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Digital Artist as Hero

Thomas G.West
Visualization Research Institute, Inc.

November 97 Columns
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"Artists Rescue National Economy!"

"With . . . petroleum-rich . . . countries now bankrupt and unable to purchase more US weaponry, our leading export has evaporated. The number two export, media, has stepped in to save the day with new developments in interactive television, networked games, educational media, and home shopping services. Budding artists in elementary school are being aggressively recruited by industry-funded media arts colleges and universities who hope to mold them into the media design geniuses of tomorrow. For the first time since the Renaissance, parents are happy to hear their children announce, 'I want to be an artist when I grow up.' " [1]

With this imaginary newspaper story, Jane Veeder (San Francisco State University) underscores the radical changes the worlds of art and computer graphics have gone through in recent years. Indeed, this fabricated story seems especially prophetic as it was first used in a talk she gave in 1991. As she observed during a SIGGRAPH 97 panel ("Educating the Digital Artist . . . "), now in 1997, "we are almost there." 2 With a sudden explosion in market demand and some remarkably high salaries, digital artists and animators have become a markedly valued resource--virtually overnight, it seems.

Yet this trend, whether it is to be relatively short lived or an enduring pattern, may have wider implications than is first apparent. Indeed, it is possible that this renewed interest in the artist may be the initial phase in a longer-term, genuine growth in appreciation by the wider society of the power of the image.

Back to More Basic Basics: Seeing and Observing

Just as our media are full of autumn back-to-school stories of redoubled efforts in verbal literacy and basic academic skills, we may be seeing the slim beginnings of the first broad reconsideration of the significance of visual literacy and the reassessment of a set of non-verbal skills that are far more basic and important than the academic and clerical skills normally the focus of attention.

If, as I have argued previously, we are really beginning to move from a world of words to a world of images, then it is indeed useful to briefly catch the public attention with the specter of shortage and the gloss of high demand. However, it is especially useful that this flash of brief public attention may also be of help in allowing us to circle back as a culture--to reassess the value of core fundamental skills such as seeing and observing--and to reconsider the emerging and important role of the arts in all education, and at all levels.

Well intended but misguided efforts toward educational reform place too much emphasis on what are really the skills of a Medieval clerk--reading, writing, counting and the memorizing of texts. In contrast, it seems that what we should now be focusing on are the skills that will be important in the lives of the children of today--not the skills that were important for our grandparents.

And these are likely to be the skills of a Renaissance visual thinker like Leonardo da Vinci, using new visualization technologies to understand patterns in the world largely using the rapid and integrative visual-spatial intelligence--perhaps in the near future, learning, as a culture, to employ, after centuries of relative disuse, the other side of our brain.

The Very New Requires the Very Old

Speaking on the same panel as Jane Veeder, Ed Catmull of Pixar, noted that there are several widely-held misconceptions about the education of digital artists. At Pixar, they receive thousands of reels showing student work, yet most of these reels are rejected after 10 seconds.

Catmull observed that the first misconception is that "computers offer a shortcut to becoming an artist." Many believe that if you learn to use an animation program, "you are, voila, an animator with exciting job prospects in a rapidly growing industry." This is simply: "Wrong!" As in an old song, cowboy clothes do not make a cowboy--similarly, animation software cannot make an animator.

Rather, what is needed by the aspiring digital artist, in Catmull's view, is the solid traditional curriculum of the artist. "In fact, what is needed is to take a lot of drawing classes, figure drawing classes, composition classes--in fact, the basic classes that are offered in art school--and not skip past them."

Catmull notes that "most people think that they can't draw--and they are probably right." However, he notes that it is also true that "most people think that they can't learn to draw--and in that they are profoundly wrong."

There is a great misconception, Catmull observes, about the ability to draw, indeed, about the larger nature of art. It is not generally understood, but: "learning to draw is important because it develops observational skills"-- and these kinds of skills are "extremely important in computer graphics."

"It is ironical that we call ourselves a visual culture" he notes, because when "funding is cut in schools, art is the first thing to go." There is an important distinction that needs to be more widely understood: "Art isn't just about becoming an artist. Art is about learning how to see."

There are no real short cuts. The basic skills of art must be mastered first before someone can really become creative. "In fact," says Catmull, "all the creative people I know have spent years developing their craft and their skills. And it is upon their craft and skills that they apply their creativity."

Accordingly, he declares that: "This is true whether they are animators or programmers. If students do not understand this, they will not become good. It is imperative that teachers teach them that this is important to do." He believes that the "same things apply to technical people" as well. They need to "take classes in color and color theory because they will see things that they would not see otherwise."

