Technology & Tradition - Interview

This article begins with an overview of my thoughts on technology, then takes an interview format with Madeleine Humphries, @madeleinejphoto / Madeleine J Photography
Madeleine is currently a 3rd year student at the University of Chester studying graphic design and photography. This interview was part of her photographic study about traditional mediums and the artists that are preventing them from being swallowed by digital globalisation.

MP = Madeleine Pires   MH = Madeleine Humphries

MP - Technology as problem-solving…with drawbacks

Generally speaking, in the world today, I think technology has solved a lot of our practical problems, and made things a lot easier for us - but I don’t think it can solve all human problems. Inventions like the washing machine and the dishwasher are fantastic since they take the place of these tedious but necessary menial tasks, saving time and “freeing” us to do more important and meaningful things. But I’m also aware of the potential danger of relying on technology for absolutely everything…. It might be that it can actually reduce our ability to develop problem-solving skills, especially in young children.

Unhealthy reliance on technology affects the way we react and respond to things, and often not for the good: responding impatiently, choosing the laziest or most convenient option… If we become too reliant on buttons, it’s not a good thing in my opinion! The convenience, increased comfort and speed which technology has brought us is definitely something to be grateful for, but those things can make us intolerant and even immature in our approach to things that need to be done more slowly and thoughtfully, or things that require some “elbow grease” (hard physical labour) or things that make us uncomfortable.

Convenience can become unhelpful

Cars, for example, are a brilliant invention. I’m very grateful for mine since I spent much of my adult life without a car and I could only buy what I could carry. This was all in the days when online grocery shopping was either non-existent or inefficient! So I’m very grateful for cars. But if someone has got to the point where their child’s school is only 200 metres down the road and they insist on getting in the car to drive them there every day… is wasting a chance to talk to their kid, get a bit of fresh air, get some exercise and just have a peaceful walk. I think it’s important that we don’t rely too heavily on these things and we shouldn’t adopt the expectation that everything in life should be easy. That’s not the way real life is. I personally don’t think life is supposed to be super easy; it’s not how human beings have been designed.

Childhood experiences

People’s attitudes to technology and also to creativity can be shaped by quite a few factors. For example, how we were raised. I spent a great deal of my childhood living in more rural areas, and I had to do daily tasks like picking homegrown veg, helping to get the logs in and things like that. “Put a bit of elbow grease into that!” my dad would say. We lived in quite an old house, and we couldn’t afford to heat it comfortably, so if we wanted to be warm, we had to help get the logs in! We also learned how to cook meals from scratch from basic ingredients and help my mum; we were expected to help and do useful things with our time.

The hard physical labour that a lot of modern technology and lifestyles have sort of “rubbed out” has possibly affected people’s attitude to work and even our moral values. These days we’re more likely to see something laborious and time-consuming as a threat or at least undesirable, rather than something normal, natural and part of life. When people see one of my paintings and drawings, the number 1 most asked question is “How long did that take you?” (I will write a separate article about this!)

Simple labour is often worthwhile and satisfying

I get much more pleasure out of cooking a meal from scratch than pulling a ready meal out of the fridge and putting it in the oven. Even just the creative act of chopping vegetables and stirring ingredients in a pot helps me to process the “more important” work I’ve been doing throughout the day. I can also get my son involved and teach him something while doing it, so I don’t feel that it’s “wasted time”. I feel somehow connected to my ancestors from ages past when I do simple activities like this - an ancient and innate feeling of resourcefulness.

Interview with Madeleine Humphries

MH - Was your creative process impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic? How did you cope with the move to a virtual reality?

MP - I was already working from home because naturally I need solitude for my usual artistic work. I had to adapt a bit, film some art courses with my phone and learn how to use Zoom for my English tutoring sessions, which was quite easy. Art courses that were supposed to take place in person during lockdowns had to be cancelled, which resulted in some loss of income. My art exhibition (planned for early 2020) had to be postponed; it took place in April 2021, but it was still at a time when people were nervous about going out in public, and the private view had to take place on Zoom, which was definitely not the preferred option.

I don’t know if speaking to real people in real time on Zoom instead of in person is “virtual reality”. Luckily, I am quite an energetic communicator, and I don’t find video conversations awkward.

MH - With the rise of digital technology, what would you say your main reasons are for investing your time in physical or traditional practice? 

