Digital technology and a new language of painting

From computer to canvas

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Takashi Murakami

Takashi Murakami

There are few artists who have done more to popularise computer-generated imagery within the fine art arena than Japanese supremo Takashi Murakami, whose 'Superflat' style has spawned an entire movement of similar artists (many employed by Murakami himself under the auspices of the KaiKai Kiki Corporation, an entity established in 2001 in order to facilitate the production, sale, and business administration of his artworks and related 'art products') (Note 1).

Takashi Murakami

Murakami's work, which is characterised by hard-edged, largely flat colour and often intricate detail, is principally produced using Adobe Illustrator, a vector drawing programme adopted early in the artist's career due to its ability to replicate the graphic qualities of his existing painting style.

This pre-digital practice, which gave rise to enduring creations such as the grinning, mouse-like character Mr Dob (shown left in the early work The Castle of Tin Tin, 1998), manifests an aesthetic resulting from a gradual confluence of interests such as traditional Japanese nihon-ga painting and Tokyo's manga and anime-loving Otaku scene.

New contemporary painting: Takashi Murakami

Yet Murakami's subsequent embrace of digitisation has also impacted his work in numerous ways.

Stylistically, for instance, a grey and white chequerboard effect denoting transparency - a familiar motif for both Illustrator and Photoshop users - is frequently incorporated into his designs. And relatively recent pieces such as 'Treasure Island' (2010, left), exhibit unusually extensive use of decorative filters.


Nevertheless, Murakami's adoption of computer technology exerts its most profound impact in terms of the slick production processes that facilitate a constant stream of Kaikai Kiki Corporation artwork.

New contemporary painting: Takashi Murakami
New contemporary painting: Takashi Murakami

From a starting point of Murakami's original notebook sketches, digital files are produced for dissemination across various media.

The virtual nature of such material makes for straightforward recycling and repurposing: for example, the preparation of multiple colourways for print series such as '... And Then" (left), is simply a question of changing computerised fills.

And a vast electronic library of common Kaikai Kiki iconography - smiley flowers, mushrooms, jellyfish eyes - can be pasted into new files and reconfigured as required.

Paintings - which Murakami continues to produce, despite such emphasis on digitisation - consist of a direct translation of Illustrator files onto canvas.

Starting with a silk-screened template, teams of assistants meticulously brush in anything from seventy to eight hundred carefully coded colours.

Multiple layers of sanded down paint ensure that surfaces are smooth and richly toned, replicating the digital file as closely as possible and maintaining the Superflat aesthetic.

Murakami oversees this process, but rarely contributes to it himself.


Jeff Koons

Jeff Koons

Koons was a relatively early adopter of digital technology, introducing his new-found interest at a 1999 New York show, Easyfun (his first in the city for nine years following a critical panning for the Made in Heaven series).

Consisting of paintings reminiscent of James Rosenquist's Pop-era 'paint-collages', each work was generated as a Photoshop file before reproduction on canvas by a team of assistants (above).

Jeff Koons

Since then, Koons' body of painting has read almost like a sequence of Photoshop tutorials, with his 2001 follow-up to the Easyfun series - Easyfun-Ethereal - (above), showing evidence of more advanced masking and layering techniques, while his Popeye, Hulk, and Monkey Train series (2002, 2005 and 2007 respectively) make additional use of Photoshop's blending modes and filters (below).

Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons
Jeff Koons

All clearly suggest, in the words of an Artforum magazine editorial "... a sense of pictorial space made possible by computer technology. Far from some Tron-era fantasy of the digital or a fugitive notion of the fourth dimension, this "computer space" is a fairly pragmatic one, specifically dependent on the layering tools of Adobe Photoshop."

Koons' work could also have been included in our discussion of the influence of Photoshop layers, but of principal interest here is the translation of digital image into paint - and, more specifically, why such realisation is preferenced over a far more obvious output to print.

Like Murakami (above), Koons locates almost every aspect of his practice within a digital framework, yet maintains traditional painting techniques for 'top range' artworks (despite having long abandoned painting himself). Note 2.

Whatever the reasons for Koons' and Murakami's apparent mistrust of the intrinsic value of the digital artefact - reasons which we attempt to ascertain later - it's left to other artists to carry digital production to its logical conclusions.


Wade Guyton

Wade Guyton

Wade Guyton explores the parameters of painting by transferring digital data to canvas using consumer-grade ink-jet printers.

Compared to similarly premised work by Markus Selg (below), Guyton eschews ersatz brushwork and complex effects for stark, highly graphic compositions created in programmes such as Microsoft Word rather than bespoke image-editing applications.

Describing his working methods in a 2004 statement, Guyton said:

Wade Guyton

"Recently I've been using Epson inkjet printers and flatbed scanners as tools to make works that act like drawings, paintings, even sculptures.

I spend a lot of time with books and so logically I've ended up using pages from books as material - pages torn from books and fed through an inkjet printer.

I've been using a very pared down vocabulary of simple shapes and letters drawn or typed in Microsoft Word, then printed on top of these pages from catalogues, magazines, posters - and even blank canvas.

The resulting images aren't exactly what the machines are designed for - slick digital photographs. There is often a struggle between the printer and my material - and the traces of this are left on the surface - snags, drips, streaks, mis-registrations, blurs."

