“It’s just photo manipulation.” “The software does all the real work.” “Anyone can do it.” These are common misconceptions about digital art as a creative medium.
That’s what digital art isn’t, but what exactly is it? In the very basic sense, it’s pixels, layers and rasterization — art created using the computer. But like any art form, it’s much more complicated than that.
One of the most common misconceptions is that digital art isn’t really art. Corvallis artist Patricia Smith, whose work can be seen downtown at Cloud & Kelly’s Public House and Block 15, creates entirely in digital, which she said isn’t always embraced by other artists. “A couple of older, more established artists in the community came up to me and asked me, ‘What would you call yourself?’” she said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m an artist.’ The people just kind of stood there and thought about the answer, and said, ‘Well that’s interesting.’ They don’t think that what I do or what my friends do is art.”
Smith explained that there are four schools of digital artists: Artists who work in digital and traditional simultaneously, artists dedicated solely to digital, artists who started in digital and are returning to traditional mediums, and those — like Smith — who began with traditional and switched to digital.
Although a digital artist, Smith has a background in fine art, the principles of drawing, technique, values, color, lines, shading and composition. Her background and understanding of artistic principles are what help her create digitally — not the computer or the software. “(Digital artists) happen to use the computer as our medium,” Smith said. “It’s just like saying, ‘I work in oils,’ or ‘I work in acrylics,’ or pencils, charcoal or whatnot. I happen to use the computer.”
Smith uses a tablet and a stylus — similar to holding pen to paper — and the programs Sketchbook Pro, Painter and Photoshop. Most programs offer the same tools a painter might use: pencils and pens, brushes and charcoals in various sizes, types and textures.
One more popular misconception is that all digital artists do is click a mouse a few times to manipulate photos. That does happen, and that isn’t art, but for artists such as Smith the creative process is much different. “There are a few artists out there — they like to call themselves artists — they do paint-overs. They’re easy to spot and it’s unfortunate, but that’s what they do. And then you have a few guys that call themselves artists, but they just manipulate photos. That’s something entirely different than painting, starting out with a blank canvas and starting from scratch.”
Working digitally has its benefits. Artists no longer have to wait for drying time between paint layers. Changes can be made much easier; it’s a matter of changing a few Photoshop layers.
It’s also cleaner. “You don’t have to worry about paint fumes, you don’t have to worry about mess,” Smith said. “You can get it all set up for the various resolutions that are needed and zip it on over via email.”
But digital does have its disadvantages, too. You don’t get to see the brush strokes, the texture of paint on the canvas or the thought process. “This is the advantage of traditional, where digital has removed this advantage: watching the artist think,” Smith said. “With Van Gogh, you can see green being overlayed, covering a bit of orange, because at first he thought, ‘Orange here,’ then ‘No, I want green.’ In digital, we just do control Z, which means go back, go back, go back. You don’t see that process; it’s eliminated.”
However, on the printed page, well-done digital art can be indistinguishable from traditional work. “The thing is once you see all that’s happening and get familiarized with all of the artists that are out there in the field and getting their work published, the question of ‘What is digital art?’ becomes moot because it’s just art.”
The world of graphic design
Where does graphic design come into play? Is that considered art?
Yes. And no. Digital graphic design is still fairly new, so opinions vary even among graphic designers and artists.
One popular opinion is that it isn’t a true art, but does have some art aspects. “(Graphic design) is part of the arts,” Smith said. “You have to take into consideration the layout and all of the same aspects of art as a painting. You have to think about the composition and the balance of color.
“It’s a different set of skills, but there’s overlapping in what we do. It’s good to have a designer’s eye when you’re creating work for print.”
Chris Adams, a graphic designer and illustrator with the Madison Ave. Collective in Corvallis, described digital art as two things: a tool or a medium. Artists like Smith use it as a medium; many graphic artists and illustrators, such as Adams, use it as a tool.
“I don’t think it’s one thing,” Adams said. “You have people who are really focusing on pushing the medium’s limits of the potential of digital arts, and then you have the people that are just utilizing it for very basic principles of design.”
According to Adams, there are three types of digital artists: the people who push the medium’s limits, such as artists who design video games, 3D models and whole new worlds; the people that use digital art as they would a fine art; and the people who utilize digital art as a tool.
“The way I think about artistic medium is that it starts out as a tool to communicate something. The more familiar you become with it, then it becomes a medium,” he said. “With digital art, maybe you have to grow into it.”
Adams uses digital usually in conjunction with his screenprinting.
“I use it for very specific purposes, like to get from point A to point B,” he said. “I use more traditional mediums and then input that into the digital realm, and then alter it and output it, usually in another traditional way.”
