Is Digital Art Real Art?

...If the physical world is a core component of any work art to you, then indeed digital art cannot be real art.
Is Digital Art Real Art

One of the most controversial debates in the world of art is whether digital art counts as ‘real’ art. There are good arguments on both sides of the debate, though sometimes it looks like they are separated by a vast and unbridgeable chasm.

…Perhaps the real problem here is in how we define ‘art’.

If the physical world is a core component of any work art to you, then indeed digital art cannot be real art. Many also argue that digital media makes the work of creation virtually effortless with the use of digital tools, and in that case, could be classed as ‘cheating’. But is it?

In this article, we shall explore the titular question as best we can. We are certainly not unbiased. However, we aren’t impervious to the views of the other side either. Traditional art isn’t just an alternative to digital art. We have been drawing since we lived in the caves.

Attempting to recreate nature in different ways are literally a part of our DNA, as they have evolved with us through the years.

In that sense, traditional art is a part of us.

Perhaps that’s part of the reason there is so much controversy surrounding the issue. Embracing digital art and throwing away traditional art must feel, for its detractors, like embracing social media in lieu of real-life friendships, or, more dramatically, throwing away your limbs in favor of robotic ones.

Ultimately, our assertion is that the core problem lies in assuming it’s an either-or situation.

What are the differences between digital art vs. traditional art? – the debate

If we’re being honest, quite often the distinction between digital art and traditional art is hard to make out, at least as far as the art aspect is concerned.

If you think about it, many of the actions we take to reproduce the real world or our imagination exist in both traditional and digital form. For example, we can take a soft material and mold it, or a hard one and sculpt it. We can make lines on paper, or canvas, or sand, or create smudges with charcoal on the same media.

We can apply color with paint, and create the illusion of depth through the interplay of light and dark areas.

There are numerous ways of creating some representation of what we see or imagine in the physical world. Sometimes, it’s not even for purely aesthetic reasons.

When an architect designs a beautiful house, which then gets built and subsequently occupied, one can argue that they have created a work of art, insofar as the house evokes an appreciation for beauty in us.

The same things can be done in digital media. We can create lines in software, and smudges, and emulate brushes and paint, and mold sculpt with 3D-modeling software. Architects can use CAD software to design their works, and so on. In fact, we can often bring the works we create in the digital realm into the physical one, by printing, or 3D printing.

The primary difference between digital and traditional art seems to be the tools. As we mentioned earlier, a huge part of the controversy in this debate is how to define ‘art’.

However, even if we take the vaguest definition we can come up with, like calling anything that evokes emotions of appreciation art, then we must admit both traditional and digital works are like that.

We appreciate Albrecht Durer’s Young Hare, Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Michelangelo’s David, Frank Lloyd Wright’s FallingWater, Faberge’s eggs, Michael Hayes’ Artemis, Stephen Mcmennamy’s “combophotos”, Erik Johansson’s surreal imagery or even works by Hal Lasko, famously known as “The Pixel Painter”.

Just like modern construction tools and machines enable us to create buildings faster and with more precision, as well as new kinds of buildings we couldn’t before, so have digital art tools enabled to do the same in the sphere of art.

And yet, for some, the overall sentiment is that these tools give an unfair advantage when it comes to creating art.

A traditional artist might have to buy an entire studio of materials, including paints, canvases, pencils, brushes, and what have you, just to be able to create the different works of art that they need to create. Similarly, they will have to learn to work with each of these.

They will need to understand how to hold pencils, charcoal sticks, paintbrushes, and so on.

They will need to know how to create color palettes and mix colors the right way. They will need to know how to shade, and cross-hatch for hours with a pencil to achieve the desired shading on their works.

A digital artist, on the other hand, will most likely use the same stylus for all the different drawing and painting tools, whether pencil or brush. They have virtually infinite colors to choose from, including tools for gradients, which means they don’t have to do any cross-hatching.

What would take a traditional artist hours would only take a few seconds for a digital artist.

Such an unfair advantage, isn’t it?

There definitely seems to be a tendency to romanticize the struggle that is associated with traditional art. We tend to appreciate that which looks like it took a lot of hard work to achieve. Anecdotally, we always enjoy movies where the underdog rises from the depths through sheer force of will, paying in blood, sweat and tears to get to the top.

We appreciate the heroes in our movies more when they have formidable villains. There’s something attractive about struggle, and it seems to miss from digital art.

If we can achieve, with a few button presses, what it would take a traditional artist many hours or days, then what’s the point?

There’s also the subject of uniqueness. There is only one statue of David, or Mona Lisa. Many forgeries have been made. In fact, art forgery is as old as art, and some forgeries are virtually indistinguishable from the originals, meaning that likely over half of all art pieces on exhibition today are forgeries that haven’t been discovered yet.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that, once we discover a piece of art is a forgery, no matter how good it is, we immediately consider it worthless. It is important that we are able to somehow ‘discover’ if a work of art is real or a forgery.

