As digital art continues to enjoy widespread adoption and diehard fans of traditional art dig their feet in and maintain its superiority, the debate on digital art vs. traditional art isn’t likely to end soon.
In this article, we shall explore the similarities and differences between the two types of art, as well as their individual strengths and weaknesses.
We won’t explicitly categorize either as ‘superior.’ Instead, we will leave it to the reader to decide which one best serves their purposes.
Digital art vs. traditional art
What is digital art?
Digital art is a broad term referring to any art created using digital tools, such as computers, digital cameras, and even art embedded into digitally coded information.
Perhaps more important than the question ‘what is digital art’ is ‘what can we consider art, regardless of how it is created?’.
In that case, the simple answer is that anything that captures the creator’s ideas, emotions, or message and places it on display for the enjoyment of others can be considered art.
Artists can express their feelings just as intensely with digital paintings as they can with oil paintings.
Digital art has been around since the commercialization of computers, so at least as far back as the 1960s.
From digital photography to crypto art and NFTs, digital art continues to evolve and expand its definition to include several new types of artistic expression.
What is traditional art?
Traditional art predates digital art. It has been around since at least the first cave painting. What differentiates it from digital art is the use of conventional physical media as opposed to digital media.
Think pencils, paints, charcoal, canvasses, and so on. Traditional art has not only been around for a very long time, but it also continues to enjoy massive popularity. There are at least 7 forms of art in this respect: drawing, painting, sculpting, music, theatre, cinema, and architecture.
Naturally, the line between digital and traditional art continues to get blurred. Cinema is arguably mostly done using digital tools today. Ditto for architecture and music.
And tools are constantly being created that make it harder to differentiate between a traditional sketch and a digital one.
The distinction is still significant enough, however, that we can have a meaningful comparison between digital and traditional art, which we shall do in this article.
What makes digital art different from traditional art?
What makes digital art so distinct and different from traditional art? The two have several similarities.
You can do virtually anything in digital art that you can do in traditional art, and lots of digital art is a replication of what is already conventional art (digital painting, for example, is traditional painting but on a digital medium).
That said, there are also several differences between the two, and there are lots of things you can do with digital media that you can’t do with traditional media.
For starters, digital art is more forgiving of mistakes than traditional art. An undo button is all that stands between you and a clean slate, or at least the erasure of that one bad stroke.
When you’re working on a physical canvas, a mistake may or may not be undoable. Often you have to draw over it in order to hide it.
Arguably, this quality of traditional artwork may also be part of its allure. One can see how layers were added to cover mistakes made in older paintings, adding to their character.
This is part of the reason why they make sense as collector’s items. They just capture the process of creation better. With digital artwork, all you see is the finished artwork.
With traditional art, you see that plus evidence of the countless hours that went into making it. It captures more of the human condition, which perhaps makes it more valuable to some people.
Digital art also allows for more variety and more powerful tools. You get hundreds of brushes in a single place, which means spending less money and needing less storage space.
You get millions of colors to choose from, several of which would be inaccessible to a traditional artist.
Distribution is easier with digital art. You can send your art to just about any location in the world with the click of a button. You can create as many identical copies as possible and back them up, so loss is impossible.
This is both an advantage and a disadvantage.
On the one hand, your art is highly portable and distributable. On the other, the aspect of uniqueness that is so important to art gets lost, which dramatically reduces the value of digital art.
This is changing, however, as the introduction of digital signatures and blockchain technologies (think NFTs or non-fungible tokens) are making it easier to preserve the uniqueness of digital art.
Traditional art, on the other hand, is not as portable or easy to distribute.
Depending on the size of the artwork, portability is limited, especially if the artwork is fragile. Distribution is limited as there can only be one original, which takes time to transport from one place to another.
If anyone is interested in your original traditional artwork, they will either have to buy it from you or from someone else that currently owns it.
Alternatively, they may settle for buying a copy.
On the other hand, traditional artwork preserves its uniqueness very well. There can only ever be one original Mona Lisa.
The fact that there are so many sensationalist stories of people unknowingly buying fake copies of famous art is a testament to the importance of uniqueness and authenticity in the world of traditional art.
Nobody complains that the pictures they see on Instagram are, in fact, copies of the original ones taken on individual smartphones before being uploaded.
Pros and Cons
Digital art and traditional art both have their strengths and weaknesses. In this section, we will explore the individual pros and cons of each.
Digital art pros
- It is adaptable: Digital art is highly adaptable. Your finished work can look like virtually anything you want it to. You can mix watercolor and oil brushes on the same painting, add a photograph for some elements, animate it all, and add music for added effect. A mixed painting with a soundtrack is not impossible!
- It offers a wide range of flexible tools and resources: There are plenty of resources and powerful tools that you can use in your digital art. You can resize your canvas, rotate it, adjust colors, use blending effects, and so much more. This dramatically broadens the horizon for what you can achieve with digital art.