Although Adams doesn’t use the computer as a primary resource, it does inevitably pop up in his process. “It seems like there’s always some part of a project that I do on the computer,” he said. “It usually starts with traditional means. I almost always start with a pencil or a pen, and sometimes it progresses into utilizing Adobe Illustrator.”
After drawing with pen and paper, Adams will scan or photo it into the computer, making basic alterations in Photoshop and then vectorizing it — turning it into lines instead of squares, or pixels — in Illustrator and using a tablet to alter it and add color. When the piece is finished, he either sends it off digitally or converts it to plates for screenprinting.
However, Adams has noticed that lately his work process has shifted, getting closer to 50 percent traditional medium, 50 percent digital. He calls himself a latecomer.
“I was pretty anti-using the computer in college and I did as much as I could by hand, trying to develop drawing and painting skills,” he said. “It feels like you should have that base before you use computers, much for the reason that it is a lot easier if you have that basic understanding of how to use traditional tools, your ability to use digital tools would be more advanced.”
Although, Adams admitted, this isn’t always the case. “I’ve also seen some amazing pieces from people who, if you give them a pen and a pencil, wouldn’t really know what to do with them.”
Chances are those people at least know and understand the general principles behind composition, color and typography, and although they can’t apply them pen to paper, can do so digitally. But even this leads to more debate.
“From one direction, it’s making some form of art accessible to all these people that maybe it wasn’t accessible to before,” Adams said. “From another perspective as an artist, you might get a little surly and say, ‘Oh, well that’s not art because they just turned on that program a month ago and now they’re framing stuff and putting it on the wall.’”
Art vs. design
The realm of digital art extends far beyond painting, drawing and illustration. Logos can be an example of digital art. Packaging. Web sites. Video games. Photography. Animation. Graphic design. Many things that we don’t perceive as artistic do actually have some underlying artistic principles.
The Madison Ave. Collective in Corvallis is a studio of freelance designers and consultants who create projects for clients ranging from logo art to web sites to marketing materials, all of which can be considered digital art in some way.
“(Digital art is) a lot of advertising and creative, artistic things that you see in everyday life,” said Madison Ave. Collective graphic designer Katy Ankrom. “It’s bringing art into things that are being sold.”
The main difference between graphic design and art is its purpose — graphic designers present information, whereas artists usually present feelings or emotions.
“For me, the interesting paradox is that I don’t even consider myself an artist,” said Madison Ave. Collective graphic and web designer Jeff Jimerson. “I have a degree in ‘art’ from Oregon State. We took fine art courses, we took drawing, we took color theory and even three-dimensional art, but now as I’m mostly working as a web designer, it’s more about communicating a message through words and pictures with the added dimension of interactivity. If it’s art, it’s on the very edge of what you would maybe define as art.”
“A lot of it’s just organizing information into something that’s easy to digest,” Ankrom said.
“When you compare a fine artist to a graphic designer,” Jimerson said, “there is maybe a lot of room for interpretation for the work of a fine artist, and as a graphic designer or a ‘commercial artist’ you usually have a real specific thing that you’re trying to communicate.”
Like Smith and Adams, Ankrom and Jimerson employ traditional methods and draw on art principles when creating. “There’s something you just can’t get done with a mouse with the actual thinking process behind something, that you can’t get done if you go straight to the computer,” Ankrom said. “That’s a huge thing with our profession. A lot it’s the initial stages that aren’t done on the computer.”
When Ankrom designs a logo, she needs to make sure that it can be communicated clearly and works with different mediums such as printed materials, online and even on textiles. She also needs to know such principles as color, shape and typography.
“Different shapes communicate different feelings,” she said. It’s the same with colors. For example, green usually indicates something related to the environment.
“What kind of principles do we think about? Composition and how things relate to each other on the page, how large something is compared to it. Text legibility. A lot of it is just catering to the audience who will be viewing it. A lot of those decisions are made when you think about the end result and how it’s going to be perceived,” Ankrom said.
Like logo designers, web designers need to understand color, typography and hierarchy, as well as consider conventions, such as where to put the search box and where to put the logo (usually top right and top left corners, respectively).
“The web is just so interesting because you have a browser window that can change size and shape,” Jimerson said, “so when you’re designing you really have to consider how that space changes, whether it’s white space or if you’re design is fluid, and as you expand that browser window does the design move with it? Do the photos grow with that browser movement? Does that affect the overall balance?”
“It’s hard work. It really is hard work to make something simple that communicates clearly and is distinct from the competition.”