On Photoshop

Rosie Dahlstrom: Collages from ‘Delphyne’ series, digital collages, 2018

On Monday 29th October 2018 I, finally, got my head around Photoshop. It was a momentous day. Every day since then, I have been on a computer messing about with Photoshop. Mastering the tech skills has been on my to-do list since art school first time round, so it’s a big deal for me, at last, after watching endless online tutorials and several false starts over the years, to now kind of know what I’m doing.

I’ve made paper collages to go along with or serve as a foundation for my paintings, and have made collages for their own sake for years and years. They serve as the backbone of most of my work, as the collage idea of mixing and matching imagery from varying sources and playing with the weirdness of juxtaposing shapes, subjects and colours gives me huge amounts of energy. I love the happy accidents and the magic when maybe one out of twenty is perfect and amazing, and took seconds to make; that serendipitous feeling when a picture seems to make itself.

So, it was suggested to me during a crit in art school maybe 5 years ago that I might like Photoshop to make collages quicker and easier, and play with the fancy features it has. I remember sitting in the GSA library trying to teach myself, getting stuck on the lasso tool, and finally giving up after wanting to poke my eyes out with a pencil. All the Youtube videos I watched were interminably dull and irrelevant to what I wanted to do, and eventually I just wanted to get back to the studio, away from a computer screen, and make paintings, accepting my identity and failings as a technophobe. And that’s how things were left.

When I decided to move to London and do a Masters, it seemed much more realistic that I could learn skills I otherwise wouldn’t have the energy, inclination or discipline to achieve, as such a drastic life-change suddenly put a lot of other issues into perspective. I wanted to learn how to do many things, such as film-making, ceramics and photography, and properly as opposed to my usual half-arsed ‘that’ll-do’ approach. Mastering Photoshop, my old enemy, was top of the list.

Five weeks and 80-odd collages later, I’m really proud of myself to say that I can now put it honestly on my CV if I choose. So I’d like to spend the rest of this article saying a little bit about what I’ve learned from the medium and what I’ve found interesting, not just patting myself on the back for another 500 words.

Firstly, working in screen-based media not paper or painting has a completely different feel to it. I was actually worried that my book of 72 collages wouldn’t look like that much work because we value digital media differently; in fact even to me it didn’t feel like really working in some way because I associate computers so much more with leisure, and because the collages could happen very fast (once all the imagery was prepared). But it was a lot of work in a different way. It was also very liberating to have all my work on a USB stick, there was a freedom to not having to humph round books and paints and heavy stretchers which I spent all summer doing and am completely sick of.

I was also interested in the ‘medium as message’ thing which we’ve been talking a lot about in art school, in that the form of the work conveys messages in how it’s displayed and what it’s made from. Photoshop suggests to me the alteration and distortion of bodies, it suggests idealised experiences, it forms a huge part of our virtual social media culture; Photoshop is associated with fashion, advertising and glamour. So I wanted to reflect on these ideas of fantasy, fashion and distortion but actually utilise Photoshop for an alternative purpose that was the construction of a monster, not a model; a lizard-creature, a virgin martyr, a character that flits between life and death, animal and human.

There’s also something that I find fascinating that results from the immersion in a medium; from subsuming your practice in an extended experimental uterus and seeing what is possible, what leads you on, what keeps you interested and exhausting every possibility. Artists do this in all sorts of different ways in various practices but there is something valuable in committing to a new process, to being obsessive or compulsive in draining every drop out of the experiment, and the way that you keep yourself interested in the work can create new ways of engaging with it for audience and creator.

And in making a book, I combined the Photoshop references with (hopefully) a reference to graphic novels or comics, or magazines. I wanted to emphasise not just the aspect of fantasy, desire, abstraction of bodies, violence and power in religion, but also play with what it takes to tell a story. What could be an alternative method of storytelling? How much information can be denied or distorted without destroying the narrative? Can a story also be successfully read as individual moments, free of symbolism or explanation? What of themselves do viewers bring to their interpretations of the narrative?

It was good to make a picture-book and go back almost to early Catholicism where the images inside the church described the teachings of the Bible to the illiterate, and how artists over the centuries have made these stories exciting, empathetic and captivating to the audience. It was also good to explore notions of alienation and escape into fantasies of your own transformation or the transformations of your world; and the liberation and limits of dreams to as escape or distraction, as expressed in graphic novels/comic book culture, cosplaying and the weird genre of character art: outlandish characters that have no associated contexts or stories, but exist only for the pleasure of their invention and odd and/or erotic appearances. I have a rich language of my own personal mythologies and symbols that I use in my work to keep myself interested; but these aren’t necessarily interesting to the viewer so I had to ask myself how else to make the work engaging, as simply stand alone images.

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Installation of ‘Delphyne’ for ‘pigs can get sunburn’ (Cookhouse Gallery, 2018)

I also had a really good crit following my presentation of the ‘Delphyne’ book in a group exhibition in Chelsea. Concepts of story-telling, obsession, love and desire, self-transformation and engagement were talked about, and I was pleased that some more subtle aspects of the work were picked up on. I have some things to think about but for the moment I’m just happy that this crazy week is over and I never, ever have to use Photoshop again.

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