John Antoine Labadie
Evolving digital means: A personal description and commentary

'Could've Been' by Larry Arnold


History. Toward the end of the 1960's I began formally studying visual arts at the Dayton (Ohio,USA) Art Institute. At that time many of my professors were European artists who had fled the Continent before and after WWII. They spoke of their mentors and professors who were trained by the "post-impressionists" the "expressionists" and the "surrealists" of even earlier generations. Needless to say I was fascinated and, guided by their ideas and experiences, moved along a relatively traditional educational path toward a degree in painting. Printmaking classes focused on processes such as drypoint, etching, aquatint, silkscreen and lithography. All my printed products were accomplished in inks, moved through presses and were output on paper often made by companies that had been in business for hundreds of years. In both junior and senior years I worked for an outdoor advertising company and, in my painting curriculum, painted large works in acrylics and industrial enamels using automotive spray-painting equipment. My professors mused about the future of art, painting in particular, and more than one of them wondered aloud what changes these (and other) "new materials" would bring.

Due to life currents not relevant here, by 1974 I was working for the (now defunct) "Air Force Logistics Command" as a civilian "industrial engineering technician." Here I was introduced to digital computing. In the basement of a building larger than two football fields, I was astonished to behold rows after row of Honeywell mainframes and the attendant lines of carts sincerely weighed down by the many boxes of punch cards whose negative spaces literally held the binary code that could manipulate, manage and project U.S. Air Force resources on a world-wide basis. I understood the political gravity of our enterprise but, nonetheless, episodes of the "Outer Limits" danced in my head in that basement. Printing? Well, visual resources produced by these systems were most often simplistic columns, tables, and graphs accompanied by reams of paper saturated with numbers. In this environment we daily communicated with others worldwide via a "teletype" (a Western Union machine so noisy it was kept in a large box with a plexiglas lid). High technology seemed to ooze from the cinder block structure of the building. One day I watched incredulously as a co-worker displayed a "briefcase computer" for "desk top data processing." Whatever the input device, the results of our programming efforts in Basic, Cobol and Fortran III was held in stacked boxes of tractor-feed paper and on flow- process charts that often stretched the length of the hallway outside my office. It is at this time that I first hear the term "digital" applied to computers and computer output -- the year was 1978.

I had my first experiences with "digital videography" toward the beginning of my doctoral work at the University of Cincinnati in the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. Through a grant from the Apple corporation, one of the professors had acquired an Apple Macintosh II machine and all the necessaries for reconstituting the visual world into digital video clips and still images, a thing (then) totally new to me. We did self-portraits. I can still recall borrowing the wings from a pigeon, merging them onto my ears, multiplying myself into a flock of variously sized "Johns" that haltingly winged their way toward a virtual stage left. We could also capture a still frame and then store it on a floppy disk, but no printer we could locate could produce an image that looked better than cross-stitching -- the year was 1985.

By 1989, as well as wrestling with a dissertation, I was writing for a commercial enterprise that employed computer technologies to publish a magazine focused on high-performance Chevrolet automobiles of the 1960's & 1970's. In 1990 one of our graphic designers brought in the first edition of Adobe Photoshop 1.0 any of us in the shop had ever seen. Very soon we were eliminating unwanted backgrounds, changing colors and making poor quality photographs into acceptable images. These things happened with an ease and degree of control that bordered on things magical. Projects were saved on a stack of 3.5 inch floppy disks and then sent off to a service bureau to be prepared for publication. In addition to digital technology, photographic positives, stat-camera output, paste-ups, and other films were used to create the final product that appeared in print once each month. Once each moth we went to an offset lithography business that first did proofs, then printed more than six thousand "four-color" editions of our publishing effort.

In the late 1980's I also began a decade of work as an archeological illustrator for a series of on-site university research projects in Mexico and Belize. Through these activities I produced hundreds of graphical works ranging from strictly photographic, to traditional media (pencil and pen) to printed computer graphics. In 1988 pencil and paper were standard graphical tools in the field. By 1999 we were using laptops in the field. Adobe Photoshop 5.0 and Illustrator 8.0 were being employed to graphically depict excavations as well as to describe and investigate many other aspects of archeological field work ... often on a same-day basis. Many days the results of my digital work on a G3 laptop was shared via zip disk, transferred to CD-ROM for dissemination, and then later output on a plotter which produced printed images larger than the hood of my truck.

