -- see below), they had to use as part of their final composition. They were unable to view these common source images beforehand and viewed them for the first time in front of an audience which added another element of suspense. The pressure was on -- what would their next move be?
Joe Nalven provided the common source images included two portraits of women, a landscape and an urban detail. His selection was to provide just-good-enough images to avoid having the artist’s react “oh, that image is too good to tamper with.”
For, a novice such as myself, I’m not sure I would have been able to handle the difficult task of creating a composition in 45 minutes using only four reference pictures and being on stage in front of a live audience. All of these elements combined would have sent me over the edge, but Vanessa and Greg being experienced artists focused on the task at hand.
The moderator’s role played by Stephen Burns really helped the artists loosen up and was also very informative for the audience. Stephen is very knowledgeable of how Photoshop CS2 works and proved to be a useful anchor in prompting the artists as well as providing a roadmap to the audience.
Audience Reactions to the Images
Audience reactions to the common source images varied. Some thought that the diversity of images was good and others thought they were not particularly inspiring and having two portraits was excessive. For myself, I felt the simplicity and rawness of the common source images helped give the artists the opportunity to get creative and decide where they wanted to take the composition.
Consider your own reaction to these images – either as a competing artist or a member of the audience? What comes to your mind? Do you see any correlation between the images? What would you have created from these as your starting point? As part of an informal evaluation, I asked the audience these questions and here are some of their responses:
- I’m a figure drawer so I’m drawn to the portrait pictures but I didn’t see much possibility for texture from them. Image #4 is a nice artistic piece in itself and consumed my focus.
- The images gave a sense of spirit of the land and nature, as well as, industrialization, surviving in a man made world.
- The portrait pictures were quite different, image #4 evoked a sadness through the movement of her hair and image #2 conveys an intensity in the eyes and the contrast of the earthen textures with a vibrant blue sky (#3) creates an atmosphere of heavenly imagery.
- I have to admit I’d be pretty stumped.
Both artists, Vanessa and Greg, have their own style in which they work and during the competition we got a glimpse of what goes through their minds from creation to completion or until the timer stopped. This is something that you don’t get to see everyday, as most artists work alone and don’t invite an audience to watch them in their studio. The sense I drew from this experience was one feeling privileged to be a bystander and watch masters at work.
Greg Klamt (above) and Vanessa Lemen (below). Artists at work
Artist Greg Klamt’s approach was very fast and illustrative, as his composition took on a life of its own. Greg began taking a portion of the landscape image and stamped out a completely new landscape using the stamp and brush tools in Photoshop. From the beginning, Greg set out to create a completely new space made up of surreal objects like a fantasy world. He used all of the images but after awhile it was difficult to tell because except for the background landscape they were no longer recognizable. The portrait of the woman he contorted into a fairy tale character and created a body and outfit for it to wear.
Greg has a wild imagination and a fascinating ability to make things look very unreal. Even on Greg’s business card he uses the phrase, “Possible Moments in Improbable Worlds,” to describe his work which accurately captures the flavor of his art. The moderator, Stephen Burns, enjoyed picking Greg’s brain for information about what he was intending to do, because even watching him work it was hard to figure out what he would think of next. One audience member commented, “It seemed like it took Greg awhile to get a sense of where he wanted to go with it.” Another commented that it seemed like Greg just couldn’t quite get focused and the final product was unfinished. If Greg had more time we would see a completely different product from what he originally began at the competition. His characters and textures have evolved over the years providing a sense of artistic continuity and a recognizable Klamt style.
