Traditional and... Digital?

What’s This?

Since I started to publicly display and sell my art, I’ve encountered a bit of confusion about exactly how my paintings are made.

This page is intended to explain, as clearly as I can think how to, what it is I do, as well as outline some of the differences between traditional and digital painting.

I’d like people to come away with a slightly better appreciation of both, but digital painting certainly seems to be less understood by most people, and generally less appreciated as 'fine art'.

Burgeoning Artist

In around 2011, I rediscovered my love for drawing, started experimenting with oil painting, and generally had lots of fun. However, the solvents and oils involved with thinning paint and cleaning brushes in the space I had available gave me terrible headaches. On top of that, I had plans to move to Beijing. I wanted a way to paint without having noxious chemicals making my head hurt, and a setup that was easily transportable halfway around the world. A digital tablet provided the perfect solution; I purchased a Wacom Intuos 4.

This electronic tablet is like a pressure-sensitive mouse. It plugs into a computer and pairs with a stylus (pen) that it can detect by electromagnetic resonance.

The pen acts as a brush, or pencil, or piece of chalk, and the tablet acts as the canvas, or paper, or board. Using the relevant computer program, one can draw exactly as with a real pen, choose different brush types, apply colours, mix, erase, and build images in the same way one builds up paint on a canvas. It takes some time to get used to, especially when already used to pencils and brushes, but I haven’t looked back to oils for some time, and haven’t had a single art-related headache. And I still enjoy using traditional media such as pencil and charcoal.

Do You Use Photos?

There are numerous software applications available to use with tablets, including Photoshop, Corel Painter, ArtRage, and Krita, and they each offer varied options and limitations. I have heard that a touchscreen tablet such as an iPad, with the relevant software, can also make an excellent painting companion. My general preferences are Photoshop and ArtRage Lite on my big PC monitor.

This is one point where many people get confused. “You use Photoshop? But I thought you said ‘painting’? Isn’t that just manipulating photos?”

In a word, “No.” I do not use photos in any of my art.

It is certainly possible to, and many digital artists do – the huge industry of concept and production art for movies and videogames often relies heavily on a mixture of digital painting and photomanipulation – but, as far as is possible, I treat my digital paintings the same way I would treat a traditional drawing or painting.

I do, however, frequently refer to photographs when painting and drawing, as many artists do in lieu of live models or being able to sit outside and paint (it's harder to take a big computer to the top of a mountain and set it up than a canvas and some brushes and paints).

Painters have been using photographs for reference since as early as the 1850s, and both painting and photography have informed each other in the intervening time as much as they have been in competition with each other. Many of the great artists from the 20th Century, including illustrators such as Norman Rockwell and Walter Everett, influential comicbook artists, and realist painters, have used photographs of themselves and others, and of animals and landscapes and all sorts of other things, as tailorable, static, convenient reference sources.

My Process

There are many possible ways of using a tablet, but I proceed in much the same way that I would with physical paint. Take a portrait painting, for example. One method is to start by filling in a general background colour, then drawing the face – sketch out the proportions, draw the important features, shade the darker areas – then paint over this template in full colour. Another method is to start with general blocks of colour, then gradually define and adapt these blocks, adding more complex colour relationships and details until the figure is revealed.

I like to experiment, and use various methods, but every line and splash of colour in my paintings is put there by my hand, not by a camera or a computer algorithm.

My paintings are, in this sense, 100% hand-painted.

When I first purchased my tablet, in order to learn the technological side of digital painting I spent a lot of time online, reading tutorials and studying the work of digital artists involved in the movie and video game industries and modern illustrators and designers who use tablets. The concept art behind the scenes of many modern movies, as well as pretty much all video games, is frequently mind-blowing and takes great skill and vision to produce, and it has informed my art immensely.

At the same time, though, I’ve tried to learn the essentials of great art – of line, form, light, colour, composition, brushwork, etc – from traditional artists. I am a great admirer of the works of Anders Zorn, Joaqín Sorolla, Ivan Aivazovsky, William Bouguereau, Arthur Wardle, Salvador Dalí, and Walter Everett, as well as contemporary artists such as Richard Schmid, Ruo Li, Jeremy Lipking, Rob Rey, Aryz, and John Coleman. I’m also a great fan of comicbooks, and of Islamic line and similar patternwork, such as that of William Morris.

Traditional versus Digital

A table presenting some of the similarities and differences, pros and cons, of painting with paint versus painting on a computer.

Traditional

Digital

Substrate

Canvas, board, linen, paper

Step back & forth, move body around to view the canvas

Tablet & screen

Zoom in & out, move image on screen to view

Colours

Mixing paints

Choosing colours from colour wheel or similar

Can create a palette on screen and mix colours to mimic traditional technique

Brushes & Tools

Brushes, palette knives, etc. Brushes can be trimmed. Can make own tools.

Some brushes made from animal parts

Use pre-programmed brushes or create own. Many different parameters, fun to explore.

100% vegan!

Layers

Oils can be layered but there are rules: fat over lean, thick over thin, etc

Watercolours very unforgiving!

As many layers as desired. Make a thousand mistakes, keep going

Choose to be forgiving or unforgiving with oneself!

Feeling

Brush & canvas is tactile, intuitive

Pen & tablet is smooth, simple

Costs

Canvases, paints, brushes, solvents, water

Reasonable upfront cost; more cost per artwork (canvas, paint, etc)

Can scan/photograph and print

Computer, screen, tablet, software, electricity

More upfront cost; minimal cost per artwork (just electricity)

Can print

The Important Bit

The main sentiment I’d like to get across is this:

It takes as much knowledge of the fundamental principles of visual art to create a digital painting as it does a traditional one.

My brand of digital art requires some different expertise from painting with wet paint, and involves certain differences in execution, but should not be considered fundamentally different as an application of knowledge, a creative process, or even as a final product.

The most important elements of visual art include composition, draughtsmanship, light & colour, emotion, subject matter, and storytelling, and equal importance should be placed on such considerations regardless of medium.

Think about music, for a moment. Maybe you like Bach, Coltrane, Bowie, Leon Bridges, or the Chemical Brothers. It's likely that some of your favourites use traditional instruments, some electronic, and some a mixture. Today, electronic devices designed to mimic traditional instruments are everywhere, from electic guitars and keyboards to samplers and drum machines. And everything you listen to through speakers or in headphones has been recorded, mastered, and likely distributed electronically.

How much importance do you place on the tools used to create your favourite music? And how much on beauty, creativeness, skill, or simply the way the music makes you feel?

In other words: if it pleases you, if it moves you, what difference if it was painted in a cave 10,000 years ago, on a canvas in 1656, or using a computer in 2019?




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