You Can Now Paint a Digital “Scream” Using Edvard Munch’s Brushes
In scandals heard round the world, thieves stole one version of the Munch Museet (the artist made four in total). Both were later recovered by teams of international detectives, at least one of whom donned a disguise in the process. A third iteration was sold at auction in 2011 for a whopping, much-talked-about $119,922,500.
With drama like this, it’s easy to forget about the more basic genesis of some of art history’s most legendary works, and the tools used to create them.
But this summer, Munch is making news that turns the focus away from big-ticket sales and thrilling heists and back to the nuts-and-bolts of his artistic process. Munch Museet, the Oslo-based museum responsible for safeguarding the artist’s archive, has teamed up with Adobe, the mega-software company behind Photoshop, to bring Munch’s paintbrushes back to life.
In an effort to promote one artist’s legacy—and, of course, to launch a saleable product—they retrieved seven of Munch’s brushes from the depths of climatized storage and transformed them into digital tools. It wasn’t an easy process.
When Munch died in 1944 at the age of 80, he left around 1,150 paintings, 17,800 prints, 4,500 watercolors, 13 sculptures, a stash of drawings, and the contents of his Norwegian studio to the city of Oslo. This massive trove included several of Munch’s masterpieces, as well as the paints and brushes he used to make them.
While Munch’s canvases are regularly on view in museums around the world, his materials rarely see the light of day, due to their inherent fragility. Photo documentation of the tools isn’t readily available to the public, either. Up until now, the only visual evidence of Munch’s process online has existed in several grainy, black-and-white photos of his studio. In one, Munch stands next to an easel, sporting a suit and winter hat while sucking on a pipe. Next to him, nestled in a clump of snow on the floor, a brush sits at-the-ready, submerged in a bucket of paint.
Starting last year, Adobe and the Munch Museum set out to give Photoshop and Sketch users a first-hand understanding of the artist’s process. Their approach was unorthodox and unprecedented: Transform Munch’s age-old brushes into digital mark-making tools. When taken up by Photoshop- and Sketch-savvy millennials, the brushes would have the ability to imitate the artist’s strokes.
It was a long, laborious transformation. First, the museum’s conservation team determined which of Munch’s many remaining paintbrushes were the best preserved, and which represented ones that Munch would have used to build his most iconic compositions. They selected seven brushes that fit the bill, and, ever so carefully, removed them from storage boxes.
Next, they had to set up an on-site studio—the brushes can’t be removed from the museum premises. Together with a group from Adobe and an outside production company, the Munch Museet team shot each brush in 360 degrees to capture every detail and angle. They also collected data on the size, girth, flexibility, number, and material of each brushes’ bristles, as well as on the thickness of the paint Munch used.
All of this research material was sent to illustrator and Photoshop brush-designer Kyle T. Webster at his home studio in North Carolina, where he began to shape the data into operational digital devices.
In the industry, Webster is known as the “Photoshop brush creator to the pros.” He began creating custom brushes when, as an illustrator, he couldn’t find the effects required for “very fast-paced editorial and advertising illustration jobs,” he explains. “I needed digital tools that could recreate the look and feel of traditional media.” That was back in 2002. Since then, his custom brushes have been licensed by Adobe and used by graphic designers, illustrators, and artists the world over. Wired reported that Webster made over $100,000 in 2013 alone selling his virtual brush packs.
The Munch project posed a new challenge for Webster, though. Before that, he’d “never used photography to create a specific shape for a brush that had to be as close as possible to the original,” he admits. In order to do so, Webster manually drew an outline of each brush, then determined which bristles would make first contact with the canvas “if the brush were simply to graze the surface.” That allowed him to isolate each bristle, which he arranged to create a stamp: a series of Photoshop settings related to the spacing of the bristles and the shape, texture, and angle of the brush, which are then saved as a single digital entity.
“I wanted to provide users with enough options to be able to confidently reproduce the oil painting effects and behaviors seen in Munch’s paintings,” Webster explains. And the virtual brushes that resulted do seem to create marks that resemble Munch’s own. In a contest Adobe organized after the launch, participants created some very convincing reproductions of The Scream.
But Webster also acknowledges that there are limits; it’s “impossible to know exactly how these brushes would have performed at the time Munch used them” over a century ago. Though because of the artist’s foresight in preserving his own legacy—by providing the city of Oslo with both his art and the tools he used to create it—Webster, the museum, and the Adobe team were able to make very educated hypotheses.
On one hand, these custom brushes double as a marketing campaign for both Adobe and the Munch Museet. But they also connect a vital art-historical practice to contemporary artmaking in the digital age. Often, this type of endeavor runs substantial risk: It can be cheesy or appease tech fans while leaving actual artists behind. But this project, so far, bridges the gap by encouraging creatives to experiment—and that is never a bad thing for the future of art.
Alexxa Gotthardt is a contributing writer for Artsy.