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JD Jarvis is a digital artist, printmaker, and prolific commentator on digital art in Las Cruces, New Mexico, USA. After an early career that combined fine art and television production, in 1994, JD, along with his wife and artist Myriam Lozada-Jarvis, took a new path into digital art and printmaking, and since that time, JD has won several regional art awards and exhibited in Chicago, Albuquerque, El Paso, and Chihuahua, Mexico. In 2000, he received the Grand Prize award in the "Digital Creative Awards" contest sponsored by Toray Industries of Japan and subsequently had his work exhibited at the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. He is currently making more art and is a contributing editor to EFX, Art and Design Magazine published in Stockholm, Sweden, and provides articles and essays to various digital art web sites and galleries. (image above: "Inception")

-- Harald Johnson, 12 May 2003

Q: You have an interesting definition of art, and you also talk about the "dance" between you and the computer in creating your work. Can you elaborate?

A: I see art as an activity rather than an object, a verb rather than a noun. To me, art is something that happens between the artist and that which is being made. Art is the action of creativity and what we normally call "art"; that is, the painting, the print, or the sculpture is simply what is left after the art is over. The art object is a mere artifact of this activity. Like a glowing ember left after the fire has burned down. There is freedom in this, because, in effect, no one really ever purchases my art but simply purchases the artifact. The art remains with me always. The object is only important to the degree that it provides a spark by which the people viewing it can experience their own creativity. Appreciation of art is therefore as nearly a creative process as making art.

The "dance" is simply the give and take between myself and the object that I am working on. I go to lengths to see that the media and tools I have chosen, whether paint or paper or a computer, present me with surprises which I respond to with some personal compositional touches. Then, I allow providence and the machine to lead the evolution of the piece a bit further. Again, when it seems appropriate, I respond to what has developed, with my own ideas. In this way, I form a symbiotic partnership with the media and the piece being made, and we go back and forth, back and forth until an end is achieved.

"I see art as an activity rather than an object,
a verb rather than a noun."

Q: But what about meaning and communication? How do they fit into your art?

A: Meaning is very important in that I feel it is my responsibility to put as much of my human self into each of my artworks. I've made works that were totally constructed by chance operations and found them to be cold, lacking in human warmth. If the work means nothing to me then I can't expect it to mean anything to anyone else.

However, I am not so naive as to expect that my meaning will be the same as yours. Even using face-to-face words with pictures and pie charts, there is miscommunication, misunderstanding, and gaps in the knowledge that one attempts to relate in the name of communication. I am convinced that artists setting out to "communicate" are just setting themselves up for heartaches. Art is not communication per se.

In the sense that an art object serves to pass on a spark of creativity, then composition and personal meaning are the essential ingredients. Nor is art a guessing game. It is not a "hide-and-seek" to discover what the artist meant. It is not essential that people understand my work in that context. And, my titles are only one of those little sparks intended to set anyone who sees my art off on their own discovery. (below: "Man & Woman, Day & Night")

Man & Woman, Day & Night

Q: You have written about the need for digital art and digital artists to find their own paths; not to be stuck with the definitions of the past or of traditional tools. Can you explain what you mean?

A: So many divergent forms of input can now be translated into digital information and processed and manipulated with the same sort of device that we have filmmakers, writers, musicians, visual artists, journalists, and designers--all sitting down to work at essentially the same tool. If it all becomes a flow of bits and bytes, then the romantic notion of the connection between poetry, painting, and music, for example, is no longer just a thing we feel in our hearts; it is a thing that we can touch and manipulate.

And, while digital tools lend support and have even expanded the creative possibilities of traditional art forms, such as photography, music, and graphic design, there must be in all this a huge potential for something new. For example, why use a computer to draw if paper and pencil still work just fine? It's a good question. And the answer must lie in the fact that there is something beyond mimicry of traditional tools. Nearly ten years ago, when I was first able to switch my art production to the computer, I became interested in discovering exactly what was inherent to digital processing that was not possible with any other set of tools. This is where the edge is. This is the important work to be done.

Viewed from this place, the world of Fine Arts is just loaded with outmoded dogma and held back by its notion of "acceptable" materials, processes, ways to do business, and so forth. Any digital artist worth his or her salt has to seize this opportunity to think and create and live outside the box of traditional fine art dogma. There are so many ways to get stuck in traditional things that are "contra-digital," things that go against what these new tools do best and the reasons they were designed in the first place. Digital artists have the opportunity to explore and strike out in new directions with a depth and a potential for effecting change that has not existed in a long time. We waste a lot of effort trying to fit in and assuage the fears and the dogma of what is traditional. And, by doing so, we risk suffering the loss of potential before we even know what that potential is. Digital artists must accept and relish that we are still in early experimental stages of developing new materials, working methods, business models, and even, hopefully, new imagery that is unique to these new tools.

"We waste a lot of effort trying to fit in and assuage the fears and the dogma of what is traditional."