Catmull also noted another misconception apparent in the student reels submitted to Pixar. Students seem to believe, in spite of teacher warnings, that the reel they are putting together is "their magnum opus--so it must be long." His response: "Wrong!" Indeed, what the students need to understand is that really good artists learn to work within constraints. Time is a major constraint. Accordingly, Catmull observes that if students "cannot learn to work within constraints, they will not become good artists."

An Early Vision: Creativity

The need for constant attention to learning one's craft was echoed by fellow panelist Robin King (Sheridan College, Toronto, Canada). He told the story of speaking to Loren Carpenter just after the Academy Award for Tin Toy. Asking him what he was going to do next, Carpenter replied: " 'I going back to school to learn to write a story--because I want to make a motion picture.' " For King, that reply was instructive. "The lesson being that learning to be an animator is a life-time occupation. No matter how good you are, it is a craft to be perfected." And for King, the problem for educators is to learn to work with business and industry to design educational systems that will effectively "put people on that road."

But for King, putting students on that road has been the result of many years of work--based on an early vision of how emerging graphical technologies might relate to creativity in many fields. In the 1970s, with training in physics and chemistry and working as head of the applied photography program at Sheridan, King wanted to employ scientific techniques to a study of creativity in the arts. " 'Science does not recognize creative activity,' he says. 'Yet many great discoveries were made by people in a different state of consciousness: dreams, sudden inspiration--what we call the Aha! experience, nothing to do with intellectual thought. In the arts everyone is supposed to be a little strange, relying on drugs or the muse in order to perform. I wanted to marry the two worlds. If we understand artistic creativity, we can improve on it.' " [3]

It is clear that King and his associates have learned something about how to improve it. With demand for their students legendary in the field well before the current boom, it is all the more impressive that the whole process started so early and started from what would appear to be a more theoretical than applied perspective.

King believes that schools of art and photography needed to embrace the new technologies rather than resist them as teachers and professors were doing in the 1980s. He felt that "a teaching institution must, by definition, be cutting edge."

However, like Catmull and others, when it comes to the basics of art, King would appear to be a traditionalist: "At Sheridan, the computer animation students are artists first and foremost." One graduate, currently at Industrial Light and Magic, reports: "At Sheridan, there were regular classes in storyboarding and storytelling. The emphasis was not on knowing the software: it was on knowing how to give things life. I constantly watched footage of animals moving and interacting; we spent hours at the zoo. That's why life drawing is a must; you have to understand anatomy and the whole makeup of the body."

King is reported to have told one young computer whiz to put away his computer for six months--so he could have time "to read, to watch, to do carving and sketching." King asked the student to " 'Try to understand the real world. . . . Tell people stories. Learn to think and to observe.' "

Thomas G.West is author of In the Mind's Eye which was republished in September in an updated edition with new preface, epilogue and sources of information. Recently, he has begun research for a new book with the working title: Insight--Computer Visualization and the Visual Thinkers Who are Reshaping the Future of Business.

Thomas G.West
Visualization Research Institute, Inc.

Tel: +1-301-654-5828
Fax: +1-301-654-0987

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

Thus it appears that several of those working at the forefront of the field, even at this new boom time for the digital artist, still underscore for us the need for thorough training in the traditional basic skills of the artist, especially those of seeing and observing. Perhaps, then, educating the other side of our brain to see new solutions to new problems. Perhaps, in time, even leading the larger society to understand how one sided our modern culture has become. There is, then, a striking possibility that new digital artists--using new tools to imitate nature once again, with great precision, on many levels, after long avoidance --may find themselves back in the mainstream of a culture that has found good reason to follow their lead once again.

Those at the forefront also indicate the new recognition of the importance of creativity in all aspects of life and work. As Robin King has observed, " 'Creativity, not science, lies at the leading edge of the evolution of the human species; that is the delightful and beautiful paradox.' "


  1. Cusack, Veronica, 1996. "A Mickey Mouse Operation--Now that animation studios . . . from Disney to Dream Works, are recruiting Sheridan students by the dozen, Robin King's job is done. Next stop, Singapore." Toronto Life, Education, August 1996.
  2. Swartz, Charles S., et al, 1997. "Educating the Digital Artist for the Entertainment Industry: The Collision of Academia and Business," panel summary, Computer Graphics, Proceedings ACM SIGGRAPH 97, Annual Conference Series 1997, pp. 456-458. Panelists: Edwin E. Catmull (Pixar), Robin King (Sheridan College), Richard Weinberg (University of Southern California), Jane Veeder (San Francisco State University), Charles S. Swartz (UCLA Extension).
  3. Veeder, Jane, 1991, 1997. "Artists Rescue National Economy!" Imaginary newspaper story made available to this author on request.