Drawing inspiration: West Michigan artists find their own ways to integrate technology

Whether you find them doodling on a tablet in your nearest coffee shop, or laying out a project in a fully equipped studio, modern illustrators are able to leverage the same tools to broadcast their message and expose new people to their art. 

From a generous distance, the subdued suburbanites gathering along the Seine in Georges Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" glow in a halcyon afternoon haze. Get close and it's all dots, each made deliberately in color and shape.


It took two years for Seurat to complete his scientific masterpiece of contracting complimentary dots and dashes, launching a procession of pointillists for decades to come. Who knows, had he lived long enough to fiddle around in Adobe Illustrator, or try the latest Wacom tablet or capacitive stylus, even Microsoft Paint, how infinitely more detailed or intricate he would have made his work? It likely wouldn't have taken two years, but you can believe he would need a stout GPU to handle all those layers.


Illustrators in the digital age have access to a number of tools that handle the work that their paint and canvas predecessors and colleagues don't. Not the least among which are the capability to examine each work in excruciatingly magnified detail, save and print different versions with ease, and transfer the work instantly, anywhere.


The Digital Movement


Transitioning from alizarin crimson to #8e0203 isn't always easy. There is a distinct cognitive difference between applying pigments directly to media and using a backlit screen as the canvas. Fields that require high-resolution details, like illustration for industrial engineering plans or medical guides, are naturally suited to benefit from the advantages the digital space provides, and in some cases have been borne out of the technology.


The barriers to entry may seem restrictive to those without a computer, but open source and free versions of image editing software, like Gimp and Pixlr, have been helping resourceful designers for years. Apart from software platforms, artists working in today's digital realm have to worry about power, storage, and CPU or GPU speed, among other hardware-based necessities.


Jamaal Cannon

"If your hard drive fails you're at risk of possibly losing all your work. On the other hand, if all those things are in order, you can create endlessly," says
BrickStreet Media artist Jamaal Cannon.


Computer-aided design is becoming even more ubiquitous with each generation, yet many still understand the process and theory behind making the same physical products.


Cannon relies on assortment of digital tools today, from Instagram to Adobe Illustrator, but the earlier incarnations of those tools were still too slow and sterile when he was first introduced to them in the 90s.


"At the time I thought it was too complicated and slightly boring," he says. "I didn't understand why you would draw on a computer with square pixelated lines when you could just do it on paper or canvas."


Jamaal Cannon

Those lines have since been smoothed out and anti-aliased. The nuances of hand-drawn art are now more easily captured with a tablet and stylus than ever before, and allow for greater cross-media experimentation. Creative Cloud subscriptions belong to well over 9 million people around the world, making up more than
half of Adobe's net profits. And mobile design and photo editing applications are even more prevalent.


"The main expansion for me has been how much easier it is to take an idea off paper or canvas and send it out to the world or put it on a shirt, or flyer, or poster," Cannon says. "I also have a lot of fun playing with Wacom tablets whether it's adding animation to a video, cleaning up a scanned physical sketch, or just digital doodles."


Art has been a lifelong pursuit for Michael Pfleghaar, who grew up in Ohio, attending classes at the Toledo Artists Club, and visiting the Toledo Museum of Art. Pfleghaar's grandfather, an interior designer, nudged his parents to keep him involved in art studies throughout his schooling, until he eventually came to Grand rapids to attend classes at the Kendall College of Art and Design.

Michael PfleghaarNow, Pfleghaar says, working with a tablet and stylus has completely replaced his old system of sketching out ideas. He made the switch after seeing English painter and printmaker David Hockney rely so heavily on the Apple iPad Pro and iPhone for drawing. The Apple Pencil as well, Phleghaar says, seems to be designed with artists in mind, compatible with many different drawing programs that mimic the pressure and style of actual drawing and painting.

"It just came naturally to me," he says. "It was pretty easy to pick up. In a sketchbook it would only be linear sketching and value studies. It's a recent thing for me, but it feels a lot like my paintings in that you can get the color intensity."




