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Painting the Digital River

by James Faure Walker
Prentice Hall, New Jersey, USA, 2006
320 pp., illus. $24.99
ISBN: 0-13-173902-6.

Reviewed by Rob Harle (Australia)


In this book Faure Walker builds his discourse on the metaphor of a river. Whilst it is a work of nonfiction, it is written in an engaging, personal narrative style that results in a good story, not simply a bland exposition on painting and digital art. It is this engaging narrative that makes the book such a pleasurable, easy read. As we float along the river in our metaphorical canoe we absorb an incredible amount of history, gallery politics, aesthetics, and technology related to art and its practice. This river is a gentle one, no life threatening rapids nor obviously treacherous whirlpools––some mild rapids to stir the imagination, some calm bays in which to contemplate and a steady continuous flow towards a possible confluence of physical painting and digitally produced paintings.

The relationship between physical and digital painting and the relevance of either (or both) to our contemporary society that is driven by uncontrolled capitalism, narcissistic individualism, and postmodern hopelessness is an important problem that has received little balanced and informed debate. Faure Walker has over 30 years experience as an exhibiting artist, educator, art magazine editor, and computer devotee that well qualifies him to bring all the issues involved to our attention.

He does not, however, supply definitive answers to reconcile the two forms of art. Perhaps there are none? One thing emerges from his investigation though and, I think, this is the vital point––all the technology, coupled with the most mind-blowing software possible, "does not a artist make". Our digital computer based art equipment makes it easier for dabblers to produce mediocre art images, but as Faure Walker is at pains to point out, composition, colour theory, pictorial balance, and subject matter (the fundamentals of good art) are the same whether using colour pencils, oil paint, or computer software.

One point Faure Walker does not, perhaps, discuss enough is how various media suit different subject matter. So, rather than bemoaning the lack of texture, as with giclee prints for example, we should be matching the subject matter of our art to the medium. This results in artists being acutely aware of the media available and choosing the specific medium based on the best expression of their intentions, not based on such mindless utterances as "oil painting is dead" or "mobile phone art is the only valid art". There is room for all types of art to exist side by side if we are strong enough to be honest and true to our inner selves as artists.

There are eight chapters with odd titles such as, Gone Fishing, Big Pixels, Small Minds, and A Bend in the River. The book has a smattering of b&w illustrations and a centre section of colour plates both representing Faure Walker’s own artwork and that of others. A minor criticism is that there is no Bibliography or Suggested Reading section? Also, at times the book is somewhat repetitive, which slows the journey down the river just a little.

I believe this book is a must read for all artists from the most conventional watercolourists to those avant garde interactive, digital web-based installation artists. There is much wisdom and insight in these pages that, if understood, will not only result in an increase in quality art (perhaps even great art) but also a happier existence for artists generally.

Much of the new technology "freaks-out" many traditional artists, and a lot of new-media artists almost despise and certainly dismiss traditional art practices, such as 2D watercolour landscape painting or wood carved sculpture. An artist/art university lecturer friend (whose work I respect) visited my stone carving workshops a few years ago and told me bluntly that if her students produced a stone sculpture (regardless of treatment or subject matter), she would fail them! Consequently, many artists feel in need of psychotherapy. This book will help postpone such drastic measures. In Faure Walker’s own words ––referring to the physical-digital painting divide––"It is enough to keep a painter like me in a state of panic and in need of therapy or at least something like a comfort blanket. It has all become so strange. That, I suppose, is a good excuse for writing a book" (p. xv).



Updated 1st June 2006

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