- It is cheap: While traditional art supplies are cheaper, digital art devices are single-purchase options that often come packed with sufficient tooling to start working straight away. In comparison, to do an oil painting, you will have to buy several individual tools and resources, the costs of which can add up to something forbidding.
- It is safe: With digital art, you don’t have to worry about dirt, rain, or your greasy fingers ruining your work. They might ruin your tablet, but assuming you backed up your work and put it on an online storage, it will be safe and waiting for you when you get another tablet. You don’t have to deal with any sharp or dangerous tools while producing your masterpiece either. All of these are privileges you wouldn’t enjoy with traditional art.
- It is portable and shareable: As mentioned earlier, you can create unlimited copies of your digital artwork and share it with your friends anywhere in the world. This isn’t something you’d be able to do with traditional art.
Digital art cons
- The challenge of authenticity: Detractors of digital art often argue that it is less valuable due to the easy of copying it. Traditional artwork comes in fewer copies valued at a higher price. Digital art can be replicated countless times, making it harder to value.
- The challenge of conversion: With traditional art, what you see is what you get. With digital art, what looks good on your screen may look wildly different once printed on an A1 sheet of paper.
- Controversial aesthetics: Some people just don’t like the clean digital look of digital art. They say it looks lifeless and boring as compared to traditional art.
- It might promote laziness: It’s harder to do deliberate practice with digital art since the tools make everything so much easier. This can be seen in the amount of work artists coming from a digital background have to put in when moving to traditional art. There are so many things to unlearn. In fact, digital media can be and is often used to hide the lack of fundamental art skills that would be harder to hide in the world of traditional art.
- It might be less accessible: While digital art is likely cheaper over the course of a career than traditional art, it still has a higher barrier to entry. Technology, while widespread, is still not universally accessible. To start doing digital art, you need digital media costing anywhere from tens to thousands of dollars, not to mention access to electricity and the internet. To do traditional art, all you need is a pencil and paper. You could even draw on the wall with nothing more than a piece of charcoal!
Traditional art pros
- It builds your skills better: To get good at traditional art, you need to work very hard at your skills, and it’s harder to hide the lack of these skills than it is with digital art. It is therefore often easier for a traditional artist to transition into the world of digital art than the other way round.
- Its imperfections contribute to its beauty: While it’s harder to achieve perfection with traditional art, this is part of what makes it so beautiful. Those unintended parts of the artwork not only give it character but also help distinguish the artist’s style and identify fakes.
- It is practical: Traditional art is more accessible and less reliable on technology than digital art and also involves more physical activity, which might appeal more to some.
- It encourages the use of all of one’s senses: Part of the appeal of traditional art is that it involves more senses, such as touch and smell, than digital art, making it more immersive.
- It preserves originality and authenticity better: Originality is not only easier to ascertain in traditional art, but it also makes it easier to value traditional artwork as a result.
Traditional art cons
- Limitations of the medium: With traditional art, you are subject to the limitations of your medium. Certain materials don’t play nice and your tools are not nearly as powerful or versatile as digital ones.
- There is more permanence to mistakes: As mentioned earlier, traditional art is typically less forgiving. You don’t have an ‘undo’ button, so your mistakes are not so easily forgotten.
- It’s messier: Traditional media, like paint and charcoal, are messy, needing long hours of preparation and cleaning up, as well as putting things away in their rightful place.
- The importance of working conditions: The conditions in which a piece of traditional artwork is created matter more than with digital art. A painting that was created in the day may not look quite the same at night.
- It takes longer to get good: Because of its messy and unforgiving nature, it takes several years of deliberate practice to get good at any kind of traditional art. This may discourage beginners when compared to digital art, which allows one to produce decent work much sooner.
Can they be interchangeable?
You might be wondering if you have to firmly place yourself in a box here. Can you use both media and interchange them when necessary? The answer is yes.
In fact, many artists well-versed in the use of both digital and traditional media employ digital tools in the process of making physical artwork.
There is no point in disdaining one or the other. A good artist uses the available tools to make beautiful art, taking advantage of the synergy of their tools where they can
Is digital art better than traditional art?
The first purpose of art is to capture the emotions, ideas, and messages of the artist. The medium comes second.
You can, therefore, not say in absolute terms whether digital art is better than traditional art. Each excels in its own right and performs better in some applications than others.
It is more important to determine which works best for you depending on what you are trying to achieve in a particular situation or use both synergistically.
Is digital art a true art?
Yes, in the sense that it allows artists to express themselves, digital art is just as legitimate a form of art as traditional art.
Will digital art replace traditional art?
No. Traditional art has been around as long as mankind and will continue to exist for a long time.
Photography did not replace drawing and painting, and modern digital media will not replace traditional media. There will always be those who still prefer traditional media for its practicality and beautiful imperfections.
The most likely outcome is that the two media will continue to work synergistically to produce new and innovative forms of art.
And there we have it. As you can see, the situation isn’t either-or for digital vs. traditional art, but more of yes-and.
Both have their strengths and can be used together to produce art that wouldn’t be possible if either was solely used.
Until next time, happy drawing!