How to Make Art from Your Screenshots According to Gina Beavers
Gina Beavers, Zipper Lips, 2018.Courtesy of the artist.
Curator Sarah Urist Green has been interviewing artists about their practices for six years on the PBS digital series The Art Assignment. In each episode, viewers are presented with a fresh, original art lesson inspired by the artist’s work. Now, those lessons and brand-new ones are available in the book You Are an Artist, published earlier this month by Penguin Books. The volume brings together over 50 art assignments that aim to prove that you don’t need to be an artist to make creative work. Below, we share an excerpt from You Are an Artist—an assignment inspired by the work of contemporary painter Gina Beavers.
Gina Beavers’s art changed dramatically in 2010. She had been making hard-edged abstract paintings and was unenthused about them, especially after admiring several racks of T-shirts in a store with screen-printed abstractions on them. Beavers liked the shirts better than her own paintings, and, at $5.00 each, they were not only cheaper but easier to make. So challenged, she returned to her studio to see if she could make something that appeared more handmade, something that couldn’t be accomplished by a machine. A friend had dropped off some acrylic paints for her to try, and she started experimenting by building up thicker layers of paint. Around this time another event happened, this one cataclysmic. Beavers got an iPhone.
Instead of directly observing the world around her as artists had for centuries, she began doing what everybody else was: looking at her phone. What she found delighted her. Images, endless images. All the ones you’d expect to find, plus many more you wouldn’t. Beavers started noticing a lot of food photography in her social media feed, and was particularly intrigued by a friend’s post of some short ribs he was making. She appreciated how abstracted the brown rib forms appeared against a blue cloth and set about painting them. Instead of maintaining the flatness of the original image, Beavers built up the canvas with acrylic medium to make the forms and textures pop off the canvas. She began following the hashtag #foodporn and painted any image that struck her as interesting, from a pile of chicken and waffles on a platter to an oozing blueberry pie in an aluminum foil pan. Falling somewhere between painting and sculpture, Beavers’s relief works appear simultaneously hyperrealistic and charmingly, gloppily handcrafted. They are tactile, heavy, and resolutely physical, the antithesis of their fleeting source material.
Pulling freely from the infinite landscape of images available online, Beavers has made paintings of bodybuilders flexing for mirror selfies, dice-themed nail art, a hoodie printed with Van Gogh’s The Starry Night (1889), and copious step-by-step makeup tutorials. She uses photo collage apps to arrange her found images into multi-picture compositions. For one work, Beavers Googled “creative lip art” and took screenshots of an image featuring lips with zippers. She then used photo editing software to multiply and layer the image, drew the image onto a panel, and began the work of building up the surface several inches thick with acrylic medium. When she was happy with the relief work (and, at long last, it was dry), Beavers painted the surface to make it look as much like the collaged image as possible. Along the way, she likes to take photos of her work in process, closely observing how it appears on-screen as well as in real life. About the work, Beavers has said: “It lives online and in person, in the same two ways as we do.”
Acknowledging our dual existence in online and offline worlds, Beavers offers an assignment that calls us to pay attention to the vast sea of weird, arresting, and tantalizing images that wash over us every day, and recognize their extraordinary potential.
You know that standing in a room with an object is different from seeing that object on a screen, and yet the difference is easy to forget. For this exercise, your raw material will be your recent history of internet searches and saves, be they intensely personal or aggressively mundane. You captured these images for some reason, and now you have the chance to transform them into something more considered—aware of their thin, digital existence—and lasting.
- Find a screenshot you have saved to your phone that intrigues you.
- Manipulate the photo on your phone in any way you like, using your phone’s photo editor, third-party photo editing, social media, or a collage app.
- Create an artwork in real life using any material in any dimension based on your final manipulated image.
Tips, cheats, and variations
- The idea is to work from a photo you did not create, so choose an image that someone else made and shared, and that called to you for some reason. If you don’t have something like this on your phone, look through your computer or other device and see what you find. Alternately, conduct an image or hashtag search with random terms that amuse you, like “jean shorts” or “cat ramp.” Scan beyond the product shots to find the delightfully bizarre image that’s just right for you.
- Don’t seek out the beautiful or artful image. A “bad” image might be just what you want for this. Terribly composed, poorly lit, or confusing? Give it some attention, and subject it to some editing and layering in order to make something beautiful out of it.
- Use any photo editing app or software as long as it is easy and fun. Fancy photo-editing skills are not needed here. Zoom in on your image and crop it. Distort the image using a fish-eye effect, or collage together multiples of your image into the shape of a heart or star. Plug your image into preset interiors or landscapes. Use “artistic” filters in unexpected ways. (Beavers has done all of these.) Attach “stickers,” or work in text, emojis, clip art, or whatever the kids are doing these days.
- Invoke Jasper Johns’s 1964 note to himself in his sketchbook: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.]” Except your object is an image. Keep going with your photo manipulations until it gets interesting.
- While you’re editing your image, think about what kinds of art objects you like to make. If you’re a painter, what kind of visual effects might you enjoy painting? If you make graphite drawings, convert your image to grayscale. If you’re a collagist, manipulate your image into flat forms that could be more easily translated into cut paper. Consider inversions of scale, making an enormous papier-mâché sculpture out of a microscopic image.
- Really like your digital image and feel like you don’t need to make a real-life object from it? Present it on a tablet on a stand, or print your image on good paper at an interesting or unexpected size. Use a photo printing service to emblazon it on a mug, tote bag, or product of choice.
From YOU ARE AN ARTIST, by Sarah Urist Green, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Sarah Urist Green.