Cannon says he spent a lot of time as a child drawing and sketching, but as he grew older, without seeking any formal training beyond high school, time and money for supplies became harder to find.


"It became hard to be creative," he says.


Jamaal Cannon

After some tough life lessons, he turned to painting and photography as a constructive outlet, using digital tools to reproduce, alter, and market his work. Cannon now makes time to create as "a way of staying sane," he says. "I just hope it resonates with people."


Computers cost money, but real estate costs much more. The growing price of physical space and supplies can add up to more than many new artists can afford, which only adds to the attractiveness of the digital realm. For artists like Cannon, that means using Instagram as an ad hoc gallery.


"With a non-digital artist you have to come up with money for supplies and the space to create," Cannon says. "Which right now especially in Grand Rapids, being able to afford supplies and a work space outside of your home is very challenging and expensive."


Artist Alysha Lach White appreciates the efficiency computers add to making and sending revisions when working on deadlines. As a self-taught designer, she says she's learned the most through others in the field, from trends in typefaces to the most efficient tools available. She now donates her design talent to clients in the nonprofit sector, and creates art for upcoming board game releases. She's handling several different projects at any given time, and those lucky enough to see White at work on her 12.7-inch iPad Pro are witness to the efficiency technology provides.


"When I first got my iPad Pro, I was still doing storyboards on paper," she says. "I would have to scan them, adjust, and fit them to the desired size in photoshop, and send them via email or Slack to get them approved. Once I started using my Pro, my production time was cut drastically. Beginning with digital concepts means I am starting with a predetermined size and resolution, which eliminates the need to adjust that later. I can send concepts in the exact size and format that it will eventually be delivered."


Becoming an expert in a particular flavor of design software is helpful if you want to teach others how to use it, but to stay relevant in such a rapidly changing field, artists need to understand how updates and orthogonal tools can integrate. Slack, for example, is essentially a workplace communication tool, but with the capability to facilitate file transfers, archive documents, and interact with other software, it becomes a powerful method of product delivery. Even Instagram allows for immediate feedback on artistic creation, arguably one of the most important metrics for those looking to market their work.


White says often the best way to stay current is through candid conversations with respected designers. And with cloud-based sharing and social interaction now becoming a staple of modern design software, the opportunities to connect are more prevalent than ever.


"I've saved myself hours of research by reaching out to a past colleague or posting on a message board asking for recommendations for, let's say, a great survey tool to use for a client as an alternative to SurveyMonkey (the answer is Typeform!)," she says. "A much simpler answer is to build your network of relevant professionals, because technology and workflow changes so quickly these days that it's almost impossible to keep up without a community."


In his first year at Kendall, the school's foundation year, Pfleghaar was intent on going into photography, a more marketable field than abstract art, he felt. But he was steered by a professor to follow his first passion, painting. He finished his undergraduate degree in fine arts at Grand Valley State University, and later completed a masters at Lesley University, in Boston.


Michael Pfleghaar

"Painting will probably always be where my passion is," Pfleghaar says, maintaining that online visibility plays no small part in helping expose that passion to others. His latest digital illustrations examine botanical subjects in vibrant colors, but he's included members of the animal kingdom as well. Among Pfleghaar's most valuable tools in marketing his work are undoubtedly
Instagram and Twitter


"As artists today, there are a thousand different ways to make a living being creative, but you have to be just as creative in finding your audience," he says. "Instagram has been the best tool to get my work in front of new eyes."


It's not uncommon to see some of Pfleghaar's work linked to a greater community of design and designers with the hashtag #midcenturymodern. While the era itself is over half a century behind us, the popularity and lasting allure of its design theories are not. And with the work of a single hashtag, Pfleghaar performs the work of a dozen Don Drapers. It's not a job without its own frustrations, however. The ease of which social media allows artists to post their work makes it even more important to find new ways to stand out.


