Paint by the Numbers: Why We Make Digital Art
Originally published on the CitySearch web site, July 1999

by M. Blair Ligon

Digital artists take satisfaction in the perfect permanence and malleability of our data. Our art is not a collection of individual images, but a single body of work that literally divides, replicates, merges and evolves as a whole organism, showing its face from time to time as a print or an image on the web. We use computers because we love the sound of pixels singing together on our hard drives. It has its own Zen.

As in the cases of art nouveau and urban graffiti, advertisers in search of novel, attention­getting messages were the first to appropriate digital images. Computer artists are in a position similar to that of early photographers ignored by critics, curators and patrons unable to differentiate virtuosity from their own snapshots. Digital artists must endure these slings and arrows because each has a unique compulsion, a passion, and a story that drove them to the computer for self-expression.

My Story
As a very young person, my first competitive award was for a pastel image of a sailing ship. It was a hollow victory, as my art teacher had stood over me imparting instruction for every a tacit and unsatisfying collaboration. Many more teachers and collaborations followed. I rebelled against good taste and acquired (over the objections of my mom) a paint-by-numbers set of a schooner on a stormy sea. The result was tedious, kitschy and on black velvet, but it was entirely mine, free of the influence of teachers and critics. I enjoyed the mathematical, intellectual stimulation of matching the colors to the numbers, while mimicking the trace lines on the velvet template.

Twenty years passed before I discovered the computer. It was a Mac II. Out of the box and two days painting with no sleep. It was the most exciting tool I had ever laid hands on. My personal working style actually became looser, not tighter. Each brush stroke became an experiment that could be undone with a keystroke. A painting no longer had to go in one direction. It could split into many directions, many paintings. I've never looked back. Brushes became just animal hair tied to sticks.



copyright 2006, M. Blair Ligon, all rights reserved worldwide.