Why Digital Artists Are (not) Big Fat Liars


Is using technology to create a work of art cheating?
Is how we create something really more important than what we create?


Does the Medium Matter?

by: Alison Huff

Is how we create something more important than what we create?

Throughout history, art has always reflected the culture of the period it was created in. It takes many forms and it is always evolving.

Our society today is technologically advanced, if not compared to distant alien civilizations, then at least in comparison to centuries past here on Earth. I’d like to think that if Leonardo DaVinci were alive right now he’d be all over the technological advances that the art world has been given. Can you imagine what he might create? The brilliant inventor probably would have run wild with digital media and be giving Pixar a serious run for their money.

Hell, he probably would have owned Pixar.

As an artist for over two decades, I still don’t label myself as a “professional” in spite of having been commissioned for artwork and published tutorials throughout the years. Trained as a youth in traditional media – my preferred tools being pencils, pastels, watercolor, and acrylic on canvas – eventually my media of choice became a completely digital one.

The biggest reason for this shift was the result of starting a family and living in a small house. With digital media, you don’t need a large amount of studio space to work with, just a tablet (or mouse) and a computer.

There are no paints, water or mineral spirits to spill, no easels for toddlers to trip on or knock over, no paint drying on a canvas while you’re busy taking care of dinner, running errands or spending time with your kids. There are no additional messes to clean up when you’re already drowning in a sea of them, and whenever you need to end a painting session, you can simply click “save” and you’re free to go.

It was when I made the switch to digitally created art that I began to notice a sort of hostility toward the medium in general. From my own experience, the biggest haters tend to be other visual artists who work in traditional media. I’ve never fully understood why. Is it because digital artists are viewed merely as posers since they don’t work in physical media? Or do traditional artists simply feel threatened that their art form will eventually suffer the same fate as film cameras, printed photographs, and record albums?

Whatever the reason, digitally created art is often considered far less desirable. In fact, some galleries won’t even deal in digital artwork, because there is no hard copy original to sell. It exists only as a file, at least until it’s printed on physical material. And at that point, how can a gallery be sure the piece will remain the only one in existence, or even as a part of a limited and signed series, in an age where file sharing is commonplace? Additionally, there is this idea that it’s inferior to traditional art, that the medium being used somehow makes one’s art less arty, if that’s even a thing — because digital is believed to be easier.

“But why is it so expensive if the computer makes it for you?”

A common misconception about digital art is that the computer does all of the work.

People often think that the artist pushes a couple buttons and the computer magically spits out the creation with little-to-no effort on the artist’s part. Following that line of thinking, your work should be priced much more cheaply than traditional artworks. It’s obviously less valuable since the computer did all the work, right?

For example, I recently donated my services to a charity auction with the highest bidder receiving a commissioned digital portrait of their choice, to be printed on gallery wrapped canvas after completion. Even though I had a huge tri-fold display (with pictures and words and everything!) that explained exactly what it was and the process involved, I still had to clarify what it is that I do:

“So… it’s not painted?”

“Not with real paint, no – but it is a painting. Just done on the computer.”

“But how is it a painting if you don’t use paint?”

“The paint is digital, the colors and brushes are a part of the computer program. My monitor is a tablet, so I draw directly on the screen like it’s a canvas.”

“… But then how do you get it on the real canvas?”

“Magic. Evil, dark magic.”

The computer doesn’t draw the damn thing

The basic skill set and the techniques used when painting on a real canvas actually do come into play when painting on a digital one. Brush type and size, the amount of physical pressure on the tablet itself, and even the tilt of the stylus (the pen) will affect your brush strokes as they would on stretched cotton canvas.

You build a digital painting in much the same way as you would a traditional painting: beginning with a sketch; blocking in colors, light and shadow; continuing to build outward to flesh out all of the finer details until your painting comes to life. It’s a process that can take dozens of hours just like creating any other type of art. I think that the most notable difference between digital painting and traditional painting is the ease in which mistakes can be fixed.

At the end of the day, though, it’s not necessarily an easier tool to work with – there is certainly a learning curve when it comes to working with most digital painting programs. That being said, the same thing holds true for learning to work in any type of medium including illustration, photography, music, and even writing – all of which have plenty of digital tools available to them, as well.

Is it cheating?

Truth be told, going digital does have its share of available shortcuts.

In Photoshop or similar programs, one can perform what’s called a “paintover,” which means taking an existing photograph and painting directly on top of it. Is it cheating? That, I suppose, is all in the perception and opinion of the viewer.

When trying to achieve realism in any medium, artists can use all sorts of tricks. And artists have always used the newest technology available to see how far they could push their creative work – that’s part of what it means to be an artist.

These type of digital “cheats” are available for artists of all mediums, and yet artists are often ridiculed for using them.

Many photographers who doctor their work through digital post-processing are believed to do so because of a lack of talent, when it really comes down to the artist wanting to enhance the image beyond what the camera is capable of. Why is that a bad thing? Aren’t they simply pushing the envelope to create imagery that is more thought-provoking or visually stunning? They are striving to achieve something amazing within their own work, but again, because a computer “helped”, their work is suddenly diminished.

The same holds true for musicians who use digital software. Technology has given them the ability to add beautiful effects and to use a limitless number of individual tracks in order to create greater dimension in their work. Today’s computer programs are the most advanced that the world has ever seen (so far), and yet music artists are chastised for using them. When the technology is there, why should it not be taken advantage of?

And writers have long relied on dictionaries and thesauruses to augment their work. I use a digital one, myself – I have a little app on my computer that I open up whenever I can’t seem to find the perfect word, which is pretty much all the freaking time. Is it a crutch that I have to use because my undereducated little brain just ain’t got enough smarts to come up with intelligent words on its own? Or is it merely an instrument that I use to finesse my work, one that enriches the bare bones of what was already there?

It’s not what’s in the toolbox but what’s in the artist that matters

As an artist, a creator, the tools that you choose to wield shouldn’t be the things that make your work matter. After all, nobody accuses writers of “cheating” when they fire up their word processing programs, and those things automatically do the spell checking for them.

In the end, it’s the amount of yourself that you put into your work that makes it art. Why should knowing the method behind a piece make it any less beautiful or any less inspirational?

What do you think?

Is using digital technology cheating, or is it simply a crutch for those who can’t handle the real thing?

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About the Author

Mother of Doom and Destruction, Alison Huff is a freelance artist, writer, and twit who lives a country bumpkin life in northeastern Ohio. She sometimes writes about herself in the third person and feels a little weirded out by the process.

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