957_The Mistaken App

This is watercolor is of me standing outside the Art Studio at Westerbeke Ranch in Sonoma, California.  I took a break from teaching the ArtLife workshop to see the beautiful afternoon light hitting the Sonoma hills. My friend Wendy took a photo and then from this made a watercolor. I love how this watercolor painting captures the richness of the light.

What is unusual about this watercolor painting is that it only took about 34 seconds to make and no water was even used. Nor were any brushes. This watercolor painting, in fact, is not a painting at all. It is a digital photograph made to look like a watercolor painting. It was generated from an app called “Waterlogue.

Armed with this $2.99 app you can take any digital photograph and convert it into a watercolor painting.

What is so compelling about this little app is that the watercolors that are generated are so much like actual watercolors. Not only do they look like they are made with watercolor paint on watercolor paper – that would be impressive enough – but the fact that it generates pretty good watercolor paintings practically every time is mesmerizing. The luminosity of color, the distribution of light and dark, the edge control, the spontaneity as well as the control of detail is surprising there. And it does so practically every time.

I don’t know whether to be happy or sad. I did learn how to watercolor before I learned how to paint in acrylic or oil so I am not a total amateur and still have some of my old watercolor studies lying around. I am, after all, an artist. This is my world. I spend a majority of my time making and thinking about art so it was somewhat disheartening to see my phone generating representational watercolors better than I could make, in about the same time it takes to take the trash out at night. I kept hoping it would make a dud, reveal some area of weakness, like not being able to do faces well or horses perhaps.

But no, this is an app, not a person. It possesses zero holes in its specific skill set. It utilizes a complex set of zeros and ones that when all added up together in some logarithmic way ends up creating a watercolor digital image that looks alarmingly like one created by a veteran watercolorist.  It is quite consistent. It is fearless when it comes to laying down color and shies away from no color combination.

As I watched it generate its 8th watercolor from photos in my iPhone library I felt relieved that I didn’t paint in watercolor anymore and that my chosen media, at least for now, is mixed media.  Clearly if everyone who has $2.99 can generate pretty damn good watercolors of whatever they want, why would they pay a 100 or 1000 times more for a stranger’s watercolors that are not even related pictorially to their own life? What are the chances that an artist, who also has a knack for watercolors, is going to choose your mother, your kids, your dog or even your close personal friends as subject matter?

I am not sure the outcome of all of this, however I do know that this app does have one primary flaw. It is incapable of producing one of the most important, treasured aspects imbedded in all great Art: the mistake. The correction, the struggle that comes from risking venturing away from what one already knows into an arena that is not certain. Art without this tiny imperfection does not, in the end, feel like you and I. And as a result falls short, by quite a distance, of actually being Art.

Although we generally try to avoid mistakes or going the wrong way, I would argue that it is precisely this facet of art/life, that gives it value and makes it all worthwhile.

Kind regards, Nicholas