Wade Guyton

Such signs of "struggle" can certainly be seen as symbolic of the confrontation between 'old' and 'new' media that Guyton initiates.

More importantly, however, these traces of disruption also propel his work into a realm of haptic possibility that's fundamentally antithetical to its precise, computer-generated genesis.

Warhol's silk-screened canvases were, of course, equally subject to such variation, ultimately defying their premise of automation through differences that make each work subtly, yet visibly, unique.

This factor, we suggest, is likewise of crucial importance to the perception and reception of Guyton's practice.

Wade Guyton

Marcus Selg

New contemporary painting: Markus Selg

In recent years, German artist Marcus Selg has sidestepped the physical process of painting altogether, creating images in Photoshop which are then printed onto canvas or transparent supports backlit to approximate illuminated monitors.

In most of these works, highly saturated colour is paired with the instantly recognisable 'brushwork' characteristic of canned Photoshop tools.

New contemporary painting: Markus Selg

Along with Wade Guyton (above), Selg is one of very few painters to have adopted digitisation as an entire means of art production, from monitor to output.

Unlike Guyton, however, who is careful to identify his pracice as consisting of "works that act like drawings, paintings, even sculptures" (our italics), Selg sees no disparity between the printed record of his mark-making activities in Photoshop and traditional methods of executing a painted image.

We are meant to perceive his works as paintings - or at the very least, as artefacts manifesting an identical legitimacy and status.

But do we?

New contemporary painting: Markus Selg

Painting or print? The ultimate digital dilemma

Both Marcus Selg and Wade Guyton produce works which, due to their genesis and output as digital files, attempt to create a new definition of painting, or at least question assumptions regarding what this discipline might validly consist of.

Meanwhile, artists such as Takashi Murakami and Jeff Koons almost entirely digitise their production yet conspicuously continue to privilege traditional paint on canvas.

Is there any possibility that the digital print can ever be seen as a valid substitute for painting itself?

It certainly seems that artists who profess themselves painters are generally reluctant to discard their brushes and fully embrace the virtual, despite, as we've seen, readily accepting computer technology as both a tool and visual influence. Note 3.

In fact, painting in the age of digital reproduction (to paraphrase the title of Walter Benjamin's famous essay) remains very much what it's always been - the application of real pigment, by hand, to some kind of support.

It's also interesting to note - again with reference to Benjamin - just how stubbornly a modified sense of what he defined as 'aura' persists in our perception of the 'original', hand-crafted artwork.

And within that perception, painting remains the most cultish of disciplines, exerting a fascination which translates, crucially, into a heightened apprehension of value in every sense of the word.

New contemporary painting: Markus Selg

Left: Assistant artists work on a Murakami painting in his New York studio.
Kaikai Kiki New York, LLC Artwork Takashi Murakami/Kaikai Kiki Co Ltd Photograph: Steve Pyke


Murakami himself has famously denied any discrepancy between 'high and low' art forms, yet his own production certainly promotes such hierarchies in terms of exclusivity, and prices paid for it.

His digital prints can be purchased for hundreds of dollars, whereas paintings typically change hands for hundreds of thousands.

Of course, such sums also reflect limitation - prints are editioned in large quantities - but the crucial point here is that neither Murakami, nor Koons, appear to believe that even a one-off print could command the same sense of authority - or price tag - as a hand-produced painting with all its connotations of uniqueness, expertise and artistry.

Benjamin tells us that the auratic presence of a work of art is degraded through reproduction, which replaces its state of uniqueness with that of "a mass existence". As it turns out, he seems both right, and wrong.

In today's top-end, trophy buying art markets, a work's endless reproduction seems to accentuate its appeal, confirming its status as a definitive, highly covetable piece. (Think, for example, of the recent, record-breaking sale of a version of Munch's iconic 'Scream') Note 4.

But it also seems true that in a world ever more saturated by endless simulacra, our appetite for the 'real thing' is more pronounced than ever - and in this respect, the notion of the printed painting still doesn't quite match the allure of the painstakingly hand-crafted - no matter how unique the print, or how absurdly removed from an artist's own hand the painting itself might be.



Note 1
Not just an allusion to the depthless appearance of Murakami's graphics, the term 'Superflat' is also meant to denote what the artist has described as the "shallow emptiness" of Japanese culture.

Other Japanese artists associated with the Superflat phenomenon include Chiho Aoshima, Aya Takano (both of whom produce their work under the auspices of Murakami's KaiKai Kiki Corporation) and Yoshitomo Nara.

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Note 2

In fact, Koons has experimented with straight-to-canvas printing, using it, for example, to produce the billboard-like images of his Made in Heaven series.

Nevertheless, his preference for painting as an 'ultimate' high-end medium now seems well established.

While it's always possible to argue that a neat conceptual twist is instigated by the conversion of both Koons' and Murakami's virtual designs into painted artefacts, the most fundamental reasons for such prioritisation are probably commercial, as we'll shortly discuss.

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Note 3

One major artist who has done so is David Hockney. Although he certainly continues to paint using traditional media, he has also created hundreds of recent works on an iPad. The results are either printed out for display, or exhibited on the tablets themselves.

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Note 4

Benjamin's concept of auratic value cannot, of course, simply be reduced to an index of auction prices. But in a contemporary art landscape unrecognisable from that of the early twentieth century, "the unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be" has become a cult-like, highly sought after commodity.

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