The Pros and Cons of Digital Art

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Monika Zagrobelna continues the two-part series she started with How Is Digital Drawing Different from Traditional Art with a look at what’s good and bad about digital and traditional art. 

 digital art better or worse

Pros: What’s Unique About Traditional Art

First of all, traditional art is physical. It’s something you can touch, smell, feel with all your senses, both during the creation process and later, when it’s finished. You don’t only see the “art” but also its physical carrier. This makes the artwork more complete, more real; more fulfilling to create and see.

Traditional artwork is one of a kind. It can’t be copied magically; you’d need to go through the same process of creation once again to create a copy. This gives the artwork a certain value, as it can be owned by only one person a a time and can be destroyed forever.

If one of great masters were alive today, do you think they would disdain the possibility of painting in a medium that has all the colors the world has to offer, a huge canvas that allows you to zoom in and out, separate layers, clipping masks, brushes you can create on your own, easy saving and the access to perfect light all day long? Do you think they would say: ‘Nah, it’s too easy! If I don’t have to wait for the paint to dry, then it’s not art!’

Traditional art is seen by reflection, not be emission. It means that the light gets changed by the artwork before it’s reflected into your eyes, and so the image is created. In result, the image you see depends on the light conditions and your position towards the artwork. It makes the piece look alive, when you see the shine of the paint move across the artwork as you move.

A traditional artwork is independent from electricity and modern technology. You can live in a hut in the middle of the rainforest, and create art this way without any problems. This makes the process of creation more natural and personal—just you and your tools, no service providers you depend on.

Because you can create traditional art away from the screen, it’s a great hobby to do after an office work. It’s a relief for your eyes, especially if you choose to create outside, to paint en plein air or to study animals in a zoo. Changing your focus constantly from the canvas/sketchbook to the reference and back is a great exercise for your eyes and much needed rest after hours of staring into the screen.

Basic tools for traditional art are cheap or even free. You can draw with almost anything on almost anything, but a pencil and a school notebook cost close to nothing and can be used to create amazing artworks. Sketching especially is the form of art that looks best when created with one tool, and that tool may be even an office ballpoint pen. One month after the school starts supermarkets offer a variety of basic art supplies in very low prices—that’s a good time to resupply!

Traditional art doesn’t let you easily fix your mistakes, thus forcing you to work harder to stop making them. This accelerates your improvement, if you don’t get discouraged or lost in search for some workarounds. Same with colors: You need to learn how they work to either manage with a limited palette or to create the hue you need.

Cons: The Limitations of Traditional Art

Because a traditional artwork is physical and one of a kind, you need to be physically present by it to see it fully. Taking a photo rarely gives it justice, as it captures only a facet of the artwork, stripping it of all the elements only visible when it’s reflected, not emitted by the screen. So you can’t really share your art as it deserves with many people, unless you get a spot in a gallery. You also can’t enjoy the art of others fully without leaving your house, and very often even your country.

Being one of a kind also means the artwork can be easily damaged, lost, or destroyed. Even simply having it hung on the wall for a prolonged period of time may damage it, as the light, humidity, and changes of temperature affect the physical carrier of the artwork. And keeping it in a dark safe doesn’t solve the problem, as it keeps you from enjoying your art.

Traditional art is unforgiving. Once you draw the line,  you can’t un-draw it. The eraser doesn’t remove the pencil stroke—it removes the paper it was drawn on. This can be really discouraging for a beginner—have you messed up the other eye after finishing the first one perfectly? Shame, now you need to start over. Have you noticed the neck is slightly too long only after you’ve spent three hours rendering the fur realistically? Sorry, no way to fix it.

Because traditional art is based on reflection, it depends heavily on the light conditions. Your painting will look differently in the morning and in the evening, inside and outside, in natural light and in artificial light. If you use a lamp, the artwork will look different than what people will eventually see (mostly in daylight). If you want to paint seeing what they will see, you’ll be forced to hunt for the daylight, which is especially hard in winter months, when it gets dark soon after you get home after work.

Traditional art is messy to produce and takes a lot of space. In theory, you can draw in a sketchbook with a single pencil, but the more advanced your artwork, the more supplies you will need. They must be stored somewhere, and when you want to start creating, first you need to take them all out and prepare them for work. This means that you need to find the extra time for setting things up and cleaning up in your “art time” during the day.

Although the basic supplies are cheap, the professional ones aren’t. And even the most expensive ones have the greatest flaw of traditional tools—they run out with time. Good paper that doesn’t ruin your strokes and doesn’t get wrinkled from wetness, a full set of ink liners with various thickness, good quality paint that doesn’t fade from the sun and mixes nicely… If you want to sell your art, people will require the quality not only from your skills, but also from the materials used. And quality costs!

Because traditional colors are based on various physical pigments, you need to either buy a separate tool for every color, or to mix the colors to create the hue you need. In the former case, your wallet will get hurt, in the latter—your time. The concept of hue, saturation, brightness, and value is also harder to understand in the case of physical colors.

