A Non-Verbal Debate: Digital Collaborations by Matthew Ballou

Matthew Ballou

“The collaborative online drawing is what I imagine it may be like for musicians to improvise together: sometimes taking solos, sometimes playing together, but each time different. The dimension of time makes it very interesting both from the point of view of a participant and a spectator.”
– Carol Heft

Over the last few months (May-July 2016) a number of artists, following the lead of painter Chris Fletcher, have been working almost daily on a series of live collaborative digital artworks. These works, undertaken with a variety of interests and ends in the minds of the artists, are dramatic in their color, variety of mark, manner of approach, and level of execution. They also put humility and playful exploration on center stage. Overall, the effects have been transformative for those involved.

Matthew Ballou

After working with Fletcher and a large cohort of serendipitous partners for a number of weeks, I decided to try to move the collaboration from the unspoken visual realm to a verbal one. I asked Fletcher and two of his collaborators – Carol Heft and Nick Ruth – a number of questions about their perspective on this fresh mode of interacting with other artists. My hope is that my brief remarks and this dynamic conversation will provide a point of access to other artists interested in similar activity. I encourage everyone to try their hand at this mode of work and share the results with us in the comments below.

Fletcher is an artist and teacher living in mid Missouri and working at State Fair Community College in MO. Heft teaches at St. Joseph’s College and is based in Manhattan, NY. Nick Ruth is a professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in central upstate New York. I’m grateful to each of them for their thoughts.

Matt Ballou: “My primary experience with shared art making was in exquisite corpse projects in undergrad and in other collaborative efforts that were always turn-based. Since my kids started spending time with me in my studio I’ve often allowed them to play on surfaces to ‘prepare’ them for me. Seeing their totally free art making has generated a lot of inspiration for me. Also, I’m currently in the midst of a multi-year collaboration with Joel T. Dugan – a professor at Fort Hayes State University in Kansas – that we build separately by mailing the paintings back and forth. The idea of a number of people actively working on the same surface at the same time seems pretty unique and not often seen. How long have you been interested in live drawing collaborations?”

Chris Fletcher: “It’s hard to pinpoint. In a drawing class at Kansas City Art Institute, Helen Bayley had us working in a big circle with the model in the center. Every five minutes or so, we were asked to move to the next person’s easel so that the drawing stayed in the same location while each student rotated around the circle. That was sort of collaborative. Besides that, the first real one I did was with Benedict Cressy when we were graduate students at American University. We passed a small drawing back and forth fairly quickly. Sara (my wife) and I have worked on the same drawing at the same time now and then over the years since. I guess I started thinking about the possibility of live online collaborative drawing around the time I began using the computer regularly to draw with in 2010. I periodically looked around for potential platforms since then and finally got around to doing the first ones last October (2015).

Matthew Ballou

When teaching or interacting with other artists, the thing that interests me most is the potential to discuss how compositions suggest movement. It’s a way of looking and thinking about paintings that my teacher, Stanley Lewis, introduced me to. To this end, in late October of 2015, I started a Facebook page called ‘After Masters’1 to provide a place specifically focused on sharing composition studies. The intention was to get closer to contemplating compositional dynamics.

Shortly after making that group page, I posted this to my Facebook friends: ‘Howdy all. I’m interested in the possibility of a real-time online sketchbook where painters can share formal ideas – for example, analyzing a composition together or collaborating on a sketch.’ So the idea came directly out of the After Masters thing. The first one was on Realtime Board, but it got chaotic fast because there was the option of zooming way in or out on a huge board and so you did not have a good sense of where others were working. Soon after that, I discovered A Web Whiteboard and collaborated on a couple of drawings with Demain Garnero where we were both in the same area drawing for a good period of time. I did some more but did not know who was dropping in to draw. This initial jag lasted for just a few days.

Matthew Ballou

Then, early this June, I started posting invitations to draw again and also presented some other drawing platform options to try out like Google Drawings and Idroo. I started a blog2 to document the process. I’ve also been interested in projecting these things live. I’ve done it once so far and have plans in the works for future projections. Beyond just thinking that this collaboration thing is interesting and worth sharing, I think in some way my desire to project them in public is part of a personal effort to connect to my memories of the general creative ferment, both on campus and across the city, that was going on during my time as a student at KCAI. I want to contribute to keeping that kind of spirit going now however I can.”

