You paint with a PC; is it art?

By J. Greg Phelan
May 9, 1993
Asbury Park Press

Ever wonder what Leonardo Da Vinci would be doing if he were alive today? Chances are he wouldn’t be spending his time hobnobbing at chic Manhattan art galleries. He would be trying to satisfy his insatiable appetite for innovation in the worlds of science and art. It’s very likely he would be spending a lot of time using a computer.
Lillian Schwartz is doing just that. An artist inspired by her mentor Leonardo, she had devoted herself to exploring the creative potential of technology. In 1968, she participated in an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art where a fateful encounter with research scientist from AT&T Bell Laboratories led her into the world of the computer. Immediately, she recognized the tool as a vehicle for self-expression.
With the help of Bell Labs scientist in Murray Hill, Schwartz used the computer to experiment with painting, animation, filmmaking, and sound. This was before Roger Rabbit, Star Wars, computer graphics or MTV. Even so, her work has not gone unrecognized. Her journey led her to win an Oscar for her filmmaking, an Emmy for a commercial for the Museum of Modern Art, and much of her work is part of the permanent collections of the great museums of the world.
But how does she do it? How did she take this hunk of metal, plastic and silicon and shape it for her own expression? In her inspiring new book, “The Computer Artist’s Handbook,” she provides the road map to creating computer art. Her advice to the budding computer artist is pointed: Don’t be afraid to experiment and make mistakes.
Take painting on the computer. There are plenty of software packages that provide the functionality to paint on the screen. With the mouse or other point device, a compute user can use shapes, colors and patterns to create impressive designs. Is it art? Van Gogh had to mix his own colors to get the precise yellow he needed to paint his sunflowers. Chances are the menu of prefab shapes or colors on the computer will not meet the needs of the artist.
But, as Schwartz points out, there is nothing stopping a painter from creating his or her own digital palette of colors or paintbrush styles. Literally millions of colors can be mixed with the computer; dozens of working palettes can be saved in a database to be called up at a whim. Paintbrushes can be chopped up, trimmed or combined in a flash to create new visual effects. The possibilities are endless. The problem is not being limited by the computer; just the opposite. It’s being overwhelmed.
Given all these possibilities, an artist needs others to point the way, give advice and provide inspiration, which is what Schwartz does in her book. Where does a pioneer like Lillian Schwartz get her own inspiration?
Using the computer, Schwartz is able to probe into the long-forgotten techniques of the masters, analyzing Picasso’s sense of composition, Van Gogh’s selection of colors or Leonardo’s use of perspective. Her discoveries fuel her creativity, challenge her to take chances, explore new possibilities. And, as a byproduct of her investigations, she has made important contributions in art history, such as her discovery that the Mona Lisa was based in part on Leonardo’s own self-portrait.
Pablo Picasso said computers were useless because they only give answers. The work of Lillian Schwartz has proved him wrong by showing how computers provide opportunity for creativity. Like any true artist, she explores where her curiosity takes her, unconstrained by technological limitations. And she mixes her own colors.