The Future of Painting

Gregory Manchess

The principles of physics, as far as I can see, do not speak against the possibility of maneuvering things atom by atom.
--Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate

It’s entirely important for us to paint with our minds focused on today, as in-tune with our generation as possible, not ‘ahead of our time’ as the favorite saying goes.

The intelligent painter reasons that it would be a good thing for their work to look as fresh in the future as when they first laid down the brush from finishing it. The thought of our work being lost to the elements, or battered by time, turned to dust by mold, moisture, and neglect, is at best depressing, at worst, revolting. We want to leave our marks, and we want them to last. We spend a considerable amount of time studying, designing, developing, and practicing to make substrates indestructible, our paint long-lasting, cracks being the bane of a beautiful surface.

The field is full of art restorers, museum professionals, and smart, creative artists, as well as scientists, who have worked out excellent methods for elongating the rather tenuous life-times of our paintings. They make strides everyday to preserve our best efforts.

For example, there is a rather costly technique that can actually restore the rotten canvas backing from an old oil painting. The piece is laid face down on a platen pierced with tiny holes through which air is pulled. This vacuum securely holds the painting to the platen while a chemical is applied to the canvas back, loosening it from the painting. A new canvas is glued to the back of the old painting’s substrate. Amazing.

There will be more techniques coming for restoring artwork. Michio Kaku’s latest book, The Physics of the Future, is stunning for its cataloging of scientific advances over the next 100 years. Interviewing scientists on today’s cutting edge of breakthroughs, Kaku combined a boatload of the latest information with the latest speculation to give a glimpse of what’s in store for us. Especially miniaturization.
From the somewhat familiar world of nanotechnology comes the field of programmable matter. Scientists at Intel visualize matter that can change it’s shape, color, texture. (Think T-1000 from The Terminator.) Currently called ‘catoms’, they are basically computer chips in the shape of a grain of sand, manipulated by electrical charges that cause them to line-up in designated patterns.

This is entirely my own speculation, but with the miniaturization of techniques, no painter will ever worry again about paint cracking. It will simply be unnecessary as nanotechnology will allow paint to be rebuilt into these flaws. Duplicated color will be grown directly into the cracks, re-filling them from the substrate to the surface. But that’s for the old paintings we’re familiar with.

What’s even more advanced, and I dare predict this may happen perhaps before mid-century, is the redevelopment of pigment itself. Smart Pigment will be built of such small intelligent materials that it will not be made of ground substances, but myriads of microscopic pigment-techs made of molecular machines known as nanoparticles. We will not paint with toxic materials any longer. We’ll paint with artificial pigment that looks, acts, and applies like the old pigments, but it will have what we cannot possibly have at this point.

This paint will have memory.

We’ll be able to paint with this material as before, but we’ll also be able to back up, change, rearrange, reprogram, re-dictate, and re-watch our actual painting steps. We’ll be able to change color, change texture, change value, change thickness--on the fly. When we’re done, we’ll be able to take the same painting and apply it, much like an auto-print, to another surface, at any size, on nearly any surface. (...and there's no drying time...)

We’ll be able to take that same picture, or expression, and hand the sequence to a friend or client to allow them to have an exact copy made from scratch, stroke for stroke, from the surface up. And they’ll be able to watch it paint itself if they wish, over and over. The day when paintings are truly unfinished will have most definitely arrived.

This, of course, leads to questions about authenticity, and copyright protection. It will have to be developed as we go, as we’ve always gone, a little at a time.

Why is this question important to us today? Because it frees us, as living artists, once again, to focus on the creation, and not the attention. It’s far more important for an artist to concentrate on developing good visual images than to waste time figuring out how future generations will adore it, or us. If no one cares in the first place, your stalwart, indestructible artwork will just as likely be more of a nuisance.
Paint now. Wonder about the other stuff later.