In the world of digital art, this gets very difficult. It’s all pixels. If you make a piece of art, it can be copied infinitely many times, with each copy being exactly like the original.

This probably leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many detractors of digital art, as it takes away from the value of a work of art. 

And yet…

Having a stylus that can emulate different pencils and brushes doesn’t mean you understand how to use them to create a piece of art. Having all the colors in the world in digital form doesn’t mean you know how to put them together to achieve a work of art.

Digital art, like traditional art, isn’t about the media, tools, or technologies at your disposal, but about how you can arrange them to create a work that evokes the emotion of appreciation in your audience. The deeper the sense of appreciation it can evoke, the better.

Moreover, There are technologies coming up, such as blockchain, making it possible to determine whether a piece of digital art is the original or a copy. They may not be widespread just yet, but they are catching on rapidly.

As pointed out earlier, there are clearly very good arguments on both sides of the chasm that is this controversy. Perhaps a better way to make progress is to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of each type of art.

Advantages and disadvantages – is one better than the other?

The advantages of traditional art

  • Traditional art work has the element of originality – Due to its nature, traditional art is such that there is one, and only one, of every work of art ever produced, including that scribbling by your 3-year old niece. Sure, there are forgeries that can look indistinguishable from the original, but they will never be 100% like it. So all traditional art work is both original and rare. That’s why there is such a thriving market for traditional art pieces, with the most valuable works selling for millions of dollars.
  • It’s virtually impossible to replicate traditional art work – While art forgery is a concern, much of the effort among forgers is in the direction of concealing that their work is a forgery, while the effort among connoisseurs is in the direction of revealing that the work is a forgery. What no one denies is that you can’t 100% copy something, you can only get better at hiding the fact that it is a copy.
  • Traditional art involves more of your senses – This may seem like a frivolous point, but it really isn’t. Consider the fact that we’ve been doing ‘traditional’ art work since we started drawing on walls. We have grown with it, and adapted to the tools over time. When you draw on a physical medium, you feel the friction of the pencil dragging across it, and can tell when a surface is smooth or rough. The same applies when you’re sculpting, or molding. That’s something digital art tools haven’t quite nailed just yet.
  • Traditional art is more process-oriented, as mistakes are costlier – There’s no undo button when you’re drawing on paper. You’ll have to be very deliberate about how you do things, and consider every single stroke before you make it. This will force you to be more thoughtful about your drawing process, and not only will you become more efficient, but you will also learn the nuances of what it takes to create a masterful work of art.
  • Traditional art constrains your available materials and tools in a positive way – Think about it. When you have a few materials and tools to work with, with a significant cost implication attached to acquiring more, you will tend toward being more considerate of how you use the available materials to achieve your desired effect. You will craft your color palette better, be more skillful with your brush or pencil to achieve strokes of different widths and textures, and learn how to work better with whatever canvas you’re using. That will make you a better artist.
  • It’s easier to slip into ‘flow’ state when doing traditional art – This one is a little weak, but still valid. When you’re doing traditional art, you are likely to have a dedicated workspace, with all the materials and tools you need to do the job. You might even have other pieces of art hung on the walls. Such an immersive environment makes it easier to slip into a state of flow while doing your work. Even more importantly, you don’t have to deliberately go out of your way to ensure that the environment forms. It happens naturally. You buy some canvas and put it in the corner, then your collection of paints, then your brushes in another corner, you hang your previous artwork on the walls, and so on. When doing digital work, you have to go out of your way to craft the right workplace to shield you from distractions.

The disadvantages of traditional art

  • Mistakes are costlier – While learning to work with mistakes will make you a better artist in the long run, that doesn’t make them any less unforgiving when they occur.
  • Lots of planning is required – It’s really hard to decide to change your sketch of a vase of flowers into a human face midway through drawing the vase. Or, more realistically, it’s difficult to change the orientation of the vase, or one of its flowers, midway through your work. That means you need to plan your work well beforehand, unless, of course, you don’t mind starting over.
  • Traditional art is not very portable – Considering all the tools and materials required to do traditional art, it will be very difficult to do art on the move, unless you’re just doing simple sketches on paper. Most of the time, you will be limited to a dedicated space where you can do your art.
  • Traditional art is recurringly expensive – What this means is that you have to spend over and over again. You have to buy the materials and tools you’ll need, and then keep replenishing supplies when you run out and keeping things up to date, which costs money in the long run, as well as storage space. On the other hand, digital art often only involves an upfront cost.

