A New Immersive Way of Experiencing Classical Paintings

What would it be like to experience two-dimensional classical paintings as three-dimensional liquids or gases? Vermont-based digital abstract artist James Merrill has the answer. His latest work of abstract digital art explores the colour palettes of classical paintings, breaking a succession of paintings down into fluid particle animations.

Before OCHRE, James has long been involved in the world of digital abstract art since the days of Flash, and his works have been well received in online communities. His work has encompassed graphics based on rain, the sea, and outer-space.

Using software such as 3DSMax, Krakatoa, StokeMX, Realflow and Fumefx, James has brought to the table an experience that is both totally immersive and that brings new life to otherwise timeless art.


We sat down with the digital creative and asked some questions.

TP: What got you into digital abstract art?
My style has always been very abstract. I got deeply involved in the digital art scene during its initial inception, where I mainly created digital paintings and 3D renders. The community of artists online was a major motivation, as they continually evolved the trends of digital artwork and provided feedback to me as I found my own style. At the same time software has become incredibly fast and flexible, reducing the barriers to enter the field for new artists. 


TP: What was the inspiration behind OCHRE?
It all started with some technical prototyping. I wanted to see if I could map a static image to particles, and I just happened to choose a painting that was sitting on my hard drive. I knew from the second that the render completed that I had found my next project. I wanted to really explore the colour theory used in classical paintings because it was so wonderful, and I wanted to do it with animation. I’m very fond of fluid, smoke and wind simulations so that was my source of movement. Combining them and finding interesting angles was my challenge, and I certainly learned a lot finding the best process to merge the idea with the technical mechanics behind the simulations.

TP: Do you have a love/hate relationship with classical art? 
I appreciate all forms of art in varying degrees. Classical art has its place, but I am generally drawn to the cutting-edge digital art that people are making. Artists of past generations can provide important guidance for modern artist – it’s important to recognise that the lessons learned by them are applicable to new forms of art that they couldn’t have envisioned. A stroll through the local art museum can make for a nice Sunday afternoon, and hopefully provide some inspiration for your next project.


TP: Why did you choose these particular paintings? 
In my search for classical artwork I was looking for a couple of things. My criteria was based on the colours present in the paintings, and the subject being interesting and different from my other selections. Having a nice spectrum of colour was critical for the project, as it really helped the animated particles pop as they transition in to abstract forms.

TP: What do you like about the colour palettes of classical paintings?
The colour palettes are interesting to me because they are created with physical substances. Digital artists take for granted how diverse our palette is, but in classical paintings you could very well be unable to replicate a colour because you didn’t have right pigments. This restriction led to many important developments in colour theory.


TP: Do you ever dream in the visual language of abstract digital art?
My process is more about experimentation in the waking hours. I will find an interesting technique and explore it in a series of prototypes, learning about its potential. Then I’ll consider how I can use it in a piece of art. This usually comes to me when I’m outside hiking, biking or snowboarding. Being completely absorbed in an activity lets my mind wander and put together new ideas about projects. 

TP: Can we expect an OCHRE 2? Which paintings do you plan on abstracting next?
I don’t think you’ll see another project with static paintings from me, because in the last stages of OCHRE I came up with some new techniques that will be used for my next project. It turns out that I can map paintings to particles, but I can also map movies to them. So my next project will likely explore that idea. I also plan on releasing a series of freeform animations under my WAVEFORMS project.