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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics


I’ve been leaning harder into the absurdity of making digital art with the “deprecated” software MS Paint. Lately that’s meant taking family photographs and unphotographing them: incrementally distorting each through an idiosyncratic set of processes until I arrive at something radically different from the original photo. The image above began its existence as this photograph:


That’s my daughter, and I’m pretty sure she’s sitting in the hallway outside the gift shop of the Carnegie museum in Pittsburgh. Though I’m not sure which trip this would have been. It used to happen fairly regularly while my pre-Alzheimer’s mother was still alive and living in her Pittsburgh condo.

Converting the image involved a gob ton of incremental effects, before I arrived at something I thought was both the end point and, alas, artistically mediocre:

But then I returned to the file with a fresh set of ideas (including merging it with gray scale fragments made in Illustrator, my first minor venture outside Paint):

And though I again thought the image was done (and I think less mediocre), I eventually went back in for one more round. The image at the top is the same only cropped into a square again and flipped because I liked the direction of the hair:

This experiment opened the door to a dozen more, all based on my family members (and selfies too). I posted a sequence of Cameron in March, but here’s another of Madeleine, beginning with this disaster:

I think the CV-19 context was overwhelming my sensibilities, so I started over and eventually finished with a very different final image:

Both images began as this photograph:

The disastrous path diverged here:

And the corrective take-two instead turned here:

Which I think reveals something about abstraction and the acceptable bounds of aesthetic distortion. Micro-level distortion (think Seurat’s pointillist spray of dots or Van Gogh’s butterknife-like brushstrokes) is fine, but macro-level (here the larger facial proportions) is trickier. Also not all macro-level proportions are created equal. The final second version is plenty distorted at both levels, but while the forehead and jaw are impossibly square, the central eyes-nose-mouth keep relatively close to the source image. The disastrous first version loses sense of those most crucial features.

In addition to the questions of what kind and how much distortion is too much, how little is too little is key too. Here’s an unpainting of my spouse distorted at (mostly) micro-level only:

The effect is not unlike “soft focus.” If you squint or step a few feet away from the screen, it looks like the original photograph.

What’s not clear is how much macro-level facial distortion an image can hold before it crosses the aesthetic divide. Here’s another adaptation of the same source image:

Maybe I have weird taste, but I prefer the second.


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