A master of the Adobe Photoshop pallet, artist Stephen Burns takes cues from last century’s masters to create his own visual landscape of grainy grays and vibrant colorfield hues. At times his work is photographic and figural, other times it’s pure abstraction.
The son of an artist, Burns says he is mostly inspired by mid-century greats like Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso, Franz Kline, Mark Rothko, Mark Tobey, and Lenore Fini. Also saying that he thinks so much can be learned from the Modernist, Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist, because those lessons learned can all be “applied to digital art as well.”
Burns lives and works in San Diego, California–teaching at various institutions, including the University of California at San Diego. His artwork has been exhibited globally, and he’s the author of many, many books speaking to the mastery of digital art techniques.
An interview with Stephen Burns
by Max Eternity
Max Eternity (ME): Stephen Burns, welcome to AD Mag
Stephen Burns (SB): My pleasure to be here.
ME: So tell us about yourself. Where’d you grow up, places you’ve been and where are you now…geographically speaking?
SB: Okay, I was born in El Paso, and grew up in Chicago. Thereafter, I moved to California in the 1970’s. I was raised Catholic schools, in both California and Chicago.
ME: Do you come from an artistic family—any siblings, uncles or cousins who are artists?
SB: Yeah, my family has always been artistic. My dad was a painter and was always doing something with art. He was a business man–a salesman for medical companies. But he opened up opening a Southern-style restaurant in San Diego, which ran for 18 years. He was the chef.
Other family members were artistic—musicians—but they never followed through with it long term, in a serious way.
When I was a kid I had art classes. My friends were really artistic, drawing comic book characters. They drew what they saw and told me to do the same. I became hooked on drawing from that experience—spending a lot of time just drawing. Two of my favorite pastimes were building models and drawing.
In our Chicago home, we had a basement, and in one of the corners of that basement was my little area to make models, which really connects to what I’m doing now. By Jr. High and high school, I decided that if I wanted to do something artistic I would do something that would make me money, which led me into drafting and now, 3-D digital art forms.
ME: As you are probably aware, many of the people I’ve interviewed in the past are not just artists, they are also educators, curators and the like. From what I know about you, your involvement with the arts really exemplifies this dynamic. Could you give a brief run down of some of your organizational affiliations and educational titles?
SB: I instruct at University of California at San Diego. I teach with an extension section there. It’s a section that deals with visual art called The Craft Center. I’ve been with them for about 10 years. Another place I teach is Irvine Valley College (IVC), where I teach a digital photography and Photoshop classes. I also teach Photoshop workshops nationwide.
ME: You and I have a mutual colleague, Joe Nalven, who you’ve known much longer than I. Recently however, I interviewed Joe for AD Mag and we’ve also had several off-the-record email chats. Like you, Joe is an artist/educator.
How did you guys meet? And I think more pointedly, what I’m trying to get at is that you seem like a hell of a networker, with Joe being just one of the key individuals you’ve allied yourself with. This gets into the business side of leveraging power and human resources, skills that many artists do not have. Right? What’s the relationship with Joe, and what would you say to artists who don’t quite grasps the ins and outs of the business side of art—cultivating career-related, relationship?
SB: I’m the president of the San Diego Photoshop user group, which currently has 3,003 members. That’s where I met Joe. We are the largest Photoshop users group in the nation. Though when I took over, we only had 25 members. I built it up to 3000+.
I built up my mailing list and connections by going out to the community, and the San Diego user group is part of that process. To do this, I went out and did a lot of presentations and lectures to schools and camera clubs, and other digital arts organizations. In the process, I was asked to write books. Also in the process of all my travels I began creating a following, which I’ve taken in the form of a mailing list, keeping all informed in what I’m doing–what is happening in the art world. I think a large part of marketing myself has to do with my great interest in giving back to the community, educating the community in this new way called digital expression.
ME: So Stephen, you’ve written a few books, we’ll have to talk about that. And I’d also like to talk specifically about some of your artwork. But for now I’d like to ask about something you said on the PhotoshopSupport.com website. I quote: I like to challenge the viewer’s psyche through presenting the unknown. I combine the animate with the inanimate because we are inseparable from our environment and the energies that impact upon us. I kinda think I know what you mean there, but I’m not 100% sure, so talk more about this, because I find that statement rather fascinating.
SB: I’ve always been as an educator a stickler about educating students to be unique and I have been influenced by the great American abstractionist painters. The philosophy with that movement was on creating with their gut instinct. Not trying to control, but instead allow the canvas to create—bring forth the creation. And this comes from a philosophy where as artist we utilize our subconscious.
In the 1950’s during the abstraction movement, this was referred to as automatism. And I think that all this can be applied to digital art as well. So what I do in my work is that I take those things that are considered to be animate, human or animal forms, and I blend it with things that have little to do with life—metal and stone–taking the figurative, blending it together to create something unique.
ME: We’ve had a few conversations over the last couple of months, but in our most recent chat you informed me that you’re working on a project with the digital tablet maker, Wacom.
SB: I’m working with Wacom on an educational book. I’m one of Wacom’s pro-artists, and what that means is that they ask me to demonstrate their tablet in a creative way to other artists. So what I’m doing is bridging the gap between the technology and artistic use.