Carol Heft: “I have been interested in online collaborations for about a year, but more intensely, recently when Chris approached me about joining a collaboration board. The collaborative online drawing is what I imagine it may be like for musicians to improvise together: sometimes taking solos, sometimes playing together, but each time different. The dimension of time makes it very interesting both from the point of view of a participant and a spectator.”

Nick Ruth: I’ve been interested in online drawing collaborations since I saw Chris doing it. I’ve been following him for some years now, and find his curiosity, risk taking, and inventiveness really compelling.

MB: What do you know about the history of artists working this way? I think I’ve seen information suggesting that some limited live collaboration was taking place in the ‘60s.3

Matthew Ballou

CF: “Not much! PaintChat and OpenCanvas have been around since the turn of the century, but they were a place where those with a shared anime aesthetic could draw with the general expectation that no one should work on another person’s drawing without their permission. From what I’ve seen, the resulting larger composition is therefore predominantly a collection of fragments. I have seen a rare few make efforts to do some harmonized transitions from one area to another. Anondraw is a good example of a site with this kind of activity. Outside of this kind of thing, there may very well be other artists collaborating in real time but I just am not aware of them yet.

There is a fascinating video of Phillip Pearlstein using digital drawing back in 19854. Though not collaborative, it’s a predecessor of what we’re doing.

MB: What first drew you to working this way?

CH: “Carl Heyward, a San Francisco based artist and founder of Global Artists Collaborative (GAP) has been working with Facebook artists around the world on collaborative collages for a few years. I respect and enjoy their work and wanted to participate. When Chris contacted me, I was excited because I like digital media and wanted to work with other artists whose work I respected. It’s very exciting to think, to work out ideas quickly without the limitations of physical materials with artists from around the world. I am totally mesmerized by the range of textures, brush quality marks, form, color, and value configurations available in digital drawing. What is even more exciting, for me, is the opportunity to think along with other artists and tap in to their creative process. This not only generates innovative images, but also helps me understand my own way of visualizing and composing.”

Matthew Ballou

CF: “The elephant in the room here – the thing that I’ve taken for granted – is my interest in the process of on-the-spot improvisation. I used to play piano, and took lessons from Phil James. Three things he emphasized in that context seem like they have parallels in visual art: improvise, keep an active left (bass) hand going with the normally active right hand melodic line, and try to move through interesting chord changes. So there is an undeniable element of performance in this for me that I should not deny or let go by without mention. This improvisation aspect – like call and response in Jazz – is an important part of the collaborative project. Artists like Kandinsky have emphasized important parallels between visual art and music. Of course, this improvisation thing is also related in part to what Breton referred to as psychic automatism. The ‘stream of consciousness’ thing is crucial. Artists like Arp, Gorky, Guston, and (although he is not usually thought of this way) Rouault tapped into that and provided examples of the same kind of fundamental plastic rhythms that course through the work but are applied within a more abstract and/or semi-primitive figurative language.”

NR: “What first drew me to working with other on online drawings was watching Chris work digitally. I also had a desire to be pushed. I’ve never found collaboration to be a comfortable thing, but I’ve often wondered why. I have thought that it was probably because I barely feel on top of what I am trying to do when working by myself, so how could I also try and deal with another, entirely different sensibility? Also, I have been reluctant to give up personal studio time to devote to something I’m unsure about. But watching Chris work, there is a sense of freedom rather than the restriction I predicted, and I found that attractive. So, it’s really been about wanting to try something new, work with brave artists, and push myself to be braver. I don’t know of anyone working this way, in a virtual space. But I assume they are out there. What seems unusual to me about this particular (very open) group is the spirit of experimentation, as if it needn’t be guided by the end goal of resolution. I have some questions about this aspect, but not enough that it stops me from wanting to be a part of it.”

Matthew Ballou

Matthew Ballou

MB: “Obviously, we’ve got some examples we could look to, but the idea of multiple artists working in one shared virtual space is fairly unique. Do you find any precedents in art history for this mode of working?”

CH: “Absolutely! The Cave painters worked over their images for generations, following outlines, modifying forms, using the cracks in the cave walls to suggest animals and movement. I think artists have collaborated throughout history. It was in the Renaissance that the idea of the artist as an individual genius became popular, but even then, the workshop model was all about collaboration. There was always one master who had to approve of everything, though; perhaps it wasn’t collaboration so much as teamwork. Medieval illuminated manuscripts were done by specialists in the scriptorium – one scored the paper, on applied the gold leaf, another laid in the black ink outlines, etc. However, the finished product was predetermined, which is quite different from the kind of collaboration we have been doing online.”

