by Kathy Anderson
his mother in the military, Ryan Swanson was born in Arizona but
grew up all over the South. He came to the Pacific Northwest to
attend Evergreen State College and fell in love with the weather
and the foliage. The proud Eagle Scout and bicycle enthusiast
moved to Portland three years ago and lives in the Alberta neighborhood
because of its texture, activity and mix of decay and rebirth.
A two-dimensional puppet animation stand, consisting of 32 parallel
and moveable panes, is a good parallel to the way Ryan Swanson
creates his digital art. Instead of panes of glass, his work consists
of drawings buried beneath layers of texture.
|Steve and Leslie's Wedding Invitation.
"I generally start with pencil line drawings," he
"I scan them into my computer and arrange them into
rough storyboards using Photoshop. In this early composition each
pencil drawing is a different layer so it's easy to move things
"I color in the shapes with the textures I collect
using a flatbed scanner. With this technique, an ant drawn is
suddenly filled in by red lacquer or a swatch of pebbly, corroded
Ryan prints the images as black-and-white laser
copies and tapes them down to a light table. Using tracing paper,
he draws other objects into the work, then adds volume and shading
to figures already in place, mostly with colored pencils.
"All of these tracing sheets have calibration marks
so that I can scan them back into Photoshop and align them over
the original drawing," he said. "I repeat this process of printing
and re-editing the piece until a life-like quality emerges.
"I now have a shadowy web of colored graphite drawings
suspended over the original line drawing."
The layered look
Using the drawings as guides to create alpha channels a
Photoshop feature similar to silk screen or stencil Ryan
then takes a dark texture and stencils it in using the corresponding
shaded areas in the alpha channel. This adds shadow to objects
and gives the pieces their weight.
|"The Noodle House," from Monster Love series.
"Reading the white values out of my shading layers
I create highlights by stenciling in bright textures. It feels
like oil painting and produces a visual quality that many people,
artists included, mistake for watercolor," he said.
On separate layers behind the foreground Ryan develops
the background of the piece with digital textures using a Wacom
"I save the sky for last because it's my favorite.
I generally construct clouds and celestial flotsam from my favorite
shapes that I lift off blackened corroded surfaces, such as well-seasoned
cookware or the marks left in a ceramic dish after roasting beets
with rosemary," he said.
"I also like there to be a certain Cubist-like break
in perspective that makes you sort of float in and over the picture
plane as your gaze moves around."
A benefit to working digitally is the ability to
change the alpha channel stencils throughout the process. Ryan
can cut away textures or use the drawing tablet to re-reveal elements
he previously obscured.
"Last time I took a traditional drawing class my
left hand kept twitching and I realized it was a reflex to hitting
Ctrl-Z (the computer's "undo" function). I get spoiled
by the ability to go off on a creative tangent and then hop back
if I don't like it," he said. "Experimentation becomes
Ryan uses Photoshop 7, which allows the user to
organize and divide layers into folders, allowing him to make
far more complex works.
"The average The Ant and the Moon piece contains
hundreds of layers of textures, alpha channels and pieces of drawings
that are multiple gigabytes in size," he said.
|"Firefly Migration," from The Ant and the Moon
Inspiration comes from the textures Ryan works with.
When he scans one into Photoshop the first thing
he does is adjust the levels, making the lightest parts absolute
white and the darkest absolute black. This skews the color palette,
bringing out over-saturated colors and letting shapes rise out
in high contrast.
A lot of the textures come from his kitchen, such
as a greasy, blackened cookie sheet he scans every month or so.
"I use these shapes to construct the backgrounds
in my images or as organic shadows beneath drawn figures," he
said."The tree branches in The Ant and the Moon are from
some wax paper that had turkey-bacon grease burned on it. It was
one of my favorite textures."
A big inspiration for The Ant and the Moon
series was a group house in North Portland where a filmmaker friend
of Ryan's lived. The homeowner was constantly repairing and refurbishing
the house. Furnace ducts sprouted from the walls at random and
every few feet the floor fell away to a new surface.
"All the walls had window frames ripped out or in
various stages of installation, so you could really see the texture
of the house on an almost anatomical level," he said.
"The house had a life of its own and was the inspiration
for the ant nest, or formicary."
Influences include the actions of the U.S. government
and decline of the environment. Ryan feels like he has an obligation
as an artist to reveal things that aren't obvious and to make
them visible in new ways.
"The Ant and the Moon nibbled at this, and
the two projects I have in the pipe ask how humanity will continue
after a widespread global collapse."
|"Robots Playing Cards"
Though Ryan hasn't had his work published, he's open to the idea.
His last art series landed him a publishing agent and there have
been a few suggestive nibbles from publishers.
"It's nice to look at the images on a computer –
computer monitors literally glow – but I'm eager to have a heavy,
well-printed book you can hold in your hands," he said.
"The images I make have a lot of detail. It would
be nice to screw your face down into a tangible book to appreciate
Ryan is starting another project, with Jason Maxfield,
writer of The Ant and the Moon, which should be finished
in April or May 2006.
"It's about terraforming an alien planet to house
humans and it starts with the destruction of the Earth," he said.
