Very High Tech, But No Pencil

An artist's studio should be messy, littered with half-finished canvases and wilting still lifes. But David Poole's work space is as orderly as a scientific laboratory, filled with impersonal machines. Two desktop computers are his easels; highpriced software transforms their circuitry into electronic paint and paper. Shelves full of recording equipment are his accompanying orchestra. The machines give Poole the power to create 3-D illustrations and animation that would be impossible for a single person to produce by conventional means. Recently, he worked on a poster with a science-fiction theme. With a few keystrokes, he could create and then examine mutant monsters from dozens of angles. In seconds, he could change texture, lighting, color. It's certainly impressive-but is it art?

Not yet. "I think I'll be a pretty good artist someday," says Poole. A multimedia pioneer, Poole, 33, is both a critic and a booster of his still-infant genre. "I'm convinced," he says, "that 90 to 95 percent of computer art sucks because people get so excited by the technology that they forget what they sat down to make." The result, he thinks, is "flat and plastic" work. As codirector of the Center for Creative Imaging in Camden, Maine, Poole is trying to change all that. Founded two years ago, CCI has helped demystify technology for 2,500 painters, photographers and graphic designers who've come for three- to five-day courses. As a teacher, Poole says his job is not to teach technical tricks but to "teach them to be creative."

In his own work, Poole is trying to move beyond his admitted fascination with electronic bells and whistles. "We're still in the agonizing birth phase of this technology," he says, Mastering a new piece of software can take long days and nights. Poole says it's not unusual for him to spend 16 hours glued to his screen. He points to his Macintosh IIci: "The day this thing smokes and melts down I'll be happy because I'll know that I'm tougher than it is."

Poole started out with much simpler tools. As a kid growing up near Portland, Maine, he remembers constantly sketching everything. In his teens, he wrote and recorded music. He also made a momentous purchase, an Apple IIe computer. That gave him his big dream: "the studio in a box." At CCI, he thinks he's reached the point where he's mastered enough technology that he can concentrate on the images. "I've been training myself for 15 years," he says.

One of David Poole's most prized possessions is a 1912 drawing made by his grandfather, a naval artist. It's a remarkably detailed picture of a destroyer. "It took 2,000 hours," says Poole, with awe in his voice, "and it was all done with a No. 2 pencil." A new tribute to an old technology.