Traveling Through Painted Worlds

This article is over 10 years old and may contain outdated information

“I had been dreaming of having my own 3D world made of paintings, and when I did the programming for the first time I of course made a lot of mistakes. But the mistakes turned out to produce much more interesting pictures!” Maja Rohwetter says. She’s a German artist who makes paintings inspired by bugs and glitches in computer graphics.

I got to sit down and chat with the 43 year old between exhibitions in her native Germany, to talk about her process, her relation to videogames, and what it is about virtual environments that catches her imagination. As we start talking, she quickly and effortlessly moves into the very philosophical interest she has with 3D modelling.

In 3D environments, the world is incoherent.

“In 3D environments, the world is incoherent,” Rohwetter says, speaking like a creator that still finds her own work fascinating. “In the real world, if we are talking to each other and I could see you in front of me – I could turn around and I would still be sure that you are there. In a virtual world it’s not like that since everything is always calculated to the current viewpoint of the user; to save data space you wouldn’t be there anymore if I wasn’t looking at you. These clashes of the spatial concept are interesting to me, because it opens up a new freedom to think about room and to think about how spatial situations interact. In a way, it allows me to question my visual attitude.”

Making paintings that try to capture these concepts means that her paintings, at first glance, look a lot like abstract art. Large triangular fields painted in strong colors, collected with no immediately apparent purpose – like it was made in the early 20th century when the style was to assemble shapes and colors in inscrutable patterns. However, Rohwetter’s art is something very different. If you look closely, and this might only happen if you have played games for most of your life, you start to realize that her paintings have the same fundamental building blocks as three-dimensional games; in the end, it’s all built by polygons and textures.
In fact, Rohwetter’s art is not abstract, but depictive; instead of conveying meaning solely through shapes and colors, her paintings depict, in excruciating detail, objects that already exists. In a sense, it is a very realistic painting of a very abstract landscape.

With this in mind it’s tempting to label her paintings as glorified screenshots, that they freeze time and collapse depth until the virtual landscape has turned into a rigid, two-dimensional object. That’s a label she objects to strongly. “To me, painting is not at all like photography, and my paintings are not like stills. If you move through the painting you will always perceive different things, or maybe have a whole aspect of the painting change. Because I work so much with colliding spaces you sometimes think, ‘oh now I see, this is in front of that,’ but if you look further you start to think the opposite,” Rohwetter says. “The paintings are really moving in themselves.”

Recommended Videos

Rohwetter’s process is every bit as unconventional as her inspiration, observing objects from different angles, through different mediums. “Normally you would use an old medium to investigate a new one,” she says, “but I started to do it the other way around. I investigated the incoherence of virtual worlds through painting, and then investigated painting using a virtual world again.” In practice, a piece will typically start out with the discovery of an interesting object in a virtual environment, often some form of glitch or rendering problem. Rohwetter will then take a screenshot of that object and try to recreate it with her paintbrush – with the natural interpretation that comes along with painting.

The painting is not the result of the process, it’s a part of it

From the painting, she can jump back again by constructing a new three-dimensional environment, recreating the initial object and adorning the polygons with hand painted textures imported from the painting. The process can continue for a long time as she moves back and forth between traditional painting and computer graphics, with the occasional detour into video art and collages.

“For me, the painting is not the result of the process, it’s a part of it,” Rohwetter says. “I don’t have a sketch and then I have a painting and the painting is the product and the sketch is something else, It’s more like I’m always circulating around the same phenomena that I look at from different perspectives, sometimes it’s via 3D, sometimes it’s via painting, sometimes it’s something else.”

A good example of Rohwetter’s unique process is the video “Something, Somewhere” from 2011, a flythrough-video of a 3D environment modelled after one of her earlier paintings, “polygonpanorama” from 2008, it itself based on a screenshot of a three-dimensional, computer-rendered landscape. In the painting there is a foreground of sharp, snow white ridges decorated with kaleidoscopic patterns of warm, earthy colors; behind it stands a colorful background of large, irregularly shaped fields.

“I took the painting and looked at the background and thought, what it would be like if it was like the sky in a 3D model?” Rohwetter says, her voice filling up with enthusiasm. “In the painting, the background had sharp borders between different shades of color, so it shouldn’t be a smooth hemisphere – the sky should be more like a crystal… thing!”

After modeling the environment and mapping areas of the painting to textures in the 3D landscape, Rohwetter had a three-dimensional version of the painting that she could start to explore and expand. “After putting the foreground of the painting inside of the crystal I could start to fly around inside the painting, thinking about what things would look like from their backsides, or what would lie underneath them, or how I had painted them, or if there was another color lying under the color that you see. I tried to build all of these layers into the 3D landscape.”

The resulting video is a fly-through of the modeled environment; a journey through a large crystalline structure filled with shapes and colors, realized with the large, chunky polygons of late 90s 3D, but with sharp textures that show signs of a paintbrush operated by a human hand. Suspended among the sharp edges and soft colors are frozen splotches of paint and errant brush strokes, as if someone had once slipped with a brush or spilled a paintcan and the mistake was preserved beneath the surface layer of the painting. The 2011 exhibition “Space Oddity” was based on this video, with the video itself running on a loop on a big television screen, surrounded by the inevitable next step of Rohwetter’s artistic process – paintings and collages based on interesting details of the three-dimensional landscape.

As might be expected from an artist that works in virtual spaces, videogames are a big source of inspiration. “I started out wanting to make a game myself, but on the way I got so fascinated by the concept of virtual worlds that I stayed there,” Rohwetter says. “The relationship between 2D and 3D is fundamental to painting, since it always, or more or less always, has the component of being illusionistic; you can paint something that looks three-dimensional in a two-dimensional medium. You have this in games as well, and it really strengthens the illusion. There is so much focus on this 2D-3D problem in games, since what you see on the screen is still just two-dimensional pictures, but at the same time it’s not.”

I got so fascinated by the concept of virtual worlds that I stayed there

When I ask her about her relationship with videogames, she is quick to admit that she very rarely plays them herself, and after spending a half-decade working in them, Rohwetter still seems uncomfortable around virtual environments. She still sees herself as an outsider, a painter using computer graphics to examine and expand her own art; and it’s not by accident, Rohwetter feels that it’s a benefit to remain an outsider, if not to her then at least to us.

“Watching my boyfriend play games, I suggest ‘go there!, try this!’ and he says ‘no, but, that’s not the thing that you should do!’ And yeah, of course it’s not, but I think it looks interesting up there!” she says, barely containing her laughter. “I’m really not into the logic of games, so I can use them in a kind of ‘deviant’ way.”

Rohwetter continues, “it’s like when you are in another country as a tourist and you see things that you wouldn’t see if you were there everyday. Since I’m more or less an idiot in 3d, that brings me a kind of freedom to use it without being limited.”

You can find a lot of Maja Rohwetter’s art, in English, on her website.

Eric Fridén is a Swedish freelance writer that writes most comfortably when it’s about the people on and just outside of the periphery of videogames. His English-language work can be found on Kill Screen, and on his personal webpage

The Escapist is supported by our audience. When you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a small affiliate commission. Learn more about our Affiliate Policy