The tablet is one of the single most important technologies on the market that brings together the traditional and digital ways of creating. The company is Japanese and Wacom the word stands for: Wa, which means harmony and Com is short for computer.
ME: Wacom, meaning “harmony computer” is very interesting. I had not heard that before. However in looking at your artwork, I can see something of a connection there as far as dealing with transcendental or metaphysical subject matter, like with the piece called “Primordial Trance.” Might you talk about that?
SB: Well, that piece…today there’s this whole movement to going back to figurative aside from abstract. We see that with concept artist, basically commercial artist who portray and idea theme or story. These are digital illustrators, using their talents. This piece is inspired to introduction to abstraction in the figural world, using the camera to represent in detail what my eye say, blending abstraction and realism together. This piece is earthy and tactile. It’s a feeling of nature, representing the base emotions of human beings, giving a sense of peacefulness—a focused trance. The lines are fluid, but yet theirs solid texture integrated with it—a connection to physicality. We are spirits in nature, connected to this physical world.
ME: The piece entitled “The Prisoner” caught my eye too. I’ve never seen a prisoner like this before, so tell me about this one.
SB: looking at the lines of the piece. Narrow lines often times portray restriction.. what were seeing is a figure, being the restriction behind two narrow plates. The hands stretching out are showing the chains around the wrist. Once again the concept of the inanimate and animate comes into play where texture and other forms are integrated with the figurative portraits. There’s symbolism going on through the shapes as well as the definitive objects like the chains on the characters wrist.
I meant for this piece to be ambiguous, meaning that the viewer should decide what the prison is, is the prisoner alcohol, prejudice or social indifference? We all have exposure to some sort of prison.
ME: Some years back you did an exhibition which you called “Architecture of the Spirit.” What a great theme. Could you talk about the premise of that exhibition—how are you using the word architecture, tying it to spirit?
SB: Um, I was raised catholic as I mentioned earlier. I have a firm belief and conviction that we are far more than just physical. We continue to live on after these bodies die. And yet all we understand is life and death in this world. So, as humans we are constantly studying the architecture of the human form, asking how blood flows, how arteries react, how the body functions in this physical world.
My Catholic upbringing has always helped me to understand the architecture of the spirit. What is the nature of the human sprit who are we really? Right now, I believe humans are both physical and spiritual. There will come a time when we will be spiritual. What we experience now and how we develop ourselves now, is the very thing that goes with us as this physical body passes away. The question is: What is the architecture of the spirit? What is it really?
ME: One than one of your books includes in its title “Photoshop Trickery & FX.” Photoshop as we know is a software program for commercial and fine artist, made by the Adobe Corporation. I think you’ve written at least 5 books, which is commendable. And yet, because there is a prejudice in some art circles where the though is that art made with computers and other digital tools like the Wacom Tablet, is not art—that the machines are the creators, not the people, when one sees a book about digital art software that includes the word “trickery” might that reinforce the stereotype that digital art is a gimmick requiring little or no talent?
SB: That’s a good question–a good analogy. There are two aspects to my creative life, fine art and commercial art. The books support my living. All great artists have done commercial art to make money. It’s not to create fine art, but to sell a product. But I’ve done something different with my book. The book addresses a market to people who are trying to find their way in the digital creative world. Appealing to those individuals as to what can be done, with software like Photoshop and other digital software programs. Though in my fine are work, I try to take several approaches to creating.
The book is not about using tricks, but instead about how to be creative. I’ve designed them specifically so that each chapter is a tutorial as to how to use Photoshop and that concept could be a variety of things—science fiction, weather theme, compositing, but all of my books deal with bringing together several types of software programs. I’m taking designers to the next step of creative possibilities.
ME: Turning back now to another work of art that you did “Digital Ecstasy”, which seems to incorporate photography, painting and collage. I wonder about your photographic background—how much does it play with your painting and drawing skills?
SB: I have friends who are painters, photographer and animators. And from being around these individuals, they have a tendency to create their work to reflect the tradtion of that work. What the computer to be is to produce a whole new breed of artist, creating something unique to a digital medium. But what I have seen instead is these people using the digital to basically do what they’ve always done. What I want to do is to blend all these things together. The computer can blend all these techniques—available to everyone to do photographer, film, writing etc. Now that all this is possible and available in one place iti produces opportunities to create a whole new product.
When you look at my work, you can’t tell what it is, I want to integrate these things so well so as not to distinguish what tradition is dominating.
As artist, this whole thing is about vision, not the software. The soft fascinates people. But the whole thing is about bringing out your unique personality through your medium. Whatever medium you choose. Have something to say and say it well with your medium.
ME: One of the most painterly, abstract pieces that I see at your Chrome Illusion website is a work called “African Fury.” Last month I wrote an article entitled “Electronic Apartheid” which touch on oppression and disenfranchisement in the digital age—what that means for Black Americans and Africans. So what’s this piece about?
SB: This piece is an influence of my trip to South Africa. When Johannesburg abolished apartheid they invited artist from around the world to have a dialog about integration. I was one of the artist invited to participate in the Johannesburg Biennale. I think is started in 1997. I was highly impressed by the raw nature, texture and aggressiveness of the Africans work. It’s a very complex country.
ME: Everything that you do is so interesting—fascinating. Thanks for taking the time to speak with me.
SB: You’re very welcome my pleasure. We’ll talk again.