I did an interview for a site before Christmas, in which I talked about how I got into digital art and my thoughts about social media in general and especially Instagram. It was never published and the site now seems inactive, so rather than let it go to waste, I decided to update it and post it here.
When I wrote my last blog nearly four years ago, the infamous Instagram algorithm had just been introduced and I was starting to move away from photography towards digital art. It’s interesting to see how much (and how little) has changed since then.
Hope you enjoy it – maybe put the kettle on as it’s quite long!
How did you get into Digital Art?
Digital art was initially a coping mechanism for me when I was going through a tough time. Our daughter was still a baby and my Dad was terminally ill. When I was in hospital, I felt guilty for not being with my young family and at home, I felt that I should have been with Dad. When I was stuck at work, the guilt swamped me in both directions!
To put it mildly, it was a highly pressurised period. At the end of a long day or when sitting around in the ward, I did some experimental editing of my old photos with iPhone apps. It was some welcome escapism and helped me to relax and keep the anxiety at bay.
Going back a bit, I became obsessed with mobile photography after I bought my first iPhone in 2012 and discovered Instagram. Trying out every genre I could think of, I spent most of my time on architecture. I did all sorts of photo series and projects (including photographing all 270 London Underground stations). Taking and editing photos on my phone and sharing them on Instagram became a way of life. I really loved it. It made me see my city in a whole new light. I even won a national photography prize in 2012 and started to believe I might be able to turn it into something more than a hobby.
Naturally, after my daughter was born, my family took priority and I slowly got out of the habit of photography. Less than two years later, my Dad’s death completely shook my foundations and left me totally burnt out for a while. A short trip to Berlin in 2016 was the turning point for me. My plan was to take some amazing shots and regain my creative spark, but I ended up taking the same photos as everyone else. It dawned on me that Instagram was having an unhealthy influence on my personality. I was taking those pictures because I was desperate for the approval and the likes.
After a long Instagram break, I decided to focus exclusively on digital art, realising that I enjoyed the editing more than taking the photos. There are only so many times you can go back to the same old locations and buildings. I tried to incorporate some of the elements I enjoyed in architectural photography – geometry, perspective, symmetry, lines, and found a way of making my work using mobile apps. For someone with no background in graphic design, they are very intuitive and I enjoy the tactile element of pulling my images into shape using a touchscreen.
Recently, I’ve started taking my work in new directions and am using some Android apps alongside my trusty iPad tools. I never let myself get too stuck in the same processes and styles for too long and am always trying to evolve. The main constant is that I always want my images to feel sharp and immediate, with high contrast patterns or lines that you pull in.
What is your process while creating a new piece?
I wish I could tell you! It’s difficult for me to describe how I make my pictures because it varies each time. My work mostly falls into the category of generative art and the final image is the result of several experiments. I usually start off with a base set of colours or lines and then put them through various processes until I find a pattern I like. Once I’m happy with the results, I apply the finishing touches with photo editing tools. It takes me anything from a couple of hours or a few days to finish a piece.
I love Glitch Art – the process of digitally destroying or corrupting the data in an image and turning it into something new. The idea that something can be destructive and creative at the same time is very appealing to me. I’ve incorporated glitch techniques into many of my favourite pieces and I never get tired of it.
Why is there always a little person in your pictures?
The tiny figure is the last thing I add, and it has become my signature. Some of you may find it gimmicky, but I use it purely as a device to give the impression of scale and perspective. It allows you as the viewer to locate yourself in the image and turns the abstract pattern into a ‘place’ of sorts. Sometimes I make him/her harder to find and very occasionally I’ve used a much larger silhouette. It is the one thread of continuity throughout all my images and having a human element present is important to me.
What kind of artist are you?
The term ‘artist’ is very loaded for me and I don’t see myself as one. I’ve spent many years working in Higher Education in both Medicine and Fine Art. I consider the term ‘self-taught artist’ as I would ‘self-taught doctor’. I’m sure many of you will disagree with me but I think you really do need to go to art school to be able to call yourself an artist or designer. For me, there has to be some theoretical element underpinning your work and a level of professionalism (in other words, it has to be your job) before you can apply those labels to yourself.
The good news is that you don’t have to be an artist to make artworks! In the same way that you don’t have to be a Michelin-starred chef to be able to cook a good meal, you can still do something creative that gives you satisfaction. The technology we have access to now makes everything much more democratic and anyone with a smartphone and a bit of imagination can make digital artworks.
Are you more comfortable working in black and white or in colour?