MP - I invest my time in art because it’s my vocation / calling. It’s a wonderful thing to be able to draw, paint and express things; to be able to put marks on a blank surface and see it come to life. I don’t see digital technology as a threat or competition with that.

It’s natural to me to use my hands to make things; that is how I started as a child. Creativity is in the hands; the movements; the gestures - as well as the mind. Often, it’s just starting that can be the hardest part, since planning and visualising scenarios can get very exhausting! As soon as the paint is out and I’m starting to work, I feel things coming together and decisions easier to make as my hands get moving. Personally, I get much more enjoyment out of something that someone has made with their hands using physical materials because it carries something unique about that person. The fact that they’ve touched it and spent time over it makes a difference; there’s something very tactile and even spiritual about it, which is not there in digital technology.

MH - Some believe digital art is not “real art” while some digital artists feel traditional practices are “outdated”. What are your thoughts on this?

MP - I used to not think much of digital art because it was unfamiliar to me, but I think now that there’s a valid place for being creative with digital tools. But I feel I must point out the obvious fact that the pencil, paper, paintbrush and paints existed first, and digital tools would not exist without the traditional ones! I got more skilful and comfortable with traditional practices because that was what was available to me when I was young. When it comes to those who have learned to visually express themselves using primarily digital methods, I cannot say that these people are not “real” artists – that would be unfair, I think.  They’re still arranging visual components and colours – isn’t that what an artist does, at a fundamental level?

However, I don’t think traditional practices are outdated. I think they can fuse helpfully with the digital world. I learned how to use Photoshop when I was 18. These days I use it more for quick visual experiments and mainly to prepare for printing reproductions of art that I have already done by hand, such as for prints and greeting cards. I’ve never started making something from scratch on Photoshop; I’ve always used physical materials.

MH - Would you say for you that utilising physical and traditional methods has built a deeper understanding of your materials and mediums?

MP - Of course. The more you use something, the more familiar you get with it. When I was at university, I met other art students who would make sculptures out of rubbish, or who changed the traditional method for a new or more unusual one. I did get quite into photography, which accompanied drawing and painting.

The years I’ve spent doing oil paintings has taught me a lot. There are all sorts of things I’ve learned about layering and isolating visual information, using transparent and opaque paint for example. I’ve learned from experience how to break down the different stages of painting, seeing the potential of something before it exists, going through awkward stages whilst visualizing the next more beautiful layer.

The art courses I have written and taught have also forced me to learn and try out lots of techniques that I might not have bothered with for my own work… Using abstract techniques like scrape painting, for example.

MH - Would you agree that the more natural and personal characteristics of traditional art processes connect the user – the artist - to current issues such as sustainability and reusability?

MP - As an artist I suppose I think of “current issues” coming first, then the artwork follows. Can you explain the question a bit more?

MH - Do you think that the more traditional materials, like oil paint, connect you to a more natural way of looking at things like sustainability, because of the very fact that they are more natural products? Because sometimes, technology can be bad for the environment. For instance, emails and enormous amounts of data are all stored somewhere in equipment requiring a large amount of electricity. All the equipment that is needed for digital work requires upkeep and upgrading, like new laptops and computers every few years, for example. 

MP - I hadn’t really thought about that! I suppose I have assumed that a Power Point presentation is better than printing out pictures and handouts on paper. I assumed that using paper and ink was something to be discouraged these days.

Oil paint is made out of linseed oil and turpentine comes from pine tree resin, so yes, these materials are “natural” when it comes down to it – I don’t actually know if they’re more sustainable or not. I’d have to research that. I try not to waste paint – if I have any left over I try to put it on something before it dries up – something creative is a worthy cause. I also use food packaging as “palettes” for acrylic paint. I like reusing things, but if we always obsess over recycling and sustainability, it can be unhelpful. Human creativity and art are important things, and we shouldn’t let them get stifled or make us feel guilty for using paint, for example. If we always focus on problems it’s going to be life-destroying rather than life-giving, and we need to consider the human qualities as well as the physical materials we use to express them.

MH - Digitisation has made traditional arts and artistic history more accessible through online platforms - especially during the pandemic - do you think this has had a negative or positive effect on physical and traditional art forms?

