Digital art, disrespected

In its June 2008 issue, The Artist’s Magazine published a letter from the digital artist Dani Montoya who asked if to allow digital artists compete with those who create their art with paint and brush. The September issue brought a whole bunch of replies. Not surprisingly, the only ones who supported Dani were digital artists themselves. The rest consisted of more or less purist attitude spiced up with advice on where Dani should take her “so called” art and what she should do instead of making unacceptable suggestions. The “so called” part specifically rubbed me the wrong way. I wonder if anyone who so strongly disagreed with her even took a minute to look up her art on the Web.

I sent a letter to the magazine too, but I am not sure if it will be published since many good points about why digital art is real have been already made. Besides, the magazine has this tidbit about letters they receive: “All letters become property of the Artist’s Magazine, and those chosen for publication may be edited for clarity and length.” While I can see why the editors want to do it if necessary, there is still a possibility that their idea of clarity could be different from mine. So I am putting my 0.02 cents here too, just to make sure they stay as intended somewhere.

I was doing digital art for several years when my kids were small and it was impossible to work with pastels, tempera or gouache and keep the house child-proof at the same time. Back then, I had no idea I could just switch to colored pencils and draw at tiniest intervals as kids’ schedule permitted. So Adobe Photoshop and later Painter became my replacement for pastel sticks, paints and brushes. Naive me hoped that I would be able to speed up the process since I could easily correct my mistakes or parts that don’t work on a digital canvas. Yeah, right! Turned out the only time I was saving was that needed to clean up the creative mess or put it away once the kids were awake and set it up again after they went to sleep. I didn’t start with a photograph as a basis for the artwork. I did a sketch either on the computer or on a sheet of paper that was then scanned and opened in Photoshop or Painter. The rest of the process was very similar to what I would do on real paper or wood.

I don’t do digital art anymore. My kids grew up, I can have charcoal, pastel and colored pencils lying around the house, and these are media that I prefer to work in now. But I will never call art created on a computer “fake” because I had an opportunity to learn first hand how real it is.

Traditional artists seem to believe that the computer does a great deal of work for you or that it is possible to push a few buttons and come up with a masterpiece. I am not sure how they envision this to work. Sure, you can apply a few filters to a photo, get some pseudo-painterly look, but this won’t make you an artist. No one in their right mind would think of entering an art competition with a altered photo, and it would be an insult to imply that this is what all digital artists do. Since Dani was very clear about her process, I hope no one who replied meant that.

So what gives? The program won’t draw for you; it has no concept of composition, contrast, or which colors work best together. If you think that a digital artist takes the photo and simply paints over it with strokes and blotches of colors, than it is no different from tracing a photo and filling the rest with real watercolor or oil. Will that art be acceptable for a competition? Will the judge be able to tell that the artist can’t draw to save her life after seeing a slide or a digital image? It’s not the medium of choice that matters, it’s the person behind the medium who either has skills or relies on shortcuts to compensate for the lack of them.

So what if the fingers of the digital artist don’t get dirty with paint or charcoal? It’s still a manual process; it’s still trial and error at times. It can be very time-consuming, just like rendering details with a fine brush or a sharp pencil. Not that time spent on producing a single piece matters of course, or by that logic plain air paintings should be discarded as the ones done too quickly to have any value. And you still spend years mastering the craft of painting or drawing digitally, just like with oil, watercolor, or pastel.

There also was a word “mechanical” used in regard to the digital art. What’s mechanical about putting your hand-eye coordination to work? What’s mechanical about building up layers of color with a digital pen? No, it does not look like a brush, but it can produce the effect that is indistinguishable from real washes of watercolor or impasto effect. Corel Painter is really good at that, yet it won’t paint a landscape or portrait for you. You yourself have to know what you are doing and where you are going, just like with any traditional medium.

Getting back to the annual competition, it already has various media in each category. If a still life done in colored pencil can compete with one painted with oil, how terrible it actually is to add digital art to the mix?

In conclusion, I invite you to look at the work of these artists who chose to create on a computer: Kevin Mack, Shannon Hilson, Mark Henninger, Russ Mills. With all honesty, what’s not real about their art?

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