CF: “In the master/student/apprentice relationship we have examples like Rembrandt correcting/altering his students’ drawings. That kind of experience – of having your teacher draw on your drawing or paint on your painting – is something I consider myself fortunate to have experienced with Wilbur Niewald as my teacher at KCAI. That kind of communication is so incredibly direct and effective, so much more potent than trying to verbalize or talk around certain things. I think my experiences as a student with Niewald continue to act as a central force in what I am doing today. It’s not ‘working from observation,’ but his teaching emphasized constant rigorous revision; always trying to see things afresh. That immersion in his studio of generating these forms and accepting their constant destruction and re-arrangement remains a critical structural influence in my life.

Matthew Ballou

Within a master/student/apprentice relationship the dual input takes place within the context of a clearly defined goal such as a study of the motif or a particular design for a large painting in the case of Rubens or a mural in the case of the Italian frescoes of the Renaissance. This kind of collaboration probably goes all the way back to ancient Egypt.

But again, in all those cases the goal is known in advance to some degree. The activity that interests me in these live online collaborative drawing projects is trying to be in the same kind of frame of mind that an old master might have been in while first conceiving the initial sketch or study. It’s about allowing the goal itself to unfold and evolve.”

Matthew Ballou

MB: “Can you talk about the role of master artists of the past in your understanding of how to approach collaborative work?”

CF: “There are a lot of artists to look at, but mostly I would say that we should all try to find and carefully study as much of their preliminary work as we can get access to. Thankfully there are a lot of collection databases available online like the Met and the Louvre and all number of auction houses. These masters, to name just a few: Fra Bartolommeo, Da Vinci, Del Sarto, Da Cortona, Rubens, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Cezanne. They knew how to think plastically in terms of dynamic composition/configuration, and they all moved with a tremendous sense of forcefully flowing rhythm. I could mention many more particular artists and point to specific works but the short answer is: look at the studies made by the great ones and try to understand how they were forming in those studies vs. trying to jump ahead and aping the subtle, refined finishes of their final works. Try to get at the root of the force that has grown the thing.”

NR: “The idea of Picasso and Braque in a kind of friendly competition during the development of analytic cubism has always appealed to the romantic part of my understanding of how artists work. I don’t know much about the facts of the way they interacted–only have a sense that they traded studio visits frequently, and talked intensively about what they were doing–but it seems like they found a way to work parallel to one another while still making highly personal work. (Incidentally, there is some great quote, I think by Braque, from a movie that MOMA did about the Picasso/Braque show they did in 1989, I think. The quote is something along the lines of: ‘Picasso and I said things to one another during those days that no one else could ever understand.’5 I think that is interesting, and suggests the depth of their shared undertaking). But in the case of this stuff with Chris, it is the simultaneity that is really unusual and distinctive.”

Matthew Ballou

MB: “One thing that strikes me when I work with other artists on a writhing, constantly-transforming piece is that there is a sublimation of authorship. In fact, I’m not even thinking about ‘owning’ the work we are co-creating. That’s probably my biggest take away from the experience. What do you think has been the most important thing you’ve learned or experienced through your recent collaborative digital drawings?”

NR: “It’s hard for me to say what I’ve learned, so I’m not sure about that. Watching Chris post his own work (digital, drawing, painting, stuff he makes for teaching purposes) and also work of other artists always has me wondering what he is thinking. But I rarely ask, so it is a kind of intellectual stimulation to think about painting ideas. Recently, we did have an exchange where he characterized one aspect of this project as being a ‘non-verbal debate’ and that really changed my preconceived notions about collaboration.

Matthew Ballou

Maybe one thing I could say is that I am learning to just go for it, to draw in an environment (digital) and in a way that I am not necessarily comfortable with (i.e. MUCH faster than usual), to just see what happens. I am learning to try to react more quickly, to pick up and drop streams of thought, to let go of a sense of ownership of any particular thing, and to try to see form on a screen (when it is not a photo of something made some other way). I find that it takes a ton of concentration to draw this way, and I like that a lot. I feel like I am training: training my eyes, my hand, and my mind. I like that. Meanwhile, I am un-moored by the endlessness of it, and by trying to be in any way responsible for the whole thing at any given moment. For now, I am actively suspending any contradictions I feel, so that I can just be a part of something interesting and see what happens.”

