The Synthetic Image

We have always felt a kinship with the Old Masters. Since we use computer technology in the modern age, our interest in such analog art forms, figurative presentation and often religious subject matter may strike as odd. But next to the practical similarity – we use the high technology of our time, just like the early oil painters did – we also share an interest in what I like to call the synthetic image.

The synthetic image is created by a human. It can be, and often is, modeled after life but the shape and color and texture are entirely man-made. Somehow such images can possess a power that goes beyond any image that is created mechanically, either directly through photography or with significant aid of optical instruments.

This is not a theoretical principle for me. I have learned through experience that synthetic images tend to affect me more. I don’t know if this is true for other people as well.

Maybe a synthetic image can be so powerful because it is a subjective creation that appeals to the subjective perception by a spectator. A mechanical image, created through photography for instance, on the other hand, is never entirely subjective. There’s always an inhuman aspect to it. Maybe that creates a distance that reduces the power of the work.

The curse of photography

Long before photography, painters developed the realism of their work. And while paintings from the baroque, rococo and salon periods certainly have their charm, they never move me quite as much as early paintings do, with their wonky perspective and skewed proportions.

When photography grew out of the desire for realistic depiction, it more or less ruined figurative painting. In a very direct way it coincided with the birth of abstraction in art. One can imagine many painters wondering about the point of painting figures or landscapes when there was a mechanical device that could reproduce reality in a fraction of the time and with a fraction of the effort. And maybe it is only now that photography has become intensely ubiquitous that we can start to understand the great value of non-photographic, synthetic images.

Photography is a wonderful tool. And out of photography some great new art forms were born. But it has ruined the more traditional forms of depiction. Even when artists today draw and paint figuratively without referring to any photographic images, their work never affects me as much as the old art does. Because something about it still reminds of photography, which hollows out the experience. Photography has changed the way we look at reality. So much so that it has become difficult for us to create a representational image that is not infected by the photographic eye.

A painting that looks like a photograph is always disappointing to me. Instead of experiencing a transcending, universal, symbolic image, we see a picture of some guy or some woman. Flat, meaningless, empty. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t escape the impact of photography on our eyes.

The power of creation, and the opportunities offered by realtime 3D

I think the computer offers a way to escape the stranglehold of photography: through realtime 3D. Just like the pre-photographic painters, computer artists create images out of nothing. We place vertices in virtual space, connect them with lines and fill up the triangles between them. We can’t really use photographic references because we are working in three dimensions and because the computer demands specific construction methods to allow for processing.

When I study early renaissance painting, especially the Flemish Primitives, I sense that they too were thinking of their practice more as modeling virtual worlds than creating pictures of reality. The religious subject matter helped the desire to transcend the mundane. And the newness of the technology stimulated invention. Those early paintings are as much about evoking physical sensations of material and space as they are about creating shapes. All of this is familiar terrain to the realtime 3D artist.

Realtime 3D offers us once again a way of creating synthetic images, potentially with the same power of early painting. This does require a conscious effort of the artist to move away from the photographic image and towards a more symbolic one. We need to resist the temptation to imitate reality offered by a technology built by engineers with no pictorial imagination. Because then all we have is that reality. And not something that transcends it.

The computer screen, with its two dimensions, is not our canvas or panel. We are creating realities in virtual spaces. Virtual spaces that are alive through the processing power of the computer. We are not creating images but objects (much like sculptures, but even paintings are objects! –unlike photos which are prints on paper or light on screens). Even if there is no visible difference (when displaying our work on a screen), our objects continue to really exist in the virtual (unlike photos or films that are only pictures of a reality that does not exist anymore).

The experience of art, or being in the presence of the work

I have never had a deep aesthetic experience with a reproduction of a painting. The magic only happens in the presence of the actual object. It doesn’t even need to be the original work – this is not fetishism – but it needs to be a real painting or sculpture. Photographic reproductions don’t work for me.

Even though realtime 3D does not possess the physical properties of painting or sculpture, a similar effect can be observed. Realtime 3D exists in another type of reality: it is running – right now – on a computer.

One needs to be in the presence of the real work of art to have a deep aesthetic experience. Digital art is real when it’s running on the computer’s processors. Rendering kills the art. Screenshots don’t work, even videos don’t have the same effect (linearity kills realtime). We have to be in the presence of a software application that is running now, in the same time as the one we inhabit, for the art to affect us deeply.

And we need to embrace the synthetic nature of these artworks. By constructing realities out of nothing with means that circumvent the photographic way of seeing, we can, once again, approach a power and mystery of art.

—Michaël Samyn.







4 thoughts on “The Synthetic Image

  1. An illustrator/animator is able to bend space is subtle ways that the camera does not afford. You can see this very plainly when 3D technology is mixed with hand animated cels, as a corner cutting measure; the result is always tantamount to defacement of art.

    Still your writing is very colored by the intangible workings of the inner mind. Subjective convictions are best kept private things … sweet nothings to whisper in intimate moments (all these things are so, or are not so, but either way, where to begin?) You can examine the eyes of the young woman in the left panel–see how they are not-at-all a match. If we can teach computers to perturb space according to a 2D criteria, maybe you can begin this by rigging your Cathedral to take advantage of simple optical illusions. It is ideally suited for these types of experiments.

  2. It reminds me of the story about a photographer and painter who were complaining that the work of the painter was not realistic. In the end, the painter made a painting that was so realistic that it even fooled the photographer.

    I love art in paintings and photography for one and the same reason: Its an art form. With 3D games, it should be the same. When I have VR glasses on, I don’t want to be bumping into something that breaks the immersion. When I look around a corner, I want to look around that corner, I don’t want to suddenly feel the limits set by the developer. And having a 3D painting that plays with illusions, with the feeling that the mind is playing tricks on you, thats what I call art. Escher did a great job at that, making the person feel that he was looking at something that was impossible, yet the picture itself makes complete sense.

    Having a painting that is actually an illusion due to the fact that it is shaped in 3D, that is what I tend to call wonderful. Like you walk in a museum, and the paintings seem to move and alter its shape, despite the fact that it looks really normal and flat. A good example of this illusion would be the eyes of the mona lisa, that through a clever paint job always seem to follow you. The magic of a 3D in a computer is that through clever work of using various viewpoints you can create the illusion that the screen is not really a screen, but actually a range of illusions made by the illustrator.

  3. That was very, very interesting! I thouroughly enjoyed reading it and I agree that a screenshot or video of a 3D experience is inferior in the same way that a photograph of a painting is. I may end up linking people to this blog post when I am trying to describe my love of virtual spaces. I do have a question, though. How do you feel about paintings created, in 2D, using a computer? A good example is this pixel painting I have linked below, as it could only have been created on a computer and yet it is a 2D image and does not run in real time like a 3D application or a physical painting/sculpture.

    I would love to hear your thoughts! :)

    1. Thank you.
      That’s a pretty picture. But it is made with the computer as a tool rather than a medium. Many interesting images can be created this way. But I think something else is needed to achieve the aesthetic magic effect that art can have. A kind of presence that artwork and spectator can share, be it space or time.
      But as I said, this is a subjective experience for me. I don’t know if it can be expanded to a general theory.

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