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Art reimagined

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Artist Alex Sutcliffe in his Halifax studio. The 24-year-old's work challenges the viewer to wonder which parts are physically painted and which are digital. Photo: Submitted

Nova Scotian artist creates computer-generated images with hand-painted elements

Computers fascinated Nova Scotian visual artist Alex Sutcliffe, 24, when he was a child. “It’s like a magic box when you’re a little kid,” he says. Typical of Gen Z, he spent hours playing computer games like Pinball Wizard

His artist mother and arts-loving father encouraged drawing, another passion that developed early. He envisioned becoming an artist when he grew up (although chef and sports professional were on his list too). 

What he did not envision was one day merging his love of technology with his passion for visual arts.

Sutcliffe moved to Halifax from Ottawa in 2016 to study at NSCAD University. He began with a “pinhole-size view” of art influenced by mass media. He thought the mark of a good artist was technical skill — being able to render a three-dimensional scene with good composition, depth of field, and a nice focal point. By the time he graduated with his BFA, he was “more open in general to things most people wouldn’t even consider art.”

His signature work combines computer-generated images with hand painted elements. He’s largely self-taught as a painter. “Painting was always mystifying because how does someone just move coloured mud in a way that creates this illusion of reality?” he says.

Alex Sutcliffe. Photo: Submitted
Alex Sutcliffe. Photo: Submitted

“Nodes II” is an example of a large collage that layers digital print on canvas and hand-painted oils. While the work is best described as abstract, you can see images of historical masterpieces and grand masters if you look closely. We are left to wonder: Are these real or digital?

It’s a commentary on our lives today: how it has become more difficult to discern between what is authentic and what creators have technologically manipulated. He pointed out that AI algorithms even doctor photos on our iPhones. “Our lives are mixed now in a very blurry way,” he says. “It can be disorienting.”

Shortly after graduation, Studio 21 Fine Art in Halifax and Studio Sixty Six in Ottawa both offered to represent Sutcliffe, which was something he hadn’t expected. He modestly called this early achievement “a lot of good timing” and “a little bit of luck.” 

Carrie Colton, gallery owner of Studio Sixty Six, disagreed. She recognized “a quiet confidence beyond his years,” calling his work technically impressive and exciting. “Alex is fast becoming one of our most popular artists,” she says.

While these galleries sell his work — and provide other invaluable support — Sutcliffe does outreach through social media too. Many artists fear sharing images of their work will devalue it, but Sutcliffe sees it differently. 

“The ‘Mona Lisa’ is probably the most mass-produced painting and also one of the most valuable,” he says, noting that he recently posted a TikTok of himself creating his art. “It did get quite a bit of traction online. And then I had people asking to buy the work.” 

The young artist has gained significant recognition. Among his honours are winning the Bank of Montréal’s 1st Art! Competition for Nova Scotia. In September, he had his first solo exhibit at Studio Sixty Six. Recently, he was part of a group show of works purchased by the Nova Scotia Art Bank at Halifax’s Anna Leonowens Gallery. His work has sold internationally.

Sutcliffe says being an artist demands self-criticism, which can hamper creativity. He puts himself in “a childlike, playful creative state” when he works to combat that, listening to “all sorts of wacky music” surrounded by an array of tools from a hand-painted paintbox to digital scanners. Exercise like running and playing ping pong, along with proper sleep and nutrition, help too. 

Alex Sutcliffe’s studio. Photo: Submitted

“I’m still figuring out how my body and brain work together,” he says. 

It’s too early for Sutcliffe to predict what his art will look like in the future, but he hopes it will still have the “same sort of curious thread” that runs through his current work.

“I do hope that it looks different in many ways though, because I see it as a sign of growth, like being able to speak a new language.” 

One thing he is sure about is Halifax is home. “It has the right type of environment to feel like I can do all the things I want to do.” 

He loves the local art scene and many of his friends from his NASCAD days are around too. And he is engaged to be married to a Haligonian.

“We have a great life plan ahead of us,” he says. 

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