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Spooky Machine-Made Paintings, Drawn From Surveillance Videos

William Betts builds and programs paint application machines that recreate grainy CCTV footage.

America’s natural beauty has inspired countless painters, but Houston-based artist William Betts finds its man-made landscapes are far more interesting. Betts culls his imagery from surveillance footage taken in malls, airports, and beaches, recreating each carefully chosen still on canvas. Meet the new American sublime: CCTV footage, writ large in acrylic.

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Betts’s studio is in Houston, but he spends half of his time in Miami, because of the city’s art scene. “No one wants to come to Houston,” he laughs. “But they’ll come to Miami.” Still, his work seems to feed off Houston’s endless highways and suburban tract homes. Paradoxically, the paintings are incredibly rich and detailed–almost opulent–while depicting the anonymity and sameness of American cities.

What isn’t immediately obvious about Betts’s work is his unusual process. After he graduated from college with a fine arts degree, he ended up working in sales for a software company, where he picked up a bit of programming and an introduction to Visual Basic. When he returned to making art, he returned as a programmer. Rather than picking up where he left off as a “traditional” painter, he began tinkering with systems that would allow him to paint via machine. Hacking together bits and pieces of industrial machinery, he developed a paint application machine that could be controlled via computer. “I take apart pieces of different existing technologies and put them back together,” he explains. “For example, the paint applicator is an adapted version of a valve typically used for applying adhesive in line manufacturing.” The machine’s applicator is controlled by a CNC motor, and programmed with software Betts himself wrote. In his Houston studio, the machine, not unlike other fabrication systems, applies paint in single drops as the applicator arm zooms over the canvas.

Betts combines a deeply intuitive approach with high technology. He’ll spend hours watching CCTV feeds looking for an image, which he then adapts for application. “Sometimes I set up cameras in places and then leave them for a while and then harvest them,” he explains. “For my traffic camera paintings, I went to the Texas Department of Transportation and actually licensed the right to use their camera feeds from the Internet.” In his Mirror paintings, he drilled holes into the back of large pieces of mirror, filling them with paint. The result is a dithered, grainy image that looks as if it was pulled from a Netscape browser window in 1991. Which in a way, is exactly what Betts is doing: manually recreating the process of digital image compression.

By putting a machine between himself and his canvas, Betts is asking us to consider the relationship between the artist and his work. In a broader sense, he’s also asking us to reconsider the epoch of American landscape painting. This summer, he’s developing another CNC machine that actually uses brushes to transfer paint onto surfaces. “I started out as a traditional painter working with brushes,” he adds. “So in a way, I’m coming full circle.”

[H/t Creators Project]

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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