Online exhibit of self-portraits in hats. There is a uniformity to images once they're scanned in. This set includes digital drawings, cut paper and digital collages, oil and acrylic paintings, pen, marker, and pastel drawings.

Recently, American artist and architect Timothy Schorre asked me my thoughts about how all the digital art I’ve been making on my iPod Touch relates to the physicality of my work. This got me thinking, not for the first time, about the best way to display all kinds of art in this online age.

One side of the question is how to show digital images in physical galleries. But I also realized that with so much happening online in the art world, with even curators preferring a compact disc or or a link to a website over slides or prints, there’s also the reverse issue: we view a lot of art that does have a physical existence, but only in its digital counterpart. So what’s the best way to mount a show that contains both kinds of artwork?

As the first images were all on paper, I just hung them on the wall in a grid. Unfortunately, these physical objects turned out to be more ephemeral than pixels. Exposure to daylight for one month faded most of them almost to non-existence.

When I began my Daily Self-Portrait Project in March 2007, all the portraits started on paper. I was making drawings, paintings and collages, most no larger than eight-by-ten inches. Each day after I finished my piece, my process included the extra step of taking a digital photograph or using a scanner to create a digital image for my computer and the blog. I then hung the physical piece on the rotating grid on my wall, just as its digital mirror was entering cyberspace. And as each new piece went up on the grid, the oldest piece came down and was mounted in sequence in my archival volumes of the project.

Just about halfway through the three-year project, in July of 2008, that process changed. I made my first mobile digital artwork–a self-portrait, naturally–on my iPod Touch. By the end of the project, more than 90 percent of the portraits were made that way. With these digital-first pieces, I didn’t have to scan or photograph at the end of the day; these portraits were already digital, made of pixels and ready to be uploaded. But I still had an extra step. I had to print them out to add to the grid on my wall and to file in the archival volumes.

Self-portrait with 6 Volumes of The Daily Portrait Project Archives. The originals and prints of the Daily Portrait Project are mounted in archival volumes and stored in a glass-fronted bookcase in my studio. Each volume holds two months, so there are 18 volumes total.

I think that the best way to display a piece is in the medium in which it was created. I’d rather look at a painting than a scan of the painting on a screen. Similarly, I’d rather look at a digital image on a screen than look at even a very high quality print of it. All the decisions an artist made along the way were based on what she or he was was looking at at the time—for example, whether light was reflecting off pigment on paper or beaming directly at her from a backlit screen. The primary colors for light and pigment aren’t even the same, and neither is the way the way we perceive them. There is no such thing as a print that looks like what we see when we look at a liquid crystal display (the medium that’s right now showing you the images in this post).

The ideal way to show digital art in a gallery, therefore, is with backlit pixels using digital photo frames, or iPads hung on the wall. Once the investment in frames is made, there are a lot of exciting side effects from showing this way. For instance, there’s the possibility of setting the frames in slide-show mode, so the show transforms periodically. There’s the ease of having international shows because there’s no need to ship pieces back and forth, and the possibility of allowing viewers to interact with an iPad to choose which work they want to see, in which order.

The Hall of My Ancestors. A drawing of drawings, which was scanned in and printed out. The print was watercolored, then scanned back into the computer and printed out to be exhibited.

So why did I keep printing out my digital pieces, hanging them on the wall, and mounting them in albums? I wanted to be able to see them in a group, and I haven’t invested in a group of digital frames. I wanted to be able to see them when the computer was shut down. I wanted to have the presence of the thing I had made as a physical object I could hold in my hands. And I wanted to be able to see the continuity of the project over the three years as it meandered through different styles and media.

Just as we’ve accepted slides, CDs and websites as ways of showing paintings, I also accept prints as a way of showing digital images. They’re a transformation, but they can be interesting to look at in and of themselves, and they can evoke the original. And not too far from every artist’s mind, there is the question of supporting oneself. It’s OK to display the images in digital frames, but how can we sell digital art?