"The terraformed landscape is Martian in character but populated
with layers of photographed and scanned exotic houseplants. We've
been talking about this project since before we even started the
ant piece and I'm rabid to sink my teeth into it."
An online project is also in the works – a series
of fictional blogs he's illustrating with images pulled from his
journals. One deals with an astronaut adrift in space who transmits
Western serenades back to earth. They'll be available on his Web site.
Ryan maintains the site as a sort of elephant burial
ground for his work.
"I feel like it's where I lay my pieces to rest.
The interface is mostly geared around my own ability to access
the work when needed."
Ryan has often been told how much his artwork resembles David
McKean's, which he's always taken as a great compliment.
|"The Lion and the Mouse," from The Lion in Love
"When I first approached digital media I was just
layering photos and textures on top of each other and it was getting
heavier and darker and looked terrible," he said.
"McKean's work really illustrates the opposite;
they're very luminous. I can look at his work and recognize his
use of the Photoshop blending modes and how things are constructed,
and that's very informative for me. I can appreciate the work
Yuri Norstein, a Russian animator, made Ryan think
about the way transparent-feeling light could be emulated by layering
"Animation has always stuck me as very clever,"
"Norstein's work has a highly textural feel that
really captivates me. In 'Hedgehog in the Mist,' he creates things
like fog or tree bark that melt away before the camera."
Ryan's aspirations to become an artist were influenced by his
parents' art collection and their appreciation of artists. His
father had a graduate degree and taught music theory, but stayed
home to take care of Ryan.
"He became a professional community member and an
early adopter of desktop publishing to churn out PTA newsletters,"
Ryan said. "I used his copy of PageMaker to lay out a single issue
of a 'zine named Bad Juju, which was called 'pedestrian' by the
late meta-zine Factsheet5. It was my first public criticism and
it got me really excited, even though it was pretty negative and
Ryan attended a magnet high school for science and
technology in northern Virginia, which had only one art teacher
for 1,600 kids.
"The teacher was really eccentric with all sorts
of allergies to a lot of common art mediums and he regularly told
us the ventilation was inadequate, so the only classes available
were photography and pencil drawing," he said.
Ryan's mother landed him his first job as a Little
League photographer. With a Volvo trunk full of equipment, he
drove all over northern Virginia and photographed thousands of
"That repetition affected how I construct and frame
my work," he said. "On some level my pictures are the same form
repeated over and over, painted in different textures."
|"The Lernaean Hydra," from The Twelve Labors of Hercules
In moving to Olympia, Wash., to attend Evergreen State, Ryan's
intent was to study experimental video. But political and non-fiction
filmmaking were the only media-oriented classes he could get into
at the time.
"I worked a lot around the idea of subjective
media and the power of representation. It was very sobering and
a little depressing as I read a lot of work by Zinn and Marx,"
In his second year Ryan had a more open student
contract and collaborated with several other students who were
also tired of documentary film. At the end of the year they had
a huge body of work, which was colorful and complicated but completely
devoid of any meaning.
In addition, the computer files were so large that
manipulating them was nightmarish and Ryan was backing them up
onto a tape drive.
"This proved to be a faulty means indeed and
I lost all of the digital video I had produced. It was the first
of many catastrophic losses and it made me reevaluate what was
feasible and obtainable on a home PC," he said. "Though
I'm using a DVD burner now, my faith in digital archiving has
never been restored."
Fueled by a summer of animation classes and a desire
to improve his drawing skills, Ryan made a transition from film
and video to studio art.
One class had a digital component and required students
to make a Photoshop image. It was the first time in years that
Ryan had used Photoshop to make still images and a floodgate opened.
The project spawned a whole series called An Inner Cartography,
which can be found on his Web
site in the gallery archive.
"I did traditional print work and studio drawings,
and found new ways to integrate these works into digital pieces,
which I printed and hand bound as a series of books," he
"The images were produced by digitally altering
monotype prints I was making in my studio classes and finding
ways to keep the texture of charcoal and paper without things
feeling overly digital. It was also completely within my computer's
capacity and I could finally work without the constant crashing
and rebooting and reinstalling, which was the everyday of editing
video on my PC."
Evergreen is different than other state schools
in that it lacks grades or majors. Students are able to tailor
their education and walk away with a bachelor of liberal arts
"Though I don't have a major, I generally tell people
that I focused on digital media having studied documentary and
animation techniques," he said.
"And I graduated with four credits of Poekoelan
Working digitally, Ryan is not bound by expense or material limitations
only by his imagination and ability to bend the software
to his bidding.
"To make my imagination manifest is really magical
and I love the challenge," he said.
|"Introduction to the Fungus Cult," from The Ant and
the Moon series.
"I had a dream recently where I was walking in the
sand and all around me there were these little silver sparrows
made of mercury swimming and diving in and out of the sand at
"I remember thinking in the dream how beautiful
the textures were in the way they shifted against each other.
"I'm now building my Photoshop images with the idea
that I will animate them with Flash or AfterEffects. That will
be a real milestone."
Creating his art often makes Ryan feel like Mickey
Mouse bringing the brooms to life in "Fantasia."
"There are times when I'm working and the piece
literally takes on a life of its own," he said. "I just start
giggling and scribbling in the blue textures. I love it. It's
a moment of transcendence and it fully confirms what I do."