Q: What is the role of randomness in your work? I hear you like to "sit and jam" a lot. What does that mean, and how do you know when you're done?

A: Most of your readers will recognize the name Kai Krause. Krause is the inventor of a whole line of image filters and Photoshop plug-ins, known as Kai's Power Tools (KPT), as well as the chief instigator behind Bryce 3D terrain software. I fully embrace his notion that, "...the real beauty of computers can lie in the infinite combinational mathematics and chaos." And, his inventions have given us a handle on this deep reservoir of chaos, chance, and randomness.

For hundreds of years, painters have used their own toolbox of random activities to tap into this same sort of subconscious resource. Splatter and drip techniques, frottage, and decalcomania are some of these techniques, but there are degrees to randomness. In other words, when you splatter paint against a canvas, although the results are ultimately a random consequence of gravity, viscosity, and absorption, the pattern is also recognizably predictable... as is the application of salt to a wash of watercolor or the texture created by stippling paint with a toothbrush.

Mossy Glen

How this relates to the way I approach most of my digital work is that filters, such as those invented by Kai Krause and many others, serve as the random actions that produce certain predictable results. By exploring and piling action upon action, I let the computer system surprise me until I see something interesting take shape. Then, I take over and formulate a response to what has happened, and so on, and so forth. This is a visual jam session, from which unexpected beauty can arise from a spontaneous interface between my psyche and the artwork that is evolving in that moment (see "Mossy Glen" work above).

I continue like this until I sense that a word or title has been resolved in the image, and then the work is very nearly done. In that moment, I see or realize what it is that I have been working on all the time, and I take the final steps to bring that into a degree of sharper reality. Sometimes it's not a word or title but a sense of quietness in the piece that impresses me and suggests that we are finished. It can happen quickly or stretch out over days or weeks; it doesn't matter.

What does matter and what pleases me about working this way is that I have brought out a composition that would not have occurred to me consciously. There is this wonderful connection between my work and the work of the Surrealists of the 1920s. I am mining the vast world of subconscious dreams and exploiting this new digital technology that is so fast and responsive that the art-making is very much like having a conversation with something infinitely deep and yet intimately personal.

Q: What about fractals? Do you use them?

A: Fractals are nearly all patently beautiful. I have described them as "the imagery of a computer's virtual soul." Their forms reflect the geometry of infinity; the math inside nature and the colors are consistently breathtaking. I believe humans have a gut attraction to fractals because we can sense how our own mind harbors deep associations to a matrix of infinity-based mathematics.

Fractals are supremely seductive. And, because they are so seductive, I use them sparingly and never in and of themselves. Fractal art, while beautiful, is often absent of human warmth and the imperfections and idiosyncrasies of our psychological reality. In that respect, it reminds me of the art I once made that was totally based on chance and random number generators, which, as I have said, I decided to avoid in favor of something more personal.


So, I will use pieces of fractals in combination with several other fractal or non-fractal forms (see "Sigh" piece above) or, more often, assign a fractal image to an alpha channel and use it as a selection to remove or protect some other underlying image in an ongoing process. I find this almost subliminal appearance of fractal geometry to be more appealing and thoughtful art than the overwhelming nature of pure fractals.

Q: I'm going to pick one of your newer pieces: "In Memory of Rain" (see below). Could you give us a quick explanation of how you created it?

A: Where I live in Southern New Mexico, we've had less than three inches of rain in two years, so for someone from the Midwest, raised near the Mississippi River, rain is just a memory. I was very aware of the subject matter and basic layout of this piece before I began. In fact, it was a composition that came to me in a dream.

In Memory of Rain

I drew selections on a blank page with the lasso tool in Corel Painter. Each was copied to its own layer where I applied the action layer "burn" feature. Each layer, which now looked like a singed piece of paper, was repositioned toward the bottom of the frame overlapping some of the other shapes and brushed with a little "paper texture."

Each shape has a blue ribbon, drawn with a Painter impasto oil brush, meandering up to some raindrops, created with a filter of the same name in Alien Skin. These drops are contained inside lasso selections drawn loosely to resemble the shape of cumulus clouds. Drop shadows on each of the blue ribbons, once again created using an Alien Skin filter, help to decipher their relative positions in 3D space and to add complexity and depth to the composition.

In the upper right-hand corner, I painted in a little "driving rain," using the Painter cloning brush of the same name, and just below that a touch of the new "runny ink" watercolor brush adds a hint of sogginess. Evaporation... rainfall... re-evaporation... that's the way it's supposed to work. At least, that's the way I remember it.

Q: Getting a little more practical, what are your current, favorite hardware and software tools for creating your art?