"It is a kind of conscious marketing tool, and if I didn't have to do it, I probably wouldn't," he admits.




Technology connects more and more people to art every day, but whether or not it's good art is always up for debate. The argument has been made that once art is replicable, and replicated, it ceases to be art at all, and only functions as a widget.


"I think sometimes it limits the humanity of art," Cannon says. "With technology, you can make every line perfectly straight, perfect proportions and symmetry. I personally enjoy the imperfections of non-digital works and the challenge of trying to avoid those imperfections while creating."


There's certainly merit to the hallmarks of a handcrafted product, and in other parts of the design process, non-digital interfacing is just as valuable. White claims at least 80 percent of her work is done with a computer or tablet, but she spends the other 20 percent taking notes and sketching out plans before she commits them to a file.


"Even though I use digital platforms for most of my work, the best way to collaborate with my clients during meetings is with paper, pencils, pens and lots of sticky notes," she says.


"Working dynamically with the space on a table or even just on a pad of paper between you and the client is very different than sketching in a digital space. The main difference is that when you work digitally it can often be difficult to understand precise sizes of things you draw since it's so easy to zoom in and out on a canvas. Size becomes a relative thing you compare to your device rather than what is actually needed."


White recalls a book cover she designed for a client. Through prototyping different sizes of the book and drawing on those paper layouts with a pen, it was easier to instantly portray what the end product would look like. Low resolution tools like that are work savers in the early stages of the process. Were White to rely solely on a computer, she would have to go through the work of creating a new file and printing it out or transmitting it to the client’s device.


Unique Opportunities


Landing work in the digital age requires a flexible approach, and a willingness to learn new applications and techniques. Often, digital illustrators that expand their skill set are those that find the most opportunity.


White says she forces herself to learn by making commitments in "uncharted territory." Cannon's motivation comes from a vision of "making the local scene less conservative and more diverse through art and expression." Both have found ways to bridge the points between their analog work and the digital realm, and the same educational resources they have used are available to the public in the form of YouTube videos and design blogs.


DIY guide videos aside, a wealth of design knowledge can be found in popular forums like Dribble, Deviant Art, and of course Pinterest and Instagram, where artists can share and comment on each other's work.


As White has found, volunteering artistic services is equally as helpful in providing relevant experience. Working with Givecamp and Weekend Blitz, and donating services through her own business, she has been able to work on projects and teams that she normally would not have access to.


Pfleghaar’s approach to marketing is essentially a lean manufacturing system at the same time. Using an online distribution company that will print any of his designs on various products, and ship them to customers, Pfleghaar is able to offer his originally canvas-based work to people on a tote bag or a t-shirt, among other options. He doesn’t need to keep any stock of pillows around, and collects a commission on each item sold.


Michael Pfleghaar

A notable career of galleried exhibits, including one at the Grand Rapids Art Museum, have driven the demand for Pfleghaar’s work up, and he’s been able to ask for more in return. Operating an online shop for other printed media is one way of keeping his work accessible to those who can’t afford the original.


Grand Rapids is home to a number of notable artists who have found technology a useful tool in their illustration work, many who still shine above the hundreds others from around the world that enter their designs in the yearly ArtPrize contest. But whether you find them doodling on a tablet in your nearest coffee shop, or laying out a project in a fully equipped studio, they’re each able to leverage the same tools to broadcast their message and expose new people to their art.


It’s been over 50 centuries since the stylus and tablet first entered the market, and we’re just now understanding how useful it is. In a few more, perhaps everything we see today will just look like dots.


This article is part of Rapid Growth's series highlighting the technological innovators and drivers in West Michigan. To see previous articles in this series, please go here. This series is funded by Open Systems Technologies (OST), a Grand Rapids-based information technology leader that is delivering enterprise level solutions around the globe.


Matthew Russell, the editor of this series, is a writer, baker, inventor and mapmaker living in Grand Rapids. He enjoys bicycling and playing with his daughter as much as possible. You can email him at [email protected], or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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