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Automated Drawing Project

Jean Arp made collages by dropping pieces of paper on to a horizontal support and then gluing them in the places where they landed. Thirty years later, Jackson Pollock made paintings by dripping and drizzling paint on to canvases lying flat on the floor. Even though they were separated by a generation, these two artists systematized the making of their artworks by allowing gravity to play a crucial role in the creative process. As a creative source, gravity exists beyond the artist's control. In other words, the artist relinquishes control over his medium once the paper leaves the hand or the paint falls from the brush. The act of allowing an outside force to control a part of the art–making process is called "automation".

The reason for automating an artwork, or some part of it, is quite simple: when the artist gives up control over the work, room is created for unexpected things to happen. This is similar to instances when the artist loses control over her medium and "happy accidents" (i.e., interesting mistakes) occur. Mistakes are usually undesirable, but such things happen from time to time despite the artist's best efforts. If however the artist were to give up control willingly, she would be inviting such surprises on purpose. This is the essence of automation and it is why automating an artwork can be a powerful tool for discovering unique imagery and new techniques: the ingredients for a creative breakthrough!

There are other reasons to use automation when making art. In 1970, Robert Morris wrote an essay in which he described the automating principle in contemporary art:

What is ... shared by many 20th–century artists is that some part of the systematic making process has been automated. The employment of gravity and a kind of "controlled chance" has been shared by many ... in the materials / process interaction. However it is employed, the automation serves to remove taste and the personal touch by co–opting forces, images, processes, to replace a step formerly taken in a directing or deciding way by the artist. Such moves are innovative and are located in prior means but are revealed in the a posteriori images as information. Whether this is draping wax–soaked cloth to replace modeling, identifying prior "found" flat images with the totality of a painting, employing chance in an endless number of ways to structure relationships, constructing rather than arranging, allowing gravity to shape or complete some phase of the work – all such diverse methods involve what can only be called automation and imply the process of making back from the finished work.

Automating some stage of the making gives greater coherence to the activity itself. Working picks up some internal necessity at those points where the work makes itself, so to speak. At those points where automation is substituted for a previous "all made by hand" homologous set of steps, the artist has stepped aside for more of the world to enter into the art. This is a kind of regress into a controlled lack of control. Inserting the discontinuity of automated steps would not seem, on the face of it, to reduce the arbitrary in art making. Such controlled stepping aside actually reduces the making involvement or decisions in the production. It would seem that the artist is here turned away from the making, alienated even more from the product. But art making cannot be equated with craft time. Making art is much more about going through with something. Automating processes of the kind described open the work and the artist's interacting behavior to completing forces beyond his total personal control.

Robert Morris, "Some Notes on the Phenomenology of Making: The Search for the Motivated," Artforum VIII no. 8, April 1970, pp. 62–66. (Click citation to see the entire essay.)

Morris is describing the usefulness of automation in helping the artist to move beyond the confines of personal taste and aesthetic sensibility. In another part of the same essay, Morris invokes Duchamp by writing, "... art making has to be based on other terms than those of arbitrary, formalistic, tasteful arrangements of static forms." (click this link to hear Duchamp read an excerpt from his 1957 essay, "The Creative Act.")

The YouTube links below (which open in new windows) will show you some fascinating examples of automated artworks. I've broken them into two sections:

Fully Automated

Partially Automated

(this includes "Ebru" which is only minimally automated for artists that are highly skilled)

Sample Videos of an Automated Drawing Process

Sample Images of an Automated Drawing Process

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PROCEDURE: Use the examples above to inspire you in choosing a method of making marks. Your method could be fully automated or partially automated or a combination of both. Once you've decided on a mark–making method (you may have to do several experiments before you decide), obtain materials and a support that are appropriate to the method you've chosen. As a general rule, the more destructive the method, the tougher your materials and support will need to be. Watercolour paper, for instance, would work nicely with a technique that involves water whereas cover stock or cartridge paper would probably disintegrate.

Above is a sequence of images showing the automation of a drawing. The beginning of the work is fully–automated, but IT DOESN'T END THERE! The drawing is then augmented with additional marks using semi–automated processes: the rectangle that the toys created is emphasized by surrounding it with brown shoe polish; the paper is moistened with water to make it warp; ink is added and allowed to collect in the low spots to create darker values; multi–coloured crayons are used with a drill to add more line, texture and variety; blue shoe polish is added for emphasis and variety and to increase the sense of depth in the image.

It might help to think of this project as a CONVERSATION between the artist and her materials: automation starts the conversation by suggesting a topic; the artist responds by making observations that move the conversation in a particular direction; semi–automated processes help to advance the conversation until the artist makes her final point and the conversation ends.

The end is a somewhat arbitrary decision because there's always more that the artist can do to the work. Push your artwork as far as you can by continually asking, "What would happen if I ... to the work?" After a while you will reach a point where it seems that additional marks would add nothing more to the piece and could possibly ruin the effect of what's already been achieved. Personally, I believe that an artwork is finished when it becomes fascinating (from the Latin word "fascinare" which means to bewitch or enchant). If you go too far and the work implodes, don't sweat it, just take what you've learned and begin a new piece. ALWAYS REMEMBER: EXPERIMENTATION IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE ARTIST'S JOB!

Examples of Student Works

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AESTHETIC: As your work progresses, be aware of of the Principles of emphasis, variety, movement, balance, unity and rhythm. Also try to ensure that your work contains several of the Elements of Art. In other words, if your drawing has only monochromatic lines, you will need to introduce some shapes, texture and value. If, on the other hand, your work has mostly colours and textured shapes, you will need to create some lines and different values. Representation is not essential (like a Pollack painting), but may be used if you feel it's important in establishing a particular type of imagery.

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© 2016, Terry Reynoldson