Traditional paints also have various properties. Some blend well, but need a lot of time to dry and are toxic to breathe, others are safe and dry quickly, but blend very poorly. Each type of paint requires different techniques and handling, they also have to be stored properly.

Pros: The Many Conveniences of Digital

Digital art is seen by emission, not reflection. The color is produced directly, not through reflection of the light source on the pigment. This means you can see all the colors possible regardless of the light conditions and the time of the day. Painting after work in the dark winter months? No problem!

Digital strokes are never really painted—they are being displayed, and you can replace them with something else to display. You can erase anything without a trace, un-draw a line, paint something under a stroke, move the stroke somewhere else, change its color, shape, transparency… You get full control over the process of creation, without being limited by the physical features of the material world. In a way, it’s like magic!

Once you get the basic tools (the graphics tablet and the software), you’re set for life. You have all the tools you need and more, and all the colors that can be imagined. You’ll never run out of paint or paper, you’ll never have to resupply the brushes or pencils. Do you want to try some new technique, maybe oil painting? Go ahead, no need to visit the art store first!

Copic markers are expensive, but SketchBook comes with a library full of them.

Because the artwork has a digital form, it’s not so easy to destroy it. Once you have a back-up copy, you don’t need to worry about it being damaged by sun or humidity. The colors will never fade, the paper will never tear, the shades will not smudge under your finger. Your artwork will not get lost in a fire or during an earthquake, and nobody will steal it from you.

Digital form also makes it easier to share the artwork. You can show it to people all over the world, as long as they are connected to the Internet. You don’t need to wait for a gallery to accept you—a few clicks and your artwork is available to millions of people. It can be easily sold this way, too—and it’s much easier to find someone who likes your work among the whole population of Earth!

Digital art is clean and convenient to produce. Your computer is already there on the desk, and a graphics tablet is a pretty thing to look at. When you want to start creating, you just turn it on, open the app and that’s all. Want to finish? Close the app, turn it off. You don’t waste any time and you don’t need to clean anything. And the best thing: no need to wait for one layer to dry before you paint another!

A workstation of a digital artist can be a work of art itself. No need for creative mess!

Cons: The Brave New Digital World’s Downside

It’s not cheap to start your adventure with digital art. A mouse is not enough, as it doesn’t register pressure, nor allows for natural drawing movement. You need a decent computer to paint without lag, and at least a small graphics tablet. It can be a serious obstacle for someone living with their parents, without personal income. And a graphics tablet with a screen, which is more intuitive to use, can be too expensive even for people who have their own income.

The colors you see are produced by the screen and depend on its quality. A good monitor designed for photographers can be more expensive than a gaming PC, and even if you have it, you’ll never know how other people see your art on their screens.

Because digital artwork can be copied so easily, it doesn’t seem to have any inherent value. You can produce one as easily as one thousand, and you can keep selling it after it’s sold. Nobody really owns the artwork, there’s no original to display in a gallery. The copy on your disk is worth the same as the copy downloaded by someone else. And even a framed print seems to be worth little, if your whole neighborhood can have the same thing hung on their wall.

Digital art is very easy to steal. And while the creator doesn’t lose the artwork, they can lose other rights of being the creator—like having a credit of creating it, or selling it. A lot of people make profit from offering art of various artists printed on the products they produce—the customers pay for the product that would be worth little without the art, but the artists don’t get any profit for helping the company sell. You can also one day get your heart crushed after seeing your art signed with someone else’s name.

Although it may be flattering at first, you need to realize that it’s somebody making profit from your work.

Digital artwork is digital and can’t be touched—you can only touch the screen, same for every artwork. You can print the piece, but it will be flat and smooth as a photo. Creating digital art is sterile, with no smell of paint, no sound of various tools on various surfaces. You don’t push the paint physically with your brush—everything is simulated. And the surface under your “pencil” will never feel like real paper.

Because the artwork is produced on the computer, you can easily lose it by accident—hardware failure, software failure, or even accidental saving over the file can all destroy your piece forever. Creating backup copies, though, can eliminate this risk.

Save your work all the time! There are also programs that will back up your file automatically and save it to an external drive if needed.

Because digital art programs are so versatile, with all tools and techniques available, it’s hard to focus on one to master it. There’s always that temptation to keep searching for something easier after making a mistake. A bad sketch can be fixed and fixed and fixed until it looks decent, and so you avoid facing the problem that made you draw it bad in the first place. You can cover it with colors, textures, change it with filters and warping, and achieve a decent result without ever learning to draw well.

Digital art requires electricity to work. Even if you have a portable graphics tablet, you still depend on the battery life. So you’re either stuck to your workstation, or your time for creation gets limited by the battery. Digital art can’t be even viewed without electricity!

The Great Debate: Is Digital Art Real Art?

Digital art is considered by many a lesser form of art, or not art at all. You can spend a week creating a beautiful artwork and have it met with disregard just because it was done digitally and not traditionally. Where does this disdain towards digital art come from?

