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Digital art history from the 1950s

Digital art pioneers; the 1950s-70s computer artists

The first modern computers, as proposed by Turing, began to emerge during the 1940s and 50s, and like all new technologies artists were quick to find ways to experiment with it. Early digital art found artists like Ben Laposky working with oscilloscope waves to create patterns on a computer screen; there was no way to capture the images through the computer, so Laposky took long exposure photographs of the pattern created by the oscilloscope waves.

Computers continued to be very large and expensive over the next two decades, limiting the number of people with access to one, but a few artists, and a few creative scientists and programmers, played with writing programs to control a drawing arm holding a pen, or to produce images on the early impact printers.

The possibilities were very limited, but the computer art pioneer Frieder Nake found ways to push the boundaries. He was one of very few artists working in colour, and developed some incredibly complex algorithmic programs trying to recreate the style of an existing work of original art. The program provided several parameters such as the borders of the work, and allowed the computer to fill in the rest randomly following probability theory.

Artists begin to embrace computers and develop a digital art form

The 1960s was also a vibrantly creative time at Bell Labs in the US, which encouraged a diverse range of artists to experiment with their computer equipment. The earliest computer generated animation was completed there, as well as an interesting study in perception. The large 1967 piece appears to be nothing but random computer notation mashed together when viewed close up, but as you step back, you realise the random coding is in fact shading, and you are looking at an image of a female nude.

The 1970s saw steady improvements in computer graphics, and increasing numbers of artists began to learn to program and develop algorithm art, with the results getting increasingly colourful and elegant as a result. Artworks by artists including Paul Brown reflected a highly abstract, curvy, clean lined and psychedelic 70’s aesthetic which was clearly recognisable by modern standards as a digitally-produced pattern.

Towards the end of the 1970s Apple and Microsoft had begun introducing PCs to the market, with inkjet printers and the first graphics software following soon after, as the 1980s saw a boom in computers and gaming. The term digital art was also used for the first time, to describe the work of Harold Cohen, who created a software program called AARON.

Designed to create it’s own original digital artworks, AARON controlled various forms of printers and plotters to create abstract forms that Cohen would colour himself. Over the following decades he would continue to work on the program until AARON could paint in colour, and had worked through a range of abstract and figurative styles with an incredibly human-like touch as one of the pioneering AI generated art projects.

Released in February 1990, Photoshop unleashes digital artists

By the late 1980s computer software enabling the creation of digital art had evolved and allowed artists to work with tools like a mouse rather than complex computer code, however, access to this software was very expensive and only available through specialist digital imaging companies. In the 1990s everything changed as Photoshop came to the market, costing less than three hours of access to one of the specialist systems, and with the convenience of sitting on your home PC, with the ability to produce art prints as well.

Technology both enabled digital art, but also held it back for years with limitations and barriers to entry; the combination of Photoshop and an Apple computer was still a relatively expensive one, but it certainly put near-limitless possibilities into the hands of any professional, serious enthusiasts, and most educational facilities; digital art was ready to explode.

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