The Synthetic Image research project

One of the reasons why I like working with the computer, and realtime 3D in particular, is that it is a tool that enables the creation of non-photographic figuration. I am interested in the artistic depiction of human figures. But images created before modernism tend to have a much stronger emotional effect on me. I believe that one of the reasons for this is that modern images are negatively influenced by a desire for a certain kind of realism. Photography has exacerbated this problem to the point where we have all internalized photographic representation as the single most important reference for realism. Despite of a strong resurgence of figurative image creation in the arts, we can’t seem to shake the influence that the photographic lens has had on our brains. In virtually every realistic painting, I can feel this photographic inner eye at work. It’s in the compositions, the choice of subject matter, the framing, the colors, the way light is treated, and so on. And it renders the pictures impotent.

Through modelling figures with the computer, and without photographic references, I hope to create images, sculptures, worlds that reconnect with the way in which they were created before photography ruined us. Part of the work involves rigorous study of the Old Masters, preferably by experiencing the original objects in museums and churches. The other part is learning how to create in that tradition on the computer.

3D Modelling

I have a basic understanding of 3D modelling, texturing and shading. But since my work has been focused primarily on animating characters and objects in real time, I lack some necessary skills to create such characters and objects. So the other part of this journey involves learning how 3D modelling tools such as Blender can be used well. All the while attempting to avoid the inclination towards (photographic) realism that virtually all 3D artists share (if they are not creating in an outright cartoonish style).
To lead my research and learning, I have decided to create a digital diorama of Archangel Michael.

Digital Dioramas

Digital Dioramas is a concept that we have developed for our Cathedral-in-the-Clouds project. They involve depictions of saints for the purpose of contemplation. The idea is to create software that can run on people’s personal devices (computers, tablets, smartphones) with an aesthetic effect that is similar to that of paintings in museums and churches.

An important element of Digital Dioramas is that they run in real time. They may, and will in most cases, represent a still scene. But that scene will in some way be imbued with life. Perhaps a change will occur, possibly as a result of some activity by the spectator.

The reason for this is my conviction that time is to digital art what space is to analog art. My deepest experiences with paintings and sculptures happen in the presence of the actual object. A reproduction, interesting in its own right, never has such a deep impact on me. In digital art there are no objects. Digital art exists as bytes on hard disks. It’s immaterial. And a print or a still image or a canned videoclip on the screen of a digital artwork is in no way different from a photographic reproduction of an analog artwork. It is only when the digital artwork is actively running on the processor of a computer that we are witnessing the original piece. And it is only when we share some time with the artwork that it can impact us deeply.

Initially we imagined Digital Dioramas as life size figures shown on flat screens that are always smaller than a person. The spectator needs to scroll around to see the entire figure. But with our growing interest in Virtual Reality, the Dioramas may also become more sculptural 3D objects in some kind of virtual space.

The Plan

Thanks to a grant for personal development from the Flemish Ministry of Culture, I can devote one week per month during a whole year to research and development. During those twelve weeks I will investigate artworks, both in person and in reproduction, in an attempt to figure out what makes them so special to me. I intend to make sketches, and write and publish descriptions and analyses of these works.

I will also improve my 3D modelling and texturing skills and learn more about realtime presentation in the Unreal engine. I will follow online tutorials to this end. And build prototypes.

To guide this project I have set as my goal the creation of a Digital Diorama featuring the Archangel Michael. This subject will help me decide which museums to visit (namely the ones that house a particularly interesting depicting of Saint Michael – although I am counting on there being multiple works of interest in each venue). I will create and release to the public a phase or prototype of this diorama every month (if only to add some pressure).

This project is supported by a grant from the Flemish Ministry of Culture.


— Michaël Samyn.


Please read:
The Synthetic Image research project posts
The Synthetic Image research diary
The Synthetic Image concept

Reference material on Tumblr and Pinterest.