Non-Fiction Reviews

Digital Art for the 21st Century: Renderosity

(2004) John Grant and Audre Vysniauskas, Artists' and Photographers' Press,
19.95, trdpbk, 160 pp, ISBN 1-904-33218-8


Grunting around the campfire aside, the earliest form of story telling was undoubtedly visual on cave walls. (Sorry this had to be said as at the 2002 British SF Association annual general meeting tongues were held as - between laments as to why the potentially excellent BSFA (like the UK Eastercon) has seen its membership decline from the 1990s onwards - we were subjected to a little rant as to story-telling's oldest and purest medium being the written form. Balderdash. (Bumpkin even.) Besides, each medium has much to offer.) Visual SF and fantasy has really developed since the middle of the last century. Much has to do with cinema, which itself has relied on traditional artists for backdrops and so forth, but recently from the mid-1980s computer based techniques have really enabled visuals, both moving and static, to take off. I remember giving a talk at a British Eastercon in the late '80s/early '90s on computer-assisted portrayals of the future covering both computer forecasts and visualizations. Back then you could easily tell that a picture had had the hand (or it is 'mouse') of a computer on it. But it has been getting steadily harder ever since, and now, in some instances, it is virtually impossible to detect from a photograph as to how the original was made. Indeed the NUJ (UK National Union of Journalists) has been banging on for a few years now for a kitemark to go my newspaper photos that have been so altered.

Digital Art for the 21st Century represents some of the best artwork that uses computers. Actually I haven't a clue as to how representative this showcase is but I can say that much of it is stunning. And, I dare say because computers are almost an SF trope in their own right, much of this artwork is SF and fantasy related. Further, perhaps because it involves computer, a number of artists have come together in cyberspace communities to share and discuss work or simply just to exhibit it. For example there is and the Renderosity magazine's site that itself has over 185,000 members! But Digital Art for the 21st Century provides a welcome book format portfolio of some of the dazzling contributions to this evolving sub-genre. The print quality is up to AAPP's usual high standards, though strangely the publicity refers to the book being a hardback but in actual fact we were sent a large format (larger than trade) paperback. So beware if this matters to you and you are ordering on-line. The book showcases examples of work from a score or so of artists. Some of these are professional and some are amateur. Like the Worldcon (or even a good UK Eastercon) art exhibition, it is occasionally difficult to tell which is which. Indeed I have noted at some Worldcon, and Eastercon, art exhibitions that the amateurs pictures can be better than professionals. I understand that the reason these talented souls have not turned pro is because either they enjoy their existing career or because, though their work is of a high calibre, they are unable to work with the necessary flexibility (to meet a brief) or the speed commerce demands. Anyway, in Digital Art for the 21st Century each artist gets a few pages beginning with a couple of paragraphs as to who they are followed by a couple more of information for each of the pictures that follows. This format works well.

I almost feel guilty about singling out individual artists: single out one and to be fair all should get a mention. But it is a tough old world and I left my heart on the Hoop with Halo, so I'll just advise you to check out James Lee (link removed due to net rot) who is a self-taught amateur. What he has done is to create a series of storyboard pictures as if for a film, with scene numbers. Apparently his pictures are 3-dimensional and on a computer you can change the view. Tantalisingly he tells us, for one pic, that the view out of the space passenger ship window is 'terrific' but the angle we are given does not show this. It would be really great if some entrepreneurial type would turn these into a movie. It would be spectacular; I love the co-protagonist who is a cute, little, white mouse sporting a tiny red fez, backpack and a itsy-bitsy laser. Aahhh. (But I bet he can be a vicious little swine with needle teeth.)

My one grumble with this book - and AAPP please take note - is that half a dozen of the pictures spill over from one page to another across the spine. Damn irritating. Either print them smaller to fit or rotate them: I'm quite capable of turning the book and for just half a dozen instances this would not spoil my enjoyment. Conversely having a grand canyon through a picture really mars it. Having said this, I am delighted that a publisher such as AAPP exists, and we have recently reviewed a space one of theirs elsewhere.

So this is a delightful book for the SF reader, and should you be reading this in the run-up to Christmas and have an SF or fantasy fan friend who does not usually dip into art books, then this one is a treat. (I believe I may have said that before for art books I like.) Furthermore, should you be interested in the genre's evolution then this book provides an early 21st century snapshot of this 'new' computer assisted medium. What, a similar volume at the end of the century will be like I do not know, and alas will never but I bet the journey getting there will dazzling and I hope to see at least part of that.

Which brings me on to why we don't see more of these people at Worldcons? Those artists whose work is SF-inspired are obviously into the genre and so would probably enjoy a Worldcon. The Worldcon provides (I believe free but by prior arrangement) exhibition space for artists who have registered to attend the event. There is also an art auction and it is possible to sell prints and arrange (through the simple device of a notice by one's paintings) of giving a short discourse to the interested and to meet potential purchasers each of the Worldcon's five days. Who knows, amateur artists with sufficient flexibility and speed might meet editors from publishing houses seeking book cover artists. I do hope someone from the 'Renderosity' community picks up on this and alerts the rest, especially when the Worldcon makes its rare sojourn beyond US borders (see our diary page and specifically look for the one or two Worldcons on it). Meanwhile we have this marvellous book.

Jonathan Cowie

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