Fast forward to the Spring of 2002. At this time I have been a faculty member in the Art Department at the University of North Carolina for eight years. Since arriving on this rural "Sandhills" campus, my job has been first to launch, and then to continuously develop a digital arts major. What we at UNCP term "computer graphics" (CG) was first begun using Amiga computer systems that have, since 1996, been replaced by Apple and Silicon Graphics equipment. Now the focus of the UNCP CG program is the exploration of the computer as an expressive, inventive tool. Our work in virtual space has augmented the physical (analog) studios. (Virtual working space definition: Virtual denotes the quality of effecting a thing without actually being that thing. With information technology, there appears to be a virtual version of [virtually] everything. The pen and pencil and paper of the 1980's has evolved into the tools and environment of raster and vector applications. Such virtual working space exists within the computer in binary code that is also visually displayed on a monitor.) Even so, for the most part, the output (AKA: products) of the UNCP computer graphics program has been/is directed toward print. Over the years we have experimented with many kinds of printers and processes directed toward moving an image from a digital source to a physical substrate. We began our "photo-realistic" output with an Epson 600 printer that produced a maximum 8.5"X 11" inkjet print. That first Epson printer cost us more than $500.00 of grant money designated toward "elaborating the possibilities of fine arts digital printmaking." To date, the Epson 760, 900, 1200, 1520, 1280, 2000p and 3000 printers we have moved the digital studios have far exceeded the possibilities I ever imagined (in 1994) might be at out disposal on a daily basis.

These days I too converse with my students about artistic possibilities in the area(s) I teach. Just this past week we discussed the nature of website graphics and lamented that web-based images were so seldom as useful as scanned images. We had just printed images as large as the drawing boards used in the studio down the hall. One student showed us her work on a G4 titanium laptop with more memory that all six of my Apple 7100's possessed in the 1997 incarnation of our studio. I also discussed the difficulties of jurying an online exhibition (originating in Australia) on a 22" monitor compared to projecting all the jpeg images on the LCD projector in the digital studio. Comparisons were made between various forms of digital printing: dye-sublimation, various forms of inkjet imaging, laser and others. Recent experiments combining traditional wood block printing with inkjet printing on rice paper ended up sending two students off to the net in order to investigate a question involving digital papers versus printmaking papers. In short, my students also ask about those persons who helped move me along the educational path ... and together we muse about the future of art. We often conjecture about the impact of computers in particular, and more than one student has wondered aloud what this "new media" will bring to the arts and our lives in general.

Commentary. In 2002 I teach drawing, in both traditional and digital (via graphics tablets) forms, as visual thinking in traditional media design classes and also digital imaging in fully realized computer graphics studios. Although these university level studios are mere steps from each other down the same hallway, it appears to many of my colleagues that the nature, as well as the practice, of graphics in these classrooms is sometimes worlds apart. By graphics I mean the making of marks through whatever means are available or possible.

The history of making art is long as is the history of training persons interested in making artistic statements through the uses of various media. Chief among those areas of training is drawing. Perceptual drawing, that mark making accomplished from observation of the physical world, seems, to some, to be in deep conflict with the practice and goals of technologies employed in digital studios. Indeed, it is not arguable that many of my students have grown up with keyboards and mice rather than the graphite and paper of my youth and many generations before me. But we exist in a time of radical change in such traditional practices. In fact, over more than twenty years of teaching art I have observed what appears to be a declining interest in physical tools for graphical communication.

Throughout human history acts of communication and expression through making marks have been fundamental among human instincts. Drawing, that most basic of graphical acts, has long provided a direct physical means for the recording of human intentionality. Such mark making has been manifested across tens of thousands of years in the forms of human art making. Since paleolithic people first made marks in caves and rock shelters there have been durable forms of evidence produced which have recorded the unique visual thinking and sophisticated communication abilities of early humankind. We can still view much of this work today due to the original makers' employment of lithic and pigmented "graphical" interfaces. Despite the ravages of time, even now there is a vast record of human visual cognition available for inspection in the rock art that is distributed, in one form or another, throughout the known range of human habitation.

The technologies of human mark making, these graphical artifacts of how we make two-dimensional sense of the three-dimensional world around us, have evolved with us to encompass a remarkable range of working one surface against the other to allow for the formation of intentional design(s) upon what was once a tabla rasa. In the durable artifacts collectively known as "rock art" we have ample evidence of the path humans have followed through abstraction and distillation of thinking into visual symbols. Over many thousands of years such cognitive travels along this graphical path have resulted in various, highly evolved and carefully structured notational systems: musical, mathematical, artistic, languages.

As cultural adaptation, the sciences, and new technologies have evolved ever more advanced means of making marks, the invention and introduction of portable and more easily perishable substances such as paper and other specially prepared substrates have allowed for ever more sophisticated and refined graphical statements. Moreover, the continued and often parallel development of specialized graphical tools has allowed for ever more rarified and nuanced recordings of expressive intent and visual thinking through the employment of a wider range of graphical tools introduced by each generation of scientists and artists. By the early twentieth century, highly evolved forms of chalks, graphite pencils, colored pencils, pastels, oil pastels, crayons and other specialized artists' materials have allowed artists of succeeding generations to engage in "never before possible" activities in the various traditional, and also newly established, graphical arts.

