Computer-generated works fill the big -- and tiny -- screen


Published: Sunday, July 03, 2011, 7:20 AM


By Dan Bischoff/For The Star-Ledger






Fine artists are using computer-generated imaging to create tiny movies such as "€œSetting Sail,"€ above, by Montclair sculptor Tom Nussbaum. "€œThese programs are incredibly popular with graphic designers and illustrators,"€ Nussbaum says. "€œThere'€™s also an amazing variety of programs."






Like all of Montclair sculptor Tom Nussbaum’s drawings, the lines are simple, the figures almost generic and toy-like: A man appears rowing a boat vigorously from left to right; he comes to an obstacle, beaches his boat and climbs, realizing the island is a giant head floating on its side. He curls up in the ear of the floating head, then disappears within it. He emerges as a bird and flies off into the distance, only to return and fly into the head’s mouth. He emerges from the ear once more, again a toylike human figure, climbs down the other side of the head and raises a sail in his boat to glide away.


It’s a simple, archetypal tale of journeying and transformation, replete with symbols of listening, being heard, speaking and transfiguration (many of them drawn from Nussbaum’s public sculpture). The animation takes no more than 10 to 15 seconds to watch (you can see it at Nussbaum’s website,, by clickling on “Setting Sail”). But when Nussbaum first showed it to me, it was playing on the 2¼” by 4” screen of his iPhone.


The wonders of computer generated imaging are projected as big as a house in movies such as “The Green Lantern,” and millions peck along every day to “Angry Birds” plunging on top of little pigs’ houses on their cell phones, exploiting a catapult program that’s knocked around in the gaming world for years. What’s new is more and more fine artists are using the paintbox programs and scanning functions of our multiple-screened media universe to make “paintings,” vignettes, even tiny movies like “Setting Sail.”


“I did it when I was last at the MacDowell art colony” in New Hampshire, in 2008, Nussbaum says. “I was working on a couple of children’s books called ‘Man O Man’ and ‘Boy O Boy,’ about human figures interacting with the letter O — he puts it on his head, he jumps through it, there are huge shifts of scale, that kind of thing. The MacDowell people liked those drawings and commissioned me to do a flip book, which they wanted to give away as a door prize at one of their gala fundraisers. I did all the drawings on paper for that book. Then I realized I could just scan the drawings into a computer and make a real animation, and it was a quick jump from there to mounting it on my cell phone.”


Nussbaum says he likes “to draw with a pencil,” so the idea of actually drawing on the tiny screen with his finger or a stylus really doesn’t appeal to him. But plenty of other artists are happy to, among them traditional painters such as David Hockney: The British artist has done three covers for the New Yorker magazine on his cell phone (or its equivalent — he did his latest, for the June 13 edition, on the slightly larger, magazine-sized iPad).


The artists’ programs on these devices are simple, but infinitely complex when compared to forerunners like the Etch-A-Sketch (which plenty of fine pop artists have turned into a fantastically complex medium anyway — just check out They are particularly useful, as you might imagine, for depicting scenes with luminous backgrounds or reflective surfaces, like the city on a rainy night or a crowded interior pierced by a brilliant window (like Hockney’s last cover art). The images are made, after all, on a tiny glowing screen.


And one of the chief appeals is the miniature size, too. It renders the work more clever than profound, giving the viewer the pleasures of shorthand visual gestures, not unlike watercolor or pastel. And since you can change the hue and brightness of any section with the touch of a key, they’re like watercolors you can erase on — think what John Singer Sargent might have done with that.


“These programs are incredibly popular with graphic designers and illustrators,” Nussbaum says — after all, most of their work these days is for the computer. “There’s also an amazing variety of programs. Ron Cohen (an artist and dealer who moved to Philadelphia a few years ago from Maplewood) uses a program that can turn any photograph into a drawing, then manipulates it, transforming it into different styles.”


For a sculptor like Nussbaum, the medium is more like advertising, an incidental — a door prize. We can’t be sure of its permanence, for one thing. Pictures done in these digitized media may last as long as we continue to use their programs, possibly longer in a museum (how big will future museums have to be?), but that’s not really new.


How long did the album cover art of the 1970s last, or for that matter, the wood and plaster stage sets devised by court artists of the 15th century, such as Leonardo da Vinci, who spent nearly as much time on amusements as on painting or sculpting?


Nothing lasts forever. Just ask a pig who builds houses.





All images copyright 1978-2022 Tom Nussbaum and may not be reproduced without permission.


Tom Nussbaum Studio