Counting Layers

My art labels declare “Digital collage, 101 layers” or maybe “Digital collage, 12 layers” — but why?

In many of my digital pieces, I call out the number of layers I’ve spliced together, because it appeals to my logical, geeky side. When I’m in Photoshop, I can see all the elements, right there why not tell you about them? But it also helps explain my work. When I didn’t mention layers on my art labels, the usual next question was “Digital collage? What’s that?” Once I included layer numbers, I’ve seen positive results: as people lean in at a exhibit, they seem to understand the complexity of the surface I’m presenting.

But a traditional artist objected. Oil painters don’t list their layers, so why should I? Well, traditional methods of putting color down have had a lot longer to establish themselves with the art-viewing public, I’d say. So, what about analog methods of collage, building up layers of paper? Is that more akin to digital tracking, or aligned with traditional, understood methods?

Here’s my take: paper collage is known to comprise multiple layers. And, it’s hard to track and keep count: does each little adhered piece merit a separate layer? Yes, but I’m not up for the additional detail and process interruption that would take. So, no, analog methods don’t get recorded as individual layers; just my scans, photographs, and adjustments do. It’s my way of being transparent with my methods, to let you know that, at one point, in real life, separate images like these made their way into my computer:

In the piece here, I started with a paper collage as the base layer, which had been through the printing press a few times before I pasted more paper onto it. A few layers right there, as you can see, but I said I wouldn’t count them! Then, I added 3 photographs, each with an adjustment layer, an off-white texture layer (itself with 2 layers, not shown), another adjustment, a monoprint, and a final adjustment to the output levels of the piece.

So, whether I’ve listed a piece as 12 layers or over 100, don’t let that sway you. No matter how many digital layers I’ve counted, my pieces are more than a number. Like any art, they’re also a summation of work over time, set aside, visited again, and finally, used in a composition.  I’m just letting you know the easily tracked information, of what happened inside the computer, once I was finished with the outside, hands-on work. It’s how the piece adds up to me, and to you, that really matters.

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