Throw Out The Brushes

SEE THE ILLUSTRATION JUST above? Bet you'd like to have the original. Sorry, there is no original. What you're looking at is a printed reproduction of a work done entirely on a computer. These days, home machines and their programs are so sophisticated they can uncannily mimic the look of good ole messy art materials--in the case of the image above, by Boston-based Susan Le Van, pastels and chalk. Ten years ago, ""painting'' at your computer resulted in jagged edges and flurries of black and white dots. These days, with the click of a mouse, you can summon up creamy brush strokes and gritty surface textures. And many commercial artists--who supply the world with everything from ad illustrations to the art in children's books--are taking advantage. Their eminently practical philosophy is this: since the agency or publication they're working for passes all artwork through a computer on the way to the print shop anyway, why not work directly with pixels in the first place?

New Yorker Nancy Stahl, whose specialty is WPA-style mock-heroic illustrations (like the image at right), says the fragility of her traditional medium--the opaque watercolor known as gouache--used to drive her crazy. When a painting was scanned into a client's computer, the gouache would flake off. ""Lots of times it ruined the art,'' she says. Now, using MetaCreations' Painter 5 program (street price: $299), she creates flake-proof art in a dripless studio. The creator of countless paperback book jackets, John Ennis was trained in realistic oil painting--which is how he used to create his covers. For the last three years, though, he's worked on a computer with no loss of the painter's trompe l'oeil. The biggest advantage, says Ennis, is that if ""I do a brush stroke in oil and it's not right, I have to take a rag and wipe it off. With the computer, I just hit the 'undo' command.'' The convenience factor counts for a lot in a high-pressure field. Mike Hill, whose woodcut- like drawings appear in The Washington Post, says, ""When a client asks if the subject can have a blue shirt instead of a red one, I just click the mouse a couple of times and resend the art.'' Adobe's Photoshop 4 ($560) makes the chore easy.

Not all illustrators come to the computer via an esthetic epiphany. Susan Le Van thought she wanted a computer merely to help out with marketing and bookkeeping chores, but on the day she purchased her machine the salesperson casually pointed out a digital tablet and pen. ""I fiddled with them for a couple of minutes,'' she says, ""and I knew that was it.'' Has it changed the way she works? ""I'm drawing the same way I would if I picked up a piece of chalk,'' she says. But it's a virtual piece of chalk, of course, and when she works, Le Van must--like a TV meteorologist glancing at a side monitor instead of the map viewers at home see--watch the screen instead of her drawing tablet. Today, the closest thing to drawing paper in Le Van's studio is the rumpled MacWorld magazine that lines her dove's bird cage. (Anxious Mac lovers and enterprising Apple execs, take note: even though Painter and Photoshop are available for Windows PCs, all of the artists NEWSWEEK talked to for this article have chosen to work on Macs or Mac clones.)

FEW ARTISTS ACTUALLY MAKE their images entirely on the computer. Some scan in pencil sketches and build their images from the outline. New York- based Kenneth Gore, who paints large and complex murals for hotels and restaurants, uses his Mac as a composing tool, feeding drawings, photos and even archival material into it, then working out his compositions with Painter and Photoshop. Greg Evans-- who draws his daily comic strip, ""Luann,'' traditionally--uses Photoshop to color the Sunday strip. One day he needed some clothing textures, so ""I raided my daughter's closet, found some nice florals and plaids, and put them through the scanner.'' He now has a clip file of colors and patterns based on her actual clothes, available for use at any time.

Some artists reverse the usual process. Art Spiegelman, the New Yorker magazine cover artist and author of the ""Maus'' graphic novels, uses Photoshop as an electronic sketch pad because it allows him to toy easily with the separate elements of an image. A background might be enlarged, a figure moved. When he's happy with his ""sketch,'' he does the finished illustration in a traditional medium, such as gouache. Working on one recent New Yorker cover, though, Spiegelman found that, in making the gouache, he'd messed up the proportions of some figures. Photoshop to the rescue. Working from a scan, he rejiggered the image and delivered it to the magazine as an electronic file. So what unsuspecting readers saw on the cover that week was--take a deep breath--a printed ink reproduction of an electronically altered gouache based on a computer sketch. In a famous essay writ- ten 60 years ago, the German critic Walter Benjamin worried about the fate of original works of art in an age of mechanical reproduction. We can only imagine what he would have made of the electronic age.

There are downsides to the computerization of the commercial-art field that won't surprise anyone whose business has gone electronic. Clients and art directors, knowing how easily art can now be altered, have grown bossier and more intrusive. One book-jacket illustrator reports that she can do a jacket in half the time it used to take--but, what with prices coming down as work becomes more efficient, she now has to do twice as many jackets to make the same living. And not everyone's happy about the quality of the art. Caricaturist Steve Brodner (whose drawings appear in The Nation and Mother Jones) finds that a lot of art done on computer looks ""shrink-wrapped.'' He tried software and wound up going back to his ink jar. John Ennis still keeps his easel around as a reminder of more romantic days. ""I don't have the same feeling about digital work,'' he says. ""There isn't enough sweat put into it.''

A plausible analysis is ventured by Milton Glaser, the renowned illustrator and designer. In his view, the advantage of the traditional approach--making image after image by hand--is that it helps weed out bad ideas. ""The problem with the computer is that it gets clear too soon,'' says Glaser. ""You have an idea and, as soon as you go to the computer, it clarifies. And that happens too early in the creative process. There's a lot of technically accomplished work now whose imaginative content is limited.''

As always, it's a matter of not letting the machines get the better of you. Stahl admits, ""If some artists don't like computers, they shouldn't bother. But I didn't know I was going to fall in love with computers. You might, too.'' And Ennis has concluded that there's just no matching the computer's horsepower. As he puts it: ""In college I had a VW Beetle, and I really loved it. Now I'm driving a car that's more like a spaceship. Do I miss the VW? Yeah. Would I trade my spaceship back for the VW? No way.'' That's hardly an original sentiment among illustrators. But then, originals are in short supply these days.