As the tools for graphical expression and notation have changed so have the possibilities, the universe from which such choices can be made. Although the hand, with opposed thumb, has remained the same for our species for some time, the tools for graphical expression have developed marvelously over the millennia to now encompass virtual graphics through digital interfaces. With the introduction and now widespread adoption of digital imaging the nature of the user appears also to have been deeply modified. Particularly over the last two decades of the twentieth century and into the second millennium of Western history, those of us involved in the teaching of traditional drawing have students come to the studio who rarely use any part of the hand other than the index and middle finger to make their "mark" graphically.

Simply put, the discipline of drawing, making specialized marks through traditional graphical tool interfaces, has been profoundly influenced, and perhaps forever changed, not only by the proliferation of technically new traditional drawing media, but more powerfully through the interface offered by newly invented technologies, and the corollary and diverse approaches to making marks through digital means. A altered reality now exists wherein a "new hand" has been created through invoking things-digital as a viable replacement (or inheritor?) for perceptual drawing skills.

In the year 2002 the digital world has advanced pervasively and qualitatively to, perhaps, the point of overwhelming perception-based graphical works altogether. To produce visualizations in this new digital millennium those persons working in visual fields must effectively connect with the newest graphical technologies in order to work in most fields. There is literally no choice in this regard.

Furthermore, the cultural perception and understanding of what has traditionally constituted drawing is rapidly expanding, and changing -- daily. In many, if not most, educational and professional training environments, it is no longer is it seen as necessary for students to deeply learn and utilize traditional drawing skills as practical tools for disciplines such as engineering, architecture and, in some cases, the fine arts. Such trends will not be reversed.

Those fields which once required perceptual drawing as a prerequisite to professional function are now populated, or will soon be populated, by practitioners (architects, engineers and designers) who did not learn to (or perhaps are not even able to physically) "draw a straight line" as software interfaces now allow this once-difficult goal to be quickly achieved by a very different population than in times of the utter dominance of perceptual drawing. Moreover, linear perspective, modeling, various other representations of three-dimensional constructions, works with accurately depicted proportions, and drawings with subtly varied line forms can now all be produced via software and input device interfaces. The evidence of this surrounds us and is, for example, pervasively present in the electronic as well as print media.

What can be produced graphically and how graphical products are created has forever been altered. Perhaps even the concept of permanence is now arguable more with respect to the chemistry of CD- ROM plastics than that of paper and inks. The era of "virtual" works and the demise of the traditional "original" has arrived. The concepts of media and substrates for drawing have been reconceptualized in terms of "dpi" and "file type" as well as the considerations of pixel versus vector applications for graphics development and production. The concepts of immediacy in media and fluency of graphic ability have not removed themselves altogether but such long held ideas and practices must be reconsidered in the bright light of the RGB display calibrated to ISO (International Standards Organization) specifications.

This is a vital as well as a transitional time for the graphic artist as well as the more pragmatic graphics user. Today many involved in education in the visual arts are expanding upon historical approaches to drawing as metaphors for digital working environments. The early twenty-first century is also a time when the dialogue between advocates of innovation and the keepers of the traditional in drawing and related graphical fields has never been stronger. But in order to effectively capitalize on this ephemeral moment we must realize that drawing, the making of marks regardless of the technologies used to do so, is not simply an exercise in making aesthetic statements or notations of some sort. Much more is involved. Drawing in the traditional forms is a deeply philosophical enterprise that deals with the acquisition of empirical knowledge and the pursuit of epistemological investigations. Through drawings we learn heuristically and acquire experiences which are then reproduced as graphical works. Whether on paper with pencil and now on perhaps with a Wacom tablet and stylus, perceptual graphics involve the maker in distilling an inherently three-dimensional world into a slim, tonal, linear, carefully shaped depictions of one's consciousness of the perceptual world.

As organisms we are tremendously limited in what we can perceive, let alone understand, of that remarkable assemblage of possibilities that constitute the visual world. Generations of researchers have shown that we perceive only a fraction of what is "there" to understand. What we selectively grasp and can, perhaps, respond to graphically is only a fraction of the perceptible. Enhanced graphical abilities now available through digital interfaces allow for more careful and thoroughly aquisitive understandings of our world than ever before. What can we do to move such possibilities forward in practical ways?