One way would be something like a digital photo-frame, with the single image locked into it. However, I don’t think such a product is currently available; besides, who would be responsible if the screen had a technical problem or ceased to function? We may never have a way of preventing free distribution of digital images, so the thing we can continue to sell is signed prints.

Exhibition Grid of Prints of Self-Portraits in Hats. Prints of pen, marker and digital drawings, and a watercolor painting. One of the images was originally drawn with pen on paper, and colored digitally. (Thank you to Guy Stevens and Jay Fraser for the photo)

For the last year of the Daily Portrait Project, I had the opportunity to exhibit a large set of selections organized by theme, in grids of 9 and 12 images. Every month, I swapped out one of the grids for a set of the most recent pieces. The originals were in many media, different sizes, and different orientations.

There was no budget to purchase digital frames for the digital pieces. So once again I chose to show the digital images as prints. However, to really make the show cohesive, not only between digital and traditional work but also between acrylic and watercolor paintings, pen and pastel drawings, cut and torn paper collages, I chose to exhibit prints not just of the digital work, but of all the work.

In this way the different media were able to sit comfortably side by side, and the digital pieces didn’t stand out in any way. It also allowed me to set a single price for everything in the show, since everything was printed and framed the same way. Still, I think there must be a better solution for putting pixels and paint side by side than either showing everything on a computer screen or everything as prints.

I guess this brings me back to digital photo frames and iPads. A few days ago I started shopping for a full-featured set of digital frames. I want to be able to hang digital and physical pieces side by side in my studio as I work on them, with each in its natural state. And when I submit this mix of work to galleries, I don’t want to be dependent on their having the means to display it. I want all of the work I submit to be ‘ready to hang.’

Meanwhile, I currently have digital work in three shows. In each case, I was able to email the images instead of shipping them. In Wisconsin, the images were printed out and framed on the other end, to be displayed and sold in the traditional way. In Washington, D. C., the pieces will be printed and hung in a traditional show for two weeks, and there will be an online show for a month. And at the Leeds Arts Festival in the U.K., the display is entirely digital. If you’re in the vicinity, please check out the following:

Algoma, WI, USA: The World at our Fingertips 6/26 – 7/31

Leeds, UK: Leeds Arts Festival Hippo Trail 7/3 – 7/20

Washington, DC, USA: A Healing Touch: Digital Offerings of Peace to Women Survivors 8/20-9/4

If you like to draw or paint on your mobile device, or you’d like to learn more about it, please join me at the MobileArtCon of the International Association of Mobile Digital Artists in New York City this fall.

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  • Timothy Schorre July 13, 2010 at 12:44 pm

    Thank you, Julia, for a thoughtful article! I like what you said about wanting to display your work in the medium in which it was created. Since I am working in Moleskines right now, that got me thinking about actually framing the entire book. Maybe open up the frame and display a new page every now and then…
    On a completely different line of thinking, I am reminded of graphic designers who design digitally for printed pieces…an honorable approach I think, more like an artist’s ‘multiple’ than a traditional etching or lithograph, for example. If the digital original is seen as merely a part of a whole process of production that ends up with a intentionally designed product that communicates clearly, then the whole process seems legit. Here I am thinking about producing an very physical, almost 3d object with an emphasis on materiality, maybe a digital print on metal that has some thickness, so it looks like an object rather than a reproduction of a painting. It would definitely not be displaying the work in the medium in which it was created, but it would be substantial enough to lift it out of the context of a paper laser-print. Enough for now, I am still thinking however… Thanks again!

  • Mary Martz July 12, 2010 at 2:30 pm

    Congratulations, Julia! Very interesting article! So far, I think signed and limited prints are the way to go. Although the ipad and iphone are great ways of showing friends and potential buyers what I’ve been doing, I don’t think I’d like a digital frame or two glowing on my walls in addition to all my other electronic stuff like TVs, computers and ipads. But it will be interesting to see how all of this shakes out.