Smart Strokes and the Drawing-Challenged

A lively debate focusing on Painter X's new Smart Stroke feature has been going on recently within the online Painter community. Smart Strokes are applied to an existing image, usually a photograph, to produce a result that mimics the character of a medium-specific, hand-rendered image. Some artists using Painter view assistive technology like Smart Strokes as a form of "cheating" that de-values learned draghtsmenship.

I am not of this opinion. I believe in anything that enables an individual to experience and utilize an expressive creative tool. In particular, photographers are already artists in their own right. Technology like Smart Strokes simply enables them to take their photography to a new level of expression.

This debate is in parallel to the introduction of photography in the mid-19th century. The traditional salon-based painting establishment was very derisive of "souless" photography in its early years. Over the course of several decades, photographers discovered the unique qualities of the lens and shutter—motion blur, frozen motion, stroboscopic flash, etc.—creating a unique visual vocabulary that established photography as an art form. Today, no one questions photography's artistic validity.

We are now in an era where the expressive paint brush interacts efortlessly with the photograph. Once again, it is the traditional rendering-based artist segment that views the application of photography in expressive media as a form of creative crutch. I'm convinced that history will repeat itself and this will become a non-argument as artists discover the unique qualities of the intermixing of painting and photography.

Smart Strokes is not a press-here-to-make-art tool. To use this technology successfully requires careful selection of source imagery combined with an intelligent application of media. Smart Strokes frees the "drawing-challenged" to focus on the expressive character of an image without the need to come to the party with pre-existing hand-rendering skills.

Of course, it is possible to simply use the default settings to produce a painted result. And the final image will possess a sameness with other images created using the same settings. This is where the expressive power of Smart Strokes comes into play. Individual decisions—the choice of medium, when to halt the process, the application of additional brushes—are what creates an individually unique expression. The selective addition of finalizing "grace notes", either by hand or by auto-painting, will further imbue the image with expressive individuality. In the process, the photographer may come to realize that the learning of hand rendering is a valuable addition to their skill set.

Perhaps, in the future, the expressive photographic interpretation will be viewed in hindsight as a blending of media similar to the hand-tinted photograph. This technique was popular prior to the introduction of color negative and transparency film. In its heyday, hand-tinted photographs were a popular expressive addition to black-and-white portraits, provided the subject with an enhanced reality. Today, these images have the nostalgic charm of a bygone era.

In the years to come (probably not decades—as was the case in the technolgoically-slower-developing era photography came from) artist-photographers will discover the unique characteristics of intermingled expressive painting and photography, creating a new visual vocabulary of which we are not yet conversant. Smart Strokes is one step in this direction.

It will be interesting to watch and see this new vocabulary emerge.