Roll the Marbles

By Jonathan Morse Back to

Jonathan Morse, digital printmaking, digital collage Marbles 6, archival pigment print

Upon the invention of the photograph, it was said: From this day on, painting is dead! But I maintain that all of the visual arts are inextricably linked and that photography is just one of all the media available for human mark-making. Going back to our cave dwelling ancestors, we all have felt the need to depict, represent and present a vision.

My photo training at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY (thanks to such photo-luminaries as Nathan and Joan Lyons, Syl Labrot and John Wood) instilled in me the Big Tent approach to the medium: photography is not just pictures “of something,” but a powerful and multifaceted set of expanding tools that allow us to quite literally “make our mark.”

The history of photography bears me out on this. Look, for instance, at the work of Man Ray and Lázló Moholy-Nagy. Both painters and photographers, these trailblazers surely taught us that photography was not limited to simple representation (although we all know there is no such thing, every photograph has a bias and a point of view). And think of the long and awe-inspiring career of Robert Rauschenberg, combining photo material with painting and drawing that expanded our vision in ways and waves still felt throughout the art world.

In the last 10 years there has been a huge democratization of technology. $100,000 Iris printers were replaced by ever-cheaper and more lightfast inkjet printers accessible to all who wanted to get out of the chemical soup and into the digital darkroom. While once I would send off tiny files to out-of-state printers with expensive Iris printers, only to receive unsatisfying replicas of my original intentions, I came to appreciate and require the homegrown control I could achieve by doing my own printing. The Marbles Series was printed on an Epson 7600, and that trusty machine has now been supplanted by the refrigerator-sturdy Epson 7900.

Jonathan Morse, digital printmaking, digital collage
Marbles 5, archival pigment print

As a photographer I have long been attracted to certain material (and of course it’s different for each of us). For some it might be the Eiffel Tower; for me, it’s the drips of paint in the foreground left by the construction workers below. From time to time I have taught art classes at the Santa Fe Community College, and during a studio visit with a sculptor out in the yard, I saw a half-finished marble sculpture by a student, but what I was drawn to were the bits and scraps of white marble scattered on the ground. I asked if I could scoop up a few cups of these jewels (supposedly the marble came from the same quarry that supplied Michelangelo, but that story was probably apocryphal). Around the same time a stray piece of gravel propelled by an overeager weed-wacker smashed into the tempered plate glass window of my office door. There was a hushed whoosh and a bit of a sag, but the tempered nature of the glass prevented it from shattering, instead leaving a bejeweled spider web of cracks in an otherwise intact surface. Some months later, when the glass repair guy came, he started by knocking out the damaged material, which dazzled in the sun. Lovely, and to me not trash at all but grist for the creative mill! I scooped up another few cups of this stuff, and set it on a work table alongside the cups of Italian marble.

During that period I was using my Epson scanner as my camera, for the most part; after all, it’s just a high definition low depth-of-field camera when you think about it. Just put something on it and let it go, import into Photoshop, and then it’s time to begin its photo-acquired journey into the world of fine art. Now, let’s be clear—there are many “scanner artists” who do lovely high-definition renditions of flowers, jewels, paintings, and other real-world items, all without further manipulation and with stunning results. Not my kind of photography. Too simple? No, it’s just that if I’ve seen it, I don’t need a literal record…I’m compelled to transform it into something never seen before.

I therefore scanned (at 450 ppi so I’d have lots of data to work from) clusters of marble, swaths of glass shards, and as the series progressed and I felt the need to expand my materials, berries and branches from my yard that also captured my imagination.

Jonathan Morse, digital printmaking, digital collage
Marbles 8, archival pigment print

Sometimes the initial scans contained the guts of the final image, but more likely each scan was just a bit of stored data with which to build an image (I’ve always been less interested in “taking” a picture, preferring to make one instead). And while of course the scans produced an intact rectangle, as with most photographic processes, my methodology was subtractive as well as constructive. In other words, while building into the rectangle I also sought to distill, to isolate, to find the heart and soul of the image where there was just enough left to say what I wanted to say, and nothing more (which can lead to lengthy and agonizing spotting sessions; after all, the difference between dust and image is only in the eye of the beholder).

I had long been fascinated by the paperness of digital printing, and Moab Entrada Natural 300# has such a lovely “hand,” or feel, as they say in the fabric business. I wanted to be honest and upfront about my finished pieces. Rather than representing a found and seen piece of the real world, I wanted to be candid that this was ink on paper, a new scene before unseen, yet with real-world references grounded in photographic capture. I allowed the use of photo-material and digital process as a drawing material, as did the great masters mentioned above. No need to isolate ourselves from the painting and drawing community; we all want the same things after all, to inspire and surprise and inform and move us in new ways!

The distillation process was simple (I’m self-taught in Photoshop, nothing fancy for me). Mask in whatever way you might, then delete…but sometimes I felt the need for more color, or at least splashes of color within the minimalist structures I had established onscreen. So I turned to my modest library of random photos snapped with my Canon Digital Rebel: graffiti sprayed on walls, bits of signs and other colorful notations out there in the world for all to see if we only slow down a bit to notice their inherent beauty. Again, using simple isolation techniques available to all Photoshop I students, I inserted selective color, but only just enough to not detract from the whitewashed worlds I was creating.

Jonathan Morse, digital printmaking, digital collage
Marbles 9, archival pigment print

My printing process is iterative, in that the images evolve for me by printing and seeing them at size (24″ x 30″ paper) in each developmental phase. I suggest living with work in progress: tack it up, look at it in all kinds of light (day and night, natural and artificial) and then unleash your unconscious mind to do its background work so that when you resume your labors onscreen, you’ll be refreshed and ready to extend from what you know to where you’ve never been before. Yes, do your calibrations so the print approximates the onscreen experience, but don’t be waylaid by the technology! It’s the print that matters, so let those beautiful colors our printers can paint beguile you and your viewers both with their near-tactile quality. The wonderful technologies available to us as artists are tools, not ends in themselves; they are there to enable your vision if only you let and unleash them.

Grounded as a photographer, I have become a maker of marks I could never devise with a pencil or brush, a creator of images that delight and surprise me in their freshness and subtlety. I humbly suggest that you do the same: do not limit yourself to what you have done before, open your eyes and your mind and your hard drive and show us works of art that only you could create but which teach all of us the essence of what we are looking at when we scan the world around us.

Product Resources: Camera: Canon Rebel Xsi; Computer: Mac Pro 2.66 GHz Dual-core Intel Xeon; Software: Photshop CS3; Scanner: Epson 4870; Printer: Epson 7600; Paper: Moab Entrada Natural; Other: Intuous Wacom 3 Drawing Tablet.

About the Author

Jonathan Morse
Jonathan Morse is a digital printmaker whose innovative work can be found in numerous public collections. The Marbles Series was most recently shown at the Preston Contemporary Art Center in Mesilla, New Mexico. A solo show selected from his most recent work was presented by the Fisher Press Gallery in Santa Fe, February 2011. To view more of his work visit