Artist William Newman is well known to the Washington art community, both for his fine work and for his reputation as a teacher and chairman of the drawing and painting department at the Corcoran School. His meticulously crafted, giant colored-pencil drawings have established him as one of this city's foremost realists, and for nearly 15 years his work has been shown in exhibitions throughout Washington and acquired by galleries and private collectors nationwide.
Now Newman, 36, is about to add a new dimension to his artistic reputation: computer graphics.
"I got interested last year when David Adamson a Washington gallery owner who promotes computer graphics suggested that I try working on an Apple Macintosh," he says. "They had come out with the Mac-Paint, a graphics program especially for artists and architects. What impressed me was how much control you had over the image. Like you can elongate an image to the point that it becomes abstract, but it's real at the same time."
Newman has been using the computer to stretch portraits of men and women to the point where they are recognizable only from a steep angle, from either below or to the side. Head-on they become strong abstractions in black and white, more like landscapes than anything else. But, looking at them for a time, one can sense that they are in fact figurative, and this adds to their mystery.
"For me, the computer revolutionizes the capacity to produce images," Newman says. "The way I work, if I'm painting I can produce maybe 10 images per year. With a computer, I can produce a thousand images, with the same integrity and workmanship. I'm a meticulous artist, and I need the control.
"What's really impressed me recently is the computer's ability to digitize images. This works well with what I'm doing now, because what I've been doing is taking videos of my models, and taking photos from the video with a monitor, or digitizing straight from the video onto the computer."
To those who fear that computers threaten to dehumanize the art world or jeopardize the continuance of conventional techniques, such as painting or drawing, Newman has this response:
"I don't think computers threaten traditional methods. They are just an important new development that enables the artist to increase the volume and refinement of his work. You can get some really powerful images that you can't really get any other way -- at least, not without a lot of trouble. Also, a computer image becomes more universal. A portrait of a person becomes more a portrait of mankind, rather than the image of a particular person. I mostly do images of men and women -- images about relationships. As computer images they become anonymous, symbolic.
"I think computers are going to change the art world. If you're an artist working today, and don't know how to use one, you might as well pack it up. Computers are to art what airplanes are to transportation -- or spaceships, maybe."
But in spite of his new-found fascination with computers, Newman remains a painter at heart. He frequently uses the computer as an adjunct to his painting and drawing, capitalizing on the computer's ability to facilitate a rapid solution to compositional problems and the altering of specific images
"There's a feeling you get with paint," says Newman, "that's one thing. But there's a special feeling with the computer, too. You're discovering new areas all the time.
"I mean, there's a time about two-thirds of the way through a painting when you begin to get tired -- especially if you concentrate on detail the way I do. It's no longer new or exciting. With the computer you can do something completely new in seconds. With a painting you have to be much more selective in your imagery, because of the time invested."
Newman continues to explore the possibilities of large, detailed drawings. In fact, his Northwest studio is full of them -- enormous, brightly colored drawings on opaque Plexiglas. This series examines the subject that has fascinated him for years, relationships between men and women, describing the process of affection, disaffection and making up.
"Deep down, I still consider myself to be a painter," he says. "I mean, I am a painter."
William Newman is represented by the David Adamson Gallery.