James Merrill is an abstract artist and filmmaker in Vermont. His portfolio of work contains a variety of mediums including digital art, short films, and drawings. His artistic endeavors span decades, and while the medium has evolved, the constant thirst for unabridged, raw, abstract creativity serves as a common thread.
Digital Art (2004-2015)
It all started with Flash. In 2004 I was introduced to Newgrounds.com, which at the time was a thriving community of user generated animations and games. I was immediately captivated by the seemingly endless amounts of creative opportunities that online animations provided. The pure amount of unfettered imaginative openness in the community, and the level of views and interactions with users was amazing to me.
Later that year, I was on a trip to New York City with my family and wandered over to a street vendor selling books on digital art and illustration software. I picked up the book on Macromedia Flash, and the vendor asked me if I needed a copy of the software. Knowing that it was prohibitively expensive for a teenager, I assumed it was way out of my price range. He pulled out a container from under the table filled with bootleg CDs, and handed me a copy of Flash that was priced at only $15. Sure, the label clearly originated from a consumer grade inkjet printer, and it may have had “CD KEY: XXXXXX” written on the front, but I didn’t question the validity of the product and it ultimately worked when I installed it on my computer.
I was obsessed. I began making my own animations in Flash. Then I made my own artwork. I needed a website to show people my stuff, so I made that too, in Flash.
At this time, an enthusiastic community of young digital artists was reaching critical mass on sites like DeviantART. They were exploring the relationship between abstract art and digital tools, trying to find new avenues for their creations. Some would use 3D software that was supposed to be used for architecture and visual effects, while others would use the retouching software Photoshop. It was another period of rapid innovation like I had experienced on Newgrounds, and I had to be a part of it. I used my knowledge of Flash to add my own flavor to the genre, and began working with other artists on collaborations and contributing to art groups. Around this time, I joined EvokeOne, which was a digital art group of worldwide artists who all shared the same passion for creating abstract imagery. The group fostered a collaborative workspace, where tools, techniques, and feedback were shared openly among members.
Over the next few years, my style had evolved in to various different aesthetics. I was continually pushed by my peers to innovate and refine my skill set, and along the path I picked up 3D modelling, digital painting, and post processing. I explored different subjects such as surrealism, street art, and illustration while still incorporating my signature abstract touch.
The community kept growing too, I became an administrator of EvokeOne and helped coordinate one of the first Digital Art group exhibits to ever take place. Artists from around the United States attended a curated art show that coincided with an online release. We displayed artwork from the full collective of global artists too. It was quite an honor.
During this time I became deeply interested in mimicking the emotion found in traditional paintings while leveraging the precision of digital tools. I felt drawn to the raw, visceral look of traditional art, and began exploring the idea of merging that with 3D and vector graphics. I took it a step further by investing in large format prints of these pieces, creating an interesting superposition of digital art that appeared to be handmade.
Film Making (2016-Present)
In 2016, I had been using 3D software for years to augment my digital art, but it was always static. I saw an opportunity to open up a new avenue of creativity in animation. My past in Flash had laid the groundwork for this path, but I had a novice understanding of film making. Many nights experimenting, tweaking, and rendering animations passed, and in September 2016, I finished my first film entitled WAVEFORMS. The response was much greater than I could have imagined, and many opportunities presented themselves. I was invited to a new 3D artist community that focused on simulations, and my film was displayed across The Netherlands on large format screens. It resonated with people in a different frequency than my digital art, and I really wanted to explore the wide open boundaries of filmmaking with that same passion that drew me to Flash and abstract art.
The connection between primal forces of earth like wind, fire, and water superimposed with impossible combinations of visuals was my first big vision. From there, I explored different ways of extrapolating this connection. Many, many nights were again spent simulating, rendering, revising, and repeating. The process became the guidelines to my life. Wake up, check the render, tweak, rerender, come home, check the render, etc. I was intimately connected with the near infinite loop of generating new content for my next big film.
This work brought me many unique opportunities. I collaborated with numerous musicians to create multidisciplinary artworks, and even worked with an Orchestra to create a live show. Seeing a full group of musicians create a new song based on the visuals in my animation sent a shock down my spine. A world away, people watched my film and paid close attention to the little details and cuts that I added, and then wrote original music that took a full band to play to an audience. It reminded me why I spent all the endless loops of simulating and rendering to get to that point, and reinforced everything that I do.
Generative Art & Plotting (2019-Present)
After finding a link to #plottertwitter online, I was captivated by these weird plotter machines that draw impossibly complex and precise pieces of art with pens. The final results appear to be created by a human hand, but the complexity made me question the sanity of the person who would have had to spend weeks perfectly drawing image.
I was hooked, and I immediately downloaded Processing and bought an Axidraw pen plotter. I immersed myself in the basics of generative art. The ideas started flowing, but I was bottlenecked by my lack of knowledge of Java. I quickly realized though that the programmatic drawing interface closely resembled software that I had used in the distant past… Flash. Although I was quite rusty, I was able to draw basic shapes and graphics. I set out to learn as much as I could about this amazing new program called Processing, and soon found myself touching trigonometry, generative systems, and recursion to create artwork. It was quite overwhelming, but I iterated on my algorithms and unique designs began to emerge. I began rewiring my creative process to think in terms of final products that I work towards as opposed to my usual style, which is experimenting and tweaking with no end goal in sight. Since I needed to build dynamic systems that included randomization, a new approach was necessary. I also got really, really in to hoarding pens and paper.
Digital art has been an important part of my routine through each phase of my life. I’m privileged to have the ability to pick up new programs and find ways to generate abstract content with them. This website is a record of my experiments in this area, and I hope you enjoy seeing my journey.