First of all, many people don’t understand digital art at all. They imagine it’s about telling your computer what to do and having it done for you, not by you. Or they think it’s like photo manipulation—you slap a few ready-made images together and call it art. They don’t understand that programs for digital painting give you the brush, but they don’t move the brush for you in any way. Writing a book on a computer doesn’t mean it’s written by the computer—the letters are created digitally, but the content is created by the writer. It’s the same with digital art—the strokes are created digitally, but the painting is created by the artist.

One is created in the light-reflecting pigments, the other—in the light-emitting pixels, but they’re both the result of the same thinking process.

The other popular argument is that digital art is easy. You can erase, you can Undo, you can use layers, adjust colors… Every mistake can be removed and fixed. In traditional art you need to mix your colors, you need to purchase correct materials, you need good light… And what’s drawn, is drawn. You can’t go to a layer below and draw something more, you can’t change the opacity and draw a better sketch above. No erasing, no undoing.

The problem is, art is made by doing, not by undoing. No matter how many mistakes you erase, it will not take you any closer to a finished drawing. A skilled artist has little need for the Undo command and the perfect eraser; they use few layers and spend the majority of time drawing/painting, not editing. The truth is, the more skilled you are, the less you care for the “superpowers” of digital art programs. It’s just a different type of canvas for you, with a few extra tools you can use. And the more similar it is to the “real thing” the better!

Do you see anything being created here? Only a layman could consider the Undo command a tool for making great art.

If one of great masters were alive today, do you think they would disdain the possibility of painting in a medium that has all the colors the world has to offer, a huge canvas that allows you to zoom in and out, separate layers, clipping masks, brushes you can create on your own, easy saving and the access to perfect light all day long? Do you think they would say: “Nah, it’s too easy! If I don’t have to wait for the paint to dry, then it’s not art!” If art was measured by the physical effort, then the greatest form of art would be to draw with a barbed pencil, possibly with one’s own blood. That would be badass… but would that make the artworks produced this way better?

It’s nice to have your effort appreciated, but if someone achieves a similar result with less effort, it doesn’t make them cheaters.

Creating art requires skill. And while some of it has to do with using the tools (be it traditional or digital), there’s also a part of artistic skill common for both types of art. Human and animal anatomy, dynamic poses, shading, colors, materials, atmosphere, composition, special effects, style—these are the things that you must learn on your own regardless of the tools you use for your art. Digital art doesn’t make any of it easier. The Undo command removes the wrong thing, but it takes skill to do the thing right. A skilled digital artist doesn’t turn into a doodling child when given a traditional pencil, because it’s just a different tool—not a different skill. Again, a “traditional” writer has to learn to type to write digitally, but the writing skill is something universal regardless of the medium. While typing is easier and faster, it doesn’t make writing a book easier—just more convenient.

“You’re not writing a real book!”

Another thing is the lack of physicality. This is something an old master could have a problem with. The artwork is not painted on the screen—it’s only displayed on the screen, and can be turned off or sent to some other computer. It’s like a soul without a body, like an image of a loved one seen through a video conference—you can see them, you can talk to them… but it’s not real.

However, when it comes to art, what is real? The particles of pigment? The fibers of the canvas? The artist uses them to show the image to the world through their arrangement, but it’s the image that’s supposed to be art, not the blobs of paint or the canvas underneath. They just happen to be proper for showing an image and keeping it. When you buy a traditional painting, you buy an artwork made in a certain physical carrier, but the carrier is not the artwork—just a physical object necessary to keep showing the image. But if an image doesn’t need any carrier, why would it make it less of art?

The art supplies are not “particles of art”—just the means to show some image physically.

There’s one more popular argument. Because digital artworks are so easy to copy, this makes them worthless. However, it comes down to associating the art with its carrier—the painting becomes one with the physical paint and canvas. This physical object becomes spiritually marked by its artist’s touch. And while it’s completely reasonable to assign some value to a carrier, saying that art is nothing more than some paint on the canvas sounds like a complete misunderstanding of the artist’s work.

The physical painting is a side-effect of the process of creation.

A hand-written book can certainly be pretty and worth a lot as an object, but the content stays separate from the paper and the ink. The book is meant to be read, not viewed, touched, and smelled. These can add to experience, sure, but they’re not a part of the book. An artwork is meant to be seen as well, and if it can only be seen, it shouldn’t make it any less of art, just because you can’t also touch it. Copying the book a thousand times lowers the value of a single carrier, but it doesn’t make the book worthless—even if it doesn’t have any carrier and is only displayed on your Kindle. We may not be used to such thinking when it comes to art, because digital art is still somewhat new to us, but it doesn’t change the logic—the physical carrier used to be necessary for art, but it’s not anymore.

About Monika

Monika Zagrobelna is a Polish artist with a specialty in drawing animals and conceiving of animals that haven’t yet been invented. You can check out more of her work and follow along with her latest tutorials on her Facebook Page and HERE on the blog.