Why Digital Artists Are (not) Big Fat Liars – Skinny Artist

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.

I am a visual artist that plays on both sides, traditional medium of acrylic on canvas and digital paint. I hate to admit that I used to be one of those that did not appreciate the digital medium and did consider it sort of cheating or just not as valuable.

However, the more time I spend learning and fine tuning the digital realm, I gain more understanding and it becomes more complex, and it shows in my renderings. I can see from my first attempts to what I’ve created recently that not only is there a learning curve with the software itself, but then using what this type of paint can do and creating something new that would not have occurred to me had I been just experimenting with traditional paint.

So I’ve considered focusing solely on digitally rendered paintings and presenting them in way where the digital haters out there can first be impressed by the work itself, then gain some understanding on the way it was created and hopefully then appreciate it.

Very timely post for me…thanks!!!!

    I think you’re right Monica, sometimes it’s way too easy to fall into that trap of criticizing or dismissing something we don’t really understand. Just from my own very limited experience using some of these digital tools like Photoshop, you quickly realize that art doesn’t just magically materialize out of the program. You have to have a vision, and then have the technical skills to do what you want to do, just like you would if you were working in a more traditional medium.

    I agree that these types of digital programs and tools are not necessarily a replacement but more or an extension for these traditional tools. Like you mention, you can do things digitally that aren’t possible otherwise. I think you also have more freedom to experiment because you can always go back and undo things if they don’t work out. This is true not only for digital painting and music recording, but for writing on a computer as well. While the purist may tell you that this encourages the artists to not plan quite as carefully before putting the brush to the canvas, it can also give you the courage to try something new.

    Honestly, Monica, I felt the same way about digital art in the beginning. I think a lot of it had to do with not understanding the method behind it – thinking it was somehow automated, or “chopped” together in Photoshop and then lightly smudged over to make it look “painted” – and being somewhat jealous of the idea that it must be so much easier to make stuff that way. I would see these amazing digital paintings and think “Well yeah… if I used a computer, my work would come out looking like that, too!”

    (It didn’t. Boy, it really didn’t. LOL!)

    I think one does find a greater appreciation for the medium once they’ve used it. I got my first tablet about 12 years ago. It was a Wacom Intuos II. Tried sketching on it exactly one time, decided that I hated it and proceeded to put it away for several years. Eventually, I began to think that if I stood any chance of competing with the stuff I was seeing in online galleries as more and more of them began to crop up, maybe I should try it again and force myself to stick with it until I figured it out. There was a huge learning curve, not just with the software but also with the disconnect that happens when you’re drawing on one surface while your work is showing up on another.

    I hope you blow your audience away by your digital work! (And I’d love to see them sometime, digital galleries tend to get lost in the masses anymore, it seems.)


      Thanks for your honesty!

      The same thing happened to me with my first Wacom about 3 years ago. I was terrible on it and it’s still on a shelf somewhere. I gave up too easily and well, hindsight being what it is…of course I regret it. I feel I’ve wasted time so now I’m like a madwoman trying to catch up. For now I’ve been adding some of the better “pieces” to my current website but I’m thinking I may make a new site just for the digital work and market it separately to see how that goes.

      Here’s some samples: http://www.mmelgar.com/digital-paint/

      Hope you like!

        Oh wow… your paper art is freaking amazing!!!!! I hope you share photos from your show in January!

        I love your paintings as well (both traditional and digital), especially the ones that evoke landscapes. They almost feel like they’re moving. I can see reflections in lakes, moonlit skies or trees in others, one of your digital paintings (a title didn’t show up in my browser) made me think of the surface of a pond reflecting the colors of the fall. Beautiful, beautiful work.

        Thank you for sharing it!

        How do you like ArtRage? I’ve never tried it, but I really like the paint texture it’s capable of creating (from what I can see in your digital paintings) – it’s *incredibly* realistic.

    Ian Miller

    I have done some research on this myself and really it comes down to personal taste. I would go for a hand-painted traditional painting BUT that doesn’t mean digital versions are not quality – because they are and are freehand anyway just in a digital format with a digital pen. See my research in an article here: http://ezinearticles.com/?Paint-My-Photo-Digital-Applications-Compared-With-Traditional-Handmade-Photo-to-Painting-Quality&id=9307098

      Alison Huff

      Interesting. A photograph that’s filtered digitally to look like a painting is indeed a very fast turnaround. However, a hand painted digital painting certainly is not; it is as time and labor intensive as a traditional painting, minus the drying time of a canvas. I’ve done digital paintings that took upwards of 40 hours or more to complete, meaning 2-3 weeks of time (one cannot paint for 8 hours per day without a sore neck and shoulders, at least on a vertical Cintiq screen like I do). Because of this, digital paintings are not necessarily cheaper than traditional paintings unless they’re computer-generated filtered photographs that can be churned out in a matter of minutes.