Greg Klamt, The Stopping Point
By contrast, Vanessa Lemen had a completely different approach to the project. Vanessa began playing with layers right away using the portraits as the focus and adding texture and color to the faces. She came at it from a painterly approach, which is her usual style. The composition came together very quickly for Vanessa and then she just started having fun with it by adding texture and integrating the various elements. For Vanessa, the first portion of the creative process was spent observing and experimenting with composition, which as she explained to the audience, may show less on the computer screen because, for her, this time is more about analyzing the given images and brainstorming. As her work progressed, she mentioned that when the foundation is set, more time can be dedicated to experimenting with the visual stimulus that the picture is evoking as a whole, or the possible storytelling that is involved in the picture. This part of creating an illustration is where the artist's individual voice can best be utilized and heard.
Vanessa Lemen, The Stopping Point
A member of the audience commented that Vanessa’s composition was well crafted from start to finish, and was surprised that Vanessa said it needed more work. Another audience member noted that the grungy tones she used added a horror movie vibe to the composition. The contrasting styles and process engaged the audience’s attention as reflected in their comments about how they thought and felt about the artworks and on the artist’s personal styles.
Vladimir Konečni, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, San Diego explained that during a competition such as this there are a lot of variables that can affect the artists, their mood, are they comfortable being watched, do they deal well under pressure, etcetera. Vladimir also noted that art is in the mind and how one’s memory can drive their creativity is a central consideration. In viewing the competition, we actually were participating in a study of creativity.
Konečni pointed out that the artists in the competition had similar characteristics to portrait artists that he studied because of the nature of the competition. The art-on-command is a predominate force for portrait artists. In the classic portrait setting, the creative process begins with a client who requests a likeness, thus removing a part of the usual inspiration stage. The stimulus to create is external to the artist both mentally and often financially. The expectations of the clients are high and, in this case, the expectations of the audience members could have had a dramatic effect on the work produced by both Vanessa and Greg. In general, portraiture is a situation in which the artist is accustomed to having no privacy during the creative process. We watched as the artists work evolved and could see, however, that they were not only driven by the stimuli in the present moment but by their own creative personality traits.
Another question that came up during the competition was when is a painting finished. Did the artists have a final image or goal in mind and to what extent did the audience reactions govern their process? As Greg said, “I don’t really know when I’m done. I enjoy continually changing my images.” Greg’s images are a result of what came before and are constantly evolving.
Vanessa, primarily a portrait artist and also an instructor, is used to giving and receiving feedback on her work as it is in progress. During this event, Vanessa seemed to have a final goal in mind throughout the whole process and her work developed very fast. Much to the audience’s surprise, Vanessa’s reaction to the image produced was quite opposite and she never felt it was finished at all and would have developed a very different composition if given more time.
Joe Nalven drew attention to the connection bewteen this competition and the book he co-authored with JD Jarvis, Going Digital: The Practice and Vision of Digital Artists. With the digital toolset, there is an ability to replicate the entire world history of art -- or if not in this moment, then very soon. This Iron Artist framework tailors the discussion about creativity to particular details, technique and vision, that each artist brings to the moment; and it is more understandable with the audience viewing the common starting point. The mystery of "how did you do that?" is replaced by the more essential mystery of what makes this artist's work compelling, or strong, or tough (or any other word that is used for a stand-in for beautiful).
Nalven observed that each time the Iron Artist competition, and ensuing discussion, takes place, there is always a new discussion and new points of interest to be made. Here the juxtaposition of collage/montage styling with representational fantasy styling underscores the range of artistic inventiveness from the same source material. Nalven also talked about the time needed for an artist to create art as being tied to the artist's presets, his or her template for their personal styling -- those common source images get sucked up into their respective creation matrices and the amount of time is relatively meaningless to the cliche that it can't be art unless it takes a long time. One could read Nalven's mind and his wistful feeling of wanting to do it again, real soon.
The Iron Artist Competition provides a meaningful platform for viewers to become actively immersed in the artistic process -- getting a feel for what the artist goes through and watching the detailed unfolding of an image. The competition's objective is met when the audience’s perspective is altered in a way that makes the creative process seem less incomprehensible and more tangible to the average viewer.
At present, the audience is weighted towards artists but it is an important next step in building broader community understanding and support for digital art.