“Oh, I’m so glad to find out your art is not limited to only digital!”
I frowned immediately when I read this comment on Facebook regarding a work of art from a painter whose nickname is Artact Qc. His work, entirely digital and usually distributed on social networks like Facebook, was shown on a postcard to be printed. This comment brought me a few years back at the end of my first year of university when I wrote a 12-pages paper about the impacts of digitalization on the visual arts. One of the topics I tackled back then was the discrimination against digital art as well as similar forms of computer-generated imagery.
Digital art is greatly misunderstood and under-appreciated by the general public, most likely because of its elusive form; most people expect painters to use real brushes, canvases and paint, and are not sure what to picture when told a painting was made “digitally”. Some wrongly assume works of art can be created with a few clicks of the mouse because that is the only experience they have of computer software. They usually brighten up a bit when they are shown and explained the reality of the work.
This article’s purpose is therefore to educate but also to raise a few important points in regards to the nature and value of digital art at the beginning of the 21st century.
How is Digital Art made?
In order for us to be on the same page, I would like to begin by defining digital art for you. When I use the term “digital art”, I refer to computer-generated works of art, a domain which includes drawing, painting, sculpting and multimedia. I do not count in graphic design and web design as they both have different purposes which usually involves conveying a specific message to a targeted audience.
Digital art isn’t harder or easier than traditional art; it only uses a different tool-set, one of its most important components being a computer. Whereas a traditional painter will use a white canvas stretched on a wooden frame, a digital painter will instead use a white digital canvas on a program like Photoshop, Corel Painter, ArtRage or Gimp, to name only the most popular software available, and paint straight on the screen. Many of us digital artists own a tablet which allows us to use a pen to draw, mimicking the traditional artist’s own pencils and brushes. The creating process is very similar when it comes to drawing and painting; only the medium and tools changes a bit, from canvas to monitor, from real ink to digital ink.
While a digital painter often has at their disposition a wide variety of brush types, colors (virtually all the colors of the spectrum) as well as a very useful system of layers granting the creator the ability to go back and forth to work under and above coatings of paint without affecting the content of the other layers, they are currently unable to recreate the 3D texture of a physical painting. This could be a genial advancement in the future, however it is still unavailable as current software do not take into consideration the thickness of the virtual paint. This total absence of thickness benefits the digital painter however as, unlike his traditional counterpart, he does not have to wait for the paint to dry to keep on working, one of the let-downs of oil paint.
One of the main advantages of digital art is the low cost in long term practice; once the artist is equipped with a tablet and creative software – some are free – they never have to worry about purchasing new canvases, brushes and paint, materials that can be quite costly. Only the hardware and, if purchased, the software, need to be updated every few years.
In the end, suffice only to watch a digital painter, drawer or sculptor (I have a lot of admiration for this last group as I know computer-generated 3D isn’t easy) to realize that creating a work of art on a computer is much more than just a few clicks. It is a discipline that requires practice, dedication and patience.
Where there seems to be a major break between traditional and digital art however is in the value of the work. Why are physical paintings regarded with such admiration, unlike many digital works?
The value of intangible objects
How much is worth a work of art whose original cannot be touched? Is the value lower because the artwork, being computer-generated, can be broken down to a series of zeros and ones?
Traditional artworks are “one of a kind” pieces that can be traced back to their physical original. Collectors will often pay from thousands to millions of dollars to add to their private collection a rare and/or popular artwork, while art enthusiasts with smaller budgets will gladly pay for reproductions. In comparison, digital art has often been criticized to possess no original. It is however a wrong assumption.
Surely digital art can be printed and, just like photography, it gains value when produced as a limited edition. And while many digital copies of an artwork might be floating around the internet, the original still exists. It is different in some aspects to the copies; the original is a high-resolution image with several layers in a format such as .PSD (Photoshop) and it can be printed in very large formats without ever losing quality. The original file itself is often small and fits perfectly on a USB key, but it does exist.
To obtain the same rarity phenomenon, found in traditional paintings, with digital tools, one would have to create a work of art, print only one copy and then proceed to destroy the original file to ensure no more copies of the work are ever printed. The remaining poster would become the last and only copy of the work. This would only guarantee the rarity of an object however, not its popularity or value.
I do not have an answer to what makes a work of art more valuable than another, be it traditional or digital; the specifics are often a hazy mix of the style in vogue at the time of its purchase, arguable and subjective “rules” that define what a good painting is, the appreciation of collectors for a certain artist and, last but not least, mere luck.
The future of Digital Art
Digital art is an ever changing and evolving field and we are still in the early stages of its development. Perhaps the way it is perceived by the public will change with time and discrimination against this medium will fade away with time. As a practitioner of that field, I sure do hope it will earn more recognition in the future.
What do you think the future will be like for digital art? What do you think or hope will be advancements in the field?