I met a photographer who got a chance to interview Ansel Adams late in his life. As the photographer was just starting out, he asked Adams what advice he had and he said “I like that electronic photography. I think I’d skip film and start with that.” This photographer, Mikkal Aaland, was on the team that developed Lightroom and actually helped decide that the term would be “digital photography” rather than “electronic”.

This question should already be settled, but since some people still think abstract art isn’t ‘real’, maybe it will never be settled.

    That’s pretty awesome that you had the opportunity to interview Ansel Adams. It’s not surprising, however, that he was interested in digital photography. He probably understood more than most that photography is a constantly evolving medium that has progressed from simply catering the world around us, to creating worlds never before imagined. The role of photography and digital art have become so intertwined with the advent of the digital darkroom, that trying to figure out where one ends and the other begins is silly.

    You’re right, though when you say this issue may never be completely settled. I think there will always be painters and photographers out there who believe these digital tools bastardize their art form, just as there will be those who believe that these traditionalists are simply out of touch with their evolving art.

Thank you Alison for this post.

I am myself a mixed media and digital abstract painter and I noticed that there is indeed a striking need to educate people about digital painting and digital art in general.

I recently participated to an art exhibition with other traditional painters and one of the jury members told me that the jury appreciated my work a lot but they were not capable of judging it because they did not know and understand how it was made!

With the new generation learning computer assisted in art school and Unviversity, it will change for sure over time.

    I think it will. It’s not a replacement for traditional media by any means, but hopefully it will become mainstream (particularly in art shows and galleries) as time goes on and there is a greater understanding of it.

    And who knows… in the future, what other kinds of technology-based media might be available for artists to experiment with? It will be interesting to find out. :)

      Karen Mitchell

      I’m studying my Diploma in Graphic Design. Been using computer software for 22 years. Used my first Bamboo some 10 years ago. Paintshop Pro and Coral Draw were my first paint programs and since I’ve been studying, I’ve been using all the Adobe software.
      Two years ago I was asked by the president to join our local Art Society to do their Newsletters. I went along to my first Committee meeting. At this meeting the president wanted to go through the categories and had all the categories up on a whiteboard and one of them was Graphic Arts. When she got to this one the list she immediately, said, NO, we don’t want that!! And she put a thick black line through it. I was devastated as you can well imagine! I didn’t say anything as I knew I would be wasting my breath!!

      I managed to do 3 newsletters for them. It turned out that the president was somewhat quite jealous of me and my talents. I was told that I was over qualified and removed from the position! I was treated very unfairly. But I learnt some valuable lessons and I refuse to bring myself down to their level..
      Anyway it would me nice to see Graphic Arts as one of the categories.


Thank you for posting this topic, it got me to begin looking more seriously into the realm of digital art. One thing that stood out to me though was not the cheating/non cheating aspect of creation of digital art but its final output. With the traditional style, there is undoubtedly the authenticity of materials (beginning from canvas and ending with the pigments) How is this addressed in digital media? (I imagine when it is produced into hard copies there could be limitations that are produced solely by the printing/ink i.e. making the art look like screen shots)

    You raise a very good question. Part of the authenticity lies in the file itself: when a person right-clicks on it, they should see an option to “Get Info” or something to that effect, depending on the operating system; they’d see the date created, which is the start of the work, as well as the last modified date – the last date the image was worked on. And you can add information that will stay embedded into the file (Artist Name, Title, misc information) as well.

    That’s all fine and good for digital authentication of the work itself. Whether a physical rendering of it will remain a singular work or a part of a limited number of copies, aside from destroying the original file it was printed from I’m not sure that sort of authenticity could ever be 100% guaranteed. As long as the high resolution, working digital file exists somewhere, copies could be made from it. I suppose some sort of legal contract might be in place when galleries deal in digital art? Or perhaps they require the working file to be surrendered to them? Maybe someone who has sold digital art through a gallery can shed more light on this.

