On the day Nancy Jo Ward is interviewed by the Sun, she is busy experimenting with yet another technique in her digital art making.
"It's called a pastel ground," she said. "It's like a clear medium that has sand in it. I'm adding it to an aluminum print because I want to see what happens when I put pastels on top of that."
Pastels need a kind of "tooth" on a surface when you draw with them, Ward went on to explain. Aluminum is smooth surface and pastels won't hold to it, so she decided to try the ground to see if it would help the colors stick.
After more than 30 years of work as an artist, this is par for the course for Ward, who is a professor of graphic design at Allan Hancock College. The digital artist, whose work is featured at a new exhibit at the Ann Foxworthy Gallery that runs through Dec. 13, is constantly looking for new directions to push her artwork in. The solo show also represents a celebration of sorts for Ward, who recently completed her Masters of Art, a longtime goal of hers.
Ward started her master's in the fall of 2016 and finished in July. She obtained the degree through the University of Arts London with a low-residency program at Camberwell College of Art. She said it was hard to find online options for an advanced degree in the specific area she was looking for.
"This is such a new and emerging area that there are not many programs that offer an online master's degree in digital fine arts," she said. "University Arts London offered the most flexibility with the kind of work I was interested in. It was an opportunity for me to live and work here and obtain a master's with a combination of online engagement."
The artist calls her work "hybrid art," a fusion of digital and traditional media. She uses Photoshop as a tool to combine and composite photographs and digitally paint them within the program.
Then she prints on unique substrates (or surfaces) and begins to study how they work with different types of traditional materials such as paints or pastels. Ward works subtractively, chiseling off the medium to reveal metal and texture underneath.
"That is what my experimentation is," she said. "I'm painting on different substrates and working back into it with traditional media. I'm printing on paper and working back into it with pastels and gold leaf. And I'm also printing onto aluminum and experimenting with going back into it with acrylics and oils."
One challenge is that there's always a shift in color when moving from the monitor to actual printed paper. Ward also likes to seek out new materials to print her work onto. For the new show, she experimented with silk fabrics and with film, working with light boxes to create images.
Ward said her background as a graphic designer and digital media artist propels her to think outside of the box about her materials and the way she interacts with them.
"This came about because I've used those tools for long time," she said. "It just made sense for me to experiment in this direction. It's a little confusing for some people because they don't understand what it is. Is it a painting or is it a print?"
She points to a time when someone once asked her why she didn't just make a painting instead of opting for the digital elements. But Ward said her artwork isn't just about creating a visual image, it's about challenging her artistic impulses.
"As I'm building up with the structure, merging and blending images together, the work emerges out of that," she said. "There is a continuous dialogue that you go through when you bring in new images or marks with paint brushes in that digital realm. A lot of it is unpredictable. It's really more engaging to me than just having an idea, pulling out my paints and just executing the idea."
Sometimes print images can look too flat or obviously like a printed project. Ward said she seeks to imbue a sense of humanity back into her pieces through her methods, and despite being known as a digital artist, she still likes to get her hands into the work.
"Just having a clean finished photo print isn't enough for me," she said. "I really like to get in and push and pull spatial dimensions and color combinations and ultimately emotions."
The entirety of Ward's work is figurative. She creates hauntingly beautiful images of women from composites of multiple portraits, blended and merged together digitally and then enhanced when printed.
"These women I create don't exist in reality," Ward said. "It's not like I take one picture and I work with that one person. It's usually a combination of people that are merged into a new person. There's a lot of discovery along the way."
Ward said that as a fine artist, she knows how to draw and paint, but things are radically different in a digital environment and she is still exploring the possibilities of that. She is currently experimenting with augmented reality. She captured process videos as she worked and plans to have accompanying experiences with several of her pieces.
It's just one more example of the mind of an artist who isn't content to stand on familiar ground. Throughout her shows and the work she creates, Ward has demonstrated herself to be an innovator with a soul of a poet, albeit one that doesn't mind getting her hands very, very dirty.
"I cannot get past the need to be physically connected to both the process and the result," she said.
Arts and Lifestyle Writer Rebecca Rose has very clean hands. Contact her at [email protected].