We might greatly expand our expressive and informational horizons by learning to balance the possibilities of digital arts with those of the robust and empirically-rich realms of traditional graphics studio practices. Thorough and structured examinations of traditional graphics practices through art historical inquiry can present informed digital users technical and aesthetic possibilities more thoroughly and sensitively than one often finds in much of the contemporary literature on digital imaging and the "new" graphic arts. Armed with a more informed sense of the historical path, graphical practitioners of today might more effectively conjecture where drawing (in a greatly broadened sense of the term) might go in the immediate IT driven future.

At this time of new mark making, the immediacy of new drawing tools offers a profound mirror to the swift change that pervades global digital culture. In this regard, some relevant questions also emerge. For example: What are digital users using and how are digital works being made? What constitutes a new graphical work of the digital species anyway? Why have some artists chosen, or not chosen, to "go digital" or to stay "traditional" or experiment somewhere in between? What does an analysis of current trends and behaviors seem to indicate? Do we now have enough information, or the perhaps even the tools needed to gather sufficient information to make such judgments at all?

In this regard, there is much potential difficulty in defining a reliable and generally acceptable means to collect useful information on such topics as: the fracturing of disciplinary boundaries in graphics; descriptions of global graphical interactivity; the rate of elaborations and inventions of graphical media; or even methods of graphical activity -- among many other potential topics of interest. Moreover, how can useful, structured inquiries of this unprecedented era can be conducted and then become informative and vital tools for positive change? We have much work ahead along this path.

Beyond the realm of wider inquiry, each of us who utilizes digital imaging in any serious way(s) will have to make sense of what sort of practitioner we will be in this new age of drawing. For example, as an expressive artist I have some very specific questions about the merging of traditional practice with the possibilities of my digital future. For me all such inquiries fall into two categories: 1. Where might a rational approach take the graphic arts? Corollary: What are some more "reasonable" conjectures about where graphics (drawing) may go and what are the related sources from which we might derive our empirical knowledge for a scientific, developmental approach? 2. Where might a sentient approach take the graphic arts? Corollary: What are some more "affective" conjectures about where graphics (drawing) may go and what are the related sources from which we derive our aesthetic knowledge for an artistic, intuitive approach? These are my categorical questions; other "users" will have theirs. But whatever our questions, reflection and then well-informed action developed in order to understand and guide new graphics education and the future development of drawing is vital to human expression and communication.

In summary, I believe our potential for actions toward guiding the evolution of drawing in the age of the digital interface, to the extent that this is even possible, can be constructively assisted by introspective and reflective activities about the nature of work and our world. In my view, those of us in involved in education, the pragmatic arts, the sciences, and the expressive arts must issue a call to our colleagues to:

1. Raise the self-consciousness of professional publics regarding the nature of the graphical interfaces in our collective domains. The goal here is to move beyond being a "user"toward a heightened awareness of a merging of our possibilities for what drawing might become based upon an understanding of what it is, and what it does at this time.

2. Describe specific means or instrument(s) that might allow concerned parties to construct an accurate and informative view of the similarities and dissimilarities of digital "drawing" and more historical, traditional graphical interfaces. Here the goal is to develop an accessible literature for the development of pedagogy and educational practices that do not BEGIN with the digital interface alone.

3. Define the cultural identity of what it is we as graphics producers, as digital visualizers, create in terms of product impact: social, scientific, artistic.

4. Examine our educational practices. How, and in what ways, do we formally acculturate persons into "things graphical"? What are the practices? How does the practices work? How effective are such practices in terms of building the future of drawing on the practices of the present what most assuredly have been founded on our rich graphical past.

Communication through making marks is a fundamental human instinct. Humans have always used the act of drawing as a means to express ideas, emotions and to record actions. Currently, the discipline of drawing is being profoundly influenced, and perhaps forever changed, by the proliferation of new drawing media, technologies, and diverse approaches to making marks through digital means. As such, the perception and understanding of what constitutes drawing is rapidly expanding. Simultaneously, many graphic artists are expanding upon historical approaches to drawing. The early twenty-first century is a time when the dialogue between innovation and tradition has never been stronger. I seek to explore this dialogue by embracing the breadth of what drawing is and to conjecture on where drawing might go in the immediate future by exploring the use of new technologies, elaborating the impact of continuing traditions of drawings, and to engage the expanding range of ideas that are brought to this basic form of human expression.

As we enter into this new millennium the immediacy of drawing offers, as it always has, a profound mirror to the swift change that pervades global digital culture. I invite all those involved in drawing, in whatever form, to be a part of this dialogue.


Dr. John Antoine Labadie
Director, Media Integration Project
Art Department
University of North Carolina at Pembroke
Pembroke, NC 28372-1510