    Keep in mind, I’ve never worked with a dealer or released limited canvases/prints of anything – the majority of my work is done for individuals on request and I don’t resell those images. At the same time, though, I don’t ever destroy the files – if something happens to the canvas and the person who commissioned the portrait needs to have it replaced, or if a family member of theirs wants to have the same portrait in their home or whatever, I prefer to have those print-ready files on hand.

    There are limitations in printing as well. The one (very big, in my opinion) downside to digital prints is the lack of texture. You know how when you touch a canvas that’s been painted with oils or acrylics, you can feel the brush strokes? You can see them popping off the canvas when the light catches them a certain way. You still feel and see the texture of the canvas itself on a printed canvas, but the finish is otherwise very smooth. (Unless, of course, the artist painted over it to add texture after the printing process – which is a possible thing to do although I never have. That might be a cool thing to experiment with!)

Panayotis Valais

The mind is the creator. Not the hand. If the result matters for you 100%, then the media ….who cares?

The same attitude was said about photography in general. Your art purists were saying that taking photos is not a real form of art because they didn’t see it as a real skill like painting or sculpture.
Anybody can point a camera at something and shoot it, so they reason how could that be considered a real
artistic skill?
But to be able to take a reallly good pic as opposed to a mediocre one takes some knowledge about lighting,perspective an composition.
Someone unfamiliar with photography wouldn’t be able to take really good shots.
To me photography along with digital art is both a technical and an artistic skill.
Obviously to be able to edit and enhance images with photoshop or some other photo editor takes some
familiarity with the software.

This comment can go on even longer on the subject of what is considered art or real art.
Do we judge a piece to be a work of art by how much effort and time goes into it?
If some artist takes a canvas and simply paints a few lines on it, or just one circle in the middle of it,
then shows it off to the public as an artistic creation, what do we then say to that?
A lot of your so-called modern art looks just like that.
Simple uncomplicated work that makes some people think ” Wow! my 4 year old could easily have done
that or better than that!
Or you see a piece of sculpture that’s nothing more than a round ball.
Nothing more.
Then you ask yourself what is that suppose to say or what is the significance of that?
Obviously it doesn’t seem impressive as a statue by Michaelangelo.
Is it any less a work of art in comparison to something done by Michaelangelo ?
It begs the question of what is art or what should be considered art.


When the focus is on the application of pigment to canvas rather than the composition, the idea, or message being presented does painting become more a craft?

Is art about the emotion is creates or the materials used?

The experience or the commodity?


I grew up drawing with my school issue HB pencil. I got good. Once an adult, I experimented with different pencils, and then moved into digital creations because it was more convenient. While I have now also experienced with oils, acrylics and watercolors, I still feel like I’m cheating when I use my computer to create something. It just feels so easy – being able to try something and hit undo if it turns out differently than I expected feels like cheating, and I don’t think that will ever change for me. With that said, you can create much more of the artists true vision in this way, so I do see it’s value and am not meaning to criticize the art form.


You seem to be on the fence and have peddled some of the same logical fallacies as others who want to continue dabbling in a superficial medium. Digital Art is bogus.
Pardon me if Im wrong but does art not have compositional rules such as The Elements & Principles of Design? Form, Space, Unity, Contrst, Emphasis, Shape, Color…
The way we manipulate and arrange them, the way we achieve a composition through those Elements & Principles sets a base line for objective criticism. Thats why we bother with them in the first place, so our art looks great.
The E & P of Design matters greatly and getting them to work with your vision is hell. If you use copious amounts of computer ability to generate a succesful composition that has effective use of E & P, was it really you who got yourself there? Softly, No. Because we’ve tremendously lowered the bar, haven’t we? Suddenly, anything is possible, and what would take months is done in minutes. Effects that take years to master are now childs play available for hack.
The artist’s original vision is always morphing through progress in a work, but in the case of digital “art,” the idea is tainted by the mastery of the machined effects, not the artist. Its a huge disservice to real painters to continue imagining that digital has any value, period. It comes out of a printer, or didn’t you notice?
Digital has its merits. In illustration, reference, video games, advertising etc…theres quick money to be made by creative minds yearning to play without getting their hands dirty. But dont applaud yourselves. If you made a great composition on your computer, thats great but you’re only half done. Bust out the real art supplies, grid it off, draw it on canvas or panel, and paint the sucker. Now you’re an artist who has made art. Until then, you’re in God Mode and clicking Print.

[…] talents can take advantage of the plethora of tech tools, online and off, to up their artistic game. It’s not “cheating,” but working in a different, new medium; the work is done by the artist, and if online tools let an […]

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