It’s slightly easier for me to work in black and white but I find colour very exciting. I decided to alternate between the two on my Instagram a while ago. My grid isn’t beautifully curated or consistent, so this is an attempt to impose some sort of order on the chaos.
With my black and white pieces, I like to make optical illusions and play with your sense of perception. I try to create dynamism and movement through lines and patterns. The British artist Bridget Riley and the OpArt movement are big inspirations. She recently had a big show on at the Hayward Gallery in London and it was amazing to experience these paintings up close. If you stare at them long enough you start to see colours!
For my colour work, I prefer retro palettes. I look for combinations that invoke a sense of nostalgia for the way we imagined the future would look in the past. Neon is a particular favourite. It is an aesthetic that has stayed with me from all the films, TV programmes and computer games I enjoyed as a kid in the 80s and 90s.
The ingredient I want all my pictures to have is ‘atmosphere’. The thing that stays with me in any work of art, be it a painting, film or book, is how it made me feel. If I can make you pause for a moment and feel something, no matter how fleeting, as you scroll through your Instagram feed, then it’s all worthwhile.
What impact has social media had on your art?
I have very mixed feelings about social media and the impact in has on my art and life in general. On the one hand, it has given me this amazing creative outlet and brought me into contact with some great people. On the other, I would say it has definitely had a negative impact on my mental health.
The first thing to say is that my artworks wouldn’t exist without Instagram. The images I make are tailored to it specifically as a medium and I crop them all in the 4:5 ratio so they fill the maximum space on the screen. I self-consciously use visual elements that I know are likely to grab your attention, like symmetry and high contrast leading lines. When an image performs well, I feel a mild sense of euphoria, but when it doesn’t, the frustration can linger for hours. Every time I post a picture, it is like spinning the roulette wheel. Will the algorithm give me the dopamine hit that I’m looking for or will I fall flat? I get annoyed with myself for needing that validation and for investing so much emotion into something so trivial and arbitrary.
We are all subjected to a constant bombardment of information and images. What is that doing to our minds? In some ways we are more connected than ever before, but we have also become a generation of smartphone zombies, mindlessly consuming content all day in self-imposed isolation. One of the best things I did recently was delete Twitter. The daily onslaught of bad news was making me irritable, anxious and left me feeling helpless. Like all addictions, it didn’t make me feel good, yet I was compelled to keep scrolling and checking. Now I limit my exposure to the news to a few times a day and feel much happier as a result.
Instagram is different and has its own dark side. Some studies have linked it to serious mental health problems, especially among teens. Ten years ago, the terms ‘selfie’ and ‘influencer’ were non-existent. Now they are part of our everyday language.
It can be an amazing platform for creativity, but it is also a giant narcissism factory. Take a look at the account ‘Influencers in the Wild’ and you will see what I mean. The need to create content to share on our platforms is encouraging some very strange behaviour. How many of us have chosen to do something based on how ‘Instagrammable’ it is? I’ve certainly gone on trips specifically to take photos for my Instagram account. How many times do you see people photographing their food in a restaurant or livestreaming a concert rather than watching it through their own eyes? It’s almost as if no experience is valid anymore unless you can share it on social media.
It is easy to get caught up in ‘content culture’ and I find that I need to take a break at least once a year. I think it’s healthy to question your motivations and ask yourself ‘why am I doing this?’. I go through periods when it gives me so much energy and others when it sucks the life out of me. Being creative is good for your sanity – the obsession with social media engagement can damage it.
I’ve come to realise that social media art is probably as disposable as fast food or fast fashion. You might enjoy seeing it on your phone for a second, but there is something impermanent and transient about it – consumed quickly and instantly forgotten. One of my ambitions for this year is to find a way to take my work beyond the smartphone screen, although I haven’t quite figured out how yet.
Putting these concerns to one side if that’s possible, I think Instagram has generally been a positive part of my life. Above all, I enjoy the daily contact I have with people from across the globe and take inspiration from the way they see things and how they express themselves. I have met a number of them in person, and it makes a big difference once you’ve made the connection with someone in the real world. In other words, the ‘social’ side of social media is usually a force for good.
Anything else you would like to share?
The vast majority of accounts I follow on Instagram are photographers and they are a very important part of my community on there. However, I would like to end by highlighting some digital/analogue art accounts for you to follow. Some are professional artists and designers, others make creative work as a way of expressing themselves. What they all have in common is that they are kind and supportive people who are generous with their insights and feedback. Despite all of Instagram’s flaws as a platform, they make it more than worth sticking around.
(in alphabetical order):