A: My wife, Myriam, and I share a Mac G3 and a G4, each outfitted with large Sony monitors and Wacom Intuos graphics tablets. We have an ancient La Cie scanner, and a Nikon 950 digital camera. We routinely use Adobe Photoshop (v5), Illustrator (v8), Corel Painter (v7), and plug-in filters including all of Kai's Power Tools (vs. 3,5,6 and Effects), Alien Skin's Eye Candy (v3.1), Xoas Tools Paint Alchemy, Corel Knockout2, Wacom's Pen Tools, and some esoteric shareware from Gregg's Factory Output and Furbo-Filters.

I have an ongoing project that involves illustrating articles that I write for imaginary magazines in the distant future. And, since that requires somewhat of a photorealistic output, I model 3D objects in Eovia's Carrara Studio, figures in Poser, and I place these in environments and terrain created in d'Esprit Vue (v4).

Q: Do you sell your art? If so, how?

A: Sure, but, of course, we don't sell nearly enough of it. We can tell you more about what hasn't worked for us. We tried the local arts-and-crafts fairs and quit after someone tried to talk us down on the price of a $2.50 greeting card. In five years, we have had about three inquires for art on our website, and no one followed up with an actual order. The website makes a great, highly portable portfolio, but I sense that selling art is still very much a face-to-face, impulsive type of purchase. We have had some results selling from exhibits that we either enter or curate ourselves. Word of mouth and personal visits to our studio are often fruitful.

The traditional gallery and museum showing is still a very spotty thing, particularly in our region. I have noticed that while a majority of the serious digital print and 2D artists are on average between 40 to 65 years old, the most ready market for their work is probably the 18 to 25 year olds. And, one does not find a majority of 18- to 25-year-old people haunting traditional gallery spaces. I have a line of work that does pretty well in a local cult video and comic book store. Of course, this all may have something to do with the style of my work and our physical isolation from a thriving art center.


An important point about the current state of digital art sales has to do with the fact that the most money I ever made from a single piece of art did not involve selling, framing, or even printing anything. I simply sent a small JPEG file off to Japan to the Toray Industries "Digital Creative Awards 2000" and won their grand prize (see the winning image "Carnival" above). I was incredibly lucky, I know, but this set me to thinking that something new is afoot when it comes to how and to whom digital artists can market their work. Here again, we must simply not depend on traditional exhibition venues and business models to work for us. That will come, but in the meantime, even this area of digital art demands exploration and innovation.

Q: Do you make your own prints? How and using what type of materials--anything unusual?

A: Yes, very soon after we started making digital art, Myriam and I decided that we needed output that we could hold in our hands and market. So we took out a business loan and bought a large format Hewlett-Packard printer and later added a medium format Epson. We use only pigmented inks and have remained fairly experimental with our substrates; whatever matches and supports what we are trying to do visually with the digital image is best.

We are always looking for non-traditional ways to exhibit our work. We like printing on Tyvek since it can have a texture like parchment with image quality like a photo glossy paper, and it lends itself to being suspended by grommets and bungee cords or looks nice in a traditional frame. Synthetic silks are expensive but are great for making installation pieces. And, I have plans to print on self-adhesive vinyl and mount a show directly to some gallery wall with the intent for the works to be torn off and destroyed after the show. I want to address the notion of the "preciousness" of art; the lively and ephemeral nature of art vs. art as an archival commodity. (below: "Inner Workings")

Inner Workings

Q: What advice would you give to artists -- young or old -- who are tempted by the digital siren's call?

A: My advice to artists is just that: become an "artist" first. Learn to draw. Learn all you can about composition and color. Discover all you can about art history and where you fit in or, better yet, why you don't. Develop a critical eye, so you can happily throw away the majority of your own work. Then, when you get a computer, it will work for you, not vice versa.

When you are comfortable with the tools, don't worry about chasing down every new version of the software that comes along. If your tools work for you, then stick with them and upgrade yourself more often than your computer.

If you become a digital artist, then prepare to join the club. There is a lot of promotion and education work to be done out there. I have often said that digital artists have a lot of explaining to do, and you should be well-prepared and thick-skinned enough to do it. You may be sold on the notion that the computer is just the latest tool that an artist can use to make their art, but many people still believe that there is an "art" button on the keyboard, and that the computer does the work.

"Many people still believe there is an
'art' button on the keyboard..."

Is digital art any better than any other form of art? Of course not, because "digital" is not an art; it is a tool for making art. But, as a tool for expressing the depth of human creativity, and fixing that complexity so that we can examine and manipulate it and then apply this vision to a myriad of divergent outputs, experiences, and materials--there has never been anything quite like digital art in human history. It cannot be ignored.

(All images are copyright 1999-2003 by JD Jarvis. All rights reserved.)

JD Jarvis can be reached at:
info@dunkingbirdproductions.com or jjarvis@nmsu.edu
Visit his website at: http://www.dunkingbirdproductions.com

For more reading on the topic of digital art and a critical look at the current work of several other digital artists, pay a visit to: http://www.museumofcomputerart.com and click on the essay entitled "An Art Lover's Guide to Digital Art" at: http://www.museumofcomputerart.com/editorial/jdessay.htm

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