MP - Both. It’s generally good – it’s great for everyone to share their creativity. Digital technology has enabled people to get connected and to see and hear and be heard and seen in a way people never had before.

But – and I’m not being funny - when there is genuinely really good art online, it gets mixed in with all the mediocre stuff and it can all be very overwhelming. It’s not that the mediocre stuff doesn’t deserve to be there, I think it does, but much of the really good stuff can get lost. But at the same time, I don’t think art should get snooty or cliquey either. I’ve met a lot of ordinary people who think they don’t know anything about art because it can have an exclusive, elite and sometimes bewildering sort of air to it, which I don’t like because I believe art should inspire everyone and be accessible to everyone.

The average person, in my experience, will like what they like and be dismissive of what they don’t like. Often, people don’t even know what they like about an artwork, which has led me to conclude that many people just don’t know how to talk about art. Often, the response will be “Amazing!” or “Awesome!” and they won’t really be able to come up with anything more than that. Through my teaching (often with people who can’t draw but who want to be creative) I have come up with some helpful terms to help people articulate the different things they appreciate in art.

Getting back to the question…. Even if you only set eyes on one powerful piece of art that resonates with you in an entire year, it will probably benefit you better than trawling through art pages on social media every day. A bit like kids watching one good film a year to inspire and fuel their imagination rather than feast on unauthentic, inane rubbish every day. (I think the Studio Ghibli director said something like that.)

During the pandemic….I already mentioned that I had got to the point in 2019 when my paintings were accepted to form a joint exhibition at an art gallery in Liverpool. It had taken two decades to get to this point, to be an exhibited, emerged artist, to put time and faith and effort into these paintings – and then for them to be delayed by the pandemic restrictions which stopped art galleries from being open to the public.  The exhibition – called “Out of the Darkness” – finally took place from April to June 2021, but because people were still generally quite cautious about going out, it wasn’t as well attended as it would have been. Its private view had to take place online on Zoom - not the best way to view large oil paintings and be able to absorb the emotional impact from them. It’s totally different looking at a painting physically stood in an art gallery than it is peering into your iPhone through a screen. Online exhibitions this way are pretty poor, really, plus this digital method prevents people having spontaneous discussions and interactions. The wonderful thing about art is that it can bring all sorts of people together who have all sorts of backgrounds, and in this way, it is very important to culture and our society at large.

Selling large oil paintings is hard at the best of times, and times when social interaction is deliberately limited - and financial instability and uncertainty caused - make that even more difficult.

On the other hand, online platforms like Etsy have enabled me to sell prints and cards of my paintings to people all over the world. And some smaller paintings. It’s some income, but it’s not enough to make up for the negative impact the pandemic has caused to my career in the art sector.

Closing thoughts

MH - Going back to what you were saying about the Studio Ghibli director – “Children should watch one good film a year”. It’s interesting looking at cinema how the sheer number of films that come out is impossible to keep track of.  Even in the UK alone, if you watched one film in the morning and one in the afternoon every day, there would still be more than you can ever watch. This links in to this over-saturation that technology has brought and which you mentioned about art on social media.

MP - Yes, indeed! There is such a constant barrage of information around us – a modern skill is just being able to filter through to find the quality things that actually are worth paying attention to and which do us real good! It’s not so difficult to do this as an older person who already has tastes and interests developed, but I do wonder about younger people and how they cope with so much “over-saturation”. When I was a child, I didn’t even have TV reception – I had to read books, and make up stories, do art projects, surrounded by trees and nature! I wrote letters in the holidays to my friends at school – no phone in my pocket! This has no doubt affected the materials I use for my art, and also my ability to concentrate and just engage in creative activity without getting distracted. Even today, sometimes I really resent my smartphone when it steals my focus! We need to find a balance between the good aspects of both developing technology and established tradition.

Many thanks to Madeleine Humphries for this interview.

“Without dignified, creative human occupation, people become disconnected from life."
William Morris, 1834-1896, textile designer, poet, artist, novelist, architectural conservationist, printer, translator and socialist activist associated with the British Arts and Crafts Movement.

“It seems like everything that we see perceived in the brain before we actually use our own eyes, that everything we see is coming through computers or machines and then is being input in our brain cells. So that really worries me.”

Hayao Miyazaki, born 5 January 1941, Studio Ghibli director, author and manga artist