Surrealist Belgian artist René Magritte is famous for his iconic painting The Treachery of Images (1928-29). The painting depicts a pipe underscored by the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (This is not a pipe).  What was Magritte thinking? Was he playing with us?  This quote from the man himself tells you all you need to know about the painting’s meaning:

“The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it’s just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture “This is a pipe”, I’d have been lying!”

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The Treachery of Images (1928-29) by René Magritte. Owned by LACMA

The painting raises the question of reality and points to the difference between the tangible or physical and the representation of reality. Many years later, Dutch artist Ingeborg Pompen is asking herself a similar question as she ventures into the world of digital art in her latest project. Ingeborg studied art in Amsterdam at the Voque Mode Akademie and the Rietveld Akademie in the early 80s. She left Holland aged 23 and spent time in Dutch Antilles where she worked as a graphic designer and illustrator. Later she moved to the USA and continued her education at the School for Visual Arts in New York where she concentrated on illustration. Within the last few years, with her interest in Zen and Sumi-e artwork, she started experimenting with new techniques, first on paper and canvas and now on her tablet.

With her 48 minutes, she wrote this fascinating piece about her experiences with digital art, in which she raises questions about the real and virtual world.

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Drawing or Concepts? by Ingeborg Pompen

I don’t really like to leave the comfort zone of my paper, pencil, ink, brush and canvas. I need to be able to feel, hold and smell the materials. Now and then during the creative process, I’ll hang the works on my living room walls so I can stare at them, walk in front of them and think about them at any moment of the day.

However, I am now exploring what it means when I can’t touch my work or physically possess any of my original compositions. Instead, I am experimenting with work produced and stored on my computer or tablet. The questions that arise as I make these changes are faced by many artists today. Working onscreen, my work melds with and reflects back a society that is becoming more and more computerized. I turned this personal journey, which could appear modern and robotic on the surface, into a special art project, and it has already yielded some surprising results.

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The journey began last spring when I bought a tiny handbag-sized tablet. For the fun of it, I downloaded some free apps like a mini drum kit and a Sumi-e app. As I played around with the drawing app, I realized that this seven-inch piece of plastic and the software it houses allowed me to make compositions that were as interesting as those rendered via traditional methods.

I started to use the little digital red stamps from the app not just to sign my name, but as icons to comment on, or to enhance the meaning and feeling of the drawings. In some cases they simply formed part of the compositions. This led me to question the artistic process.

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What does it mean for me personally when I use software that imitates paper and other drawing materials? What does it mean for the ‘original’ artwork? Is the original the one I made on my tablet, a first printed or published copy, or the image captured on my memory card? And what does it mean for the work’s integrity if it looks different on the tablet, computer, phone or other device it is viewed on?

As a Zen student, Zen and Buddhism frame the thinking behind my artwork. I started to see the digital art-making process as a vehicle I could use to help me explore these teachings. Perhaps it could even further my attempts to understand perceptions, illusions and conditioned ideas about possessing material things. I started to think that digital art could help me move closer to an understanding of the impermanence of reality, which has always been a central theme in my work.

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In order to progress in my new chosen medium, I bought a 12 inch tablet with a special pen to allow me to work more in detail. Other than that I kept it simple. Working on screen made it easier for me embrace the abstract and let go of my inclination to make figurative art. Like many people I am conditioned into thinking that I can only understand reality when I recognize it as something I already know. I am trying to start each drawing from a single point. I then start moving my pen over the screen to make a line or form that determines the direction the drawing takes. Because the flat screen gives no resistance to the pen, my movements flow easily and quickly. This makes it fun and allows me to express myself through simple lines, form and color.

But the most interesting personal finding is that this digital work forced me to confront the persistent illusion that I can actually possess my artwork. Tibetan monks make beautiful sand mandalas, only to destroy them after they are completed to gain insight in the impermanent nature of all things. Like this, my drawings – rendered in pixels rather than sand – are painstakingly shaped, only to disappear the moment I switch off my tablet.

Tibetan Mandala. Photo credit Orin Zyvan

I am investing time and effort into making digital works with software that try to imitate the real thing. Are my new drawings therefore less real than those on paper or canvas? What lives do my artworks have after being copied into print or released on the internet? Will they freely time travel through the cloud and change form when they are viewed on different devices by people with different perceptions?

To make my experiment a more rigorous practice in Buddhist detachment, the next step is to exhibit some of the same drawings printed on different materials or shown on different devices. Or even better, to find very different people in different places, globally, to simultaneously choose materials and devices on which they would like to see the drawings.

The sand mandala is an original design, but every time it is made by different monks with different sand. Therefore the concept will always exist, but the materialized form will disappear and transform again and again. Are my digital drawings only concepts? I hope at least my little project will further my understanding of the impermanent nature of reality.

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To see more of her incredible work, follow Ingeborg Pompen on Instagram.

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