The advantages of digital art

  • Digital art tools offer convenience – You get all the brushes, pencils, colors, and whatever you can think of on a single tablet, as well as the ability to mix colors, create gradients, and undo mistakes at the click of a button. This greatly increases the speed and efficiency with which you can create art.
  • Digital art is more beginner-friendly – Due to its highly forgiving nature, digital art is easier for beginners to start with.
  • Digital art is space-efficient – You don’t need a lot of tools, just a tablet and a stylus (and maybe a glove). You likely won’t need a large workspace either, just a large enough desk to hold your computer and tablet. You can also carry your tablet around with you if it’s got a display and batteries, making it easier to make art on the move. Not to mention, the art you create isn’t bulky. It’s all bits and bytes living on a disk.
  • Digital art is clean – You don’t have to worry about messing up your carpet, or damaging your canvas. Digital art is also easy to backup so you can’t lose it permanently.
  • Digital art has better career prospects – Many modern industries almost exclusively hire digital artists. Whether it’s movies, or video games, or books, or advertisements, digital artists make a lot of money, so being one is a good career choice.
  • Digital art is easier to sell online – With digital art, you can easily sell your work on the international market without the need for an intermediary or a partnership with an exhibition. The same can’t be said about traditional art.

The disadvantages of digital art

  • Working with a stylus can often feel unnatural – If you’re working with a graphics tablet, you have to learn to reconfigure your hand-eye coordination for a situation where you’re looking at a screen as you draw on the drawing area. It can be quite the learning curve, and some artists never stop struggling with it. Even if you get a drawing tablet with a display, you still have to deal with the lag that sometimes occurs between moving your stylus and seeing the line appear. And then there is the issue of how the drawing area often doesn’t offer quite the same feel as drawing on real paper or canvas.
  • Digital art may promote laziness – You can easily undo mistakes, mix colors, create gradients, and a lot more without trying too hard. This makes it easy for you to overlook your weaknesses and compound them.
  • Sometimes too much optionality can be overwhelming – There are so many choices when it comes to drawing tablets and software, not to mention all the possible brushes, colors, workflows, menus, and buttons. In the face of such optionality, it’s easy to get overwhelmed and not know where to start.
  • Digital art requires a powerful computer – If you don’t have powerful hardware, you will be limited in how much you can do with your digital art. In fact, to make the best kind of digital art, you can’t skimp on having a powerful computer.
  • Digital art lacks rarity – Even though technologies are being developed to make it easier to track and determine the provenance of a piece of digital artwork, it’s still very easy to steal and reproduce digital art, which cheapens it.

Why traditional art will always matter

Digital art is spreading rapidly, and being adopted by more and more people. Does that mean that traditional art will die? No.

While digital art does offer convenience, it does not exist in a vacuum. More often than not, it just offers superior tools to achieve the same things as traditional art, which makes digital art the child of traditional art.

If you master traditional art, you will be able to take better advantage of the tools and capabilities that digital art offers.

On the economic front, traditional art still has the upper hand on the issue of originality and rarity. In fact, as digital art gets more popular, traditional art pieces will likely become even more valuable.

Why is digital art important? – Importance of digital art education

The antagonism that digital art faces from some artists isn’t unlike the kind faced by all other forms of technology that seem to threaten incumbents in their fields. A popular phrase is ‘software is eating the world’, and this is just as true in the world of art as it is in any other industry.

And yet technology does not have to be seen as a threat. Digital art tools can prove to be valuable, not just for working, but teaching as well.

Teaching young artists to make use of digital art enables them to have widespread access to tools and materials that they otherwise wouldn’t if they only had traditional art. Oil based paints, acrylics, different paint brushes, and canvases are all quite costly, and not every child has access to them. A drawing tablet gives access to them, or at least emulates them. This gives every child the opportunity to practice with these media.

Digital art tools also enable children to more easily collaborate with each other, share their work, and be overall more productive.

This doesn’t mean that traditional art should be discarded in favor of digital art in curricula, rather that the two can work together, offering each art student a universe of possibilities.

Should I start with digital or traditional art?

In our opinion, it all depends on what you want to do. If you want to master drawing and painting, then you should start with traditional art and master the skills, before proceeding to digital art. That way you can avoid developing bad habits that handicap you in the long run.

On the other hand, if you do graphic design and similar things, you can dive right into digital art. You can probably also start with digital art straight away if you want to go into 3D-modeling. Far be it from us to suggest that you should start hacking away at rock with a chisel before you try Blender out!

Will digital art replace art?

No. We don’t think so. One of the features of art is the multiplicity of ways in which it can be expressed. Dance, music, paintings, statues, movies, and even speech, can all be forms of art. By the same token, digital art isn’t a ‘replacement’ for art, or even traditional art.

It is merely another avenue for its expression. A young one, and a powerful one, but just one of many.

Summary… is digital art ‘real’ art?

So what’s the conclusion? Is digital art real art? We think it is. It’s just as much art as traditional art.

That said, we don’t think it’s necessarily better, or a replacement. We don’t think you have to choose between the two. They are both valid forms of art, depending on what you like. Try them both and see what you like, then run with it. Until next time, happy drawing! 

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