What is Digital Art? Exploring Modern Creative Expressions

From digital paintings to virtual reality, creativity is constantly being redefined. So, just what is digital art? It encompasses a vast array of artistic practices, incorporating technology at every stage, from creation to presentation and beyond.

10 July 2024

Posing the question “what is digital art” is a bit like asking what the universe contains: it’s an expansive, ever-growing collection of diverse and extraordinary creations. And yet, we’re here to provide just such a definition, starting with the history of this field and even an insight into how to learn digital art.

Want to know more? We’ve got digital art explained, so grab a cup of JAVA and read on.

The History of Digital Art

1980s digital artwork (Credit: nemke via Getty Images)

A key step in answering “what is digital art” is understanding how it evolved through scientific innovation, particularly the dawn of the information age. The pioneers of the field viewed emerging technology as a new medium and flocked to use it. In fact, many of the first digital artists worked with scientists, blurring the line between laboratories and studios.

The digital artform is usually said to have emerged in the 1960s, with digital works such as Frieder Nake’s Hommage à Paul Klee blazing a path for others to follow. And follow they did. Over the coming decades, technological leaps were met with a wider and ever more sophisticated range of digital art. For instance, the introduction of computers such as the Apple II in the 1970s put personal computer graphics in colour, opening up myriad opportunities for digital creatives. Similarly, within this decade, Harold Cohen debuted AARON, a computer which could follow code instructions to perform the manual task of drawing.

And things have only accelerated since the turn of the millennium. The introduction of smartphones put digital photography within the grasp of more people than ever before. While tablets and styluses provided artists with an experience closely mimicking traditional media.

What is Digital Art?

Creating digital art on a tablet (Credit: Westend61 via Getty Images)

Digital art generally evolved as artists experimented with technological innovation as another tool for creative expression. But what is digital art exactly? How is it defined? Generally, any work of art that incorporates digital technology in its creation or its presentation is usually considered to qualify. Sounds simple, right? And yet, it’s not so much an umbrella term as a colossal canopy, spanning an entire continent of creativity. This vast term encompasses not just the act of making art using such technology, but also art presented using it. Here’s a run down of the broad categories of technological tools commonly used in digital art:

  • Graphics Tablets: Devices that allow artists to draw directly onto a screen or pad with a stylus, providing a natural drawing experience.
  • Computers: Essential for running sophisticated graphic design software.
  • Smartphones and Tablets: Portable devices with touchscreens that support drawing and painting apps, allowing artists to create on the go.
  • Digital Cameras: Used for capturing high-resolution images that can be edited or incorporated into digital artworks.
  • 3D Printers: Devices that enable artists to bring their digital 3D models into the physical world, creating tangible sculptures and prototypes.
  • Virtual Reality (VR) Headsets: Tools that immerse artists in a 3D space where they can create and manipulate digital art in a more interactive and intuitive manner.
  • Software Applications: Programs that provide the necessary tools for digital painting, illustration, 3D modelling, animation, and more.
  • Digital Pens and Styluses: Precision tools that work with tablets and touchscreens, offering sensitivity and control for detailed digital drawing and painting.
  • Scanners: Devices that digitise traditional sketches and artworks, allowing artists to edit and enhance them using digital tools.
  • Projectors: Used to display digital artworks on various surfaces, helping artists plan and execute large-scale projects by projecting their digital designs onto physical canvases.

What is Digital Artwork?

Digital painting (Credit: Eugene Mymrin via Getty Images)

So, we’ve looked at digital art in terms of the methods or tools by which it is produced or presented. But what is digital artwork? Essentially, it’s the final product; a specific work or piece that has been created or presented using those tech tools. It includes:

  • Digital Paintings: Artworks created using digital tools that simulate traditional painting techniques, often indistinguishable from those made with physical media.
  • Vector Art: Images composed of geometric shapes and lines, created using vector graphics software, known for their scalability without loss of quality.
  • Digital Illustrations: Detailed drawings or designs made with digital tools, commonly used in graphic novels, advertising, and editorial content.
  • 3D Models: Three-dimensional representations of objects or characters, created with modelling software and used in various applications, including video games and films.
  • Animations: Moving images created by sequencing individual frames, ranging from simple GIFs to complex 3D animations used in movies and interactive media.
  • Digital Photography: Photographs captured with digital cameras and often enhanced or manipulated using editing software to achieve desired effects.
  • Digital Collages: Artworks composed of multiple digital images or elements combined into a single piece, often blending various textures, colours, and styles.
  • Interactive Art: Pieces that involve audience interaction, using sensors, touch screens, or other digital interfaces to create dynamic and engaging experiences.
  • Augmented Reality (AR) Art: Art that overlays digital elements onto the real world, viewed through devices like smartphones or AR glasses, creating a blended reality experience.
  • VR Art: Immersive artworks created within a virtual environment, allowing viewers to explore and interact with the art in a three-dimensional space.
  • Digital Installations: Large-scale artworks that use digital technology, such as projections or interactive displays, often designed for public spaces or galleries.

Distinguishing Digital and Traditional Art

Creative digital art (Credit: Andriy Onufriyenko via Getty Images)

The line between traditional and digital art is often blurred. For example, artists might start with a hand-drawn sketch on paper, which is then scanned and digitally coloured or enhanced. This hybrid approach combines traditional techniques with digital tools, challenging the clear distinction between the two. Similarly, traditional painters might use digital projectors to map out their designs on large canvases before applying paint, merging digital technology with conventional methods.

Another borderline example includes mixed media artworks where digital prints are combined with traditional materials like acrylics or watercolours. Artists like David Hockney have famously used iPads to create digital paintings, which are then printed and exhibited alongside his traditional works. This fusion of digital and physical mediums demonstrates how the integration of technology can enhance and expand traditional art practices.

These examples illustrate just how complex it can be to answer the questions “what is digital art” and “what is digital artwork.”

What are Digital Paintings?

An example of digital painting (Credit: Charles Harker via Getty Images)

A prominent subset of digital art, these are paintings created digitally rather than with traditional mediums such as oil or acrylic. So, what are digital paintings specifically? They’re artworks that mimic the appearance and techniques of traditional painting but which are crafted using digital tools. Artists use styluses and tablets to simulate brush strokes, blending, and layering, achieving effects that closely resemble those produced by physical brushes and paints. Digital paintings can range from highly realistic portraits to abstract compositions, offering artists an expansive creative playground.

How to Learn Digital Art

Learning to create digital art (Credit: d3sign via Getty Images)

For those intrigued by this dynamic field, understanding how to learn digital art is the first step toward becoming proficient. Learning digital art often begins with choosing the right tools and software. Beginners might start with free or affordable programs before moving on to more advanced software. Online courses, tutorials, and communities play a crucial role in the learning process.

AI and Digital Art

AI generated art (Credit: imaginima via Getty Images)

Digital art has evolved significantly since its inception, often in tandem with technology. And one innovation which continues to impact the field is Artificial Intelligence or AI. One of the most significant aspects of this is generative art, producing unique artworks based on predefined rules or data sets. However, this also raises important ethical questions. Issues of originality, authorship, and the potential for AI-generated works to replicate or infringe upon existing art are ongoing discussions in the art community.

The Art of the Future?

What will artwork of the future look like? (Credit: Paper Boat Creative via Getty Images)

The exploration of the concept of what is digital art reveals a vibrant and continually evolving field that merges creativity with technology. From understanding what is digital artwork to exploring what are digital paintings, digital art explained in this context highlights its transformative impact on the art world and raises the ultimate question: is digital art the future of art as we know it?


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