CF: “That’s a tough question for me to answer very clearly. I have definitely learned that I am very fortunate to have been able to work with some very intelligent, energetic, curious, and tolerant artists on this. Beyond realizing how lucky I am for that opportunity, I’m not so clear on all the various aspects of what has been going on with these things and all the various forms they have taken on to the extent I can verbalize a very good answer right now.

However, one important thing that has become clearer to me as this has unfolded is that it’s not just simply collaboration for its own sake. That isn’t my goal here. The predominantly territorial/purely additive ‘don’t draw on my drawing without my permission’ thing doesn’t interest me much. I’m much more interested in exploring plastic form. By plastic, I mean capable of change, both in the process and in the final effect.

Matthew Ballou

I’m also interested in the inherent conflict that exists between what the painter Jean Helion called the ‘egg-way’ and the ‘space-way.’6 He was talking about more than just the relation of the element to the composition. He was describing the egg as a defined entity (itself also comprised of elements) with its own integrity – its own boundaries, and the ambition to integrate that within the total picture space of medium and largest configurations as Poussin did. It’s totally traditional stuff, really. With the Live Online Collaborative Drawing Project, I’m just proposing that we discuss it in a more direct way by drawing/composing together in real-time and without the limits of geographic location.”

CH: “It has been exhilarating watching other people draw simultaneously on a changeable surface. Thinking in tandem – or separately but on the same picture plane – is a great way to develop a broader understanding of composition. Each artist has a unique sense of design, and that interests me more than anything. Integrating the symbols, depictions, content, which is sometimes, but not always reflected in the compositional approach, is a challenge with a group of artists, especially if they are not familiar with each other’s work. There is a compatibility factor too, almost like chemistry. It’s been enlightening in many ways. How territorial am I? How aggressive? How do I feel when other artists make radical changes to something I have been working on? How do I feel about changing other people’s work?

I think I have similar levels of ease or anxiety when making changes whether I am collaborating or working alone. I often bring a painting or drawing through many stages before making a decision to stop. The collaboration board, to me, is, like any other kind of art, a reflection of an experience. Working together simultaneously on one picture plane is a different kind of experience than working alone, but for me, they enhance each other.”

Matthew Ballou

Thanks again to Chris, Carol, and Nick for being a part of this discussion. Please check the links below for some of the places the drawings you see on in this piece were created.

Online Collaboration Boards

Realtime Board: https://realtimeboard.com/
Anondraw: http://www.anondraw.com/
A Web Whiteboard: https://awwapp.com/
Idroo: https://idroo.com/

Artists who worked on the various images included above:

Richard Alexander, Marie-Cécile Aptel, Matt Ballou, Jean Pierre Bourquin, Michael J. Buckley, Frank Ettenberg, Beatrice Fletcher, Bette Fletcher, Chris Fletcher, Sara Fletcher, Adrienne Foley, Nick Freestone, ShirleyAnn Gaines, Demian Garnero, Penelope Hampton, Danielle Hampton, Carol Heft, Zheela Ali Khan, Piza Lopes, Connie Luebbert, Michael McJilton, Tim Phelan, Nick Ruth, David Schell, Theo Slaats, Mike Sleadd, Frank Stack, Mauricio Toledo, Linda Warren, Jennifer Ann Wiggs, as well as many others who participated anonymously.

Matthew Ballou

1 https://www.facebook.com/groups/1073425836001987/

2 http://locdraw.blogspot.com/

3 http://computer-arts-society.com/static/cas/computerartsthesis/index.html%3Fpage_id=128.html

4 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gl9DYVOIVwg&feature=youtu.be&t=16m29s

5 “At that time I was very friendly with Picasso. Our temperaments were very different, but we had the same idea. Later on it became clear, Picasso is Spanish and I am French; as everyone knows that means a lot of differences, but during those days the differences did not count… We were living in Montmartre, we used to meet every day, we used to talk… In those years Picasso and I said things to each other that nobody will ever say again, that nobody could say any more… It was rather like a pair of climbers roped together.” – Braque’s quote referring to the early starting years of Cubism in Paris with Picasso, ca. 1907 -1910. ‘In conversation with Dora Vallier (1954).’ Letters of the Great Artists – From Blake to Pollock (1963) by Richard Friedenthal, translation: Daphne Woodward. Page 264.

6 Helion, Jean. “Poussin, Seurat, and Double Rhythm.” AXIS #6, Myfanwy Evans: London, 1936. Pages 9-18.